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A proud citizen of anywhere: Andrew Solomon's quest to celebrate difference

As a child, the American Solomon believed the UK would be a land of plenty. Now, he sees travel as a way to combat insularity.

Andrew Solomon grew up loving Britain most of all. In the introduction to Far and Away, his collection of travel journalism published last autumn, he explains that as a young child he developed the idea that if he ever came to the UK he would receive “entitlements” – such as “someone to pick up my toys”, or “the most expensive item on the menu”. Britain, the New York-born Solomon imagined, was a land of luxury.

Many years later, over breakfast tea and tartines (sadly, not the most expensive items on the menu) in Kensington, west London, he explains to me that his affection for Britain has extended into adulthood, although it is for rather different reasons.

“There’s an internationalism here,” he says, adjusting his pocket square, “and even though there are the rigidities of the class system, there’s a commitment to social justice. Of course, it’s a little ironic that we’re talking about this now, when this is all under threat.”

Solomon grew up in a very wealthy family on New York’s Upper East Side. His father, Howard Solomon, was formerly the chief executive of the billion-dollar pharmaceutical company Forest Laboratories, known for licensing antidepressants.

As a writer, he is known for combining social commentary with an academic depth of knowledge. It’s a skill that he has applied to a range of subjects, from depression (in The Noonday Demon, a memoir of his struggle with mental illness) to families where the children are very different from their parents, because of, say, autism or deafness (as in 2012’s Far from the Tree). The latter runs to almost a thousand pages yet is compulsively readable, and demonstrates Solomon’s ability to pick an arbitrary-seeming theme of modern life and show its relevance.

Far and Away is more piecemeal than his previous work, but Solomon sees it as his contribution to the debate around globalisation and what it means to commit your loyalty to the world, rather than a single nation. The book was published in the year when Theresa May announced, “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” It’s an idea that he rejects. “I’m a US citizen and a UK citizen and 53 years old, and I am also many other things.”

Solomon argues that too little travel and the resulting sketchy understanding of the world around us have led to a kind of “social decay”. He thinks that this insularity contributed to the rise of Donald Trump and the success of the Brexit campaign. “If Trump can actually achieve the level of attention and support he has, something has happened to the US population, and I think travel is part of that,” he says.

The British are better travellers, Solomon believes, better at slipping on our disguise as “citizens of the world” – an argument that gets more complex when you consider our imperial past. “I think British habits of modesty are behind it,” he reasons. “People don’t go in so much with a sense of: ‘They can’t possibly want anything else but to be like us.’”

In a globalised world, however, it is easy to forget that we are naturally attuned to our own cultures and customs, and it sometimes demands a great effort to overcome these. “It takes a certain leap of the imagination to go into another country where people don’t speak your language, don’t do things your way, and won’t be able to supply you with the brand of tuna that you’re accustomed to,” he says.

When I ask Solomon what unites his interests as a writer, he settles on identity and ideas of difference. “My work looks at how liberating it is when we get away from the narrow definitions of what’s acceptable” he says – such as when a community fights to have deafness considered as a feature, not a defect; or when a family whose wonderful child is described by the world as “disabled” finds out what “ability” means.

His next book is about identity, too, and returns to the subject of families: this time, what are commonly referred to, rather negatively, as “non-nuclear” families. Solomon is, as he once put it, “one of five parents with four children in four states”: his partner, John Habich, is the biological father of two children, Oliver and Lucy, who were born to lesbian friends and live in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Meanwhile, he and his partner live with their son George in New York City, and Solomon’s daughter Carolyn lives with her mother in Texas.

He says that there is a gap in our language for these kinds of families. We describe them only through their difference from the norm, or as a downgraded version of what is expected. They feature stepfathers, surrogate mothers, adopted parents.

“In the past two decades, everyone has learned maybe 300 new words that have to do with the internet – email, Google, PDF. In that same period, families have changed quite dramatically, but there are no new words.” He believes that the inadequate scrutiny of these new families often comes from good intentions: we want to see them as equal to the perceived “norm”, so we don’t dwell on their differences.

“In the urgent battle for equality, there has been a spillover into equivalence,” he says. To illustrate the point, he talks about an exchange with a lesbian acquaintance, in which he complained about how people ask him and his partner: “Which of you is really the mom?” She suggested a comeback: “‘I always ask them, ‘Which chopstick is the fork?’”

Andrew Solomon will appear at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 22 April. For more details visit: cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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