Leave homophobia to Speaker's Corner: don't teach it in schools

Should faith schools criticise homosexuality? No, says Tom Copley.

During the Equal Marriage debate we heard much from opponents of equality about how dreadful it would be for teachers to have to tell pupils that same-sex marriage was as equal and valid as straight marriage.  Much was made of the need to protect the religious beliefs of teachers over and above the rights of same-sex couples to marry the person that they love.

Now Neil Davenport, a teacher at a north London school, has asked in an article why it is that faith schools should not be allowed to criticise homosexuality.  This is in response to research from the British Humanist Association which has found that 46 schools had Section 28 type provisions in their SRE policies banning the “promotion” of homosexuality.

I am a passionate supporter of freedom of speech and expression.  But freedom of speech does not mean freedom for a teacher to express any opinion whatsoever to pupils within a classroom.  Surely no one, including those who support Mr Davenport’s position, seriously believes that.

Those who believe homosexuality to be wrong are perfectly within their rights to publish unlettered diatribes on Spiked Online, or to stand on the corner of Oxford Circus with a sandwich board and a megaphone proclaiming the sinfulness of the “homosexual lifestyle”.  What they are not entitled to do is tell the children in their care that some of them are inherently flawed based upon their nature.

If you disagree with that then fine, but I suspect you may find yourself in some difficulty.  Because if you believe that schools and teachers have a right to promote a specific religious belief system then where do you turn to for protection when they start preaching ideas that victimise your own children?

The real conundrum for those like Mr Davenport who think it’s perfectly fine for teachers to express criticism of homosexuality in the name of faith is that it was not so long ago that religion was used to in the same way to justify the most appalling racism.

Until as recently as the 1960s it was the official doctrine of the Catholic Church that the Jewish people were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, a doctrine based on one line in the Gospel of Matthew (“Let his blood be upon us and our children”).   This doctrine was responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism, and was finally repealed by the Church in 1965 (after which, of course, they returned to being infallible). 

The Mormon Church forbade the ordination of black priests until 1978 on the grounds that black men and women had inherited the Curse of Ham (the same curse which was used to justify slavery).

Would Mr Davenport have been content with either of these doctrines being taught in schools of those religions?  One hopes and assumes not.  Yet he is content for religion today to be used as an excuse for schools to criticise, and therefore victimise, their gay pupils.

Indeed, there are a plethora of verses in any religious text that can be quoted in defence of beliefs and practises that would be abhorrent to the vast majority of people, including those of faith.  So why is homophobia an exception?

If Mr Davenport had written an article asking “why can’t schools criticise black people,” he would rightly no longer be a teacher.  Yet it is still considered acceptable for teachers to demand the right to homophobia on the grounds of personal belief. 

Ultimately I would like to see an end to faith schools so that all children have the right to go to their local school regardless of the beliefs of their parents.  However, in the absence of a fully secular education system the Department for Education must make it clear to all schools that discriminating against LGBT pupils is as unacceptable as discriminating against pupils based on disability, race or gender.

Cross? Very. Photograph: Getty Images

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot