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   This doctrine was responsible for centuries of anti-Semitism, and was finally repealed by the Church in 1965 (after which, of course, they returned to being infallible).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

Police in Tahrir Square. Image: Getty.
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The murder of my friend Giulio Regeni is an attack on academic freedom

We are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death.

The body of Giulio Regeni was discovered in a ditch in Cairo on February 2, showing evidence of torture, and a slow and horrific death. Giulio was studying for a PhD at the University of Cambridge, and was carrying out research on the formation of independent trade unions in post-Mubarak Egypt. There is little doubt that his work would have been extremely important in his field, and he had a career ahead of him as an important scholar of the region.

Giulio, originally from Fiumicello in north-east Italy, had a strong international background and outlook. As a teenager, he won a scholarship that allowed him to spend two formative years studying at the United World College in New Mexico. He was especially passionate about Egypt. Before beginning his doctoral research, he spent time in Cairo working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO). At the age of 28, he stood out with his big hopes and dreams, and he was committed to pursuing a career that would allow him to make an impact on the world, which is a poorer place for his passing.

Those of us who worked and spent time with him are grieving – but above all, we are furious about the manner of his death. While murder and torture are inherently of concern, Giulio’s case also has much broader implications for higher education in the UK and beyond.

Giuli Regeni. Image: provided by the author.

British universities have long fostered an outward-looking and international perspective. This has been evident in the consistent strength of area studies since the middle of the 20th century. The fact that academics from British universities have produced cutting-edge research on so many areas of the world is an important factor in the impact and esteem that the higher education system there enjoys.

In order to carry out this research, generations of scholars have carried out fieldwork in other countries, often with authoritarian political systems or social unrest that made them dangerous places in which to study. I carried out such research in Peru in the 1990s, working there while the country was ruled by the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori.

Alongside this research tradition, universities are becoming increasingly international in their outlook and make up. Large numbers of international students attend the classes, and their presence is crucial for making campuses more vibrant and diverse.

Giulio’s murder is a clear and direct challenge to this culture, and it demands a response. If our scholars – especially our social scientists – are to continue producing research with an international perspective, they will need to carry out international fieldwork. By its nature, this will sometimes involve work on challenging issues in volatile and unstable countries.

Universities clearly have a duty of care to their students and staff. This is generally exercised through ethics committees, whose work means that much greater care is taken than in the past to ensure that risks are managed appropriately. However, there is the danger that overly zealous risk management could affect researchers’ ability to carry out their work, making some important and high-impact research simply impossible.

Time for action

We cannot protect against all risks, but no scholar should face the risk of extrajudicial violence from the authorities. If universities are to remain internationally focused and outward-looking, we must exercise our duty of care towards our students and colleagues when they are working in other countries.

But there are limits to what academic institutions can do on their own. It is vital that governments raise cases such as Giulio’s, and push strongly for full investigations and for those responsible to be held to account.

The Italian and Egyptian authorities have announced a joint investigation into what happened to Giulio, but the British government also has a responsibility to make representations to this effect. That would send the message that any abuse by authorities of students and researchers from British universities will not be tolerated.

A petition will be circulated to this effect, and Giulio’s friends and colleagues will be campaigning on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

Giulio Regeni’s murder is a direct challenge to the academic freedom that is a pillar of our higher education system. He is only one of many scholars who have been arbitrarily detained, and often abused, in Egypt. As a scholarly community and as a society, we have a duty to strike to protect them and their colleagues who study in dangerous places the world over.

 

Neil Pyper is an Associate Head of School at Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.