By opposing equality in sex education, Shabana Mahmood is underestimating children and othering LGBTQ people

How young is too young to be told that a woman can have a girlfriend? Eleven? Nine? 

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Last week Shabana Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham, Ladywood, spoke on behalf of constituents who had kvetched to her about their children being subjected to, horror of horrors, education on LGBTQ+ matters.

Her comments came as parents withdrew hundreds of pupils from Parkfield School last Friday in protest at the “No Outsiders” programme being taught in the school, with a view to promoting LGBT equality and combating homophobia. Parents waved homophobic placards outside the school – a school at which, statistically speaking, there are bound to be dozens of gay pupils and the odd gay teacher.

Amid these grim scenes, Mahmood urged that schools adhere to the Children and Social Work Act of 2017, whose section 34 states that sex & relationship education must be “appropriate having regard to the age and the religious background of the pupils”. Not to put too fine a point on it, with that baggy wording, Section 34 is simply primed to become the new Section 28.

How young is too young to be told that a woman can have a girlfriend? Eleven? Nine? The idea that two queer people going out with each other might be a tricky concept for four-year-olds is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher for those of us queers who have four-year-olds of our own. My own child understands that he has two mothers and a father, and the children in his reception class seem to have got their still-growing heads around the matter without breaking a sweat.

But of course, one of the more bracing elements of the queer experience is realising that your life, your “difference”, makes you a topic to be discussed. So queer students at universities must sit through lectures by homophobes, in the name of free speech. And now children who may be gay themselves, or who grasp perfectly well that their aunt, or their parents’ nice friend James, or their favourite YouTuber, is gay, must now be taught about their difference.

This absurd primness about sex and relationship education stems from underestimating children and othering LGBTQ people. To a child, everything is new: apple cake, the word “whopper” or doing a handstand, are all totally novel experiences to a child; these people didn’t know the word for “cat” three years ago. Finding out that there are some men who live with other men, or that Sian is now called Sean, is no more of a hardship to an infant than learning to hop. This is the whole reason why it’s so crucial to get in early, when children’s minds are still developing, and there are no prejudices in their heads to have to tear down, only empty space to build upon.

What the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, called “difficult conversations” would be as simple as anything were it not for the ignorance and phobias of straight people hell-bent on constantly sexualising queer people. In so many heterosexual minds, the identity of gay people is expressed purely in relation to straight people and exists only in sexual terms: queer people are seen through the prism of sex acts whose difference and grossness is sited in the inability to reproduce. In reality, of course, everybody gets up to pretty much the same stuff in bed, give or take the odd ball-gag, and children of five have very woolly ideas about what that might be. What they’re learning, or should be, is about the socialising of gays, about our existence, and why our difference is not a reason to beat us up in later years. I repeat: Reach-Around 101 has not been added to the Year 1 curriculum.

The question of considerations towards faith, and the right to be exempted from LGBTQ+ education on religious grounds – the pupils removed from classes at Parkfield were predominantly Muslim – is one for Muslim people, and specifically queer Muslim people, to lead the conversation on. I’d simply observe that the general tendency of courts of law has been to find in favour of gay equality where religious objections have been made to the so-called LGBTQ lifestyle.

It’s easy to be flip about this question: as with other matters getting tabloid fevers soaring, the story of LGBTQ education at Parkfield appears like so much parochial news. But with homophobic hate crime on the rise in the last year, it’s of vital importance to educate young people about a variety of identities and relationships. So far from “protecting” these children, their parents and MP are endangering them.