Anyone on Twitter or Facebook knows that conversations, especially of late, can quickly descend into fights. Opposition and aggression are the terms of engagement, consensus is no longer the goal.
There’s no single cause, nor one solution to this problem, and this era will no doubt be the subject of many sociology dissertations.
What’s important for us to understand now is that these discussions online don’t happen in a vacuum, they creep into our communities.
This is what’s happening at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. Right now a programme designed to encourage children to include everyone, regardless of who they are, has become the centre of a protest against the very idea of inclusion.
Yet for the past five weeks, people, including some parents, have been standing outside the school gates to condemn the No Outsiders programme.
No Outsiders discusses the fact that people are different, including LGBT people, or people who have family members who might be. It enables children to understand that that’s fine, that we should be able to respect and treat everyone fairly.
This work has been praised by Ofsted, who commended Parkfield Community School for creating an environment of ‘tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect’. Ofsted said the school had a rating of ‘outstanding’ but that a ‘small, minority’ of parents had raised concerns, concerns that Ofsted could find no evidence for.
We look out for, and after, people who are different so that we can help one another.
As one child at the school said ‘We look out for, and after, people who are different so that we can help one another’. That is absolutely the lesson children should have at school.
This past few weeks has shown what the flip side looks like and the rhetoric that this small minority has been shouting at the school gates has been horrible and hugely intimidating to children going in and out of school.
Clearly there has been a breakdown in communication, and that needs to be repaired. Giving the school and community the space to do that in atmosphere of respect, dialogue and understanding is the only way that can be achieved.
Discriminatory attitudes and remarks about LGBT people and their relationships have gained a platform again
But what this incident has shown is that discriminatory attitudes and remarks about LGBT people and their relationships have gained a platform again.
Faith has also been dragged into it, and many LGBT Muslims and allies have spent weeks saying loudly and clearly this protest is ‘not in my name.’
And yet, inevitably this situation is being further inflamed and anti-faith sentiment has also started to sprout up, along with Islamophobic attitudes which are driving further bitter divisions into the community.
It echoes a dark era that all of us hope will never be repeated – the era of Section 28.
All of this is deeply concerning. For me, as the Chief Executive of Stonewall, it’s the language that’s being used that is the most chilling. This is because it echoes a dark era that all of us hope will never be repeated – the era of Section 28.
Stonewall turns 30 this year. We were set up a year after Section 28 was introduced as founders – Sir Ian McKellen, Lord Michael Cashman, Lisa Power and many other brilliant minds – could see the damage and division this policy would inflict.
Section 28, for those who don’t know, basically stopped teachers from talking about same-sex relationships. It forced many LGBT teachers further into the closet or out of their jobs.
It allowed anti-LGBT bullying to flourish, with ‘gay’ being the ultimate insult throughout the 1990s (and is still used today).
It created an anxiety-ridden generation of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people whose school years were wracked with confusion and fear. Anyone with LGBT relatives didn’t talk about them.
We have fought long and hard against those times. We had a vision that children would learn at school that people are different. Children of any age can have two mums. It’s not wrong for children to discuss and accept this.
And the heated rhetoric that’s happening at Parkfield is in the same vein as the divisive debate that’s happening about trans equality right now too, with trans children being at particular risk.
For 30 years we’ve focused on building bridges between communities. We’ve worked closely with many faith schools and faith communities around the country to help the deliver LGBT inclusive education to children and young people. We clearly still have work to do.
Everyone in our community must remain vigilant to any threat to the progress we’ve made, especially in this era of polarised opinions. We need people now more than ever to come out for LGBT people in every community and be allies to each other.