Paris Lees column: An Open Letter to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan

2015-01-21
Dear Nicky, I hope you are well. I don’t know if you've heard of me before, but I am best known for raising awareness of transgender issues. I also don’t know if you happen to know any transgender people yourself, or if you have any in your family, or if, like many people I meet, you have never knowingly sat down and had a conversation with a trans person. So forgive me if any of what I’m about to tell you is something you already know. paris-jpeg-1024x651 Last week the news was dominated by plans to create a “gay school” in Manchester. No such project has been approved by Manchester council, but the need for such a school, which would be the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, has been identified by LGBT Youth North West, a charity working in the area. There was some public debate about whether or not it was a good idea and I was invited onto Newsnight to give my view. While there, I realised that whether or not this particular project is a good idea is neither here nor there. The very fact that we are discussing the need for a gay and trans-friendly school suggests to me that the education system is failing some of the most vulnerable children trusted into its care. In fact, even though I passionately oppose any sort of segregation in education, I have to admit that the planned school could in fact be a good solution to a serious and urgent problem – under current circumstances. The situation is so dire for many trans and gay kids that ANYTHING that can stop another poor young person taking their own lives must be considered. It’s not hyperbole to describe the situation as a state of emergency. Amelia Lee, strategic director of LGBT Youth North West, told the Guardian last week that the school is about saving lives: “Despite the laws that claim to protect gay people from homophobic bullying, the truth is that in schools especially, bullying is still incredibly common and causes young people to feel isolated and alienated, which often leads to truanting and, in the worst-case scenarios, to suicide.” How damning. Paris Let me tell you about my childhood. Regular readers of my columns will no doubt be sick of hearing how I was bullied violently for years at school, but, so long as such bullying continues in schools today, I refuse to let it drop. I was bullied violently and it did go on for years. And when I got home I’d often get a clip 'round the earhole for talking like a poof by my father. I go on about that a lot too. There wasn’t much I could do about it at the time, you see, but now I am grown and I get to talk about the way things were. And how wrong it was. It was child abuse. Children are supposed to feel safe, and loved. Many trans and gay kids are facing abuse not only at school, but at home too. If you happen to be from a religious or ethnic minority the chances are that you have at least one supportive relative who can help you prepare for the big bad world. If you are trans or gay your family might be your primary source of hostility. And if you happen to be from a religious or ethnic minority and also be trans or gay, well, you’ve probably got an awful lot of shit to deal with, frankly. Earlier this month I wrote about Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl who took her own life after her parents forced her to “pray away the gay”. I’m pleased that NHS England has recently clarified its stance on so-called “conversion therapies”, which have been shown to be both ineffective and damaging to the person they claim to help. The problem of teen suicide is not an American peculiarity, though. Look at Manchester girl Elizabeth Lowe, who, aged 14, took her own life last month because she was worried about telling her parents she was attracted to other girls. What a waste of life. What a stain on our collective conscience. Nicky, I’m from Nottingham, just around the corner from your constituency of Loughborough. I’m sure you’ll back me up when I say the Midlands is decidedly NOT the North, but a totally distinct region of the UK. Nevertheless, there is often a harsher way of life the further up North we go, and my experiences growing up on a council estate on the outskirts of Nottinghamshire over a decade ago can’t be that far from what poor kids on estates in Manchester go through today. Did you use to watch Shameless? That’s pretty much the world I came from. It’s not the best pace to find out you happen to be gay, or trans, for that matter. Nicky, what are we going to do about it? These charities say that they need to build a gay and trans-friendly school because so many kids are having such a hard time in regular schools. Don’t you think it’s time to admit there has been a shocking failure in regards to looking after the children of Manchester and elsewhere in the UK? Don’t you think this brings great shame on our schools, your office and the Department for Education? Verbal and physical abuse so extreme that charities are planning to create a safe space for the victims? We have a child abuse problem and something needs to be done about it. Immediately. I don’t have all the answers but it would be pretty ridiculous, in the context of this appeal, to miss out on the obvious solution: education. We need to talk to children about same-sex relationships. We need to educate them about all the different types of sex they may well engage in, one day, when they grow up. People are gay. People are bi. People experiment. It is the world we live in and kids need to be aware of it. Gay marriage, which you say you would vote for if you had a second shot, has blown away the idea that gay relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones. It’s time we taught teenagers about these relationships in their personal and social development classes, because the chances are they are going to live next door to or share an office with gay people at some point, even if they are not gay themselves. And what better time to update sex education to include every pupil, whatever their potential sexual persuasion? All age-appropriate, of course. And how about some tougher sanctions for schools that are found to be failing in their responsibility to protect gay and trans kids? I’d be really keen to hear your thoughts on this problem, and what we can do about it. The people who need your help most are probably the least likely to ask for it, so please accept this missive from 14-year-old me. I’d really appreciate some help right now. Best wishes Paris