Speech I gave at the Humanist UK panel on LGBT kids in faith schools

Hi. I should perhaps explain why I’m here. Those who were at the faith schools debate at the Liberal Democrat conference may recall that Chris Ward spoke eloquently on his experiences as a young LGBT person in a faith school. The things he said resonated with me and my own experiences, and I rushed to put an intervention card in. I only had a few seconds to make my point, but I did, and I was quite tearful when I made it. Between us I think we made a difference in how the vote went.

The film he referred to, which they showed to kids, and which I understand some schools still do, is called “The Silent Scream”. It’s on youTube and you can watch it. I should warn you that you may find it extremely disturbing. I was 14 when they made us watch it.

So my background: I grew up in a single parent family in the East Midlands coalfields in the 70s and 80s, living through the miners’ strike in an area where kids didn’t tend to expect big things for their lives. I did quite well in primary school and my mum worked during the day in a bookies. That didn’t bring in enough money to support me and my brother, so she had an evening job serving behind the bar in an old roadside coaching inn in the middle of nowhere. Its clientele fell into two groups: lorry drivers parking up for the night from the nearby M1 motorway, and teachers from the local independent boarding school who lived on site and liked to nip out in the evenings for some liquid entertainment.

And my mum, being quite gregarious, got friendly with these teachers, and would, on occasion, talk about her kid who was doing really well in primary school and was a bit of a wiz with computers.

And what a shame it was that the local secondary school didn’t tend to produce students who went on to university, or do much of anything really.

And then one day my mum came home and asked if I’d like to go to a really good school.

Mrs Thatcher was PM at the time and she was doing all that Tory stuff like favouring selective education. They had something called the Assisted Places scheme, where kids from a poor background who were “academically gifted”, could go to a fee paying school and the government would pay some or all of their school fees.

So I got an interview with the headmaster, and apparently I impressed him, and they offered me a place.

There are two further salient points to this. While I didn’t grow up in an overtly religious environment, the school in question was run by Jesuit priests, who are essentially the shock troops of the Catholic Church. The headmaster was a jesuit priest, various teachers were jesuit priests, the rest were members of what the church calls the laity.

The second salient point is that I’m a transgender woman and a lesbian. Specifically at the age of eleven, I was a closeted, terrified, and somewhat impressionable transgender girl who didn’t really understand there was a name for what I was feeling, but knew that if other people found out it would be very very bad for me.

I thought there was something wrong with me. This was not a good start for what followed.

I got the impression that the Jesuit school system saw its purpose as producing members of the establishment who would further the aims of the Catholic Church. They never seemed to have got over the whole Glorious Revolution thing. Indeed, the headmaster literally told me, as he was tutoring me to give the reading in mass, that he expected me to be a member of parliament one day. There’s plenty of overt religious indoctrination, and even to a kid it’s quite easy to recognise that and either run with it or shake it off.

The problem is the stuff they do that’s more subtle. The ways they teach you to think, and to see yourself and the world, which aren’t tagged with the overt “God” stuff, so if you later fall to atheism, as I did, some of it stays with you.

That includes the understanding that thoughts can be wrong. Not just actions, but certain thoughts. I don’t mean ideas of self harm or of other kinds of mental illness. No, there are some ways of looking at the world that are wrong. There are some ways of living you life that are wrong. There are some feelings that are wrong.

And if you think or feel these things you are a bad person.

if you feel attraction towards someone of your own sex, you are a bad person.

If you have these pervasive thoughts about how you desperately need to be a girl, you are a bad person.

You definitely shouldn’t act on these thoughts, and actually you should have the strength of character to be able to get rid of them. That would make you redeemed. That would show that you’d struggled against bad thoughts, and won.

Only, of course, I couldn’t make them go away. Indeed, as puberty wore on they got stronger and stronger. That meant that I was a bad person with weak character. That meant that I had failed. That made me loathsome and pathetic. A disappointment to the system that educated me to the point where I could go to Cambridge. A failure, a waste of money, and if there was some residual religious faith, probably someone who was going to be tortured for all eternity in hell.

This is how I, as a child, felt about myself.

In a school of a thousand kids, a hundred or so of them will be LBGT. Around ten of those will be transgender. A leading cause of death of transgender people is suicide. A large number of apparently unexplained suicides are probably transgender people who couldn’t find a way to square the circle in their own minds. I know a lot of transgender people and every single one of us has had to make our accommodation with death in one way or another.

Some faith schools manage to offer non judgemental or supportive environments, at least superficially. Some of the self hatred stuff, the idea that there are bad thoughts and feelings you need to struggle against is going to be there even in some notionally supportive environments, because it’s not tied to LGBT friendly SRE lessons: it’s mainstreamed in how these places teach you to relate to yourself and the world.

I wasn’t Catholic. My mum wasn’t Catholic. She just saw an opportunity for me to escape a life of no prospects ands took it, and I can’t ever blame her for that. Lots of parents send their kids to these places because they want their kids to have the best future. We can talk about how that’s a pretty dismal thing for social equality, but we really need to talk about what it’s doing to confused, scared, closeted LGBT kids who could be supported to become happy confident LGBT adolescents, comfortable with themselves and how they’re feeling, but who instead are being terrorised in the name of churches giving parents a way to produce moral upstanding citizens with good A-Levels.

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