Children must be taught about diversity from a young age

Most Irish people support Trans and LGBTI themes being taught in our schools, says Siobhán O’Dowd, Chair, Cork City LGBTI+ Inter Agency Group
Children must be taught about diversity from a young age

An education curriculum must be proactively inclusive, says Siobhán O’Dowd. Picture iStock

THE Echo has supported many LGBTI+ initiatives in the city, providing coverage of significant events like the annual LGBTI+ Awareness Week organised every May to mark IDAHOBIT - International Day against Homophobia, Lesbophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia - the hatred against people whose sexual orientation or gender identity challenges perceptions of hetero sexuality or binary and fixed gender identities .

Coverage of events like the Rainbow Cities Policy conference in January or the campaign of harassment against Cork City Library staff has been excellent, fair and balanced.

The Echo has been welcoming and receptive to articles and news pieces by our biggest LGBTI NGOs - LINC, Cork LGBT+ Pride and the Gay Project; they included an article last weekend with Ailsa Spindler - co-ordinator of the Gay Project on the subject of violence and hate crime against the LGBTI+ community.

So it was especially disheartening to see the comment piece by Trevor Laffan entitled ‘Primary Age is too young for discussing transgender issue’ on March 20. Children at primary school are innocent, “they believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny,” says Mr Laffan. The inference to me is that learning about LGBTI+ and Trans identities is somehow shameful. That is a very hurtful message to send to Trans children, their parents and grandparents too, who seem to have been co-opted en masse.

He singles out Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Equality Minister Roderic O’Gorman, both openly gay, in their public support for teaching about Trans issues. Tanáiste Minister Micheál Martin is also on record as being in favour of such a policy but he’s not name-checked in the same way, despite being our senior local minister. Indeed, the Tanáiste was already on record as voicing strong support for an LGBTI+ inclusive curriculum in all schools, regardless of patronage, and was one of the many voices to criticise the offensive language contained in the Catholic Primary Schools Managers letter on the issue. That same group that Mr Laffan quotes positively “allow children be children”, unless of course they identify as LGBTI+ and gender questioning children.

Indeed, this political support for an LGBTI+ inclusive curriculum very much reflects the findings of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on Education, who since 2019 have been calling for such a change.

Mr Laffan goes on to reference Moninne Griffith, CEO of Belong To, and mentions it as an organisation he’s never heard of. A quick Google search would reveal what many of us on the Inter-Agency are well aware of - that BeLong To is the Irish organisation of record when it comes to supporting LGBTI+ youth and marked its 20th anniversary this year.

BeLong To’s outstanding work is mainly associated with school-based initiatives such as the Stand Up campaign, an anti-LGBTI+ bullying initiative run in November each year, but they also conduct significant research with young people, including those who identify as LGBTI+ and those who don’t.

The organisation has been a lifeline to thousands of LGBTI+ youth and their families over the years and their leaders can speak first-hand about the struggles and challenges of growing up LGBTI+ in Ireland.

Yet Mr Laffan takes a dismissive view of their insights and the wealth of experience they bring to these issues.

He would certainly do well to acquaint himself with the stark findings contained in their most recent ‘Schools Climate Survey’, which constitute genuine grounds for shock and unease.

The survey reveals that 76% of LGBT+ youth feel unsafe at school, with the vast majority also witnessing anti-LGBTI+ comments in their school.

 Perpetuating the idea that primary education shouldn’t address LGBTI+ or Trans identities, as Mr Laffan does, continues this schooling of silence and shame cycle which caused so much harm to earlier generations and continues to inflict damage on this generation, as we see from the survey.

LGBTI+ young people, like all youth, deserve a welcoming and affirming school environment where they can thrive. 

However, as the BeLonG To findings make only too clear, we are falling far short in that regard, notwithstanding the laudable efforts of some truly excellent teachers.

Mr Laffan goes on to note that the Human Rights Campaign lists the range of pronouns available to individuals and readily accepts that he may get these wrong so apologises for this in advance, but goes on to state that if anyone tries to introduce these in schools he’ll be first at the barricades. It’s also important to call out his grossly irresponsible comments about protests outside schools that teach about Trans and identity issues. 

The school gate is absolutely no place to stage a protest of this kind, whether it be about an updated curriculum or anything else.

Similar protests outside a school in Birmingham in the UK a few years ago were rightly condemned across the political spectrum.

And while Mr Laffan and those who share his world-view may be entitled to their opinions, they are not entitled to wield a veto under threat of school picket and protest.

Finally, Mr Laffan may wish to believe his views on these matters are simply “common sense” and chime with the great ‘silent majority’. Most Irish people, however, are fully supportive of Trans and LGBTI+ themes more broadly being covered in schools.

For example, the Eurobarometer Survey of 2019, which measures social attitudes across the EU, revealed 78% of Irish respondents agreed school lessons and materials should include teaching about what it means to be gay, lesbian or bisexual’, while 73% agreed that should be the case concerning what it means to be Transgender. Encouragingly, both figures for Ireland were above the EU-28 average.

An education curriculum that is proactively inclusive and teaches about diversity in an age-appropriate manner is essential to delivering a more equitable Ireland for all children.

  • Cork City LGBTI+ Inter Agency Group includes Cork Council and Cork Kerry Community HealthCare as its lead agencies but also representatives from Public Services - Tusla, Mercy University Hospital/Southern Hospitals Network , Cork ETB, Cork City Libraries, Defence Forces incl Army & Navy & An Garda Siochana and Dept of Social Protection. LGBTI+ NGOS represented on the Inter-Agency Group are the Gay Project, LINC and Gender Rebels. The Inter Agency also includes representatives from Community organisations: Cork City Partnership, CESCA via Ballyphehane Togher CDP and Sexual Health Centre.

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