Last night was the 2nd Annual “GLYNI Presents: Hymn or Us” event at Belfast Pride, and this year, keeping with the religious connections for the last year, the specific topic this time around was “To what extent should religion influence education?” with the obvious focus being on LGBT affairs!
Once more, William Crawley acted as speaker, and a varied and high-profile panel was arranged, including the following people:
Bishop Donal McKeown – Catholic titular Bishop of Cell Ausaille, member of CCMS and school principal
Caitríona Ruane – Sinn Féin politician, former education minister for Northern Ireland, and current Sinn Féin Chief Whip
Peter Linas – Member of the Evangelical Alliance
Ciaran Moynagh – Solicitor
Shirley McMillen – Teacher, and founder of Northern Ireland’s first ‘Gay-Straight Alliance’ in a school
As you can agree, a good mix of people, with a broad range of backgrounds, from a ministerial opinion, teaching opinion, legal opinion, religious – well-equipped to answer the questions of the waiting audience!
There was no prearranged format for the evening, and no prearranged questions. To give the audience time to gather their thoughts, as well as hear a little from the panel, the evening was kicked off by a question from William himself. The format then really just became a discussion, rather than questions, between the panel and the floor.
I thought that since people appreciated the last write-up, I’d do one for this too. Now, I must admit that I took no-where near the amount of notes this time around, and as with my earlier write-up, I believe I have captured the essence of what was said, but this is not to be taken as verbatim. Due to the nature of the discussion this time around, there aren’t really ‘questions’ so much as just discussion. I didn’t record much of the audience.
William: “Do you think schools are a safe place for our LGBT pupils (and teachers)?”
Caitríona: No, but they are getting better all the time. What we need to see is more progressive acts, like what happened at Shimna, very progressive.
Shirley: GSA are a very simple but effective help, ours is the form of an after-schools club, they have 15 pupils who identify as LGBTQ. Very positive impact, admittedly the existence of the club was used as a ‘slag’ term at first (“Oh, you should get yourself to the GSA!!!”), but now it is accepted and basically normal for the pupils.
Donal: Well, there are many issues that make schools unsafe for a whole range of pupils, not just LGBT. Teachers who want to apply for a Catholic school do have equal access and are not excluded on that basis, or made to feel unwelcome.
Peter: There are many issues yes, including sectarian bullying. LGBT is an issue but there are many stories of it getting better.
Ciaran: Well, there is a difficulty in reporting homophobic bullying due to unwillingness for pupils or teachers to out themselves. That isolates them further, acting as a double-edged sword – they have the choice to report incidents, ‘outing themselves’ and get targeted for being gay, or ignore issues, remain closeted and feel isolated for this.
Caitríona : I hope Donal will take it away with him that teachers don’t feel they can be out and apply for jobs, particularly though not exclusively within his organisation. I hear that a lot and it is very worrying. Shimna is great, it’s radical in that it brings together all the straight people too, which is how we have to keep going – the attitudes and the legislation will only change if we can bring straight people into the discussion on our side.
It’s worth remembering that legislation is only as good as how it is used by people. There is a piece of legislation that does affect schools. Employers have a duty of care, even towards teachers. It just isn’t widely used to pursue incidents.
Ciaran: We need pupils to take the initiative, even legal action, but is this an effective remedy? This is a reactive approach, which is important and would change things, but having the section 75 legislation affect schools would mean a proactive approach and not reactive.
Shirley: It’s all very well for Donal and Peter to say that there is lots of bullying and lots of issues, but LGBT is and should be considered a separate case due to the statistics on homophobic bullying [numbers which I could not record fast enough, but were much higher for LGBT pupils in areas of physical bullying, depression, self-harm, eating disorders] .
Peter: [On a discussion of separation of church and state] My Baptist background actually encourages separation of Church and state. But there is an obligation on schools to support a Christian ethos and to have collective worship. However, there is also a value problem, if you removed entirely the Christian values, some other set of values would have to replace them, what would that be?
Caitríona: It is important that we get represented – get onto boards of governors! They are very powerful, but they are advertised and open and we need a diverse mix on them, as they are the gatekeepers, they hold a lot of power in schools.
Donal: [On whether Catholic schools are giving an ‘incomplete’ education] Catholic education is trying to give an integrated education, with religion as a lens through which to view things. As a vision through which to view the theology of the body. You don’t teach subjects, you teach pupils, and it is important to have a rapport with teachers so it is memorable. On biblical teachings, the idea is that we urge everyone to understand this idea of theology of the body – the body is a temple for the holy spirit. I’m not saying it’s a choice or anything, what I am saying is that you take what is best for your body and what is in God’s plan. With that in mind, the idea spiritually for homosexuals is celibacy.
Peter: [Asked if it is right to ask non-religious people to be celibate based solely on ANOTHER’S idea of the theology of their body] No, there is no point or justification for ‘imposing’ celibacy on people without faith. But remember legally there is a requirement for collective worship. And it is right to be able to teach that homosexuality is a sin under the current Christian ethos.
Caitríona: That is not right, either from the perspective of the LGBT pupils or from leading the straight pupils to believe that they are somehow better than their LGBT peers. You can’t have this idea perpetuated in a school, where pupils easily see all the differences in each other, that some are less – no wonder you get bullying as a result.
[From the floor] Gavin from Rainbow Project: The bishop is being disingenuous towards employment, there are many examples of teachers being told to not talk about their sexuality, where they go on holidays, and held back from advancement. Schools aren’t even made to feel WELCOME to pupils and teachers who are LGBT. This is an easy fix, teach about things, allow posters and leaflets!
“Bullshit!” – Bishop Donal McKeown
Peter: [In a discussion about how telling a pupil in an RE class that homosexuality is a sin could be demeaning or disparaging] Where is the space for some of faith to say that it is not compatible with biblical teaching? Is that disparaging?
Audience: If a straight person turned round and talked about how him and his wife have sex [no, not literally like a story!], and some person replied with “Oh my god why did you have to bring that up? That’s disgusting, now I’ve got a disgusting image in my head” you would call that person dysfunctional. Flip that around, and somehow we’re talking about the dysfunctional person needing legal protection against being called dysfunctional?!?
Shirley: The right to be safe and equal, particularly as a child, well in my opinion and most others, that comes first to your right to have freedom to discriminate.
Peter: [On the matter of parental choice to send a pupil to a school of faith] Schools are a contested space. Faith schools are a choice that parents make, and they have that right.
Caitríona : If a parent were to ask a school to corporally punish, slap their children, it’s still illegal and wrong, despite what a parent wishes. A parent’s wish for a faith-based education is not a trump to rights of a child.
Lots of discussion from the floor. Commitment for Caitríona to talk to John O’Dowd about a specific question raised on the protections in place for home-schooling. An amusing moment where the bishop, in response to a rumour from P.A. on the idea that CCMS is fighting for its right to discriminate against LGBT teachers, Donal simply replies loudly “BULLSHIT!”.
William: Final question, how do you practically make schools safer?
Shirley: Start a GSA. Use the Cara-Friend and Rainbow training packs and resources. Schools make it clear that they fight homophobic bullying in all its forms.
Donal: Make sure all schools have the opportunity to have this conversation. I can try to influence the organisations I am involved in to review the situation.
Ciaran: I will continue to assist legally with any organisation. Especially on section 75. Pro-bono!
Caitríona : I will continue to work in our party to work for all aspects, both schools and society opinions, of LGBT people and organisations.
Peter: Homophobic bullying and language is very unhelpful, and the church has unfortunately engaged in this. I will condemn any kind of language that occurs!
Personally, I hear a lot of messages, good ones, and we will see if it leads to any changing of attitudes within these parties and organisations. I take issue with a lot of the religious opinion, but at least some of what was said was done so in a more respectful way than it sometimes is.
Personally, I think the point is missed that, to be honest, a parent doesn’t have the right to insist on indoctrination of their child to a particular religion, in the same way I disagree with baptism and circumcision for the same reason, when kids grow up they can make up their own minds – and if you were so confident that your religion is god-given and holy and great, they will pick it themselves. Faith schools and religious ceremonies are to me the tacit recognition that most people raised without such ideas would actually think them worth considering later in their life.
I’d not quite care if churches wanted to be able to teach, in church or R.E. classes, that “Some of you may be gay, that’s ok, but in our belief, to stay holy you should be celibate rather than have sex with the same sex. This is in the same way that, if you are straight, you should wait until you are married.” because that is a gentle approach that makes it clear this is only in their belief, and need not be accepted – and moreover doesn’t use the old chestnuts of “sin”, “abomination”, “unholy”, “paedophile”, “bestiality” and others.
This brings me onto an aside – I have to wonder if the opposition to equal marriage is that their main view is “no sex before marriage” and this is how they justify the idea that we gays have to be celibate. If we can get married, then it raises the possibility that a queer person could actually WAIT until after marriage to have sex!
Anyways, I must congratulate Mark Brown, co-ordinator of GLYNI, on a very successful event again this year, as well as Belfast Pride and its volunteers for their help! See you next year!