UK Christian conservatives join ‘disastrous’ global backlash against sex education

In Poland, a bill in parliament threatens sex educators with prison sentences. Across Latin America, ultra-conservatives are mobilising under the banner: ‘don’t mess with my kids’. And in the UK, new campaigns and legal challenges have been launched against LGBTIQ inclusive education.

While Muslim parents’ protests in Birmingham received mass media coverage earlier this year, an openDemocracy undercover reporter attended an event in London this summer that showcased another, highly organised opposition movement against the government’s new sex and relationships curriculum.

The event was organised by a Christian conservative group that also opposes abortion, ‘Islamism’ and no-fault divorce. “Tolerance is not inherently good”, argued the keynote speaker, urging the audience to “grow up and realise that we cannot be sacrificing our children on the altar of gender identity politics”.

Over the next two hours, our reporter heard about several interconnected strategies to oppose or undermine the new curriculum – from new campaign groups set up over the last year to legal challenges, alternative teaching resources, lobbying and promoting homeschooling.

Afterwards, a spokesperson for OneBodyOneFaith, the UK’s first Christian LGBTQ+ organisation, warned that organised evangelical opposition could have “disastrous” impacts on students’ health and wellbeing, particularly for those “who feel caught between orientation or identity and their faith”.

Around the world there is “aggressive opposition” to sex education, added Joanna Herat, senior health and education specialist at the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO), with claims that “are often identical, appearing to originate from a single [unknown] source”.

“The breadth of what the conservative right is trying to accomplish in the US and overseas is staggering,” said Anu Kumar, president of the global abortion rights group Ipas, describing active campaigns “to undermine efforts to teach students about healthy relationships and healthy reproductive decisions”.

Young people need information on topics from preventing unwanted pregnancies to consent in relationships, said Herat at UNESCO, describing uneven progress in providing this to students around the world – even where national sex education curricula and strategies exist.

In England, the curriculum has been refreshed for the first time since 2000 and becomes compulsory for schools to follow in September 2020. Among other things, it was changed to reflect the 2010 Equality Act which recognises sexual orientation and gender identity as ‘protected characteristics’.

A Department for Education spokesperson said “there is no reason why teaching children about the society that we live in and the different types of loving, healthy relationships” can’t be done “in a way that respects everyone”.

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But the spokesperson for the OneBodyOneFaith organisation criticised the government for reforming the curriculum “without proper thought to engaging with local communities”, including religious groups, and called for “real and solid funding applied to support LGBTQ+ young people in schools”.

Rosamund McNeil, assistant general secretary at the National Education Union (NEU), said the reforms were “long overdue”. Though “language suggesting that LGBT+ inclusion in primary schools is discretionary” had enabled “divisive debates and protests,'' with “some staff feeling intimidated”.

‘A highly organised UK opposition’

At the London meeting of Christian conservatives this summer, our reporter – posing as a prospective teacher, to learn what these campaigners were telling teachers about sex education – found an energised opposition movement.

In a room filled with LGBTIQ children’s books, tea and biscuits, the keynote speaker argued that equalities legislation “is not all-powerful”. Rather, he said it can be limited to protect “health and morals” of other students or teachers.

This was Roger Kiska, in-house lawyer at the Christian Concern group that organised the event. He previously worked for Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian right ‘legal army’ and one of a dozen US groups that openDemocracy revealed have spent millions of dollars in Europe.

Kiska joined Christian Concern in 2016. Since then, the group has, for example, supported parents who removed their child from his school because another child was transgender, and an evangelical pastor and maths teacher suspended for repeatedly misgendering a trans student.

In his talk, which the group later uploaded to Youtube, Kiska also addressed educators who might oppose including LGBTIQ content in their lessons, or who don’t want to follow the government’s new guidance, saying: “I’m here to tell you, that if [Ofsted] downgrade you, call us and we’re gonna go to court,” referring to the government education standards body.

Another speaker described her experience as a parent. She said she pulled her son out of his school after it celebrated Pride, saying that she’d felt “lost” and “alone” until she found one of several, new Christian right campaigns set up over the past year to oppose the new curriculum.

The campaign she name-checked is Parent Power, launched by a coalition of groups including Christian Concern at an event in parliament hosted by DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson. He also spoke at another event in parliament to launch The Values Foundation for Faith and Families in Education.

This Foundation’s website lists Tory MP Edward Leigh as its patron, while Timothy Vince, a presenter for evangelical Revelation TV and a Brexit Party MP candidate, sits on its ‘committee’ along with Kiska. It says it plans to “build up a head of steam to help turn the way education is going in this country”.

Its initiatives include a “lobbying arm” that doesn’t require online donors to leave their names when contributing, “allowing those to take part who might otherwise be embarrassed to do so” – and a project promoting alternative “teaching and learning resources that reflect traditional values”.

Alternative resources also came up at the Christian Concern summer event, where the coordinator suggested (to audible agreement from the audience) that “homeschooling is going to become more popular” too, as more conservative parents demand more control over what their children learn.

Responding to a request for comment from openDemocracy, Christian Concern said it sees the new curriculum “as an assault on parental rights” and that it’s “possible to teach the necessary topics within a genuinely Christian and age-appropriate framework – the problem is that many won't”.

“Far from fear mongering”, it added, “Mr Kiska’s presentation produced a thoughtful and concise critique of the new education regulations”.

A global backlash

Religious right opposition to comprehensive sex education isn’t new – but its international dimensions seem increasingly clear. This year, a UNESCO report described how ultra-conservative campaigns successfully rolled back sex education including in Ghana, Kenya, India, Thailand and Zimbabwe.

In response, the UN agency came under fire from Christian conservative group C-Fam, who accused it of “urging governments to use deceptive anti-democratic tactics” to promote sex education.

In Latin America, the ‘Con mis Hijos no te Metas’ (‘Don’t Mess with My Children’) movement began in Peru in 2016 to oppose including LGBTIQ content that country’s curriculum. It’s since lobbied for bans on “gender ideology” in schools including in Paraguay, Guatemala and Argentina.

In Poland, where sex education is not compulsory, ultra-conservative groups are now campaigning to make it illegal. A bill being debated in parliament this month proposes extending anti-paedophilia law to punish teachers who "publicly promote or approve of sexual intercourse by a minor".

Last year, the premier of Ontario, Canada, replaced his province’s modern sex education curriculum with a 1998 version. After protests by parents, teachers and students, a new 2019 curriculum was unveiled last month.

But Frederique Chabot from Action Canada for Sexual Health Rights told openDemocracy it was “a bittersweet victory”. References to gender identity and sexuality were removed from the curriculum, for younger students. Now, similar sex education battles are playing out in other Canadian provinces.

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said that opposition to sex education is “often based on misleading information or outright fallacies”, while students need to learn to “navigate their relationships, and protect themselves from dangerous situations”.

Internationally, Herat at UNESCO also described the use of misinformation by opposition campaigns that are “designed to create fear among parents”.

In the UK, another recently-launched campaign, the RSE School Gate Campaign, has handed out leaflets outside schools including alarmist claims that infants will be “encouraged to masturbate” under the new curriculum.

Voices excluded

Last week, an open letter signed by more than 50 LGBTIQ people and groups condemned “dog-whistle racism” in the UK sex education debate that’s fed into a repressive agenda stereotyping Muslims as “uncivilised and intolerant” and placing “excessive scrutiny and surveillance on Muslim children”.

The UK still deports people seeking asylum from colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, it added; 21 MPs voted against the new sex education guidelines; and Prime Minister Boris Johnson attacked the opposition Labour party for “encouraging the teaching of homosexuality” and called gay men “bumboys”.

In Canada, Chabot said that mainstream media coverage of the opposition to sex education has also “focused on communities of colour and religious minorities”, while many of these campaigns are fuelled by “the Christian right, who carried the conservative government to power”.

She cited campaigns mobilising voters to support anti-abortion politicians, for example, and that recent Vatican guidance to educators has informed “a lot of these groups that are lobbying here”. Among other things, it says students should learn that marriage is only between a man and a woman.

Chabot also criticised another omission in media reports: the voices of Muslim parents who support or wanted to be consulted about sex education.

Across the world, "a majority of people are fundamentally concerned about protecting children and young people from harm”, Herat agreed, warning that when sexual health and gender equality issues are cut from curricula, it leaves “young people with a huge gap in their education”.

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