In this post, Christina Easton (University of Warwick) discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy about the value and appropriate shape of LGBT-inclusive education.

Image by Cinthya Liang from Pixabay

All schools in England now teach about LBGT relationships as part of a new, compulsory Relationships Education curriculum. Unsurprisingly, some parents have been unhappy about this. But even amongst those supportive of LGBT-inclusive curricula, there’s some confusion about what the purpose of this teaching should be. England’s Department for Education sometimes talk about LGBT relationships as “loving, healthy relationships”. They also say that religious schools can teach the curriculum whilst “reflecting their beliefs in their teaching”. But conservative branches of major religions say that LGBT relationships aren’t healthy at all – they’re sinful in fact. So what are teachers actually meant to be teaching? Should the state curriculum be taking a stand on whether LGBT relationships are “healthy”, or not? In a recent article, I argue that the answer is ‘yes’: schools should aim for children to believe that there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships.

Two distinct aims of LBGT-inclusive education

It’s helpful when thinking about this to distinguish between two possible aims for LGBT-inclusive curricula:

LGBT Respect: Aiming to teach children that LGBT individuals have equal moral and political status and rights, whilst remaining neutral on the moral status of LGBT relationships.

LGBT Approval: Aiming to cultivate in children a positive attitude towards LGBT relationships, including aiming for students to reject the belief that LGBT relationships are morally wrongful.

What arguments are there for each of these aims? I restrict myself to arguments that are neutral, in the sense of avoiding taking a side on matters of reasonable disagreement – including the issue of whether LGBT relationships are wrongful. Some see this kind of neutral justification as essential if a political intervention (like a compulsory state curriculum) is to be legitimate. Even if you disagree, there’s some merit to thinking like this: You are able to offer justifications to the parent who thinks that it’s wrong to be gay that don’t rely on premises they reject.

The case for LGBT Approval

There’s a clear case for teaching LGBT Respect: This helps protect LGBT individuals from hostility, and secures their rights. Taking seriously that aim in education would involve doing far more than what currently happens in most schools, particularly in other countries. But I think there are arguments to support the more controversial aim of LGBT Approval. Here I’ll just mention two of the reasons I discuss in depth in the paper.

First, teaching aimed at countering the view that LGBT relationships are wrongful is needed to protect young people from harm. LGBT youth have alarmingly high levels of self-harm and attempted suicide. Mental health is one key part of general health, and the state should act in ways that try to ensure a fair share of this important good.

State education should also act to protect children from future harm, in their adult lives. Across a range of different worldviews, having the option of romantic relationships is viewed as an important life-good. Long-term partnerships, an important sub-set of which are romantic relationships, are one way of mitigating against loneliness. Loneliness is associated with low levels of subjective well-being as well as numerous adverse health outcomes. The belief that LGBT behaviours are wrongful is a major obstacle for LGBT individuals to the future fulfilment of the life-good of long-term partnerships.

Second, teaching LGBT Approval helps secure LGBT individuals’ equality. Negative appraisals of LGBT relationships can lead to negative treatment of LGBT individuals. A landlord’s belief in the wrongfulness of LGBT relationships may deter her from letting her flat to a same-sex couple, for example. These ‘everyday’ acts of discrimination may accumulate so as to undermine the equal status of LGBT individuals.

The defender of LGBT Respect might respond: Surely if schools did a better job of teaching LGBT Respect, people wouldn’t do this. They would ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, keeping any negative views out of their public treatment of LGBT individuals.

I think that’s plausible. We don’t yet know what effect widespread teaching of LGBT Respect would have, because LGBT-inclusive education is patchy and new. But imagine a society where LGBT Respect is the norm, but where lots of people still think LGBT relationships are wrong. In such a society, the equal standing of LGBT individuals might still be undermined. Implicit biases or unconscious dislike could lead to negative evaluations of LGBT individuals, damaging their prospects of being elected, damaging their ability to exercise their right to hold public office. Widespread mistrust could lead to their opinions being taken less seriously in political debates and decision-making, preventing LGBT individuals from enjoying the fair value of their political liberties.

Implications for the classroom

Adopting the aim of LGBT Approval doesn’t mean that teachers should be standing up in front of their class, telling students that people who view LGBT relationships as sinful have got things wrong. Not only would that make students from conservative backgrounds feel excluded and disrespected, but it wouldn’t give adequate opportunity for conservative viewpoints to be voiced and counter-arguments considered. I think teachers should take a light-touch, discussion-based approach to teaching LGBT Approval. To give just a couple of examples: This might include a teacher presenting an example of a lesbian Muslim, and exploring in discussion with his students how she renders her behaviour consistent with her beliefs. Or it might include discussing the plausibility and implications of scientific evidence of biological explanations for homosexuality.

I’m not expecting to win over all the conservative parents out there. But there are at least reasons available to support a curriculum aimed at LGBT Approval, reasons that have wide appeal, even to the person who finds LGBT relationships objectionable. To protect children from harm, and to ensure the equal standing of LGBT individuals, schools should teach that there’s nothing wrong with LGBT relationships.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.