Don’t hijack child welfare to attack gay marriage

I got home from work today to discover that this afternoon’s House of Commons debate had turned into a procession of backbench Tory MPs delivering a series of variations on “I’m not a homophobe but…” If David Cameron’s endorsement of gay marriage was intended to show a forward-thinking, tolerant conservatism, it seems a large section of his party failed to get the memo.

Much of the opposition to gay marriage has taken the form of concern trolling about what it’ll mean for our children. Yesterday David Davies MP said, “I hate to say this, in a way, because I expect it’s going to cause controversy – but I think most parents would prefer their children not to be gay, knowing most parents want grandchildren if nothing else.”

A few days ago another Tory MP, Bob Blackman, went further than just opposing gay marriage. He called the reintroduction of the notorious Section 28, which banned the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools. He said, “I was one of those that strongly believed that Section 28 was the right rules to have in school so that we should not promote in any way shape or form promote same-sex relationships, I still abide by that and feel thats the right way forward, and if teachers are forced to say same-sex relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships I’d be very opposed to that.” As a quick history lesson, not a single prosecution was ever brought under Section 28, but it created a huge obstacle for teachers who wanted to prevent homophobic bullying.

A couple of weeks ago the Daily Telegraph suggested that teachers could be sacked for not promoting gay marriage in schools, and fulminated against such a grievous hypothetical outrage.

Since I work in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), I think I’ll give my own thoughts on what gay marriage could mean for our children.

I won’t mention any individual cases, but I’ve been involved with several young people where events have followed a certain template. A teenager suddenly stops attending school, and stops seeing their friends. Often there were previously no issues with their school attendance. We’re asked to see them. They’re low in mood, but not necessarily at the level of a clinical depression. They can’t tell us why they won’t go to school, or why they’re locking themselves in their bedrooms, but whatever it is seems to be distressing them.

At some stage down the line, it turns out to be either a sexuality or a gender identity issue. Often this gets revealed accidentally. Perhaps they blurt something out in a moment of stress, or their parents discover same-sex images on their computer. They usually don’t simply come into the therapy room and tell us, because they’re terrified of how people will react.

What happens next is crucial. If the response of family and friends is a positive one – to tell them it’s okay, to accept this aspect of them, to let them know that this isn’t a problem – then the child has a good chance of getting their life back on track. They now have the opportunity to move forward, to be who they are, and to prosper.

If the disclosure is met with hostility and rejection, then the damage can be enormous. Instead of prospering, the kid can fall into depression, substance misuse, self-harm, school avoidance or any combination thereof.

Homophobic and transphobic bullying is still an issue in schools, but when I think of when I was at school in the late 80s and early 90s, the progress is enormous. I’ve worked with LGBT teenagers who describe being accepted by their classmates in a way that would have been inconceivable when I was a kid. Some of our local schools have LGBT student groups, and ask older pupils to act as mentors to young people who are coming out. There’s a support group for LGBT teenagers that we can signpost kids to. More and more young people are being presented with a very healthy idea – that being gay, bisexual or transgender is normal.  In that sense, many of our kids understand the future a lot better than the grey-haired fulminators on the Tory backbenches.

But there’s still a way to go. Gay marriage may not be the most important waypoint on the road to demonstrating that LGBT people are equal and normal in every way, but it is one of those waypoints. So, if you’re opposed to gay marriage, don’t do it because our kids supposedly need “protecting” from homosexuality. They don’t need protection; they need normalisation.