Editor’s Note: The below is written by Thomas Hescott, a long-standing supporter of the work we do on A Younger Theatre. I have allowed Thomas the space to publish his thoughts on the current Opera North Fiasco, despite his age falling outside of AYT’s guidelines. I feel that on this occassion it is important to give opinions such as Thomas’s the space it deserves.
I was saddened to read that an exciting community project at Opera North involving 400 participants has been axed due to a school having issues with the depiction of homosexuality. I was, however, dismayed and appalled by the response from Opera North and their comment “we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils”.
Schools in general tend to be slow on the uptake. Whilst many have inspirational teachers and a few have extraordinary leaders, schools, as an institution are rarely forward thinking. They conform to the moment and are usually fearful of pushing expectations. For years Section 28 was left unchallenged by formal education, and even now for many schools it is as if Section 28 were still in place.
When I was five, I asked my Mother if two men could get married. I was told no. I then asked if two women could get married. Again my Mother answered no. I persisted asking if it was therefore wrong for two men or women to marry. The answer came back that no it was not wrong – the law was wrong. I was amazed that my mother would tell me that something illegal was good and right, that the law was wrong. This is one of my earliest memories, I was a long way from understanding my own sexuality but even at five I was starting to connect with the adult relationships around me. Formal education is fundamentally wrong to put an age onto discussions about gender, sexuality and homophobia, it confuses these conversations with the ‘nuts and bolts’ conversations of sex education, and it fails to understand that sexuality has very little to do with sex.
At the age of five we are taught about right and wrong, and we are taught about discrimination in broad terms. Plays and literature tackling bullying for this age group are everywhere but the moment the bullying or discrimination being discussed is attached to sexuality teachers become scared – they think they are talking about sex when they are really talking about equality.
I have worked in theatre, and with young people for many years now. Questions of sexuality often rear their head, just as they do for heterosexual people. The only difference is the heterosexual community are so used to answering questions about straight relationships they don’t notice. I was once asked by a boy, of about eight or nine who was playing a Munchkin in a production of The Wizard of Oz if the actress playing Dorothy was my girlfriend. The answer ‘no I’m a friend of Dorothy’s’ was going to go over his head, so I simply responded with ‘no. I have a boyfriend’. He looked at me in amazement and exclaimed ‘But that makes you bifocal’
Time and time again when working with young people and being open when asked I have gently offered a view of homosexuality that is non threatening, and non predatory and I have often been the first openly gay man a young person will meet. I don’t do this in order to be a positive gay role model just as the straights aren’t consciously offering themselves up as positive ‘straight’ role models. I do however see it as an absolute responsibility to answer questions of sexuality honestly when asked. Schools should do the same.
Of course a school objected to the subject matter. As one teacher said to me on twitter “teachers are too narrow minded to be trusted with children’s minds”. It was however the responsibility of Opera North the engage with the topic and to educate our educators. Left to their own devices schools will never evolve or change – education partnerships like this have the ability to move the curriculum forward.
Opera North offered hundreds of young people the chance to perform in an opera – what an extraordinary opportunity. This opportunity was coupled with the chance to explore issues and ideas that are hard to discuss in a classroom environment. The school that pulled out deprived their pupils of a life changing educational experience. Within that school there will be many children who will grow up to discover they are gay and this act of censorship will send them a clear message that growing up to be who they are is unacceptable to society. By allowing this to happen, Opera North have condoned a homophobic act. They should have been standing alongside Lee Hall offering to pay to bring Stonewall in to help discuss the issues. They should have been doing everything possible to ensure that the issue of discrimination was treated with the respect it deserved. Instead they condoned homophobia, and their later response confirms that their education department have little or no concept of how important this subject is, and how badly they have dealt with it.
Disagree with this viewpoint of the Opera North Fiasco? Read Eleanor Turney’s opinions on why Opera North is not homophobic on her blog here.