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Sexuality and Victorian school values

Sexuality and Victorian school values
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First Published: Wed, Feb 04 2009. 11 23 PM IST

Updated: Wed, Feb 04 2009. 11 23 PM IST
Schools have a big problem with sexuality and modern attitudes to it. While gay and bisexual behaviour is accepted by an increasing number of young people, schools tend to cling to the Victorian values of the British Raj. Sexuality is still a reason for discrimination, exclusion and persecution in most of our schools.
Today’s children are far more open and tolerant of sexual differences than their parents or grandparents and they are far more sexually aware than previous generations.
The heroes and heroines of today’s children are as likely to be openly proclaiming their gay or bisexual preferences as previous generations were secretive.
From Elton John and George Michael to Angelina Jolie, Drew Barrymore and Lindsay Lohan, a host of stars and youth icons openly proclaim their gayness or bisexuality. Characters in TV serials, daytime talk show hosts and many politicians and personalities beloved by many are openly gay. Contrast this with the stars of previous generations such as Errol Flynn, Rock Hudson, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, James Dean, Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, whose gay relationships were hushed up, not commonly published or known about in their lifetimes.
For most of the MTV generation, gayness is not an issue. Many know that one in 10 of our children will grow up to be gay, and if they are like their Western counterparts, 40% will have some bisexual experience.
Up until the present, our gay and bisexual people have generally hidden their sexual preferences, fearing a violent backlash from the illiberal and intolerant sections of society. But this is changing and gay people are actively seeking an end to discrimination and oppression. However, gay or bisexual adolescents still have to keep their sexual preferences secret or suffer humiliation, bullying or worse.
Whereas in other countries schools develop policies that are inclusive of everyone, irrespective of gender or sexuality, almost all our schools have not changed with the times. With their values rooted deep in Victorian Britain and their 19th century social mores, schools are yet to adopt the tolerance, equality and compassion of their counterparts in other countries.
Even our most enlightened schools operate on a don’t ask, don’t tell policy similar to that of the US military, with never a mention of sexuality in the curriculum. As a first step to more inclusive education, we should be able to mention when being gay or bisexual influenced the art of the artist. It can be debated as to whether a child needs to know that Alexander the Great was homosexual, but we cannot understand the art of Michelangelo without reference to his homosexuality.
In many cases, there is every reason for people to know how the artist’s sexual preferences contributed to his or her art. Without it, we cannot fully understand the art or the artist.
There is much scholarly debate these days as to whether William Shakespeare was bisexual. Though his plays focus exclusively on heterosexuality, in his sonnets there is some suggestion that he was bisexual. Of his 154 sonnets, the first 126 are generally interpreted by critics as being addressed by the poet to a young man or boy—and often stress the subject’s physical beauty.
The remaining sonnets appear to be addressed to a dark lady and none of these sonnets seems very impressed by her beauty or sensuality. We do know that like many gay men, he lived separately from his wife and children until he was relatively old.
By excluding or not explaining parts of his work to our students, we do both them and Shakespeare a great disservice.
Similarly, knowing that Vikram Seth, E.M. Forster, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, Evelyn Waugh and so on were gay or bisexual allows us to understand better the beauty of their writing and the root of many of the ideas that they express. And yet, we keep it secret from our students!
Modern educationalists are not advocating that schools should promote any form of sexuality, either heterosexual or homosexual, but the reporting of the characteristics of an artist or a great man is basic to our children’s understanding of their actions and art.
The law in India relating to homosexuality is barbaric, archaic, cruel and ludicrous. Over 40 years after the British removed it in their own country, we still cling to it. At a conservative estimate, about 75 million people do not have the right to be with the people they love.
They live and strive in schools and companies where fear and loneliness are constant companions. Letting them know they are not alone and teaching children that you don’t have to be heterosexual to be a great soldier, personality or artist is a small first step, and one that educates us all.
Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.
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First Published: Wed, Feb 04 2009. 11 23 PM IST