Published: 1 September 2023 at 16:00
VIEWPOINT: ARU Professor compares Netflix series to life teaching under Section 28
By Catherine Lee, Anglia Ruskin University
This article contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Heartstopper.
It’s confession time. Despite being well into my fifties, I am a Heartstopper super-fan. For those who don’t know Heartstopper, it is Alice Osman’s Netflix adaptation of their boy-meets-boy graphic novel. Charlie (Joe Locke) and Nick (Kit Connor) and their LGBTQ+ friends come of age and fall in love at school.
I am not the target audience for Heartstopper – the second series of which has recently been released. It is squarely aimed at young people and LGBTQ+ young people in particular. However, I was a secondary school teacher for more than 20 years and Heartstopper to me is a joyous depiction of what teaching and schools could have been, but for me, never was.
This was because almost all my teaching career was spent under a law called Section 28. Between 1988 and 2003, Section 28 of Margaret Thatcher’s Local Government Act prevented teachers in schools from promoting the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”.
In my book Pretended: Schools and Section 28, I describe the mandated homophobic silence that descended upon every school in Britain. As a teacher in a so-called “pretended family relationship”, I feared constantly that I would lose my job if I was outed at school.
“Pretending” became my MO: I pretended to live alone, I pretended to have boyfriends, I pretended to be too busy to talk to students I thought might be gay and, I am ashamed to say, I pretended not to notice when queer students were being harassed by their peers.
My research with other LGBTQ+ teachers shows that Section 28 profoundly affected those who experienced it. I found that 48% of LGBTQ+ teachers who taught under this law sought help for anxiety or depression linked to their role as a teacher and their sexual or gender identity.
My biggest regret as a teacher under Section 28 is that I could not be a positive role model for the young LGBTQ+ people I taught. Thankfully, this law is now long gone from schools and so Charlie, Nick and their queer friends have excellent teacher role models.
The indomitable PE teacher, Miss Singh (Chetna Pandya), ably coaches the boys’ rugby team. When she catches Charlie and Nick kissing after rugby practice, she asks to meet with Nick, the team captain. There is no telling off or warning from Miss Singh. Instead she tells Nick that she met her wife through rugby and we see a framed photograph of the couple on her school desk. If only, I find myself musing as I think back to my time as a PE teacher.
Mr Ajayi (Fisayo Akinade) is the gentle, generous and caring art teacher, whose tiny Pride lapel badge serves as the subtlest reminder to Charlie, Nick and co that he has their backs. When Mr Ajayi finds romance himself with another male teacher, there is no hint of the fear or shame that eventually drove me and countless other LGBTQ+ teachers from careers in teaching. Mr Ajayi is his authentic, queer, brilliant self in his school workplace. If only, I think again.
Charlie, Nick and their friends face challenges whenever they step outside their protective queer bubble. In Heartstopper, the hetero and cis-normative world can still be a perilous place for queer young people. Nick worries constantly about coming out to the school rugby team and his older brother, home from university, is savagely cruel.
Charlie’s mother initially does all she can to stop him seeing Nick, and the mother of Tara, another LGBTQ+ character, forbids her from wearing a suit to prom as she will “look like a lesbian”. In all, the adults make a bit of a mess of things and make life harder than it needs to be for Nick, Charlie and their friends.
The Heartstopper friendship bubble is a safe place. The friends have compassion in abundance as they warmly embrace and accept their differences. They show respect, sensitivity and empathy for each other as together they figure out who they are and who they love. They are a nourishing presence in each other’s lives, cheering one other on and picking each other up when things don’t go to plan. When they have each other they do just fine. They don’t do quite so well when the adults intervene.
Since my own Section 28 diaries helped inspire the Bafta-nominated film Blue Jean, many of my former students have been in touch. Several who are LGBTQ+ tell me they were not previously aware of Section 28 but now understand why I and other teachers they suspected were gay never supported them at school. Now, learning something of my own struggles as a teacher, some have thankfully forgiven me for “pretending” and not being the role model they needed in school.
I have started to imagine what impact the forthcoming government trans guidance for schools would have on the young characters in Heartstopper – such as the group’s trans friend Elle (Yasmin Finney). There are fears that the trans guidance will be a reimagining of Section 28.
Press reports suggested that young trans people would only be able to socially transition at school – take actions such as changing their pronouns and name and changing how they dress – with their parent’s permission. It is of note that the Department for Education missed its own deadline for publishing the guidance, when the attorney general advised that possible stricter measures, such as a proposed ban on social transition at school, was in breach of the government’s own Equality Act.
Season two of Heartstopper teaches us that young queer people are doing a brilliant job of supporting each other as they figure out their sexual and gender identities. It is the adults who have lots to learn. Heartstopper also shows us that without government intervention on sexual or gender identities, schools have become much more nurturing, safe and inclusive places for LGBTQ+ staff and students than the schools I remember during Section 28.
Catherine Lee, Professor of Inclusive Education, PVC Dean Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University
The opinions expressed in VIEWPOINT articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARU.
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