Lee Hall, the writer behind Billy Elliot, has written a moving piece for the Guardian today as his most recent project looks to be on the brink of collapse due to what is – frankly and simply – homophobia. The community opera “Beached” is developed and set in Bridlington, on the beach, and has a cast of nearly 400, 300 of whom are primary school children. It is, in Hall’s own words, “a comedy about tolerance and inclusiveness” and was backed by Opera North as part of the their wider Sing Up! Bridlington initiative.
Yet with two weeks to go until the premiere, the project has reached an impasse, with the primary school involved demanding that references to the main character’s sexuality (“I’m queer” and “I prefer a lad to a lass”) are removed from the libretto. Having accommodated several other change requests, Lee Hall is making a stand on this one. He has proposed a number of options to move forward, including asking Opera North to help him engage directly with parents and the school and paying for Stonewall’s education team run workshops with children and parents. Neither of these options were deemed acceptable and it is now looking like the project will be canceled.
You might think “Homophobia in English education system” isn’t exactly a news story, and you would be right. We are still feeling the aftermath of Section 28. What is particularly disappointing in this case, though, is Opera North’s acceptance of the school’s prejudice and refusal to engage further on the subject. Their response shows a stunning level of bigotry.
Firstly, it tries to dismiss the significance of the issue:
It is a huge disappointment that the wider vision of the Bridlington project is currently being overshadowed. Opera North has been leading a community funded community engagement programme for the last two years, which has successfully established seven different choral groups, reaching in excess of 1,500 people in the local area from 0-82.
It even tells us that the only money that might be lost by the project not going ahead would be the commission fee for Beached, a mere £15,000. The time and effort of the hundreds of volunteers and members of the community who have been involved with Beached is clearly not sufficiently valuable to consider here.
Opera North then proceed to tell us that they
appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils. This project is part of their formal learning and pupils from the age of 4 are performing, watching and taking part in the entire piece. PSHE begins from year 5, ages around 9.
And aye, there’s the rub. The prejudice and bigotry implicit in this comment, both on the part of Opera North and the school, are shocking. Apparently it is partly “down to the architecture of a performance space which has no on or off stage, meaning all performers are involved at all times”.
The unspoken assumption here is that children must be shielded from gay people. If there is a chance that they might overhear the lines spoken on stage between adult characters referring simply to the fact that a man has relationships with men rather than women, then that needs to be prevented, and if it means scrapping the entire production then so be it.
Gay people, in this world view, are not so much people but some sort of exhibit, a part of the national curriculum, something you teach, not human beings like you and me with feelings and lives and agency of their own. This characterisation of gay people as “Other” is damaging – both for those of us who are lesbian, gay or bisexual, but also for the children growing up in such a society.
How, I wonder, is the school planning to explain to those 300 kids why all of a sudden they can’t take part in the performance they’ve been looking forward to for the last six months? What excuses are going to be offered to those children? What message will the 30 or so of those children who will grow up to like and love and have relationships with people of their own sex take away from this? Would the school take the same stance if the relationships referred to were, say, between people of different skin colour?
Here’s another question: How many of those 300 kids have ever used “That’s so gay” as a way to alienate, insult and humiliate their class mates in the play ground? What does the school, so worried about teaching anything related to PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) before Year 5, do with those kids who say “That’s so gay” before the ripe old age of 9? The only action consistent with their approach to Lee Hall’s opera would be to expel those children, lest they pollute their class mates’ minds with concepts that couldn’t possibly be contemplated before Year 5! Somehow I doubt very much that is the stance the school takes – for if it was, they’d have no pupils.
We are not other, not alien. We are not a museum exhibit, a topic in the national curriculum. We are people. We are all around you: your friends, and colleagues, and family members. We fall in love, we have relationships, sometimes we end those relationships – just like you. Stop treating us, dear Opera North, like we are something else than human beings!