When Terrence Higgins Trust was founded back in 1982, information about HIV or 'Gay-Related Immune Deficiency' as it was known then, was scarce. People heard about the virus through whispers and sensationalist headlines in the media. Information in schools was non-existent and LGBT issues were banned from being discussed in the classroom.
Fast forward to 2019. Last week this historical wrong was rewritten after MPs backed plans for compulsory and LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons.
For nearly 40 years we have been campaigning for better sex education in schools. At the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s, there was an urgent need to provide information to young people about how they could reduce their risk of contracting HIV in later life.
Much of the media characterised HIV as being an issue that only concerned gay and bisexual men, with headlines such as 'gay plague' being plastered across front pages. This, coupled with the introduction of the toxic Section 28 legislation that banned schools from teaching LGBT issues, resulted in HIV issues being all but erased in the classroom.
The effects of this were harmful. Generations of young people would enter the world without even a basic understanding of how to prevent HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Information would often be based on misconceptions or rumours, such as how HIV is transmitted, which have had a lasting impact among many adults. For example in 2018, we found that nearly a third of British adults still believed that HIV could be transmitted by kissing – despite there being zero evidence of this. These views have not only been false, but they have fuelled HIV stigma too.
Our campaign for compulsory sex education has faced push back after push back.
In 2003, Section 28 was finally lifted and schools were allowed to discuss LGBT issues. Despite the Equality Act being put into law in 2010, meaning schools could not discriminate against LGBT pupils, change would be slow. Many teachers were still unclear about what they were allowed to discuss. Stonewall found that in 2014, nearly three in 10 secondary school teachers still did not know if they could teach LGBT issues.
Our ground-breaking report Shhh... No Talking in 2016 uncovered the impact this was having on the delivery of RSE lessons. Young people told us only 5% of lessons were LGBT-inclusive and 50% rated the quality of lessons as either poor or terrible. The report also uncovered many key issues such as consent and gender identify that were not being discussed.
Something had to change.
Throughout 2016 and 2017 we stepped up our calls to fix this and in March 2017 we achieved our first victory. Parliament passed the Children & Social Work Bill, which included provisions to roll out RSE lessons in all schools. However our campaign was not over. We worked with young people to help shape our consultation response to the Government about what should be included in lessons and crucially why they must be LGBT-inclusive.
Last week we finally secured that victory. MPs backed plans for LGBT-inclusive RSE lessons in all secondary schools and also inclusive Relationships Education lessons in all primary schools. RSE lessons will have up to date information about HIV, including how to prevent, test and treat HIV.
The significance of this cannot be understated, with the media once again openly questioning whether lessons should be LGBT-inclusive and if it is 'moral' to do so.
We now have 18 months until lessons will be introduced in all schools. Between now and then we will be holding the Government to account to ensure the promise for LGBT-inclusive lessons is fulfilled. Teachers must also have the confidence to deliver these lessons through accessing proper training and resources.
Our victory has been nearly 40 years in the making. The time for debating RSE is now over. Young people will now be guaranteed information they need to know about HIV and sexual health and we will work to ensure this becomes a reality in every classroom across England.