The difference between tolerance and acceptance: Hebe Reilly’s Equalities Workshop reflections

Wondering what has changed since my school days

Last month we should have been venturing into schools across Greater Manchester to deliver more of our Equalities Workshops to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17th.

Instead we spent May reimagining what our equalities work could look like during lockdown, and we’ll be announcing more on that next month! In the meantime we’d like to share some reflections from facilitator Hebe Reilly who helped to deliver the equalities workshops we ran back in February.

“When the lovely Art with Heart asked me if I would like to assist with their Equalities Workshops during LGBTQ+ Histories month, I was intrigued to find out what the conversations would be like.

I wondered if society has changed to become more open and inclusive since my school days?

Er, I don’t assume gender Miss

In 2018, when asking students during a schools workshop:

Q: How comfortable do you feel being the only person of your gender in a room full of the opposite gender?

I got my most favourite answer (and one that made me feel like an out of date dinosaur!):

A: Er, I don’t assume gender Miss
I thought perhaps things have moved far beyond my school experience.  And in loads of positive ways, things have moved on.  When I started going to school, Section 28 – a law that forbade the promotion or teaching of homosexuality or same sex relationships in school was still in place.  There would not, could not have been an Equalities Workshop or a recognition of LGBTQ+ History Month during my early school years.

The young people I worked with this week were, like me, gobsmacked to discover that homosexuality was listed as a disease until 1990 (the year I was born).

“But I don’t get it.  Why was it a disease?  It’s not a disease.”

A student smiles at the camera, in the background a group of secondary school students are deep in conversation during one of our Equalities workshops.

Hebe Reilly talks to secondary school students during one of our Equalities workshops.

And that according to the World Health Organisation, being transgender was a mental illness until 2019.  They were also left with goosebumps after hearing how the government persecuted Alan Turing, despite his heroic war efforts, and the way he’s been remembered and honoured by Steve Jobs.

There are still however underlying questions, uncertainty and in some cases tension in the conversation around Equality and the LGBTQ+ community.  Many of the students were open about using the word ‘gay’ as an insult.  There continues to be a sense that while it is totally OK for other people to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, the idea isn’t exactly welcome with open arms. The workshop highlights that there is a big difference between tolerating something and fully accepting it.

The most powerful moment in the workshop is when Sarah reveals her sexuality and says, bravely “You can ask me anything.  I don’t mind.”  I think it’s really a game-changer.  As a teenager, it is not often you come across people so comfortable with their sexuality they are willing to stand in front of 25 teenagers and answer literally anything.

Most of their questions were beautifully open and curious, including:

“Miss, have you ever met anyone famous?”

But despite the positive and radical progress, these workshops have shown me that we still don’t give young people enough space to safely express or question their sexualities, or place members of the LGBTQ+ community into the mainstream spotlight.”

Hebe Reilly