Officials at a Catholic school in England have considered firing teachers who are striking over the school’s decision to ban a gay author from speaking at the school. The controversy has prompted the U.K. government to investigate the school over administration issues.
The John Fisher School, which is under the independent trusteeship of the Archdiocese of Southwark but receives state funding, cancelled a book signing for March 7th with author Simon James Green, who is known for centering LGBTQ characters in his work. The archdiocese later fired members of the board governors who had invited Green.
The move was met with swift backlash from parents and educators. Parents circulated an online petition demanding the reinstatement of the previous governors and criticizing the actions of the archdiocese. A majority of the school’s teachers voted through a National Education Union (NEU) ballot to strike in response to the author event’s cancellation, according to The Telegraph. The teachers will strike for six days over a three-week period.
Pauline Buchanan, the London Regional Secretary for the NEU, said the results sent to the diocese and wider community in a statement to The Bookseller:
“The result of the ballot today shows that our members will not stand by and watch those who identify as LGBT+ be singled out for adverse and degrading treatment. We will continue to challenge this unfair and draconian decision and fight for respect for all.”
But i News reported that in an April 20th meeting, school officials floated the idea of firing striking staff over breach of contract concerns. Meanwhile, the school has subsequently had to close certain days due to the strike.
Green, the author in question, was thankful for the support. He spoke out against censorship for LGBTQ authors and highlighted the importance of queer representation in media, saying:
“‘It’s not about me – it’s about the students, LGBT or not, who deserve (and need) to see their realities, and those of their peers, reflected in books.'”
Simon Hughes, the director of education for the archdiocese, argued that “in such circumstances, we have no alternative but to affirm our unequivocal and well-known theological and moral precepts and to act in accordance with them.”
While the initial controversy was over the book signing itself, the conversation has shifted to the larger question of how much power dioceses ought to have in interpreting Catholic teaching for local schools.
Because John Fisher receives public funding, and is required to follow the educational standards of the UK’s Equalities Act, the nation’s Department for Education is conducting an investigation of the events which led to Green’s appearance being canceled. In the meantime, the Office for Standards in Education, a governmental watchdog, published a report on April 25 describing parents, staff and students as “unnerved and upset” following the event. It also disclosed that the previous governors had been reinstated due to the archdiocese failing to perform proper procedures for imposing an interim executive board.
Ruby Almedia, chair of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster, offered the following comment:
“Westminster LGBT+ Catholics are acutely aware of the ongoing difficulties that are prevalent in John Fisher School. We are also sensitive to the work that is being undertaken in the Archdiocese of Southwark. We are always ready and willing to offer support and advice should the school, education authorities or the Southwark Diocese wish to engage with us. Our foremost thoughts are for the wellbeing of the children in the school, particularly those who identify as gay.”
In addition to legal concerns, the debacle also made apparent the threat that LGBT-negative book censorship can pose to young people. Scholastic, a major international publisher which specializes in books for children and adolescents, spoke out against the decision:
“‘We stand with Scholastic author Simon James Green and his beautiful stories, full of warmth, humour and authenticity. Simon’s many successful appearances in schools have resonated with children and teachers alike, encouraging reflection on acting with tolerance and acceptance, as well as giving a voice to children who may feel like they do not have one.'”
While the cancellation of the author’s talk was a disheartening decision, the widespread support of Green from parents and educators illustrated that LGBT-negative interpretations of church teaching do not go uncontested in Catholic education. From London to Worcester, Massachusetts, LGBTQ youth are finding support. By standing up for queer youth, members of the John Fisher community are working toward a Church which is a home for all people.
—Andru Zodrow, May 2, 2022