One of the Jewish community’s leading campaigners on mental health issues in schools has said those who want teachers to teach children about different sexualities and genders “need to make our voices heard”.
Jonny Benjamin, whose 2014 search for the man who talked him down from a bridge captured the British public’s imagination, now works in Jewish schools talking to children about mental health and his struggle with his own sexuality.
He spoke to Jewish News this week, after a parliamentary debate on Wednesday in which several MPs expressed the concerns of the Orthodox Jewish community about the Government’s proposed new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) guidelines, which would give a parental opt-out until the age of 15.
JN: When did you first come out as gay?
JB: I came out when I was about 21, so roughly ten years ago. I went to JFS but at that time sex education was very basic. I think we had one lesson in which we were taught how to put a condom on and that’s it. There was no talk of different sexualities or genders. I’ve been very open about how the struggle to come to terms with my own sexuality was a massive contributing factor to my breakdown and hospitalisation, and how part of the difficulty stemmed from me being brought up in the Jewish community. It’s changed a lot since then, thank goodness. We now have groups like Keshet and Stonewall going into Jewish schools and talking to not just the children but the teachers too. Don’t forget, no-one ever tells a teacher how to deal with the child who comes to them and says ‘I don’t want to be a boy or a girl.’
JN: So for you, there is a clear link to LGBT+ identity and mental health issues?
JB: Absolutely, the statistics bear this out. You see that children and young adults who identify as LGBT+ are hugely more likely to suffer mental health issues, self-harm, or even take their own life. Trans pupils in particular have enormously high levels of suicide. That’s why it’s so important that teachers and schools talk to children and tell them it’s OK to be different – to be gay, or non-binary.
JN: You’ll be aware of the debate in Parliament this week and the opposition to any kind of RSE in schools from the Orthodox community, which refuses to teach children of any age that some people are gay. What do you say to that?
JB: I just think it’s incredibly sad. The world has moved on. Even in the last five years, because five years ago groups like Keshet were struggling to get into schools like JFS and Yavneh, but now schools know how important it is. I’m saddened by the Orthodox reaction but not surprised. I actually think it’s even more important to tell these children that it’s OK to be different because unfortunately there is still a lot of stigma around mental health in the Orthodox community.
JN: So you disagree with the Orthodox argument that it shouldn’t be taught?
JB: I completely disagree. What I’ve learned from talking to children in Jewish schools is that children are so much more accepting of difference than adults. They’re incredibly tolerant and they’re OK with people being different, yet it’s the adults who are making decisions for them with this parental opt-out. It just doesn’t make sense. Today there’s social media so children will hear and find out. It’s everywhere. Just this week, singer Sam Smith came out as non-binary, big mainstream news. So children will see this and ask questions, it’ll prompt their own exploration of identity, and that’s a good thing. It’s already happening. Increasingly, when I go into a Jewish school to talk to the children, a teacher will pull me over to one side and tell me that a particular student has identified as non-binary, neither a boy nor a girl. You can’t ignore it or escape it – it’s out there!
JN: Ministers are mindful not to want to upset religious communities but mindful that sexuality and gender are characteristics legally protected from discrimination. What do you see as the important points in that debate?
JB: For me it boils down to an Orthodox fear of putting ideas in children’s heads, but their answer is to suppress the discussion, and the more you suppress it the more mental health issues that raises, so it’s as important to talk to Jewish adults about differences in sexuality and gender as it is to talk to Jewish children. Some Jewish schools are starting to do this. Five schools have hired wellbeing practitioners and I understand that one of the things they’re doing is organising workshops with parents about RSE lessons and getting parental input. All this is incredibly important. We didn’t have any of this when I was at school, yet then as now you had children battling to come to terms with their sexuality.
JN: So essentially the Orthodox community needs to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’?
JB: I just think they need to realise that it’s 2019. If you look around at all the problems we have – rising tension and conflict over Brexit, homelessness sky-rocketing, suicide now being the number one killer of young people – to look at all that and still focus all your energy on fighting the Government’s RSE Regulations, I just can’t believe that. I know they are voicing concern to ministers but there are also a lot of Jewish people who feel the opposite – that it is actually very important to teach children about different relationships and identities. Maybe we need to make our voices heard more. As I say, there is progress in mainstream Jewish schools. It’s taken a while but we are now breaking down these walls. Progress can feel very slow at times, but it’s so important we continue making it, because of this obvious link to mental health issues and LGBT+ identity. Let’s hope we can all become as open-minded as the children are.