“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
In contrast, the education system in the United States is not nearly as LGBTQ+ friendly.
In what advocates say is a historic moment, Scotland will take the lead as the first country in the world to embed lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex rights into their required education curriculum.
State schools will be instructing teachers as well as students about the history of LGBTI equality and movements, challenging homophobia and transphobia, and exploring LGBTQ+ identity and terminology. There will be no exemptions to the policy, so individual schools will not be allowed to opt-out. The Scottish government's move comes after an LGBTI Inclusive Education working group, led by the Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) campaign, outlined 33 recommendations in a published report on how to tackle LGBTI bullying in schools.
In a study, TIE found that nine in 10 LGBTI Scots experience homophobia at school, with 27% reporting that they had attempted suicide because of being bullied. Research also discovered there was little understanding in schools about prejudice against people with variations of sex characteristics and intersex bodies. These findings are likely a part of the destructive legacy of section 28, the infamous legislation enacted by Margaret Thatcher's conservative government in 1988. The clause, part of the Local Government Act 1988, banned the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities and educators in British schools. It was repealed in Scotland in 2001 and in the rest of the UK two years later.
Jordan Daly, the co-founder of TIE, said of the new curriculum: "This is a monumental victory for our campaign, and a historic moment for our country. The implementation of LGBTI inclusive education across all state schools is a world first. In a time of global uncertainty, this sends a strong and clear message to LGBTI young people that they are valued here in Scotland."
Surprisingly, Scotland is regularly ranked one of the best European countries for legal protections of LGBTI people despite the country decriminalizing homosexuality in 1980, 13 years after England and Wales did the same. Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale described the country in 2016 as having "the gayest parliament in the world." At the time four of Scotland's six party leaders identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual: Dugdale, Ruth Davidson, David Coburn and Patrick Harvie.
A number of Scotland's neighbors, including Wales and the Republic of Ireland, have also been looking into further integrating LGBTQ+ issues in their curricula. In England, some schools are already teaching LGBT-inclusive classes.
In contrast, the education system in the United States is not nearly as LGBTQ+ friendly. Much like the repealed section 28 in the UK, seven U.S. states have anti-gay laws that explicitly prohibit the positive portrayal of homosexuality in schools. The laws, currently in effect in Alabama, Texas, Arizona, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisina, and Mississippi (Utah repealed its law in 2017), can have various negative effects on LGBTQ+ youth within the millions of public school students affected.
A report by GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ education advocacy group, found that LGBTQ+ students in these states were less likely to find peers that are accepting of their identities, more likely to hear homophobic remarks, and more likely to face harassment and assault at school because of their sexual orientation and/or gender expression. Schools in these states are also less likely to have teachers and administrators supportive of LGBTQ+ students, as well as fewer resources (like Gay-Straight Alliance clubs) and less health services inclusive of LGBTQ+ needs. While the exact laws differ in each state, advocates say they all function to further stigmatize lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students.
Scottish Deputy First Minister John Swinney said Thursday, "Our education system must support everyone to reach their full potential. That is why it is vital the curriculum is as diverse as the young people who learn in our schools."
"The recommendations I have accepted will not only improve the learning experience of our LGBTI young people, they will also support all learners to celebrate their differences, promote understanding and encourage inclusion," Swinney said.
The United States should take note of the progress being made by their allies across the pond.