A Sha Tin school sparked outrage this month when it demanded its teachers sign a ‘morality contract’ banning them from gay relationships and living together outside of marriage. Here former pupil Tiffany Ap reveals the scare tactics the International Christian School employed when teaching sex education.
I was fourteen years old when I sat in my high school's chapel, looking at a screen-projected photo of a sexually diseased penis. A mess of red, painful-looking, pus-filled spots, the infected organ was probably three feet in length across the projector screen. My fellow freshmen and I gasped, covering our mouths, some of us averting our eyes. Click. The next photo appeared, this time of a vagina with some equally grotesque STD - gonorrhea, syphillis, herpes - I can't remember which one now. After a few more of these photos, the talk ended and the student body filed somberly out.
I'm under no illusion that any school or family can say with a 100 per cent confidence that they do the birds and the bees talk perfectly but this was one of four, and only four, memories of sex education I received at the International Christian School in Hong Kong. Aside from this talk, which consisted mainly of scare tactics, the other three were 1) a talk from a Mother's Choice representative who told of her regrets at having an abortion, beseeching us not to do the same 2) a chapel talk [think a school-wide assembly] where we were passed little slips of paper asking us to pledge to remain virgins until marriage 3) a full-frontal birthing video in health class.
I graduated from ICS in 2005. Seeing that my conservative Christian and Chinese parents (talk about double whammy) never broached sex with me and the school didn’t offer much other than to dissuade us from engaging in any kind of sexual activity before marriage, I instead learned about sex through issues of Cosmo magazine, thinking the act of swapping bodily fluids consisted of Cirque du Soleil-worthy "52 moves to reach the big O", or the steamy snippets from Hollywoods films depicting a couple falling into bed, writhing in lustful abandon. It wasn't until much later that I figured out that girls did not "give away" sex to guys - it's an equal shared experience, one that doesn't involve "losing" something. Or about any kind of birth control method, and that an entire spectrum of sexual orientations exists from transsexuality, pansexuality, and asexuality.
So when my high school hit the news for a morality clause in the employment contracts of its teachers which bans any "un-Christian-like" behaviour - same-sex relationships, living with a partner before marriage, adultery - I was hardly surprised because when did they ever talk in depth about sex, be it gay, straight, or in any form, at all?
The ban on teachers in same-sex relationships in particular hit a nerve - igniting a firestorm of controversy within the school and its alumni community. A group of 35 alumni signed their names in a petition to the administration to express their disapproval of the policy:
Their letter reads:
“We are a community of self-organized ICS alumni. We are disappointed and disheartened by ICS's intolerant policies that discriminate based on sexual orientation. As students of ICS, we were taught inclusion, acceptance, and above all, love. We urge the administration to adopt employment and recruitment policies that are true to these same principles. As alumni, we would like to support an institution that adopts and employs policies expressing love, inclusion, and acceptance. We look forward to open dialogue, and partnering with ICS to revise and correct these policies.”
Discussions quickly sprang up on social media. On a closed Facebook group with more than 400 alumni members, essay after essay was posted arguing for either side.
One gay alumnus and former part-time ICS teacher wrote: “We should not be raising kids to think that the way God made them is not whole, to say we love you but we hate when you act like who you are. I know firsthand the despair of not being able to pray the gay away, the tears that fall during worship and the sinking depression that comes with having everyone around you say your options are: live your entire life as a lie, or go to hell. The idea that you can separate orientation and behavior is naïve and preposterous, a dangerous cop-out that has absolutely no grounding in reality”.
Another posted: “It distresses me to see in many of the preceding conversations the tendency to equate conservative Christian views regarding homosexuality to hate, ignorance and bigotry, and love, openness and compassion with the opposing view.”
Another: “I think the current China Daily article is persecution for ICS. They say we are marginalising homosexuals but we can say that they are marginalising Christians. Why can they not tolerate us when we do not feel that we should support them?”
And yet another: “ICS, as a Christian institution, has the right and prerogative to choose it's leadership according to Biblical principles, and hold them to Biblical standards. Practicing LGBT, or anyone sexually active outside of marriage, obviously still has some healing and growth to go through in their faith before they can be vetted for Christian leadership. I'm sure ICS does not love them as people any less, they just can't hold them up as examples to children whose parents chose to send them to ICS to gain a Biblical worldview.”
As I watched the internet threads explode with impassioned replies questioning concepts that many Christians have been brought up their entire lives to believe, I sat back wondering why this discussion was only reaching the ICS community now. Why was this not an open topic for discussion while we were still at high school, discovering our own bodies and sexuality for the first time? Granted it's been nearly 10 years since I was at ICS so I wanted to gauge what the culture around sex is like more recently. ICS headmaster John Nelson declined an interview so I checked with another alumnus who graduated in 2012.
Lisa [name has been changed to protect privacy] attended ICS from the first grade through to graduation. She says, “We had sex education in 5th grade and again in 10th grade through a mandatory health class. My teacher wasn’t as bad. He was very open about it. He told us about his relationship with his wife and encouraged us to ask questions.”
Seems like she'd been spared the diseased genitals session and much of the fear mongering I experienced. However, when it came to homosexuality, the topic was almost never discussed. “Homosexuality was very taboo. I have a friend and she was bisexual and was in a relationship with a girl. They definitely had to hide it. There was no one that was openly gay at our school,” she says. Some teachers really voiced out how they were against homosexuality, she adds.
That raises questions about what effect a ban on practicing gay teachers might have on students at the school that are gay. Estimates from the US National Bureau of Economic Research say that 20 per cent of the world’s population is gay. Given that ICS enrolled just under 1,200 pupils for the 2013-14 school year, in all probability, 240 students at the school identify as homosexual.
I reached out to David Poon who graduated ICS in 2004. Openly gay, he is now living in Toronto and engaged to his partner. He says going through ICS was a difficult and less than positive experience because of his sexuality.
"The reason why I commented on this [Facebook] group was because I think that a lot people don't recognise that there are higher incidents of suicide and mental health issues with LGBT youth. Unfortunately, what we say can contribute to suicidal behaviour. I think that's a point that a lot of people are missing when they're saying ICS doesn't have a reason to not be exclusionary. LGBT people are humans as well and the things we say can hurt other people."
Poon says he felt so alienated from the school that he didn’t attend his senior year camp because he “didn’t want to have anything more to do with ICS”. Whatever kids he may have in the future, they will not attend ICS, he says.
Although I do understand and agree with the school’s intention to have teachers be role models for the students, the moral contract - which aside from sexual immorality, forbids things like gambling and alcohol abuse - is problematic and nearly unenforceable. Would the school terminate the contract of a teacher who was found to be having an affair? If the adulterer asked for forgiveness, would that make a difference in his or her employment? If they relapsed into an affair or a kind of addiction, at what point does the school draw the line and deem that person unworthy to teach?
Worldwide the issue of homosexuality is something the church is deeply divided on. As an interdenominational Christian organisation, it makes some sense for ICS to stick to the most conservative line.
I feel torn writing this because I do think that ICS has much to offer parents and the kids that attend.
During my time, and even now as far as I can tell, the school is remarkably free from drugs and alcohol abuse - much more than its peer institutions. A Christian spirit of community keeps bullying to a minimum and it boasts a faculty that are, for the most part, truly caring and wonderful people who are dedicated to their students. Nearly a decade later and I still keep in touch with my old high school teachers and a number of classmates. I don’t think many people can say that about their high schools. I also have strong suspicions that the majority of Hong Kong educators do an abysmal job at sex education overall.
I’m not about to argue Christian apologetics on homosexuality but what I do know: whatever your belief on the matter, hiding your head in the sand is not a real way to approach the situation. ICS and no doubt a lot of other institutions - educational or Christian or both - should adapt a more open approach to discussing sex in all its orientations.