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Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 14:01 GMT
Dome's 'Gay Day' puts off more schools
At least four schools have now cancelled trips to the Millennium Dome after learning they would coincide with visits by large groups of gay men and lesbians.
An unofficial "Gay Day" event is being held at the Greenwich attraction on Saturday.
It is being promoted by the London Gay Men's Chorus, which is performing at the Dome.
The chorus is calling for lesbians and gay men from across Britain to "turn the Dome pink".
They are being encouraged to wear rainbow-coloured items of clothing so they can be easily identified, and one large group of visitors is planning to wear T-shirts bearing the slogan "Domosexual".
After hearing about the event, the schools called off their visits because they do not feel the atmosphere would be suitable for their pupils.
Andrew Baker, head teacher of Westcliff High School for Boys in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, has made an official complaint to the company running the Dome, the New Millennium Experience Company (NMEC), because he is angry the school was not informed of the event.
The other schools known to have cancelled their trips are St John's C of E School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Monkton Combe Junior School in Bath, and Hatch End High School in north-west London.
Mr Baker says he believed his pupils, aged between 11 and 13, might have been bewildered and unsettled to find homosexuality being paraded openly.
"I didn't think it was right for the school to be responsible for exposing young pupils between the ages of 11 and 13 to that kind of experience without their parents' full agreement.
"It's one thing for parents to make that decision, but quite another for the school to make it on their behalf.
"I understand that there will be thousands of homosexuals who will be dressed distinctively and will be easily identifiable. Some pupils may find this bewildering, and some may find it profoundly unsettling."
He added that he had written to parents to tell them about the cancellation of the visit, and that they had been "wholly supportive".
The schools' decisions come at a time when a fierce debate is raging over the government's moves to repeal the controversial Section 28 ban on local authorities promoting homosexuality.
While opponents of Section 28 say it encourages homophobic bullying, its supporters say it protects children from homosexual propaganda.
Mr Baker, whose school was on Tuesday named as an "outstanding" secondary school in the Office for Standards in Education's annual report for the second consecutive year, said he was "totally opposed" to moves to repeal the ban.
"I don't think that schools or local authorities ought to be given the opportunity in law to promote homosexuality.
"It's not for me to have a personal view, this is in my capacity as headmaster of a school.
"I don't believe it is right for a school to promote homosexual relationships as morally equal to heterosexual relationships."
Chris Stafford, headmaster of Monkton Combe Junior School, insisted that in cancelling its visit to the Dome, the school was not being homophobic. He said there was a difference between homophobia and moral guidance.
"Deliberately taking children into an uncontrolled situation is likely to prompt very difficult questions from children who are far too young to understand the answers.
"The older children will undoubtedly be embarrassed by what they will certainly witness."
A spokeswoman for the NMEC said the performance by the London Gay Men's Chorus was not a scheduled event.
"The chorus performed at the opening celebrations on New Year's Eve. They enjoyed the experience and wanted to perform again."
She said the Gay Day event had not been "officially endorsed" by the company, but said that anyone was welcome to visit the Dome.
"Anyone can buy tickets, regardless of their race, colour, creed or sexual preference.
"However we understand it's a sensitive issue, and we want to keep everyone happy."
A NMEC spokesman later said that the company was contacting all schools booked to visit the Dome on Saturday to inform them about the event.
If they were not happy with the situation, they would be offered the chance to move their visit to another date, or cancel their tickets and receive a full refund.
The same offer would be made to any members of the public who contacted the Dome because they had bought tickets to visit on Saturday, but no longer wanted to do so.
Steve Bustin, chairman of the London Gay Men's Chorus, said he had no idea how many gay men and lesbians would visit the Dome on the day, but expected it would be "quite a lot".
"We're very sorry the schools feel like this, but we're sure they will enjoy the Dome whatever day they decide to visit.
"The Dome is about the multi-faceted nature of our society - a tolerant society as we enter the 21st century.
"It's the schools' decision. The Dome is much busier at weekends, so weekdays are better for school trips anyway."
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