Life at school can be tough. Add being LGBTQ into the mix, and there is the recipe for trauma, bullying and exclusion.
I didn’t experience homophobic bullying at school because I was so far in the closet I may as well have been in Narnia, but that was a long time ago, and I still suffered due to the complete lack of acknowledgement that sexual and gender diversity even existed. It’s thought to be easier for gay kids nowadays, but recent research by TIE suggests that that is not necessarily the case for Scottish school children.
In TIE’s survey, the organisation found that 90% of LGBT respondents reported having experienced homophobia, biphobia or transphobia while at school, and 64% said they had been bullied because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Perhaps most alarmingly, these rates of prejudice and bullying are making an impression on the mental health of LGBT young people going through the educational system: 27% have attempted suicide at least once and 45% have self-harmed regularly as a result of bullying. 95% of LGBT respondents believed that being bullied has had long-lasting negative effects on them.
Of course, this is not unique to Scotland. LGBT kids around the world can have a terrible time in educational settings when the issues are not addressed, are ignored, or are perpetuated by discriminatory laws and prejudiced teachers in their schools.
So, when I asked LGBT contacts what would have made their lives easier at school (threads here and here), I was expecting complex answers to what is a very complex issue. Instead, what I heard was remarkably simple. Advice from LGBTQ organisations is also straightforward. Here’s what modern schools need to do:
1. Acknowledge that LGBT+ identities exist
Sometimes, the simplest advice is the most effective. A great deal of LGBT people find that there is no acknowledgement from teachers or their syllabus that their identity even exists; they feel invisible and excluded.
In the UK, Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 banned the promotion of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” and was in place until successful campaigns got it repealed in 2000. The result was a generation of children educated in schools that were so scared of breaking this Conservative law that they closed down supportive groups and were afraid to even tackle homophobic bullying. Since its repeal, Section 28 still has an unspoken presence in many educational and local government environments, where its historic power still echoes.
The acknowledgement that LGBT identities not only exist but do not involve any ‘pretence’ in terms of family relationships is, therefore, an important message all schools need to reinforce, not shy away from.
2. Recognise that those identities exist within the school community
Taking it one step further, acknowledging that LGBT identities exist, and acknowledging that some of the students, parents and school staff are part of the LGBT community is important; some people report that their schools said ‘being gay is ok’ but didn’t ever recognise that real people were actually part of that group. It was an issue of principle, not of real life.
3. Train teachers in LGBTQ issues
TIE’s survey found that 80% of teachers felt they had not been adequately trained on how to tackle homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in school, and 75% had never received any specific training on LGBT issues. If teachers don’t feel confident in their own knowledge of sensitive issues, they will struggle to address them adequately with their children. It may not occur to a cisgender, heterosexual teacher that others in their school are not the same, but good training should equip them with that information.
4. Create educational programmes for children and young people
A primary (elementary) school teacher suggested to me that including more stories and books about diverse families with LGBT characters could play an important role in encouraging acceptance from children from a very young age. Additionally, a high school PSHE (personal, social and health education) teacher told me that she involves pupils in lesson planning around LGBT issues, finding out what they want to know before starting.
She went on to say, “When we do sex education, we’re careful to include different sexualities when we’re talking about relationships. Resources we use always include different sexualities (so we talk about teen relationship abuse for example, and case studies always include different sexualities). So, for one example we would talk about Alison’s boyfriend, for another we’d talk about Pete’s boyfriend.”
Some of the people who spoke to me on Twitter wanted better education around female sexuality in particular, including information on pleasure and safer sex in same-sex relationships. Avoiding the assumption that all sex will be penis-in-vagina sex, especially with regard to sexual health, is a basic requirement that is often not met.
5. Challenge assumptions
As in the rest of life, many LGBT pupils are assumed to be heterosexual and cisgender at school. One former schoolmate of mine told me how damaging this assumption had been for him, both because nobody had addressed his own sexuality while we were at school, and because he, too, had assumed he was the only gay kid around. Just as I had.
When teachers assume that their female pupils will go on to marry a man, or that their kids’ parents are a heterosexual couple, this silences and excludes LGBT pupils (and those with LGBT parents or family members) in a way that can be profoundly detrimental to somebody’s identity and sense of wellbeing. Teachers should lead the way in being open with their language and assumptions, so that others can learn from them.
6. Address bullying
LGBTQ pupils can be bullied directly because they are perceived or known to be different in some way. They can also suffer when generic homophobic, biphobic and transphobic views are expressed, including using language like “that’s so gay!” to describe something negative.
Just as many schools need to up their game on addressing bullying at all, their approach to addressing LGBT-phobic bullying often leaves a lot to be desired. It is vital that it is addressed directly by knowledgeable and sensitive teachers and policies, with a strong commitment to eliminating discriminatory bullying.
In a society where grown adults are willing to lose their job rather than watch a video about diversity, winning the fight in schools to educate and support children to treat their peers with more compassion and understanding is an important one. As these six steps show, it’s not rocket science, and young LGBTQ people aren’t asking for the world. Small changes can make an enormous difference, and schools with positive practices already in place are to be praised, even – or especially – amidst condemnation from more discriminatory forces.
Photo: Bev Sykes/Creative Commons