Dealing with homophobia and discrimination

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Alex Wood discusses discrimination against LGBT young people in Scotland, which research has shown is more common than elsewhere in the UK.

LGBT Youth Scotland recently undertook a survey on life in Scotland for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people. It revealed that LGBT young people identified education as the environment where they faced the most discrimination.

The survey follows a similar exercise by Stonewall, the UK lesbian, gay and bisexual charity. The LGBT report indicates that 69 per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct homophobic bullying, an even worse scenario than in the UK as whole – where Stonewall found this figure to be 55 per cent. Furthermore:

  • Three in five gay pupils who experience homophobic bullying say that witnessing teachers never intervene.

  • Only half of gay pupils report that their schools say homophobic bullying is wrong, even fewer (37 per cent) in faith schools.

The power of these reports rests, however, not on statistics, but on the narratives of young people. Olivia, 18, said: “I tried coming out as bisexual at 16 to everyone, but all throughout class I got chants of ‘bi-bi’ being thrown at me, thinking they were funny. The teacher was right there and never said a word.”

While Adam, 16, explained: “During a holiday with the school, an older boy decided after someone else said I was gay to pretend to have sex with me. People who I thought were my friends found this funny which I found betraying and devastating.”

And Sadie, now 19, told researchers: “We were told that homosexuality was a sin, disgusting and unnatural, in our religious education classes.”

The resulting misery is potentially fatal – 23 per cent of LGBT teenagers have attempted suicide. A former student of mine from 30 years ago, now openly gay, said that he could not have come out at a school where he was bullied because of a physical disability and his love of singing. He could not imagine his peers’ reaction to his being gay. He saw teachers as ineffective, at best, and as often undermining the confidence of gay pupils.

One of my more recent former pupils had a different experience: “When I was at school I was only aware of two senior students who were ‘rumoured’ to be gay or bisexual. There was quite a negative attitude among some of my peers but not openly aggressive. I didn’t feel comfortable at school to come out. I wasn’t aware of any gay teachers and didn’t feel safe enough, not because of the teachers or the environment but because it was never really mentioned or discussed so there was a feeling of ‘would it be okay?’.”

One principal teacher of guidance believed there was an inability (or unwillingness) on some teachers’ parts to challenge the casual use of “gay” as an insult. Until this is routinely picked up, it will continue to be seen more widely as acceptable. That issue of homophobic insults and how teachers deal with them was also raised by my recent former pupil, himself now a teacher.

He said: “I’ve heard language like ‘you’re so gay’ in my classroom and deal with it quite swiftly. I’ve had one pupil come to see me to tell me he’s bisexual. He said he felt safe telling me. I asked why he didn’t feel safe with other teachers and he said some don’t do anything if name calling happens.

However, he is confident enough to discuss his sexuality with peers.” In other words, challenging the name-calling has other positive side-effects.

Another colleague caught the cultural complexities. “One of the most difficult things for LGBT pupils and teachers is the assumption that all of life is straight. One of my gay students a year ago said that she did not know how to respond to assumptions that she was straight – conversations about boyfriends, children, etc.”

My former pupil from 30 years ago noted improvements. “I do believe that attitudes towards the LGBT community are changing, but not quickly enough.” 

The Stonewall report noted improvements since 2007:

  • Homophobic bullying of young people has decreased from 65 to 55 per cent.

  • Twice as many gay pupils report their schools stating homophobic bullying is wrong.

  • The number of gay pupils unable to speak out when they are bullied has fallen from 58 to 37 per cent.

Several teachers also confirmed the small but significant recent improvements. One told me: “I do agree that schools are becoming more supportive of gay pupils and are challenging homophobia more. I’m happy to discuss issues around being gay as they come up in my classroom and I always challenge any homophobic language being used, such as “that’s gay” to mean rubbish.”

Teachers also suggested that attitudes to masculinity were changing. “If boys see a range of behaviours being acceptable for them to display, being gay isn’t something so open to ridicule. We teach a lot of dance at our school and have an S2 boy in the dance club which our pupils happily accept.

“We were horrified when visiting primary pupils watching a dance rehearsal shouted abuse at him and called him a poof. On a positive note one of the deputes had stern words with the whole primary group about this and our own pupils really rallied around the pupil, saying ‘we’ll show them how to behave when they come up in August!’.”

That same colleague however posed a bigger dilemma for teachers. “I think it’s also vital that gay staff members are visible in schools, and this is where I have to take a big gulp. “I haven’t been aware of any gay staff who were open about this to pupils in any of the four schools in which I’ve taught and I’ve never directly outed myself to pupils.

“Having said that, I’d never lie about being gay. I knew that a lot of the kids at my former school knew, thanks to the rumour mill, but none ever gave me a hard time. I just couldn’t bring myself to say it directly, which I regret now.”

Perhaps the best indication that the world is changing for the better is the recent publication by the Scottish government of a toolkit for teachers on Dealing with Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying in Scottish Schools. Packed with strategies which have been tried in schools, it offers teachers a range of approaches which have worked.

The same-sex marriage proposals have re-opened public discussion. Comments about “grotesque subversions” may well reignite prejudice against the gay community, including gay teenagers. It becomes even more vital for schools to exercise a vigilant duty of care for all pupils.

If homophobia is treated with the same rigour as racism, if schools publicly commit to an equalities agenda which explicitly includes LGBT young people and if homophobic bullying is addressed openly and decisively, life may start to improve for young people who are currently being hurt, damaged and demeaned in school – one place in which all young people should feel safe and secure.

  • Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in SchoolAdministration at Edinburgh University.

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