The charity Stonewall paints a sombre picture of help available for young people who want to come out about their sexuality while still at school.
They say homophobic bullying remains rife and too many victims say that teachers and schools do not intervene. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Stonewall says that the experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people differ greatly but that they have the same needs as any other young person – they want to feel included and supported.
A spokesman told SecEd: “They also need information relevant to them which enables them to make safe choices, but four in five gay young people do not have access in school to resources that can help them.
“Lesbian, gay and bisexual young people also need positive role models and it is important they are able to meet other gay young people their age.
“They should be able to be themselves without fear of homophobic bullying. When gay young people are being taught positively about lesbian and gay issues in the curriculum they are 60 per cent more likely to be happy at school.”
Janet Gordon explained the great support that her 14-year-old son’s school provided when “after an emotional rollercoaster”, he decided he wanted to come out. She explained: “He was allocated a mentor that he could speak to at any time. We were referred to a family counsellor whom my son saw at school and we also saw her together as a family.
“My son was offered lots of advice and support and we were given lots of literature and directed to numerous websites which included positive role models where we could read up on how to deal with all of our feelings.”
Janet confides that in the lead up to coming out at school, her son self-harmed because he was worried about how to tell people he was gay and what their reactions to him would be.
“This was obviously very upsetting and traumatic for all of us, but again the school was extremely supportive.”
In the end, Janet said that her son did not encounter the prejudice he so feared: “My son decided he wanted to be open and honest with all of his friends about his sexuality and had no problem telling them he was gay. All of his friends supported him and there was no real issues following him coming out.”
She warns, however, that teachers must take students seriously: “Early teens are a common age to become aware of your sexuality. And while to a grown-up it may seem too young, to the teenager it’s not an easy thing to admit, and if they do, I can only admire them for having the courage to speak up.
“Teachers should be there to listen and take teenagers seriously. The teachers and support staff at my son’s school couldn’t have done any more to support him. They were absolutely amazing.
“Although my son has now confided he’s gay, it’s not something we, or his teachers or friends now talk about that much.
“Right now he is focused on studying hard and getting through his GCSEs. He’s recognised how he feels about relationships but it’s not something that remains a complete focus – and to us, that’s how it should be.”
It is encouraging to hear of such a difficult time being turned around. For Stewart Addison, now 19, memories of secondary school are not so positive.
He explained: “It was a time where you really questioned your identity. Understanding sexuality was difficult. We were never told or taught much about self-identity, sexuality, or same-sex relationships so I found I had to work through all of that on my own, with no real understanding.
“There wasn’t anyone around who wasn’t an authoritative teacher figure. Due to the emotional pressures of trying to work out who I was, I became quite rebellious. I was often suspended from school which created additional barriers to seeking support from school staff.”
He added: “Because of this I never felt confident enough to come out at school.”
Former lecturer and trainer Andrew Ellery has contributed to programmes helping teachers get to grips with the best way forward in helping young people who feel scared or isolated.
He says that there is now a bigger emphasis on equality and diversity within the education system and young people are growing up in a much more liberal society.
However, he added: “There is still a lot of discrimination and oppression that needs challenging, but ultimately topics and social issues are becoming less taboo.
“Inevitably, some difficulties remain the same if you are in the process of questioning your sexuality. Trying to work out one’s sexual identity, then working it out, but still being told it’s just a phase is frustrating.
“Whoever said that sexuality needs to be rigid? Does it matter if it is ‘just a phase’? The emotions and confusion remain the same. Young people face bullying in all its forms. They don’t know who they can talk to. It’s not as straightforward as trying to categorise yourself as lesbian, gay, or bisexual.
“You question everything from your own gender, whether you have problems with self-esteem, or think it may be a phase or down to hormones. You even wonder if you are abnormal. All those things go through your head.”
Mr Ellery explains that because children build such strong friendship groups at school, the idea of coming out can be especially frightening.
“We often hear about people disapproving of someone else’s sexuality. Imagine being a teenager, where relationships are the most important thing in your life, and thinking that being lesbian, gay or bisexual could destroy all your relationships.
“In schools, there’s still an emphasis on traditional families with a mum and dad. So, if I was a teenager and I thought or knew I was sexually attracted to the same sex, I’d be asking myself am I not normal? Does it mean I can’t have a family? Does it mean I am different in a negative way? Teenagers question everything.”
Mr Ellery points out that if you don’t know who to trust, behavioural difficulties may quickly kick in.
He added: “At this point you may easily be labelled as disruptive, and often face consequences for the behaviour rather than safe opportunities to explore the cause.”
He has the following advice for secondary school teachers to help support pupils coming out as gay.
Challenge oppressive language
Gay means homosexual, it does not mean something is stupid, idiotic or rubbish. If a young person thinks they are gay, and continuously hears the word gay being used so negatively, it is quite obvious how they may feel towards themselves.
When discussing family units, we must emphasise that families are not all constructed the same. Role models or celebrity personalities used within teaching resources should represent the diversity of the community the school serves and challenge social stigma, stereotypes and discrimination.
Include sexuality awareness into citizenship classes. Teaching and non-teaching staff should also receive training in sexuality awareness.
Young people are often ready for a really dramatic journey once they come out. Showing acceptance and empathy for their journey to that point is essential.
If a young person does come out to you, explore their emotions and what they have been thinking. Spend time with them in a relatively natural manner.
If counselling is offered it must come with a clear explanation that it is not being gay or a questioning of sexuality that needs counselling – it is to help work through emotions.
Unless a young person feels they will be accepted, they are unlikely to speak up about their thoughts or feelings. Creating an inclusive culture among students, staff and parents will make young people feel more comfortable sooner, rather than struggling in isolation.
It takes a lot of guts for a young person to open up about their sexuality. Offering time and an understanding of the journey they have been on emotionally is important.
Homophobic bullying should be clearly written within anti-bullying policies. Along with racial discrimination, it is a form of hate crime.
Protect the confidentiality of young people. Struggling with sexuality is a really challenging time. Pupils need time and reassurance that it is safe to come out themselves.
Understand a young person’s culture if they are nervous about coming out. They could be at risk if they are outed by peers or come out themselves. Remember, sexuality isn’t the risk but prejudice and ignorance are.
Mr Ellery adds that he would like to see a celebration of Gay History Month in the same way that Black History Month is already marked.
Overall, as Janet and her son’s experience shows, he says many schools are really doing their best.
“It is tough because gender and sexuality is so personal. It is not a topic to be feared,” he explained.
“There are community groups that young people can be pointed to. And teachers do an incredible job supporting young people where often other services fail to respond.”
Linda Aitchison is a writer and journalist.