The visibility of LGBT+ identities in school

Written by: Lauren Weller | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The visibility of LGBT+ identities in school can often be poor, yet this is also an area in which small changes can have a profound impact. Lauren Weller explains

“There was absolutely no information on LGBT issues at all. It was shocking, as though we didn’t exist.” Jake, 18

Visibility matters. That is the message that comes from the LGBT+ community again and again – representation of LGBT+ people and relationships promotes acceptance within our communities and reaffirms confidence in their own identity.

For young people, school is one of the most significant communities they inhabit and when LGBT+ people are invisible there, it creates an environment in which homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying can thrive. When it does, name-calling, the casual use of “that’s so gay”, threats and isolation can make school an unhappy and unproductive experience for anyone singled out as being “different”.

Over the past two years, the Government Equalities Office has funded the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) to support schools to prevent and tackle HBT bullying through our Learn Equality, Live Equal programme. More than 300 schools have taken part and made their school a more inclusive environment.

Schools started by carrying out an audit to identify their strengths and weaknesses in addressing HBT bullying. Visibility of LGBT+ people and relationships was one of the weakest areas, with just 12 per cent of schools agreeing that “Diverse families and LGBT role models are visible throughout the school” and only 10 per cent agreeing that “LGBT equality is celebrated and events are used to raise awareness of the impact of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia”.

However, this was also an area in which many schools were able to implement small changes, quickly, with a profound impact.

One teacher described how just displaying one of Stonewall’s “Some People are Gay. Get Over It” posters outside her office resulted in numerous students popping in to thank her, including one who said it had given him the courage to come out at home.

We encouraged schools to carry out an “environment walk” looking for representations of LGBT+ people and for explicit messages that tell students that bullying isn’t tolerated and diversity is celebrated.

The digital environment is just as important, as well as communications channels such as assemblies and newsletters. Schools that involved other people, such as pupils, governors and staff, were able to build the most complete picture of what the school environment was saying about LGBT+ inclusion.

Of equal importance is visibility in the curriculum. The Sex Education Forum advocates a holistic, planned approach that ensures LGBT+ inclusion across the curriculum, but it is important to know there are quick wins too that can have an immediate impact.

Many of the schools we worked with highlighted fiction books featuring LGBT+ characters and experiences and used library displays or recommended reading lists to share titles with students.

Another easy way to create visibility in any subject is to draw attention to prominent LGBT+ figures in that discipline – some examples used by schools were Alan Turing in computing, Nicola Adams in PE, and Jack Monroe in food technology or cooking and nutrition.

Visibility of same-sex relationships and trans identities is particularly important in relationships and sex education (RSE). Those delivering RSE can set a clear example to students by using inclusive language, which does not make assumptions about gender or sexual orientation – think of saying “partner” rather than “boyfriend/girlfriend”, as an example.

It can be easy to make tweaks to existing RSE provision to make it inclusive, but this is an area where many teaching staff lack confidence. The updated government guidance on RSE and health education – which will be finalised next year – looks set to make LGBT+ inclusive approaches an expectation, and this guidance will be statutory in all schools by 2020. Now is a good time to review your provision and seek further support.

Learn Equality, Live Equal was delivered in partnership by the Anti-Bullying Alliance and Sex Education Forum (both part of the NCB) and EACH (Education Challenging Homophobia).

To help you start making changes in your school we have collected images, resources and inspirational ideas from the schools that we have worked with and gathered them on our Virtual Display Board, launching in January 2019. Sign up for free updates from the Anti-Bullying Alliance and Sex Education Forum to be notified when it launches.

  • Lauren Weller is development officer for the Learn Equality, Live Equal programme at National Children’s Bureau.

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