Plans to open the UK’s first specialist state school for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pupils fills me with horror. Amelia Lee, strategic director for the charity LGBT Youth North West, which has drawn up the plans, said: “This is about saving lives. Despite the laws that claim to protect gay people from homophobic bullying, the truth is that, in schools especially, bullying is still incredibly common and causes young people to feel isolated and alienated, which often leads to truanting and, in the worst-case scenarios, to suicide.”
There has been some fierce opposition, including from gay rights charity Stonewall itself. Other opponents have labelled the project an exercise in segregation that undermines rather than promotes tolerance.
A similar school, Harvey Milk, was established in New York in 2003, and there is little evidence that it’s been successful, with poor academic performance and decreasing enrolment since its inception. One of its key opponents is Jonathan Turley, a professor of constitutional law at George Washington University, with a long history of supporting gay rights. He said: “To simply remove the object of their prejudice does not deal with the underlying prejudice.”
Bullying is a serious, challenging issue, but removing potential victims from any setting will neither teach them the skills they require to become resilient, nor offer an opportunity for their peers to accept diversity.
There is a suggestion that many young people struggle with the idea of coming out; however, it’s fairly clear that they’d need to overcome that particular hurdle and probably feel very confident in their sexuality before even applying.
Differences should be celebrated within a supportive environment, and segregating minorities creates a sense of isolation rather than acceptance, a culture of separatism rather than integration. Segregation can become “ghettoisation”.
Providing only “like-minded” colleagues throughout secondary school creates a false sense of security, for one day every student will have to move on. It is important that they are able to develop support networks and coping mechanisms in the society in which they will live, a society that may not be as accepting or as easy to negotiate.
There is also the issue of identity and sexuality. Adolescence is an important time for the establishment of identity, and there can be a great deal of experimentation over this period. While many LGBT adults will have known about and accepted their sexuality or gender concerns in young adulthood or even earlier, there will be many more who will be unclear and perhaps waver with very normal, conflicted feelings. What happens if a child changes his or her mind? Should young people ever be labelled?
The authors of Sexual Identity Development among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths: Consistency and change over time note that: “Sexual identity formation takes time because many GLB youths may go through a period of sexual questioning, experimentation, and conflict before assuming and consistently self-identifying as GLB.”
Equally, it is natural (and, indeed, a stage of sexual development) for adolescents to have strong feelings towards members of the same sex regardless of their sexual orientation. Furthermore, much research suggests that young people may elect to identify with a sexual orientation label that is more closely aligned with her or his behavioural experiences, rather than sexual attraction or desire. Diamond (2008) says: “As a result, it is both possible and likely for sexual identity to be altered over the life course as shifts in awareness, understanding and experience occur.”
What is required is tolerance – of experimentation, changing feelings, decisions and choices made – within schools that support every minority equally. What has to be eradicated is bullying – of every nature – not sub-sections of a school population.
Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email firstname.lastname@example.org