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Homophobia in schools: the last taboo

“I’ve been stabbed because of my sexuality.”

This pupil is one of thousands of victims of homophobic bullying in schools across the UK. Almost two thirds of young people, in the gay community, experience bullying in secondary schools. The charitable organisation Stonewall, which lends support to the gay community, found that homophobic bullying, after taunting because of weight, is the most frequent form of abuse in secondary schools. It is three times more prevalent than bullying due to religion or ethnicity. Unfortunately, a culture of homophobia exists in many school environments and this creates problems for young people trying to come to terms with their sexuality.

Previous poster campaign by Stonewall. Image courtesy of Stonewall.org.uk

Stonewall carried out studies in 2006 and 2009 on the issue of homophobic bullying in UK schools and published The Student’s Report and The Teacher’s Report, respectively. The first report found that of those who have been bullied, 92 per cent have been subjected to verbal abuse, 41 per cent to physical abuse and 17 per cent have received death threats. This treatment is not limited to young gay people. The Teacher’s Report found that nine in ten secondary school teachers say pupils experience name-calling and homophobic bullying at school, regardless of their sexual orientation. “I was not aware of my sexuality at the time and girls called me lesbian and bullied me severely and made me depressed and suicidal.” As this girl’s experience shows, homophobic bullying has an enormous impact on young people’s self-esteem and their sense of belonging in their school community. Many of these young people are unaware of their own sexual feelings or have still to ‘come out’ to their friends and family. Often they feel alone when they are bullied because of their sexuality, which can lead to further feelings of isolation.

Many young people have also experienced sexual abuse because they are gay, like this pupil in Yorkshire: “The worst experience I had was a straight lad coming to sit next to me and touching my leg to wind me up. It was an invasion of personal space and very intimidating.” These forms of bullying are serious issues, which need to be addressed. They violate the basic human rights of the young people who experience them first hand as well as having a considerable impact on their wellbeing.

It is perhaps surprising with the amount of gay celebrities that are admired and respected in our society that this kind of behaviour still exists among young people. It seems that homophobia is rife in many schools across the UK. This is in part due to insufficient policies on homophobic bullying within schools. Nearly every school has an anti-bullying policy but less than half of them specifically address homophobic bullying. Of those that do have policies on this issue, only half of teachers say that these provisions are publicised and promoted to pupils. Over 94 per cent of staff do not receive proper training for dealing with homophobic bullying and only 7 per cent of teachers are reported to respond when they witness it. One student found no help when he reported an incident to a teacher. “The last person I told about homophobic behaviour was my drama teacher who was as much help as a chocolate fireguard.”

Another reason for the prevalence of homophobia in schools is the lack of education regarding gay issues. Three quarters of pupils who experience bullying say that they have never seen lesbian and gay issues addressed in class. Often the information that is provided about sexual orientation can be misleading and lead to further bullying: “PHSE was about AIDS- the teacher didn’t contradict that it was a ‘gay disease’ and implied what gay men did in bed was disgusting.”

LGBT Youth in Scotland is one of many organisations that work with schools to educate students properly about gay and lesbian issues. Nigel Chipps is the Youth Community Development Officer for Edinburgh and the Lothians and he has been running workshops in several schools across Edinburgh for five years. Some of the schools that participate in these workshops include North Berwick High School, George Heriot’s School, and Loretto. “The workshops contain a lot of fun exercises”, Nigel says. “We talk about famous lesbian, gay and bisexual celebrities and talk about perception. If we think people look a certain way they project a particular image.” The workshops often vary depending on the age group, with different issues being highlighted in each case. The main aim of these sessions is to generate discussion about gay issues and give pupils the opportunity to ask questions. “I always go back to the key fact”, Nigel states. “ One in ten gay young people have a higher mental health risk and a higher suicide risk than others.” This statistic highlights the importance of the work being done by LGBT Youth Scotland and Stonewall to combat homophobic bullying in schools. “Changing the whole school culture is important”, advises Nigel. “It is an equality issue and about being fair and just.”

This form of education seems to be working. Pupils who have been taught in a positive way about lesbian and gay issues are 60 per cent more likely to feel happy and accepted at school and 40 per cent more likely to feel respected. They are more likely to feel safe at school and part of their school community. They also feel more confident in talking to an adult at school about being gay. This Scottish student talks about the stance in his school: “There is always someone you can talk to about [bullying] who will take you seriously. If you are being bullied then it is taken seriously and action is immediately taken.” It is possible to tackle homophobic bullying through initiatives like these and Stonewall’s Education Champions programme. Without such interventions bullying will continue to be a serious problem in schools across the UK and could lead to negative consequences for young people in the gay community. Every child has the right to feel safe at school and this should not be compromised because of their sexual orientation.


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