Colette Bernhardt meets the youth group with a hands-on approach to homophobia in schools.
“There’s no way I would have come out at school – I would have been beaten up.”
Twenty-three-year-old Stuart’s words ring true for many of us, particularly if you were at school before the repeal of Section 28 in 2003.
Even now the infamous piece of legislation that prohibited “the promotion of homosexuality” has been revoked, there remains no statutory requirement for teachers to address the subject of sexual orientation with their pupils.
For those brave enough to do so, a lack of official guidelines makes the task all the more daunting.
With discussion of sexual diversity so limited, many LGBT pupils are still reluctant to come out at school.
Staying in the closet can seem preferable to facing taunts, sniggering, and in some cases, physical abuse.
But a Brighton-based youth organisation is trying to change all that.
Allsorts Youth Project, a service established in 1999 for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and unsure people under 26, has been running Homophobia Awareness workshop in schools and colleges since 2002.
Project staff devised the workshops after hearing constant reports of bullying and harassment from their weekly drop-in users, Stuart included.
“It became clear that a longer term solution was needed,” explains volunteering development worker Marianne Lemond.
“We wanted to play a part in preventing homophobia from happening in the first place, rather than just picking up the pieces afterwards.”
With support from Volunteering England, formerly the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, Allsorts began to deliver its thought-provoking sessions at teaching and anti-bullying conferences, as well as academic institutions.
Participants, usually in groups of 10 to 25, explore issues such as use of language, safety, and gay representation in the media.
It was this opportunity to get people thinking and to “make a difference” that drew volunteer George Duncan to the project.
“I myself was badly bullied at school, so it’s great to now be involved in something as ground-breaking as this,” he explains.
Allsorts is by no means the only organisation tackling homophobia in schools.
Schools Out has campaigned on the issue since 1974, and Stonewall plans this year to send its educational DVD about homophobia, Spell It Out, to every school in Britain.
But the youth project’s approach is unique for actually involving its young members in the running of workshops.
Called ‘peer educators,’ they bring a relevant and ‘real’ perspective to sessions by presenting pupils with someone close to their age who is out and proud about their LGBT identity.
It’s an opportunity to dispel stereotypes – “the students soon see that there is no screaming or running around with feather boas” jokes one staff member – and to answer any questions participants may have about the young person’s experiences.
“I get asked everything, from how I first knew, to what my parents think, to whether I want to get married or adopt kids,” says 21-year-old Sam Thomas, a peer educator for Allsorts since 2005.
Returning to a potentially hostile educational environment to discuss one’s sexuality with a gang of teenagers would terrify most of us, but Sam’s outlook is remarkably mature and cool-headed.
“I do get nervous sometimes, but on the whole it’s been a really good experience and it’s built my confidence enormously.
“Yes, some students are homophobic, but as you talk to the group and answer their questions you find you are opening people’s minds and making them think in new ways.”
Enlightening activities include a stereotyping exercise, where participants consider statements such as “Most lesbians have short hair and look like men” and “gay men are all sex mad,” before placing themselves in front of signs ranging from ‘strongly agree’ to ‘strongly disagree.’
Students then discuss the reasons for their choices, and lively debate inevitably ensues.
Another task asks participants to brainstorm all the positive and negative adjectives they can think of to describe LGBT people, before comparing them to adjectives for heterosexuals.
There’s also discussion of how the apparently harmless phrase “that’s so gay” might make LGBT (or unsure) students feel.
But the exercise that proves most popular is “Question Time,” when students can ask the facilitators anything they like by anonymously placing questions in an envelope to be opened and answered in front of the group.
The anonymity gives participants the courage to ask questions on a whole range of issues, from serious topics such as adoption, to more frivolous enquiries like “Why do gay people like dancing to Abba?”
It’s not just peer educators and LGBT students who are empowered by the workshops.
James Newton, co-founder of Allsorts, points out that “perpetrators of homophobic abuse are also victims of homophobia.”
Challenging their prejudices is crucial.
“In a world that is increasingly aware of the rights of minority groups, people who retain homophobic attitudes are likely to find more and more social and career opportunities closed to them,” he explains.
Indeed, many workshop participants report a positive attitude change by the end of the session, with evaluation forms featuring comments like “made me realise gay people are normal” and “it helped to understand the feelings of my gay friend.”
Some students – as well as teachers – have even expressed a desire for follow-up sessions.
“It is important to keep going with this type of project – please come back and do some more!” responded one tutor, while a male pupil felt “it could have lasted longer.”
Extending workshop time is just one of Allsorts’ goals for the future.
Other aims include taking the sessions to schools and colleges in more deprived areas, and delivering to pupils below Year 10 (aged under 14).
“Homophobia starts at an early age,” points out Marianne Lemond, “so younger children would really benefit.”
What is clear is that Allsorts’ workshops are already having a big impact on the young people who attend them, whether facilitators or students, straight or LGBT.
By generating discussion around the issue of sexuality, the project is creating a much-needed openness and understanding among the next generation.
“Hopefully they’ll continue the conversation with friends and family,” says George Duncan. “That’s what’s so exciting about our work – it sends ripples into the wider community.”
For further information, go to www.allsortsyouth.org.uk or phone 01273 721211.