Suran Dickson, a London teacher, argues that education is the key to dispelling homophobia. She visits schools in the capital to speak to students about homophobia and open up debate.
I’m not known for being a pessimist but I can’t help feeling dejected about the secondary school response in my borough to LGBT History Month.
While I applaud the efforts of groups like Schools Out to promote the month, I have seen little other than the odd pamphlet hastily pinned to a staff notice board. I ventured into many schools and spoke to contacts in most, including the anti-bullying coordinator for the borough.
Only one school was covering homophobia in PSHE lessons. But for the vast majority, there were no ‘Some People Are Gay’ posters, no takers for the free training offered by the council and certainly no celebration assemblies.
I’d love to be proven wrong; I’d love to discover that schools are dealing with homophobia quietly, without fanfare or drum beating, but judging by the teachers’ responses who work in these schools, I don’t think so.
A visit to a primary school (where I least expected to see any work on LGBT issues) finally gave me hope. Walking into one classroom I found children laboriously colouring in posters proclaiming ‘It’s OK to be different’. The images were of multi-racial families, those with no mum or two dads, short, fat or bespectacled kids and even a prone mother clutching a bottle of wine.
Upon questioning, they explained their scenarios and one student actually announced that it was gay history month – the first time in years I’ve heard any child within school boundaries use the word ‘gay’ to mean something other than ‘complete sh*te’.
This classroom was a microcosm of a typical UK city in 2009; a mélange of complexions, religions, and abilities, children from broken and unbroken homes, refugees and more than likely a few who will grow up to be gay. They were only eight years old and living proof that there is no point in hiding the true facts of life from kids; they are ensconced in them from the moment they’re born.
My concern is that aside from a few brave boundary-pushers (such as the staff at Stoke Newington School), true tackling of homophobia and even the mere broaching of homosexuality in secondary schools appears to be absent.
One secondary teacher said nobody felt comfortable taking responsibility for such a contentious issue. Another commented that although there were quite a few gay and lesbian staff members, and everybody seemed happy to talk openly in the staffroom, nobody would talk to the kids.
Undoubtedly, those who do choose to challenge homophobia are likely to face overt questions about their own sexuality, not to mention judgments by peers, parents and students alike. Bullying, in its multiple forms, takes us back to the school yard, especially if it tickles at the scars of our own experiences.
For the gay teacher, hearing a homophobic jibe or the eternally popular ‘that’s so gay’ brings about that rising flush, paranoid thoughts (‘are they talking about me…I have to do something about this…what do I say without having them turn on me?’). The paranoia goes hand in hand with Sudden Onset Disarticulation which paralyses the vocal chords just long enough for the perpetrator to wander off without reprimand.
Have teachers the energy to take on homophobia on top of lesson planning, behaviour reports, risk management matrices, slit-your-throat-dull meetings and eliminating all the more overt forms of bullying that pervade the student population?
So who is going to tackle this problem in secondary schools? Schools with a proactive head teacher? An ‘out’ teacher who forces the issue (by ‘out’ I mean openly gay, not just labelled by the rumour mill)? Or perhaps a staff member who has close gay friends or relatives? Racism seems to be confronted more instinctively by teachers; perhaps because skin colour is more obvious than sexual orientation, so the personal comments are limited.
One answer to the problem would be an International Coming Out Day, in which every LGBT adult in the (non-death-penalty-employing) world could quietly and openly acknowledge their sexual orientation. People would then stop assuming everybody was straight, students would realise that some of their most liked teachers were gay, advertising companies wouldn’t be scared of losing business by having gay advertisements, we’d acknowledge the sporting ability of some of the world’s greatest gay footballers (and not just the women), and then perhaps we could all get over it and get on with life.
It’s a pipe dream, of course, but the next best thing would be for those of us who are relatively stable, and strong enough to cope with the hopefully minor fall-out, to come out. Because although discrimination is now legislated against and civil ceremonies are legal; the hangover from Section 28 still dominates and guides a culture of non-acceptance. The teenage population are great commentators on society.
Education is key to the de-mystification of this subject. It would take time, but 40 years ago homosexuality was still illegal so perhaps things change faster than we think. It would be a shame if our apathy, borne of better times, prevented us working towards a more accepting society for those who come after us.
On a night where two men were attacked in their own home simply for being gay, Gordon Brown made history by inviting many LGBT people to Downing Street and commending them for their heroic campaigning. These simultaneous events give an accurate picture of the polarized position we find ourselves in, and while these attacks continue, and kids are still killing themselves to escape bullying or self-hatred, there is still have work to do.
I would be happy to go and speak to every classroom in the country as an openly gay person. Let them ask questions; let the mystery dissolve in an anti-climatic and educated way. Let them realise that although I am ‘one of them gays’ and I AM statistically unusual, I’m just another teacher with a penchant for annoying jokes and way too much enthusiasm for this whole learning business.
Suran is currently a School Sports Co-Ordinator and has been teaching for ten years. She has worked mainly in special needs schools and completed her teaching training in New Zealand.