Thursday March 15, 2012
The BRIT School - Britain's only free Performing Arts and Technology School - probably isn't at the top of your list of places that needs a visit by Diversity Role Models. And you would be right, for they have a thriving LGBT group, confidential counselling for students who would like to discuss their sexuality, and a culture that celebrates diversity and inclusiveness. Plus they're, you know, arty and creative. But there's value in seeing good practice, so when offered the chance to visit and attend their LGBT day assembly (I know, LGBT day!!), naturally we jumped at it.
All my high-school musical expectations were surpassed when I was greeted at reception by Mr Schuester out of Glee. Or someone who must inevitably be compared with him, being tall with curly blond hair, and named Will (actually Will Rennison, one of the drama teachers and supporters of the LGBT students' group). There was a giant gold statuette in the entrance hall and a preponderance of students with big hair, dancing clothes and an exuberant manner. A notice-board detailing "make-up studies" didn't refer to retakes or revision, but to studies about how to apply make-up. Mr Schue furnished me with a very welcome coffee and showed me to a front-row seat in the auditorium.
I had guessed the assembly might be more elaborate than a talk, a hymn and some notices, but I hadn't banked on an hour's worth of original dance, poetry, drama, stand-up comedy and music, mostly addressing the subject of sexuality and homophobia. The quality of performance and composition was astounding. But what struck me most were the stories pupils told about their lives in their previous schools, and how different their experience was in their new environment.
One girl spoke of how a student at her school had been bullied on Facebook for admitting to being bisexual and how it had it made her scared to come out and even consider suicide. Others talked about depression and anxiety as they struggled to come to terms with their sexuality in a hostile environment. Schools had been informed of problems but done nothing to prevent bullying. One boy described his experience of not only being bullied, but singled out by a teacher for causing trouble. When he joined the BRIT school, with its openly gay students, and supportive classmates and teachers, the first few months had been like emerging from a war zone - somewhere he could be himself and feel safe.
So, what can we learn from all this? First, there are still a lot of schools where the experience of being gay - or accused of being gay - is one of lonely desperation. Two, students are immeasurably happier when they can be themselves and be accepted for who they are. Three - to create that environment means actively tackling the problem - encouraging dialogue, challenging stereotypes, dealing with bullying and showing that gay people can lead happy and normal lives. And four - that helping schools to do this remains a hugely important task.
Lastly - if some of these guys don't end up with record deals, I'll eat Sue Sylvester's tracksuit.