Wednesday May 3, 2017
Nothing. No mention. Other than cruel whispers in the corridor that an unpopular teacher was (probably, definitely, OBVIOUSLY) a lesbian. And then silence. Sex Ed remains a vague and blurry memory….boys, girls, periods, something about condoms, I forget. Any space for a teenager secretly attracted to Beth from Neighbours as opposed to any member of Take That? None. This was the era of Section 281 and the toxic legacy of that has been long lasting.
Moving forward 20 odd years… I’m now the Head of Education at Diversity Role Models – a charity that tackles Homophobic Biphobic and Transphobic bullying head on in schools and has worked with over 58,000 young people across the UK. We take in LGBT+ and ally role models to speak to students openly and authentically about their journeys around gender and sexuality. With near on 450 volunteer role models across the UK, the life experiences shared are as diverse as the schools we go into and aim to speak to the intersectionality that exists between faith, gender, ethnicity, race and sexuality. The common thread between them is that each one leaves the students with a positive key message around acceptance and support.
The first time I shared my LGBT+ story in a school, I had instant flashbacks to my 14 year old self – the one who went out with boys to fit in and pretended to fancy Robbie Williams. It’s hard to describe the feeling of anxiety, nervousness and then eventual empowerment as I stood there sharing my story; the conflicts I’d always felt between my faith and my sexuality, the fear of impending rejection from friends and family, finally moving towards the relief I was lucky enough to experience once I’d ‘come out’.
This mostly positive trajectory of events is not always the case. So far this academic year, we have found that on average 69% of young people think an LGBT+ student wouldn’t feel comfortable ‘coming out’ in their school. This is down from 77% last year, so it’s clear that perceptions are improving, however for many who are LGBT+, are perceived to be, or who have same sex or transgender family members, life at school can be extremely difficult. Those young people who face bullying simply for not conforming to societal expectations and/or gender norms can struggle to find a space to feel safe, welcomed and included. Instead of positive, helpful discussions on LGBT+ issues, there is often nothing and the repercussions are worrying.
During our workshops, we are consistently told about the regularity of ‘casual’, unchallenged homophobic language, relentlessly bandied about. For many, the idea of coming out brings up fears of social isolation and bullying, being judged and rejected by friends and family. Their networks upturned. Understandably, their reasoning stands as a grave and seemingly immovable barrier. And so, more often than not, silence ensues. The impact of which can be severe in terms of low self-esteem and fractured mental wellbeing, absences from school and decreased attainment, ultimately leading to more restricted life chances.
It is therefore a wholly wonderful thing to witness many LGBT+ young people express their surprise at how supportive their classmates are during our classroom discussions. Furthermore, once students have met our role models, explored issues of discrimination and openly discussed LGBT+ lives, even more students are empathetic. Without lessons on these themes, LGBT+ students assume their friends’ silence equates to hostility. Without compulsory and quality teaching on LGBT+ issues, students may never know where their friends actually stand.
So where does that leave us and how can we make things better?
Recently, I was asked to sit on a panel alongside Olly Alexander, Deborah Gold, Stella Creasy and Paris Lees, talking sex and education at Student Pride. Both Olly and Paris spoke eloquently of the lack of LGBT+ inclusive sex ed at their respective schools and the negative implications of this erasure. Their experiences clearly struck a chord with the audience. Our Chair, Cliff Joannou, asked the audience of students how many had received good sex ed; mere smatterings of hands raised. And then, how many of these classes were LGBT+ inclusive? One or two hands out of 500. Silence prevails in too many of our schools.
The thing is, from borough to borough, street to street, schools tackle sex and relationships education in entirely different ways. Some for example have LGBT+ Equality Groups where students are training staff on these issues and campaigning for gender neutral toilets, others have a teaching team who consistently challenge HBT language and teach an LGBT+ inclusive curriculum. However, this is certainly not the case for the vast majority.
For many reasons I more than welcome the new policy of compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE) in our schools. But whose voices will be represented? Which teachers will feel confident in delivering these topics, once forbidden in classrooms? Will anyone mention LGBT+ or will there continue to be silence? We know that inclusive RSE will lead young LGBT+ students to feel more part of a community, to be recognised, to be heard. For too long we have been failing our LGBT+ young people. It’s time to break the silence.
With more visibility, language and a greater rate of young people and staff feeling comfortable to “come out” in their schools2, times are changing – but we know bullying is still a dark and debilitating reality for many LGBT+ students. Relationships and sex education needs to cover healthy relationships, consent, pleasure, STIs, sexual health check-ups inclusively – it needs to ensure that we EXIST. With a recent YouGov survey stating that 1 out of 2 18-24 year olds don’t identify as exclusively heterosexual, it’s more than about time we talk about this in school.
So, the expectation has to be, that we acknowledge and protect our LGBT+ students with the same tenacity as those who identify as cisgender and heterosexual – and in doing so move towards clear, inclusive articulation of what makes a healthy, happy relationship. Now that would be something.
1) The amendment was enacted on 24 May 1988, and stated that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". It was repealed in 2003.
2) From 1991 to 2010 the average age of coming out for LGB people has reduced from 25 to 16 (Guy Shilo, Riki Savaya. Effects of Family and Friend Support on LGB Youths' Mental Health and Sexual Orientation Milestones. Family Relations)