'Please come to my school because I am the only gay one and everybody hates me. I am just the same as them', 'My son's school needs a visit from you; he is too scared to walk home because other boys will 'jump' him'
'Could you bring a role model to our school, people are too scared to come out…all the kids say horrible things about gay people'
These are just a few of the cries for help we've had via twitter and email since we went live. It simply reinforces how important it is to do this for our young people. If you are LGBT, just imagine that somebody had visited your class when you were young and spoken of their sexual orientation in a factual, honest and at times, humorous manner. Maybe you would've followed the example of many of the young people I have spoken to; eyes downcast, not drawing attention to themselves by asking questions and even feigning disinterest. These are the kids I believe with all of my heart, are being affected by my words. It's not that I'm saying anything particularly special, or that I stand out for any particular reason, I'm simply saying that I am the same as everyone else, even though I'm gay. Many of these young people have never heard anything positive said about LGBT people. At best, they've heard nothing, but many of the students I've worked with come from backgrounds where parents are battling unsuccessfully with their own prejudice on this topic. A group of straight 15 year old boys fell about laughing when one reported that his mum said she would 'cut his dick off' if he ever 'turned gay'. I waited until they'd recovered before asking them how funny that would be if they really were gay, or how I might have felt if one of my parents had responded to me in such a violent and un-parent like way. Their grins disappeared rapidly. They'd never met a 'real gay' before I came out to them in that lesson and they didn't want me, someone they liked as a teacher and person, to suffer.
So what do the kids say to me?
This is the question I get asked most in the course of my work. Bearing in mind I used to do this on a casual basis, my approach varied. Mostly, however, I didn't tell a class I am a lesbian until half way through a workshop; the mere introduction of the 'gay' topic produced delightful and almost compulsory utterances: 'they all belong in hell…put them on an island and blow them up…I'd knock one out if I saw him'. Most of this venom came from boys.* I'm so used to this response that I consider it the equivalent of putting on a t shirt reading 'I'm 100% straight' - it's just compulsory 'proof of heterosexuality' from young men who consider being gay ultimately the worst thing on earth. So once they've detoxed a bit, and I tell them that I am indeed one of those people they want to blow up/shank/pop/insert street violence of choice here, what do they say then? Admittedly, I used to sweat a bit at this point. One 15 year old who was sitting within a few feet of me got up and moved to the back of the room muttering something about 'catching it'. A move that prompted cries of 'dickhead' and motivated one of the most initially homophobic boys to move to his seat: 'I'll sit you with you Miss, there's nothing wrong with you'. Sometimes I don't need to say anything - they teach each other. That boy later apologised and told me his religion taught him it was contagious.
* I will cover the gender response difference in another blog. Along with lesbians versus gay men in the minds of the young!
Most kids have empathy
For the most part, they laugh a bit, they whisper 'I TOLD you' to each other and then they settle down (one pair had actually bet money on whether I was gay or not. Managed to tick the cross curricular links box by discussing the mathematics of betting on something so unpredictable these days). I am very honest and I tell them that it isn't easy for me to face all of them as strangers and tell them personal information about myself. I tell them it is upsetting when they say they want to hurt people like me (almost always to responses like 'we wouldn't hurt you…we don't mean you') and when they tell me it isn't natural or right to be gay, I ask directly for their help: 'what should I do then; should I marry someone I am not attracted to and pretend? Would you try to hide your skin colour if people around you didn't like it?'. The debate is endless but it really gets them thinking. Most kids have empathy. A lot of it. And if you appeal to them as a 'real person' (a term I hear often as somehow they can't imagine us as being such) they want to help. By the end of the class, 95% agree that I shouldn't change and that I should have the same rights as everyone else. Obviously, the responses depend greatly on class, religion and gender. Underneath it all however, the belief is the same: being LGBT must be the worst thing. Ever. Until they meet somebody who is happy, successful and not at all ashamed of their sexual orientation. At this point, the seeds of tolerance are implanted…maybe, just maybe it isn't worth getting so worked up about. And for the couple of kids squirming in their seats, desperate for this to end as it's just too close to home, these young people spend the rest of the day, and perhaps their time at school, knowing that it really does get better.