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Equal under law, but not in the staffroom

Prejudice against gays and lesbians is rife in schools because teachers are unwilling to face up to it, says Jaye Richards

AS we congratulate ourselves on the completion of a hard year's work, perhaps we can spare a thought for some of the things we didn't learn at our teacher education institutions - real issues of equality and discrimination.

For while multicultural and anti-racist educational themes are given their rightful place in the training college curriculum, and in school policies, other minorities represented among both staff and pupils are ignored or, at best, brushed under the carpet. I am referring to those of us who identify as gay and lesbian (some 11 per cent of the population, if the figures from the campaign group Stonewall are accurate), and have to deal with the rampant heterosexism that still permeates Scottish schools today.

While we now have legislation to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexuality, why is it that education has failed to move with the times? A brief look at any of the textbooks in use in today's classrooms will present a picture of every family, of every relationship, and even of every individual, as avowedly heterosexual, with barely a mention of the alternatives (and that's just the good books).

If anyone said something like this to the disabled or aged or folks of ethnic origin, they'd be strung up by the metaphoric thumbnails . . . and rightly so. Why then in the 21st century with an equality agenda very much on the march, do we still run shy of recognising and indeed celebrating diversity in sexuality in Scottish schools? Clause 2A still casts a shadow over much of our teaching, even after its repeal, championed by a courageous Wendy Alexander. In fact, this grubby excuse for legislation never prevented teachers from discussing sexuality in classrooms. It placed a duty on local authorities to prevent the promotion of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship".

Well, it's certainly not a pretended family for me and my partner, my children, and the many single-sex family units across the country. So promote it as an actual family relationship that is just as valid as any church or state-sanctioned marriage. Where's the problem? In schools - that's where many of the prejudices in today's society are learned and encouraged.

While we rightly clamp down on racist bullying, where are the initiatives to deal with homophobia, in the playground and, for that matter, in the staffroom? I have lost count of the times I have heard slang words for gays and lesbians being used as insults and I am fed up with having my relationships reduced to the status of breaktime catcalling.

So what do we do? The "healthy respect" project needs to be rolled out nationwide for a start. This encourages dialogue about all types of sexual relationships and gives non-judgmental advice to young people about their sexual health. Last year, Greater Glasgow Health Board published the results of a research project which looked at the needs of young gay, lesbian and bisexual people in Glasgow. Among other things, the survey found that most did not think their school was welcoming, with 41 per cent of young women and 57 per cent of young men saying they had experienced harassment and discrimination. One young man commented: "I can get called a poof and the teachers won't do anything, but if I'm called like a Paki . .

. they will do something obviously."

As teachers, we can play a bigger part. The Scottish Executive leaflet advising parents states that all pupils will have had the chance to discuss issues surrounding awareness of sexual orientation by the time they reach senior school. So let us seize the moment and ensure that relationships are presented in a balanced and equal manner.

Point out the imbalance when you come across it in textbooks and course materials. And please, please, remember that the young people we will be teaching next August, even if they do not identify as gay or lesbian, will have mums and dads, brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, cousins, friends, and friends of family who do identify this way.

And as for that new member of staff sitting next to you, well we don't all wear big signs.

Finally, the survey discovered something else. Young gay and lesbian people are between six and 11 times more likely to attempt suicide. This is an area where skills, compassion, care and respect can make a real difference to young people's lives. You know it makes sense.

Jaye Richards is about to start her probationary year as a biology teacher in East Dunbartonshire.

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