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The right to be yourself

Efforts to tackle homophobia in schools are being stepped up in the wake of startling new figures

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More than two-thirds of Scottish pupils believe schools are not safe places for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youngsters.

Although the survey was carried out only in the Scottish Borders, it canvassed the views of 500 pupils and is believed by LGBT Youth Scotland to reflect attitudes across the country. The findings coincide with the publication of Dealing with Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying in Scottish Schools, a "groundbreaking" guide sent to all secondaries.

The toolkit, launched last week at an LGBT Youth Scotland conference in Edinburgh last week on challenging homophobia, addresses not just blatant examples of bullying, but casual use of words such as "gay" in the playground and close-to-the-knuckle staffroom banter.

Grangemouth High took part in a trial and carried out a confidential survey of pupil attitudes. It uncovered a large number of incidents, which staff had not known about. Homophobic language was pervasive, if not always used in an intentionally malign manner: pupils did not see anything wrong with describing something as "gay" to mean substandard or unfashionable.

Staff often lacked confidence to tackle homophobia, said Nicola Masterson, principal pastoral teacher: "Challenging homophobia and prejudice has to become naturally part of everything we do."

A guidance teacher at another school revealed that the challenge was not merely to boost colleagues' confidence, but to overcome dissenting voices in the staffroom.

Musselburgh Grammar guidance teacher Stephen Gellaitry, whose school also trialled the toolkit, said S3 pupils expressed concern about the prospect of a friend coming out at school. He suggested that they might be as concerned about the response from staff as that from pupils.

One staff member with strong religious views felt unable to support the performance of a school play highlighting the effects of homophobia, arguing that people with "opposite views" should be allowed to make a presentation. The same person "had no hesitation presenting views that would be offensive to several members of the team".

Liz McIntyre, an educational psychologist in Dumfries and Galloway and parent of a gay man, explained the impact of her son's inability to be open about his sexuality at school. While she had vivid memories of his brother's formative experiences, such as finding a girlfriend, she could recollect few from the teenage years of her other son, who came out to his parents when he was 18. "He was deprived of a very basic human right - the right to be himself," she said.

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