Free to speak out at last

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Section 2A, Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1986 was repealed three years ago, allowing schools to discuss homosexuality, but has it made much difference? Alexis Scott reports

Marc is 17. He left school last autumn and has left home. His stepfather could not accept that he is gay, although his mother is more reconciled to it.

He speaks calmly about his experiences of being bullied at his Edinburgh school. The bullying was mostly verbal abuse - being called a "poof", "fag" and "homo" - though he also had things thrown at him in class when teachers were not around.

It was bad enough and frequent enough to make him feel suicidal "quite a few times". He recounts having stacked away enough paracetamol to kill himself and it was only his boyfriend, Ryan, who went to a different school, who talked him out of it.

"I've never denied being gay," says Marc. "Only, at school I never admitted it either."

It was because he felt he could not disclose this that he couldn't report the bullying, even though the school ostensibly did not tolerate bullying of any sort.

"I kept it all bottled up inside," he says. "I used to smash my arm against the wall, I got so angry. Sometimes I still feel angry."

The bullying only lessened in his last year, when most of the bullies had left.

Marc doesn't blame the school. He wishes now he had gone to speak to his guidance teacher and he would advise anyone being bullied to do this or speak to their school house head.

Since leaving school, being gay has definitely got easier, he says, although he did encounter homophobia from the management of the store where he used to work.

Over the past 16 months, Marc has found support through LGBT Youth Scotland (formerly Stonewall Youth), an organisation that runs support groups and activities for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) 13- to 26-year-olds in south-east Scotland.

He has also met up with old friends from school. "They didn't know I was gay," he says and gives a chuckle. "Some of them turned out to be bisexual.

"The teachers still don't know about it,' he says thoughtfully.

He is planning to go back to see the guidance teacher. "I think my wee brother may be getting hassle because of me," he says.

You get the impression Marc is pleased he can at last speak out.

A survey in 1999 by the Institute of Education, London University, indicated just 6 per cent of schools in Britain had an anti-bullying policy that was either gay-sympathetic or gay-specific. Despite the furore over the repeal of section 2A of clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1986, it seems as if little if anything has changed. Scottish schools are still in the closet.

In a snapshot survey, 50 schools across Scotland were asked at the beginning of this year whether their anti-bullying policies specifically referred to the bullying of gay students. Twenty-one sent replies and one referred me to a local authority official. Seven responses were anonymous.

Just one school (from Edinburgh) stated it had a policy mentioning sexuality as an area where students have rights. Another Edinburgh school said its policy is being rewritten this year and sexual orientation will be mentioned as a specific area.

Eight schools (over a wide geographical area) wanted changes to meet the needs of gay students. Of these, one unidentified respondent said: "There is a need for (an anti-bullying policy which specifically refers to gay students) in all schools, that we cater for the needs of all pupils irrespective of race, creed, gender, physical ability or sexual orientation." Another was clearly bewildered at how to deal with the problem.

Twelve schools said they had had no reported instances of homophobic bullying, which of course does not mean it does not occur.

One headteacher in the Highlands was equivocal about whether gay bullying was taking place. He suggested this was "difficult to answer since we have no gay students, that is, no students who would categorise themselves as gay while they are at school".

He added: "This is a small secondary school (the roll is about 150).

Speaking to former pupils who have 'come out' since leaving school, I am in no doubt that their time at school was miserable and that they deserved more protection from regular verbal abuse."

A head in Dundee said: "Pupils who are unclear about their own sexuality or who have established their own sexual identity do feel pressured to live in secrecy and can be the butt of taunts and worse."

The debate on the repeal of Section 2A revealed much confusion and ignorance about its possible implications in schools, such as suggestions of "gay sex lessons". Even where there is a perceived need to make a specific reference to anti-gay bullying it may be seen as "not a high priority, given all the other priorities we need to deal with", as a Dumfries and Galloway head put it. (The priorities were not specified.) Evidence presented to the Scottish Parliament's equal opportunities committee indicates there is still a long way to go. Young gay Scots are more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to face homelessness and discrimination at work. Anti-gay bullying at school is often the start of discrimination gay people experience.

Submissions to the committee from Outright Scotland and Stonewall Scotland, the LGBT rights groups, confirm the pervasiveness of homophobic bullying in our schools. Views differ on what constitutes bullying, though. One depute head, replying to my survey, indicated bullying at his school was "very limited", adding: "The use of the term 'gay' as a generic slagging expression does occur." (This is supported by submissions to the equal opportunities committee.) Another respondent suggested that using "gay" as a derogatory term was on a par with criticising someone's hair colour.

That view is not supported by the Educational Institute of Scotland, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Department for Education and Employment or the Scottish Human Rights Centre, all of whom urged the repeal of Section 2A.

Some schools will challenge, others ignore, pupils who use "gay" in a derogatory way. As one depute head put it, this "blurs the edges of bullying behaviour".

Most young people only complain about homophobic bullying in school after they have left. Teachers themselves may be afraid to raise the issue. Two heads, answering the survey, said that identifying or labelling particular groups can make them targets. One even blamed the repeal of Section 2A for an increased occurrence of gay taunting.

It is unlikely a homophobia-specific anti-bullying policy alone will change attitudes and behaviours. Some respondents mentioned the importance of personal and social education and one, from Edinburgh, emphasised that educational input should be "extensive and cross-curricular, including English, PSE, religious education, drama I". The latter also mentioned the "excellent support" of LGBT Youth Scotland, which has been giving awareness training for teachers for 10 years.

Jamie Rennie, director of LGBT Youth Scotland, emphasised the organisation's inclusive and non-lobbying approach. Last year it staged a play in three Edinburgh schools, drawing links between sectarianism and other forms of discrimination and homophobia.

Research by the organisation indicates how much still needs to be done to combat discrimination and exclusion. And if schools don't feel they can discuss the issues openly, how can students?


A new base for LGBT Youth Scotland was officially opened in Edinburgh's east end in August by the Lord Provost Lesley Hinds. The event gave an opportunity for friends and families of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender 13- to 26-year-olds to see what the organisation does.

LGBT Youth Scotland (formerly Stonewall Youth) was started about 15 years ago. The organisation aims to do far more than provide a safe meeting place for LGBT young people. It employs several specialist workers as well as about 15 youth workers who offer support and advice.

They have backgrounds in a range of caring professions, including health, teaching and psychology.

Grace is national development manager for the organisation, which is in many parts of Scotland from Inverness to the Borders and hopes to spread further afield.

Kezia deals with housing advice, which is an important area as there is a disproportionate rate of homelessness among LGBT people.

Moray works for Healthy Respect, a Lothian-wide project which aims to encourage young people to have a positive attitude to their own sexuality and respect for partners.

Fergus runs workshops to raise teachers' awareness of LGBT issues.

Also at the opening were volunteers from Parents Enquiry Scotland, which provides advice to parents of LGBT teenagers.

LGBT Youth Scotland, tel 0131 622 2266, e-mail (from late October) or

Parents Enquiry Scotland, tel 0131 556 6047

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