'If you are gay you are just bad'

11th February 2011 at 00:00
While British society as a whole may have become less prejudiced in its attitude to gay people, schools remain a stronghold of homophobia. Pupils are the perpetrators, but are teachers to blame for turning a blind eye?

The closest Stacie has come to a gay man is seeing Syed and Christian, the gay characters in EastEnders, on TV. "In our terms we'd call them a batty man" she says. The Jamaican slang word literally means "bum man". "My dad's full Jamaican. He was born over there and he doesn't believe in gays."

If someone Stacie knew came out as gay, "I wouldn't talk to her. I would feel like, maybe she would touch me or have feelings for me," says Stacie, tensing her shoulders with disgust. "It's not something you should let everyone know about."

Her classmate Jonathan agrees: "If you're gay, you're just different," he says. "I'm one of those people who totally hates gays. If my friend turned gay, they wouldn't be my friend no more."

For these 15-year-olds from east London and their friends, insulting gay people is perfectly acceptable. "It's not the same as being racist at all," says Jonathan. Growing up within a black community, he believes being gay is "about culture", specifically one that is different from his own. "Only white people are gay. I don't know any gay people in my life," he says. "In some cultures, if you're gay, you're just bad."

Jonathan and Stacie's views seem so dated, it is difficult to believe they were speaking to The TES only last term. However, shocking as they are, they will be no surprise to many teachers: the sentiment is not only common, but it is the default attitude of children and young people in playgrounds and classrooms across the UK.

The sheer scale of homophobic bullying has been brought to the fore in recent months following the suicides of seven US teenagers - who were all gay and victims of homophobic abuse - last September.

The It Gets Better video campaign was launched in reaction to these deaths and has garnered enormous support, from Barack Obama to singer Katy Perry to the employees of Google. Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, has also launched It Gets Better. today - a UK response to the campaign in the US.

In many respects, British society has come a long way in its acceptance of the LGB community, with more out gay and lesbian figures across the media, politics and entertainment industries than ever before. But despite these advances, many young people in the UK regularly still use homophobic language. About two-thirds of gay or bisexual young people are subjected to homophobic bullying, according to Stonewall.

But anti-gay attitudes have also been absorbed into pupils' everyday language, even if children do not realise they are being overtly homophobic. The word "gay" is now a commonplace insult for pupils considered to be "different" by their classmates in primary and secondary schools. The studious boy who does not like sport and the girl who is not interested in make-up or fashion are called "gay" or are the subject of other homophobic insults because they do not fit gender stereotypes, regardless of whether they are gay or not.

Society's increasing tolerance towards homosexuality has not filtered down to schools, says Ian Rivers, professor of human development at Brunel University, in west London, and author of Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives, published last month: "I have been conducting research in this area for almost 20 years and I hoped never to have to write this book, but there is still a significant way to go in addressing this issue," he says.

"It is this attitude of discrimination and use of language that teachers need to address, regardless of their personal belief systems."

Teachers are aware of homophobia and rated it as one of the most common causes of bullying - second only to weight, according to a 2009 YouGov poll of more than 2,000 teaching and non-teaching staff. This ranked sexuality ahead of race or religion as a factor in bullying.

These findings are backed by the most recent report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which found that schools are one of the last strongholds of homophobia.

There are teachers whose own homophobic views have an impact on how they deal with the issue in school, according to the EHRC report. When interviewed, one grammar school teacher from the east of England said that the "mollycoddling of so-called gays" was wrong. "I have every confidence that as a teacher with over 30 years' experience, and as a head of year, I could discuss issues with girls who claim to be gay, but I would probably not be very sympathetic," she said.

More common is teachers neglecting to act on pupils' anti-gay language, either because they do not know if they would have their manager's support, or they do not know how to approach the problem.

"I have a handful of six-year-olds who always call each other `gay' and then get upset if their friends call them `gay'," says Josie O'Neill*, a primary teacher in Manchester. "If I say it is wrong, will they think that it's wrong to be gay?"

Many of her pupils and parents are Muslim, while others are Catholic or Baptist. "I don't think that they would appreciate me raising the subject, even if the children bring it up by using the word `gay'," she says. "But it would also disrupt the whole class if I tried to have a meaningful conversation about it every time it happened."

But for half of the secondary teachers polled by YouGov who do not respond to pupils' homophobic language, the reason is that they see the incident not as harmless banter, but as malicious.

"Describing something as gay is not homophobic bullying - it is similar in level of offence to swearing," says one secondary teacher in the South West. "One has to pick one's battles as a teacher, and that means occasionally turning a blind eye to inappropriate language in certain contexts."

However practical this approach may seem in the short term, it only fosters a whole-school environment of intolerance, says Liam Nolan. When he took on the role of headteacher at Perry Beeches School in Great Barr, north of Birmingham, three years ago, it was common for pupils to call each other gay.

"I was aware of bullying per se: I was aware of racist bullying and of some of our disabled students being treated as second class," Mr Nolan says.

"I was aware that part of the school's failing was that it wasn't cohesively a community. I would say that LGB issues were part of the problem."

Mr Nolan set about changing the school culture: homophobic comments, along with any insults or bullying, were seriously penalised. At the same time, staff promoted a broader ethos of mutual respect and cultural understanding.

"My job was to turn around a school which had poor behaviour and which was a national challenge school - the bottom of the league in Birmingham," says Mr Nolan. And turn it around, he did. Over the past three years, GCSE results have gone from 21 per cent A* to C grade including English and maths to 74 per cent last year.

"LGBT issues have for me become an integrated part of that improvement, along with or as part of the ethos of the school," says Mr Nolan.

It was also easier to tackle homophobia in a school where the headteacher is a gay man. "I have never hidden the fact that I am gay, even when I first started teaching," says Mr Nolan. Since he arrived at Perry Beeches, eight other members of staff have come out and pupils have strong gay and lesbian role models.

The consensus among a group of Year 11s who remember what the school was like before is that the school's off timetable days dedicated to PSHE were crucial to understanding homosexuality and the full impact of bullying in general.

"I don't think we used to know what `gay' meant," says Ryan, the school's deputy head boy. "We used it in a silly way. People now know how to use it properly and know how offensive it is."

In the English national curriculum, children learn about homosexuality through relationships and sexuality in PSHE lessons. However in the 1980s and even the 1990s, it was largely taught in the context of Aids and sexually transmitted diseases, and always with negative connotations.

Stonewall recommends that LGB issues are not only taught through PSHE but are integrated throughout the curriculum: in geography, teachers could discuss migration patterns and why gay communities might choose to live or travel to certain places more than others, while modern languages could casually introduce pupils to gay film-makers or writers, for example, when learning to talk about a country's culture.

The tabloid press was indignant when it heard of Stonewall's lesson plans in January. The charity and the Government were accused of wanting to indoctrinate pupils. However, many schools are a long way from casually introducing LGB culture to the curriculum and have yet to tackle their endemic homophobia. At the root of the problem is section 28 - part of the Local Government Act of 1988, which outlawed the discussion of homosexuality in state schools. It is difficult to believe that this law was only repealed in 2003 and as a result, teachers are still unsure of where they stand. Teachers with more than eight years' experience will have been trained to brush homosexuality under the carpet, and new teachers take the lead from their older colleagues.

Lisa Bowen, a former social worker and attendance support manager at Perry Beeches, says the effects of section 28 are still being felt in schools. "It was still OK to turn away students because they were gay in 2003 - many of our pupils were at school then," she says. "There was nothing to protect them. If you look at the racism laws, they were brought in in 1976 so have been around a lot longer, so it has been unacceptable for longer. The law came in too late."

Pupils' use of the word "gay" as an insult is just one of the effects of the failure to tackle homophobia through legislation earlier, but it is one that teachers have to deal with most regularly.

For Gary Phillips, headteacher at Lilian Baylis Technology College in Lambeth, south London, it is a case of challenging insults each time they are made. "You have to ask: `Would you say that about somebody's ethnicity or their gender?'" says Mr Phillips. In a multicultural, multiethnic school, making clear the comparison with racism is crucial.

For the past three years, the school has made homophobic bullying the focus of its anti-bullying week, with drama performances and discussions focusing on the issue. As a result, the number of serious homophobic incidents has fallen, as has the use of homophobic language.

"Teachers talk about challenging it more," says Mr Phillips. "They feel more confident about doing that - we are raising the bar for what is acceptable behaviour."

Just this year, Lilian Bayliss has acquired a Mongolian Yurt, sited on the far side of the playground. "It doesn't need planning permission," says Mr Phillips, by way of explanation for the eccentric looking circular hut. But the other benefit is that it provides pupils with a comfortable space for circle time, far from the confines and problems they may be experiencing during the school day.

"It's very difficult to get at low-level stuff," admits Mr Phillips. "Unless kids tell us that they are being called names, we don't know. Some kids are worried that talking about it can cause trouble."

He is realistic about the impact of pupils spending time in the yurt: "I doubt that during circle time, any kid would say: `I'm gay' or `I'm being bullied because I'm gay', but it's about building a culture that is more open and where they feel they can disclose things," he says.

"It's about managing attitudes and ideas, and trying to change them, but you're not going to do that overnight."

As Stacie and Jonathan made clear, parents have an enormous influence on children's attitudes, and many teachers do not want to risk offending parents in their handling of pupils' homophobic bullying.

In Mr Phillips's experience, however, parents are not a barrier to addressing homophobic bullying. "It's an illusion. Parents want their kids to be tolerant," he says. "You come across parents who don't want homosexuality to be pushed in school, but when you explain it's just that you want children to be able to talk about anything and feel comfortable, they understand."

Perhaps because he has led such a successful school improvement, Mr Nolan has never faced opposition to his zero-tolerance policy on homophobia. At open evenings for prospective parents and pupils, he makes it clear that bullying of gay, lesbian or bisexual pupils, or using homophobic insults will be severely punished. "I use those very words to a hall full of parents," he says - but the school is still oversubscribed.

Essentially, teachers' ability to tackle homophobic bullying comes down to an all-embracing school policy that gives teachers the support to confront the issue and start challenging pupils' behaviour. As with any behaviour policy, this works best when it comes from the senior management team.

The problem with this is that there are already so many things on a headteacher's agenda, says Mr Nolan. Tackling homophobic bullying is just another thing on the list. "What I would say is that this is me speaking as one of the most improved schools in the UK," he says. "I think it has been one of the reasons we have improved so rapidly - because we are a very open, honest, forward thinking school on all issues, including lesbian and gay issues."

Most LGB pupils put up with insults, malicious gossip and even physical abuse on a regular basis. But just under half of teachers say they would not feel confident in providing information or guidance on gay issues, according to a Stonewall survey. If they had a pupil who came out as lesbian, gay or bisexual, 28 per cent of teachers said they would not feel confident in supporting them.

It takes time to turn around the mindset of an entire school, especially in the case of teenagers who feel it is their duty to be contrary. But if they are supported, teachers can set the standard for what is acceptable and do much more to support pupils who are victims of homophobic abuse - as they would try to do for victims of any other form of bullying. Until that happens, when it comes to homophobia, schools will still be lagging behind the rest of society.

* Name has been changed

Straight from Stonewall

Figures from The Teachers' Report, published by Stonewall in 2009:

- 90 per cent of secondary teachers say pupils in their schools are bullied, harassed or called names for being - or perceived to be - lesbian, gay or bisexual.

- 43 per cent of secondary teachers have heard homophobic language or negative remarks about gay people from other school staff.

- 28 per cent of secondary teachers say they would not feel confident in supporting their LGB pupils.

- 43 per cent of secondary teachers and 55 per cent of primary teachers say their schools do not have a policy that explicitly addresses homophobic bullying.

- 44 per cent of primary school staff who hear homophobic language such as "you're so gay" or "that's so gay" do not always respond.

- 50 per cent secondary teachers who are aware of homophobic bullying in their schools say the vast majority of incidents go unreported.

- Gay children are 60 per cent less likely to be attacked in schools that have a consistent policy of punishing homophobic language.

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