Let's strive to end the stigma of coming out

22nd May 2015 at 01:00
Schools have made huge strides on LGBT issues, but there's plenty more teachers can do to provide support and allay pupils' fears

A student once came out as gay to a teacher friend of mine. The student was looking for understanding from an adult she trusted - someone she suspected was also gay.

The teacher did everything she could to support her student. But the one thing she didn't do was come out. In fact, she denied being gay.

"I felt guilty about it for years, but I couldn't risk it," she told me. "I was in a position of responsibility and in those days this was not something that would have been acceptable. I could have lost my job."

My friend's fears were real. But this all happened a long time ago. In these post-Section 28 days, surely things are different? Well, yes. And no.

A recent survey by the NASUWT teaching union shows that one in four lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teachers feels the need to hide their sexuality at school. Less than half believe their school takes prejudice against LGBT teachers or pupils seriously (bit.lyNASUWTsurvey).

Meanwhile, a 2014 survey of young people by equality and diversity charity Metro reveals that 72 per cent of LGBT 16- to 25-year-olds have experienced verbal abuse, and 42 per cent have been threatened or intimidated (bit.lyMetroLGBT).

Yes, these statistics are probably better than they were 10 or 20 years ago, but they're still not good enough. And it's not just about statistics: it's about people.

In December last year, Manchester teenager Lizzie Lowe killed herself because of a (misplaced) fear about what might happen if she told her parents she was a lesbian. And Lizzie's tragic death was far from an isolated incident.

Studies show that LGBT teens are up to five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. At the other end of the scale, "it's so gay" is widely used as a pejorative term among young people. The experiences of most LGBT teenagers will fall somewhere between these two extremes. And that's not a good place to be.

My young adult novel, Read Me Like a Book, explores this issue. It charts a year in the life of a 17-year-old girl as she questions, explores and comes to terms with being a lesbian.

Writing this book - and coming out publicly myself a couple of years ago - was my way of saying that it's OK to be who you are, and that there is a movement of people who will help you along the way. I want to be the writer a questioning teenager will remember for doing that. And I believe there are thousands of teachers who want to be valued for doing the same.

So here's the big question: how do we do it? First, let's look to those who have trodden the path before us.

In 2012, Ofsted praised Stoke Newington School in North London for its work in dealing with LGBT matters. It stated: "Key to the school's success was ensuring that LGBT issues were covered in the curriculum. In this way, senior leaders felt it would not be a one-off event or a sticking plaster on the problem. Inclusion and the eradication of prejudice would be rooted within the school's systems, procedures and curriculum."

The case study is a great starting point for developing a plan to support LGBT students (bit.lyStokeNewingtonLGBT). Here's what else you can do.

Use external role models

Get in touch with organisations such as Stonewall, Educate and Celebrate, and Diversity Role Models. Bring in their ambassadors to talk to your students.

Be positive when students come out to you

Listen, offer reassurance and support, and work with individuals to figure out what they need most.

Increase visibility

Yes, this is about LGBT teachers coming out, too. Of course, no one should be forced to come out - it's a very personal decision. But once it becomes the norm among teachers, it will be easier for LGBT students to have the confidence to do it.

Provide access to resources

Display relevant leaflets, books, films, magazines and websites at information points around the school.

Protect your students from bullying

Make sure that LGBT issues are enshrined in your school's anti-bullying policies.

As teachers and writers, we can help to ensure that in 20 or 30 years, there will be no more reports of teenagers committing suicide because they were afraid of who they might fall in love with.

Liz Kessler is the author of the Emily Windsnap series. Read Me Like a Book is published by Orion Children's Books

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