Pupils given firmer hold on harm of homophobia

18th February 2011 at 00:00
Sixth-years' conference on diversity helps others get to grips with damaging effects of prejudice

It's an everyday gesture of affection - couples walking down the street holding hands. But for Alan Parker and his partner, it can prompt an outburst of homophobic hatred.

Alan knows what it feels like to have strangers hurl abuse at you from passing cars. He also thinks education is a key strategy in efforts to eliminate discrimination.

As senior health practitioner at Terrence Higgins Trust Scotland, he has just helped Aberdeenshire sixth-years to run a conference on sexual diversity. He believes more schools need to tackle homophobia and younger pupils should be included.

"Anecdotally, I can tell you of a young person, an S1 pupil somewhere in the Grampian area, who was bullied for his last three years at primary school on the perception that he was gay, not the fact that he was or not," says Mr Parker.

"At that age, three years is a long time and it was heartbreaking, really heartbreaking, talking to him."

There were 70 sixth-years at recent workshops organised and facilitated by Meldrum Academy's head boy and girl and their deputies, with Mr Parker's support.

"It was a powerful day, because all three workshops had different messages and people went away with good insight into the topics," says head girl Mella Slattery.

One workshop looked at scenarios featuring homophobic bullying, a second at a utopian society without discrimination, and the third session, led by Mr Parker, at the impact of homophobic language and the anguish it causes.

Pupils learned that discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people increased their risk of self-harm and suicidal behaviour. And they were encouraged to explore how they would feel and behave in response to homophobic comments.

"You're told not to be homophobic, but you're never really told why and what effect it has, and it was just more in-depth," says S6 pupil Mhari Ritchie.

"I just learned that phrases you use in everyday language, that you don't mean to be homophobic, can still be taken that way - like `it's so gay' or `that's so gay'. When you were younger, it was more used as just like a negative thing, but you never really think of it affecting someone like that, so you just need to be more careful about what you say."

The workshop "Language Speaks" - from the Government's SHARE (sexual health and relationship education) training manual for schools - had the biggest impact on pupils.

"It was definitely the language aspect that was most crucial for me," says Danielle Fentiman. "Just the language that we use - I never realised how offensive that would be to someone who was gay. In our culture, we just use that language and we don't really think about the effects it has."

Pupils were shocked to learn that gay men are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual men.

"I thought that was the biggest shocker, because such a high proportion of people committing suicide come from the LGBT community," said 17-year-old Joe Walsh. "I didn't quite realise how bad it was, and how many people feel they can't talk about their feelings and see it as the only option."

Meldrum Academy identified diversity as a priority in its improvement plan after one of the school's depute headteachers attended a Diversity Challenge training event run by NHS Grampian and the Terrence Higgins Trust. The training session is free and aimed at teachers and others who may have to deal with issues affecting LGBT people.

Depute head David Martindale, who attended the Diversity Challenge training event, has responsibility for welfare and pastoral care. "Young people need to be more aware of the terminology," he said. "They need to know that 6 per cent of the population are LGBT, and that negative terms can have an impact on all sorts of things like the suicide rate and the mental health of young people."

Meldrum Academy's future plans include school assemblies which feature diversity issues and a capacity-building course on diversity for next year's S2.



In a questionnaire before the conference, senior pupils were asked about their personal experience of homophobic language and attacks.

Ninety-six per cent said they'd heard the expression "that's so gay" and many admitted they'd heard words like "queer" and "faggot" used.

When asked whether another pupil had made the comments, 100 per cent said yes; in another question, 6 per cent said a teacher had made the comments. Alan Parker said this was one of the most shocking aspects of the survey.

"It could be that we are talking about a common slang use of the word `gay' as a pejorative term and it's said as something that possibly the teacher didn't quite .," he tails off. "Teachers are human like the rest of us."

The pupils also admitted using homophobic comments, with 94 per cent having said "that's so gay" and over 80 per cent using words like "queer" and "faggot" and 64 per cent using the word "tranny". Two per cent had witnessed a physical attack on another pupil because of their sexuality.

The survey also asked at which stage in their school career homophobic language had been most prevalent. The results suggest it was most common in fourth year and had declined by fifth and sixth year.

Mr Parker thinks it's worth considering diversity education for younger pupils, even at the basic level of reducing gender stereotyping in primary learning materials. "It doesn't always have to be names like Janet and John," he says. "It could be Janet and Louise going shopping."

A range of lesson plan suggestions and guidance on addressing anti- homophobia and LGBT issues with young people is available as part of the toolkit "Dealing with Homophobia and Homophobic Bullying in Scottish Schools".



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