3rd April 1998 at 01:00
Gay teenagers who dare speak their love face verbal torment in most schools and physical assault in many, but Reva Klein has found one place they can be themselves.

It's bad enough when your classmates call you a "poof" or a "queer", but the final straw for John came when he heard what a teacher had said about him. As one of his friends reported it, the teacher declared: "That boy needs a good kick up the butt - and I bet that's not the only thing he's had up him".

Such shocking remarks are nothing new to the 16-year-old. "It's been going on since I was six," he says. But while his daily humiliation at school had been a secret from his parents, his sexuality has been in the open at home for three years. His mother, a teacher, found a letter to a boyfriend. After her initial shock, she stood by him. It meant everything to him. "Me mum's fab," the lanky Mancunian grins. At school, the pretence continued:

"For years, I did football and played at being rowdy just to avoid being lonely. I made every effort to appear 'normal'."

Then, last October, he came out to a girl he thought he could trust. He was wrong. Word spread through the school and John became an easy target. He stayed away for a month until the head of year at his Manchester comprehensive rang his mother. "She was surprised I was skipping school," he says, "but when I broke down and told her about all the bullying, she was even more surprised I had gone in as often as I had."

Since he confessed his problems at home, he has felt able to go back to school where, he says, "most of my teachers have been supportive". When the other boys taunt him, he taunts back. "I look them in the eye and say 'I'm after a man, not a boy' and leave them standing there with their mouths open," he beams.

Emma is still learning to stand up to her tormentors. The 15-year-old ran home in tears from her village girls' school last term after classmates spat on her. She hasn't been back. Her parents, former teachers, are distraught. Her father, Richard, says: "The school says she needs to be 'more discreet'. But asking her to be discreet is asking her to be somebody else."

Emma says supportive teachers can only do so much. "They've been helpful but they can't change kids' attitudes easily." Yet the school plans to try. It is setting up a support group for Emma of girls who are open-minded and strong enough to rise above peer pressure. It is contrived but necessary: all her old schoolfriends have succumbed to mob rule and won't have anything to do with her.

But for both John and Emma there is one sanctuary where they can be with teachers and fellow pupils yet still be themselves. The Peer Support Project, based at the Manchester Lesbian and Gay Centre and run by the National Youth Agency, is a youth group set up three years ago for lesbian, gay and bisexual teenagers. Now it has added to its services a Homework Club for pupils having problems at school - academic as well as social. The two are usually linked. Emma's mother Susan explains: "She tries to work at school but can't concentrate in class because of snide remarks."

"When you're getting hassled at school, you can't function properly," says Sara Buck, project leader of the homework club. "This is a space where you can get on with your work."

About 20 secondary teachers - gay and straight - from different subject areas spend half the session helping with homework. The other half is run by peer supporters who are past or present members of the youth group. They are given training in communication, child protectection and advice work. Mary, a 21-year-old peer supporter, says: "We run workshops on subjects not dealt with in school PSE:sexual health, lesbian and gay culture and history, coming out and strategies to use against bullies."

Having come out as bisexual at sixth-form college, Mary is someone who knows what she's talking about. So too is Tony, a volunteer teacher. When he first got his job as a science teacher in a large inner-city comprehensive, he decided that the best policy was honesty. That was why he came out to his headteacher. "Her first response was to ask me if I knew the implications of Section 28." (Section 28 is a law prohibiting the "promotion" of homosexuality. Labour has vowed to repeal it.) Since then he has been wary of exposing himself to further prejudice. And there is no doubt that it is rife: "Before our OFSTED inspection I had to spend hours stripping 'X is a poof' type graffiti off the desks," says Tony. He has come out to a few close colleagues, but says: "I feel very vulnerable when the conversation in the staffroom comes around to family life. People ask questions."

Pupils, it seems, are not the only ones who need support, which is why Tony has set up a group for lesbian and gay teachers in the Manchester area. "We talk about bullying and coming out as teachers, and generally give each other support."

The scale of the problem for pupils was highlighted last month in a survey commissioned by the gay campaign group Stonewall and the Terrence Higgins Trust. Four out of five schools admitted that homophobic verbal bullying took place, and one in four reported assaults on teenagers suspected of being gay.

Sara Buck suspects that for every pupil who has come out there are many more like the boy who has been calling her helpline for months.

"He quickly puts the phone down if someone comes into the room. He's being bullied and has suffered name-calling and threats. I've asked if there are any teachers or other kids he can confide in, but he doesn't feel confident enough to take that risk." If only he knew he wasn't alone.

The Manchester Peer Support Project can be contacted on 0161 274 4664

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