Self-harm and suicide risk for LGBT pupils

31st July 2015 at 01:00
New report highlights widespread prejudice and ill-prepared staff

Homophobic bullying is so rife in Scottish schools, and teachers are so poorly equipped to help, that many gay teenagers are left vulnerable to self-harm and even suicide, a damning new report has found.

School is where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people feel least able to be open about their sexual orientation, despite changes in wider social attitudes and the legalisation of same-sex marriage, it says.

The Scottish LGBT Equality Report (bit.lyLGBTScotland), billed as the most comprehensive study of its kind ever undertaken in the country, canvassed 1,052 LGBT people. It found that almost all had faced prejudice, half within the previous month.

The respondents believe that, after the Scottish government, schools have more responsibility than any other institution for tackling inequality - but in practice many students have had little or no chance to discuss LGBT issues. Even well-intentioned teachers are ill-prepared to help, the report says.

Tom French, policy and public affairs coordinator for the Equality Network charity, which published the research, said it revealed "the stark reality of the prejudice, discrimination and other forms of disadvantage that LGBT people continue to face in Scotland".

The report comes as a petition calling for statutory teaching of LGBT issues in all schools is about to be submitted to the Scottish Parliament (bit.lyLGBTpetition).

Suffering in silence

Susannah McWhirter, a 17-year-old lesbian student from Kilmarnock, found that teachers wanted to help when she suffered homophobic abuse in S2 but did not know how to do so.

"I was called names such as `lesbo' and `dyke'," she said. "I received abusive comments and death threats on social media.I even had to drop PE altogether because other students felt uncomfortable with me being in the same changing room.

"I felt alone. Some days I couldn't face going to school. I started self-harming and had suicidal thoughts. I know my experience is not unusual."

The report also raises concerns that bullying of LGBT people is not viewed as seriously as it should be, and that some schools, particularly faith-based ones, do not do enough to challenge the issue.

A transgender woman from Edinburgh recalled a gay schoolmate who suffered "vicious bullying" but "received very little protection". She said that if the abuse had been racial in nature, the bullies would have been immediately suspended or even expelled.

Others complained that schools did not challenge the common use of "gay" as a casual term of derision.

One gay man said it was "practically impossible" for LGBT pupils to be open about their identity at school. One respondent, after coming out, endured the school rugby team chanting "faggot" at him at a party.

LGBT staff, too, can be reluctant to speak openly about their sexual orientation. One teacher from Edinburgh said: "It was suggested to me that I should not come out to my classes for fear of setting myself up as a target. Although it was well-intentioned, it is prejudice."

A West Lothian teacher said: "While I am happy to be `out' with colleagues, I am not at all comfortable with being out to parents and students."

Progress is being made in some Scottish schools, however. Earlier this year, West Lothian's Broxburn Academy became the first Scottish school to receive the LGBT Schools Charter Mark for tackling homophobia and supporting pupils.

It trains all staff and encourages students to raise awareness of potential problems through events, assemblies and in class. Trained pupils also run drop-in support sessions.

Headteacher Peter Reid said there had been "realisation and acceptance" by staff that homophobic bullying, including the use of homophobic language, was to be tackled and challenged whenever it was noticed. It was not acceptable to "turn a blind eye", he said.

`It was as if I was in the wrong'

"I was bullied throughout my time at high school for being gay," says Stuart Russell, pictured, a young Fife artist who made numerous suicide attempts as a teenager because of the abuse he suffered. "I was outed before I even had time to figure myself out. The bullying was all day, every day. At lunchtimes I would have younger kids throw food at me and shout abusive comments. People would occasionally follow me home shouting abuse and trying to beat me up.

"I had very few friends, so high school was lonely. I felt like an outsider and was so insecure about myself.

"When I went to teachers about the abuse I was suffering, nothing was done. I was sent to a therapist and nothing happened to the bullies. It was as if I was in the wrong."

Sweeping the problem under the rug is common in Scottish schools, Mr Russell says.

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