Being gay and deciding when and who to ‘come out to’ can be a very traumatic experience leading some young people to self harm and depression. As Head of Year, it can be extremely difficult to tackle especially when the young person maybe displaying other signs of turmoil such as a drop in grades, poor attention span in classes, a sudden lack of interest in things which used to be a hobby, reluctance to go to PE or avoiding social situations altogether.
So how do you deal with students identifying themselves as gay or lesbian?
The 16 – 24 year old age group are far more likely to identify themselves as gay and this number declines as the age rises. This potentially means that more young people are comfortable with their sexuality as society becomes more tolerant which is fantastic news. However, research conducted in Northamptonshire , suggests there has been a rise in homophobic bullying, with 82% of teachers ‘aware of homophobic language’. The Year 9 and 10s surveyed suggested that 64% of pupils had seen others being bullied.
There were several gay young people in my year group. Each told a different story of when and how they came out. There were some surprises and others, well, not so surprising. Interestingly, the girls who came out seemed to be in need of less support than some of the boys. However, the degree to which each were accepted varied (and that depended on individual self confidence and esteem) but in a predominately white, working class school, the number of reported bullying cases I dealt with amounted to one or two.
The bullying revolved around language such as gay or queer. The language around sexuality I found extraordinarily hard to deal with. Calling someone ‘a gay’ became a daily occurrence. The implied meaning was that person was soft or weak. Being called a ‘pussy’ referenced the female gender and perception, again, of weakness tended to be used more towards boys more than girls. The subculture of youth language meant a lot of it was ‘gang related’ and had crept into the vernacular. As an English teacher, the etymology behind such language is fascinating and makes for an interesting lesson or assembly but how can you stop young people from using derogatory remarks?
Generally, I found black pupils were less accepting of gay peers and again, I wonder if demographics plays a part in a young person’s decision to come out? Anecdotally, I never came into contact with a gay or lesbian pupil who was of Afro-Caribbean heritage. The reasons why may revolve around cultural and religious beliefs which conform to very conservative and traditionally held views probably making it harder for young people from those communities to ‘come out.’
In a lesson which consisted of both white and black pupils (who were mainly from committed church attending families), there was an interesting discussion around being gay and comparing it to the civil rights movement. If we interchanged black for gay and vice versa, would we still accept the prejudice? Some held very strong creationist views and others accepted that times change and move on. I had the same discussion with a teacher who is of African-Nigerian decent and he thought it incredulous that the issue could be confused. For him being gay wasn’t the same as being black but my point, very much simplified here, was the comparable societal treatment and language towards being black, in say 1970s Britain, held as much potency to cause distress as the treatment and language directed at the gay community.
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of these words (or any words) to demean and induce fear but we live in a paradigm of heterosexuality and subliminal messages are sent to young people from an early age about what’s pink and blue. I am not breaking new ground here but when I reflect on the every day portrayal of gay men and women- from sporting icons to Hollywood starlets- the number of gay men and women represented are few and far between. Even innocuous films like Despicable Me 2 (where Margo falls in love with Antonio and Gru’s happy ending is a marriage to Lucy Wilde) it occurred to me there are lots of missed opportunities to explore different types of love and relationships.
It is even more disheartening to watch programmes like Dr Christian Jessen’s C4 Cure me, I’m Gay, to see messages like ‘childhood trauma causes homosexuality’ and that there are numerous people and religions which are anti- gay being presented almost as valid arguments. At one point, Dr Christian’s father expresses a level of disappointment in his son’s sexuality, which was clearly distressing for the Doctor. I know the intention wasn’t to confirm the fears of young gay men and women, but it did. It corroborated the trepidation and apprehension felt; the fear of being cast out and unaccepted even by loved ones.
It would be more helpful for young people to see positive, diverse and realistic representations of relationships. There is much to be celebrated such as fifteen countries enshrining same-sex marriage in law, amid criticism and despite fierce opposition. Children from all backgrounds regardless of sexual orientation, need to see loving and caring relationships in order to understand and model them. Children must view same-sex relationships with the same equality afforded to opposite-sex relationships and not to regard it as abnormal especially when the number of same-sex families are on the increase.
When I first started teaching, the Tory led borough still upheld the Section 28 clause. I remember M coming to tell me she was a lesbian and despite the complete trauma she was clearly suffering, I was told by the SLT that I could be disciplined for speaking about it. Thankfully 6 years later, I was inviting the Stonewall Foundation in to talk to another pupil who was also struggling with his sexual identity.
The way he told me was through an initiative whereby I had invited pupils to write to me about anything that concerned or worried them about school. They were to be totally anonymous, although it didn’t stop some pupils putting their names on them! The issues raised ranged from problems in lessons and with teachers to school dinners to makeup. I read through all 300 plus letters, some were deeply personal and some laugh out loud funny. X’s letter was do with homophobic name calling and wanting the word gay banned and for pupils to be more tolerant of each other because there might be gay people standing next to them. I knew who the letter was from. I recognised the spidery handwriting instantly.
In a quiet moment, I took X aside and spoke to him. I explained that he wanted me to know, as he must have realised I would know his handwriting. We discussed through tears what being out would mean, the homophobic language wasn’t confined to school but also used at home by his dad. He revealed that he had been cutting himself and once he revealed this, I had a statutory duty to report it. We brought his mum in, she had found blood in his bedroom and didn’t know what to do. She was supportive of his decision. He spoke at length to our school counsellor who was amazing. Stonewall also came into school to do specialist counselling with X. And through this support, the self harm came to an end and he was able to enjoy his passion for sport again. He was able to reconcile the stereotypes of being gay and sporty with the help of Stonewall and talk through all the possible and impossible endings.
In my conversations with Stonewall, it became apparent that we were one of a very few schools that actively sort their help. Through the support of an amazing Assistant Headteacher, we became school champions and promoted positive attitudes towards sexuality. It encouraged debate and questions from the entire school community which in itself raises awareness and sends the right message to young people that is more than ok to be who and what you are.