TODAY I was at a workshop about sharing good practice examples of LGBT work in schools. The sound I heard today was inspiration.
As coordinator of the longest running LGBT youth group in the country, I receive requests to speak in schools and deliver workshops on LGBT awareness for young people.
Other colleagues from around the country were there too, to present their work and share expertise.
They included guest speakers Ellie Barnes, who topped the Independent on Sunday newspaper’s Pink list of influential LGBT people in 2011, for her pioneering equality and diversity teaching in Stoke Newington school, and Sue Sanders, co-chair of Schools Out, the national network for LGBT teachers, and LGBT History Month, the annual celebration of the lives and achievements of the LGBT community.
Their example of what can be achieved by a determined commitment to equality and social justice rooted firmly in evidence was highly motivating. It is about recognising that there will be some young people in a typical school community who are LGBT and have the same right as their peers to educational opportunities without fear or experience of harrassment. Recognising they are there is empowering and likely to boost their resilience to be able to stand up to and speak out against any prejudice they may face.
It can be hard to get into schools to work with them. Sometimes they seem to feel inviting us in means admitting they have a problem. I would affirm them by saying, it’s good to recognise there is a problem with LGBT bullying in schools because by naming it as wrong like all other forms of bullying, research shows the risk of LGBT young people being bullied drops by 60% (The School Report, Stonewall 2007 p.3).
Faith schools can be particularly challenging, as their churches’ moral position on same sex relationships may inhibit their confidence in confront homophobia. However, raising LGBT awareness in schools is about recognising that some people are different but deserved to be treated equally, a basic principle of social justice which most mainstream faith schools would recognise. The same report shows that homophobic bullying is 10% more likely to occur in faith schools (75%) than in secular state schools (65%).
In an update published this year, more than one third (37%) of lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils report that their faith schools say homophobic bullying is wrong, which is much worse than in non-faith schools, where half the pupils were told by their secular school that homophobic bullying is wrong. (The School Report 2012 p.2) This means that in two thirds of faith schools, pupils reported nothing was said to challenge homophobic bullying.
Here is my interview with BBC Radio Merseyside in response to this report (5 mins):
Last year, for the first time, I received a request from a Catholic school to deliver a workshop to groups of 12-13 year olds. It was brave of the school to initiate this, in response to a challenge from two young men, one of whom was on the brink of leaving the school having suffered in silence for two years. Feeling he had nothing to lose, he finally spoke out with a friend’s support, and together they advised the school on how to improve its anti-homophobic bullying strategy.
Part of this strategy was to call on outside expertise for guidance, which resulted in me visiting the young men at school and delivering a day of workshops to a whole year group. Some young people were receptive, others decided to laugh it off. In answer to the question, ‘What is homophobia’, one boy answered: ‘A fear of the Simpsons!’ Following an exercise called Count Your Losses, designed to promote empathy and show how some LGBT young people are at greater risk of homelessnes, I asked: ‘Where would an LGBT young person who is homeless go for help?’ Perhaps I should not have been surprised to hear the response: ‘Y-M-C-A!’
But the most insightful comment came from a boy who required a classroom assistant to support him, but clearly not because of a lack of intelligence. He asked ‘Does God believe in gays?’ I was cautious in my answer, because of the sensitivity of the issue in a church school. I did not claim to be able to speak for God, but I was able to say what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: that people with ‘homosexual inclinations’ must be ‘accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,’ and ‘Every sign of unjust discrimination’ towards them ‘should be avoided’. (Cathechism para. 2358).
More schools should follow the example of this faith school, which not only dared to listen to the distress of the students who were bullied, but empowered them to help make their school community a safer and more just place. I felt proud to walk alongside them on their journey.