Experiences of being gay at school
When asked, it seems that many gay men and lesbians remember their school days with very mixed feelings. Being gay at school meant that, in addition to the growing pains that all teens suffer, they suffered additionally at the hands of a homophobic education system, and of their classmates. Furthermore, not only do gay pupils often have an unpleasant school experience, but they are also often denied sexual health information that is relevant to them. An education system that fails gay pupils in terms of both their social and their educational experience is clearly unacceptable, and denying gay pupils appropriate HIV education could ultimately cost their lives.
It is important to learn from the difficult experiences many gay men and lesbians had of being gay at school, in order to ensure that new generations have better experiences and are able to prevent themselves becoming infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Prejudice and bullying in school
It is unacceptable for young gay men and lesbians to experience levels of prejudice and discrimination that mar their developing years and their school experiences. They, just as much as anyone, should be able to look back warmly on their school days, without remembering bullying, name-calling, and exclusion.
It is common for young people to use words associated with homosexuality as insults or, more generally, as negative adjectives. The word 'gay' for example, was found to be the most frequently used term of abuse in UK schools by a nationwide survey. Pejorative language such as this is used by young people of all ages, even among children who have not yet developed an awareness of their sexuality. Although they may not actually know what ‘gay’ means, just as they don’t have a concept of ‘straight’, they do have the impression that it means something negative.
These negative associations can easily be picked up from older friends or family, and mean that prejudice has already taken root when young people become aware of the varieties of human sexuality. This can result in unpleasant behaviour towards gay pupils and an intolerance to any deviation from gender roles. Any pupil who displays characteristics associated with the opposite gender – girls who show ‘boyish’ character traits and boys who show ‘feminine’ behaviour – risk being identified as ‘gay’, and bullied.
“I guess from a young age I knew I was different from the other guys, because I used to hang around with the girls at break and lunchtimes, and I absolutely despise sport! I was also bullied at school, mainly because I liked reading and watching documentaries. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘something guys did”. Steve
The effects of prejudice in school
Prejudice can cause great distress for gay or lesbian pupils, who, gradually becoming aware of their sexuality, come to realize that they are a member of a despised group. This can affect self-esteem badly and be a very upsetting time. As they grow older, gay pupils are faced with the very difficult decision of whether to come out and be openly gay at school, or whether to try to hide their sexual identity from their peers.
Being ostracised or becoming a target for the bullying that is so often aimed at lesbian and gay pupils can mean that there are very negative consequences to coming out.
Dealing with prejudice and bullying in school
When bullying and prejudice in school comes from other pupils, it comes in the forms of bullying, name-calling, harassment and sometimes physical violence. Many schools have developed anti bullying policies that aim to prevent bullying before it happens, offer avenues through which bullied pupils can seek help and advice, and lay down guidelines for dealing with cases of bullying that arise. An anti bullying policy should recognise that pupils may be bullied because of their sexuality – or because of inferences that have been made about their sexuality.
Even more insidious, however, is prejudice that might also be felt by the school staff. Pupils look to their teachers for example, and if they see the teachers engaging in prejudicial behaviour then this sends the message that such behaviour is to be emulated. Teachers with homophobic attitudes can make being gay at school even harder for young people. Additionally, discriminatory behavior from teaching staff can have a negative impact on a gay pupil’s academic success – which can impact hugely on their later lives.
Very few schools employ openly gay teachers, but this would provide both positive role-models for gay pupils, and, by showing good examples of gay men and lesbians, would help to dispel ignorance amongst pupils as a whole, and thereby prevent prejudice from taking root. At one Hawaiian school, students spoke out in support of their openly gay teacher when he faced discrimination at work. The students condemned what they described as a discriminatory atmosphere on campus.
Prejudice clearly needs to be addressed in schools, both amongst pupils and teachers. Prejudice comes from ignorance, and can be best tackled with exposure and education.
What is needed?
The school system exists to educate and prepare young people for a place in adult society. If it does not provide gay pupils with the information they need to have safe sexual relationships, and allows other pupils to leave school with prejudice and a lack of understanding of gay issues, then the school system has failed.
Some education providers have taken steps to ensure young people receive sexual health education that contains a component for gay pupils. There are also an increasing number of schools that have specific policies for tackling homophobic bullying and discrimination. In such an environment, gay and lesbian teachers are more able to come out to students and staff, acting as vital role models for young people.
However, these schools continue to be in the minority. Often, even if a school wishes to do so, it feels unable to institute such policies because it is worried about negative reactions from local government, from parents, or from local media. This suggests a need for legislation to ensure that comprehensive education is just that – education that caters for all pupils, regardless of their sexual orientation.