Every school in the world has a significant number of young people who aren’t heterosexual. Some have already identified that they were born this way, some may yet do so. Schools can and must have an increasing role in helping them develop into confident, healthy adults.
Many are lucky enough to be growing up with supportive teachers, families, communities and legal systems, but not everyone is so lucky. Even in the growing number of countries that are, at long last, putting the law on the side of respect and tolerance, there are many young people who will face discrimination, even abuse, from their communities or, worse, family.
This makes it more important than ever that schools are oases of support and celebration of diversity. As a young man growing up and struggling to come to terms with being gay, I found my peers’ homophobic attitudes terrifying. The memory of these difficult years inspired me many years later, as a teacher, to discuss my forthcoming civil partnership ceremony in whole-school assemblies. I know from messages I received then and since that my “being out” as a teacher made a positive difference, not only to those students questioning their sexuality but also to their heterosexual peers. Giving children gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans role models has great impact – far beyond merely reading about gay celebrities. It is also hugely powerful when heterosexual teachers demonstrate that they celebrate diversity.
I’ve been fortunate enough to hear many stories of schools and teachers who have engaged positively with these issues, partnering with organisations such as Stonewall, Educate and Celebrate, Schools Out and Diversity Role Models. Through training for staff, briefings for parents and students and ongoing refinement of the curriculum, these schools are creating supportive, positive environments for all their students. I’ve had a number of teachers write heart-warming stories of being “out” for the OutTeacher.org website, which I set up in 2014. However, I’ve also had many people contact me who fear a backlash from parents if they discuss sexuality, or are open about their own sexuality.
Often people feel cultural and religious objections within their communities. It is vitally important that schools work with local parents. However, they mustn’t lose sight of their responsibility for the children in their care.
Some children grow up in an environment where they are forced to deny their natural-born identity, and told that the way they instinctively think and act is wrong. They will face confusion, upset, hurt and torment as they try to reconcile their love for their families with these messages.
Let’s not beat about the bush: this is, plainly and simply, child abuse, even if it comes from ignorance rather than a lack of love. The damage to children puts them at greatly increased risk of suicide, self-harm, substance abuse and other serious mental health issues. It also drastically increases the likelihood of unhealthy romantic and sexual relationships.
For some schools, this will be tougher than others. We have seen school leaders targeted when a small minority stir up misplaced fear and anger that schools are “trying to make their child gay”. This is an area where we must make a difference. It may be tougher for some than for others, but let’s stand up to ignorance and child abuse in all its awful forms.
Author David Weston (@informed_edu) is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust and chair of the DfE’s teachers’ professional development expert group
Article and images courtesy of theguardian