A sense of belonging


BULLYING:Eighty per cent of Irish teachers have witnessed homophobic bullying in schools. A new US website encourages teenagers to hang in there, but Irish research shows that tackling the problem at an early stage can have more immediate, far-reaching results, writes ANNA CAREY

IT HAS ATTRACTED the support of everyone from Colin Farrell to the cast of Glee,but perhaps the most notable contribution to the It Gets Better Project was from President Barack Obama. The project was created to tell young and bullied gay people that however tough their lives may seem now, things will get better, and the site’s website features thousands of videos, including the one Obama made in October. “What I want to say is this: you are not alone,” says the US president. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

The project began when American columnist Dan Savage heard about the suicide of a teenager called Billy Lucas in September. Lucas killed himself after experiencing homophobic bullying, and he was one of several gay teens in the US who took their own lives in the summer and early autumn of 2010. Savage found himself wishing that someone had just told these children that their lives would have got better if they had waited a while longer.

So he and his partner Terry made a YouTube video, in which they shared their own experiences of homophobic bullying but also talked about how they now had fulfilling lives and loving families. “However bad it is now, it gets better,” says Savage in the video. “And it can get great, and it can get awesome. You have to tough this period out.” In the two months after Savage posted his video, thousands of other people, from celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Hathaway to the staff of Google and Pixar, posted their own videos of hope and encouragement.

It’s almost impossible to watch any of the It Gets Better videos without being moved. But is this the best way to tackle homophobic bullying? Michael Barron is the director of BelongTo, an organisation that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people in Ireland. He likes the videos and the spirit behind the campaign, but has mixed feelings about the message.

“I think [the campaign] is important and it’s especially great that people like Obama and Hillary Clinton are on board,” he says. “But in general it suggests that you should struggle through something because things will be better when you leave school, as opposed to saying that things should be okay now. If we want to get to the root of homophobic bullying, we have to examine the responsibility of schools, of parents and communities. And if the message to young people is, at some level, just to hold out until you’re 18, it places no responsibility on teachers or anything else.” Of course, the presence of gay role models is a good thing, and Barron says it’s important for gay teens to see happy gay adults. “Role models are hugely important, especially when someone like Donal Óg Cusack comes out. It normalises being LGBT.”

But things have changed since those adults were young.

“The motivation behind the campaign is incredibly positive, but people are speaking of their own experiences of being a teenager back then rather than speaking to people about being a teenager now. You have to ask young people themselves what works for them.”

Aodhán Gregory (20), now in his second year of college, agrees. “It’s a fantastic initiative, but the fact that there are so few young people [in the campaign] saying it gets better is a bit of a downer.”

Today’s young people are coming out earlier, and there are more LGBT people in the public eye than ever before. But homophobia hasn’t gone away. Bullying is, says Michael Barron, the most common problem presented by young people supported by BelongTo, and a 2006 study showed that 80 per cent of Irish teachers had witnessed homophobic bullying in their schools. Perhaps it’s not surprising that a 2008 study by the National Office for Suicide Prevention showed that young LGBT people are more at risk of suicide and self-harm than their straight counterparts.

Both bullying and fear of being bullied can have a serious effect on young people. Aodhán Gregory didn’t come out at school. “I always tried to keep low profile about it because I was afraid of being bullied and I still got a little bit of stick.” Gregory came out at his debs (“I thought I’d give them something to remember me by,” he laughs) and his friends and classmates took it well. But although he didn’t experience serious bullying himself, he has many friends who did. “I know LGBT people who left school early because they were being bullied, and they still don’t have their Leaving Cert or any qualifications, so they’re lying idle because they can’t get work. It really affects people’s lives.”

So what’s the best way to tackle the problem? A new report commissioned by the Equality Authority, “Addressing Homophobic Bullying in Irish Schools”, offers some suggestions. Dr James O’Higgins-Norman of the School of Education Studies at DCU led the research, which drew on the attempts of six schools from all over Ireland to tackle homophobic abuse.

Since 2006, the Department of Education has recommended that homophobic bullying should be specifically covered in school’s anti-bullying policies, but the new research found that in order for a school to be successful in dealing with homophobia, the initiative has to be embraced by the entire school. “The involvement of management and especially principals is an essential ingredient,” says O’Higgins-Norman.

The other key ingredient is creating a school culture that embraces diversity. “Most young people who are bullied are bullied because they are seen to be different,” says O’Higgins Norman. He cites the case of Phoebe Prince, the Irish teenager who committed suicide in January after being bullied in her American high school, as an example. “She stood out because she was an immigrant, she had an Irish accent and was from a different culture. She was set up to be bullied by that circumstance.”

O’Higgins-Norman believes we have to look at bullying in a different way. “Traditional research into bullying looks at it as a psychological problem – here’s 10 characteristics of a typical bully and a typical victim. But there’s a sociology of bullying and a context in which it takes place, and for the most part people are bullied because they’re different. Often those bullied in a homophobic way aren’t actually gay, they’re just different, and language is used to bully them which is of a homophobic nature.”

Happily, encouraging students to examine what it means to be different can make a real change in attitudes. “Where young people are given the opportunity to think about difference as a positive aspect of life, whether it’s race or gender or sexual orientation, they usually respond positively and levels of discrimination are reduced,” says O’Higgins-Norman. “We recommend that schools engage in diversity education, and encourage students to see diversity as something to be celebrated.”

Both O’Higgins-Norman and BelongTo’s Michael Barron say that it’s important to ask students to consider gender roles. A lot of homophobic bullying stems from fixed ideas of what it is to be a “real” man or woman. Single sex boys’ schools can be particularly rigid in this regard. “Boys’ schools need to work about creating opportunities for young men to realise that being a real boy can mean all kinds of things,” says O’Higgins-Norman.

School policies are one thing, but on a day-to-day level, what can everyone do to make things better for young LGBT people? It’s important for straight people to actively stand up to homophobia too. President Mary McAleese has spoken out against homophobic bullying, which Michael Barron thinks is a hugely positive thing. “Someone like President McAleese [supporting LGBT people] tells young people that they’re accepted by society or the State. If a high-profile person says ‘you’re okay by me’, it’s like the country thinks you’re okay.”

But you don’t have be a politician to make a difference. BelongTo’s Stand Up campaign encouraged straight teens to stand up for their LGBT friends and relatives. “When we did research around the country and asked what helped young people when they were coming out and being bullied, nearly all of them said it was their closest friends, who were almost always straight,” says Barron. “The campaign was about promoting LGBT and straight friendships.”

Aodhán Gregory approves of this approach. “The Stand Up campaign tells [young people] there’s a life you can be proud of now and there are people you can be friends with. It takes the support away from the bully and on to the young LGBT person.”

The more people who show the same sort of outspoken support for the LGBT people in their own lives, the more unnecessary it’ll be to tell gay kids that their lives will improve once they’re grown up.

After all, as Gregory asks: “Why does it have to get better in the future? Why isn’t it already better?”

See the It Gets Better videos at itgetsbetterproject.com.

Contact BelongTo at tel: 01-6706223 or belongto.org.

Come What May by Dónal Óg Cusack is out now (Penguin, €19.80)