What are your children learning about being gay?
It starts with ‘that’s so gay’ in the playground and can end with physical abuse – so will the new policies on homophobic bullying make schools safer places for LGBT students?
‘Gay”, “faggot” and “queer” are regularly used as terms of abuse in schools. Is this about to change, and will it really make a difference to young gay people?
From Easter, all schools need to have written policies on tackling bullying, including homophobic bullying, under a new directive from the Department of Education and Skills. This week, hundreds of schools will participate in StandUp, a campaign against homophobic bullying, led by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth group BeLonGTo, and supported by teacher unions and school representative bodies. But although homophobic bullying has been closely linked to mental health issues and suicide attempts – up to 18 per cent of Irish LGBT people had attempted suicide according to a 2009 study – the problems for LGBT children in schools extend beyond physical and verbal abuse.
The Relationships and Sexuality Education programme suggests just two lessons should be given to the topic of sexual orientation. The rest of the RSE programme focuses generally on respectful relationships but this is often assumed to refer only to heterosexual relationships.
Young people become aware of their sexual identity from around 12 years-old. The most common age to start coming out as gay is 17 and a half.
Many schools simply ignore the topic of homosexuality. Overtly negative discussion of LGBT issues is common, according to the 2009 study Supporting LGBT Lives, which surveyed over 1,100 Irish people.
A more recent survey from the International Gay and Lesbian Organisation suggests little has changed. Up to 34 per cent of respondents reported negative comments about homosexuality from teachers. One science teacher used an experiment with magnets to point out that homosexuals were “unnatural”, because opposites attract and like repels like.
A 16-year-old student in a school in Munster told The Irish Times that one of her classmates came out as a lesbian in school, and is still being bullied. Teachers know, but feel powerless to intervene. The girl’s friends became the targets of bullies. The girl informed the principal but he did not act on it.
Pope Francis has signalled a change in approach and has emphasised respect and tolerance for gay people, though the Catholic cathecism remains clear: gay people are disordered and should lead a life of celibacy. The Catholic church controls 92 per cent of primary schools and at least 57 per cent of post-primary schools.
Students we spoke to from two different schools said speakers from Pure in Heart, a Catholic group which promotes chastity until marriage, brushed aside the issue of homosexuality when it was brought up. Students were directed to a website (couragerc.net) and a booklet by Catholic author and speaker on chastity Jason Evert, both of which urge gay people to live a life of chastity.
The organisation’s spiritual director has said that it focuses on heterosexual marriage. Pure in Heart gives talks in around 100 post-primary schools a year and for some students, Pure in Heart talks are the only sex education they receive in school.
The ground is shifting monumentally, albeit slowly (see panel). Several students have reported their classmates are increasingly supportive of gay students who come out in school, but that the school itself largely ignores them. BeLonGTo says students are coming out at a younger age and finding friends and families who support them, but they still face formidable obstacles, not least the lack of LGBT role models.
All three teacher unions , the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), and the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), have taken strong stances in favour of the abolition of Section 37, which allows schools to hire based on religious ethos and could permit them to dismiss an openly gay teacher. The Iona Institute, a conservative lobby group, is the strongest voice opposing the abolition of Section 37. It believes schools should be allowed to maintain their ethos.
Some Catholic schools are very supportive of their gay students. Belvedere College, a Catholic fee-paying secondary school in Dublin’s north inner city, has a strong record. One former Belvedere student who came out while in the school in the 1990s says that, despite a small amount of bullying, his peer group were almost entirely supportive. “The Jesuit ethos creates a culture among the teaching staff of promoting Christian values of inclusiveness, which engenders a culture among the students of accepting difference.”
The Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) has expressed concern that, from September, schools will no longer have an obligation to provide sex and relationships education in junior cycle. Instead, they will have to provide for the “wellbeing” of students, but this is not defined: some schools may bring in comprehensive sex education, others may decide students should learn that only heterosexual relationships are valid, and yet others may teach nothing at all.
Some LGBT students have disengaged with sexual health education in school because they assumed it did not include them, according to multiple studies involving the HSE, Department of Education, GLEN, BeLonGTo, and academics from the Children’s Research Centre at Trinity College Dublin.
Stand Up! Awareness Week against Homophobic and Transphobic Bullying, March 10th -14th . See belongto.org, #StandUp14 and @BeLonG_To.
This article was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. Consultant editor: Louise Holden