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.