Time to end silent suffering of gay students

Thu, May 17, 2012, 01:00

OPINION: TODAY IS International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (Idaho), when governments, communities, families and individuals act to end discrimination and violence towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.

Idaho is marked in over 100 countries, as well as at the UN.

This year’s Idaho theme is Combating Homophobic and Transphobic Bullying in Our Schools. This is an important theme in Ireland because this form of bullying has resulted in generations of LGBT young students suffering in silence.

The Government has taken some progressive steps. The Department of Education and Skills has established an anti-bullying working group that is working with BeLonG To and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network to develop a “roadmap towards the elimination of homophobic bullying”, which Ruairí Quinn has spoken of.

Today, the department is discussing homophobic bullying as part of its anti-bullying forum, and all parties have signed up to our Idaho statement in support of LGBT young people and their right to an education free from homophobic bullying.

For almost a decade, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Health Service Executive’s national office for suicide prevention have been supporting BeLonG To’s work to address homophobic bullying. Yesterday at Unesco in Paris, I spoke at the launch of the UN’s first global manual on combating homophobic bullying.

Whilst these are timely and significant developments, much more needs to be done. Many studies at home and abroad have demonstrated that homophobic bullying is endemic in schools.

Studies show LGBT young people experience bullying at much higher rates than the general student population and they are less likely to seek support from teachers and adults.

Dublin City University research found a majority of teachers reported homophobic bullying in their schools, and said they felt less equipped to handle it than they do other forms of bullying.

The urgency of the issue was highlighted in a major 2009 Trinity College Dublin Children’s Research Centre study supported by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, which found terrifyingly high levels of self-harm and attempted suicide amongst LGBT young people.

Over the years numerous one-size-fits-all anti-bullying school programmes have been tried. While commendable, many of these are concerned mainly with student behaviour.

When it comes to homophobia, I believe this is a “band aid” approach. Telling a young person that they are not allowed to be homophobic will not effect the cultural shift that is needed to “eliminate homophobic bullying from our schools”. It also tells LGBT young people that we will deal with the behavioural element (the bullying), but when it comes to the real problem – the often virulent homophobia and prejudice they experience – they are left on their own yet again.

To truly end homophobic and transphobic bullying we need to effect structural changes in curriculum, policy, support services and teaching practice which will enable a cultural shift in how we educate young people.

We need to foster a culture in our schools whereby LGBT identities are a respected part of “the day-to-day”, reflecting the diversity of life outside the school gates. By addressing homophobia and transphobia in schools, we can create a culture where no one will be made suffer in silence because of who they are.


Michael Barron is executive director of BeLonG To, Ireland’s national organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. belongto.org

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