Something to shout about: challenging homophobia in schools

A pilot workshop to tackle homophobic bullying in Dublin schools is being expanded. Participants in the scheme share their experiences

ShoutOut organisers (left to right): Lydia Rathaill, Declan Meehan, Eoin O’Liatháin, Owen Murphy and Jane Casey

ShoutOut organisers (left to right): Lydia Rathaill, Declan Meehan, Eoin O’Liatháin, Owen Murphy and Jane Casey

 

Last week the Minister for Education announced groundbreaking new procedures to tackle homophobic bullying and cyber bullying in all 4,000 primary and secondary schools around the country. New regulations mean each school must include safeguarding procedures to deal with homophobic and cyber-bullying in their codes of conduct.

Over the past 10 years the climate of homophobia in the education system has been shifting slowly thanks to concentrated efforts by groups like BeLonG To (a national organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) and GLEN (the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network)

“The first time we ran a campaign in schools, back in 2003, the front page of a Sunday newspaper read ‘Church anger as gay campaign targets schools’. We have come a long way,” says Micheal Barron, director of BeLonG To.

The progress of the past decade saw three nationwide school campaigns highlighting homophobic bullying and a commitment to tackle it in the 2011 Program for Government. The work that started as a plan to tackle homophobic bullying became Ireland’s National Action Plan on bullying, which also ensured the visibility of LGBT identities on the education agenda.

“In reality there is still physical bullying going on. There isn’t a week that goes by that a young person doesn’t turn up beaten-up because of being LGBT,” says Barron. “It’s that and excluding, gossiping, and graffiti. Exclusion is particularly difficult for young women.”

Typically in any class of 30 students, two or three are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Explaining this to schools on a level everyone can relate to, and particularly to those with a conservative religious ethos, can be difficult. Difficulties reaching out to more conservative schools are two-fold because the resistance needs to be identified and worked on slowly.

“We adapt a community approach and show how difficult it is when an LGBT young person feels invisible,” says Barron. “We talk about it in terms of identity, instead of it being about where you’re from or what clothes you wear. Identity-based bullying is like racism, which makes it easier for schools to see it as part of the bigger picture. The new procedures place the LGBT person up front and asks schools to follow agreed templates to report incidents of bullying.”

BeLonG To, which has been praised by the UN for its work on bullying, is currently working to develop a global “LGBT safe-school” network with organisations across Latin America, Europe, South Africa and China. “The response in Ireland has been extraordinary. Our role has been to demonstrate what’s possible and our goal, while ambitious, is hopefully to eradicate homophobic bullying in schools over the next few years,” he says.

This week, a new program will be launched, inspired by BeLonG To’s work with the aim of tackling homophobic bullying through workshops for transition-year students. ShoutOut, which was set up by a group of college students, was piloted in 10 schools around Dublin last March and will expand to 100 more schools thanks to an €8,000 grant from the US Embassy.

Declan Meehan, cofounder of the project, says he and his friends were inspired by their own experiences as LGBT people in the Irish education system.

“We never felt included. They made reference to the broad spectrum of sexuality or gender identity, and when we got to college it was so much better. We realised we wanted to fill in the missing gap for young students,” he says.

The project is aimed at educating young people in transition year about lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender issues. “We’re always aware we’re talking to two groups of students, LGBT students and straight students,” says Meehan. “We make it safe and casual and stay away from negative labels. We allow opinions to be voiced and we do some workshopping around terms and what people associate with bisexual, gay or transgender etc.”

Dara Keenan, a 17-year-old fifth-year student, took the workshop in March and has been rethinking the word “gay”. “I have used it a lot. It’s part of culture. I never thought of it as a derogatory term until the workshop, I just wouldn’t think about it,” he says.

“I think listening to personal experiences of how it affects people changed the entire year’s perception. I may have used it a couple of times after the talk but less now. I try to catch myself before I do,” he says.

While lesbian, gender and bisexual are more normalised terms, transgender deals with gender identity, which Dara says was more tricky for his age group to tackle.

“It’s certainly harder to grasp for our age group. I understand it, but, for example, I know a family who are extremely religious and the daughter can understand gays and bisexuals but she cannot get her head around transgender, so talking about it is important. There is a different perception in our age group between gays and bisexuals and transgender. I don’t think it’s a good thing. Talking about it really helps.”

Harry Lee also did the workshop. “The thing they were saying is if you’re friends with someone who is gay, you’re friends and it doesn’t matter about your sexuality at all,” he says. “You make your friends based on their personality and not their sexual preference.”

The 16-year-old attended the Pride parade in Dublin this summer and says he could feel the difference that day. “It’s very much a celebration to them instead of a statement, like the older I get it gets better and hopefully it will continue to go that way.”

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