Being gay in school: ‘It's still a hushed subject'

Despite recent changes, many schools are not welcoming places for LGBT students

Ayrton Kelly from Donegal on the campus of UCD. He speaks about the experiences of LGBT teens in secondary school. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

Ayrton Kelly from Donegal on the campus of UCD. He speaks about the experiences of LGBT teens in secondary school. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell

 

Ayrton Kelly is disappointed, but not surprised, by the findings of a survey on what school is like for gay teenagers today.

The 21-year-old came out during his sixth year of secondary school – the same year as the same-sex marriage referendum.

Despite rapid social changes in Ireland, he says many schools are still not welcoming environments and many gay students remain still fearful of coming out.

“In a lot of schools, it’s still a hushed subject. Schools have their own culture. And there’s a big cultural gap between schools and where society is at right now. . . Yes, there are some very good and supportive principals and teachers out there, but a lot of this is down to chance.”

Unsafe

The findings of a new “school climate survey” of almost 800 LGBT young people conducted by Belong To Youth Services and academics at Columbia University in the United States make for troubling reading.

The biggest study of its kind to date finds that almost three-quarters of gay or transgender teenagers feel unsafe in schools.

A large majority say they have experienced homophobic remarks from other students and feel school is an unwelcoming environment that excludes them.

More than a third reported being shoved or pushed because of their sexual orientation, while just over one in 10 reported being punched, kicked or injured.

While the survey shows the stark statistics, it is the comments from individual students which provide a disturbing insight into the daily reality for many.

“I was physically and verbally harassed while I was in school based on my sexual orientation and because I was more masculine than other girls,” said one student.

Literally everyone hates me at my school. I’m stupid. I’m annoying. I’m just worthless

“I got yelled at by one student who used dyke and lesbian in a negative way towards me, then repeatedly punched and kicked me while other students watched this happen on two occasions.”

Another commented: “Had pride flags ripped up in my lockers. Nasty messages posted online. Letters left on my desk saying how I’m unnatural and I’m a freak and shouldn’t be like this.”

Wellbeing

These attitudes are also affecting students’ academic performance in many cases as well as their wellbeing.

OECD research shows LGBT students who experience frequent verbal harassment because of their sexual orientation are less likely to progress to third level and more likely to have missed school in the past month.

Some 40 per cent of students in this study report having skipped school to avoid treatment such as bullying. This is up from 20 per cent from a similar study conducted in 2016.

The impact on individual pupils is clear: about half of LGBT students say they felt lonely at school, were unable to make friends and felt like an outsider at school.

Students’ comments, offered as part of the survey, show the depth of despair some feel.

“I felt deeply suicidal for a large portion of the year and I still do,” said one pupil.

Another said: “Literally everyone hates me at my school. I’m stupid. I’m annoying. I’m just worthless.”

Students often rely on the intervention of peers, family and school staff in instances of bullying and harassment.

Inaction, say campaigners, contributes to the creation of a hostile school climate when left unaddressed.

The study shows that almost two-thirds of LGBT students said their peers never intervened in cases of bullying, and a similar proportion never reported these incidents to school staff. This was because a majority felt school staff intervention was ineffective.

Solutions

If there is a solution to this problem, campaigners say it lies in ensuring we have safe and supportive schools with inclusive staff, representation of LGBT identities in the curriculum and explicit anti-bullying policies.

This, they say, results in a student body with a higher sense of belonging and better educational outcomes.

They deserve a school experience that not only includes their identities but celebrates and values the diversity of their experiences and lives

The report’s recommendations point to a range of measures which can be taken by the Government and schools to make schools a much more welcoming place for LGBT teenagers.

They include reviewing and update professional development supports for teachers; encouraging schools to develop whole-school LGBT inclusion policies; and evaluation of social personal health education and sex education to ensure they represent rather they supports diversity and respect for LGBT people.

“We owe these students more than fear, anxiety, loneliness and harm,” says Moninne Griffith, chief executive of Belong To.

“They deserve a school experience that not only includes their identities but celebrates and values the diversity of their experiences and lives. We can do better.”

Ayrton Kelly knows the power of building a positive environment for LGBT teenagers.

When he came out, he says, it ended up being a very positive experience. There was great support from family and friends.

He recalls one class where, when the teacher stepped out of the room, one of his fellow pupils used the term “faggot”.

“Then it clicked with him and he immediately apologised. . . I think by coming out, something changed in my year group. It created an awareness of language and how behaviours and actions can create an environment where you feel safe and supported.”