Schools can be a place of fear and abuse for many lesbian and gay students. But teachers and students at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, east London, have shown how homophobia can be challenged.
For the second year in a row the school has marked Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month – which takes place in February – by engaging and involving students in a series of events and lessons about LGBT issues.
This year’s programme culminated with two performances by the school’s students – one at an LGBT event at Hackney Town Hall on Thursday of last week and then an assembly to the full school on Friday.
Students performed songs, spoke about figures such as black writer James Baldwin, presented statistics about LGBT issues, performed poems and drama, produced a documentary about civil partnerships and made LGBT symbols.
The month has given confidence to LGBT students, and their friends and supporters.
Rhys Hollis, a year 11 student, told Socialist Worker, “The whole month has been really good for raising awareness. The work of the last few years meant that I could come out as bisexual at school a couple of months ago.
“I have only had grief about it off one person – and that was all down to ignorance. I spoke to her and now we’re good friends.”
“When we did LGBT awareness in registration a few people made homophobic comments,” added Bronwen Lewis-Broke, another year 11 student.
“But when other people picked them up over it they got really defensive.”
“A couple of years ago the whole class would have been homophobic,” said Rhys. “But now it’s just a few people. Being LGBT isn’t much of an issue any more in the school – now it’s a way of being an individual.”
Scott Dalziel-McKinley is a year 12 student who came out during last year’s LGBT History Month events at the school.
Scott told Socialist Worker, “Coming out went alright. At last year’s LGBT assembly I sang a George Michael song.
“This year I performed my own song called ‘Secret Love’ at Hackney town hall. It is about a boy I liked a year ago before I came out and how I had to keep it secret.
“I still get the odd comment from some people but I have to be strong and let it wash over me. The teachers have been 100 percent behind me and I have very supportive friends.
“Things have changed in the school. The year before I came out the atmosphere was really bad. But the LGBT History Month celebrations have had an effect.
“When I used to talk to people I wasn’t confident. But it’s great knowing there is a month on LGBT issues at the school. It opens people’s minds.
“Now I’m not so intimidated. I think I accept other people for who they are so they should accept me.”
Eamonn Malik, a year 11 student, spoke at the town hall event and the school assembly about the need for respect and social harmony. He told Socialist Worker, “The last month’s been really cool. Everyone has enjoyed it and I’m already looking forwards to next years’ events.
“People who have views that I believe are not acceptable are being challenged. People who say dodgy things without any reasons are being forced to think about what they’re saying.
“I’m proud to be a straight ally of LGBT people.”
The events at Stoke Newington School show that with commitment and imagination, teachers and students can make a big difference in the culture of schools.
Sue Sanders is the co-chair of the Schools Out group and the instigator of the LGBT History Month. She attended the event in Hackney Town Hall.
“The whole thing was absolutely splendid,” Sue told Socialist Worker. “It was inspiring and exciting. The same kind of thing needs to be done in every school.
“Stoke Newington School has had the imagination to recognise the need to respect everyone in the community.
“The children supported each other and that is indicative of the culture we’re trying to work towards. This kind of thing is so rare in schools. It shows what we mean by celebrating diversity. It wasn’t just a celebration of LGBT people, but of everyone in the room.”
Elly Barnes, the teacher who coordinated the month at the school, said, “I have had very good feedback from the month.
“One student said that while homosexuality was prohibited in his religion, he had learned a lot over the month and now respected gay people.”
Last year some staff and parents were nervous about holding the event. “There have been very few complaints this year,” said Elly.
“I spoke at the school’s staff meeting and the development group, and that resolved some problems and made a difference to the way that teachers approached the month.
“Many more staff were onside over the event this year. Their confidence translated to the students. It would be good if this project began when the children were younger and in primary schools.
“Everything that we’ve done this month has been through the curriculum. This can and should be repeated in every school.
“Everybody has to be involved – the support staff, the catering staff, the teachers and the students. Things like this have helped the students who have come out. It’s given them a sense of confidence and transformed their lives.”
For support and more information go to » www.schools-out.org.uk