Several years ago I joined a school as an openly gay teacher and things appeared to be going well. Unfortunately a young man in year 11 inflicted a physical homophobic attack upon me. The issue was dealt with by the school — the boy being suspended, parents seen and warnings given.
The incident worried me. How come a boy, who had been through five years in a very good school, felt he could behave in that manner? Where was the educational work that could allow him to understand the nature of his actions and that might support the disciplinary sanction? To these questions there were no answers.
On the eve of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) History Month, Education For All launched a campaign to get homophobic bullying taken seriously and acted upon in schools. Schools Out, of which I am co-chair, is an active participant in Education for All’s work. Homophobic bullying is rife in many schools. It is not only perpetrated by pupils. Staff too, unwittingly or malevolently, indulge in abuse.
Such behaviour must be properly recorded and receive a response in line with its seriousness. Schools have a legal duty of care for all their pupils, parents and staff with no exemptions for those who are LGBT, whom others think are LGBT or who are questioning their status.
Schools frequently do not fulfil these obligations. Recent research carried out in Northern Ireland has shown that the position of young LGBT people has changed not one bit since the early 1980s.
This means that LGBT young people and those assumed to be so are five times more likely to attempt and commit suicide than their counterparts, far more likely to underachieve or leave school early and far more likely to live with the consequences of bullying for the rest of their lives. These are very serious issues.
It is not enough to merely deal, however effectively, with homophobic bullying when it surfaces — though for many schools that would be a great first step. Schools must educate for prevention.
LGBT people have had their real lives actively hidden from the rest of society and each other. This has allowed the powers that be the freedom to dehumanise and demonise us without restriction. It is this that is at the root of homophobic bullying wherever it occurs.
The way forward is for LGBT people to reclaim their lives with honesty and openness. Despite the advances that have been made in equality, we frequently pay a high price for this honesty.
We are still derided, abused physically and mentally, dismissed from our jobs — current legislation won’t protect us from this — rendered homeless and murdered.
If any heterosexual readers doubt this, choose a same sex friend, hold hands and attempt to shop anywhere outside the very few “gay tolerance zones”. Retribution will be swift, particularly if you are male. A more tolerant attitude towards women is likely to be a result of their sexuality being taken less seriously rather than a symptom of greater freedom. However, this visibility does not always have to be personal. We do not always have to put ourselves on the line. Schools Out initiated LGBT History Month to encourage schools, colleges, libraries, art galleries, theatres, community centres and anywhere else to unearth some of that past that we chose at the time to keep hidden.
It aims to look at how we survived, our joys and our sorrows, our triumphs and our defeats. Most important of all it aims to return to us a human face, a set of wants and needs, of aspirations and desires. To give back to us the humanity that we all share.
You can therefore understand my despair when the media reduce this to, “How do you know Shakespeare was gay?” or “Which women did Florence Nightingale fancy?”
Vicki L Eaklor, a lesbian historian, said, “We can examine how others have handled their fears and hopes, gain a sense of belonging and envision a time line stretching as far in front as behind us. Is this history with an agenda? Of course, knowledge always serves someone’s agenda, and for too long it has served those few already in power, already with a voice. Now that we are heard and seen, let’s not just learn our history, but learn how to be a part of it. It’s there. It’s ours. We deserve it.”
We at LGBT History Month believe that is true of all of us, LGBT and otherwise. Let us decide now that we will never again be hidden and we will take our rightful places in the history books, in the school curriculum and in the world. That is how we will end homophobic bullying and any other form of oppression.
The initiators of LGBT History Month would like to acknowledge their debt to the founders of Black History Month which takes place in Britain in October. Please visit our website www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk
Oh, in answer to the question about Shakespeare, read sonnets 20, 29 and 144 and make up your own mind.