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Being Gay at School
Experiences of being gay at school
When asked, it seems that many gay men and lesbians remember their school days with very mixed feelings. Being gay at school meant that, in addition to the growing pains that all teens suffer, they suffered additionally at the hands of a homophobic education system, and of their classmates.
Furthermore, not only do gay pupils often have an unpleasant school experience, but they are also often denied sexual health information that is relevant to them. It is important to learn from the difficult experiences many gay men and lesbians had being gay at school, in order to ensure that new generations have better experiences and are able to prevent themselves from HIV transmission and other sexually transmitted infections ( STIs).
This page is written for both gay and straight students, to encourage everyone to think about the difficulties gay students may experience at school. Raising awareness will help to reduce bullying and homophobia, and advocate for sexual health education to include information for gay students too.
Prejudice and bullying in school
It is unacceptable for young gay men and lesbians to experience levels of prejudice and discrimination that spoil their developing years and their school experiences. They, just as much as anyone, should be able to look back warmly on their school days, without remembering bullying, name-calling, and exclusion.
“The word 'gay' was found to be the most frequently used term of abuse in UK schools.”
It is common for young people to use words associated with homosexuality as insults or, more generally, as negative adjectives. The word 'gay' for example, was found to be the most frequently used term of abuse in UK schools by a nationwide survey. 1 Insulting language such as this is used by young people of all ages, even among children who have not yet developed an awareness of their sexuality. Although they may not actually know what ‘gay’ means, just as they don’t have a concept of ‘straight’, they do have the impression that it means something negative.
"You picked up (homosexuality) wasn't accepted ... and it wasn't liked." - Tom
These negative associations can easily be picked up from older friends or family, and mean that prejudice has already taken root when young people become aware of the varieties of human sexuality. This can result in unpleasant behaviour towards gay pupils and an intolerance to any deviation from gender roles. Any pupil who displays characteristics associated with the opposite gender – girls who show ‘boyish’ character traits and boys who show ‘feminine’ behaviour – risk being identified as ‘gay’, and bullied. 2
“I guess from a young age I knew I was different from the other guys, because I used to hang around with the girls at break and lunchtimes, and I absolutely despise sport! I was also bullied at school, mainly because I liked reading and watching documentaries. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘something guys did”. - Steve
The effects of prejudice in school
Prejudice can cause great distress for gay or lesbian pupils, which can affect their self-esteem badly. As they grow older, gay pupils are faced with the very difficult decision of whether to come out and be openly gay at school, or whether to try to hide their sexual identity from their peers. 3
“I want to come out the closet but I'm too scared. My whole school is filled with people that just take the piss out of gays, and I wouldn't be able to stand it.” - Dani
“When I started to realize in 5th grade that being gay wasn't accepted, and that most people believed it wasn't real, I started my hiding.” - Cody
Being ostracised or becoming a target for the bullying that is so often aimed at lesbian and gay pupils can mean that there are very negative consequences to coming out.
"I'd say don't tell a school friend first unless they're the closest, closest, closest most trustworthy friend you know. One of the people I told let slip and suddenly the whole year knew. Nobody said anything directly to me but I did notice a lot of the boys suddenly weren't friends and they'd ignore me and they'd be laughing when I was around. Other people I know have had a much worse time than that, but it was bad enough." - Andy
“I kept myself to myself so I got the grief of being bullied. I twice nearly killed myself cos of the bullying. . . I still get the usual ‘Hey puffter what u doing still alive?’ and crap like that.” - Gary
The UK's Annual Bullying Survey (2014) found that 80 percent of the young gay people who responded were bullied, and more than half had thought about suicide. 4 Bullying is wrong, and young people must be taught about how badly it can hurt someone.
Dealing with prejudice and bullying in school
Bullying and prejudice in school from other pupils may come in the form of bullying, name-calling, harassment and sometimes physical violence. Many schools have developed anti bullying policies that aim to prevent bullying before it happens, offer avenues through which bullied pupils can seek help and advice, and lay down guidelines for dealing with cases of bullying that arise. An anti bullying policy should recognise that pupils may be bullied because of their sexuality – or because of assumptions that have been made about their sexuality. 5
Pupils look to their teachers for example, and if they see the teachers engaging in prejudicial behaviour then this sends the message that such behaviour is to be copied. Teachers with homophobic attitudes can make being gay at school even harder for young people, and negatively affect their academic success. 6
“The only mention of gay men was jokes. Even the teachers made jokes at my expense because of the rumours about me. Which is something that I found really hurtful.” - Daniel
Employing openly gay teachers would provide both positive role-models for gay pupils, and help to dispel ignorance amongst pupils as a whole, thereby preventing prejudice from taking root. At one Hawaiian school, students spoke out in support of their openly gay teacher when he faced discrimination at work. The students condemned what they described as a discriminatory atmosphere on campus. 7
Prejudice clearly needs to be addressed in schools, both amongst pupils and teachers. Prejudice comes from ignorance, and can be best tackled with exposure and education.
Lack of information for gay pupils
Young gay men around the world are disproportionately affected by various sexual health issues, specifically HIV. They need to receive the information that will enable them to identify risks, and to take action to protect themselves before they reach an age when they will become sexually active.
"We used to have discussions in biology about the birds and the bees and if you come out and said, 'well what about gay people', they'll look around and think 'oh, he's gay'. So you just keep quiet." - Mark
Many teachers actively attempt to keep sexual issues out of their classes because they are uncomfortable with the topic. When relationship and family life topics come up, issues affecting gay people are often not covered by the curriculum in terms of sexual health education. The sex education that pupils receive is usually heterosexually orientated, and therefore inappropriate and of little value to gay pupils.
"Occasionally the teacher would bring up the idea of homosexuality and being gay and then it was such an amazement to the rest of the class because no-one else would bring it up. And then some really ignorant remarks would come from the boys, the lads at the back of the class." - Kevin
It is important for both straight and gay pupils to be given information and skills for HIV prevention. Furthermore, just as gay pupils need to know how to protect themselves in the event that they choose to have a heterosexual encounter, straight pupils need to be able to protect themselves should they have sex with a person of the same gender.
"I was waiting and expecting to hear something about homosexuality, safe sex and different things in sex education. Maybe some information that could help me. But I got nothing. There was nothing." - Tim
What is needed?
The school system exists to educate and prepare young people for a place in adult society. If it does not provide gay pupils with the information they need to have safe sexual relationships, and allows other pupils to leave school with prejudice and a lack of understanding of gay issues, then the school system has failed.
Some education providers have taken steps to ensure young people receive sexual health education that contains a component for gay pupils. There are also an increasing number of schools that have specific policies for tackling homophobic bullying and discrimination. In such an environment, gay and lesbian teachers are more able to come out to students and staff, acting as vital role models for young people.
However, these schools continue to be in the minority. Often, even if a school wishes to do so, it feels unable to institute such policies because it is worried about negative reactions from local government, from parents, or from local media. This suggests a need for legislation to ensure that comprehensive education is just that – education that caters for all pupils, regardless of their sexual orientation.
- 1. BBC (2008, 18th March), ' How 'gay' became children's insult of choice'
- 2. Lelleri R (2007, November), ' Schoolmates project: transnational research on homophobic bullying in schools'
- 3. NHS (2007, 4th September), ' Briefing 3: young lesbian, gay and bisexual people'
- 4. Ditch the Label (2014) ' The Annual Bullying Survey 2014'
- 5. Stonewall (2009), ' Teacher's report'
- 6. Lelleri R (2007, November), ' Schoolmates project: transnational research on homophobic bullying in schools'
- 7. Hawaii News Today (2007, October), ' Nanakuli students rally around an openly gay teacher'