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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. An education system that fails gay pupils in terms of both their social and their educational experience is clearly unacceptable, and denying gay pupils appropriate HIV education could ultimately cost their lives.
It is important to learn from the difficult experiences many gay men and lesbians had of being gay at school, in order to ensure that new generations have better experiences and are able to prevent themselves becoming infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Prejudice and bullying in school
It is unacceptable for young gay men and lesbians to experience levels of prejudice and discrimination that mar 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 Pejorative 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, who, gradually becoming aware of their sexuality, come to realise that they are a member of a despised group. This can affect self-esteem badly and be a very upsetting time. 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
Dealing with prejudice and bullying in school
When bullying and prejudice in school comes from other pupils, it comes in the forms 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 inferences that have been made about their sexuality.4
Even more insidious, however, is prejudice that might also be felt by the school staff. 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 emulated. Teachers with homophobic attitudes can make being gay at school even harder for young people.5 Additionally, discriminatory behaviour from teaching staff can have a negative impact on a gay pupil’s academic success – which can impact hugely on their later lives.
“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
Very few schools employ openly gay teachers, but this would provide both positive role-models for gay pupils, and, by showing good examples of gay men and lesbians, would help to dispel ignorance amongst pupils as a whole, and thereby prevent 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.6
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.
AVERT.org has more about homophobia, prejudice and attitudes to gay men and lesbians.
Lack of information for gay pupils
Young gay men 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. An education system that fails in this regard is one that puts lives at risk.
Schools do not always do enough to address these problems, and in some cases, can even add to them. All too often, even if sexual health education does exist, it doesn’t even mention gay people.
"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. however, issues surrounding relationships and family life come up in many more subjects than only sex education or biology. In most cases, wherever the lesson touches on these matters and an example is used, an assumption of heterosexuality is made. From geography to English language, gay pupils learn that they are excluded.
"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
Not only are issues affecting gay people often not covered by the curriculum in terms of sexual health education, but the sex education that pupils receive is also heterosexually orientated, and therefore inappropriate and of little value to gay pupils.
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
Learning the right lessons
In some schools, sex education classes will be covered by a regular school teacher who has volunteered – someone who is normally the English teacher, for example. Other schools have no sex education on their curriculum, and what little information the students receive comes under the umbrella of the biology syllabus. Some schools choose to have a visitor from outside the school to cover these classes.
“The discomfort of teachers and parents has been, for too long, allowed to frustrate the needs of pupils both gay and straight.”
Sexual health education should involve discussion of gay and straight issues. Often, when schools offer practical advice in avoiding HIV infection and STDs. it is aimed at straight pupils, with no mention of prevention methods for gay pupils. This may be because STD and HIV prevention for gay men and lesbians involves discussion of ‘gay sex’.
Often teachers are too embarrassed to discuss ‘what gay people do in bed’. However, no sexual health education class can be even remotely adequate without including this type of information, and the discomfort of teachers and parents has been, for too long, allowed to frustrate the needs of pupils both gay and straight. If regular teachers are too uncomfortable dealing with sexual issues, then an external specialist teacher should take some sessions.
What needs to be included in sexual health education?
Given that gay men are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection and certain STDs, any comprehensive sexual health course should offer information about how gay men can protect themselves from infection. This necessarily involves discussing topics that need to be more explicit, such as safer sex for gay men. It is not possible to teach about safer sex without mention, and ideally discussion, of different sexual practices.
It is also important for young people to receive information about gay sexuality, in addition to just sexual health. Gay pupils need information that will give them an idea of the experience of living as a gay person in the wider world outside the classroom. This also helps to dispel ignorance and prejudice amongst other pupils. Lessons might include topics such as rights of gay spouses and same-sex parents.
Sexual health education, if it exists, offers the opportunity to begin providing education about different sexualities and different lifestyles. This needn’t be restricted to a sexual health class. All lessons, from drama to geography, involve references to family systems and relationships. These don’t have to be heterosexual to be successful.7
“I told a few other close friends but one day in an AS level history class we ended up discussing HIV/AIDS rather than the German Reformation. Well one person said 'Its all them who spread it- those gays' to which in outrage I shouted ‘WE DON'T SPREAD IT THANK YOU!’"Tom
Barriers to providing comprehensive sexual health education in school
Some schools have no sex education on their curriculum. This can be a result of the wider political climate and legislation in a country, or the stance of the school itself. Some academic planners fear that pupils who are taught about gay sexuality will want to rush out and try it. This is an argument that is often used by those who oppose comprehensive sex education in schools. On the contrary, an abundance of studies have shown that sex education reduces teenage pregnancies and STD infection rates.8
Many schools that have a strong religious influence are opposed to comprehensive sex education. This can severely limit a pupil's education, with information only being provided in their biology class under the heading of ‘reproduction’. These classes can be about, literally, the ‘birds and the bees’. They often leave young people confused and ignorant, and communicate that human sexuality is embarrassing and shouldn't be discussed.9 10 This not only means that homosexuality is unlikely to be adequately discussed (if at all), but furthermore, a teacher who communicates to the class that these topics are uncomfortable, will damage the self-respect of gay class-members, and amplify the prejudice they already experience.
The UK government has announced that it will make sex and relationships education compulsory at primary and secondary level, as well as remove parents' right to opt their children out of these lessons until they are 15.11 However, it is vital that this progress is reflected in the attitudes and capabilities of those who are carrying out sexual health education. Talking to pupils about sexual health issues, or issues surrounding sexuality, can be awkward for some staff members, and for them to feel more comfortable, they need to know that they are teaching pupils the right information, for the right reasons. They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about their topic, and certainly shouldn’t, themselves, be prejudiced against gay men and lesbians.
This is a problem that needs to be addressed by society as a whole – parents are often uncomfortable talking to their children about sex, and are little happier about the idea of their teacher providing the necessary information.12 Parents need to know that sex and HIV education is ‘safe’, and that it won’t encourage any ‘immoral’ behaviour in their offspring, whether gay or straight.
Teaching the teachers
A UK survey found that less than half of teachers would feel confident in providing pupils with information on lesbian and gay issues.13 Teachers who feel ignorant about the issues can often be embarrassed by a discussion of gay sexuality and behaviour. A teacher who isn't trained in sexual health education is likely to be extremely uncomfortable when asked to teach a safer-sex lesson involving topics such as ‘oral sex’, ‘anal sex’, and ‘sex between women’. This discomfort will be picked up by the pupils, and often leads to important topics being brushed over.
Teachers need to be prepared for any possible questions that they may be asked, and need to have a good knowledge of the facts and issues surrounding human sexuality. A teacher who knows their topic well is much more comfortable in the classroom, and thereby makes pupils much more comfortable with the topic.14
“An uncomfortable teacher will have a dysfunctional class, with students giggling together behind cupped hands.”
This is important in terms of having functional lessons. Students need to be able to get on with group work, engage with their topic enthusiastically, and indulge their natural interest in learning about issues that ultimately will affect them. In a well-managed class, pupils' own interest will provide the motivation to learn. An uncomfortable teacher will have a dysfunctional class, with students giggling together behind cupped hands, whispering at the back of class, and trying to embarrass the teacher further by asking awkward questions. At the end of this class, students will be no better informed than they were at the beginning of it.15
Teacher training is one obvious answer to this problem. A teacher who is to discuss issues of sexuality in their class should first feel comfortable with the issues themselves. Appropriate training for teachers can familiarise them with questions that they might have to deal with, and ensure that their knowledge of the subject is complete.
Another solution would be for the school to bring in teachers from outside the school to teach HIV, sexual health and sexuality education topics, or to have one teacher in the school who is designated with responsibility for these topics. They must not become an afterthought to the curriculum. Social education such as the awareness of prejudice should be present throughout the curriculum.
There is a serious lack of specific training for teachers in many countries, meaning that the majority of pupils receive extremely limited sexual health education with no information for gay pupils. Speaking about sexuality education in Latin American countries, the deputy director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, highlighted an urgent need for teacher training, stressing that,
"there is a need for sexuality education that goes beyond teaching the basic biology"16
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. Stonewall (2009), 'Teacher's report'.
- 5. Lelleri R (2007, November), 'Schoolmates project: transnational research on homophobic bullying in schools'.
- 6. Hawaii News Today (2007, October), 'Nanakuli students rally around an openly gay teacher'.
- 7. Terrence Higgins Trust (2009), 'Out in school'.
- 8. Kirby, D. (2007), 'Emerging Answers 2007: New Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy - Full Report', National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
- 9. NHS Health Scotland (2008, March), 'A review of sex and relationships education in Scottish secondary schools'.
- 10. Texas Freedom Network (2009), 'Just say don't know'.
- 11. Department for Children, Schools and Families (2009, 5th November), 'Ed Balls confirms all young people to learn Personal Social Health and Economic education'
- 12. Dumas L. (1999), 'Talk with your kids...before everyone else does'.
- 13. Stonewall (2009), 'The teachers' report'.
- 14. UNESCO (2009), 'International technical guidance on sexuality education'.
- 15. UNESCO (2008), 'Good policy and practice in HIV & AIDS and education: effective learning'.
- 16. IRIN (2008), 'Global: sex education failing young people'.