Elly Barnes, Number One On The IoS Pink List, On How To Integrate LGBT Issues Into Schools
Some students think that being homosexual doesn’t exist because you can't see "gayness", Elly Barnes, a music teacher who educates young people about lesbian and gay issues, says.
Barnes, who was voted number one in the Independent on Sunday's Pink List, has spent the past few years campaigning to educate staff and students alike about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues.
She helped co-ordinate the establishment of LGBT History month, which takes place in February, but says she won't rest until every month is LGBT month.
In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Barnes explains how she made her secondary school in Hackney a centre of excellence for LGBT issues - and why she did it.
When asked why she first decided to champion the cause, she said it was her "reaction to the widespread homophobia" she and her colleagues witnessed on a daily basis.
"Every five minutes you would hear 'stop being so gay' or 'your chair is so gay'. I found the use of the word ‘gay’ in the wrong context exceptionally offensive and so did other teachers, parents and the students themselves.
"This was back in 2005 when I was new in a post as head of year. This meant I had 240 Year 7 students whose minds I could infiltrate and set a new culture of acknowledgement, respect and understanding."
But, she admits, it can be "very difficult" to change the minds of older students.
"If they have been exposed to a homophobic school culture they can form firm ideas which have subconsciously been set.
"It became apparent that students had little respect for LGBT people and viewed them as being way down the hierarchy list of acceptable people," she adds.
Barnes now trains teachers and educators nationally in how to make their own schools "LGBT friendly" through a programme she devised herself called "Educate and Celebrate".
So you feel you've made a difference?
"Oh gosh," she exclaims, "The impact is enormous!"
She says the course gives teachers "confidence, resources and tried and tested lessons", while creating an "enlightened environment" where students and staff alike feel safe and happy to "come out".
As for her own school in Stoke Newington, Barnes says students are "empowered" to report bullying by setting sanctions, as well as being recognised by Ofsted as a centre of excellence for their LGBT Initiative.
"Celebrating LGBT history works successfully as it reduces bullying statistics, educates and engages students, changes opinions and most importantly, it saves lives."
But surely it shouldn't be confined to one month?
"In my utopia we would do away with focus months and we would naturally include diversity in all our lessons as a given. I believe all diversities should be embedded in a school curriculum throughout the entire academic year."
Despite the government pledging a drive to "celebrate the gay community" by teaching homosexuality in maths, geography and science, Barnes feels there is "still a lack of confidence in teaching LGBT lessons".
"For now we have to the massive job of encouraging all headteachers to bring equalities to the forefront of their agendas."
But Barnes insisted homophobia came from "many places, not just the older generation and older teachers".
"There is still a stigma around LGBT issues, which come from a variety of places," she adds.
"I was introducing the words ‘Lesbian’, ‘Gay’, ‘bisexual’ and ‘trans’ to my new year 7 cohort recently and a child says ‘Ew, two men, its disgusting’ – so we explored this opinion further.
"I suggested that young people are not born racist, sexist or homophobic, and asked where their homophobic opinions came from.
"They all thought about this carefully for a few minutes and then launched into telling me how they didn’t think personally it was wrong but were told by their families and the TV that it was wrong."
Barnes believes the best way to educate young people about LGBT is to "firstly give them facts".
"The reason students laugh, giggle and bully is because they don't understand the words 'lesbian', 'gay', 'bisexual' and 'trans' so it is up to us as educators to tell them. I explain the meanings and the laws," she explains.
"My preferred method is not to confront students with heavy LGBT issues but very simply to seep LGBT people into their consciousness through inclusive lesson plans."
The music teacher hopes not just to use education to end discrimination but also to "look at the bigger picture of educating everybody in our communities".
A report released in 2010 by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission found nearly half of secondary school teachers in England felt homophobic bullying was common but only one in six believed their school was very active in promoting the rights of gay pupils.
The publication also revealed two-thirds of lesbian, gay and transgender students had suffered homophobic bullying, with 17% even receiving death threats.
"The best possible starting place for this is through an inclusive curriculum embedded from the outset, the earlier the better in order to breed a generation of acceptance and understanding," she says.
Barnes, who is classically trained in voice, piano, guitar and cello, uses unusual examples to illustrate her point.
"When I teach my Disco unit, my starter activity is to play them a clip from Priscilla Queen of the Dessert where the drag queens (one of whom is transgender) sing 'I will survive' in the desert to the indigenous people.
"I am very keen to dispel the myth that LGBT inclusion in the curriculum causes more work for teachers," she adds. "I found the LGBT content was already there, we were just not emphasising the "LGBTness" of our projects.
Far from tasking schools with the responsibility of educating young people about LGBT issues, Barnes believes it is a task everyone should play a part in, and is a firm advocator of the importance of such a role.
"I would hate my students to walk down the street and see two women holding hands or two men pushing a pram and not be able to identify them as lesbian or gay.
"It is the openness and ease of using the language that the students respond to – you are making LGBT people part of everyday life.
Her next course is 21 February at Stoke Newington School. Contact her at email@example.com for more information and to register.