I first learned about the LGBT community when I asked my mum if our close family friends Jack and Victor were in love with each other. She said yes and explained the different ways love can grow. I was around seven years old. For some of you, it was when Beth and Margret snogged on Brookside or when Omar and Johnny fell in love in My Beautiful Launderette.
These were groundbreaking moments in popular culture that gave us innocent and easy to understand definitions of different sexualities. Even if not everyone was ready to accept it, they were neutral, non-judgmental portrayals of some experiences within the LGBT community.
Nineteen years on from that conversation with my mother, I've come to realise the sad truth is that the majority of young people now learn about the LGBT community differently. They first hear about it not from their parents, or brave storytelling in film and TV but in the playground at school. It's homophobic name calling in the corridors, the misuse of the word 'gay' to describe anything negative and the call of 'no homo' after any sentence that could be even deemed as having a homosexual undertone.
But here's the paradox. The current generation of students are far more progressive than we were. I started teaching here years ago and the school mixed-sex comprehensive school that I am lucky enough to work in has roughly 750 students. Since I've been there, every graduating year group has had at least one student who has come out during their time in secondary education, something that was unheard of a decade ago when I left school.
When we discuss homosexuality within lessons, the students are pretty open minded. On talking to a year 10 boy who had just found out another lad at school had fancied him, he said he felt 'pretty flattered, but I like girls Miss'.
Last term, my GCSE students learnt about the Westboro Baptist church and they very passionately expressed their disgust, finding it difficult to grasp why any church could condemn homosexuality since faiths seem to promote love and equality. When someone does share a homophobic view in class, I don't have to do much to get them to reflect on their attitude as their peers do it for me. The Stonewall Teachers Report records the rates of homophobic verbal abuse in schools dropping from 55% in 2009 to 35% in 2014 and use of terms such as 'dyke' or 'faggot' dropping from by 8% in the same timescale. Young people's attitudes towards homosexuality appear to be changing for the better.
But just take a little step closer and we can see the picture is not yet perfect. Whilst the experiences I've shared are true, the Stonewall School Report stated that the majority of all reported homophobic bullying takes place in corridors, school grounds, the journey to and from school and in the toilets - only 35% takes place during classrooms. Obviously, this explains why I and many other teachers just aren't seeing it. 55% of LGBT pupils say they have experienced homophobic bullying and nearly 99% of students said they have heard homophobic language at school.
Worryingly, out of the LGBT young people surveyed, only three in five said their teachers intervened when witnessing homophobic language or bullying. So even if it was taking place in our classrooms, some of us just aren't addressing it. Add to that only 17% of teachers saying they have received training on LGBT issues in school and it is clear to see that we still have a problem.
As educators we spend around six hours a day with young people and it's time we accept that we can't rely on the lone PSHE teacher, form tutor or Head of Year to tackle the problem of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools. It is so much bigger than that. Stonewall have recorded that LGBT students who experience HBT bullying are more likely to attempt to take their own life or self-harm in comparison to their heterosexual peers who are being bullied. The thought of even one student in our schools feeling that death is a better option than life should be enough to encourage us to collectively stand up together and address these problems through both school policy and practice.
By doing this, we are not just making school a safer environment for our LGBT students, we are opening the minds of the next generation of allies, encouraging them to not just tolerate LGBT people, but to embrace them as a normal part of life. The only way to create the change is to make LGBT education a normal part of school life.
Let's start analysing the work of LGBT poets in English and study the lives of LGBT figures in History. Let's provide books in the school library with LGBT characters that tell their own stories in a way young people can identify with. Let's include our LGBT students in school life, setting up spaces where they can feel comfortable in our community.
Let's be proactive in our approach to LGBT issues in school, not just reactive. Our next generation is amazing and they are already beginning to pave the way in terms of diversifying sexuality, gender and acceptance, they just need to have help in ironing out the creases.
As educators it's our job is to aid young people in making the world a better place for everyone, and that includes the LGBT community.
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