Here in Britain we're currently marking Anti-Bullying Week, a national campaign to get schools to work harder to make playgrounds and classrooms safe and fun places to learn and grow up. Those of us who were bullied at school, for whatever reason, will empathise keenly with young people who dread bullies' taunts and violence. Bullying isn't just a 'rite of passage' that we should expect as part of growing up. Its effects - low exam scores, depression and anxiety - can affect our whole adult lives. It's appropriate that this year's Anti-Bullying Week theme is 'we're better without bullying'.
Those of us who also happen to be lesbian, gay or bisexual might feel yet more empathetic. For many of us bullying doesn't stop after we exit the school gate for the last time, and we've become familiar with taunts and smears from prominent bullies in politics, faith and business. In the last 12 months alone, here in Britain gay people have been told we're little better than bestialists (by a senior politician); our relationships have been insulted as 'grotesque' or belittled as just 'profound friendships' (by senior church leaders); and we've been told we're sick or perverse (by voodoo 'gay cure' therapists and their supporters). Some adults, it seems, can't leave damaging and childish dislikes and prejudices behind them.
Thankfully things are better in schools now than when I was finishing my final exams in 2001. Section 28 - an infamously homophobic law that made it illegal for public bodies to 'promote' homosexuality - was repealed in 2003 following a long campaign by Stonewall, Britain's leading lesbian, gay and bisexual charity. Today many schools are so keen to tackle homophobia that Sir Ian McKellen (Stonewall's co-founder) is even able to make an anti-bullying video for Stonewall and tour schools with the charity to talk about being gay and successful. (His message to children preparing for their exams: 'If you don't study hard, YOU SHALL NOT PASS!') This kind of advocacy would have been unimaginable barely ten years ago.
But despite increasing visibility of gay people and gay issues in Britain's classrooms, big challenges remain. Research by the University of Cambridge for Stonewall's School Report this year showed over half of gay pupils are homophobically bullied. The consequences for those young people are severe. Nearly half say they're not performing at their best in their studies; two in five say they're ashamed of themselves for being bullied; and, tragically, nearly a quarter have attempted to take their own lives. Things might be getting better, but, very clearly, they aren't good enough.
Thankfully The School Report shows that when schools take simple steps to tackle homophobic bullying it has a big effect. In schools where homophobia is routinely challenged slightly less than half of gay pupils are bullied. In schools where it's tolerated (sometimes under the loathsome 'sticks and stones' banner), more than three quarters of gay pupils are homophobically bullied. Who can look at these statistics and say homophobic language is merely harmless 'banter' - something we should just 'tolerate' as part of growing up?
Sadly, fewer than a third of pupils say their schools are among those quick to challenge homophobia (compare this to the 90% who say their schools respond quickly to racist bullying). Too many schools either don't recognise the problem, or don't have the confidence or knowhow to tackle it. Stonewall's School Report contains ten simple recommendations to help them take the first step.
As Sir Ian says in his campaign video (which you can watch below), by working together we can be better without bullying. Stonewall is asking people across Britain to write in to their former schools to ask what they're doing to support gay pupils (there's even a template letter at www.stonewall.org.uk/homework). It takes less than five minutes to write a letter; less than three to watch and share Sir Ian's video. Can you spare eight minutes today to make a difference?
If you can, Anti-Bullying Week will be more than just another campaign week - and our memories of homophobic bullying stand a real chance of becoming a thing of the past.