Is there really any difference between bullying - in a general sense - and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) bullying in schools? One scenario that I confronted recently has caused me think deeply about this.
Consider the following. Two children, of identical age, attend the same secondary school in a fairly small rural town. One is a county level rugby player (a promising talent) and consistently records excellent grades at school. Our other mystery character is not academically gifted but is creative, hard-working and charismatic. Both are gay - the rugby player is in the closet, his contemporary is not. They are aged 15.
Due to relentless bullying for being gay, our creative begins an ever increasing rate of truancy. The school calls in the boy, along with his parents, to address the problem. However, as far as the school is concerned, the issue is the truancy. They blanch when the father of the boy declares that he is fully supportive of his son being out and explains his son's absence is the school's fault for not addressing the bullying. Nothing productive comes from the meeting and, shortly thereafter, the boy drops out of school with no Standard Grades (GCSE equivalents) as a result. Our rugby player goes on to captain the school team, attends one of the United Kingdom's best universities and is involved in a nationwide campaign to change the law to allow same sex marriage.
Thankfully, the creative now enjoys an incredibly successful, jet-set, career. I know because I was the rugby player.
This story illustrates why LGBT bullying can be particularly pernicious. According to the charity Stonewall, there are two key characteristics of homophobic bullying; it is underreported by those bullied and teachers are slow in acting to stop it. Although 55% of gay people experience homophobic bullying in school, many are afraid to report it for fear of being outed - even if they aren't, in fact, gay. Why come forward when it will just give the bullies more ammunition? Many do not risk it. In contrast to other forms of bullying (like racism, for example), teachers are less well trained to confront LGBT bullying - some are even unwilling to see it as a problem.
It doesn't help that homophobic language is normalised. We frequently hear things referred to as 'gay'. A small thing perhaps, but imagine you are holding a secret for years so tightly that it permeates your life. Then imagine that casual references to that secret are always equated with being bad or substandard. Children are impressionable and hearing this sort of language discourages them, if they are gay, from being comfortable discussing it as they get older.
For all that, we are not going to stop bullying. That includes being bullied for being short, tall, thin, fat, blue eyed, brown eyed, having a prominent Adam's apple, being rubbish at sport, good at exams or for being gay. That does not mean we can't do anything. We can begin by building up the confidence of our young people - through sport and other non-academic activities - and trying to foster the type of supportive family environment that is crucial to being able to withstand bullying. Increasing the level of training and awareness of issues surrounding bullying among teachers, and improving systems of reporting, will increase the trust of children in their ability to report these issues.
There are specific things around LGBT issues in education that also need to be addressed. Sorry, you PC hating bods, but we need a zero tolerance policy regarding the pejorative use of the word 'gay' (and those like it) in our schools and sports pitches. Besides, the English language has many more exquisite ways to express distaste for things. Specific LGBT training for teachers is equally important, so that the sensitivities around LGBT issues are as well understood by them as for other forms of bullying. Michael Gove has taken action to do just this, not least by labelling homophobic language as "medieval."
Thankfully, society is broadly onside - and it is to civil society, rather than to government action, that we should ultimately look if LGBT bullying is to be eliminated. More and more children are growing up with openly gay family friends, friends of theirs are coming out at school and they are more likely to have openly gay role models. With more effort, and the inexorable march of time, I am optimistic the story of the rugby player and the creative will be a relic of the past.
This article first appeared in "Education: A solid start", a magazine published by Bright Blue.