Friday May 17 is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO).
Around the world a range of events will be held to send a clear message that homophobia and transphobia have no place in our lives.
Friday 17 May also marks a year to the day that my anti-homophobic bullying website went live. Initially suggested by my friend Richard Whent, www.shaundellenty.com was intended to share my own childhood experiences of homophobic bullying, along with some strategies (termed 'Inclusion For All') which I hoped might support other schools in preventing homophobia.
Over the past year, word has spread about my website and associated Facebook and Twitter feeds. This technically illiterate deputy head teacher in his mid-40s has, so I am told, developed a 'social media profile.' The benefit of my new found 'social media savvy' is that I am able to share positive messages of what schools absolutely should be doing to prevent homophobic bullying in the first place.
It has been my privilege this year to address hundreds of teachers, trainee teachers, teacher trainers, police, health workers and students about preventing homophobia. I have heard many personal stories of lives ruined and chances lost, but I have also met many people who have overcome homophobic bullying and many inspirational people who are working passionately to overcome homophobic and transphobic bullying.
I have heard from teachers, students and parents from schools,not just in the UK, but from many different countries who just want to share their own stories of being homophobically bullied or who seek advice and support. It is a tremendous privilege when people take the time to write and it can sometimes make for hard reading, especially when I read of some teachers and school leaders making things harder for the often very vulnerable young people in their care.
Two of the most common issues that are still arising in some schools are:
a) teachers or school leaders telling children that they don't approve of LGBT people themselves
b) teachers or school leaders telling pupils that 'gay' is 'not a nice thing to say'.
It really shouldn't matter if a teacher sadly holds a negative personal view of LGBT people; common sense indicates that if a teacher says something like 'I think gay people are wrong and deserve to go to hell' they run the risk of damaging or offending pupils in their care who may be questioning themselves, or who may have LGBT friends or family (as many children now do).
As a gay man of some spirituality (but not aligned to a particular faith) I teach about the six main world religions with enthusiasm and interest. I simply wouldn't dream of expressing a negative opinion about the Christian, Muslim, Catholic or any other faith in class because it could hurt/offend my pupils and that is wholly unacceptable. Teachers teach about many things without being personally invested in them.
A hang-over from the dark days of Section 28 is the provocative word 'promote' which regularly gets thrown about with reference to the same sex marriage teaching and the teaching of LGBT issues in school. Think about it, if I teach six world main religions without promoting one over the other, a teacher who has a personal objection to human beings who are born LGBT should be able to educate and inform about the existence of LGBT people and civil partnerships without making a qualitative or personal judgement. Imagine if I refused to teach one particular faith because it didn't sit comfortably with my own beliefs- I would fully expect to face capability proceedings, as well as many offended members of my school community. Besides this, schools in the UK have a duty under the public sector duty to 'foster good relationships' between people of different 'protected characteristics' (including race, religion and sexual orientation) and Her Majesty's Inspectorate OFSTED are looking to see schools being pro-active in preventing homophobia and transphobia in the first place.
I fail to see how schools can undertake this work meaningfully if members of staff are expressing personally held negative beliefs or opinions about LGBT people or opting out of such teaching.
I also hear regularly from students, teachers and parents concerned that a school leader, a teacher or another member of school staff has told a child that the word gay is 'not a nice thing to say'.
Let's get this right, 'gay' IS a nice word to say, in the right context and used correctly; this is where the teaching many schools do in literacy around multiple word meanings comes into play. After all, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, they are just words, not scary monsters. The word 'gay' can describe something happy, carefree or lovely, or it might just be describing some of the young people sat in your classroom or assembly, or perhaps their parents, or siblings or friends. Do we really think that out of all the staff in a school, no one has LGBT friends or family? How do they feel when they hear a colleague saying 'gay is not a nice thing to say'?
When a trusted teacher tells a child that 'gay' is not a nice thing to say, the negative association is compounded even further. The child may be actually questioning themselves or have LGBT parents, friends or family; being told gay is 'not nice' can damage their self-esteem, hurt their feelings and be downright offensive.
Call me old fashioned but I simply don't remember this part of a teacher's job description.
Staff in schools please stop telling young people that gay is 'not nice'. Schools can invest time in teaching what the varying uses of the word 'gay' are, how they have changed over time and how the word 'gay' can be used correctly and without causing offence. Staff can take the time to look at the intent behind the use of pejorative use of the word gay with children and offer them alternative ways of expressing disapproval and handling disputes.
Staff and pupils can undertake role plays to find positive alternatives to saying 'don't say gay it isn't nice'. In my own school, having looked at the changing use of the word 'gay' with children, we have little to no instances of homophobic bullying and language and children regularly use the word 'gay' in their writing to describe something good or happy because they feel it is appropriate and safe to do so.
Education is the very best weapon we have in the fight against prejudicial, discriminatory and hateful attitudes towards LGBT people, educators must put the safety and well-being of children first, even if that means facing some unpalatable truths about their own practice.
Thank you to those of you who have shared your stories with me this year, I hope the children of the future will have happier stories to tell and that one day, they will talk of homophobia and transphobia as we now talk of slavery and apartheid.
It has been an absolute privilege in particular this year to listen to children from Church of England, Catholic and some predominantly Muslim schools sharing their fantastic work on LGBT history month and LGBT role models. I have real hope that the barriers can come down without compromising our beliefs, if we can all just agree to put the success, safety and well-being of our children first.
When we have, then maybe we will all understand one another a little better.
(Friday 17th May is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia and www.shaundellenty.com will celebrate by morphing into www.inclusionforall.co.uk)