David Watkins argues that homophobia is something we should talk about and offers practical advice for creating LGBT-inclusive schools.

Homophobia is a real problem in many schools for pupils who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). Homophobic bullying destroys lives and shying away from discussion about homosexuality can help fuel a culture of non-acceptance that sets precedents for behaviour in adulthood. One way of tackling homophobia is to talk about homosexuality. Yet for many teachers, gay and straight, talking about same sex relationships with pupils, parents and colleagues, may seem like the hardest thing to do.

Lessons on language and looks

Unchallenged homophobic language is so ingrained in everyday language that even the word ‘gay’ has been appropriated to mean anything worthless or without value. In my Year 9 classes we talked about words which form part of a young bully’s vocabulary: ‘faggot’, ‘queer’, ‘poof’, ‘ponce’, ‘dyke’, ‘sissy boy’, ‘batty boy’, ‘gaylord’, ‘gay boy’, ‘lessie’ and ‘lesbo’. Pupils spoke openly and honestly about these homophobic words, the images they evoked and why they were so harmful. It was interesting to note that when the issues were laid open, the words were no longer taboo. In the context of the lessons pupils felt able to have frank discussions and examined their own use of language. Subsequently, they started to report homophobic language they had heard. Ultimately, my goal was for pupils to feel sufficiently confident to challenge it themselves, something that even teachers have trouble with.

In a Year 9 PSHE lesson on prejudice, I asked pupils to ‘identify the heterosexuals’ from a diverse collection of passport photos, and then to sort them from left to right on how gay or straight the people in the photos looked. This exposed stereotypes and sought to correct the notion that you can tell someone’s sexuality by their appearance. In another activity we looked at the journey of a gay couple leading up to when they took AIDS medication. For some pupils it may have been the first time they had seen the day-to-day intricacies of a gay couple’s relationship, and their first opportunity to compare it with their understanding of domestic ‘normality’. In a Year 11 lesson on HIV transmission, being able to talk openly about homosexuality enabled me to discuss the risk factors involved in all forms of sexual activity and I was able to correct the myths that surround infection.

Teaching about diversity

I made use of resources from the Schools Out website marking LGBT History Month to develop KS3 history lessons which looked at symbolism in the gay community. In one lesson, pupils had to sequence the colours of the rainbow flag and in another they used the internet to study photos from Gay Pride parades. It was here that I noticed just how many websites containing information on gay issues were unnecessarily blocked by e-mail filters. Using the excellent publication Colours of the Rainbow (Mole, 1995), I planned an exercise that focused on alienation and the labelling ascribed to gays and lesbians by the Nazis. The exercise required pupils to be treated differently by their peers based only on random shapes they pulled out of a hat.

More generally, I constantly challenge gender stereotypes (‘blue for a boy/pink for a girl’) and impress upon classes the importance of individuality and uniqueness in thought and expression. I teach that they should never be afraid of expressing themselves and that they should celebrate difference. This is particularly important for boys due to the pressures of conforming to a masculine model that shuns feelings and empathy in favour of a hard, uncompromising gang culture.

Tools for change

In my school, LGBT awareness also forms part of the staff’s continuing professional development. In March 2006, the school, in collaboration with an HIV prevention project, conducted a staff twilight training session on dealing with homophobia. Staff discovered ways of talking about sexuality to pupils that didn’t revolve around shame, embarrassment or fear.

I have compiled a list of my own practical steps for making an LGBT friendly school and many of these are in place at my current school:

  • Review all practices and policies, including equal opportunities and anti-bullying policies.
  • Implement a whole-school zero tolerance approach to homophobic bullying which includes effective sanctions.
  • Be vigilant and deal with the use of homophobic language both in and out of class.
  • Do not be heterosexist by assuming that all pupils and staff self-identify with heterosexuality.
  • Create a homophobic report log and keep a record of incidents using ABC charts. These utilise codes such as ‘H’ for homophobia and ‘B’ for bullying to show the prevalence of incidents at a glance.
  • Use teaching material that shows diverse images of sexuality, relationships and families that challenge stereotypes.
  • Take full advantage of the resources made available for LGBT History Month which is celebrated annually in February (www.lgbthistorymonth.org.uk).
  • Provide staff training on sexuality. This includes making sure that all members of a school, teachers, governors and ancillary staff, know that Section 28 has been repealed. CPD should enable staff to have the confidence to tackle homophobic language and bullying, initiate LGBT discussions, have the knowledge and skills to teach about sexuality, and offer appropriate advice to pupils.

Schools, now more then ever, have the potential to be supportive, energising environments for LGBT adults and pupils. Is your school one of them?

Further information

Mole, S (1995) Colours of the Rainbow: Exploring Issues of Sexuality and Difference, a Resource for Teachers, Governors, Parents and Carers. London: Health Promotion Service, Camden & Islington Community Health Services NHS Trust.

Schools Out  www.schools-out.org.uk

Watkins, D (unpublished essay) ‘Heads in the Sand, Backs Against the Wall: Problems and Priorities When Tackling Homophobia in Schools’. (Available from the author.) Manuscript available.

David Watkins teaches in a state school.

First published in Learning for Life, September 2006