COMMENT: Gay adults must challenge homophobic teachers

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A report from the NSPCC this week revealed a rise in the number of LGBT teens calling Childline to ask for help with homophobic bullying.

The details of the report make for grim reading, most shocking of all being the hostile attitude of teachers.

Tony Grew examines the report and what gay adults can do to help.

You must have to be a very strong person to work for Childline. Day after day, listening to scared, lonely and suicidal children, trying to help them with only a phone, a kind word and good advice.

The latest report from Childline has a detailed analysis of calls about sexual orientation. By far the biggest issue raised by callers was homophobic bullying. Shockingly, 6% of the kids who called for help were under 11.

The range of problems faced by LGBT and confused teens is humbling. There are kids who think that being gay is wrong, who don’t understand the concept of bisexuality, many who are triply isolated by unhelpful teachers, parents and ‘friends.’

Childline received nearly 2,800 calls in the last year about sexual orientation or homophobia. 60% of callers were 12-15 years old, 34% between 16 and 18.

The experiences of fifteen-year-old Jason are typical: “It feels like everyone at school is picking on me. They shove me in the corridor and call me “gay boy.” It happens in almost every lesson, too.

“My so-called friends don’t stand up for me, and the teachers don’t do anything to help, even when half the class is calling me names. I was bullied at my last school for being gay – that’s why I left. I don’t know what to do.”

Girls suffer badly as well, as do kids who are not in fact gay or bisexual, but are perceived to be. Boys who are seen to be not masculine enough are taunted from primary school onwards.

The use of words like ‘gay’ to connote ‘un-masculine’ or just ‘bad’ is common currency in every primary school playground in the country – and teachers do nothing about it.

A significant number of kids called Childline to talk about their confused feelings about their own sexuality, unable to talk to their parents, teachers or friends for fear of reprisals.

The level of ignorance about human sexuality is shocking. Worse is the level of shame these young people feel about their sexuality.

“This guy and I had oral sex with each other,” 16-year-old Antony told counsellors. “Thinking about it makes me really excited but it makes me feel dirty too. I don’t know what to do – I can’t talk to my mates or family about it.”

The most sickening aspect of the report is the reaction of teachers. The legacy of Section 28 means many educators are still confused as to what attitude they are supposed to take towards LGBT pupils, while others just ignore the physical and verbal abuse going on around them.

Some teachers even mock LGBT children in their class about their sexuality in front of other pupils. Anecdotal evidence suggests many head teachers regard out gay or lesbian pupils as troublemakers and responsible for the abuse they suffer for daring to declare their sexual identity.

In Scotland, a 2006 report found that nearly 40% of responding schools said they had no incidents of homophobic bullying in their school at all in the past year, with 70% estimating less than five incidents.

The same report found that 84% of LGBT pupils were aware of homophobic bullying.

Many teachers do not regard homophobic bullying as anywhere near as serious as racial abuse. A 2002 Ofsted report found that nothing was being done to challenge anti-gay attitudes.

All schools are required to have anti-bullying strategies, yet the report found that only 6% of those strategies mentioned homophobia.

Long before kids know what being gay actually means, they are implicitly sanctioned to use the word as a catch-all term of abuse.

Clearly the majority of teachers are consistently failing in their legal responsibilities to protect kids in their care.

LGBT youth are one of the most at-risk groups in society. They are less likely to finish school, less likely to go on to higher education, and more likely to self-harm and commit suicide.

Not one word of this report will come as a surprise to gay adults. Yet while gay and lesbian adults talk a lot about freedom, and about the strides forward we have made, the kids have been left behind.

We can get married while many gay teenagers still can’t even come out without being beaten and abused.

Stopping homophobic bullying and the protection of gay and lesbian kids at school should be our first priority as gay adults.

We got away, we escaped into the land of Oz and look at us now with our houses and our careers and our civil partners. As adults, we forget too easily what it is to be fifteen, gay and scared senseless.

Gay kids are our kids and we have to stand up for them. We have to take on complacent schools, not with surveys or petitions, but with legal threats. The rights of children are enshrined in law, and schools are failing to protect gay kids – our kids.

It is time to use our fancy law degrees to threaten and cajole and argue with educational institutions until homophobia is as taboo as racism.

We need to empower gay kids by our visibility but more importantly we need to start fighting their battles with them. We need to organise in a way that targets homophobia to the exclusion of all other forms of bullying.

We will not have the message that the gay ‘community’ does not tolerate abuse and violence against gay kids diluted into a ‘wider’ message.

We fought for an equal age of consent and an end to Section 28, both of which should have had a positive impact on the lives of gays still at school.

The depressing anecdotal evidence suggests that homophobia is a growing problem and that more visibility for gay adults makes life harder for gay kids.

For every lard-arsed Radio1 gobshite DJ that thinks he is being down with the kids by calling a record ‘gay’ there are 100 real kids having the shit beaten out of them for actually being gay.

We need to react much more strongly to incidents like Chris Moyles’ unfortunate comments. He is causing homophobia. How I long to find those lesbians who invaded the 6 O’Clock news studio back in 1988 and see if we can have a repeat performance.

Direct action, protests and angry shouting are what we need to show every scared gay kid in Britain that they are not alone. We need to rain if not death, then severe discomfort, on the closet gay-haters like that tub of lard Moyles.

The fight to highlight and eradicate homophobic bullying should be our first priority. Let us stand up for the future members of our ‘community.’

But let us be clear about what is wrong with much gay lifestyle and what needs to be changed.

We are failing gay teenagers just as much as homophobic teachers and complacent headmasters.

Instead of sugar daddies, I want to see a massive expansion in mentors. The system of mentoring has some success with young black men.

For many gay and lesbian teenagers, the problems can be similar. They just can’t see anyone who is gay and happy and anything like them.

If you are captain of your rugby team, Graham Norton is not really speaking to you.

Mentors for gay and lesbian teenagers will help them come to terms with their sexuality, help them fight bullies, and prepare them for the crazy life of a gay.

It falls upon us as citizens to give help, support and advice to younger people.

It is our responsibility, not a word you hear that often in gay conversation.

With more rights comes more responsibility. We got what we asked for, we got equality in marriage and an equal age of consent.

We have our rights – it is time to start taking responsibility for our behaviour and for our wider ‘gay family.’