FIT playwright on why we must fight homophobia in schools

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In December, Rikki Beadle-Blair spoke to about his play FIT.

“I’d put entertainer,” Rikki Beadle-Blair says with a grin, when I ask him what he puts down as his occupation when he fills in official forms.

The reason for my question is that Rikki seems to be good at everything. He wrote his first play at the age of seven and started directing at eleven.

He has enjoyed success as an actor, director, screenwriter, playwright, singer and songwriter; and in his spare time, if he gets any, he teaches aerobics and dance.

One of his most successful and famous projects was the hilarious, fast-paced, loud and proud Channel 4 series Metrosexuality.

As well as creating the series, he wrote and directed every episode, performed and wrote all the songs, including the theme music, and even designed the costumes and sets.

Oh, and I forgot to mention that he also played the lead role.

So, when asked by Stonewall and queerupnorth to write a play tackling homophobia to be performed in schools, he took up the challenge willingly.

The play, called Fit, has been performed across the country in schools which put themselves forward to be included in the programme.

“I saw the project as a really exciting challenge and it has been really rewarding,” he says when I ask him how and why he got involved.

“Homophobia in schools is rife.

“We saw around 10,000 kids in total and while we were touring, I would ask the kids how many people thought homosexuality was wrong and in every single school the vast majority, about 80%, would put their hands up.”

The recent research on the subject of homophobia in schools supports Rikki’s assessment.

According to Stonewall’s Education For All campaign, more than 65% of young gay and lesbian pupils experience homophobic bullying in their schools and this figure rises to 75% in faith schools; yet only 23% have been told homophobic bullying is wrong by teachers.

This proves that while attitudes in Britain have changed, the ghost of section 28 still haunts our schools and playgrounds.

What is particularly interesting, and somewhat reassuring, is that the report found that in those schools where pupils have been told that it is wrong to bully people on the grounds of their sexuality, gay pupils are 60% less likely to be bullied.

In short, intervention actually works. That’s why a project like Fit could really change attitudes and, in turn, change lives.

It would be impossible to talk about homophobia in schools without mentioning Section 28.

When I suggest to Rikki that Section 28 is at least partly responsible for homophobia still being so deeply ingrained in our schools, he concurs.

“Yes, it was certainly damaging. Teachers are still scared to this day of talking about being gay. There’s also the fear of parents complaining.”

I ask him if he was aware of any negative response from parents about Fit.

“No, but one boy did say that his dad had told him that morning that if two boys kiss in the play he should leave the room.”

When I laugh at the absurdity of this, Rikki adds, “I know. What did he think would happen to his son if he stayed in the room?”

As we were talking about Section 28, a high school memory of my own flashed through my mind.

I was in the throes of puberty, with my hormones in overdrive and I was starting to develop an awareness of my sexuality.

As my own feelings were not explained or even mentioned in the sex education lessons, for the first time in my life, I began to feel different.

After one particular PSE lesson I plucked up the courage to stay behind after class to talk to my teacher. At an age when fitting-in means everything and homosexuality simply wasn’t discussed in schools I was taking quite a risk.

I remember packing away my things slowly and carefully choosing my words.

“Miss, what do men who are attracted to men do in bed?” I asked.

The teacher looked slightly concerned by my question. “I really would like to talk to you about this, but I’m legally obliged not to,” she said with genuine regret.

I was utterly perplexed that a committed and genuinely caring professional felt that she wasn’t permitted to talk to and support one of her pupils.

This was my own personal encounter with Section 28. What could have been a turning point for me, allowing me to feel accepted and ‘normal’ left me isolated and confused at a time when I was particularly vulnerable.

I don’t recall homosexuality ever being mentioned by teachers when I was at school and when it is mentioned in high schools today it tends to be a passing reference in sex education.

The reason why Fit strikes a chord with teenagers is that it manages to realistically depict their feelings and the ways in which they relate to each other without being inappropriate for schools.

That was partly down to Rikki’s writing.

“Usually I can just write what I like, but with Fit there were certain things I couldn’t do,” he says when I raise the issue of finding the appropriate language.

“No swearing for example. It was quite a challenge writing the language so that it was raw and realistic without using some of the words which they use to each other.

“Also, conveying the homophobia was difficult with the limits on the language and violence I could use. But I think we found a way around it.

“It was the most difficult play I’ve ever had to write because it had to hit so many bullet points.

“As well as the language I was also expected to portray positive gay characters.

“In a weird way, though I have written hundreds and hundreds of positive gay characters in the past, it did make it more difficult.

“Obviously in real life gay people come in all shapes and sizes, they are normal. In the end, I think I was able to make them quite complex.

“I wanted to focus on was sexual confusion, which would reflect some of the feelings the kids seeing the play might have.”

The story focuses on six high school kids and their teacher, played by Rikki himself.

As the quiet, sensitive one, Tegs is an easy target for bullies and in particular his tougher, more confident classmates Ryan and Isaac.

Tegs’ best friend, Jordan, is popular and sporty but because they spend so much time together they are the subject of all the gossip.

There are also two feisty girls, Lee and Carmel who, like the boys, have issues surrounding their sexuality. Most of the action takes place as they are stuck together on a bus heading their way up the M1 for a college dance contest.

There is a degree of ambiguity in the sexualities of some of the characters which seems to more accurately reflect the experience of adolescents than the rigid gay/straight divide.

I ask Rikki if this was intentional. “Yes,” he says.

“I consciously didn’t want to portray a big gay/straight divide to give the impression that this divide was being created by them and that in reality there is no need for it.”

At one point in the play the girls kiss (by kiss, I mean a peck on the lips) and, according to Rikki, this is usually met with howls of disapproval by both girls and boys.

This is no surprise given that, as I mentioned earlier, when asked before the performance what they thought of homosexuality the vast majority of the kids said they disagreed with it.

After performing the play the cast, lead by Rikki himself, would hold a discussion with the school audience where their attitudes to homophobia would be debated openly.

This – what Rikki refers to as the “conversation part” – is where he is able to really use the play to challenge and question the kids’ prejudices.

In person, Rikki is hugely entertaining and engaging and despite his confidence as a performer and his commanding stage presence, he is utterly unassuming and seems genuinely interested in my opinions.

With his worldly intelligence and sharp wit, I can imagine the kids in the schools looking up to him and listening to his words of wisdom as they would with a ‘cool’ older brother.

According to Rikki, the responses in the discussion are varied, but one main theme always dominates the discussion.

“They always ask us if we are gay,” he says with a laugh. “That’s the thing everyone wants to know.

“It is a great opener especially if they have been quite homophobic during the show. Then I ask them why we should discuss our sexuality with them.

“The basic message is, ‘if you’ve responded in a homophobic way to the show, why should I tell you about my sexuality and risk having your homophobia directed towards me.'”

When I ask Rikki if he thinks they naturally assume that the cast are all gay he says, “It is an interesting thing that the kids wonder why you would ally yourself with this subject matter if you were not gay yourself.

“The idea that a straight person could be involved in this is really curious to them. It [homosexuality] is seen as a taint, a stain or a disease.

“I always tell them that some of the kids in this room are gay. They sometimes point at each other and say, ‘yes, he’s gay,’ and start bullying each other there and then.

“Then I say, ‘it’s not about them, it’s about you. Can the gay people in here trust you with the knowledge that they are gay?’

“This makes them realise that their homophobia has consequences. It makes them a bad friend or a bad classmate.

“Whatever the discussion, they always come back to ‘are you gay? Is he gay?'” he says, putting on comical childlike voices.

“I have to keep reminding them that they haven’t made us feel safe enough to share that information with them.

“Hopefully that means they move towards trying to win our trust.”

According to Rikki, this encourages them to start questioning their homophobia. “Once they realise that by being homophobic you’re not a good friend or school mate they really want to change.

“And they also want to win out trust. Our aim is to shift the temperature in the room from ‘homophobic is cool’ to ‘tolerance is cool.’

“Sometimes they would say ‘why can’t people be brave and be open about it?’ In response to this, I would say, ‘why should they be brave when you could just be nice?’ They were like, ‘whoa, I completely didn’t get that, but I do now.'”

The characters in the play are designed specifically to challenge some of the stereotypes which are common among young people.

Tegs, the quiet character who often finds himself the victim of his classmates’ homophobic bulling is the object of the affections of his popular, sporty, best friend Jordan.

According to Rikki, “they were fascinated about the idea that a cool, black guy who is good at football could be gay.

“This gave me the opportunity to talk to them about how damaging stereotypes can be. I would turn the stereotyping back on them by saying, ‘well, what about the stereotypes about black people or Muslims? Are they true?’ They would all answer ‘no.’

“So I would say, ‘if you’ve experienced stereotyping which you know is not true, then why would the stereotypes about other groups be true?’

“I do that with northern kids, black kids and even posh white kids.

“They enjoyed thinking about it in that way and benefited from it.

“The characters in the play allowed me to explore these ideas with them. Just like real people they didn’t fit easily into the mould. That’s why I called it Fit.

As well as effectively using the word ‘fit’ and its different interpretations, the play also explores the use of the word ‘gay’ which has become a common insult in our schools and playgrounds.

Although its use is often not intended to be homophobic, Rikki feels that it can lead to offence and should be stamped out.

“I ask kids who use the word in that way and they always say, ‘well, that’s not what we mean.’

But when I replace it with other words and say, ‘that’s so Muslim, or that’s so black, or that’s so northern,’ they really didn’t like it and sometimes got quite angry with me.”

I find myself laughing out loud every time I conjure up the image of Rikki, a southerner, wearing a bright pink tracksuit (all the characters in the play wear tracksuits, but Rikki’s happens to be bright pink) standing in front of a hundred angry teenagers in Salford using the term ‘northern’ to describe something that’s bad. He’s a brave man.

For a significant part of the discussion the actors stay in character and the children questions them.

“They nearly always ask the homophobic character, ‘why are you so homophobic? You should stick by your friends,’ and sometimes he would leave the room,” says Rikki.

“Usually a kid would ask ‘can I go and get him?’ Often that would be the one who had been most aggressively homophobic.”

When I ask him why he thinks this is, he says, “Because they see themselves in the homophobic character and are seizing the opportunity to be other person, the caring one.”

When I tell Rikki how impressed I am that he gets this sort of positive response from high school children he grins modestly.

“On the whole, the positive response was absolutely overwhelming. The kids always asked us to come back to their school, and some of the more homophobic ones apologised to us.

“It shows how you can really develop their thinking if you talk to them and treat them as intelligent human beings.”

It is clear from his expression that he is profoundly touched at how positive the response was.

“One even asked me if I would get a job in the school with them and loads of them made pictures of me with my big dreadlocks sticking out at the side,” he adds smiling broadly.

So, given how positive the eventual response was, did he and the cast tell the audiences whether or not they were gay?

“At the he end when they persist with it I ask them ‘why should I tell you if I am gay?’ and do you know what the most common answer is?” I shake my head.

“They say ‘because you should be proud to be gay.’ So I ask the whole group ‘you are saying that we should be proud to be gay?’

“And they would all shout ‘Yes!’ Kids would come up afterwards and say quite openly ‘I walked into this room homophobic and will leave it a changed person.'”

I am eager to know if Rikki’s experience of talking to the 10,000 school children leaves him with hope? He is realistic in his response.

“If they change to being positive so quickly, then it is possible that they could easily change back to being negative, but it gave me so much hope that they can open their minds.”

That, in my view, is the key to tackling homophobia in schools.

Children are far more open-minded and willing to learn than adults and that is why it is absolutely crucial to challenge prejudices of all kinds in schools before they take root.

In the ten years since my unfortunate encounter with Section 28 our society has made giant leaps forward in tackling injustice and prejudice.

We now have a government which, rather than introducing legislation to discriminate against sexual minorities, is bringing in measures to protect them.

However, the ghost of Section 28 still haunts our schools and playgrounds.

Homosexual kids are still 3 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexuals and up to 25% of young runaways in the UK are gay and lesbian.

That is why it is so crucial that we take action immediately. I know that Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has been pondering this issue for some time.

My advice to him would be to listen to Rikki and perhaps even support him in his ambition to produce an extended and adapted DVD version of Fit which would be made available to schools nationwide.

If I had been lucky enough to have had Rikki Beadle-Blair and his play Fit in my school then perhaps coming to terms with my sexuality would have been much easier.