We’re (actually) All In This Together

An Essex County Council report on bullying has generated headlines this week by documenting the experience of pupils “being told to act less gay […] as teachers felt they were making themselves a target for bullies.” The report, which drew on testimonies from students gathered at a conference, records other victims being advised to “wear their hair differently” and, perhaps most depressingly of all, summarises: “Pupils wanted teachers to be more accepting of difference”.

Gay rights campaigner and Colchester Labour Party chairman Jordan Newell was reported to be “shocked”. In the “appalled” sense, I’m right there with you, Jordan; but surprised? Sadly not. The School Report, Stonewall‘s 2007 research into the experiences of LGB pupils in Britain, showed that over half the young people interviewed had heard teachers or other staff make homophobic comments, while 30% identified adults as the perpetrators of homophobic bullying at their schools. Quotes from pupils included in the report suggest that the “act less gay” mantra is not exclusive to Essex. One pupil recalls that the “teacher said it was my fault for being open”; another was told by a school librarian that she’d caused the bullying by “admitting” her bisexuality. The research suggests that just 7% of teachers consistently challenge homophobic language when they hear it.

Clearly there is a spectrum, of which teachers who are outwardly homophobic themselves are (terrifyingly) a part. There are also amazing, queer-positive teachers doing fantastic work to keep their pupils safe while they educate them. My sense is that, in the middle, there are lots of well-meaning teachers who know that homophobic bullying is A Bad Thing, but feel ill-equipped to deal with it and therefore deny its existence.

I had cause last year to speak to a teacher about some homophobic bullying that was not being addressed. She told me “We don’t have homophobia in our school.” I resisted the urge to reply “my mistake, I thought that your school was in THE WORLD”. As such, there will be some homophobia there, and to pretend otherwise helps no-one. In fact, the hands-over-ears “lalala I can’t hear you” approach (which teachers of all people should recognise at 100 paces) harms pupils. Erasing the suffering of victims and granting impunity to bullies denies children any opportunity to learn from their experiences of one another – for example, through restorative justice.

In many ways it’s positive that this story has made the press. Across the papers “act less gay” has been framed as ridiculous advice, with soundbites from Beat Bullying, Stonewall and the NUT putting weight behind the argument. But if we pretend that the sentiment expressed to the pupils involved is extraordinary, an anomaly in our queer-positive world, then we’re no better than the teacher who says “there’s no homophobia in our school” (in a “these aren’t the droids we’re looking for” voice).* Plenty of people would suggest that advising a child to act less gay is a perfectly reasonable, indeed benevolent, response to homophobia: check out the comments on the Sun’s coverage if you don’t believe me.

I’m frustrated by how often discussion of bullying implies that what happens in schools is unconnected to what happens in the rest of society. To start from this premise surely limits how effectively we can challenge ignorance, cruelty and abuse – in all its forms, in all contexts. To my mind, it’s a no-brainer that mandatory, quality training for teachers on anti-oppressive practice, and on responding to and preventing bullying, would improve the lives of children and young people. But we can’t bestow sole responsibility for eradicating homophobic bullying onto the teaching profession – because children live in the world. We can help (whatever our sexuality) by fostering meaningful, open dialogue about homophobia – what it looks like, how it feels, why it happens, where we go from here – as we go about our lives.

* if you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, it just means you’re not a geek like me.

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