Alex Blaze

How to fight homophobia in schools

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 26, 2010 12:30 PM | comments

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While I'm guessing there's a lot of hype behind this story of a school inbullying.jpg North London that claims to have eliminated anti-gay bullying, they're going in one of the many right directions and I imagine American conservatives' heads would be exploding right about now:

A north London school which has developed lessons on gay historical figures who suffered persecution claims to have succeeded in "more or less eliminating homophobic bullying" in its classrooms and playgrounds over the last five years.

The life story of the wartime code-breaker Alan Turing is among those being used to tackle homophobia. Authors Oscar Wilde and James Baldwin and artist Andy Warhol also feature.

Now Stoke Newington secondary plans to share the lessons with hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers. By the summer, it will have trained more than a hundred teachers in how to "educate and celebrate" being gay.

There's more, like their lessons on Priscilla, Queen of the Desert:

A week ago, a group of 10 and 11 year olds trooped into Barnes's classroom and she played them a clip from the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which is about three drag queens travelling across the Australian outback. The pupils appeared happy to discuss transvestites and transsexuals.

"There is a man at my auntie's work who wears a skirt and has really hairy legs," said one. "Criss-cross is where you like both men and women," offered another.

Florence, aged 12, told the class about the first wedding she went to. "It was a gay wedding and they were called Andrew and Eric, and I wanted to be a bridesmaid, but I had only known them for two years."

Josiah, aged 11, said: "The pope opposes homosexuality, but I don't know why, as I think everyone should have free will."

It's around "criss-cross is where you like both men and women" where American conservatives would pull their kids out of school and set it on fire, I think.

Anyway, as usual, the problem was isolated as teachers not thinking they had the proper support, both in terms of materials and the go-ahead to do gay-specific lessons in schools since many teachers think that's off-limits, as well as thinking that their jobs would be jeopardized if they discussed homosexuality, homophobia, and anti-gay jokes at all:

Elly Barnes, a music teacher, devised the lesson plans and training course with the help of colleagues. Her concern began when she heard a pupil say their "pen was so gay" when it snapped in two. Barnes's aim is to "eradicate homophobia from all schools" by giving staff the confidence and resources required to tackle the prejudice.[...]

She believes one problem is that teachers dread taking lessons on homosexuality. "Many are scared of celebrating LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] as they are worried pupils will judge them and will assume they are gay. In fact, to them, we are just a blob giving them information. Over the five years, I've only had three pupils ask whether I am gay."

Now, this isn't a national policy and statistics in the Guardian article show that the UK has a homophobia-in-schools problem similar to US's. It's one school that addressed the root problem - homophobia - in a way that just couldn't happen in our country because of the power religious conservatives wield in public policy. Each country has its fundies, but American fundies, who are in the minority, enjoy a deference that their European counterparts don't get.

Take that with America's constant state of paranoia when it comes to sexuality and children, and it's hard to imagine a teacher showing Priscilla to fourth-graders.

Over on our side of the Atlantic, the Department of Education said that sex discrimination laws apply to anti-gay bullying and the schools are required under federal law to do something about it:

On Tuesday, Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to educators clarifying when student bullying violates federal anti-discrimination laws.

The letter states that while federal statute provides no specific protection against bullying on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, LGBT students are protected on the basis of gender under federal law.[...]

In the letter, Ali cites several examples of bullying and recommends the appropriate response from school administrators.

In one cited example, a gay male student was harassed -- both in person and on social networking web sites - prompting him to drop out of the drama club. While the schools reprimanded some who perpetuated the bullying, others continued to harass the student, according to the letter.

"As noted in the example, the school failed to recognize the pattern of misconduct as a form of sex discrimination under Title IX," the letter states. "Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser -- i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping."

In a conference call Monday, the Education Department further clarified the new guidance with reporters.

Ali said the U.S. government could respond to schools that allow bullying against LGBT students in a variety of ways, including the restriction of federal funds.

No word on what schools will actually end up doing to combat this sort of bullying, but the fact that it's been moved to the front-burner is a good sign. Hopefully the tacit and sometimes active endorsement of school administrators when it comes to homophobic bullying will come to an end.

But I doubt we'll see too many schools fostering an environment where all forms of difference are celebrated.


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ShipofFools | October 26, 2010 6:56 PM

I used to live in the UK during the Clause 28 times (or should I call it riots?) in the late 1980s. That was a very frightening experience and as Clause 28 was about prohibiting to teach children positive (or even neutral) things about homosexuality, I feel a great sense of belated relief now. Woah--

I also think it's a very good idea to do gay history classes. There are studies that have shown that the only way to really change subconscious racism is by having them watch films about successful, cool black people. This goes straight into the subconscious and can be measured. The studies were described in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, here is an excerpt:

http://everydaythomist.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/what-malcolm-gladwells-blink-teaches-about-virtue/

It makes complete sense that exposing children to that kind of content would change their behaviour. Thank you so much for posting this, Alex.

You know the new "clarification" sounded to me like, "We've got no real rules against sexual orientation discrimination, but we'll find something!.