Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia in Schools
I recently left my job. Resigned, to be completely transparent. And it’s sparked a lot of thinking. There are many positives.
1.) I am able to focus for the first time on writing, which for the most part feels amazing rather than terrifying. Trying to make a living as a freelancer is increasingly more and more difficult and financial worry is not character building for any artist, even though unhelpful depictions of the ‘starving’, but tortured “genius” are common, and there has been plenty of thoughtful and eloquent writing on this. Hannah Khalil wrote something fantastic earlier this year about this.
And Lyn Gardner also wrote about this in The Stage in July.
So there is an enormous privilege that I want to acknowledge (that being that I am for the first time stable-ish financially and was able to even QUIT in the first place) and I don’t know what I would have done in the same circumstances if I hadn’t had the luxury of so freely being able to walk away.
2.) I am sleeping better.
3.) I’m not as stressed. I am less irritable, anxious and tense. A weight does feel like it’s lifted. As Elphaba would say, something has changed within me.
What was my day job? I was a teacher. Not always, I have had plenty of day jobs (including ushering at West End theatres, bar jobs and some questionable market research gigs), but for the last four and a half years I have worked in an education setting.
I started out as a Teaching Assistant (some of the BEST PEOPLE in the world are TAs), soon became a HLTA (Higher Level Teaching Assistant) and went on to be employed as a UQT (Unqualified Teacher) in a primary school in London. I was asked whether I wanted to complete a SCITT programme and train, but felt like committing in such a way would mean writing was placed on the back burner.
I worked at the same school, with various iterations of senior leadership and governing body. I mainly taught Upper Key Stage Two. Before I left, I was in a job share across two classes, teaching full time.
Let me just make one thing clear: teachers are amazing. They are passionate, enthusiastic, hard working, crucial, under-appreciated, influential and often herculean in nature. I mean that. My mum is a teacher. I am biased, but she works harder than anyone else I know and is BRILLIANT and engaging and the kids are lucky to have her on their side.
The Guardian wrote in January this year that a YouGov survey commissioned by an education charity in 2017 found 75% of teachers in the UK reporting symptoms of stress – including depression, anxiety and panic attacks – compared with just 62% of the working population as a whole.
Suicide risks for primary and nursery school teachers in England was 42% higher than in the general population between 2011 to 2015, according to the Office of National Statistics. Some 102 suicides were recorded as primary and nursery school teachers in the period.
So, to make it clear, this is not an attack on those who work within the profession. Good.
I have written three blog posts about my half a decade working at a primary school. The fourth thing my resignation has afforded me is time to reflect. I wanted to talk about workload and expectations and how that has impacted my colleagues and friends, as well as discuss how continued austerity is affecting young people in the education system.
But first let’s talk about bullying.
This might not be an easy read for everyone, and I will discuss the subject frankly from here on out. My experiences are also very specific in regards to homophobic bullying, but both biphobic and transphobic bullying are common place and I will go on to talk about this later.
To understand why I quit my job, let’s go back to my own experiences at school.
The first time I kissed another boy I was 13. I was in year seven. This is the most accurate representation of what I looked like. LOL.
Apologies for the sheer size of that terrifying image.
So, the first kiss. I was in year seven. I thought he was gorgeous. He was 15. He had blue eyes, a wispy beard and a lip ring. I kissed him during a game of spin the bottle at a friend’s house. I was pissed on Strongbow and he tasted of beer and cigarettes. Sexy. I was fucking terrified. It was something I had thought about for a LONG time and it felt like fireworks. It felt natural. It might sound daft, but something clicked. I let go of something I’d been carrying around and I could suddenly breathe.
The next day, we all woke up on a very sticky (through alcohol not bodily fluids) living room carpet and I had the benefit of being thirteen and hangover proof, so bounded out the door with a huge smile on my face.
And then Monday came. And it was all anyone could talk about. There was no use denying it. The boy in question shrugged it off as being pissed, but for some reason I couldn’t do the same. Maybe I wasn’t convincing. Maybe I didn’t entirely want to deny it. I don’t know. Either way, people wouldn’t let it drop.
The name calling started. Faggot, bender (this one was a favourite due to its interchangeable nature with my first name), fudge packer and poof. “That’s so gay” was already part of the everyday vernacular at this time and, according to Stonewall’s Tackling Homophobic Language Teachers guide, 99% of gay young people still report hearing the casual use of these phrases in school.
I was also constantly asked if I was gay, and I took the approach of simply answering yes as this seemed to end the interaction abruptly and meant that I could get on with my day. This wasn’t always easy to do.
After a while, I started receiving physical abuse to, usually accompanied with a homophobic insult. I lost times of how many time I was punched in the ribs (or the balls) by other pupils in the corridor. Personally, I didn’t feel like I could tell an adult as this would mean coming out and I didn’t feel able to do that with a relative stranger at this point.
Additionally, my mum was also working at the school as an LSA (Learning Support Assistant) and people would often ask her if they knew I’d ‘snogged a boy’ and she fielded a lot of questions about whether or not she knew I was gay. I did tell my parents I was gay around this time, too. I never let on what a shite time I was having, we did talk about some idiots, but I bottled up a lot of the bullying I was getting. In hindsight, I wish I was more open, but that’s easier to say at 26 than 14.
The worst incident I can recall is two girls following me into the toilet in the science block with a pair of scissors and trying to cut my hair off. My hair was quite long then (which obvs added fuel to the fire as it was assumed I was deliberately choosing to look girly) and I had to lock myself in a cubicle until they fucked off.
When I moved up to my next school to complete my GCSEs and A Levels (Leicestershire’s school system is three-tier for some inexplicable reason) things got slightly better in some ways. I found a group of female friends, who didn’t give a shit and I could make laugh. I spent many a free period watching Loose Women and musicals instead of going to Film Studies and it was glorious.
Most of my problems came in P.E. Many boys accused me of ‘perving’ on them and ‘getting hard’ looking at them, which wasn’t true. Just because I’m gay doesn’t mean I don’t have standards. And in lessons where I didn’t have a friend for back up, I was isolated and teased.
I lost three stone and was quite unhappy.
I became mean and bitter. I wrote, a hell of a lot. I did find a boyfriend via myspace, and that meant that I was able to begin exploring who I was in a much more safe and meaningful way (which I wasn’t always doing, taking MANY risks early on). Things did come to a head one day at school when I was summoned to the Head of Year’s office as my form tutor had picked up on the way I was being treated. Note: she didn’t address what she saw with me directly.
The Head of Year offered to see whether there were any organisations who could help with my problem. I initially thought that she had meant the bullies. She didn’t. She meant my sexuality. It was the problem. She was saying I had brought this on myself and when I asked her to speak to some of the more regular perpetrators, she said that she couldn’t stop boys from being boys.
At a time when school was hell for me, when I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone else, an adult undermined my experience. My truth.
There are many, many stories that are similar, and in lots of cases, much more complex, violent and heartbreaking than mine. And there is plenty of evidence and research that shows just how damaging bullying like this can be, the recent death of nine year old Jamel Myles, being particularly harrowing to read about. His mother has previously said she hopes her son's death can raise awareness of the effects of bullying.
In terms of the big picture, Homophobic Hate Crime: The Gay British Crime Survey 2013 found that one in six gay people had been victims of hate crimes and hate incidents, rising to one in five amongst 18-24 year olds. Half of these victims reported that the perpetrators were aged under 25, highlighting the dangerous progression from homophobic language and bullying in school to homophobic hate crime.
Other worrying statistics, provided by Stonewall, indicated that 64% of trans pupils - are bullied for being themselves in Britain's schools. Furthermore, just above one in three bi pupils (35 per cent) are bullied at school. At school. Which is meant to be safe. Sometimes the only safe place for some children.
For more detail on this, Stonewall commissioned YouGov to carry out a survey asking more than 5,000 lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) people across England, Scotland and Wales about their life in Britain today and it can be found here. The report is from 2017.
Stonewall go on to say that only 10% of teachers make a challenge every time homophobic language is used. Consistently challenging is the only way to help young people see that it won’t and can’t be tolerated. In a conversation had in the staff room at the school I used to work in, a teaching assistant remarked on this as ‘ridiculous’ as it happens far too often for it to be dealt with all the time.
This leads me on to why I resigned. Some slight context: I was out to all members of staff. I was out to the Year Six class I taught last year, but I was not out to all pupils. I do know teachers that are, but I had MAJOR reservations. Some of these may probably have been unfounded and rooted in my own experiences of school, but they did seem real to me. Also, I would often walk around school like this, so I am sure lots of the kids drew their own conclusions.
As well as dealing with the same issues many LGBT+ students face, LGBT+ teachers also have to contend with resistance, even abuse, from senior management, co-workers and parents. Those that do come out can find an already challenging job becomes even harder.
My personal reservations about coming out to the students was that if I had to assert my authority, some pupils may have met me with a 'I'm going to hurt you with what I know about you,' reaction. I was scared of that happening if I’m honest. I do regret not being brave enough to be fully out, with so few role models of people who are different for students to look up to, teacher visibility is essential. We need it more than ever. But what’s preventing them from coming out in the classroom?
During my time at the school as a member of staff, I was referred to as the 'lady boy teacher' by a parent, called a faggot by a pupil, repeatedly called “too emotional” by a staff member and have had staff members refuse to sign a card celebrating my marriage to my now husband as they didn’t agree. Additionally, I had a big issue with a parent who didn’t want me taking their male child to the swimming lessons and wanted a different male teacher to do it. Go figure.
In the end, I couldn’t consciously make a decision to work in an environment that triggers things that I have worked hard to avoid in my life. The current head (and other members of SLT) worked hard to take these incidents seriously, but that didn’t happen always throughout my time working there, and I was not always in a position to walk away when I felt like I needed to. Many people are not as fortunate.
Essentially, I didn’t feel like I had the respect of some of the parents that were a part of the school community and couldn’t see how to maintain positive relationships with them. It all came to a head when I was having to deal with a behavioural issue and attempted to discuss this with the child’s parent, who mocked my “high-pitched” voice and my “feminine” hand movements. She also swore at me and allegedly branded me a batty boy in the reception area in front of staff and other parents.
What really stuck the knife in, was to hear that other staff had been gossiping and joking about me being called a ‘batty boy’ and therefore I found out this information second hand. When the head rightfully tried to get to the bottom of this, there was a closing of ranks, and the staff who witnessed the parent saying that about me weren’t willing to back me up.
Our schools HAVE to be environments where this sort of behaviour is absolutely stamped out. If I, as a what I considered to be a relatively “liked” and valued member of staff, dealt with this, then what else goes on in schools on a day to day basis that people aren’t prepared to talk about? Is it nerves? Do we not want to rock the boat? For me, we need a seismic shift in the way schools tackle this. If staff members are feeling this, then the students are definitely suffering too.
Heterosexuality isn't an excuse for shifting the responsibility for tackling homophobia and transphobia. Before I left, I was asked to deliver all of the lessons to another teacher’s class surrounding GEORGE, a children's novel about a young transgender pupil written by Alex Gino. Why the reluctance to tackle the subject themselves? Lack of knowledge or experience? While bigotry no doubt plays a role, it is lack of confidence and ignorance in staff that is what needs to be tackled.
The situation is also complex for trans teachers, especially those that transition while teaching. In 2016, BuzzFeed News spoke to three teachers about their experiences, and they discussed what has changed since the death of Lucy Meadows, and what they think needs to happen next.
Schools can be terrified about the response from parents, the response from pupils, of all the practical things. But until this fear is trained out of schools, nothing will change. Schools need to deal with the language, report and record all incidents of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and have clear policies on how consequences escalate for repeat incidents.
Explaining the language clearly to younger children can often help. Asking ‘do you know what the word means?’ can lead to a conversation of clarity, context and reflection for the young person.
It’s about being brave, about having a script as a school for how you define the word, and having a collective approach and voice when tackling the behaviours. Assemblies, targeted lessons and events to celebrate LGBT+ History Month would also help to conquer barriers.
The Education and Inspections Act 2006 places a duty on school governing bodies in England and Wales to promote the safety and wellbeing of ALL the children and young people in their care. Tackling the issues that make school such a difficult environment for out LGBT+ young people (AND ADULTS!) needs to be a priority. It’s gone on for too long. OFSTED have framework (from 2013, I couldn’t find anything more recent but I may be wrong) about this, but it is still going on in our schools every single day and more needs to be done. It’s simple as.
Stonewall’s Train the Trainer course gives pastoral, anti-bullying and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) leads the knowledge, tools and confidence to train colleagues on tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying and celebrating difference, as well as meeting the requirement of the new Ofsted inspection framework. However, there is still so much to be done. We participated in this training as a school, but not everyone was willing to get on board and make the necessary changes. There were cries of ‘snowflake’ and ‘one more thing to deal with.’ But we have to deal with it. Today.
I wasn’t brave enough to always take my own advice, and didn’t always feel able to celebrate my own differences. I worry that this is because I hadn’t properly dealt with what happened to me at school, but I am talking about it and working through. The school I worked with now has a brilliant headteacher, who is determined to change the school’s culture. He even made me a rainbow cake for my wedding. There were many people who worked there who treated me with respect and who are great friends. Things will get better. It all just became a bit too much. And I am lucky I had somewhere to run to. I am looking at ways to help be part of a change. Now I’ve had time to reflect. Now I can breathe again.
Thank you for reading.