There's no question that school students in the UK currently have a lot to contend with. As if the aftermath of Covid wasn't bad enough, now many schools are literally crumbling before their eyes because of a lack of investment from this government, as dangerous RACC concrete continues to be uncovered. There's also just been the controversy over school grades in GCSE, O & A levels, which has all been adding to the pressure on young people.

It's just as bad in the USA with students in Florida now having to contend with that State Governor's disgraceful "Don't Say Gay Bill", which bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Some Florida schools have moved library books and debated changing textbooks whilst other teachers have worried that even family pictures on their desks could get them in trouble. As students return from summer break, educators are cautiously adjusting and waiting to see how the new law will be interpreted and enforced.

It all adds to the pressure on LGBTQ+ young students who still in 2023 face daily prejudice and bullying, with little being done by those in authority to reduce their alienation. So as a new school year gets underway we've been talking to the UK's leading educational support and lobbying group Schools Out! about their work to combat discrimination in the class room.

The organisation has been in existance, and its co-founder Sue Sanders has been telling OutUK’s Adrian Gillan about how they help both LGBT staff and pupils.

Sue: There have been exciting and positive developments in the last decade: partly driven by European legislation, the government is now ready to listen and take action. But much needs to be done - and fast - to capitalise on these opportunities or else: “so near and yet so far”.

Illustration from the cover of The Geography Club by Brent Hartinger which explores issues surrounding gay pupils in an American high school. Read our feature on the book and an extract here.
OutUK: So what have Schools Out!'s main achievements been over the last forty years?
Sue: For me, two things stand out: lobbying and helping to open up a dialogue with government; and the way our website has evolved into such a valuable and much-used resource. Also: even though their reps still need educating on LGBT issues, it’s great that some of the big unions are now finally offering teachers their support.
OutUK: And a real low-point...Section 28?
Sue: That was both a low and a high. On the one hand it set schools back into the dark ages. On the other, it helped forge solidarity within an LGBT community and spurred us all into action.
OutUK: Don’t some teachers still think the clause is alive and kicking and applies to them?
Sue: Unfortunately, more than a decade on since it left the statute books where it never actually applied directly to schools anyway - yes! Government should do more to communicate the current reality. The same goes for the European Employment Directive which provides LGBTs with legal protection: there is still low awareness of the defence it truly offers and, where known, still little confidence in harnessing it against offending schools.


OutUK: Don’t more schools now at least have Equal Opportunity and Anti-Bullying Policies?
Sue: It is still very patchy. Schools are relatively autonomous - like little fiefdoms. The government has issued guidance on things like Anti-Bullying Policies but monitoring must improve. I sat on some regional DfES Anti-Bullying Charter Panels that are now completed and one proposal arising was to introduce new anti-bullying advisors who could visit schools to counsel and monitor on bullying issues, including LGBT ones.

Sue: And what else should the Government do?
OutUK: Apart from better monitoring, there needs to be more training - especially of Head Teachers - and more encouragement. I think the government should also issue guidance to schools on using more inclusive classroom materials - like books and posters - whilst simultaneously “educating” the educational publishers themselves. Like with race issues a few decades back!


OutUK: European legislation protects teachers who wish to “stay in” as well as those who “come out”: what do you say to the vast majority of LGBT teachers who “stay in”?
Sue: I’d never say, “Come out, come out wherever you are”! I’m acutely aware of the wide variety of very real and frightening issues that might keep a teacher “in”. But I will say that their being “in” will impact on their students, LGBT or otherwise.

Pupils have an acute ability to suss when you’re being vague on certain issues and will end up with the firm impression that being LGBT is less acceptable and taboo. So - put crudely - silence is colluding with homophobia.

The truth is that there is a price to be paid whether “in” and colluding or “out” and either facing possible personal danger or perhaps even being seen as a one-issue token-queer.

Paula (19, volunteer) “The stereotypes you leave school with are the ones you take to work or university.”

Peter (18, store manager) “There was one out teacher at our Catholic school and people made comments whenever a boy was kept back to have a detention with him ... Our science teacher was about to put this video on when the priest came in and stood in front of the TV and went: No, it’s too explicit for this class! We were shown a video of two lions instead ... I used to think condoms stopped you having kids - nothing to do with STDs - and gay issues were never discussed. Politicians must ensure young people are better taught at school.”

Tom (21, student)
“When I was beaten up one teacher said: Well if you weren’t such a sissy and stood up for yourself, these things wouldn’t happen! All the teachers knew what was happening but did nothing. That’s collusion. And the bully gets vindicated.”

Luke (22, barman)
“We’re worried about young people joining our Youth Group and then going straight out onto the scene, in case they get preyed upon. We just tell them to use their common sense.”

Rebecca (23, scientist)
“Our out Italian teacher used to tell us about his nights here in Manchester at Paradise Factory - in Italian! ... Gays were mentioned briefly at school when AIDS was being discussed, basically implying that it was gay people who spread it.”

David (16, waiter)
“Parents should be better educated on gay issues themselves - maybe at ante-natal classes - since that’s where it all starts and they can teach their children better than any school ... Homophobes need to work on their self-awareness and self-esteem more, because if they felt more secure in themselves they wouldn’t feel so threatened by gay people - same for racism.”

OutUK: Isn’t the treatment of LGBT issues in schools still largely confined to Sex Ed - and where lucky, Citizenship - classes, rather than to the entire school fabric?
Sue: Absolutely. Handled in such relative isolation, it’s all such a big deal, whereas LGBTs are simply part of the community - both school and wider - and as such we need to “usualise” our existence in every lesson and out-of-class activity. An acceptance of diverse sexual identities must be a “whole school” thing. It must become embedded in the school’s whole culture.


OutUK: And where does the responsibility for that largely rest?
Sue: With Head Teachers driving change through strong leadership! I believe this is so central and crucial that all Heads should get compulsory diversity training, not just courses on balancing books! All police officers get it. Why should education trail so far behind the criminal justice system? Head Teachers need to be driving change and be seen to be driving it. That needn’t even always involve lots of money and effort. Just as it costs nothing for a government minister to make the odd positive noise in a speech, so what’s to stop a Head making a few warm, positive, explicit and encouraging remarks in a school assembly?

OutUK: How do LGBT issues differ in primary schools, with younger children?
Sue: Young classes should be taught about the diversity of the modern “family unit” - failure to do so sends out homophobic signals, however unintentionally. Also, many primary teachers confuse sexual identity with actual sexual behaviour, an area they may feel uncomfortable discussing with younger children - but being “gay” is not really about what you are doing with whom, but simply about who you are! And then, of course, there’s always language: “gay” is still commonly used - unchallenged - in order to hurt, in a way “nigger” is no longer accepted.


OutUK: Which has the greatest impact on a young person and their attitudes to sexuality, whether their own or others’: family, school, friends and peers, media or celebrity?
Sue: I doubt much hard research has been done into this but I’m sure all these factors are highly influential and overlapping. Regardless, schools - and there are 26,000 in England alone, containing over 35,000 LGBT teachers and staff and 100,000s of LGBT pupils, only a small fraction of whom are out - clearly have a massive impact, on both individuals and society at large. In the end, it’s simply a duty of care you have to any young person in your charge, be they gay, black, overweight or all three.


Schools Out! For practical tips on culture change within schools; template Equal Opportunity and Anti-Bullying statements and other essential resources -
EACH (Educational Action Challenging Homophobia) For support and training resources on homophobia experienced by young people and teachers - or call their confidential national helpline 0808 1000 143


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