Last week I had the opportunity to sit in on one of Cara-friend‘s ShoutOut anti-bullying workshops. The workshop is aimed at young people of secondary school age, and aims to educate them on what it is like to grow up as an LGBT teen in Northern Ireland and how their words and actions can have an effect on LGBT youth. The workshop’s emphasis on tackling ignorance through education and it’s honest, frank approach to talking about some sensitive and difficult topics was refreshing to see; and the overarching attempt to provoke empathy from a bunch of high school kids was (in my view) somewhat of a success, though it was not without it’s difficulties.
Youth clubs are a place for kids to come and blow off steam. A social center where all that matters is what time football is being played and who’s turn it is on the PlayStation. Imagine showing up and being told that the normal recreational activities are on hold for tonight because two complete strangers are here to talk about something that you couldn’t care less about. With the majority of kids, that news is likely to go down like a lead balloon. And that’s exactly what happened.
To give the kids credit where it is due, most of them actively engaged in the workshop, but there’s always going to be a very vocal minority whose only goal it seems, is to be as disruptive as possible. They possess a talent for quickly turning things chaotic, and the mostly volunteer staff at the youth club have limited ways of reinforcing the good behaviour and discouraging the bad. Indeed, a lot of the altercations were made worse (not to mention longer) by the focus of attention shifting from disrupting the workshop to challenging the restricted authority of the leaders.
Due to the persistent interruptions, the workshop was shortened, yet still managed to run for twice the length it should have. Surprisingly, the only time there was complete silence throughout the whole event, was when the workshop leader talked about her own coming out experience. Despite the constant problems, the workshop leader called it a good night. Apparently at most youth clubs the level of disruption is much higher, and the staff do little or nothing to help make the evening smoother. It was with a heavy sigh I was told that the workshop is designed to be run in schools. When I asked why it wasn’t, I feared I already knew the answer. When it comes to educating young people on LGBT issues, many schools in the area get fidgety.
In my local area, many of the schools run with a strong Christian ethos. Many of them also have a “zero tolerance” approach to bullying. Yet they won’t teach their students anything remotely linked to LGBT issues. I can only speculate as to why this is the case; even if I were to make inquiries, I doubt I’d be given a straight, honest answer. Their reasons for not including education on LGBT issues could range from sheer indifference/not thinking it’s necessary to standing stalwart against the “gay agenda” and their brainwashing propaganda. Ultimately, the reason given in irrelevant. The problem is simply that they don’t. But is there really a need for workshops like this to begin with? Or am I just blowing it all out of proportion to give myself something to write about? Here are some facts from a study done in Northern Ireland last year:
- 88.5% of LGBT people hear homophobic remarks in school.
- 55.4% of those, hear homophobic remarks most or every day.
- 88.7% of those who hear it in school, hear it from pupils. 26.2% have reported hearing it from teachers.
- 53.9% have experienced verbal abuse. 52.7% have had gossip or rumours spread about them. 51.8% have felt excluded. 35% felt intimidated by others. 22.5% experienced physical violence, and 21.9% received threats of violence, all from within school.
Most worryingly, 88.3% of respondents didn’t report their negative experiences because they didn’t think their school would do anything about it (53%) or they were scared of being “outed” to family or friends (40.6%). This means only 1 in every 443 cases of homophobia in schools is reported. The rest suffer in silence, and suffer is the key word. 70.3% of respondents in the same survey have experienced depression. 57.1% of trans
respondents, 46.4% of female respondents and 40% of male respondents have had suicidal ideations (thoughts of, plans to, and/or worries about suicide) and 80.5% of them directly linked their suicidal ideations to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Of course, the argument could be made that being bullied in school in not own exclusively by LGBT youths, many children are bullied for a myriad of reasons, each one as stupid as the next. But we are aware of those issues, and it seems many schools are trying to do something about it. So why are the next generation of LGBT youths too scared to report it? As I’ve talked about before, there is systemic homophobia within our governmental systems and it seeps into the minds of our children as much as it does our political leaders. From a young age, children hear that it’s not okay to be gay; whether it’s from backwards thinking family members, politicians on TV, children in the playground or from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Homophobia is subtly rife in our society and all this does is create an internal conflict in the mind of the child when they realise that they’re a part of this group that nobody in our society seems to particularly fond of. And just to put to rest any stirrings of a counter-argument, a study by the Department of Education fond that around 34% of children experience bullying with two in three indicating that teachers would usually intervene. A stark contrast to the results of the study concerning LGBT youth.
It’s safe to say we have a problem with homophobia in our schools. Whilst it seems the vast majority of it goes unreported, that does not mean it goes unseen. LGBT kids today clearly do not consider schools to be a safe place for them, and it’s important for changes to happen within our education system to ensure this doesn’t remain the norm. Education is the key to tackling ignorance, and that’s why programs like ShoutOut are so important. Nevermind that highlighting LGBT issues for an hour could have a huge positive effect on LGBT teens taking part, it also teaches all kids to be more empathetic and aware of the own behaviour and the impact it can have. Why would any school turn down that chance? The buck doesn’t stop with the kids either. Teachers and any other adult working within a school environment need the training to be aware of the issues facing LGBT youth and how they can help.
Cara-friend also run an ‘Educating the Educators’ workshop that aims to do just that. School’s can’t pick and choose what goes in to their “zero tolerance” policies towards bullying, but they also need to become fully aware of the scale of the problem and understand that steps need to be taken for LGBT teens to feel safe enough to report bullying in the first place.
As a side-note; more studies involving young people need to include questions regarding sexuality. Especially in regards to topics such as bullying and mental health. The only way to know there is a problem is for researchers to be asking the right questions.
We have a long way to go before homophobia is eradicated from our schools. Given the nature of the schoolyard, it’s fair to say there will always be a certain element of it; kids will be kids after all. But the majority of schools here need to step up their game when it comes to creating safe, open and aware environments for LGBT students.
We need to educate the next generation with values of tolerance, acceptance and empathy; not just for the sake of the LGBT community, but the world as a whole, and we need to educate our educators on the difficulties that come with growing up LGBT and how to be best support those students. Ultimately, we need to start being open and honest. There is a problem, and we all need to equip ourselves with the tools to fix it. They say your schooldays are the happiest of your life. Hopefully, one day LGBT people will be able to say that too.
If anyone reading this wants to get involved with, or attend one of Cara-friends workshops or events; or if you’re a teenager looking for support or advice, you should definitely head over to their website. They’re a fantastic charity here in Northern Ireland and they do a lot of great work.