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Thursday, 14 October 2010

Mobilise Against Homophobia

In this video, Joel Burns, a councilman for Fort Worth in Texas, delivers a heartfelt and impassioned speech to the council in which he pays sad tribute to the far too many young adolescent gays who have recently committed suicide. He speaks of the need to challenge the ritualised homophobic bullying, ubiquitous in schools, which is driving teenage boys and girls to despair, and worse. Not only those teenagers who identify as gay are affected; the potency of the homophobia in schools is such that someone presumed, incorrectly or not, to be gay are equally at risk. Burn's final call is that 'Things do get better'; this is an important message, and one that I and many other will certainly vouch for, but it is equally important not to allow a 'boys will be boys' mentality to blind us to the fact that the homophobia in schools ought to be challenged, and it can be challenged effectively. Things will get better, certainly, but we needn't lose sight of making things better in the present.

Inertia is one of the largest obstacles. It is far easier to wallow in the status quo, even if you appreciate its flaws. Teachers are exposed to the rituals of homophobic bullying on a day to day basis and they see it as much as anybody. It does not bypass them, they are not blind to it. So what, are a huge proportion of teachers happy to be complicit in the homophobic culture of the school? No, I would think not. There certainly are many prejudiced teachers, in the same way that generally there are prejudiced people, but teachers have a particular influence - if one of those minority of prejudiced teachers happens to take your sex eduation lesson, you will not be provided with a view of hope that things will get better. In such a classroom, the teacher is more likely to simply permit the raucous humour that would abound if homosexuality was even mentioned - which very often, it wouldn't be.

No. It is far easier for a teacher to keep his or her head down, much in the same way as it is far easier for the victim of homophobic bullying to keep his or her head down, much in the same way as it is far easier for the classmates witnessing homophobic bullying to keep their heads down. It is far easier, but it is wrong, and for every class which takes place in which homophobic bullying is ignored, perpetuated or performed, those pupils who are questioning or who have to come to terms with their sexuality are forced into the margins, forced into silence and forced into complicity.

Many people I know don't see homophobic bullying, by my definition of it, as a particular problem. To call a lesson, or a pencil case or somebody's trainers 'gay' is just the same as calling it crap. This is half of the argument, but most stop there, putting the use of gay as a derogratory synonym as mere semantic shift. It is easy to ignore the impact it has on a child who is raised to comprehend of gay as bad - gay as a put-down, gay as boring, gay as pointless, gay as shit - only for them to then realise that, if they have feelings for the same sex, they become another definition of gay. They themselves can be counted alongside the other negative meanings of gay - crap, worthless, pointless, a joke. It is just plain wrong.

It rankles with me, working in primary schools, to hear children using gay as an offensive term. Very often it is in the meanings above, and the tendency could certainly be to think 'they don't mean anything by it', and on an individual level they don't (usually), but on such pandemic levels, these comments amount to a massive prejudice, so engrained as to become naturalised and unquestioned. But it is not only this; children use more venomous deployments of homophobia. Bullying another child for being a 'gayboy', taunting them "What are you going to do about it faggot?" One I remember particularly vividly is a boy laughing as he told me a boy on his street got beaten up really badly, but it was ok because he was gay.

And I sit there, and say nothing. Or I say something that essentially amounts to nothing - "Don't speak like that" or something similarly limp. Silence is complicity; in the position as an educator, it is your responsibility to teach children out of their prejudices. This doesn't make you a militant, but somehow there is still such a 'politics' attached to tackling homophobia. Any teacher can stand up and praise Martin Luther King, any teacher can decry racism, any class can openly express their disavowal and rejection of this prejudice. Homophobia is different. Any teacher who specifically singles out gay role models for their pupils can easily be seen as 'advancing' an agenda. A teacher who makes a point of challenging homophobia will most often be presumed homosexual - this is a fair presumption, but this is not desirable.

In an fair society, in which almost all people believe in equal rights, why can't a straight teacher stand up and challenge homophobia? Because they will become tarred by the same brush.

Unity can bring the change, and whole school approaches to tackling homophobia will be the most effective. After an afternoon in a primary school in which I had felt increasingly uncomfortable as the children made homopobic comments, bullied eachother and made jokes about gay people being murdered - all under the inertiatic auspices of the teacher - I asked her whether the class had ever been taught about homosexuality. The teacher informed me that it was illegal to mention homosexuality in primary schools. It isn't and I daresay she knew it - it was easier to do nothing, and regardless of whether or not she harboured homophobic views, she felt uncomfortable providing her class with what is an absolutely imperative part of their social education.

On the other hand, another primary school has a full system of work, workshops, cross-curricular topics and community speakers come into the school to work with Year 5 and Year 6 pupils to educate them on discrimination.

The fact that there is even debate about whether homophobia needs to be tackled in schools is telling of its status as a lesser, more passable form of discrimination. As is being seen in America, week by week, more 12, 13, 14 and 15 year old children are killing themselves because of their sexuality. But it isn't their sexuality is it? It is society's intolerance of their sexuality that blinds them to the prospects that lie far on the horizon. The child growing up gay deserves to be educated in an environment which supports and accepts him or her, not one which denigrates, marginalises, bullies and ignores them.


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