Our education system is failing LGBTI youth. It’s time for reform.
I’ll be honest, this is probably the most personal and important article that I’ll write. Over the past seven or so months, I’ve confronted quite a lot of my own demons head on – and revisited a place that I didn’t particularly want to return to. If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll tell you that I’m pretty confident – quite outgoing, outspoken, intelligent, opinionated. To the outside, I appear solid.
When I was in my early teens, I went through a difficult phase whereby I struggled heavily with self acceptance – I realised something that I’d probably known my entire life and I did not like it…I wanted to change, and I tried my hardest to. In retrospect, I was in the trenches of a difficult, complex and distressing internal battle – one that was very heavy for a young boy to be dealing with alone. Don’t get me wrong, there were people that I could have spoken to – but the hardest part is dealing with yourself. If you can’t get the words out of your own mouth, then how can you confide in anyone? I had people around me who loved me, and it was not their fault or failure that I could not come to terms with who I was. I was young and I was frightened. I attempted running away from the fact that I was homosexual – I tried very hard to suppress any attractions or inclinations. As a naive kid who was very much enclosed and suffocated by the heteronormative society around him – I was frightened of what my life would become. Eventually, I tripped and got lost in my head – I secluded myself; I pulled out of playing a sport that I loved because I was anxious in male dominated environments, I fell away from a group of friends that I once spent a lot of time with, I avoided social situations and felt pretty awful about myself. I hit my lowest point when I considered suicide.
From thereon out, I somehow bounced back – the intermediate period between struggle and acceptance is one that I can’t pinpoint, but I got there in the end. That didn’t mean that my own self issues were over, however. When you spend so much time hating yourself – there’s residue. Like every battle, a cleanup is required and if you do it alone, it’ll take much longer than if you do it with support. That’s what I realised when I met someone who I now consider a very close friend – Liam. Despite being from entirely different backgrounds, we somehow coalesced in our ideals, beliefs and opinions – from the beginning, I knew I’d connected unusually well with him. On the surface, we couldn’t be more different – yet I saw myself in him. We joked that I was his reincarnate – yet a couple decades too early. As a heterosexual working class man, Liam was unaware of the complexity of LGBTI issues. Heavily moved when I spoke to him about what I’d struggled with, he’s since become very passionate and understanding, and I’ve somehow managed to tackle many of my own obstacles. Through hours of conversations with my newfound friend – I underwent something of a purgative process: confiding in Liam allowed me to loosen many of my mental chains, and I’ve become a stronger person for it. Sure; I’ve had breakdowns, I’ve cried, I’ve reopened concealed wounds. I’ve ventured into environments that I’d otherwise never have placed myself in. But I’ve had someone who knows me better than myself to guide me. Thus, dealing with my own problems has allowed me to comprehend that I am in a position whereby it is my duty to ensure that future generations of LGBTI kids do not have to walk the same path that I did. Which brings me to the point of this piece – our current education system is failing LGBTI youth, and a massive reform is required.
It is one thing for a young kid to be struggling to accept themselves; it is another for them to feel trapped and excluded in an environment where they are supposed to feel safe and nurtured. The current Scottish Education Curriculum allows schools, primarily denominational, to opt-out of progressive teaching programmes that discuss topics relating to the LGBTI community, such as the Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) framework. If we truly are a forward thinking society, then we need a progressive and inclusive education system to reflect this. By refusing to acknowledge or teach LGBTI issues, what we are essentially doing is candidly ostracising LGBTI pupils. As a recent student of a Roman Catholic secondary school, I have first hand knowledge of this: when I was at my lowest point, there was no support available. Homophobic language was rampant in the hallways yet it was never addressed. I distinctly remember two girls who were in a relationship being told that they could not hold hands in the corridors, yet no one bat an eyelid at the boy and girl embracing next to them. I had Religious Education teachers discuss the “abomination” that is homosexuality. Whilst we were all made aware that there was zero tolerance for discrimination or abuse on the grounds of gender, race or religion – no one ever mentioned sexual orientation. Homophobia was a phrase that was avoided.
Ignorance is perpetuation: refusing to acknowledge the issue at hand allows it to grow. When we have 52% of LGBTI kids experiencing homophobic bullying in schools, why is it that only 12% have assemblies that address homophobic bullying? 44% of LGBTI pupils in Scotland believe that their school is not an “accepting, tolerant place” where they feel welcome; 71% regularly skip school, 49% do not feel that they are achieving their best – 54% are regularly self harming and 26% have attempted to take their own lives. This is an epidemic. It is a plague, and it is unacceptable. If ACT UP taught us one thing – it is that silence equals death.
Our government and our schools have a responsibility to address this problem, and the best way to do it is through education: all we have to do is talk about LGBTI issues and tell kids that they are alright. We need to teach our youth to embrace and love themselves. We should be teaching them about the Equal Rights Movement in the same way that we teach them about the Civil Rights Movement. There is so much energy, vibrancy, activism and victory within the history of the LGBTI community’s push for equality that it is a scandal not to educate our youth about it: perhaps if we made clear the struggle and difficulties that many brave people faced when fighting for their rights, then kids would think twice before calling each other “faggots”. Perhaps if we taught them that for every Martin Luther King, Rodney King and Rosa Parks there is a Harvey Milk, Matthew Shepard and Peter Staley – then maybe our youth would have more understanding and respect for a community that they otherwise only refer to when claiming that something is “so gay”. Do not get me started on the sexual education programmes that denominational schools are providing. In short, they largely neglect every realistic scenario that a teenager is going to face – and, of course, do not mention LGBTI sexual health at all.
This is why Liam and I have launched the T.I.E. (Time for Inclusive Education) campaign, and are petitioning the Scottish Government; urging them to address this by introducing a fully inclusive, statutory education programme that pays particular attention to currently neglected LGBTI topics. It is all well and good having frameworks in place – but if schools can choose to neglect them, then we are not solving any current issues. I understand that denominational schools are likely to object to the statutory aspect, however I feel that there is a wider issue to be tackled here. I want to be clear, from the offset, that Liam and I do not regard this as a “gay issue” or one that primarily concerns the LGBTI community. Rather, this is a humanitarian issue. Kids are self harming, many are depressed and others are killing themselves. The responsibility for tackling this epidemic lies with all of us. Had the statistics uncovered by Stonewall Scotland applied to those of ethnic origin or those with impairments, then this would have been tackled rapidly and far more effectively.
The moment for addressing this is now; the more time that we spend debating motions or prolonging action – the more young people are contemplating ending their lives. This is not an overreaction, nor the heightening of a minute issue – this is a social pandemic that is plaguing Scotland’s schools and claiming the confidence, esteem and mental wellbeing of a section of our country’s youth. The longer that we neglect the issue at hand, the more we risk it tipping over into future generations.
If we truly want a progressive society, then we have to act now. We would appreciate your support and we cannot do this without you. You can sign the petition and help us try to create a more inclusive education system for all of our children here: http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/tiecampaign. Further, you can get actively involved in the campaign, by visiting our social media pages and using the #TIE.