Mark* has just handed me his English coursework: a compelling speech on homophobia, and how he cannot fathom such attitudes of bigotry and hatred in 2014.
Now, Mark is sat sheepishly in front of me, having been kept behind for yelling, “Oi, f*****t” at his friend.
‘It’s just a thing they say to each other,’ he says by way of defense. He’s not homophobic. It’s ‘banter’. Like swearing, ‘it’s okay when it’s at a mate.’
Like many of his peers, Mark has grown up using the ubiquitous phrase, ‘That’s so gay’ to show disdain for anything from an unfashionable pair of trainers to a despised subject. Ninety-nine per cent of LGB teens in the UK report frequently hearing such micro-aggressions in school.
‘It’s just a word,’ Mark protests, though he sounds less than convinced. He sits directly opposite my ‘Your so gay: can you spot two common mistakes?’ poster. A few weeks ago, he was the one to point out that ‘gay’ as an insult can be incredibly harmful. It’s even mentioned in his coursework.
His attitude towards gay and bisexual people is not in question here; the fact that Mark, as an active advocate for LGB rights, is blinkered to the damage that his comment could make is indicative of the attitudes that society at large still holds about gay, lesbian and bisexual people.
As teachers, we need to discuss micro-aggressions: those words, actions and structures that are harmful towards specific oppressed groups, without even necessarily meaning to be.
For LGBT+ students, ‘that’s so gay’ is one of the most common micro-aggressions, as is mis-gendering as ‘a joke’ (‘you’re such a girl!’).
Asexual students report being ridiculed or accused of lying when they say they don’t fancy anyone, and ‘she looks like such a tr*nny’ is used to insult fashion choices.
LGBT+ students report a wide range of micro-aggressions, from peers and teachers alike. These are rooted in cissexim and heteronormativity: assuming a norm in which everyone is heterosexual and cisgender, and acting as if anyone who isn’t is somehow ‘other’ or ‘abnormal’.
As a teacher, and specifically in my work through Rainbow Teaching, my challenging of anti-LGBT+ micro-aggressions has been met with skepticism: ‘I understand challenging homophobic bullying,’ one colleague told me, ‘but don’t you think you’re being a little oversensitive about the “gay as insult” thing?’
There is the assumption that as these things are not intentionally harmful, they are not harmful at all. Yet over 80 per cent of LGB pupils report being distressed by perpetually hearing, ‘That’s so gay’; almost half report being ‘extremely’ distressed.
Teachers need to be vigilant about stamping out micro-aggressions – and yet just 10 per cent of teachers are reported to do so on a regular basis.
As Emily* explains: ‘I know who the teachers are who support [LGBT+] rights, because they don’t let kids get away with saying “that’s so gay!” I feel like I could talk to them if I had a problem.’
Students spend approximately a third of their day in school – it is vital that this is a safe space for them. But with over half of LGBT+ students being bullied for their sexuality and/or gender, at present, we are failing these students.
Mark is one of a small handful of students I have had to call out for using micro-aggressions in this school. Several students – as well as some staff – are openly gay or bisexual, and bullying – both anti-LGBT+ and in general – is statistically low.
A few miles down the road is a school where bullying is high, the only openly lesbian student feels too unsafe to travel the hallways without her friends’ support, and tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic micro-aggressions was not even a daily occurrence, but hourly.
The connections between micro-aggressions and bullying are self-evident.
As teachers, our choices as to whether or not to challenge anti-LGBT+ behaviors – whether they are intentional or not – matter greatly. Students read their teachers for cues, and our actions send out vital messages.
Aiden* points out, ‘I don’t know who I can turn to about being bullied. None of the teachers really care if someone says, “that’s so gay”, so why would they care about the other names I get called?’
Failure to tackle micro-aggressions is a statement, intentional or not, that the safety and well-being of LGBT+ people is of little importance to us.
For more information on how to tackle anti-LGBT+ bigotry, read Rainbow Teaching’s advice.
For more information on Anti-Bullying Week, from 17-21 November, visit antibullyingweek.co.uk
* Names in this article have been changed