Classroom commotions never bode well, even at the best of times. This was not the best of times: this was half past eight on a Monday morning in an unfamiliar school.
The problem, it transpired, was there were precisely 23 chairs in the room. There were 23 students – the math seemed simple enough. ‘But look!’ came the anguished howl, in a tone so plaintive I half expected the chair to be riddled with spikes.
Instead, a crude hand had wittily scrawled on it ‘whoeva sits on this cHair is gay’ [sic].
Ah. I retrieved the chair and handed the one from behind the desk to the most sensible looking student, crossing my fingers that my instincts were correct and I wouldn’t have any wild chair spinning. The offending chair I took for myself.
It’s a novel way of coming out to a class, I’ll grant you. But while a few students eyed me warily as I explained their task, for most, the incident was quickly forgotten.
The majority of readers will be able to add their own tales about anti-LGBTI bigotry in schools.
The sole contribution of my own school education around LGBTI issues was a badly photocopied problem page in which a young girl was reassured it was ‘quite normal to get crushes on older girls’, and this was usually based on ‘admiration, not attraction’ and would ‘soon pass’.
As a result, I was 17 before ‘bisexual’ was a term I could even uncomfortably adopt, and embarrassingly far into adulthood before I even learnt the term ‘non-binary’, let alone that it applied to me.
Some of our stories are wryly amusing, some head-shakingly baffling, others downright horrific: most, of course, are elements of all three, with the added frustration of why is this still happening.
A few days after the incident with the chair, Sam, a non-binary trans student, told me that their teacher had finally stopped using binary pronouns: instead, he’d moved to calling Sam ‘it’.
The most heartbreaking thing about this conversation is how resigned Sam was. They have no belief that the systems designed to protect them will even attempt to do this – and Sam is now in the one-third of British LGBTI students who will change their plans for future education based on the bigotry they have been a victim of in school.
I struggle to explain precisely how and why I became so passionate, so vocal about LGBTI inclusion in education. People expect an origin story. They expect me to be able to pinpoint one moment, one student, one final straw. But I can’t provide this: there are simply so many.
It’s Nicky, with the bruises on her legs where she’d been hit in PE by a rounders (softball) bat. It’s Sophie, who will only go to the bathroom during lesson times to avoid harassment. It’s Jon, who hides in my classroom every lunch from the bullies who will fling slurs and spitwads at him.
It’s James, who at 11 years old called his classmate a ‘fag’, unaware of what the slur meant. It’s Tom, in year 11, who most decidedly did know what the slur meant – and chose to use it anyway. It’s the times students have told me using ‘gay’ as a pejorative is akin to swearing – ‘It’s okay if it’s just to your mates.’ I’ve had students declare ‘This website is so gay’ and when asked to find a more suitable term to express their distaste, proclaim, ‘This website is so lesbian.’
So why am I so passionate about LGBTI inclusion in education? It’s one of the oddest things to explain…
Usually, people’s teaching careers are built on inspiration – successes and triumphs. It’s very rare you hear: ‘Well, my science teacher was just awful – and that inspired me to make science lessons better for the next generation.’ But this is precisely the position I have found myself in – wanting to change the education system which failed me, and many others, in this regard.
But with nine out of 10 teachers in Britain not receiving adequate – or indeed, any – training on LGBTI issues, including how to effectively tackle what is the second most common form of bullying in secondary schools, even those teachers who are willing often have no clue where to begin.
As a trainee teacher, I asked my mentor how best to tackle the ubiquitous phrase, ‘that’s so gay!’ She was sympathetic – but ultimately unable to advise.
And so, last year I began to write a blog post, aimed at giving teachers a basic overview of experiences for LGBTI students and what they could do to improve them.
The more I talked to people about it, the more people became excited and wanted to be involved. Several had their own stories of isolation, school bullying, or simply a dearth of support and information. Many teachers had questions; others had their own examples of inclusive practice.
Soon, what started off as a simple blog post rapidly flourished into Rainbow Teaching, a website project focusing on LGBTI inclusion in education.
I make no pretense of being The World’s Best Teacher (whatever the mugs might say!) and that’s not what Rainbow Teaching is about. It’s about equipping all teachers with basic, easy-to-apply tactics to ensure that LGBTI students – statistically, a far more vulnerable group than their cisgender, heterosexual peers – are provided with a safe and inclusive learning environment.
Allie George is founder of Rainbow Teaching. All schoolchildren’s names have been changed to protect their identities. Statistics are taken from Stonewall’s School Report 2012 and Teachers Report 2014.
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