‘‘Gay’ is never used in the right way!’ were the words used by Bethany, a Year Six pupil, at the start of what was to be a learning curve for our primary school in Wiltshire’s county town.
One of my first acts as headteacher was to convene a working party of pupils to write the school’s anti-bullying policy. The group of ten children wrote a robust leaflet full of advice. When I asked them to write action points to go with their advice, I was surprised by their number one priority: ‘Stop people calling each other ‘gay’’.
So, we determined that we were going to tackle homophobic language head on: the working party released their leaflet with copies going to pupils and their families; it was introduced in assembly and the reasons for it explained; and the anti-bullying log was extended to include all incidents where homophobic language had been used.
Two years on, I found myself questioning our approach. The leaflet had definitely reduced incidents of homophobic language but had other unintended effects. During a discussion in relationship education a pupil volunteered to the class that his cousin was gay. As soon as he announced this another boy was shocked and said, ‘You can’t say that!’ I asked why not, if his cousin is gay? ‘But we mustn’t call people gay, it’s wrong,’ was the reply. It was never the intention to make the word ‘gay’ a forbidden one but we were in danger of doing just that.
To help us raise our own awareness as teachers, we invited three gay teenagers to come to talk about their experiences of school. We wanted to find out if there was anything we could do, as primary teachers, that would help our youngsters later, especially those who grow up gay. We found three articulate teenagers who were willing to tell us what school had been like for them. Their memories were mainly negative and some of the anecdotes shocking. As primary teachers we deal with different types of incident and work with young people whose sense of their own sexuality has, on the most part, yet to develop, but after hearing the teenagers we were keen to know what primary schools could do. Our guests replied, ‘Tell pupils that gay people exist’.
So our work since has been to do just that. As primary teachers, we have no idea which of our pupils will grow up to be gay. We don’t know whether any of the parents are gay or whether we will enrol a child with gay parents. What we do know is that we have a responsibility to our pupils to help them feel welcome in society and to encourage them to make it better. As part of this we want to make sure that the diversity of relationships and the diversity of families are represented through our work. Stonewall’s poster showing the variety of relationships and types of family helped with this. We want our pupils to recognise that, regardless of their own situation, there are other, equally valid, families and partnerships. We bought books which show the diversity of families and examined the images we use so that all types of family are represented.
We continue to ensure that homophobic language is dealt with but we also make sure our pupils recognise the word gay has a positive use as well.
Our school is situated in East London near the Olympic site. We serve an ethnically and religiously diverse community with many children coming from socially deprived families. We foster a warm, friendly, inclusive ethos including for those young people who have same-sex parents or who will grow up to be gay.
When we informed parents that we would be doing some specific work for LGBT History Month, only six parents voiced concern. Three parents came into school and spoke with the Head and myself. When we showed them the books and the lesson plans, they all said that teaching about accepting difference was something they did anyway and were happy for their children to take part.
Our work in challenging homophobia and homophobic language made use of age-appropriate picture books featuring different families. I read the books to the different classes, anticipating that the children’s responses would be quite negative. They weren’t. In fact, using the books led to very interesting conversations about same-sex relationships, appropriate language to use, the meaning of the language and respecting difference. We were encouraged by how positive the children were about the books and found, early on, that explaining about discrimination and bullying and allying it with racism, brought home to our children how wrong homophobia is.
Using the books, and creating a school-wide response, the children wrote an opera based on And Tango Makes Three, the true story of two same-sex penguins in an American zoo, Roy and Silo, who adopt an egg, hatch it and Tango, their chick, is born.
A group of students from Reception to Year 6 performed the opera to different groups of children from our school, parents and invited guests including the borough PSHE team. Everyone really enjoyed it. The opera explored other family groups before telling the story of Roy and Silo. It presented their story as just another couple who loved each other and were just another kind of family group. We were even invited to perform the opera at two local secondary schools!
I am pleased with the noticeable change in attitudes from parents particularly. We have had some interesting discussions about the perceived hierarchy of discrimination: they know that it’s not okay to be racist but somehow it’s more acceptable to be homophobic and we’ve worked together to look at challenging this assumption in our school.
We recently made homophobia the focus of our week long ‘Same Difference’ Diversity Festival. The campaign was launched on Monday, so that when the students came into school after the weekend they found Some People Are Gay, Get Over It! Bunting down the corridors, round the servery and in the dining room and Sports Hall. There was a poster in every classroom (70+), 16 staff wearing a t-shirt and every other member of staff wearing a sticker.
We invited Pride Sports, who work to combat homophobia in sport, to deliver workshops to three different year 7-9 cohorts (each of 110 students) about homophobia in sport. We then had a bit of a frantic washing and drying operation each night so that a different 16 staff wore the t-shirts each day Monday – Thursday. In other words, it wasn't just a day, but rather the whole week, and by the end of the week over half the staff (of 120+) had worn a t-shirt showing their support. This was all going on alongside special workshops on other aspects of diversity: deaf awareness and sign language, wheelchair basketball sessions, workshops on Hinduism, etc., with our Caribbean Carnival day on the Friday involving the whole school. Meanwhile, the normal timetable was operating Monday – Thursday, so students were also looking at different aspects of diversity through their subjects, wherever staff could work this in.
Diversity Festival Week allowed a safe way in to dealing with homophobia head on. By looking at sexuality as part of our wider focus on equality, it was very easy for our young people to see the parallels with other forms of discrimination: if they agreed that racism was wrong and comments about people with disabilities were unacceptable, why should it be OK to treat someone differently because of their sexuality?
Of course, it's not all about banners and bunting and slogans. What really makes a difference is what goes on in the classroom day in, day out, lesson by lesson. It's about the curriculum-based work we do in our Citizenship lessons. The positive portrayal of gay, lesbian and bisexual authors, athletes and musicians in what we teach and in our classroom displays. And it's about having a whole school policy whereby every member of staff systematically challenges the use of words like ‘gay’ to refer to something in a negative way. The Some People Are Gay campaign has built on this to move us on yet again to the next level of acceptance.
I was struck by the number of colleagues who commented to me how stunned they were with the response from students – the maturity with which they had reacted to the whole campaign. Perhaps not surprisingly the pervasive nature of the slogan gave rise to numerous spontaneous conversations with staff about why we were doing this, what the slogan meant, why it was important.
Across the whole week not a single colleague reported the slightest inappropriate comment or negative reaction. Not one of the posters was damaged or written on. In fact the only thing that bothered some staff was that they had been challenged by their students about why THEY weren't wearing a t-shirt too! Not surprising, therefore, that we had a staff waiting list for t-shirts!
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