Yesterday was National Coming Out Day and this prompted me to think about the position that many young people find themselves in today. In many respects, days like this can demonstrate how far we have come as a Global Community. However, they also reflect how much further we need to go in order for many young people to feel comfortable about their identities. As a teacher, and as a father, I see many sides of this.
So how far have we come? Well, from a personal perspective, I was proud a few weeks ago when my teenage daughter had the courage to casually inform the family that she identifies as being bi-sexual. A long discussion took place exploring her feelings and talking about embracing her identity and being true to herself. My son who has several friends who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community has also been an outspoken advocate of their rights, even in the face of being bullied by many of his peers for his views. He’s the straightest teenager to be called a “fag”, I’m sure!
Many schools have come a long, long way. I worked in a school where a young, popular and extremely effective teacher (TB – you know who you are!!) became a spokesperson for Stonewall and led the school in developing a curriculum which was sensitive and informative about LGBTQ+ issues. The result was that the culture of the school became much more open-minded and students were more willing to embrace their identities in an environment which was secure. In short, they had an advocate and a member of staff who supported them openly.
It is clear that attitudes are changing. There is more dialogue in most schools. More discussion is encouraged by staff, which allows students to explore the issues they face. Sex and Health education programmes often include more open-minded communication – after all, understanding something in more depth can only be a good thing. Young people now have more role models in society who are more willing to discuss their feelings in public and the growing acceptance of gay marriage in many Western countries is beginning to send out a clear message of tolerance.
But we also have a long way to go. Often, role models are limited to certain industries, and it remains shocking to me that there are apparently no gay footballers in the English Premier League, a statistic which defies all odds. Despite other sports fielding their handful of gay participants, the issues seem to be muted within the confines of the world’s most popular sport. What message does this send out to young people?
But high schools are the most important institutions in dealing with identity issues because it is here where young people make the greatest developmental strides. Therefore, it is vital that schools get it right and I have seen many instances where this is sadly not the case. Within the last two years, I have taught in New Zealand… a country which prides itself on open-mindedness and moral thinking (they were, after all, the first Western Country to give women the right to vote). However, when it comes to dealing with LGBTQ+ issues, it seems that many schools are falling well short of the mark.
Homophobic bullying is commonplace in many schools. I have experienced this first hand and also worked in an environment, by contrast to the UK, where students are deeply uncomfortable in coming out or discussing their feelings openly. In some cases, staff have been so poorly equipped, trained or experienced to deal with these issues, I have been able, through observation, to compile a list of WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN A STUDENT WISHES TO DISCUSS THEIR SEXUALITY:
- Do not immediately refer them to a counselor, unless there is an issue of bullying or the student specifically requests this. They are not mentally ill if they think they’re not straight!!
- Do not suggest to them that this is just a phase and they’ll get over it!!
- Do not immediately call their parents.
- Do not make attempts to have “child protection” discussions with senior members of staff – unless there is an obvious child protection issue at stake!! (Being gay in it itself if NOT a child protection issue!)
- Do not tell them to go away. They obviously, for some bizarre reason, have chosen you to divulge this information to!!
Just being open-minded and listening goes a long way. You don’t need to do a 15 week course for that.
Furthermore, another worrying trend in the youth culture of Kiwis is the overuse of the term “GAY” as a way of describing something which is rubbish. It is so entrenched in the language of Kiwi teens, that I have seen teachers actually challenge students who have spoken out against this with, “Oh, its just a saying” and “it doesn’t mean what you think.” One teacher even made the point of saying, “Gay means happy, not what you think it means” to a student who challenged the use of the term as an insult. Really? Happy? This particular teacher doesn’t just need to get back to the 21st Century, but should probably come of of the 18th Century because I think the last time “Gay” meant “Happy” was when George III was King of England!! However, before we blame teachers for not doing enough to change the culture of acceptance, it might prove difficult when we consider that teachers have actually been dismissed for standing up for LGBTQ+ Rights.
But the fight has started. More groups are challenging existing cultures and progress is being made but there is a long way to go.
Finally, the more we provide a platform for young people to voice and explore their identity issues, the more openness we encourage within all cultures. A wonderful article by Professor Matthew H. Birkhold discusses the challenges of coming out and suggests that this prevents non-straight people from being “normalised”. While I agree with this argument to some extent, I do believe that coming out, as a teenager, is an important issue because it is their opportunity to gain a platform to be vocal and express their identity publicly, with the scope to promote open exploration of this. This may not be as important for a middle-aged, married man, but for a teenager, this platform which allows public acceptance can make all the difference in how they see themselves in the world.