Practical Bi Awareness: Teaching and LGBT

Section 28 is long dead and buried, but what’s happened to teaching around bisexuality and biphobia in the time since?

I have worked in schools for ten years, mostly as a teaching assistant, and identified as queer for twenty. I am a child of the era of Section 28, a law which prevented schools from promoting homosexuality, or teaching the acceptability of homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” from 1988 to 2000 in Scotland, and for a further three years in England and Wales.

In 2010, sexuality and gender identity were added to the list of protected characteristics in the Equality act. That means that it is illegal to discriminate against perceived Age, Disability, Gender identity, Marriage and civil partnership status, Pregnancy and maternity status, Race, Religion and belief, Sex, or Sexual orientation of an individual or group.

In all my time at schools, we have included aspects of BME culture in our curriculum, ensured there is a gender mix in teacher resources, ensured all staff are trained to make learning accessible to students with differing abilities, and celebrated different religious festivals. Yet there is a persistent vague silence when it comes to acknowledging the existence of LGBT+ experience. Other staff members habitually refer children with questions about LGBT experience to me, and LGBT curriculum or resources are non-existent.

So one afternoon, I’m pulled into the headteacher’s office and asked if I want to go to Elly Barne’s (MBE) Educate and Celebrate training to promote LGBT inclusion in schools. The governors had realised that they needed to do something to acknowledge the Equality Act, because we are bound by the expectations of Ofsted, and I was the person they chose to represent the school.

In 2014 Stonewall released the Teacher’s Report about homophobic bullying in schools. It conflates gay and bisexual experience, but it points out some key points.

  •     Almost nine in ten secondary school teachers (86 per cent) and almost half of primary school teachers (45 per cent) surveyed say pupils in their schools have experienced homophobic bullying.
  •     More than half of primary school teachers (56 per cent) say they have not addressed different families in a way that includes same-sex parents in the classroom, and a third of secondary school teachers (34 per cent) say they have not addressed issues of sexual orientation in the classroom.
  •     Very few teachers in primary schools (8 per cent) or secondary schools (17 per cent) say they have received specific training on tackling homophobic bullying.

Things are far from perfect, but they are improving:

  •     Half the number of secondary school teachers say pupils are often or very often the victim of homophobic bullying: 13 per cent compared to 25 per cent in 2009.

With the small pockets of education we already achieving, things ARE improving.

My previous experiences in schools have been very mixed regarding specific support of bisexual staff and students. Because I live with my female partner, other staff label me “gay” despite coming out as bisexual repeatedly. Our school response to LGBT issues is entirely reactive to the bullying that staff experience, so because children only use the slurs “gay” or “lesbian,” they’re the only words that staff use as well.

The most supportive educational establishment I worked in for LGBT students was a unit for children unable to attend mainstream schools. There were two boys there who identified as gay. However, when one started dating a girl in the unit, most of the staff spoke as if he was now straight, even though he firmly described himself as gay apart from this one girl. Even with a nominally supportive staff, bisexuality was simply invisibilised.

A colleague from a different specialist school notes that there are many children with acceptance of a broader spectrum of sexualities. This suggests that biphobia and homophobia are not intrinsic to students in educational systems, but a product specific to the forms of teaching in mainstream education. She says that

‘The girls tend to be more openly demonstrative of this exploration of their sexuality than the boys. The girls will physically get closer in public areas, and even though the ward staff and teachers say this is discouraged in the same way as any physical familiarity between patients, I do feel more is made of same-sex physicality.’

About the boys, she notes that,

‘I tend to get more indirect questions from the boys along the lines of “some boys at my school are really homophobic, what do you think I should do?”’

When the possibility of dialogue is there, and made safe, then young people will explore what is right for them. ‘The kids are cool with bisexuality, the staff less so.’ Staff who are supportive will be trusted. Those that aren’t won’t change the sexuality of the young people, and neither will they be trusted.
Issues facing transgender students are very visible in the news at present, particularly regarding the transphobic laws about toilet use in North Carolina. Sadly, in practice, safe toilet use isn’t very different in the UK. A senior member of the teaching staff tells an anecdote with great fondness of a child assigned male at birth who would come into nursery every day, put on a dress, and demand to be referred to by a chosen female name. Sadly, even in a supportive school, this is not seen further up in older classes. A minority of children delight in subverting gender expectations (boys wearing ‘guyliner’ and getting dressed up in hijabs by the girls are not unknown sights), but when gender neutral toilets are mentioned both staff and parents get uncomfortable. They excuse their feelings as worrying about “boys misbehaving in toilets,” and suggest trans students using the disabled toilets, isolating them further.

While the lack of understanding from adults is depressing, children can be refreshingly laissez-faire in their perspectives on gender and sexuality. In a lesson where a teacher was reading a poem about how snow can be like a man and a woman, a ten year old asked if the poem was about a man who then became a woman. His tablemate responded with “It’s called being transgender, DURR!” to general agreement from the class. When I let children watch music videos during golden time, I assign one child to tell me if there’s any rude songs I need to turn off the video for. She came to warn me of a “rude bit” just as it happened: two men kissing on screen. I said that was ok, because there was a man and woman kissing in the previous video, so it was only fair that two men got a turn too. She accepted that a laugh, and continued her previous activity without comment.

As a queer adult in a school, children are most aware of my non-standard gender presentation, particularly hairstyle and shoes. They comment on it, but largely they don’t care. It is this nonchalance about the acceptance of non-normative aspects of themselves and others that I wish we could promote as they grow older. I have heard “gay” used as an insult once, when a boy wouldn’t stop bothering a girl, and she shouted at him. The class teacher I work with dealt with the situation beautifully by comparing the use of the word to someone using skin colour as an insult, and made it clear it was unacceptable. But right now, the my students don’t care who fancies who, but rather will use the most powerful words that they feel they have access to. If we continue to make clear that no words about sexuality are acceptable insults, that is the difference that change attitudes in the future.

Educate and Celebrate’s key focuses are educating adults to be able to respond to situations when LGBT issues are raised, and usualising (normalising) LGBT experience for children through reading and inclusion of LGBT role models in curriculum. They have a set of books about and starring LGBT characters, with a large chunk of them aimed at younger primary school aged children. However, as sexuality is presented as relationships rather than attraction, and all the relationships in the books are presented as monogamous and long term, bisexuality isn’t shown. Even in real situations where bisexuality could be celebrated, for example, “And Tango Makes Three” – the tale of two male penguins that bring up a chick – the fact that one of the penguins brings up a second chick with a female penguin is glossed over.

Things are a bit better for the secondary resources. The collections provided to schools contain two books referencing bisexuality: “Empress of the World” by Sara Ryan, and “Geography Club” by Brent Hartinger. But so many books still fall into the trap of describing relationships rather than attraction, so perceived monosexuality with people having their first relationship seems rather inevitable.

When I went to the governor’s meeting to explain the programme to others, including the parent governors, parents were originally worried about what we would be teaching their children. When I explained that the teachers would be trained to better handle LGBT issues, and children would get new books, their anxiety passed immediately. Indeed, a member of management spoke to me about her anxiety that parents of Black Caribbean descent, and Muslim parents would struggle with their children being taught about different relationship types. Yet on the Educate and Celebrate course, there was a teacher from a newly opened Muslim secondary school, passionate about preventing any homophobic bullying developing in his school. So I wasn’t surprised when our parent governors – a mother of Black Caribbean descent, and a Muslim mother – were massively supportive of the new curriculum. They wanted their children to be respectful of other people, and they didn’t want their children to go to school somewhere where there was homophobic bullying.

Of course, it would be a pipe dream to hope that every parent and staff member would support an LGBT-inclusive curriculum. But the difference is that these days Ofsted expects schools to show evidence of how they follow the Equality Act, and prevent discrimination against the protected characteristics. Whereas once the government had an official policy to brush us under the carpet with Section 28, now LGBT+ people are being supported explicitly. There are of course stories of parents threatening to pull their children out of schools that have already committed to these changes. But the fact remains that all schools are heading this way, and those that don’t are doomed to lower grade Ofsted reports. It is the job of those of us with links to children to continue to promote the language of bisexuality and validity of attraction to all genders – especially when that attraction changes over time.

Bethan writes as @MissQuiltbag on twitter. Find more resources for an inclusive curriculum from @EducateCelebrat, @elly_barnes and http://www.educateandcelebrate.org/.