By Charlotte Allen, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
As a PhD researcher who identifies as lesbian, my own experiences have undoubtedly influenced my decision to study the secondary school experiences of LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and other sexual and gender identity minorities) young people and the processes that enable resilience in response to challenges. My experiences at secondary school around 15 years ago were not bad as such. I wasn’t bullied or ostracised, but I also wasn’t ‘out’. Although I mostly enjoyed school and had many positive experiences, I also felt isolated and different from others. I didn’t know any other LGBTQ+ students and made substantial efforts to ‘fit in’, ensuring that my sexuality remained hidden from friends and family. Homophobia was present in many explicit and implicit ways. ‘Lesbian’ and ‘gay’ were seen as insults and many students were very keen to avoid being perceived by others as LGBTQ+. One memorable experience occurred when I was aged 12; When I tried to stick up for a friend, I was taunted along the lines of: “Ooh Charlotte are you a lesbian with [other student]?” When I burst into tears at this ‘insult’, other students rushed to reassure me that it was all ok; they knew I wasn’t a lesbian. This only further highlighted that being a lesbian was not a good thing to be. I also remember gossip about a teachers’ sexuality, and an English class where a group of students, suspecting our teacher to be a lesbian, tried to mention the word as often as possible during lessons in order to provoke her.
These experiences, and others, occurred within the context of an overall school environment which was very heteronormative. There was little to no inclusion of LGBTQ+ topics within the curriculum; Section 28 was still in place until I reached sixth form. Section 28 was a Local Government Act that was introduced in 1988, which stated that a Local Authority should not ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’ (Department for Education and Science, 1988). Consequently, LGBTQ+ identities were commonly erased and homophobic bullying within schools was frequently ignored. It was not until 2000 that this act was repealed in Scotland, and 2003 in the rest of the UK; its effects upon school culture may have lasted much longer. Yet, in recent decades, substantial progress towards greater LGBTQ+ equality have been made, as shown below.
On the basis of this, it could be easy to think that LGBTQ+ equality within the UK has now been largely achieved. When I first started my PhD, I sometimes wondered whether perhaps my research was already ‘out of date’ or redundant, and whether I might find that the situation for young LGBTQ+ people in UK schools was now wonderfully rosy. Yet other research findings, along with my own experiences of being part of the queer community, suggested that we still have a way to go. For example, a report by Stonewall (Bachmann & Gooch, 2017) found that one in five participating LGBT people experienced a hate crime or hate incident within the past 12 months, which rose to two in five for transgender people. Most of my queer friends have numerous personal experiences of discrimination, even in recent years, ranging from being cut off from their families, spat on or yelled at in the street, to everyday microaggressions.
I am still in the midst of analysing my data so have not yet seen the full picture. However, whilst I was collecting data in schools and carrying out my initial analyses, I was heartened by findings of increased LGBTQ+ awareness and inclusion in school, whilst also being saddened by similarities between my own isolating school experiences in relation to being LGBTQ+ and those of many young people today. Here are just a few of my findings:
Although being severely bullied in relation to LGBTQ+ status was reported relatively rarely, homophobic language was common, with 48.3% of LGBTQ+ participants reporting hearing this often or every day. Some students discussed never experiencing homophobia or transphobia, or only coming across ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’ (students also engaged with the complexity of whether or not something was ‘just a joke’, something that is beyond this blog!), other students gave many qualitative examples of experiencing or witnessing homophobia and transphobia at school, for example:
“I was in a changing room – it was very uncomfortable for me because a large group of people were talking about how they couldn’t be friends with gay people because they said it would make them uncomfortable because what if the girl got a crush on them?” (Student, Yr11)
“When someone says that they’re LGBT+, people normally spread it as rumours around the year/school, even if the person doesn’t want them to.” (Student, Yr10)
“I was followed home once. Often I get shouted if I’m a boy or a girl and get called a tranny.” (Student, Yr10)
“…people tease a transgender person and call them by their original name rather than the one they prefer to be called now.” (Student, Yr10)
When looking at the broader school context, progress towards equality and inclusion has been made; many young people and teachers were open about their identities, most teachers were interested in including LGBTQ+ topics. LGBTQ+ and equality groups existed in several of the schools I studied, and many young people reported welcoming school environments. However, I also found that, across all four participating schools, students talked of a school curriculum that still did not adequately incorporate LGBTQ+ topics and students, leaving many students feeling excluded.
“I think we’ve only had like one lesson. I don’t actually remember if they’ve ever talked about it. I mean they might have talked about it once, but I don’t think they talk about it enough.” (Student, Yr11)
Some participants felt that this exclusion passively ‘allowed’ the continuation of homophobia and transphobia in schools, for example:
“In year 10 we did a little bit on relationships and like sexuality, but we barely touched it, and I think it’s an important thing to keep in the curriculum because it obviously didn’t stick with people because they are still saying these insults and they’re being horrible” (Student, Yr11)
Exclusion of LGBTQ+ topics was most commonly mentioned in relation to Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). Upcoming curricula changes from September 2020 will make RSE compulsory in all UK schools, including covering LGBTQ+ topics, which may help to improve this. Nonetheless, a number of students also mentioned exclusion in relation to the broader curriculum, suggesting that LGBTQ+ topics should not be confined to RSE. Some interviewees also drew parallels to other forms of exclusion, based upon, for example, gender or ethnicity, highlighting that a need for greater inclusivity is not limited to LGBTQ+ topics.
“…in history, or in English with different writers, there are a lot of people who are gay, and I don’t want the teachers to make a big deal out of it, but there are lots of times where it would be appropriate to mention it and it doesn’t get mentioned. It’s like, especially in history, all we seem to learn about is a bunch of old middle-aged white people, and ‘ah, look at them changing the world.’ But from my perspective they didn’t do a great job, a lot of them, and there are a lot of women and there are a lot of LGBT+ people, and people from other countries.” (Student, Yr11)
Similar to my experiences at school, a number of young people also talked about trying to fit in, or not wanting others to know they were LGBTQ+.
“…there was a period when people asked ‘what sexuality are you?’ Everyone said straight, and I’m pretty sure not everyone was being totally honest because, the thing about my year is in order to fit in you kind of have to be like everyone else.” (Student, Yr11)
“My friends often joke about women who are lesbian, this makes me very upset as I might be lesbian and makes me feel insecure about myself.” (Student, Yr10)
Whilst we can acknowledge the huge societal shifts and progress towards greater LGBTQ+ inclusion within schools, as we can see, we must not become complacent. There are still people within today’s schools who feel isolated or excluded because of their sexuality and gender identity. As a society, we need to continue to work towards educational environments where everyone feels safe and accepted.
Bachmann, C., & Gooch, B. (2017). LGBT in Britain: Hate crime and discrimination.
Department for Education and Science. (1988). Local Government Act 1988: Section 28; DES Circular 88/90. London: DES.
Charlotte Allen is a part-time PhD student at the Faculty of Education and Trinity Hall. Her research focuses upon LGBTQ+ students’ experiences and resilience at school in response to commonplace challenges. Data was collected in four schools in the East of England, including survey questionnaires at three time points and semi-structured interviews. When not working on her PhD, Charlotte enjoys spending time with her cats and eating delicious food with her partner!