The former teacher explains why she set up charity Diversity Role Models
During one of my 12 years of teaching, I was in a multi-ethnic, mixed-gender year 11 class in a low socio-economic area of London. I asked students how they would respond to an openly gay teacher. 'I'd knock him out,' and 'faggot ain't touching me' were just two of the more venomous responses from hyped-up boys. This is one reason I gave up my teaching job and now run a charity which tackles homophobia by gently challenging prejudice and misconceptions about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Many people exist in a new-age bubble of acceptance; their children have gay uncles or have been to civil partnership ceremonies, LGBT characters pop up on TV and parents talk honestly with their offspring about sexual orientation. However, this isn't the reality of the students from that particular class or the young people that write in to Diversity Role Models. I have letters from people saying that they hide bruises from their parents so that they don't ask why they are being bullied; or that they get punched and spat at every day in the corridors simply because their peers perceive them as gay.
Homophobia isn't the only form of bullying that needs to be stamped out but it is one of the most insidious. Students don't like to report homophobic bullying for fear it 'outs' them as gay and teachers often don't feel confident tackling it because they don't have the language or resources to talk about 'gay issues'. Some teachers have reportedly asked students to act less gay, rather than address the underlying issues. And unlike bullying due to weight or race, teachers and students often have their own sexuality questioned if they stick up for the victims of homophobia.
Diversity Role Models takes LGBT and straight role models into secondary schools to speak openly
to young people about diversity, in facilitated workshops. We have two aims: we want to give hope of a happy future to young people who may be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Beacuse they are more likely to be bullied and to attempt suicide than their peers, meeting people who have overcome adversity provides inspiration.
Secondly, we help the rest of the class to understand difference. We help them realise that while we might be LGB or T, we are also people. People with a range of talents, skin colours, career paths, annoying habits, quirky families or religious beliefs. We demonstrate that our sexual orientation is only a small and mostly irrelevant part of who we are. Once students get to know us, have open and often humorous dialogue with us, they understand that perhaps their bullying behaviour towards those who are 'different' is unwarranted.
In primary schools we talk about 'different families', as advised by Stonewall. More and more gay and lesbian couples are becoming parents and it is important that schools have books which reflect alternative family set ups to ensure all students feel safe talking about their home life at school. This is an easy way of introducing different identities so that students are prepared when peers turn out to be LGBT at secondary school.
One ten-year-old we talked to said: 'I used to think it was nasty, two men being together or two women, now I know that they love each other and that's what matters.' We don't try to change the minds of young people who have particular beliefs. Our message is, that regardless of individual differences, nobody deserves to be bullied or discriminated against. On this basis, we challenge students to refrain from homophobic 'banter' due to its potentially deadly consequences, to stand up for victims of bullying where it is safe to do so, and not to lash out just because somebody is different.
Diversity Role Models also has transgender role models who are able to talk to young people about their experiences. The transgender community face more ignorance, and therefore violence, in society, and one of the best ways to create a safer environment is to increase understanding. Young people have more empathy than we sometimes give them credit for.
It is these conversations that will make the next generation more understanding of diversity, and make our society one in which people can love freely, raise their children without fear of prejudice and above all, stop young people taking their lives because they can't imagine a happy future.
To support Diversity Role Models, text RMRM11 £5 to 70070 or email firstname.lastname@example.org