By Catherine Somerville, Campaigns, Policy and Research Manager at Stonewall Scotland
A colleague recently told me that I am a geek, apparently as a compliment. Geeks, I am told, whilst smart and passionate about niche issues, are also sociable, even ‘cool’ in their own clique of like-minded obsessives. It’s a funny thing, in your twenties, to be called the same word that chased you round the playground, and to now be fine with it, slightly proud even. As a ginger, bespectacled teenager with braces and a propensity to stick my hand up in class, I was no stranger to that particular slur, and remember groaning at my mum’s advice that “one day you’ll be proud to be a geek”. It’s awful when your parents are right.
Working for Stonewall Scotland, we hear teachers and young people talking every day about the nasty, unkind way that words are thrown around in our playgrounds, words that we hope those young people will one day be able to pick up, and wear like a badge of honour. “You’re so gay” should never be an insult. It indicates a capacity to love and be loved; a capacity to understand your own feelings, and accept them. For some, it indicates a capacity to be yourself despite immense pressure not to be. “Gay” should be a source of pride. But for too many young people in our schools, being LGBT, or even questioning whether you might be, is a source of fear, of bullying, and of isolation.
Back in 2008, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended measures to address intolerance, and preventative action against the discrimination experienced by LGBT children. Yet still, over half of LGBT young people are bullied in Scotland’s schools, and only 16 per cent of our teachers have had any training to tackle it. This is unacceptable. But even more worryingly, a quarter of LGBT young people have attempted to take their own life because of bullying experienced at school.
The UN Committee further recommended action to intensify efforts to tackle bullying and violence in school, including through teaching human rights. Yet, in Scotland, this seems to be an area where we have got a bit stuck when it comes to LGBT equality. Despite 15 years having passed since the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, a staggering 75 per cent of primary school staff, and 44 per cent of secondary schools staff in Scotland say they either aren’t allowed to, or aren’t sure if they are allowed to teach about LGBT issues in their school. In practical terms this means that teachers are too nervous to address LGBT issues, including bullying, and LGBT young people are left to seek information and support from youth groups, or often online.
That’s why, with the Scottish Parliament elections just round the corner, we are calling for the next Scottish Government to develop a serious, long term strategy to train teachers to tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying, and provide age-appropriate sex and relationships information and advice, as part of an inclusive curriculum. Whilst all of the five main party leaders have recognised the importance of inclusive education, and training teachers as part of that, I find myself wanting something more. A commitment to training some teachers is definitely a start, but it is too often those in leadership positions, and those who have been in post for a long time, who find addressing LGBT issues more challenging.
When we talk about supporting LGBT young people we need to also think holistically about the support needed. We need our health services to recognise that a young bisexual person is not “going through a phase”, and to understand the mental health impact that puberty might have on a trans teenager if they are unable to access support. We need our police to be developing relationships with LGBT young people in schools and youth groups, to build trust to report hate crime. And we urgently need a review of the laws affecting trans people, so that, like the right to vote, to marry or serve in the military, young people can have their gender legally recognised in Scotland at 16, not 18.
We talk a lot at Stonewall Scotland about “acceptance without exception”, and for a phrase so small, it’s actually quite a difficult thing. Acceptance comes from many places, but above all we must be able to accept ourselves. The kneejerk reaction to any insult is always a frightened denial, but what if you actually are a geek, or a nerd, or gay even? It relies on our teachers to make those words okay again, to educate young people not only on the world they are going into, but also about themselves, and the rights that they have going out into the big bad world. We’re not there yet.
Stonewall Scotland have been a member of Together for several years. Stonewall are part of a larger UK organisation who work to make sure that all lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people know they’re not alone. Stonewall partners with organisations that help them to create change for the better and allow communities to find ways to flourish, and individuals to reach their full potential. Stonewall seek to support those who can’t yet be themselves.