By Theresa Salzer: firstname.lastname@example.org
“We say that being gay is just like being left-handed – a bit unusual, a bit inconvenient at times, but in general not a major problem” – a parents voice published in ‘Issues Today – Sexual Orientation’ by Independence Educational Publishers (2011).
A statement like the above is perhaps meant to sound reassuring, but exactly why is there a need for ‘reassurance’ with regard to someone’s sexual orientation? Rather than settling for ‘reassurance’ as a strategy to show one’s understanding and respect towards the LGBT+ community, I would argue that it is about raising acceptance and challenging the ever persisting heterosexual and cisgendered norms that continue to dominate our daily life. Schools especially, should not be settling for reassurance and fostering the idea that being gay is ‘unusual’ but should rather deconstruct the persisting stereotypical and prejudicial ideas around sexual orientation and gender identity and enable their students to feel good about who they identify as, inside and outside of school.
So let’s go back to the beginning. From day one, we are taught that proper loving relationships consist of one man and one woman and that men and women must behave according to gendered expectations placed on them at birth. The standards are set. We grow up seeing cartoons, Disney movies and books in which the world is depicted as heterosexual and gendered. There is very little space for other possibilities. Boys get blue clothes and cars; girls on the other hand receive pink in all shades and dolls. This is an ever continuing cycle in which stereotypical ideas of gender roles are replicated, which in turn keeps hetero and cisnormativity alive. Yes, things are changing, and there are many progressive movements to counter these standards, however, in reality the distinction between the sexes remains engrained. This is where it gets hurtful for children and adults that don’t fit within these norms. Living in a world that doesn’t feel ‘right’ for you might lead to an identity struggle, confronted by questions such as who you are (in comparison to these standards) and why you are ‘different’?
School children are already developing their identity and exploring their space in the world, however, it is here when the topic of homosexuality and gender identity is often put aside. Why? As social psychologist professor Dr. Ulrich Klocke has recently explained, many make the wrong assumption that homosexuality equates to sex and heterosexuality equates to family and love (Klocke, 2016). Instead, it is important to realise that homosexuality is as much about different forms of partnerships and families, and not about sex. There also continues to be misconceptions with regards to gender identity. Recently a furore arose with regards to a form that Brighton Council created where children were given a choice about what gender to choose, and were given the option to leave the box blank if they didn’t identify as either male or female. This step towards opening doors and recognising that children may not identify as the gender that they were assigned at birth was seen as ‘utterly ridiculous’ by Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen and others commented that this was encouraging children to ‘gender swap’. Misconceptions such as these dominate discourse around LGBT+, meaning that discussions are often inaccurate or avoided altogether in schools.
As the former Equalities Minister Jo Swinson illustrated in 2013, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is a persistent problem in British schools and this “…has serious consequences – it can affect children’s well-being, lead to poor educational performance and prevent them getting ahead in life.” She continues by saying “it’s completely unacceptable that young people are experiencing this type of derogatory treatment.” Three years on, this problem still remains and schools need strong strategies to combat it.
Young people’s ideas and attitudes are affected by the society and media which surrounds them, which reinforce stereotypes and prejudice towards the LGBT+ community. Here are just a few examples of comments I have encountered in the past.
The reassurance: ‘I am very open-minded. I don’t mind LGBT+ people, as long as I am not confronted with them near me.’ Here we come across the crucial difference between tolerance and acceptance. Many people tolerate LGBT+ people, but accepting them as full members of society is something else. What LGBT+ people are fighting for is acceptance – to be accepted on the basis of being able to be yourself and not tolerated and otherwise ignored.
The question: ‘Why did you choose to be gay?’ Sometimes people might even add ‘that’s a very courageous choice to make’. How so? When I have feelings for another woman, then that simply happens; like anyone who is fortunate to develop feelings for someone else. Feelings are there, they happen to everyone. Having feelings is not a choice. Some people will accept this, but argue that acting on these feelings is a choice. However, as anyone in the position will realise, trying to ignore or push away feelings can cause emotional instability and have serious psychological consequences.
Finally, the language used to describe people’s identification with regards to their sexual orientation is problematic. It already constructs boundaries which anyone associated with not being straight has to ‘overcome’. The expression ‘coming out’ implies coming out of the ‘closet’; this is the result of having been placed in a ‘closet’ in the first place. I never chose to be in a closet, however, in order to be ‘accepted’, I continuously have to step out of one. Closets are dark places and often used as places to hide. I understand the need to identify your sexual orientation, however, the way this identification has been moulded into being a step from dark into light is nonsense. On top of that, the idea that coming out of the closet is a one-time action is highly dubious. It’s not all out in the open after that. Instead, I would say we come out daily. A renowned exhibition in Muenster, Germany on Homosexualitaet_en (Homosexuality_s), offered many video clips on people demonstrating that ‘coming-out’ is ever continuing – when you introduce yourself because you meet someone new, or when you sign up your child in a school, when you start a new job. It is when you say ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am transgender’ – you are ‘forced to step out’ once more. And the uncertainty of how your opposite will respond is exhausting.
A reoccurring issue when discussing all forms of discrimination and issues of equality is the fact that people think in categories. It is a means of functioning and filing the great amount of information we receive and so make sense of our world around us. Often unconsciously we place all different forms of characteristics into ‘normal’ versus ‘not normal’. As the parent referred to homosexuality in the above quote, gay is ‘unusual’ – unusual implies there being a ‘usual’ with regards to one’s sexual orientation. The ‘usual’ here refers to whatever is most frequent. Most people identify as being straight, which is then taken to be the ‘normal’ sexual orientation. The problem with categorising is when we start to compare the categories with one another and lose ourselves in an ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ struggle, which often translates to discriminatory behaviour. If you have a look at ‘The Kinsey scale’, the whole notion of thinking in only heterosexual and homosexual categories is opened to a fluid concept. The Kinsey scale was first published in Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948) and was developed by Drs. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin. The scale, originally established as the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale, accounted for research findings that showed people did not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories. Since this research the rejection of the binary notion of sexual orientations and gender identities has developed, but it still remains to be embedded in our everyday thinking and behaviour towards members of LGBT+.
Let me give you an example of everyday discrimination. A week ago, I was going around stores in an ‘average’ English town, trying to find a wedding card for my friend who was getting married to another woman. Do you think in the 100+ wedding themed cards available, I could find a card portraying two women together? Even on animal wedding cards, the little bird was wearing a dress and the other a suit, and objects like wedding shoes were distinguished into bride and groom, just to make sure the normative stamp was visible. England and Wales have ‘permitted’ same sex marriage in the Marriage (same sex couples) Act in 2013, and under the Equality Act 2010, sexual orientation falls under the nine protected characteristics. However, during my search for a wedding card, I realised that same-sex marriages are far from truly being acknowledged and accepted. So, what can we do to go beyond tolerance and move towards an active acceptance of LGBT+ in our society?
Here are some suggestions:
1. Do not discriminate against people based on who they are attracted to and build relationships with. Instead challenge the idea that sexual orientation is all about sex, but as much as heterosexual bonds, involves feelings and different conceptions of families and relationships.
2. Offer LGBT+ people more role models that represent all forms of sexual diversity. It is about LGBT+ role models visibly living beyond heteronormative ways, whether you talk openly about your sexual orientation as a teacher, read books in which the family composition deviates from the ‘usual’, or find out stories of LGBT+ community members.
3. Don’t think it is about choice: a YES or NO to heterosexuality. Feelings are a beautiful thing and the more we allow people to express these openly and identify with, the more free we allow our society to be.
4. Don’t put people in boxes, because sexual orientation and gender identities know no borders. We should aim to have an accepted view that you do not need to ‘come out’ of anything to be who you want to be, instead you can identify as what you choose and this identification process applies to all on the entire Kinsey scale.
5. Don’t assume but engage, ask questions and inform yourself. Ignorance won’t allow much development in opening doors to all sexual orientations and gender identities. If it appears a difficult topic, that demonstrates even more it’s importance and the need to discuss it openly and honestly.
To leave you with a positive example, I recently visited a school in Manchester, where students from year 10 explained that they have recently created an LGBT+ club for their school, which has proven rather rare in schools in general. They are currently recruiting students to become mentors for the LGBT+ club and training them with the help of the LGBT Foundation (http://lgbt.foundation/) to become mentors for anyone struggling with LGBT+ issues. They hope to provide a safe and open environment for LGBT+ people in their school. Pupils have also created display boards, clarifying language around LGBT+ issues and have provided examples of LGBT+ role models for all students. Assemblies have been used to inform all students and teachers about their developments. One student informed me that many students had since felt comfortable to identify themselves as LGBT+ and everyone was working on acceptance at their school.
The organisation Education Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH), funded by the Department of Education, recently created a new school resource called Inspiring Equality in Education (2016) that helps to support such positive initiatives in education. It aims to increase understanding at both primary and secondary levels and is a useful tool for all teachers to start raising awareness in their own classrooms.
EqualiTeach offers interactive workshops to support young people in primary and secondary schools, and has developed workshops looking at how to challenge homophobia and promote LGB equality for both staff and students. For more information, please visit: www.equaliteach.co.uk.
As a final note, I want to point out that the above represents my personal point of view, and my conviction that it is a very pertinent topic in young people’s lives and for all LGBT+ people. Schools clearly form a very important environment, in which students develop their identity, confidence and belief that who they are is fine. LGBT+ equality should not be ignored. There have been positive developments in English law , however, we need to make sure that these are also mirrored in our daily actions and that we allow LGBT+ people a chance to be themselves without exception. Have a lovely moment of awareness the next time you walk through shops, looking for wedding cards.
Sources & Interesting Links
Dr. Ulrich Klocke – Interview by Friedmann Karig (2016). “Ein Mann wird aggressiv gegen das, was er selbst zu werden fürchtet” Wie Homophobie und Hass entstehen. Ein Interview. (‚A man becomes aggressive against that which he fears to become himself‘. How homophobia and hatred develop. An Interview.) http://www.jetzt.de/terrorismus/woher-kommen-homophobie-und-hass?utm_source=Maileon&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=SZ+ESPRESSO+AM+ABEND+Do.+16.06.16&utm_content=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.jetzt.de%2Fterrorismus%2Fwoher-kommen-homophobie-und-hass&utm_term=html
Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) (2016). Inspiring Equality in Education.
Government Equalities Office (2011). Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equality: Moving Forward.
Independence Educational Publishers (2011). Issues Today – Sexual Orientation.
Inspiring Equality in Education a Youtube Video: What is gender? (31 March, 2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qlYtj0sf6ec
LGBT Foundation – http://lgbt.foundation/
Sky News (2016). Council ‘Proud’ Of Asking Kids To Choose Gender. http://news.sky.com/story/1681865/council-proud-of-asking-kids-to-choose-gender
The Kinsey Scale (originated in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)). Accessed from Kinsey Institute Publications: https://kinseyinstitute.org/research/publications/kinsey-scale.php
Transstudent Organisation (Graphics) The Gender Unicorn – http://www.transstudent.org/gender