Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you.
This is what many of us grew up being told, but the reality of the matter is far different. What may seem like playful jibes and youthful banter can actually have a dark and damaging effect on the person at the receiving end.
Schools are hotspots for bullying, in particular for homophobic, transphobic and biphobic abuse; with 95 percent of pupils reporting that they hear the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult or with negative connotations.
In this modern age, you would have thought that homophobic slurs died out with the dinosaurs and that it is only the people living in the past who share these views – but the truth is startling. In fact, in the three months following the Brexit vote, the number of homophobic attacks in the UK actually rose by 147 percent. To say we are a modernised country living in the 21st century, the number of hate crimes which occur due to society’s attitude towards people who do not conform to gender norms is shockingly high.
Always at the forefront of a battle, teachers are often tasked with the challenge of addressing homophobic bullying amongst young people, with the aim of reducing the number of gender-related hate crimes which occur in future years.
One man who has been a victim of homophobic abuse himself, and is now trying to tackle the problem amongst children, is openly gay primary school teacher, Kai Fison.
Growing up, Kai was like many young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people – confused, embarrassed and harassed, with no one to turn to. The Derbyshire-based Reception teacher explained that: “I was bullied severely at school, and for a long time I felt ashamed of who I was and that I was gay…these experiences impacted my relationships with friends. I wasn’t able to be honest with them and I felt like I had to hide who I was.
“I think if I had received support when I was younger and was shown that I had someone fighting for me, and showing me that I wasn’t alone or I wasn’t strange, things may have been different.”
Using his personal experiences with coming to terms with his sexuality, Kai can relate to what many youngsters may be going through and he uses this insight to help support pupils who are questioning their sexuality or gender identity.
“I feel that teachers being open and honest about their sexuality allows children to see that it’s okay to be gay…by having that open dialogue with children and allowing them to see that gay people are all around, and actually people that you may not suspect, is vital to their wellbeing.
“It allows LGBT pupils to have a voice and a person to turn to who may have been in a similar situation, and most importantly provides healthy role models.”
Nonetheless, Kai further explained that many teachers are not able to act as positive role models for LGBT pupils as they are not appropriately equipped with knowledge regarding LGBT issues. This could be the reason that only 28 percent of pupils feel that homophobic language and abuse is dealt with well in their school, with as little as 13 percent saying that reporting homophobic bullying actually resulted in any actions being taken to prevent future incidents (LGBT Foundation, 2017).
Research undertaken by Stonewall, a leading organisation campaigning for the equality of LGBT people in Britain, supports this view – revealing that 80 percent of secondary school teachers have not received specific training on how to tackle homophobic bullying.
Kai added: “I think that teachers need to be able to deal with children who may be having a hard time coming to terms with their sexuality. They need to have an understanding of the types of feelings children may be going through.”
So, how are teachers expected to reduce instances of homophobic, transphobic and biphobic abuse and offer effective support for LGBT pupils if they do not fully understand the problem themselves?
Organisations such as the Proud Trust have been trying to improve this, through working with young people and schools to raise awareness of the LGBT community, in order to create a more accepting and open environment.
We spoke to the Strategic Director of the Proud Trust, Amelia Lee, who said: “The Proud Trust, along with colleagues at Schools OUT, are very much about working towards whole school approaches of LGBT inclusion, which prevent bullying and negative attitudes from taking root in schools.
“Based on the NatCen research into combating homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in schools, we have created, in partnership with DISC, Allsorts and The Kite Trust, a robust and comprehensive quality assurance scheme for schools to support their whole school approach. This is known as the Rainbow Flag Award.”
The Rainbow Flag Award provides schools with a process for measuring how well they are providing a safe and supportive environment for LGBT pupils, raising awareness of how a whole school approach can be taken.
The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, coming up on the 17th May, provides schools with a perfect opportunity to implement a whole school approach and raise awareness of the kind of abuse that many members of the LGBT community experience on a day-to-day basis.
With 53 percent of young LGBT people saying they are not taught anything about LGBT issues at school (Stonewall, 2015), it is not really surprising that homophobic language is rife amongst young people. Therefore, the dedicated day on the 17th May can be utilised to ensure that pupils are aware that whatever sexuality or gender they identify with, it is acceptable; as well as reinforcing that judging someone and bullying them based on their sexuality or gender identity is not acceptable.
Kai explains that he is “constantly reinforcing the view that it is okay to be different” by challenging anything he hears that “promotes negative stereotypes about LGBT people or gender itself”, and he urges other teachers to do the same.
Talking of the importance of teaching children about not having to conform to gender norms, Kai said: “I feel that children are socialised into believing that being gay is wrong or unnatural. They should be given all the facts and then allowed to form an opinion based on that.
“I think in terms of bullying there should be a no tolerance policy – bullying of any kind is wrong and needs to be stopped. Children need to learn that being unkind to anyone for any reason is not right.”
The fact that 58 percent of pupils believe that their school is not a safe and welcoming place for LGBT pupils (LGBT Foundation, 2017) is a sad statistic in this day and age. It only highlights the current problem within schools and the importance of utilising the 17th May to not only raise awareness of LGBT issues, but to also ensure pupils are aware of the support available to them.
To help schools better understand the experiences of LGBT pupils and help them to provide effective support to pupils questioning their sexuality or gender identity, we have created a LGBT Policy which can be utilised in order to create an accepting and welcoming environment for young LGBT people.
 LGBT Foundation (2017) ‘Facts and figures’, <http://lgbt.foundation/About-us/media/facts-and-figures/> [Accessed: 19 April 2017]
 The Guardian (2016) ‘Homophobic attacks in UK rose 147% in three months after Brexit vote’, <https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/08/homophobic-attacks-double-after-brexit-vote> [Accessed: 27 April 2017]
 Stonewall (2015) ‘Secondary schools’, <http://www.stonewall.org.uk/get-involved/education/secondary-schools> [Accessed: 2 May 2017]