The teenage years are a challenging time for many young people. But for those who think they might be gay, lesbian or bisexual, it can be even more bewildering. According to a new study published on Tuesday by the gay equality organisation Stonewall, 55% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people experience homophobic bullying at school; 96% say they hear words like “poof” or “lezza” in the classroom, something that can be “hugely damaging” to children who are trying to come to terms with their sexuality, says the charity’s chief executive, Ben Summerskill.
The problem was highlighted in a report on bullying published by Ofsted last month, which drew attention to pupils’ casual use of the word “gay” as an insult.
Stonewall’s research, called The School Report, is based on an online survey of more than 1,600 lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGBT) young people between the age of 11 and 18 and is the second in a long-term study commissioned by Stonewall and carried out by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge.
While there are encouraging signs – reports of homophobic bullying are down from 65% in the 2007 survey – homophobic comments and language are just as common as five years ago. And what is most striking in the latest report is the number of children who have self-harmed as a result.
Almost one in four of those surveyed said they had tried to take their own life at some point (compared to 7% of all young people) and 56% said they had self-harmed – deliberately cutting or burning themselves, for example.
But Summerskill says many schools are still not taking the issue seriously. “I think some teachers – particularly those who were trained a while ago – think, mistakenly, that it is unlawful to teach children about homosexuality. Others dismiss homophobic bullying as banter.”
What makes this different from other forms of bullying is that many young people do not feel able to tell their parents , he says. “When a child is bullied for having ginger hair or being black, at least parents or carers can provide support at home, but many young people who suffer homophobic bullying don’t have that. Many feel so isolated they withdraw from education.”
Here, five LGBT teenagers talk about their school experiences.
I was in my last year of primary school when other pupils started calling me a queer and saying I sounded gay. I knew it was an insult, but didn’t really know what it meant at the time.
When I came out, at 14, I started to get hassle on Facebook. People started commenting on my posts – which were nothing to do with my sexuality – saying things like “you shouldn’t be on Facebook, you faggot”.
It began to affect my school work; I didn’t want to put my hand up or take part in group work because people would tease me about my voice being “gay”. Sometimes I reacted badly and lashed out, which got me into trouble.
PE was the worst. Once, another pupil came up to me in his boxer shorts and said “Do you find this attractive? Do you want this? Do you want to suck my dick?” The teacher stood there, laughing. I went to my headteacher and said “if you don’t want me to take that kid to court, then you do something about it”. As far as I was concerned, it was sexual abuse, but he wasn’t even punished. They just told him not to do it again and, rather than tackle the problem, asked me to get changed in the disabled toilet.
At my lowest point, I did contemplate suicide. There is only so much you can take of people telling you you’re disgusting and vile.
I first started to think I might be gay when I was about 13. There was this girl at school I was really good friends with and people started saying “Oh you two are always together – you must be gay”. I think the fact they were saying it made me realise I did have feelings for her.
When I finally came out, things got really bad. My classmates would substitute the word “gay” for my name. At first it was funny, but after a while I started to find it upsetting. I also had problems with social media. I remember someone sending me a message on MSN that said “You are a lesbian Bulgarian twat”.
The experience made me feel really small. I had only been living in the UK for a few years and didn’t really have anyone to turn to. It got to the point where I didn’t want to go to school. Things are better now I am in the sixth form. I still get a bit of teasing, but now I’ve found friends I feel comfortable with, I don’t really care any more.
I knew I was different, even in primary school. Friends would talk about boys they thought were hot, but I didn’t really like any of them.
It took me years to tell anyone how I was feeling. I thought my friends might not bother with me any more and my parents would be upset and think I was a bad person.
I was in year 9 when I finally confided in a friend. I thought I could trust her, until someone came up to me in class and went, “Gosh, I can’t believe you’re a lesbian”. I ended up breaking down in tears in front of the whole class. My brother heard about it and told my parents, which made it even worse.
My school didn’t really take the issue seriously. I remember going to my headteacher with some leaflets about homophobic bullying and his attitude was: “Yeah, that’s gross. I’m not talking about that in assembly.” Then I spoke to another teacher, who said, “On my [teacher training] course I was told I’m not allowed to support homosexuals, but I will see what I can do.” If schools are not prepared to talk about the issues, it is not surprising that kids grow up thinking it’s wrong.
I was about 12 when I realised I wasn’t interested in girls, but I was afraid to come out because there are so many negative stereotypes about gay people.
School was difficult. Guys in class would wind me up, saying things like “Oh, you’re such a faggot”, or, “Do you want to meet me tonight and come back to my house?” I’d end up swearing at them and get into trouble. Male teachers, in particular, seemed to turn a blind eye to what was going on. I think they just didn’t know how to deal with it.
When I went home from school I’d try to switch off, but I had people posting pornographic pictures and offensive comments on my Facebook page.
You do try to ignore it, but sometimes everything boils over. I’ve been so depressed at times, I’ve had a knife to my wrist on numerous occasions.
I was about 15 when it started. The lads would make comments about the way I dressed, saying I must be gay. The teachers just ignored it.
It took me ages to come out because of all the comments and jokes. Someone would come into school with a bad haircut and people would say “that’s so gay”. When people use the word in that way, it is like saying that being gay is bad or wrong. It makes you feel really horrible about yourself.
Schools could do a lot more to educate young people about the fact that there are people of the same sex who are couples and have relationships, and it needs to start young. Children as young as 10 or 11 are capable of understanding some of the issues.
Things are much better for me now. With the help of a local youth worker, I’ve started a group for young people who are – or think they might be – lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual. We meet once a week, hang out and talk, and go on trips together. It’s good to have a place to hang out with friends without being judged or abused.