Homophobic bullying must be tackled by Labour’s local leaders

16th July, 2012 5:30 pm

From civil partnerships to adoption rights for same-sex couples, the Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown delivered legal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people on virtually every front. It is a testament to that political leadership, and the resulting cultural change that has followed, that a Conservative Prime Minister has signalled his intention to deliver equal marriage. But the publication last week of a major report into the experiences of gay young people in Britain’s schools lays bare the worrying extent of homophobic bullying in our education system and the serious consequences that follow.

The University of Cambridge conducted a national survey of more than 1,600 lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in secondary schools and colleges across Britain. The findings, published in The School Report by Stonewall, were shocking. More than half reported they had experienced homophobic bullying and almost all hear homophobic language like ‘that’s gay’ and ‘you’re so gay’. Most distressingly of all, almost one in four gay young people have tried to take their own life at some point and more than half had deliberately harmed themselves by cutting or burning themselves.

When so many gay young people are driven to such drastic action in such large numbers the case for a strong clampdown on homophobic bullying by schools is unanswerable. Yet too many teachers are either content to ignore the problem or are simply ill-equipped to deal with it. Three in five lesbian, bisexual and gay young people who experience bullying say that teachers who never witness the bullying fail to intervene. Worryingly, only half reported that their schools say that homophobic bullying is wrong, even fewer in faith schools at 37%.

If head teachers and school governors are unprepared to show clear leadership to staff, how can they guarantee a classroom environment in which every young person can realise every ounce of their potential? While the political debate rages about how best to raise educational standards, the talent of so many gay young people is being wasted due to the misery that so many are having to endure on a daily basis. Three in five gay pupils report that their school work has suffered as a result of homophobic bullying. One in three are forced change their future educational plans. This is talent that Britain can ill afford to waste.

Amidst this bleak picture, there are reasons for optimism. In no small part thanks to the leadership of the last government – the first to publish guidance on tackling homophobic bullying in schools – the proportion of gay pupils experiencing homophobic bullying has fallen during the past five years from 65% to 55%. The number of schools explicitly stating that homophobic bullying is wrong has doubled. And where schools and local authorities are working with Stonewall to take action, they are making progress further and faster than the rest.

Each of us has a role to play to ensure that the progress being made by some schools is replicated by all schools for the benefit of all pupils. Labour councillors should ensure that all schools within their local authority are addressing homophobic bullying and join leading Labour councils like Birmingham City Council, Sheffield City Council and the London Borough of Camden, who recently made the top 10 in Stonewall’s Education Equality Index. School governors should ensure that their governing body is providing leadership to staff and assurance that they will be supported and trained in implementing a tough behaviour code. And as individuals, we should ensure that homophobic language – which directly impacts on levels of bullying – is not written off as ‘harmless banter’ but challenged as we would challenge racist abuse.

Addressing Stonewall’s Education for All conference held in London last week, Shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: ‘there is no room for complacency and it is incumbent upon us all to challenge homophobic bullying and discrimination wherever it rears its head.’ The role of progressives in tackling homophobia must extend beyond scrutiny in Parliament to strong leadership in our communities. Only then will Britain secure a legacy of lasting cultural change worthy of Labour’s record of delivering equal legal rights in government.

Wes Streeting is Head of Education at Stonewall and Deputy Leader of the Labour Group in the London Borough of Redbridge. If you’re a teacher, school governor or local councillor and would like to support the Education for All campaign to challenge homophobia in schools, e-mail Wes

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  • ovaljason

    It is worth noting that Wes recently campaigned for Ken Livingstone who personally invited Yusuf al-Qardawri to London.

    Does al-Qardawri bully homosexuals?

    Well you could say that.  Actually al-Qardawri thinks gays should be executed.  I’m guessing that counts as bullying, right? 

    It’s the equivalent of Boris inviting Fred Phelps from the Westboro Baptist Church.

    Still, as long as you can look the other way, Wes.

    • Brumanuensis

      Boris Johson on gay marriage: “”If gay marriage was OK – and I was uncertain on the issue – then I saw no reason in principle why a union should not be consecrated between three men, as well as two men, or indeed three men and a dog.”

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        But it does not appear that Boris Johnson wrote this article.  Or are you trying to be the jackal who steals the dead rabbit from under the condor’s claws, and leaves all of the other birds arguing about who ate the rabbit?

        (I apologise if this metaphor does not translate so very well – it means are you trying to divert attention for the benefit of obfuscation?)

        • Any examples of Ken bad-mouthing gays in the way Boris has done?

          • Chilbaldi

             The Tory party is “riddled with them” or words to that effect.

          • ‘Riddled’ refers to the object, not the subjects.

          • Hugh

             You’re right, and the subject of that sentence is the Tory party. “Them” – ie gay people – is the object.

          • No mate, I never objectify people.

          • jaime taurosangastre candelas

            I don’t know – I do not follow the sayings of either.  I’d be interested if you are able to say either way.  But I would be surprised if either has exposed themselves in this this way – they are both professional politicians, and whether or not someone is a homosexual seems hardly to be important these days, and rightly so.

            But that implies some form of positive distaste that either may hold, or not.  What is also important is a secondary sense of support for others who do hold such views.  Do either do so?  Ovaljason appears to believe so.

            Whatever, the original comment appears to me to be pertinent.  It is not really about Boris.  If Wes Streeting wishes to push for a certain agenda (with which I do not agree, not for reasons of any homophobia, but because I believe that children should be allowed to develop without being part of an agenda), then it would be useful if his associates do not support other’s whose agenda is the opposite.

          • ” it would be useful if his associates do not support other’s whose agenda is the opposite.”

            It’s ‘support’ that is the problematic here. The Obama administration has negotiated with the Taliban, this shouldn’t be understood as support for support for the Taliban. It is preferable to confront reality honestly and with resolution as an ambition rather than furtively claim the penny and the bun, as the Major did when negotiating with the IRA while pretending not to be doing so.

          • Hugh

            That’s total nonsense. Obama didn’t hug the Taliban (I’m guessing), hasn’t claimed the press “demonised” the Taliban, nor held up their teachings as an example to the rest of Muslims . Ken, meanwhile, didn’t invite al-Qardawri to negotiate with him; in fact, he’s admitted he didn’t challenge him at all on his stance regarding homosexuals.


        • Brumanuensis

          It’s making the point that voting against Ken on the grounds of supporting gay rights is a slightly strange view when Boris’s own record is less than stellar.

    • Wes Streeting

      This is possibly the first time I’ve ever been criticised for being too supportive of Ken Livingstone. In fact, I publicly opposed the invitation of al-Qarasawi when I was involved in the National Union of Students. This episode was a disappointing stain on Ken’s generally excellent record of supporting gay rights long before it was fashionable to do so. This, of course, has nothing to do with my article.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    This does all sound a bit hopeless and does not recognise that children are forming their sense of “in-groups” and “out-groups” all of the time, and not really diving into a pit of some “-ism” from which their attitudes will never be recovered.  They are growing, and pushing boundaries, and learning.  It is not my field, but I am also aware that very many adolescents experiment with sexuality as they grow up, so I am at least suspicious of labelling any teenager straight, gay, bisexual or some other category until they are adults, and many legal adults do not themselves settle into a preponderance until they are into their twenties.  So I would not support categorising 17 year olds as one, the other, or both as your campaign tries to do.  Let them work it out for themselves, for goodness sake.

    My own daughter is perfectly aware of human sexuality, but as and when she does refer to something as “so gay”, it is not a comment on sexuality, but really using popular jargon with her group.  Who knows, maybe she will grow into a settled and happy lesbian – I don’t know, I don’t care, or even if she experiments when she is a bit older.  It is her life, and I would wish for her to be happy and never to try to disguise her emotional well-being from my wife and myself.  My little boy is far too young for any of this, but I apply the same view in his time.

    What is important is to educate our children that difference is not judgemental, but to try to hold back social dynamics by a set of rules of acceptable and unacceptable, particularly if “taught” by adults whom the children laugh at anyway because they are older and out of touch is like King Cnut trying to hold back the waves.

    What I do know is that trying to politicise this issue (not in terms of parties, but of an agenda) with young people is desperately wrong.

    You cannot stop children from having groups, and some are in and some are out, and it changes all of the time.  In my childhood, we children were desperately divisive about whether other children looked non-European.  If it is not one thing, it was another.  It has not imbued in me any sense of racism.  With my wife, her group had a division between day-girls and boarders at her school.  It is not enduring.

    What your proposals do is to try to entrench some formalism into a fluid area, to place commitments on teachers, and to try to fossilise attitudes at early years.  I believe you do more harm than good with these proposals.  Perhaps the Stonewall organisation should try to “lighten up a little” where children are concerned?

    • Wes Streeting

      I don’t even know where to start with this nonsense.

      Firstly, the research was conducted by the University of Cambridge and the respondents defined themselves as either gay, lesbian, bisexual or unsure. It’s not for you or I to define others or to suggest when they should or shouldn’t be able to define openly as lesbian, gay, bisexual or heterosexual.

      Homophobic language is a serious problem. I have no doubt that many people who use the term ‘gay’ as a perjorative term do not necessary have anti-gay sentiments in mind, but for lesbian, gay and bisexual people who have to hear it it creates an unpleasant environment. We wouldn’t accept people going around saying ‘that’s so black’. The University of Cambridge research shows a direct link between homophobic language and levels of bullying.

      I’m not sure how you think Stonewall is ‘politicising’ the issue of bullying or which proposals you believe do more harm than good? Is that proposal that where teachers see bullying taking place they should intervene? Or that they should clearly state that all forms of bullying, including homophobic bullying is unacceptable? Or that they should provide help and support to young gay people? Or prepare children for life in the 21st century with good role models and a broad curriculum?

      It’s hard to lighten up when 1 in 4 gay young people attempt suicide and more than half self harm. Ensuring that all children from all backgrounds can achieve her or his potential is Stonewall’s agenda. What’s your problem with that?

      • Alan Giles

        I certainly believe schools should be more vigilent with bullying of any sort. Even today I think there is too much leniency shown on the basis that they are “only children – they don’t really know what they are saying”. I think this is patronising to them – they know very well what they are saying and how spiteful it can be.

        When I was at school you could get bullied for anything -I remember one lad going through hell because he had ginger hair. You could be bullied if you were fat – or – in my case – because you were skinny and quite small (I didn’t really start growing till I was 15, just as I was leaving school).

        I had hoped the world had moved on, but clearly it hasn’t. I read recently, as Mr Streeting points out, that there have been attempted suicides (and sometimes sadly successful ones) because of a young persons sexuality becoming a problem because of bullying. Even in the adult world, it seems incredible, in 2012 according to a recent BBC documentary that gay footballers live in fear of being “found out”, when even the police service and armed services are now (reasonably?) tolerant of gay personnel. 

        It is another of those problems that schools and other organisations seem to think can be ignored and swept under the carpet, and, ostrich like they imagine it will go away. Perhaps it doesn’t help that some religions and politicians – and members of the public who appear on radio phone-ins, seem to imply sexuality is a choice rather than something that is inherent in the individual.

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        It may seem entirely reasonable for you to make this argument, but there are other perspectives.  I’m not particularly worried if you call my point of view “nonsense”, because I take my own counsel and not what I am told to think.  But I do believe it would be beneficial for you to, in seeking to understand how your views may be perceived by others, to force yourself to take what may be an uncomfortable and no doubt temporary look from beyond the position you seek to make.

        For a start, my 12 year old daughter is not remotely homophobic, and yet she and dozens of her friends use the phrase “it’s so gay”, or something similar.  Yes, of course we make sure that her proper values of respect for others are well-seated, but the phrase is in such common currency that to seek to ban it is likely to end in failure, and in any case fashion and jargon move on faster than rules can be set up.  Don’t forget that many of a now much older generation – my old man among them – are old enough to still feel angered at the annexation of the word “gay” itself by the homosexualists.  “Gay” to my father’s generation is a word for happy and light-hearted, and he is distressed at your modern usage.  So you do not have total support for your use of the word, even if a majority – myself included – do accept that most use it to describe homosexual males.

        Secondly, on a point of fact.  I have tremendous respect for the work of academic researchers, particularly from such a prestigious organisation as Cambridge University.  But they can only report and analyse what they are told.  According to this one on four young people who self-identify (and I would add, “currently”, because as we know teenage sexuality is very fluid and not fixed) as trying to take their own lives.  I run my hospital’s A&E Department, and we are the place to which paramedics bring seriously injured people, and those with overdoses.  In our hospital catchment area, there are 9 secondary schools, with about 5,000 pupils between them.  By those statistics, we should expect to be seeing some hundreds of failed suicides a year of young people.  We do not.  Last year, we had 17 attempted suicides brought in, many of whom in no way fitted the profile of young homosexual people.  So I would cast a borrow-load of salt on that statistic.  Even self-harm, of which we see rather more is about 100 cases a year, although the statistic is less concrete as most self-harmers feel embarrassed and invent some excuse.  Nevertheless, my team are quite good at knowing what looks suspicious – for example clean cuts to lower limbs are mostly accidents, jagged cuts often self-inflicted.  We had one man who drilled through his ankle with an electric drill and tried to pretend that it was an accident, despite the presence of felt tip markings on the skin where he believed a vein passed close to the surface (he was wrong by an inch, and very few die of injuries to veins).

        I would not take as “gospel” truth those figures.There should have been rather more scepticism and detailed questioning before they are advanced as fact.  

  • Mike Homfray

    I think this is a good article. There is still a reluctance in many schools to deal with any sort of bullying for fear of affecting their reputation. However, homophobic bullying remains something of a no go area – still. I think that those on here who post dismissive platitudes and ask people to lighten up are the problem – bullying is not taken seriously, nor is anti-gay prejudice. Both can have appalling effects on the young person concerned

    • Wes Streeting

      Thanks, Mike. It’s good to know that some sanity exists within the comments section of LabourList.

  • Chilbaldi

    While homophobia is awful and in an ideal world wouldn’t happen, we have to be wise to what kids are like.
    Kids are horrendous. They can be really nasty. They haven’t developed the social awareness that we get in later life. The bully people to submission.
    I recall when I was at school – I wasn’t one of the least popular people but was far from being in the ‘in crowd’ of rugby first XVs and the like. Sort of middle ground if you like. But my, the bullying I got.  I’m sure I was called gay a hell of a lot, even though I never have been and nothing would suggest that I am. Everything about me was slaughtered, from height, complexion, size of nose, football ability, size of feet, the way I ran, the city I am from, my mother, my father, my sister, I could go on…
    Its what kids are like. All of this stuff was of course incredibly upsetting. But then I learned how to deal with it, and that is why I have a thick skin today.
    Of course I also gave a hell of a lot of it back, most of the time worse than I got given. Through that I learned what is acceptable and what is pushing it too far.
    My point is (I will eventually get round to it) that homophobia is a relatively small section of bullying. And that bullying is a fact of growing up as a child, and an important part of social development. Where we need to watch is not in banning certain insults but in dealing with the fallout and making sure that children don’t suffer the ill effects of this sort of treatment. Giving the bullied appropriate support and in controlling the bullies, no matter what form the bullying takes.

    I really don’t see how you can justify prioritising homophobic bullying over any other form of bullying.


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