LGBT issues at school: Keeping the discussion alive and real

Wendy Hemi and Anita Mortlock, Victoria University of Wellington

It is important to investigate the messages that are expressed (both implicitly and explicitly) about sexuality in the physical and interpersonal environments in schools. It is also important to enhance support and safety for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, transgender) students and staff. To live free of discrimination is a basic human right. LGBT young people in New Zealand form a dynamic community with much to contribute to wider society – yet the pervasiveness of ongoing prejudices against them means that too many of those youth struggle. Prejudice does not necessarily take the form of direct bullying (although it often does – see here and here); prejudice also occurs when heterosexuality is taken for granted as “normal,” meaning that any other sexual identity is thereby positioned as “abnormal.”

What’s happening in New Zealand schools?

In 2016, Wendy conducted research on attitudes towards LGBT students at a New Zealand secondary school. This particular school already had an overall reputation for supportiveness, and even cited support and compassion as being among its core values. Prior to the research project, the staff had participated in professional development about supporting LGBT people within the school. Although the school was already known to be proactive, a couple of the students had suggested (prior to the study) that even more could be done.

Wendy issued a survey that asked students and staff about (1) the climate of emotional and social safety at the school, both in general and specifically for LGBT people, and (2) what ideas they had for further improvements. Roughly a quarter of the school responded. These were some of the findings regarding the current school climate:

  • When asked how safe respondents felt at school, the majority reported that they felt “safe” or “very safe”.
  • However, when asked how safe LGBT people were at school, there was significantly less agreement, and a small number of respondents felt that some students teased each other by using the word “gay” as a derogatory term.
  • All staff and most of the students indicated that they were accepting towards LGBT people.
  • Even so, a third of the respondents had seen students bullying their LGBT peers and a minority of students declared their prejudices with statements such as, “I don’t like them [LGBT people] it’s just not right (sic)” and that LGBT people should not be let into school.

These findings caused us to wonder whether perhaps the wider environment was largely accepting of LGBT students and staff but a small percentage of students were responsible for multiple episodes of social aggression. We also wondered whether those students who had observed bullying had been passive bystanders or had been able to step in and defend their LGBT peers. This is of critical importance given that bullying and ostracism are known to cause long-term harm, especially where it has gone unchallenged.

So, how can we do better?

Students and staff participating in the research study were asked what actions could further enhance the physical and interpersonal environment at school for LGBT people. They presented the following ideas:

  • Celebrate a recently launched LGBT support group
  • Provide a safe space for the LGBT support group to meet regularly
  • Make the counseling rooms more inclusive by putting up posters showing gender and sexual diversity and having relevant information for supporting LGBT people
  • Ensure that the school nurse and doctor can support health issues relating to LGBT people
  • Redesign the school uniforms to have a range of bottoms and tops that all students can mix and match, rather than having uniforms designed for “boys” and “girls”
  • Further normalise gender and sexual diversity within the school’s health education programme
  • Strengthen anti-bullying programmes (for example, KiVA) with a specific focus on LGBT issues
  • Find strategies to empower students to be champions and to challenge bullying behaviours they see in others – including using the word “gay” as a “put-down”
  • Establish further gender-neutral bathrooms
  • Put LGBT-friendly signage around the school including pictures, posters, and affirming words/quotes celebrating gender and sexual diversity
  • Increase the number of LGBT-friendly books in the school library

A common theme in the research literature is that a whole-school approach is best for ensuring the emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being of LGBT people at school. We believe that the list above encompasses such an approach.

The importance of dialogue

One final thing that we would add to the recommendations above from our study participants is that dialogue about LGBT issues must be kept alive within the school environment. We have several reasons for saying this. First, dialogue can potentially help a school community to question what is unconsciously perceived as “normal”. Second, teachers and LGBT allies cannot truly prevent bullying unless we know what underlies bullying behaviours in the first instance. Third, open dialogue means that ignorant, biased, and prejudiced views can be challenged and disrupted rather than being driven underground.

Overall, ongoing pedagogical discussions might assist a school community in understanding which collective responses will likely be most effective. This is critically important when we know that school climate is complex and that any work done on improving peer connectedness and affirming diversity must be done with insight and sensitivity (for instance, read this excellent blog).

There are many worthwhile resources available for schools wanting to take steps in this direction. We also have this robust and useful New Zealand report about youth attracted to the same or both sexes. And for a full report of the research we have summarised in this blog post, see our article in the New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work.

We wanted to leave the last word to one of the survey respondents in the study, who wrote:

“Any person who does not fit the ‘norm’ (whatever that may be) is at risk of being marginalized. This includes Deaf or hearing impaired, physically challenged, overweight, and dyslexic, and LGBT. We all need to learn that people are different and focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t; many have challenges we may never know about.”



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