In the wake of the controversy caused by Coláiste Eoin’s “postponement” of a ShoutOut workshop on queerphobia, it seems unlikely that you could come across someone who hasn’t given the subject of queerphobia in secondary schools some thought over the past few weeks. However, it’s important to recognise that the education system’s failure in its responsibility to these pupils begins far earlier, in primary schools. It is at this stage that queerphobia is entrenched, and years later requires intervention from volunteer organisations like ShoutOut in secondary school. This passive facilitation of queerphobia in primary schools is ignored both by politicians and the public at large, branded as a touchy and uncomfortable topic.
Queerphobia is learned through an insidious imposition of heteronormativity on children from the first day of their education. By this, I mean the absolute lack of suggestions from teachers, or the curriculum, that there are positive sexual and gender identities other than cisgender heterosexuality. Unsurprisingly, this lack of any positive reinforcement of queerness then often causes vicious stigmatisation of LGBTQ students. Due to a somewhat squeamish attitude, there is an unfortunate lack of research on queerphobia within primary schools.
However, I’m willing to speak from personal experience on this one. My last year in primary school, was made almost unbearable due to homophobic bullying. Although I had yet to personally or publicly identify as gay, this was largely irrelevant. Queerphobic bullying is often caused by a perception by students of a deviation from heteronormativity. As a somewhat effeminate, skinny and nerdy boy, with no interest or aptitude for sport, I filled the role of deviant adequately. The bullying was never physical, but emotional. I was consistently called out for being “gay” by other students, and this was subsequently used as a reason to exclude me from socialising with other pupils. One incident I remember particularly well involved a group of pupils taking a vote on the schoolyard as to whether I was gay, the result being a landslide victory for those who wished to publicly declare my homosexuality. This was then followed by the usual personal attack for being a “homo”, something which was pretty much a daily occurrence. The constant criticism of my behaviour and interests for being anti-normal and representative of me having an undesirable sexuality made school hellish because no matter what I did, I would be criticised and remain almost friendless due to a characteristic which people perceived in me which I couldn’t control.
At no point was it suggested to me that being gay was normal and positive. I was simply told that I shouldn’t be excluded or called gay.
Eventually, a teacher was informed of this bullying by another student. The fact that it went on for an extended period of time without any notice speaks to an apathy and incompetence in dealing with bullying in general within primary schools. However, the school’s attempts at solving this specific problem were far worse than their original nonchalance. At no point was it suggested to me that being gay was normal and positive. I was simply told that I shouldn’t be excluded or called gay. At no point were my parents informed of the bullying. At no point did the school decide to positively reinforce queer identities. And at no point did the school make an effort to monitor the situation more closely to ensure that the homophobic bullying did not resume, which it eventually did. The school’s response to a clear-cut incidence of homophobic bullying of one of its students was wholly inadequate, and made coming to school became an unnecessarily distressing experience for me. The result of this was that I entered secondary school very insecure with my relationship with my sexuality, and the manner in which my primary school dealt with homophobia very likely shaped the way all students in my class would go on to view sexuality and gender, and almost certainly helped to engender the queerphobia which ShoutOut fights against.
This type of bullying, which exists in worse forms in vast amounts of primary schools can be easily prevented, but isn’t. There are two easy remedies to this bullying, one passive, one active. The type of bullying I and countless others experienced in primary and secondary schools is the result of the normalisation of cisgender heteronormativity at the expense of queerness. The passive approach to countering this is simple. It involves small gestures like putting LGBTQ characters in the class reading, casually raising the existence of queer identities and providing non-gendered bathrooms. These small changes would combat a perception that being cishet is the only acceptable sexual and gender identity.
Secondly, looking at active policies, when bullying does occur schools’ reactions need improvement. Bullies should be properly admonished and a clear message sent that regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of the student, being LGBTQ is something which is normal and positive, and that bullying a fellow student for this is as unacceptable as all other forms of bullying. Primary schools have made some headway in this regard. In 2011, Educate Together and BeLonG To announced the organisation of an optional one day in-service training course on dealing homophobic bullying for primary school teachers. Also, following the current government’s ‘Action Plan on Bullying’, all schools are mandated to address homophobic bullying.
Resistance to change
Despite this, significant problems persist. Despite the ‘Action Plan on Bullying’, the education system still relies on groups like ShoutOut to tackle queerphobia, and it remains entirely optional for schools to facilitate a ShoutOut workshop, with many schools evidently willing to ignore them. Moreover, the passive and active tackling of homophobia in schools is directly undermined by the hegemony of the Catholic church over Irish education. It seems impossible that a teacher in a school run by the Catholic church would always feel able to send a positive message about queerness in the case of queerphobic bulling, or that queer-inclusive learning curriculums or school facilities could be guaranteed while an openly queerphobic institution controls schools.
The solutions to dismantling a system which causes so much of the queerphobia we see in secondary schools are simple. However, they won’t materialise independently. The Irish media and political establishment is unwilling to tackle these issues. With an election due in under a year and a half, we have the possibility to demand change, so bear that in mind when your local politician comes to ask for your vote. Ask why children aren’t taught that being LGBTQ is normal. Demand to know why Catholic power over education is protected at the expense of queer students. If we all don’t take that opportunity, the education system will continue to leave some of its most vulnerable students behind.