Secondary school is a tough time for everyone, it’s when our bodies start to change, romantic thoughts can begin, and when we start to learn a lot about the person we want to be as an adult. For members of the LGBTQ+ community, it’s often even harder with the additional layer of uncertainty and personal conflict that discovering your true gender or sexuality can bring. It is with this in mind that it is important that we reflect and discuss what it is like to be LGBTQ+ in school because so often the British schooling system fails its queer students through a lack of understanding and appropriate support.
I realised I wasn’t straight in year 10 when I was about fifteen but didn’t properly come out as a lesbian until I was eighteen, meaning I experienced a fair amount of secondary school and college in the closet. The overarching experience was a suffocating fear and paranoia that people would find out, stemming from homophobic bullying, thinking that people would look at me differently and the fact that “gay” was so often used as a punchline.
Witnessing homophobia whilst still in the closet was a bizarre experience because I often found that if I spoke up against homophobia, people immediately assumed you were gay. The mentality was “why do you care so much?”. This was something I really struggled with because I was passionate about LGBTQ+ rights even before I realised I was gay. It wasn’t something I ever wanted to hide until I felt like I needed to in order to keep myself safe. There was one boy who came out as bisexual when we were fifteen and I remember thinking how brave he was and that I was jealous that he felt he could come out. This should have made me feel more safe – if he could do it, why couldn’t I? Not only was I not ready, but students, staff, and British schools in general also weren’t ready to support queer teens like myself.
One of the most distinct memories I have is sitting in a lesson on a table full of straight girls. We weren’t best friends but I sat on their table in a number of lessons so I knew them well enough. I don’t remember how the topic came up, but they began discussing lesbians. The general consensus was one of disgust. One girl said, “if one of my friends told me she was a lesbian, I wouldn’t want her to come to mine for a sleepover, I mean can you imagine?” The rest of the girls chimed in agreement, adding things like how gross or creepy it would be. The main take away from this interaction was that “lesbian” immediately equalled predator. This type of thinking could be most clearly seen in a scenario I, and most other queer teens, dreaded, the changing rooms. If I had come out, the reaction again would have been that I was staring or being creepy when in reality I was trying so hard not to do anything remotely gay that I was overthinking every single action. As more and more girls around me were learning about feminism and ‘girls supporting girls’ I realised that, unfortunately, it didn’t often extend to queer girls.
As I got older, posters gradually popped up throughout the corridors and in almost every classroom. The big red Stonewall posters that read “some people are gay. Get over it!”. I think this is a great ad to have in schools however the problem was that they simply arrived in my school and that was that. They were never mentioned, and sadly, this positive stance towards fighting discrimination was never enforced. It was passive messaging instead of active education.
Being in the closet, homophobia from teachers was never directed at me but that didn’t mean that I didn’t see it. The double standard between straight and LGBTQ+ students was made blatantly clear. I’m sure a universal experience of secondary school is uncomfortably walking past a couple kissing loudly and awkwardly in the middle of the corridor. In stark contrast to that, there was only one lesbian couple out at our school. They would hold hands discreetly and I don’t think I ever saw them kiss on the lips. However, multiple teachers complained after seeing them kiss on the cheek. It escalated so far as to a phone call home. This just isn’t even remotely acceptable and I can’t believe it was allowed to happen and that there wasn’t more outrage.
On top of that is the casual homophobia that so many of us grew up but might not have realised the impact it had. Sex education is already lacking in schools, let alone LGBTQ+ sex education. Gay sex was only ever presented to us through what diseases you could get if you didn’t wear a condom, and massively focussed on AIDS. However, this was discussed as something that would never happen to any of us in the room as the assumption was always that everyone was straight, ignoring the fact the majority of new HIV diagnoses in the UK are straight people. Sex was only ever talked about in any detail to explain it as a way of getting pregnant, not as anything else, so unsurprisingly LGBTQ+ sex was never considered. The British education system continues to fail its LGBTQ+ students by not providing relevant sex education that could keep them safe or potentially save a life.
My sister is four years younger than me and goes to the same secondary school I went to. The difference just in the few years since I was at the school is enormous. There are more and more students coming out, being supported by their peers, and fighting discrimination. Unfortunately, there’s still a massive way to go. A 2017 Stonewall report found that ‘nearly half of LGBTQ+ students have been bullied at school or college for being LGBTQ+’, and two in five have never received any education on LGBTQ+ issues. Looking to the future, more and more schools are now celebrating LGBT History Month and I’m hopeful that this will continue to spread and that with more education we can create safer schools and colleges for young LGBTQ+ people in the UK.