Tackling homophobia in school? You need to start with your own language


Former teacher Jonathan Charlesworth explains how our confidence to provide support to someone ‘coming out’ or to stop, then prevent, homophobic name-calling or bullying all starts with having self-assurance about the words we use.

If you’re a school teacher, college tutor or university lecturer eager to support your pupils or students regarding sexual orientation matters, and keen to challenge homophobia or biphobia, may I suggest the best place to start is with vocabulary. I’ve worked for over thirty years in Education: as a teacher and successively as the Executive Director of Educational Action Challenging Homophobia. EACH was established to affirm LGBT+ people and help employers and institutions meet their legal and social responsibilities regarding homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying or harassment through training, consultancy and resources.

2018 sees EACH celebrating fifteen years of award-winning support and training delivery and in this piece I’d like to focus on one thing of many I’ve learnt about how we can make a difference on the topic of ‘coming out’ as lesbian, gay or bisexual and challenging homophobic name-calling or bullying. It’s this: if we stop and think about it, what we say and how we say it changes the way we think. Hopefully for the good it changes the way others think too!

You’ve probably read George Orwell’s 1984. He coined several words so pertinent to our world today: Newspeak. Doublethink. Big Brother. Orwell recognised that if we change what’s spoken (or indeed written) we change what’s thought. Now, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. On the contrary, use of appropriate, accessible language can debunk stereotypes, discredit myths and deflate misconceptions.

Each of us in our own capacity has the power and influence but also the social responsibility to challenge homophobic name-calling or bullying when we encounter it. Speaking and writing appropriately to and about gay people (or those questioning their sexual orientation) goes a long way toward stopping others’ use of unwanted language in its tracks and preventing it from happening in the future.

Universities regularly contact EACH in their endeavour to source resources to challenge homophobic language and attitudes on their campuses. Many tell us they think they’re stuck in a crevice between school or college and the workplace and it feels like there’s less at hand to which to turn. School teachers and college tutors frequently say to us that they want to support a pupil or student but lack the confidence to do so because they’re “Worried they’ll get the words wrong”. This is hardly surprising. The pace at which things have moved forwards has been remarkable.

The introduction of equalities legislation has brought sweeping, positive change which has undone decades, indeed centuries, of discrimination, inequality and tackled a sense of shame felt by far too many lesbian, gay or bisexual people. This oppression, we all know, has led to too many suicides, too much self-harm or suicide ideation and too many families devastated.

Society however always lags behind legal change. Just because we introduce, for example, same-sex marriage doesn’t mean everyone’s okay with it. Simply because we have “hate crime” laws doesn’t mean it stops. We’re all in a permanent state of learning and some of us are more open to the implications of legal change than others. You’re reading this presumably because you want to do your best by the children or young people you teach, maybe the older people with whom you work or those in your social and personal circle.

So, when you have the time, think about the words you use when you need to talk or write about sexual orientation, homophobia or biphobia. Do you use ‘straight’ or ‘heterosexual’? Do you say ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’? Do you ever pluralise the word and refer to ‘gays’? Is it ‘the gay community’ for you regardless of your own sexual orientation or ‘individuals (or people) who are gay’? Is your use of each informed and helpful? In my book, That’s So Gay! Challenging Homophobic Bullying, which celebrates its third birthday this year, I explore the huge importance of considering the language we use because we need both to understand the vocabulary we deploy and its meaning to others who hear or read it.

I sincerely believe if the phrase coined had been That’s so queer! as opposed to That’s so gay! more would have been done sooner and more effectively to stop and prevent it. I’m still helping educational institutions and wraparound agencies challenge “That’s so gay!” after eighteen years. Queer is a highly emotive word eschewed by some whilst embraced by others. Where do you stand on its use?

A good starting point if you’re reviewing policy and practice in your setting, regarding sexual orientation and homophobic bullying or harassment, is to set aside time at the outset to look at the language you currently use and agree a working vocabulary to which everyone is signed up. Yes, not everyone will agree with every word settled upon but that’s democracy. As I say in my daily work, we can self-define all we like about anything but in our institutions we need a generic currency of words that is easily understood, respectful and practical. Those who insist on an informal person-specific lexicon which leaves everyone else baffled and silenced aren’t actually helping anybody. There’s room and time to discuss the issues which sit behind all the ‘descriptors’ we hear but our starting point needs to be a working vocabulary to give everyone the confidence and reassurance to speak.

Once you’ve agreed your glossary of terms make it into an A3 poster and display it in your setting. In several places. A lot of people will read it. Visitors to your school, college, university, youth group, swimming club, Girl Guide venue or Cadet Corps for example. Parents and carers will absorb it. Colleagues will digest it. Perhaps most importantly your pupils or students will assimilate it and it’s obviously best if they’ve informed its content by consulting them. Have you a Pupil Parliament or Student Council? Involve them. Easily overlooked so often.

Language and communication are among the most powerful tools and skills we possess. The interaction between sexual orientation and issues of gender, religion, disability, gender identity, ethnicity and culture cannot be underestimated. When you make looking at how your setting addresses its attitudes towards its pupils or families where sexuality is the matter in hand, your other pastoral matters (forming part of your institution’s Duty of Care) will benefit indisputably from the work you put into this.

Jonathan Charlesworth M.Ed. is the author of That’s So Gay! Challenging Homophobic Bullying and Executive Director of Educational Action Challenging Homophobia (EACH) www.each.education

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