Challenging bigotry

I know who the teachers are who support LGBTQ rights, because they don’t let kids get away with saying ‘that’s so gay!’ I feel like I could talk to them if I had a problem.

Emily*, pupil

I don’t know who I can turn to about being bullied. None of the teachers really care if someone says ‘that’s so gay’, so why would they care about the other names I get called?

Aiden*, pupil

How can I challenge bigotry?

Two in three secondary school staff and more than two in five primary school staff (44 per cent) who hear homophobic language such as ‘you’re so gay’ or ‘that’s so gay’ do not always respond. One in five secondary school staff say they rarely or never respond.

Stonewall, Teachers Report 2014

Homophobic, transphobic and biphobic microaggressions can be so pervasive that many become inured to them, not noticing them in everyday speech and interactions.

The first step is to be alert and ready to challenge. As with all forms of behaviour management, the key is consistency: challenge each and every time. It won’t take terribly long for the message to sink in that you don’t permit homo/bi/transphobic remarks in your classroom, thus creating a safer environment for LGBTQIA+ students.

The most common phrase is “that’s so gay” – which may be so far removed in the students’ minds from a reference to sexuality that they don’t even recognise it as homophobia. However it is important to realise and explain to students the origins of the word, the way using it as a pejorative creates an association between being gay and something negative, and the impact it may have on any LGBTQIA+ staff and students around them.

Students may use homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language in a variety of ways:

  • Casual insults not specifically intended to be abusive and/or not directed against a particular person. (“That lesson was a bit gay.”)
  • Insults directed at a person but not intended or perceived by the student as homophobic, biphobic or transphobic. (“He’s a bit gay”, meaning “He’s a bit rubbish.”)
  • Overt bigotry directed at particular individuals who are perceived as being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

You may only be able to work out which of these categories a particular incident falls under from context or from conversation with the student(s) involved. Regardless of whether an incident is a microaggression driven by ignorance or an instance of overt anti-LGBTQIA+  bullying, it will have an impact on the general environment in the school. It therefore needs to be addressed and challenged, though the approaches you might use for different types of incidents may vary.

I once heard a year seven call his friend the f-slur. When I challenged him, he was mortified: he had no clue what it meant – he was just copying the older lads.

Elise*, Secondary Geography teacher

The first time you challenge a student with regards to bigoted language, or language derived from bigotry, assume the student is ignorant as to why it is offensive.

Some teachers may prefer a quiet chat with the individual(s) concerned; others may address it as a whole class issue. This will depend on various factors:

  • Ensuring that the students involved are not humiliated and/or belittled. It must be treated as an educational opportunity, rather than a condemnation;
  • the individuals involved and their potential reactions: you will know your students well enough to make this choice;
  • how disruptive it is to the class, and whether the disruption is required;
  • your school’s approach to LGBTQIA+ inclusive teaching (i.e. is this a slip-up from the student concerned, or are they left exposed to ignorance through a poor curriculum?)

It is important to challenge comments like “that’s so gay” with the right arguments. “Gay” in and of itself is not an insult, so don’t treat it as one. Don’t tell students it’s bad language – that implies that being gay is actually a bad thing. The message you want to get across is that using words like “gay” as if they were insults is a bad thing as it implies that a whole group of people are bad.

I was arguing with a guy in my class, and he started to call me ‘gay’. The teacher told them off for ‘bad language’ – I’d thought he was cool until then. The problem wasn’t the language- ‘gay’ isn’t a dirty word. The attitude was the problem- that this guy thought ‘gay’’ was the ultimate insult- which the teacher didn’t exactly help!

Mel*, pupil

Another common tactic:

“Well, I’m gay!”

Some teachers have been known to use this to “shock” or “shame” students out of bigoted behaviour. If you are not actually LGBTQIA+, we would strongly discourage you from doing this. It is likely to damage your credibility with students and sends a message that it is okay to appropriate identities which aren’t your own “for the sake of argument”. And while it may be an effective tactic if you are LGBTQIA+, you do need to consider your own safety and whether you are happy with being out at the school in general. You are under no obligation to out yourself, and there are plenty of ways to challenge problematic behaviours without doing so.

And if students ask? If you’re not comfortable sharing your orientation, a simple, “Why? Does it matter?” tends to suffice.

So, how to challenge?

  • Don’t assume students are being intentionally homophobic. Homophobic slurs are pretty pervasive in our language today, and most students are simply mimicking what they’ve heard on TV, the radio or in the playground. I usually start off by saying, “I know you probably don’t mean it this way, but…” and finish off by saying, “so make sure you are presenting your views accurately.”
  • Explain WHY terms are bigoted. Explain the etymology of slurs, the origins of ‘that’s so gay’.  Explain why it’s offensive – that it is still so widely used to reference someone’s sexuality, and that the insult originated in the suggestion that being gay is a negative thing.
  • Encourage students to put aside personal privileges: “Well, I’m not offended” is a moot point when talking about harmful language.
  • Encourage students to consider how they would feel if people commonly used an aspect of their identity to mean, “that’s rubbish!” (However, we’d strongly advise against a commonly advocated tactic of declaring, “You wouldn’t say [black/r--arded/other slur], would you?” which minimises the racism and disablism that students may experience.)
  • Students may counter, “but there are no gay students in this school!” Point out that when lots of people are making derogatory remarks about a certain sexuality/gender, it’s unlikely that people will feel safe coming out. Point out that, given the statistics, chances are at least one person in the class, quite possibly one of their friends, could well be directly affected by that language. Remind them that we all deserve the right to feel safe at school, and that hearing “gay” used to mean something bad could have a serious impact on them.
  • Get them to understand the implications for them. For one, what the sanction will be if they continue to use it in your lesson, knowing now why it’s an unacceptable term of offense. But also what it could mean if they were overheard by, for example, their future boss.
  • Do point out that using “gay” to describe someone’s sexuality in a neutral way is fine; it’s the use of it as an insult you are challenging, not the use of the word itself.
  • You could take the approach one student uses: “this lesson’s gay? Really? It’s attracted to other English lessons? Not Maths lessons, just English lessons. Of course not! It’s a lesson, it has no sexual identity!”
  • Point out that there is such a richness to the English language that they are bound to come up with something else to mean, “I don’t like that.” Keep a thesaurus on your desk.
  • Ensure that, as and when you sanction, you record it explicitly as ‘homo/bi/transphobic language’. This helps your school identify trends (is there a particular year group or class who needs targeting, for example?) as well as meeting Ofsted policy.

Other forms of anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry

Whilst ‘that’s so gay!’ is by far the most ubiquitous form of anti-LGBTQIA+ speech heard in schools, other instances can be just as harmful, and often go unchallenged.

    • Misgendering as ‘a joke’. Typically rooted in casual misogyny, the amusement of boys referring to one another as ‘she’ can be devastating for young trans students, as well as sending negative messages about the status of women.
    • Calling bisexual students ‘confused’, ‘greedy’, ‘slutty’ or ‘attention seeking’.
    • Invalidating asexual students (and students who are not asexual but who are not ready for certain relationship/sexual behaviours) by ridiculing a lack of sexual desire or action. eg. “everyone fancies people!”
    • Enforcing strict binaries of “boys do X, girls do Y” or refusing to let a student join a group/play based on gender (typically, though not exclusively, primary school behaviour).
    • Ridiculing students for their gender expression.
    • Use of slurs to describe sexual orientations or genders.
    • Persistent giggling at LGBTQIA+ connotated terms used in different contexts.

Science teachers- please, please, do not tell students, ‘Now, don’t giggle at this: homozygous.’ My heart sank when I heard this phrase in a lesson. Why? It sets students up to think that you think it has potential to be a funny word, thus suggesting something funny (read: odd, unusual) about the word ‘homo. Correct giggling IF it happens, not before.

Ben*, Secondary LSA

 *All names have been changed