If no one is out in your school…

Milena Popova on why schools should be concerned if none of their students are openly LGBTQIA+

I learned to pick up signals on whether it was safe to be out before I knew I was queer. I am as startled by this realisation as anyone, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I remember the first time I heard the word “homosexual”. I had no idea what it meant at the time, but it sounded like a dirty secret. I remember my father disapproving of a particular music video because it had women kissing in it. I don’t remember anything from biology class except this: our teacher explaining (incorrectly) how anal sex between men led to HIV transmission. All this between the ages of 7 and 12. Later, there was the teacher who was sacked for being gay, and being taught “Where Angels Fear to Tread” without reference to Forster’s sexuality.

I grew up in an environment where the only images and narratives of queerness authority figures gave me were negative ones, and I had to go out and look for positive representations myself, simply in order to survive. Unsurprisingly, there were no out queer kids or staff at any of my schools. I certainly did not feel safe to come out to any of my teachers, and I was 17 before I came out to some of my closest friends.

We would all like to think that things have changed; that Britain in 2014 is a very different place to Austria in the 1990s. There is certainly some representation in media of some of the genders and sexualities under the QUILTBAG umbrella. Many kids (though not all) have access to an array of resources and support online. Equally, “gay” is used as an insult in schools and playgrounds on a daily basis, diverse role models are still scarce, and many teachers still seem to operate under the impression that Section 28 is still in force.

I can guarantee you that queer kids today, much like me 20 years ago, are watching and picking up all the signals for whether it is safe for them to be who they are or not. And when the cost of misinterpreting those signals ranges from being ostracised and bullied to being physically attacked and possibly killed, those kids are making their assessments in the most conservative way possible.

Of course staying in the closet, hearing all those microaggressions, and fearing for your safety is not without cost itself. A US survey found that LGBTQIA+ students are more likely to skip classes or miss entire days of school due to safety concerns; they feel particularly unsafe in certain spaces, notably locker rooms, bathrooms and PE lessons; and students who experience frequent harassment or bullying because of their sexuality or gender expression have significantly lower grades. The absence of role models limits students’ aspirations and robs them of hope for the future.

To those kids, so used to looking for the subtle clues of bigotry, a neutral space is to be presumed hostile. It is full of potential queerphobes and bullies. Even if their classmates’ casual use of homophobic, biphobic and transphobic language is driven by fashion and ignorance rather than hatred, most LGBTQIA+ kids in such environments will choose to be better safe than sorry. This is why it is so important for teachers to move past neutral spaces and create proactively welcoming, safe and inclusive classrooms.

LGBT people learn from a very young age to keep to the shadows. Like my own schools, many schools today will not have any out LGBTQIA+ students. It is easy to assume that therefore there simply aren’t any LGBTQIA+ students there. No matter which numbers you look at however, statistically speaking that’s unlikely. There are queer kids (and staff) in your school. The fact that they’re not out is an indication of the failure of the school to provide a sufficiently safe learning environment, not of their absence.

There is only one way to fix this, and that’s for teachers to step up – with support from leadership – and make schools the kinds of places where all students, regardless of gender expression or sexual orientation, can thrive. That means challenging queerphobic language when you hear it; it means embedding diversity into lessons across the curriculum; and it means providing students with a range of diverse role models they can look up to and see their own future in.

You’ll know that you’re succeeding when LGBTQIA+ students in your school start coming out – to you personally as someone they trust, or to the school as a whole because they feel safe and supported.