Since the decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales in 1967 (Scotland did not follow England's lead until 1980, and it was 1982 before Northern Ireland did the same), the freedom and rights that LGBT people enjoy have come a long way, from it no longer being illegal to be gay right through to the present day, when lesbian and gay people can have civil partnerships, adopt children, have rights entrenched in law that defend their protected characteristic, and live in a time when the current government has recently held a consultation on recognizing legal marriage for same-sex couples. The UK has come a long way and is now a beacon of equality in a world where there is still a huge amount of discrimination toward LGBT people. But although there has been a large amount of progress that has given rights and freedom to those of a consenting age, what is it like for young lesbian and gay people living and being educated in 2012? The school setting can be difficult enough without adding issues around sexuality to the mix, but does that issue really exist anymore?
Coming out as gay or lesbian at school was never an option for people before the turn of the millennium. With the introduction of Section 28, which became law in 1988, local authorities could not "intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship." This made the issue of being out at school more complex. My own experience at school in the 1990s and early 2000s was certainly difficult. I never revealed my sexuality at school, for fear of persecution. However, most of my classmates assumed that I was gay, so I was persecuted anyway. Epithets such as "queer," "poof," and "faggot" were hurled at me on a daily basis, and if I dared to respond to the bullying, I was disciplined by the teacher for being "disruptive," even when teacher witnessed the homophobia. That was the effect of Section 28.
After the law was repealed in 2003, life was easier for students and teachers. Schools no longer had to ignore homophobic bullying, and as anti-discrimination laws came into effect, school administrators eventually had a duty to challenge discrimination and abuse on the basis of sexuality. Earlier this year I attended an awards ceremony and saw a lady who had been one of my teachers. We had a conversation about the award that I was nominated for that evening, and then the talk turned to the experience I had had at school. My former teacher said that she had been fully aware of what was happening to me and other LGBT students at that time, but that because of Section 28, she was unable to challenge the bullying. She apologized for that and expressed sorrow over how awful some young people had it at school. Turning the conversation to the present day, she said that if she were still teaching and witnessed some of the behavior that she had seen in the past, she would not hesitate to challenge it and discipline the perpetrators. That really struck a chord with me, and I appreciated the obvious sincerity and sentiment behind what she said. If this teacher had that view, then surely others must, too.
In my day job I am a psychotherapist, but in 2011 I founded a support charity for LGBT youth. Its mission is "to ensure that all young people feel valued and included in society regardless of sexuality or gender identity." Through my work with the charity, I have a lot of contact with young people and those who teach them. Recently I attended a conference for students and teachers about protected characteristics. My role was to engage the delegates in a discussion about sexuality. As I did this, I took great delight in the attitudes the students expressed. They spoke very openly about gay and lesbian people they knew, their attitudes toward LGBT people, and what school might be like for a student who comes out. The general consensus was that the majority of students would be OK with one of their peers coming out as gay or lesbian, but they accepted that there would still be a minority who bullied and discriminated against those people. The teachers also impressed me. They spoke of students who had come out at their schools, how their institutions had firm anti-bullying policies that included protections against homophobic and transphobic abuse, and how the majority of the gay and lesbian students had been fully embraced and accepted by their peers.
Whether things really are that good remains open for debate. Some schools are better for LGBT students than others, and there is still a long way to go until every student in every school is free from homophobic bullying, but through continued education it could be stamped out. I work with schools to ensure that their LGBT students do not have the same experiences as people living in the era of Section 28 and even earlier than that. People in 2012 are certainly more progressive than people were in 1988, and it is clear that there is an increasing number of young people who are open about their sexuality at school. Yes, there's still a long way to go, too, but it is certainly getting better.