Anti-LGBT+ language kept me in the closet at school, but School Diversity Week gives me hope for the future
Sam Harvey, who volunteers as an ambassador for Just Like Us, discusses the impact of School Diversity Week.
This week, as thousands of schools across the UK celebrate School Diversity Week, it is clearer than ever that visibility matters.
Having volunteered with Just Like Us for nearly a year now, I’ve seen first-hand how young LGBT+ people sharing their stories and experiences can have a positive impact on all pupils, not just LGBT+ ones. It can allow pupils to put a name or definition to thoughts and feelings they may be experiencing, or to feel seen and accepted by their peers and wider society as a whole.
Comparing where we are now to my experiences in school, I can see that though we have come a long way, we still have a way to go. Growing up, my school had very little in the way of LGBT+ representation or education. So little, in fact, that I had never even heard the term ‘transgender’ until I started sixth form aged 16, and had mostly heard the word ‘gay’ as an insult, often aimed at me.
Although I didn’t start to come to terms with my sexual orientation until much later on in my teenage years, this didn’t stop homophobic bullying from coming my way — mostly because I was perceived as ‘different’ and more feminine than my classmates. This behaviour kept me in the closet for years, and made my school experience miserable. There always felt like there was a societal pressure to be ‘normal’ and, as many of us know, at that age the pressure to fit in is incredibly strong.
“School Diversity Week allows schools to show their LGBT+ pupils that they don’t have to be afraid of repercussions or bullying simply for being who they are.”
— Sam Harvey, ambassador for Just Like Us
A celebration of LGBT+ inclusion like School Diversity Week, or even to simply be told that being straight and cisgender is not the ‘default setting’, could have done wonders for my self-esteem. Luckily, I had incredibly supportive parents, however the impact of anti-LGBT+ attitudes on a young person’s development cannot be understated.
School is where children spend the majority of their week, and if they do not feel like they are being supported in exploring who they are as a person in a safe and secure environment, it will inevitably have consequences for their mental health. School Diversity Week allows schools to show their LGBT+ pupils that they don’t have to be afraid of repercussions or bullying simply for being who they are, and that there is a clear commitment to inclusion and support.
Although my time in school was difficult, to say the least, this story does have a happy ending.
A few months ago, my former drama teacher got in contact with me. He said he had heard about the work done by charities like Just Like Us, and wanted to know if I could offer any advice and resources for him to set up a LGBT+ lunchtime club for pupils. He acknowledged that the school’s attitudes in the past had not always been conducive to creating an accepting atmosphere, and he wanted to right those wrongs.
This conversation gave me hope for the future, it showed that actions were being put in place to improve the experiences for current and future LGBT+ pupils at the school. Although this did not erase the damage done whilst I was there, it felt positive that my experiences had been recognised and had led to progressive change.
LGBT+ inclusion doesn’t end at school, but it can certainly start there. By taking part in School Diversity Week, schools can make that commitment to students that whoever they are, they matter, they are valued, and they are seen.
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