Why it's essential we tackle homophobia in schools

Paul Brand, ITV Political Correpsondent

“Oi, Brandy, why don’t you just bring a skirt and play netball with the girls?”

Strange how a question can be so embarrassing and yet so appealing. Well, the netball part, less so the skirt. You don’t mess with rugby in Wales, and one of my games teachers was losing patience. I’d skulked along the sidelines all lesson, missing every tackle.

In fact, that pretty much summed up my approach to school in general, at least for the first few years of comprehensive. I had close friends, but I avoided any opportunity to stick out. I’d drive myself mad with anxiety before rugby, sometimes to the point of throwing up. I knew I was different, but more than that, I knew the danger of anyone noticing it.

Sports, non-uniform days, lunchtime clubs – I avoided them all. Playground politics was cut-throat and I minimised the risk of revealing my personality.

Of course, in the early years I didn’t know exactly what it was that I was hiding. That came as a teenager. Understanding that I was gay was actually an improvement, but telling anyone seemed unthinkable.

Luckily my best friend also turned out to be gay, and aged sixteen we started confiding in one friend at a time, weaving an ever more complex web of secrets until we had enough confidence to just let the whole thing unravel. I remember the relief when everyone finally knew – we drove down the high street blasting out Kylie and laughing every last scrap of anxiety out of our systems.

By the time I sat my ‘A’ levels I’d transformed. Now a slightly cocky classmate, I even managed to pip a couple of rugby lads to become Head Boy. As I finished school the age of consent was equalised, Section 28 was abolished, and civil partnerships were on the horizon. Like so many of my fortunate generation, I burst into adulthood ‘out and proud’ and forgot about those anxious years. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to realise that for many gay people, beneath all the pride, an early sense of shame still lingers in us.

The statistics give you a clue. Half of gay men self-harm, around half have also contemplated taking their lives, and we are twice as likely to turn to drugs and alcohol as our straight friends. Even our physical health is considerably worse.

In many cases, these problems are crafted in the classroom. 95% of pupils have heard the word ‘gay’ used as an insult, and 75% of teachers have witnessed homophobic bullying. These experiences stay with us, and it is vital that we change them.

One new charity is trying to do exactly that. Today, Just Like Us is launching the first ever UK School Pride week, due to take place 20th-24th June. The idea is simple: teaching children to celebrate diversity. But to pull it off would be profound - a statement of acceptance on this scale has never been attempted in our schools before.

More than that, the charity is building a network of hundreds of LGBTQ+ volunteers to return to the classroom and talk about their experience of coming out at school. This is undoubtedly one of the most acutely anxious moments any child can face, and there is growing evidence that it never really leaves you.

In ‘The Velvet Rage’, psychologist Alan Downs traces many of his patients’ addictions and mental health problems back to the shame and rejection gay men experience in childhood. He argues that we overcompensate for this shame by striving for perfection, whether it’s in the gym or the workplace. For many, this endeavour becomes exhausting and destructive, spiralling into depression or addiction.

This matters because I believe it’s one of the final restraints holding us back. Only very recently did we get the first openly gay CEO of a FTSE 100 company and the first gay Conservative cabinet minister.We’ve overcome much of the discrimination, but what we struggle to shed are those early encounters that still affect the confidence and life chances of too many gay people.

All my years of hiding have turned into many more years of happiness. Believe it or not, I even play sports. But as adults we won’t fully achieve gay pride, if as children our experiences are still marred by shame.

Read the original article in The Daily Telegraph

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