This post was added late in 2001 when I tried to get some of my older work online in a vaguely useful form. Plasticbag.org (neé Barbelith) was created on November 1st 1999.
In November, an inquest heard that a 15-year-old choirboy had been found hanged in his bedroom. Darren Steele had been left at home watching Neighbours by his mother when she went out for the evening. When she returned she found him dead. A note by his body explained that he had killed himself because of the bullying that he was suffering at school.
Darren had been bullied because other students thought he was gay. At the inquest, his friends explained that he had been regularly taunted as a ‘gay boy’ and a ‘poof’ because of his interests in drama and cookery. Over the previous five years he had been systematically punched, verbally abused and even burned with cigarettes by other students. He never told a teacher.
His mother’s statement reads: “I saw Darren kneeling on the far side of the bed. His face was blue. I went downstairs screaming ‘my son is dead’.”
According to gay campaigning groups, there is significant evidence that school-children are experiencing homophobia on an almost daily basis. A survey published in 1994 by Stonewall revealed that homosexuals under 18 are experiencing more violence than any other part of the gay community.
Half of the under-18s surveyed said they had been violently attacked for being gay and 40% of these attacks involved four or more attackers. 60% said they had been harassed, 40% had faced threats or blackmail, while 90% had been verbally abused.
Support organisations recognise the scale of the problem. “Children do get bullied because of their sexuality and name-calling and teasing can have a devastating effect on children’s lives,” said a spokesman for Childline. “They go home and they can still hear the jibes and taunts. And this can cause significant problems in self-esteem in later life.”
The Stonewall survey found that around half of attacks on gay children were perpetrated at school by other students. Amy Vickers has just completed her first year at University. However, there were times when it seemed unlikely that she would complete her GCSEs. She was forced to change schools twice after other children found out that she was a lesbian.
“I had dog shit and eggs put into my bag, abuse written across my locker,” she says. “Anything I didn’t put in my locker would be covered in graffiti. I had words spray-painted onto my jacket. I had kids telling me that they were going to beat my head in.
“I got into a couple of fights, and had bruises and cuts around my eye. I had a bottle smashed over my arm at one point. One day in the middle of a cookery lesson I even had knives thrown at me. But I never told the teachers why it was happening because they’d tell my parents. ”
The experience of gay teenagers seems to suggest that homophobic bullying in schools is not being dealt with because the pupils simply do not trust their teachers.
“Bullying of any type is totally unacceptable, but homophobic bullying – like racist bullying – is based on attacking someone for what they are,” says a spokesman for the NUT. “But the problem for teachers is getting the help of the person who is being bullied in identifying and sorting out the problem. Often these young people do not wish to talk to anyone else about it at all.”
But perhaps gay school children are right not to go to their teachers. Last year the University of London produced a report on secondary school teachers and their experience of homosexual pupils and bullying.
It found that 82% of teachers were aware of gay name-calling at their schools and 26% were aware of violent incidents that had been accompanied by homophobic comments. But while 99% of schools had a policy on bullying, only 6% had any policy targeted at young gay men and lesbians.
Lord Tope is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on education in the House of Lords. He has been investigating the bullying of gay teenagers. In a debate in October in the Lords he suggested that pupils were not the only people harassing gay children in schools. In his statement he said that some teachers were either ignoring the bullying or occasionally even joining in.
“An RE teacher in Scotland required by his enlightened school to discuss homosexuality in his classes told the whole class: ‘I’m sure nobody wants to know about the poofs apart from Ben’,” he told the Lords. “The tragic irony of this is that many of them have yet to have sex with anyone, let alone a relationship.”
David Allison of gay campaigning group Outrage agrees that educators must take some responsibility. “Many teachers, partly because of their own prejudices and because of the legislature, are unable to give support to their pupils. And bullied school children don’t have access to any other areas of support, such as the gay community. In fact they might not even know that such a thing exists.”
The roles and responsibilities of teachers of gay children has long been a controversial issue in the UK. Section 28 of the Local Government Act, 1988, prohibited local education authorities from “the intentional promotion of homosexuality” and “the teaching of homosexuality as a pretend family relationship”.
Stonewall believe that many teachers believe incorrectly that it bans them from discussing homosexuality. And next week they are launching a campaign to help inform educators about the legislation and the lives of gay teenagers. They hope it will go some way towards stopping deaths like Darren Steele’s.
“We see homophobic bullying as one of the key issues of the moment,” says a spokesman for the group, “and we are trying to get the Government to address it more fully.”
The government is already undertaking some preliminary actions to address the problem. It has announced its intention to repeal Section 28, although Stonewall fears the legislation will be dropped this session because of the government’s attempt to abolish hereditary peerages.
The Department of Education and Employment (DEE) is bringing out new guidelines on bullying for schools and local education authorities in the new year. The document, which has been welcomed by the NUT, will recognise that bullying can occur due to sexual orientation.
However, despite Lord Tope urging the DEE to ” tell governors and head teachers their anti-bullying policies must include specific plans to stand up to homophobic bullying”, no such measures have been outlined.
And teachers who make homophobic comments will still be subject only to the disciplinary procedures of their own school.
“The teaching profession is made up of human beings”, says a spokesman for the NUT. “Bad responses from teachers are much the minority – it is a caring profession. But in a profession of 1/2 million people (in England and Wales) you will get teachers who don’t care as much as they ought to.”
After Darren Steele’s death, the police arrested 11 pupils from his school in Burton on suspicion of harassment. The Crown Prosecution Service later decided not to prosecute them. Darren Steele’s Headmaster Michael York said of the death of his pupil – “The real tragedy is that Darren’s parents, the school and his grandparents were not aware of his suffering.”