When “coming out” to a room of around 200 pupils, it is perfectly normal to experience some degree of apprehension.
Many of us who identify as LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, + more) did not get to bring our full selves to school, spending years in the closet attempting to blend in with the straight and/or cisgender (identifying as the same gender assigned at birth) majority of our peers.
For this reason, venturing back into this environment to educate today’s pupils about our identities can feel daunting – but the rewards are limitless.
This is the motivation behind student-led volunteering project Out in Education, based at the University of Nottingham and Loughborough University.
Since 2013, they have visited 50+ schools to deliver assemblies and lessons on LGBT+ topics, including personal coming out stories, inclusive sex education, and anti-bullying workshops.
I had the pleasure of working with the project whilst studying Physics at Nottingham, seeing the positive impact first-hand.
One memorable example took place following a Year 8 assembly on different identities at a Nottingham secondary school; soon after we had finished, one pupil came to the front to talk with us and came out as bisexual for the first time.
To see such immediate effects, and to have given this pupil the confidence to come out so early in life – something which I was not able to do – was the greatest victory.
A regular feature of an Out in Education workshop is the ‘Anonymous Q&A’, where pupils write down questions which are answered by the volunteers at the end of the lesson.
This creates a far more organic learning process, where instead of relying on hypothetical situations, pupils hear about the personal experiences of others who have recently been through the school system themselves.
Unfailingly, pupils of all ages ask intelligent and thoughtful questions – “How do you know when your real self shows?”; “Do you prefer to be called gay/lesbian or normal?”; “Did all of your friends accept you [when coming out]?” – creating conversations that are rewarding for both the pupils and volunteers.
Perhaps surprisingly, abrasive or inappropriate questions are rare, but they are usually along the lines of, “How do lesbians have sex?” or, “Can I have your number?”
The tactic isn’t to ignore these, but to either explain why they aren’t appropriate or, particularly for the former, to produce a sincere, matter-of-fact answer that is age appropriate.
It is never too early to introduce pupils to the concepts of gender and sexuality – if they haven’t already, every pupil will go on to encounter LGBT+ people in their lives, and the concepts of love and living as your true self are approachable at any age.
Current standards are still failing a tremendous number of LGBT+ children across the country; according to the Stonewall School Report (2017), 45% of LGBT pupils in Britain’s schools are bullied for being LGBT, and two in five young transgender people have attempted suicide.
A mere 13% of LGBT pupils have learned about healthy relationships in a same-sex context, and three in five have never been explicitly taught that same-sex couples can get married.
For full-time educators, the pressures of teaching core subjects can be heavy enough without the additional responsibility of being fully inclusive.
How you can help pupils
The solution isn’t to reinvent the syllabus, but to instead make subtle changes to the language and presumptions that can exist in the classroom.
For example, it cannot be assumed that every pupil in the room will be straight and cisgender, and using gender-neutral language (eg ‘partner’ instead of ‘boyfriend’) can prevent feelings of alienation.
Also, never allow the word “gay” to be used in a derogatory context; display a pride flag in your classroom to remind LGBT+ pupils that they are safe; and, where lessons permit, include LGBT+ figureheads or themes, which are currently seldom seen outside of PSHE lessons.
Until LGBT+ inclusive education becomes a compulsory part of the curriculum, projects like Out in Education will continue to help create safe and inclusive classrooms.
The phrase, “Be who you needed when you were younger” runs through the core of the project, with the hope that future generations won’t have to suffer as they explore their identity, but instead be able to celebrate them safely and confidently.
You can download it as a PDF there, and also get loads more information on gender, something that everyone thinks they understand, but most people really don’t.
Here, it’s broken into three categories: identity, expression, and sex. As the post explains, “It’s less ‘this or that’ and more ‘this and that’”.
2. LGBT+ identities
This Out in Education resource sheet on LGBT+ identities provides handy definitions on sexuality and gender, before going on to explain how these are more useful guidelines or starting points, and that in reality identity is more fluid and complex.
It then provides a more accurate model, talks about ‘coming out’ and the use of pronouns.