Classroom in Northern Ireland. Photo: Vincent Li/Flickr. Creative Commons (CC by 2.0). Some rights reserved.
LGBTQ+ lives and rights in Northern Ireland are treated as nothing more than a controversial topic for a debate show. Bigots and crypto-fascists – and we have many – are constantly given platforms, soapboxes and huge live audiences to spread vile and dangerous views.
Transphobia and homophobia are entrenched in our culture and across the vast majority of our media. In my experience, this manifests itself most painfully and repeats itself most dangerously in our schools.
Northern Ireland’s Department of Education has no guidelines in place for supporting trans young people in school. There are no LGBTQ+ diversity workshops or education for either pupils or staff. Many of our state schools are specifically religious. Intolerance is not just allowed, but encouraged. Even within non-denominational schools, bigotry is rife.
Intolerance is not just allowed, but encouraged.
In 2015, a bill to address bullying in schools was introduced by Sinn Féin, when they held the Education ministry. But it has amounted to faux-progressive window dressing, doing nothing to help LGBTQ+ youth.
Audaciously, the party claims to champion and support queer young people – but their bill failed to require schools to record homophobic or transphobic bullying for what it is, or to specifically tackle such bullying in their policies.
A 2017 Department of Education report brought the issue of anti-LGBTQ+ bullying to the fore, along with institutional neglect within the education system. This report was unnecessarily and recklessly suppressed by the civil service for 17 months after its completion due to the “lack of a minister.”
Parliament buildings at Stormont, Belfast. Photo: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Prior to the collapse of the assembly, the ultra-conservative DUP party took hold of the education department. Leaving it up to a DUP minister to release a report on LGBTQ+ kids shows a complete contempt for us in the systems of government.
There was no valid excuse for waiting almost a year and a half to deliver vital information on anti-queer bullying to the public. That’s another year and a half where nothing is done to prevent it, another year and a half of hell for vulnerable queer youth across Northern Ireland.
Successive government ministers, including Sinn Féin’s own “progressive” and “equality-focused” representatives, have allowed anti-LGBTQ+ rules, biases, and attitudes to not only survive but thrive within schools. Nothing has been done to force schools to implement inclusion policies, or make schools more accommodating to trans young people.
According to the delayed Department of Education report, around half of LGBTQ+ pupils have experienced bullying specifically as a result of their gender identity or sexual orientation. Most said they were unsatisfied with their school’s response to these issues.
Unfortunately, this isn’t shocking in the slightest. So-called “pastoral care” is a buzzword in Northern Irish schools, but for most young queer people, it is a cruel joke.
So-called “pastoral care” is a buzzword in Northern Irish schools, but for most young queer people, it is a cruel joke.
In my school, after reporting bullying, I experienced victim-blaming and relative inaction from many of the staff who are supposedly there to support victims. Not only do we face ridicule and harassment from fellow pupils, we also must tolerate neglect and victim-blaming from authority figures.
Unsurprisingly, the education department report also found that almost two thirds of respondents reported a negative impact on their emotional well-being as a result of their school’s hostile environment towards LGBTQ+ folks.
These educational spaces are filled with abuse and hatred (both subtle and entirely obvious), erasure, and so many other forms of queer neglect and oppression.
School syllabuses handle LGBTQ+ issues completely inadequately – if they touch on them at all. Most pupils reported that, if and when the LGBTQ+ community was mentioned, it was in religious education classes. Having been through these, I can tell you: they’re awful.
Our identities and rights are put up for hearty debate with teachers generally coming down on the queer-bashing side of the argument. Our right to marriage and a family is treated as an affront to the religious liberties of classmates. Our right to use the toilet which corresponds with our gender is treated as a threat to others’ safety.
Our identities and rights are put up for hearty debate with teachers generally coming down on the queer-bashing side of the argument.
Issues that are literally matters of life and death to so many people in the country or the classroom are ignored. Queer people are treated like yet another hypothetical, another obscure minority it’s okay to joke about, another group it’s okay to hate. Coming from supposed classroom authority figures, it’s an abhorrent attack.
When you treat us as hypotheticals, you are actively harming and erasing us. When you refuse to acknowledge our presence in your classrooms and your schools, you are actively making us unsafe in those spaces. You are setting us up for further harm outside these places, by fostering the same erasure.
We need drastic change so that schools can begin to accommodate the LGBTQ+ community. Guidelines for supporting trans youth in education would be a helpful start which should be drawn up in collaboration with trans organisations like GenderJam NI and SAIL NI. Senior civil servants could perhaps read some of their own guidelines too?
Comprehensive, LGBTQ+ inclusive sex and relationships education must be delivered in every school in the region (and until that happens, young people can find sexual health guides for trans people online).
Overarching systems of oppression must also be confronted in this movement for LGBTQ+ liberation.
While LGBTQ+ community groups are deemed “inappropriate” for an educational environment, abusive and anti-choice activists are welcomed with open arms.
Love For Life is an abstinence-based, cis-hetero-normative organisation active in more than 70% of Northern Irish schools, where they miseducate young people regarding their sexual health. This harmful group must be banned from schools.
Extremist anti-rights groups such as Precious Life – which actively harass and abuse those attempting to access basic sexual and reproductive health care rights – are invited into our schools to instil their evangelical brand of social conservatism in children and radicalise students against us. This further enables the systemic oppression of minorities.
While LGBTQ+ rights groups are deemed “inappropriate” for educational environments, abusive and anti-choice activists are currently welcomed with open arms.
We need intersectional support from feminists and queer-rights activists to overhaul how the education system handles social issues and supports minorities and vulnerable groups. Without this, oppression and bigotry will continue to replicate itself within the young for years to come.
This article is adapted from a blog that originally appeared on challengesni.com.