Marjorie Smith is an educational psychologist who works in London. She has a special interest in LGBT issues because her children are gay. She is a member of Families Together London which provides information and support to parents of LGBT people. Evidence to support the views she gives in this interview can be found on the website www.familiestogetherlondon.com.
What do you think the impact of homophobic/transphobic bullying is, and how does it affect the victim?
I think people used to think that bullying doesn't do any harm, that it 'toughens you up'. I don't believe this is true at all. Victims of homophobic/transphobic bullying suffer many problems - isolation, mental health problems like depression and anxiety, an increased risk of self-harm and suicide - the list is shocking.
What do you think is the effect of the current levels of homophobic/transphobic bullying in schools? (bearing in mind that Stonewall's research suggests that 65% of LGB pupils experience bullying, and PACE's more recent research shows that 58% of LGBT pupils experience bullying)
I think bullying damages everyone involved - those who do it because they are learning to be cruel and those who look on and do nothing because they are learning to be cowards. This includes adults as well as young people.
The most serious hate crimes in recent years were committed by young people - so not challenging incidents at the school level leads to hate crime in our streets.
What do you think are the barriers to teachers challenging such behaviour?
Most teachers want to do something about homophobic/transphobic bullying, but they are uncertain as to how to deal with it and don't feel confident that they know the right things to say. All teachers need training for this, but they also need to see good role models - senior staff talking about the issues and challenging young people on every instance of homophobic/transphobic behaviour.
What do you think motivates people to bully others because of their sexual orientation, or gender identity?
Some people just pick on people who are different, but I suspect there is more to it than that. Many young people are brought up to be stereotypical girls or stereotypical boys and they cannot cope with those who challenge gender norms. Other young people have picked up the idea from within their religions or their cultures that homosexuality is 'wrong' and convince themselves they are doing the right thing by attacking others. What motivates them? One of the main problems is that they get away with it. The victims often do not feel safe enough to report it.
The real problem is ignorance, which, in my view, would best be tackled by covering issues of gender identity and sexual orientation in the curriculum. Primary school children need to learn that there are civil partnerships as well as marriages and that families can have two mums or two dads. Secondary school students should have sufficient knowledge and the correct language to allow them to discuss issues to do with gender identity and sexual orientation safely in school.
In your opinion, how would a world (or school) free of homophobia affect people (both LGBT and non-LGBT)?
A brilliant question, because we need to know what we are aiming for. This could be a very long answer, but just let me give few examples from my vision of a fairer world…
Picture the following:
an Asian TV presenter celebrating her civil partnership on 'Blue Peter'
a faith school with a Head Boy who has recently transitioned
two gay men holding hands at their child's parent's evening
a black trans woman on the beat in a policewoman's uniform
Christian parents throwing a 'coming out' party for their lesbian daughter and all her friends in the church hall
a young man with Down's syndrome in a gay pub
a huge, happy Gay Pride march in Uganda
What do you think are the effects of homophobic/transphobic bullying on the victims' work, and, therefore, life chances?
We know that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people are more likely to leave school early, even though they have the qualifications to stay on. This means that these young people are not reaching their potential and will have to take less well paid jobs.
I also wonder how many LGB young people opt for traditionally 'safer' areas of work, thus limiting their opportunities. I'm thinking of a gay man who decides to train as a hairdresser rather than a nursery nurse or a lesbian who sets up her own business at home rather than working in the City. All young people need to see positive role models of LGBT people in all walks of life. Schools can offer this with posters, by providing examples in lessons and by inviting LGBT external speakers into assemblies.
There isn't much information on Sixth Form Colleges, Colleges of FE and Universities*. All these institutions need to do the research to ensure that they are meeting the needs of LGBT young people. The evidence so far is that they are not.
What would you suggest is the best way to support a young person coming out?
A young person who comes out in school has the right to expect a positive, helpful reaction followed up by relevant information and the offer of further support from someone who has knowledge of the issues. Some young people (and it would be up to them) might want help in telling their parents and information about how their parents can access help.
What are the main issues that parents are coming to FTL with?
Some parents are shocked and anxious when they first find out. They need to talk to someone, but many feel very isolated and do not know who, within their own families or communities, they can trust.
Even parents who accept their son or daughter's sexuality or gender identity still believe that life is likely to be harder for their child than for straight young people.
What would you suggest is the best way to support a family who's son/daughter (etc) has just come out?
Parents tell us that it really helps them to talk, in a safe environment, to others who have had similar experiences.
Overall, what in your opinion is the way forward in tackling homophobic and transphobic bullying in educational institutions?
school staff through extra training
students through the curriculum.