Gay at School

When asked, it seems that many gay men and lesbians remember their school days with very mixed feelings – a time when, in addition to the growing pains that all teens suffer, they suffered additionally at the hands of a homophobic education system, and of their classmates. Furthermore, not only do gay pupils often have an unpleasant school experience, but they also are often denied sexual health information that is relevant to them. An education system that fails gay pupils in terms of both their social and their educational experience is clearly unacceptable – and, denying gay pupils appropriate HIV education could ultimately cost their lives.

Whilst in most cases it wasn’t all bad, there were certainly things that could have been done to make things better, and here we look at what can go wrong, and discuss what could be done – and what should be done to make sure new generations have a better experience, are able to protect themselves against HIV and STD infection, and look back fondly on their schooldays.

Prejudice and bullying

It is unacceptable for young gay men and lesbians to experience levels of prejudice and discrimination that mar their developing years and their school experiences. They, just as much as anyone, should be able to look back warmly on their school days, without remembering bullying, name-calling, and exclusion.

Even among children who have not yet developed an awareness of their sexuality, prejudice is already a problem. They might not actually know what ‘gay’ means – just as they don’t have a concept of ‘straight’ – but they do have the impression that it means something negative.

“You picked up (homosexuality) wasn’t accepted … and it wasn’t liked.” Tom

The word ‘gay’ is still used by schoolchildren as a negative adjective – which shows that they aren’t even clearly aware of what the word actually means, let alone the concepts it represents. The word ‘gay’ is often employed negatively in the playground, perhaps because pupils have picked up from older friends or family that there are negative attitudes attached to the word. They are too young to have much understanding of sexuality when they are first exposed to these attitudes, so prejudice has already taken root when they develop to a point where they are aware of the varieties of human sexuality. This can result in unpleasant behaviour towards gay pupils and an intolerance to any deviation from gender roles. Any pupil who displays characteristics associated with the opposite gender – girls who show ‘boyish’ character traits and boys who show ‘feminine’ behaviour – risk being identified as ‘gay’, and bullied.

“I guess from a young age I knew I was different from the other guys, because I used to hang around with the girls at break and lunchtimes, and I absolutely despise sport! I was also bullied at school, mainly because I liked reading and watching documentaries. I don’t see anything wrong with that, but it wasn’t seen as ‘cool’ or ‘something guys did’”. Steven


“The only mention of gay men was jokes. Even the teachers made jokes at my expense because of the rumours about me. Which is something that I found really hurtful.” Daniel

Young people can often be very intolerant of anyone who doesn’t fit in, and these prejudices, already well-established by puberty, can cause great distress for gay or lesbian pupils, who, gradually becoming aware of their sexuality, come to realise that they are a member of a despised group. This can affect self-esteem badly and be a very upsetting time. As they grow older, gay pupils are faced with the very difficult decision of whether to ‘come out’ at school – or whether to try to hide their sexual identity from their peers.

“I want to come out the closet but I’m too scared. My whole school is filled with people that just take the piss out of gays, and I wouldn’t be able to stand it.” Dani

“When I started to realize in 5th grade that being gay wasn’t accepted, and that most people believed it wasn’t real, I started my hiding.” Cody

Young people can be just as cruel and prejudiced as can adults – being ostracised or becoming a target for the bullying that is so often aimed at lesbian and gay pupils can mean that there can be very negative consequences to coming out.

“I’d say don’t tell a school friend first unless they’re the closest, closest, closest most trustworthy friend you know. One of the people I told let slip and suddenly the whole year knew. Nobody said anything directly to me but I did notice a lot of the boys suddenly weren’t friends and they’d ignore me and they’d be laughing when I was around. Other people I know have had a much worse time than that, but it was bad enough.” Andy

Prejudice clearly needs to be addressed in schools, both amongst pupils and teachers. Prejudice comes from ignorance, and can be best tackled with exposure and education.

“I kept myself to myself so I got the grief of being bullied. I twice nearly killed myself cos of the bullying. . . I still get the usual ‘Hey puffter what u doing still alive?’ and crap like that” Gary

When prejudice comes from other pupils, it comes in the forms of bullying, name-calling, harassment and sometimes physical violence. Today, many schools will have developed an anti-bullying policy that aims to prevent bullying before it happens, offers avenues through which bullied pupils can seek help and advice, and lays down guidelines for dealing with cases of bullying that arise. An anti-bullying policy should recognise that pupils may be bullied because of their sexuality – or because of inferences that have been made about their sexuality.

Even more insidious, however, is prejudice that might also be felt by the school staff. Pupils look to their teachers for example, and if they see the teachers engaging in prejudicial behaviour then this sends the message that such behaviour is to be emulated. If teachers have homophobic attitudes, this can make the school an utterly hostile environment for gay or lesbian pupils. Additionally, discriminatory behaviour from teaching staff can have a negative impact on a gay pupil’s academic success – which can impact hugely on their later lives.

“The only mention of gay men was jokes. Even the teachers made jokes at my expense because of the rumours about me. Which is something that I found really hurtful.” Daniel

Lack of information

Young gay men are disproportionately affected by various sexual health issues – specifically HIV, as we discuss on our AIDS and young gay men page. They need to be given the information that will enable them to identify risks, and to take action to protect themselves – before they reach an age when they will become sexually active. An education system that fails in this regard is one that puts lives at risk.

Education, however, does not always do enough to address these problems – and, in some cases, may even add to them. All too often, even if sexual health education does exist, it doesn’t even mention gay people.

“We used to have discussions in biology about the birds and the bees and if you come out and said, ‘well what about gay people’, they’ll look around and think ‘oh, he’s gay’. So you just keep quiet.” Mark

Many teachers, uncomfortable with the subject, actively attempt to keep sexual issues out of their classes, but issues surrounding relationships and family life come up in many more subjects tha
n only sex education or biology. In most cases, wherever the lesson touches on these matters and an example is used, an assumption of heterosexuality is made. From geography to English language, gay pupils learn that they are excluded.

“Occasionally the teacher would bring up the idea of homosexuality and being gay and then it was such an amazement to the rest of the class because no-one else would bring it up. And then some really ignorant remarks would come from the boys, the lads at the back of the class.” Kevin

Not only are issues affecting gay people often not covered by the curriculum in terms of sexual health education, but the sex education that pupils receive is also heterosexually orientated, and therefore inappropriate and of little value to gay pupils.

It is important for gay pupils to know how to protect themselves in the event that they choose to have a heterosexual encounter at some point in their future lives; it is similarly important for straight pupils to be able to protect themselves, should they have sex with a person of the same gender.

“I was waiting and expecting to hear something about homosexuality, safe sex and different things in sex education. Maybe some information that could help me. But I got nothing. There was nothing.” Tim

Learning the right lessons

The educational emphasis should ideally be on a pupil’s primary mode of sexual expression, but it is faintly ridiculous to expect a pupil to decide whether they want to put themselves down for gay or straight sex education classes! The solution is to ensure that sexual health education involves discussion of gay and straight issues.

When schools do offer practical advice in avoiding HIV / STI infection, it is commonly aimed at straight pupils, with no mention of prevention methods for gay pupils.

This may be because STI / HIV prevention for gay men and lesbians involves discussion of specific prevention methods, which means, in turn, discussion of ‘gay sex’. Teachers, often, are too embarrassed to discuss ‘what gay people do in bed. ’

No sexual health education class can be even remotely adequate without including this type of information, however, and the discomfort of teachers and parents has been, for too long, allowed to frustrate the needs of pupils both gay and straight. If regular teachers are too uncomfortable dealing with sexual issues, then an external specialist teacher should take some sessions.

Given that gay men are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection and certain STIs, any comprehensive sexual health course should offer information about how gay men can protect themselves from disease transmission. It should also offer an explanation of gay sexuality and lifestyles, which should be of benefit to gay pupils – and should also help to dispel ignorance, and thus fear of the unknown and prejudice, found amongst other pupils.

Sexual health education, if it exists, offers the opportunity to begin providing education about different sexualities and different lifestyle options. This needn’t be restricted to a sexual health class – any lesson can begin to make clear that, where they refer to family systems or relationships – these don’t have to be heterosexual to be successful.

“I told a few other close friends but one day in an AS level history class we ended up discussing HIV/AIDS rather than the German Reformation. Well one person said ‘Its all them who spread it- those gays’ to which in outrage I shouted ‘WE DON’T SPREAD IT THANK YOU!’” Tom

Some academic planners seem to fear that pupils who are taught about gay sexuality will want to rush out and try it! In fact, this fear seems to apply increasingly to education about heterosexual lifestyles and sexual activity, too. This is obviously not the case, and, time after time studies indicate that sex education reduces teenage pregnancies and STI infection. Gay pupils need to be able to protect themselves from infection, too. And giving someone information about something certainly doesn’t encourage them to do it – often it has the opposite effect, if the risks are openly and sensibly presented.


“I told a few other close friends but one day in an AS level history class we ended up discussing HIV/AIDS rather than the German Reformation. Well one person said ‘Its all them who spread it- those gays’ to which in outrage I shouted ‘WE DON’T SPREAD IT THANK YOU!’” Tom

This is a problem that needs to be addressed by society as a whole – parents are often uncomfortable talking to their children about sex, and are little happier about the idea of their teacher providing the necessary information. Parents need to know that sex and HIV education is ‘safe’, and that it won’t encourage any ‘immoral’ behaviour in their offspring, whether gay or straight.

Teachers also need to learn this. In some schools, sex education classes will be covered by a regular school teacher who has volunteered – someone who is normally the English teacher, for example. Other schools have no sex education on their curriculum, and what little information the students receive comes under the umbrella of the biology syllabus, and is covered, often reluctantly, quickly, and awkwardly, by the biology teacher. Some schools choose to have a visitor from outside the school to cover these classes.

Lessons might include a range of topics, from social issues, such as rights of gay spouses, and same-sex parents, to topics that need to be more explicit, such as safer sex for gay men. It is not possible to teach about safer sex without mention – and, ideally, discussion – of different sexual practices.

Some schools have no sex education on their curriculum – sometimes because the political climate forbids it, sometimes because the school itself, perhaps a religious organisation – prefers not to discuss such matters. These are the organisations where the pupils will receive information only in their biology classes under the heading of ‘reproduction’. Sometimes these classes can be about – literally – the ‘birds and the bees’ , and will leave young people confused and ignorant. The teacher, often uncomfortable with the topic him/herself, will have managed to communicate little more than that human sexuality is embarrassing, and you don’t discuss these things.

This not only means that homosexuality is unlikely to be adequately discussed (if at all), but furthermore, a teacher who communicates to the class that these topics are uncomfortable, will damage the self-respect of gay class-members, and amplify the prejudice they already experience.

Talking to pupils about sexual health issues, or issues surrounding sexuality, can be awkward for some staff members, and for them to feel more comfortable, they need to know that they are teaching pupils the right information – for the right reasons. They shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about their topic, and certainly shouldn’t, themselves, be prejudiced against gay men and lesbians.

Teaching the teachers

Teachers who feel ignorant about the issues involved will be embarrassed by a discussion of heterosexual issues, and may find discussion of gay sexuality and behaviour even more difficult. Teachers need to be prepared for any possible questions that they may be asked, and need to have a good knowledge of the facts and issues surrounding human sexuality. A teacher who knows their topic well is much more comfortable in the classroom – and thereby makes pupils much more comfortable with the topic.

This is important in terms of having functional lessons – students need to be able to get on with group work, to engage with their topic enthusiastically, an
d to indulge their natural interest in learning about issues that ultimately will affect them. Often, in a well-managed class, they will need no encouragement to learn – their own interest will stimulate this.

An uncomfortable teacher will have a dysfunctional class, with students giggling together behind cupped hands, whispering at the back of class, and one or two students trying to embarrass the teacher further by asking awkward questions. At the end of this class, students will be no better informed than they were at the beginning of it. If untrained in sexual health education, an biology teacher, for example, when asked to teach a safer-sex lesson which involves topics such as ‘oral sex’, ‘anal sex’, and ‘sex between women’, is likely to be extremely uncomfortable. The teacher is likely to communicate this discomfort to the class, and will try to brush over those topics that make him/her feel uncomfortable.

Teacher training is one obvious answer to this problem – a teacher who is to discuss issues of sexuality in their class should first feel comfortable with the issues themselves. Appropriate training for teachers can familiarise them with questions that they might have to deal with, and ensure that their knowledge of the subject is complete.

Another solution would be for the school to bring in teachers from outside the school to teach HIV / sexual health / sexuality education topics, or to have one teacher in the school who is designated with responsibility for these topics. They must not become an afterthought to the curriculum. Certainly, social education such as the awareness of prejudice should be present throughout the curriculum.

Very few schools employ openly gay teachers, but this would provide both positive role-models for gay pupils, and, by showing good examples of gay men and lesbians, would help to disperse ignorance amongst pupils as a whole, and thereby prevent prejudice from taking root.

Too often, however, staff receive no specific training, and any limited explanation of sexual health and behaviour that they give their students will contain no information for gay pupils. Of course, there are other issues relevant to gay pupils in addition to just sexual health. Schools often also fail to present any information that might give pupils an idea of the experience of living as a gay person in the wider world outside the classroom.

What is needed?

The school system exists to educate and prepare young people for a place in adult society, and, if it does not provide gay pupils with the information they need to have safe sexual relationships, if it allows heterosexual pupils to leave school with prejudice and lack of understanding of this social group – then the school system has failed.

Fortunately, this doesn’t happen in all cases – some schools offer sexual health education that contains a component for gay pupils, and try to make their lessons anti-discriminatory. They may employ openly gay teachers, and have an anti-bullying policy that caters to the needs of pupils who are targeted because of their sexuality.

These schools are in the minority, though. Often, even if a school wishes to do so, it feels unable to institute such policies because it is worried about negative reactions from local government, from parents, or from local media. This suggests a need for legislation to ensure that comprehensive education is just that – education that caters for all pupils, regardless of their sexual orientation.