Clea Skopeliti: Yes, the school would provide a safe environment for pupils
Since a Manchester community group floated the idea of opening a LGBT school for teens in the city, the news has been flooded with articles trying to explain why it’s ‘a terrible idea’ and how this will make it harder, not easier, for LGBT teens to integrate. Whilst this may be true as a general principle, the focus and scale of these criticisms is often misplaced. Critics of the plans for a LGBT school write as if, the minute this school opens its gates, it will be swamped by the entire teenage demographic in the Greater Manchester area who identify as anything other than straight and cisgender. This is clearly not the case.
Firstly, this school would not be exclusively for LGBT teens – that would be impossible to enforce in legal terms, or even more basically, in practical ones. Schools are by default straight schools, as LGBT pupils are a minority and do not always receive adequate support for dealing with this. LGBT students statistically face much higher rates of bullying and harassment from their peers than their straight and cisgender counterparts. In many cases, not enough practical work is done by the school body to improve the situation, usually for lack of a structural focus on the problem, but also the age-old problem of how difficult bullying can be to prevent.
Secondly, the argument that an LGBT school would serve to further marginalise LGBT teens is irrelevant in practical terms. This would not be a school for LGBT teens who are thriving or even managing to get along in their normal school; it would be a school modelled on the Harvey Milk School in New York, which takes in pupils who cannot attend their normal schools because of ‘threats, violence, or harassment’. Obviously, in a world where high schools were synonymous with compassion and tolerance, this would not be an issue. But it is an issue, and there are a great number of students who are bullied and harassed for their sexuality who need the protection a school like this could offer.
Of course, it is vital that other schools tackle this problem as well – more support and awareness needs to be given for matters regarding sexuality, and the idea of sexuality should be introduced as part of sex education at a younger age, instead of being thought of as a taboo subject for children. However, this will take time; time that some LGBT students may not have if they are left in a harmful environment. Gay, lesbian and bisexual students were recently found to be two to three times more likely to commit suicide in their teens than their straight counterparts. In Britain in 2014, 48 per cent of transgender people under the age of 26 attempted suicide, and 59 per cent self-harmed. There is little doubt that some of this is an effect of the way transgender people are often treated by society, and it is likely that these problems may begin at school, where gender roles are enforced through things like school uniforms, but also where bullying and harassment is commonplace – especially for LGBT students.
Until this is no longer an issue, the least we can do is provide a safe environment for students who feel that they cannot continue in their normal one. It’s all very well to say that in theory it makes integration harder and will create a ‘gay ghetto’ when you’re not one of the statistics.
Matt Parrott: No, it would risk the further ‘othering’ of LGBT students
In what ought to be a year of progress, a year perhaps celebrating and building on the gains made by determined campaigners in finally achieving the equal legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships around the world (notably including Scotland at the stroke of 2015), we have instead had news of what constitutes a regressive step in LGBT affairs.
Such a step, in the form of plans put forward by LGBT Youth North West to establish a state school for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pupils in Manchester, seems innocuous- indeed laudable, at first glance. We rejoice at the idea of young people who have endured horrific bullying being offered a safe haven, a place in which to learn without fear. That far too many young people turn to suicide rather than face a daily onslaught of slurs, ostracism, or worse goes without saying. That something must be done to prevent this, equally so.
However, the act of constructing a school specifically for young people who identify as something at variance with the aggressively heteronormative values of our society not only crudely reduces sexual and gender orientation to a set of fixed and often arbitrary identities, but actually assists in the ‘othering’ of people for whom ‘straight’, ‘fe/male’, or otherwise don’t fit. What’s more, it provides ammunition to all those who desire to simplify the world by gross generalisations. Such ammunition, once handed over, can all too easily explode in a myriad of unexpected ways. Let us not think of the horrors which could result by a potentially institutionalised process of ‘determining’ a young person’s orientation/identity after the precedent of such children attending a ‘special’ school has been set.
While great progress has been made in the advancement of LGBT rights under the guise of the LGBT labels, such labels are useful only in terms of explanation to a layman. Whether a woman who is sexually attracted to women exclusively, but perhaps occasionally romantically to men, calls herself a lesbian or not is entirely down to her own personal preferment, as she alone knows her own feelings. But what would society call her? More importantly, how would it treat her?
The truth, as ever, is far more complicated than a set of handy (and often colour co-ordinated) name tags. Alfred Kinsey demonstrated some 60 years ago that human sexuality is changeable, fluid and far from easily pinned down. His research further demonstrated that a person’s self-reported sexual identity often did not match with their actual or past behaviour. Evidently, sex and love often cannot be summarised by labels. This approach may have been useful when deviating from accepted norms was tantamount to sedition, but not when legal equality for all is on its way.
Instead of giving young people the opportunity to self-select out of the hypocritical and often ignorant culture that pervades many of Britain’s schools, we ought to be challenging the very culture itself. Problematising the notion that heterosexuality is the norm through pedagogical methods which encourage individual and analytical thought; exposing young people and indeed the faculty staff to those who differ from themselves; and enforcing a zero-tolerance approach to bullying among both students and staff would be farsighted and negate the risks inherent in facile ‘othering’. After the repeal of Section 28, which effectively banned discussion of homosexuality in schools, this course of action is now both possible and, so long as young people are taking their own lives, urgent.
Image courtesy of Julie Missbutterfly (Flickr)