The age of 12 is the most common age for children to become aware of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) identity, according to research published in Ireland in 2009.
Typically, it is the age of fifth and sixth class pupils but there has been a lack of formal support in Irish primary schools to help teachers to deal with such sexual or gender identity issues, and the related challenges of homophobic or transphobic bullying.
Both are what are known as identity-based bullying – homophobic bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and transphobic bullying based on gender identity: a person’s internal feeling of being male or female, regardless of the sex listed on their birth certificate.
According to the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), identity-based bullying occurs in Irish primary schools and research shows a link between such bullying and negative personal and educational outcomes.
The recent controversy in Coláiste Eoin, a boys’ secondary school in south Dublin, which was forced to postpone a workshop on homophobic bullying run by an LGBT organisation, Shoutout, after parents raised concerns about pupils being singled out for not-attending, is an illustration of the sensitivities that surround such issues, even around teenage students.
Cecelia Gavigan, a teacher at Balbriggan Educate Together and a member of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation’s LGBT group, is crystal clear about the need to start the conversation about identity and related issues as early as junior infants, couched in a wider context of respecting diversity of all types and therefore teaching about tolerance.
“Some people would have said that dealing with identity is a secondary school issue, but the research shows that it is an issue for children before they go to secondary school.
“In infant classes we are not talking about LGBT, but we would focus on different forms of families and how all families love each other. That is the core message.”
On that theme, last year, the INTO made a poster available to schools on the many different forms of families, including step-parent families, lone-parent families, foster and adoptive families, LGBT-headed families, and cohabiting couples with children.
The INTO LGBT group has been involved in shaping new guidelines to help primary teachers to create a climate where not only is bullying around issues such as homophobia not tolerated, but that it doesn’t arise in the first place.
A significant proportion of bullying is rooted in a lack of respect for difference and Respect is the name given to the new INTO guidelines for its 40,000-plus members, both in the Republic and Northern Ireland, to give practical effect to anti-bullying procedures for schools published by the Department of Education and Skills (DES) two years ago.
Coming 20 years after the previous such official advice, it was a long-overdue update.
Among other things, there is now an onus on schools to recognise cyberbullying and identity-based bullying and to be proactive in education and preventative strategies around them.
The INTO called in the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN) to assist with its guidelines and the union’s LGBT group came on board to offer practical advice about what teachers need. Cecelia Gavigan says even teachers in the LGBT group would have been unsure about how to handle LGBT issues sensitively and properly in the classroom,
“Even if you understand, how do you translate it for children?” she says.
The starting point for the guidelines is not homophobic or transphobic bullying, but respect for, and celebration of diversity.
“It is really important in primary school that we instil that respect right from the start”, says Gavigan.
When it’s OK, and not OK, to say ‘gay’
Research in the UK (there is no equivalent research in Ireland) indicates that 70pc of primary school teachers report hearing phrases such as “You’re so gay” or “That’s so gay”.
Children may hear the word gay when people use it to identify themselves. They also hear it used negatively, as a pejorative term meaning “rubbish”, for example: “that bag is gay”. Inappropriate use of language, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can be a precursor to bullying and needs to be challenged at every incident.
It is one of the issues addressed in the INTO Respect guidelines and the advice is:
Words that people use to describe themsleves are acceptable, eg: gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender
It is not acceptable to use the same words in a derogatory way, or to use those words to try to hurt or embarrass others
Challenge the child to use the words that they intended, eg “I I don’t like that bag because I don’t like the colour”.