I am in the process of completing my doctoral studies to determine whether there is evidence of homophobic bullying in Irish primary schools. Initially 100 principals completed questionnaires and I also conducted interviews. Further research is to be completed in the autumn.
As many as 92pc had experienced children in their care being called gay and, in 27pc of cases, pupils had experienced violence because others perceived them to be gay.
Many people would possibly question whether children of such a young age can understand language pertaining to sexuality. If young children use the term “gay” consciously as a term of abuse, or even as friendly banter, does this perpetuate the view that being gay is a bad thing?
I found 61pc of principals believed that homophobic bullying is an issue in primary schools.
If you could generalise these figures, then more than 1,900 primary schools in Ireland are facing this difficult issue. How do we deal with it?
International research suggests some teachers don’t challenge this form of bullying behaviour because they are unsure how to go about it, or are frightened of the association between sexual identity and sexual activity.
I don’t believe any teachers consciously ignore such behaviour — 50pc of respondents to my research stated that teachers don’t ignore this behaviour, but international research, unfortunately, suggests a percentage do.
It’s not just in terms of children in our care, but staff members too. Individual staff members in primary schools may identify as being gay but how open can they be about it in the primary-school setting? If your lifestyle, your family, your friends or your own identity are not represented anywhere in your school environment, it makes it a very lonely place indeed.
Bullying is an age-old issue that schools do take very seriously and rightly so. Homophobic name-calling is a form of behaviour that needs to be challenged and this includes the off-the-cuff remarks at matches and on the school yard.
If casual anti-homosexual remarks or “humour” are tolerated, inevitably harsher language becomes more acceptable.
Homophobic language needs to be struck from usage just as racist, ageist or sexist language is. This is not about political correctness but eradicating prejudice which may save someone despairing to the point of ending their life.
On one level, this is not about whether someone is gay. When someone is identified as being different in any way, it often justifies the actions of others in labelling them in a derogatory way.
For any young person driven to the extreme act of suicide, others are left scarred by homophobia and by the failure of adults to tackle it and challenge the language used.