Growing up as a gay young person in Ireland
- so what's the story?
The Jan 2000 issue of gay magazine Attitude, highlighted the various problems facing gay youth in these islands. It featured letters from some of its younger readers, in addition to features on 4 gay teenagers, schools reactions to classroom bullying and playground abuse, plus growing up on the gay scene.

A letter from JC, a 16 year old in Dublin brought tears to the eye, as he tells a tale which I'm sure, others will identify with.

"School has been a hateful and homophobic affair right from day one of the first year. I try to see the bright side, I really do, but five years of having fruit and full schoolbags thrown at your head, chewed up chocolate bars and chewing gum spat into your uniform you have to wash yourself so your mother doesn't find out, and abuse - verbal, physical, constant, endless - hurled at you, threatens to make you a hardened individual, a person I just don't want to be. And now I've started to suffer from worry and stress - at my age! I was even taken to a neurologist to determine the cause of my persistant headaches but he couldn't find it. I think I know what it is. "

It's not at all right that any young kid in school should have to deal with harrassment of this nature. The problem is not recognised by school authorities here, and very little seems to be being done. The USI LGB Working group have done some awareness programmes with student teachers, but this will not have an immediate accross the board effect, nor is it enough.

In a later article, one of Attitude's journalists meets a survivor at school that took his sexuality seriously.

"It is standard practice for all British secondary schools to take racial bullying very seriously. Most have an explicit policy relating to it, and make damn sure all their students are willing to acknowledge and adhere to it.... But such good sense does not seem to have extended yet to the rights of gay people at school to live free of fear and violence."

The head teacher at one London School said that 'homophophic bullying is "not an issue" at his establishment. That school is in charge of the pastoral care of hundreds and hundreds of 11 to 16 year old boys every year, of whom around 10 per cent are gay. Many of that group, you can bet your last peso, will suffer for it right under that head teachers nose."

The journalist found many of the UK's most 'progressive' schools unwilling to consider the issue, never mind confront and deal with it. That a similar reaction would be found here in the Republic is without question unfortunately.

He describes how a particular school recently took a positive and constructive approach recently to help David, a 15 year old in his final year of compulsory education. David found himself the target of serious bullying when he began the long and brave process of coming out.

"I was only about 12 or 13 when I got fed up with it,  and told a friend - female, of course - who was about 14 or 15 at the time. Then I told my sister, who is older than me, and over time I began to tell everyone. My mother got to know about some time in 1998."

At the beginning of the 1999/2000 academic year, exam year for him, the truth was known by most all sections of the school community.

"I had had problems in the past with bullying, but they began to focus on the gay thing when my sexuality came into the open. The abuse was mainly verbal, but at times developed into physical intimidation, I was pushed into walls, stones were thrown, that kind of thing. It was always boys, and they were all ages at the schhol who took part in the buyllying, from 11 to 18. Girls were never a problem."

He attempted sucide by overdosing deliberately on paracetamol. He survived and is lucky to have suffered no long term effects on his health.

"I just couldn't be bothered to carry on. I found everything too hard to just get on with it There was so much hassle, more than I felt I could bear. My mother knew about my sexuality and about the bullying, but she had just got divorced and was having her own problems coping. I didn't want to offload my problems on her, though she would have been supportive. I couldn't add to her difficulties."

As the situation had obviously become serious, David's GP asked the school to really get involved. His GP met with the Principal, and the Principal met with his mother, and between them decided the best way to help him.

"They thought it would be a good idea to ask the woman who was then my German teacher, someone I got on particularly well with at the time, to talk to me."

"That was the first step: then proper counselling was arranged for me. But most importantly, the school staff dealt with the pupils who had been doing the bullying. As far as I know it was just a matter of having serious words in certain people's ears. The bullying seemed to stop."

More can be learned from the Principal himself:

"This is a very affluent, white middle class area. While nobody is overtly 'anti' anything, there is a high level of latent prejudice of all kinds. People would be very shocked if they were accused of discriminatory beliefs, but step back a little and you can see many are strongly prejudiced against certain groups."

"Schools only reflect the society of which they are part. but we needed in David's case to take positive action. So initially I arranged for a meeting of five or six of the teachers who knew David well, including his form tutor and his head of year, and between us we have taken a three pronged attack."

"We worked on the immediate bullying first of all. this involved a 'no blame' approach, and the extensive involvement of parents. We also had to get very tough with some of the toughnuts who had participated in events. I feel in this regard we have met with partial success."

"Secondly, we worked to support David, and I think we have done well in this area. He was also lucky that he had a number of friends who were very helpful, particularly some older girls at the school."

"The third prong has been an effort to change attitudes, and here I think we really do have a long way to go. It may be true to say that you will never get rid of bullying - there will always be people who get kicks from it - but you have to find effective ways of dealing with it. But the main way we are dealing with it in the long term is through our equal rights policy, which is an intrinsic part of school life".

"It stresses everyone's right to be different: but it doesn't make explicit mention of sexual orientation, nor of racem gender or any other feature which identifies those who are in some way different. If you do that, you'll always find there is someone you left out."

"To pretend the problem of homophobic bullying does not exist as an issue in every school is just naive."

David's mother feels that as a result of the action taken, that David has come to grips with matters and has grown in confidence.

There are still some students in the school in the school who have a problem with a visible gay element. But the positive side is starting to win through.

Claire, a girl in David's year, said that many pupils joined in with the teachers plan to combat the bullying.

"Our head of year asked a group of us to meet him for a chat. We agreed to look out for David. A lot of trouble had been on the bus to and from school for example, for example, so some students looked after that area."

"It did feel a bit uncomfortable, a group of teachers inveigling us into the operation - almost as if they had found a pet cause. It was strange. I was a bit worried that David may have been press-ganged into a right-on crusade. But really it was a question of dealing with things efficiently. The problem seems to have stopped and David feels supported now."

The evidence of this case perhaps shows us a potential solution. The new RSE programme in schools needs to tackle the problem head on as well. The head-in-the sand attitude that is visible in many schools is not excusable. Gay students should expect to be able to voice their concerns without expecting a negative response, nor attempts to change their personalities.

The Department of Education should introduce effective, compulsory guidelines in all schools on the matter. The 'religous ethos' of any school should not be permitted as an excuse for failing to deal with the issue. Equality policies akin to the school example above should be introduced in all school, so kids may be brought round to learn that the authorities are not only not discriminatory, but positively supportive.

The levels of gay youth suicide are alarming and if one looks at these type of situations, is this surprising? A report in Northern Ireland, conducted by the Science Shop - a joint initiative by the University of Ulster and Queen's University - revealed that:

"YOUNG gay men are 30 times more likely to attempt suicide than their
heterosexual counterparts"

"Some have made as many as nine unsuccessful attempts to kill themselves.
About 54 per cent of those interviewed had seriously considered suicide and
one in three had attempted suicide. More than half had been bullied at
school as a result of being gay."

Queen's student Ross White carried out the research for the Rainbow Project, a health
organisation for gay and bisexual men. He looked at the relationship between
factors associated with a gay lifestyle and attempted suicide.
"The number of suicide attempts among the people we spoke to was very high,
with some reporting four, five and even nine attempts to take their own
life," Mr White said. "Thirty-two per cent of those who took part in the
study had attempted suicide." Most of those who tried to kill themselves had
taken a drug or alcohol overdose. "Men who had been sexually assaulted or
bullied at school were more likely to attempt suicide," Mr White said.
"Those who had lost a friend through suicide or who had low self-esteem/high
hopelessness were also more likely to try and kill themselves."
The Rainbow Project has launched an anti-bullying campaign in the north.
Adrian McCracken of the Rainbow Project said: "We knew there was a problem
but didn't realise how big it was. "It's particularly high here because a
lot of young gay men are not able to come out at school, there are no
support services."

The  Equality Authority, the Department of Education and schools and teachers themselves need to ensure gays and lesbians are treated equally in the education system. And this spiral of homophobic bullying and high levels of gay youth suicide need to be tackled as a matter of urgency by those in the LGBT community as well as the system itself.
WIT GLAM Society

Further reaction to follow on issues relating to other social issues raised in Attitude.