The journey to LGBT+ inclusion in schools: making the invisible visible

The Key

Key insights' 250th post

Elly BarnesFollowing last weekend’s Pride festival in London and the US Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage, it seemed fitting to invite Elly Barnes to write Key insights’ 250th post. 

Elly is the CEO and founder of Educate & Celebrate, a charity dedicated to making all schools LGBT+ friendly. Elly was voted number one in the Independent on Sunday’s Rainbow List 2011 for her commitment to LGBT+ in education. Her ‘Educate & Celebrate’ teacher training and resource programme, set up in 2010, draws on her experiences of implementing the most effective strategies in the classroom and using feedback from delegates to inform best practice.


quote-startWe have to be open to talk about LGBT+ people in our classrooms, as they’re everywhere in our kids’ lives! They’re on the TV, in magazines and in soaps. We can’t just sweep people under the carpet: if we don’t talk about it the kids ask questions anyway, therefore we need to be prepared.”

A teacher at Elms Farm Primary, Birmingham said this to me while I was delivering a training session at their school, and they are right! LGBT+ people ARE everywhere; however, teachers and governors in a significant number of schools remain cautious about including LGBT+ terminology, reading books with LGBT characters and adopting an LGBT+ inclusive curriculum within their schools – even though tackling homophobic bullying is an Ofsted requirement.

So why is the visible invisible in our schools?

The penny dropped for me 10 years ago when I realised that us, the teachers, were simply not talking about lesbians, gay, bisexual and trans people in our lessons. Our silence loudly suggests to young people that there is something wrong with being LGBT+. Once the silence was broken in my classroom, the floodgates were opened: my class couldn’t wait to tell me about their families and friends!

Therefore, my starting point with any staff training session is language. How can we be inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people in our lessons if we are unsure of the definitions and cannot say the words confidently?

From these formative lessons and now through delivering my teacher training, I learn more every day about public opinion and the perceived barriers to LGBT+ inclusion. It seems we have just begun our journey to inclusion when we still, out of habit, segregate by gender and assume everyone is heterosexual unless we’re told otherwise.

Interestingly, in my recent work with children’s centres, I found that while four-year-old pupils had begun to recognise their gender, at age three, when staff ask all the boys to stand up, all children do so. This begs the question: why do we use gender as a method of dividing a class when there are plenty of other ways in which we can do this?

As teachers, we can and should attempt to break these patterns of heteronormativity and gender-normative approaches which are sadly all too commonplace. A trainee teacher in my recent session with final-year PGCE students told me that they had only last week observed a lesson by an experienced teacher who asked all the girls to clean up for the boys while they went out to play.

As a trainee, this person felt that they were not in a position to challenge the teacher. However, I took the opportunity to highlight that we can all play a part in creating positive institutional change by “empowering young people to create ‘a society which reacts angrily to injustice and promptly sets about correcting it’” (Bauman in Giroux, 2004) and essentially “interrogate and interrupt the operation of heteronormativity” (Atkinson and De Palma, 2009).

Another trainee teacher attempted to do just this by wearing her Batman T-shirt when a boy in her year 4 class said that girls can’t like superheroes. A further example came from a teacher who asked, ‘Who would like to be an angel in our play?’. All the girls put up their hands, along with one boy. The class laughed at the boy until the teacher reminded them that the angel Gabriel was a very special angel, and he was a boy. Then she asked the question again and, needless to say, all the boys put up their hands.

We think our use of language doesn’t matter, but in fact it is absolutely key to creating social justice within our educational establishments and to educate with regard to legislation in 2015. For example, is it social justice when a teacher cannot talk about their same-sex partner or their wedding to staff and students? Or when a member of staff is called to speak to their headteacher simply because they have mentioned the words ‘sexual orientation’ in their classroom as part of a lesson?

It is 2015. Homosexuality was legalised in the UK in 1967, and was removed from the World Health Organisation’s list of mental illnesses in 1992. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, and we have the Equality Act 2010 and Ofsted’s latest criteria – both of which advocate LGBT+ inclusivity.

This legislation gives us freedom to adopt the ‘usualising’ pedagogy (Sanders 2010), which teachers can use as a method of eradicating homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. This technique makes our learners aware of the everyday existence of LGBT+ people and lets our young people know it is OK to be LGBT+ by including new language in the context of our lessons. There are opportunities to ‘usualise’ throughout the curriculum, but do we take them?

For example, in primary schools we can read books and have displays about different families and relationships, gender stereotypes and feeling different, within the language and literacy framework.

Elly Barnes at Pride 2015

Elly at this year’s Pride march in London.

In secondary schools, Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is included in the English GSCE anthology. Teachers could mention that Duffy is a lesbian and ask whether knowing this helps us to interpret her poetry differently. In music GCSE, a teacher could introduce the roots of disco in the 1970s as being the coming together of the black and gay community on the dance floor. Humanities could introduce the Stonewall riots in 1969 as part of a human rights lesson as an example of the LGBT+ struggle. This prolific event gave strength to the movement, leading to the first Pride march in 1970. In primary and secondary science, technology, engineering and maths lend themselves to exploring the work of the gay mathematician and codebreaker Alan Turing.

I would encourage all teachers to take these opportunities to be LGBT+ inclusive, as adopting this methodology – across all subject areas and Key Stages – makes our classrooms safe spaces for everyone and in turn is saving and changing our young people’s lives.

Let’s remember that teachers are our key resource, as they are the number one influence on pupil learning (National College, 2010). Therefore, leadership teams should absolutely ensure that they are providing specialised LGBT+ training for all staff and governors, and that together all departments are developing an inclusive LGBT+ curriculum and involving the community to ensure LGBT+ people are visible in the school environment.

These tried and tested strategies will result in an LGBT+ friendly school where all members of the community can thrive, be themselves and walk down the corridors without any fear of discrimination whatsoever: a right that is given to us all.

For further information on training, resources, guidance and achieving ‘best practice’ status contact ellybarnes@educateandcelebrate.org or visit Educate & Celebratequote-end


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