Seanad Speech on Homophobic Bullying (25/9/12)


I thank the Minister of State. I welcome both her contribution and that Members specifically are debating homophobic bullying today. Although they have had debates in the past on mental health and bullying in general, as the Minister of State has pointed out, while all young people are at risk of bullying and intimidation in schools, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, young people experience far higher incidences in this regard. Bullying at school is a huge risk factor for self-harm and suicide. The research presented to the Department’s forum on bullying by the Gay + Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and BeLonGTo shows the stark reality in this regard, which is that 27% of LGBT young people have self-harmed, 50% of those under 25 have thought seriously about ending their own lives and 20% of those under 25 have attempted suicide. This is the stark reality of the issue under discussion today. Bullying of any sort directed at any victim is designed to cause hurt and fear and to make the other person feel small. However, in the case of homophobic and biphobic bullying, it is also designed to make the other person ashamed of who he or she is and who he or she loves. Fear in this regard means that over generations, many young people have gone in and out of schools feeling miserable and afraid on a daily basis. Moreover, fear they might be bullied has led to many people being afraid to reveal their true identity while at school on something as core as who they have fallen in love with and for this experience to carry on with them for a long time thereafter, as well as to make LGBT people invisible, not just in schools but in many parts of wider society as a whole.

It is welcome that much work has been done in recent years. The Minister of State rightly recognised the leadership GLEN and BeLonGTo have shown on this issue. It also is fair to recognise the teacher unions and management bodies have shown great leadership on this issue by coming together as a broad coalition and developing guidelines for schools. This sent out a message from the higher levels of the teacher unions and management bodies that they take seriously and seek the engagement of their members with the issues of diversity and tackling discrimination and prejudice, which is important. While it is good that such guidelines are in place, as with any policy the key issue is implementation and making sure they make a real difference on the ground. I welcome the participation of GLEN and BeLonGTo in the Department of Education and Skill’s group examining the issue of bullying. I understand good work is being done there and the group is examining homophobic bullying in the context of prejudice in general because it is no different, no less ugly and no less harmful than are racism or discrimination against people with disabilities and should be seen in that context. At the same time, it is important to make a distinction in respect of homophobic bullying, in that one should introduce it in the overall context of discrimination but should have specific strategies to deal with it. A large part of that strategy concerns educating young people on diversity and difference, which can be complicated work. It is known from research to which teachers have provided feedback that many teachers feel awkward about this issue. I refer to teachers who would like to take a positive role but who are unsure about how to address it.

It is important that we equip them to do that. Bullying is one extreme but, of course, it must be seen in the context of the broader mental health agenda and the Minister of State’s own brief. This is because positive mental health is important, as is teaching young people how to look after themselves and have the courage to seek help if they are worried before they end up depressed or harm themselves and teaching everybody to look out for each other. Prevention is always better than ending up with victims and having to have a disciplinary policy.

It is important that we have a way of teaching young people about the differences between different LGBT identities. I visited the Liberal Democrats’ conference in Brighton over the weekend. I had the privilege of attending a session that its LGBT group and the British organisation, Stonewall, ran on homophobic bullying. They are dealing with the same issues as us. It is the same in other European countries from which we can learn. One thing that came across quite strongly was that when we are dealing with homophobic bullying, we must be careful not to phrase the debate as being either heterosexual or homosexual – there are so many different identities. Bisexual young people often feel alienated by that and a different approach is needed with transgender young people, which must be backed up by the overall State response to gender recognition. It is all very well to give one message in schools but what if we are not supporting it outside?

In that context, I refer to section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act. We debated it here a number of months ago and there was support on all sides of the House for it to be changed. I do not know if the Minister of State will get an opportunity to speak again but perhaps she could speak to me afterwards to update me on what progress, if any, has been made in that regard. Again, it is all very well to teach young people that everybody is equal but if their teachers and role models are not equal and people are not treated with respect in the workplace, what message does that send out? It is contradictory and I hope progress has been made on that because it is urgent.

In that context, I would also mention marriage equality. Again, all of this is so important in this broader context if we are going to truly recognise and celebrate diversity and genuinely recognise everybody for who they are and the value of their relationships. The reason young LGBT people are uncomfortable about who they are or are scared to admit who they are is not just because of their peers in the classroom but about the broader messages they get from society. It is long past time that we recognised that every committed relationship should be regarded with the same level of respect and recognition.

I think I have covered all the main points. I am slightly disorganised because I have just come back from the conference last night. I wanted to make the point that the issue should be seen in the broader context of mental health. I know the Minister of State recognised it in her contribution but I would stress the importance of peer groups. The Stand Up! video was incredible. This short piece presents messages, not just about homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying, but about bullying in general and teaching all our young people to stand up for their friends. It promotes the idea that if one sees a friend being isolated and discriminated against, one backs him or her up and makes the bully feel like he or she is the idiot and the one who should be isolated and ashamed.

In addition to having strategies for teachers, boards of management and different groups, it is so important that we equip young people with the skills to look after themselves and others and that we bring parents into that debate. It is also important that we ensure that when we have a more detailed strategy and, crucially, an implementation plan for dealing with homophobic bullying in schools, it is a whole-community approach.




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