Johann Hari: Hatred and bigotry in the playground

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The Independent Online

This week it is 50 years – and an eternity – since the publication of the Wolfenden report, which began to rip up the laws that turned gay people into criminals.

If you had whisked John Wolfenden and his committee by time machine into the Britain of 2007, they would have dismissed the country we live in as a utopian sci-fi fantasia. Openly gay people rising to the top of every profession, including the government, army and police, a law banning discrimination against gay men and lesbians, gay people able to, in effect, get married – and even a Tory party conference applauding equality for gay people? Nice dream, boys.

But we're there. A generation of gay people born today simply can't imagine the strange world my parents were born into, where gay men were jailed just for having sex. The gay rights movement has been a shimmering model of how a persecuted minority can peacefully appeal to the decency and humanity of the majority, and win.

Yet today, there is one corner of Britain where viciousness and violence against gay people are still endemic. It is a place where 41 per cent of gay people are beaten up, and 17 per cent receive death threats. You have been there, and so have I. It's called school – and our playgrounds need a Wolfenden report of their own.

Jonathan Reynolds could have told you why. He was a 15-year-old boy from Bridgend, South Wales, who came out to some of his friends last year. He was bullied and harrassed and threatened as a "faggot" and a "poof" until he couldn't take it any more.

So one day, after he sat a GCSE exam for which he earned an A*, he lay on the train tracks near his home. He texted his sister, Sam: "Tell everyone that this is for anybody who eva said anything bad about me, see I do have feelings too. Blame the people who were horrible and injust 2 me. This is because of them, I am human just like them. None of you blame yourself, mum, dad, Sam and the rest of the family. This is not because of you." Then a train sliced his body apart.

The bullying Jonathan endured is not unusual. It is the norm in Britain's schools. The word "gay" is an all-purpose insult, the worst thing you can be called. Earlier this year, the gay equality organisation Stonewall published a detailed study of more than 1,000 gay pupils, conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. It discovered that a majority of Britain's gay kids feel so unsafe that they skive off school to avoid abuse.

Another three-year study found that more than half consider self-harm or suicide. I get emailed by a lot of distressed gay teenagers, and one intelligent, kind, 15-year-old girl recently wrote: "After it went round the school that I had told my mate I was gay, my locker was smashed up and a dead squirrel was put in it. In every corridor people just yelled at me I was a dyke and a rug-muncher, all that.

"When I went into my form room everyone got up and moved to the back, including my best friends. The teacher didn't do anything. I told [one of my teachers] and she said I shouldn't have told anyone. I should make it less obvious. They [other pupils] won't get changed [after PE] when I'm there." She used to love school. Now she says that "I can't stand to go in any more".

Homophobic abuse is often ignored by teachers – and sometimes even encouraged. I remember when I was at school a teacher called me "a poof" in front of a class and thought it was hilarious. Stonewall found that while 97 per cent of pupils have been told that racist bullying is wrong, only 23 per cent of pupils today have ever been told by teachers that homophobic bullying is unacceptable.

But there is good news in the study too: where there is a clear policy of punishing homophobia, it works. Those pupils in schools where action was taken were 60 per cent less likely to be bullied and 70 per cent more likely to feel safe.

Teenagers might be insecure group-formers, desperate to punish difference, but there is no reason they should fixate on homosexuality as the marker of difference. Homophobia is not inevitable among kids: they are simply picking up on a nervous ambiguity among teachers, who too often will not punish prejudice for fear of a backlash from bigoted parents.

There have been excellent pilot schemes proving that it doesn't have to be like this. George Green's school, near where I live in east London, has a tough anti-homophobia policy, in an area mostly populated by recent immigrants with uber-conservative views. Headteacher Kenny Frederick has faced down homophobic parents and insisted on equality for all her students. If she can do it, any headteacher can.

So how do we ensure that there are more schools like hers? The newly appointed Children's Minister, Kevin Brennan, is a decent person and says the right things. He recently told a gay equality conference: "Just as it took several years for racial equality laws to feed into real cultural change where racist language became unacceptable, we need to achieve the same with homophobic language."

But are the Government's actions backing this up? In one significant way, they are making it worse. There is one type of school where homophobic bullying is most severe: faith schools. Pupils there are more than 10 per cent more likely to be subject to anti-gay bullying, and 23 per cent less likely to feel they can tell anyone about their sexuality.

I was emailed by a 17-year old gay boy at a Muslim school last year who was told by one of his teachers in a lesson that "sodomites should be killed". In the Stonewall study, an 18-year old boy called Matthew said: "It's a Catholic school... and we are told 'gay people will go to hell because the Bible condemns it'... It's horrid, you just want to go and cry at come of the remarks made by the teachers."

The Government is embarked on an expansion of these schools. There is a danger that after abolishing Section 28 by the front door, the growth of faith schools unwittingly reintroduces it by the back door. So a Wolfenden report for the playgrounds would introduce a law, today, requiring all schools to have a tough anti-homophobia policy that can be monitored by Ofsted, the education watchdog. If they refuse on the grounds of "religion", shut them down.

The Littlejohnian right will howl about "political correctness", just as they howled at Wolfenden's report 50 years ago. Let them. We wouldn't tolerate a school that permits the persecution of black students; why aren't gay students accorded the same respect?

How many children like Jonathan Reynolds need to die texting "I am human" before we protect them?

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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