ShoutOut is a registered charity which delivers workshops in schools to tackle LGBTQIA bullying and exclusion. We started in 2012 and since then have delivered nearly 700 workshops across the Island of Ireland. That’s a reach of over 20’000 students. As well as student workshops we also deliver educational training to teachers, parents and guardians, youth workers and social workers. We feel education is the best way to tackle exclusion and stigma. We have spent many hours with young people across the Island discussing LGBTQIA issues, and the lack of inclusivity in RSE is very apparent. Due to this we feel strongly that any update to the curriculum must to LGBTQIA inclusive and positive.
The statistics around LGBTQIA young people’s mental health and sense of belonging is troubling. A recent study* found that LGBTQIA young people where twice as likely to self harm, three times as likely to attempt suicide and four times as likely to experience severe stress, anxiety and depression than their non-LGBTQIA peers.
This, in no small part, is due to a feeling of being isolated, and “other”, which is compounded by the lack of discussion about LGBTQIA identities in schools. It only stands to reason that clear, non-bias discussion of LGBTQIA identities will help bridge the gap which has been formed over decades of silence.
Pertaining specifically to school, this same report showed only 20% of LGBTQI students felt they belonged completely in their school, leave 80% who did not. 67% of young people witnessed LGBTQIA bullying in school. 1 in 4 missed or skipped school to avoid negative treatment due to being LGBTI, and 1 in 4 considered leaving school early.
Young people of Ireland are entitled to an education, but when their place of education is unsafe for them they are effectively being denied this right. We feel inclusive RSE is one way to tackle this problem along with methods currently being carried out by ShoutOut such as teacher training and open spaces for discussion in workshops.
*LGBTIreland Report, 2016
Experience of ShoutOut
We have spent many hours discussing LGBTQIA issues with secondary level students and as such have made several observations.
Firstly, in the vast majority of cases, we are informing both teachers and students alike of the existence of intersex people. Considering intersex people make up 1.7% of the population (Blackless, Melanie; Charuvastra, Anthony; Derryck, Amanda; Fausto-Sterling, Anne; Lauzanne, Karl; Lee, Ellen (March 2000). American Journal of Human Biology.) there is an unjustifiable lack of knowledge about this.
Because the young people have never heard of variance in sexual characteristics, and often the teachers confirm they have also not heard of it, they can be reluctant to accept this information in spite of it being factual. This shows a big gap in education which must be addressed.
We also observe a fundamental misunderstanding about trans identities at all levels of secondary school leading to isolation, bullying and sometimes physical violence for trans young people. Many times, ShoutOut workshops are the only time trans identities will be discussed in the school and only for those who were present that day, in a school which invited us in. This type of education should not be left to chance like this and has led to fostering of intolerance among many young people towards trans people.
We have noted that much of the homophobic attitudes expressed stem from a complete lack of understanding about consent. Particularly observed in all boys schools, homophobia is at first an aggressive display of hatred. However, when this is explored further many boys express that they would be unwelcoming to anyone who came out because they are afraid that they will sexually pursued by a gay classmate despite the lack of them experiencing this, or knowing of anyone having experienced this. Their lack of understanding around consent makes them feel that they will not be asked for consent and will be harassed just because someone is attracted to their gender. (One would then be concerned about the young women these boys interact with).
Biological sex is constantly being forced into a false dichotomy in schools. People have no real sense of the many variations that exist in sexual characteristics and as such people feel like they are “other” if their sexual characteristics differ to what they have been told to expect. We feel RSE should include information on the variety of ways humans can display sexual characteristics and the reality that chromosomes do not always determine sex, and sex does not always determine gender.
Although this is not the focus of this exercise, ShoutOut feels strongly that this should be included the science and biology curriculum as well, so LGBTQIA identities can be woven into the narrative of learning.
Gender, and how it differs from sex
Gender and sex should be discussed and differentiated in RSE. As well as this gender roles should be discussed, how they change over time or due to culture, and how people should not feel defined by them.
Minority orientations are those outside heterosexuality including, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, and pansexual. Because these identities are in the minority this means people are often assumed to be heterosexual until told otherwise. Because of these assumptions, people who are apart of minority orientations can feel isolated.
Trans identities, gender identity and gender expression
Transgender identities should be fully explained giving students a comprehensive education in gender alignments, gender identity and gender expression. Specifically, the way gender identity and expression are different. Young people need to know that many trans people have known their gender identity from as young as 3 years old, and when they come out as trans they are not suddenly deciding something but aligning their gender identity and their gender expression in a new way.
Trans people may or may not take medical steps in their journey, but whether or not they will, or have, is not anyone’s business but their own.
Gender identity should not be expressed as a binary concept. As mentioned above sex is often wrongly forced into a pure dichotomy, and similarly so is gender. Gender exists on a spectrum and the concept of non-binary or third genders have been seen in virtually every society since written record.
Some people identify with the sex assigned to them at birth (cisgender), some people do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth (transgender), but everyone has a gender identity and gender expression.
Sexual activity as a spectrum
Sexual activity is a spectrum of different acts and should not be limited simply to the act of intercourse. Many people have different wants and desires which will manifest in a variety of ways with their partners, or with themselves.
Because young people are taught that sex is one specific act, those who have disabilities which preclude them from taking part in that act feel excluded. Sex means different things to different people, with the common unifying factor being consent between individuals.
Similarly, not experiences sexual desire but may experience different forms of attraction.
HIV and stigma
Many young people think only gay and bisexual men have HIV, and do not realise that it is a condition anyone can be living with. In 2016, men who have sex with men made up 51% of diagnoses, with 28% among heterosexuals, 16% unknown, 4% among intravenous drugs drug users and 1% mother to child transmissions.
RSE should include information regarding the effective treatment of HIV. They should know that someone with HIV who is taking medication may have an undetectable viral load and therefore will not transmit the virus.
Although it is beyond the purpose of this exercise, we feel the HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s should be apart of the history curriculum.
Fluidity of identities
It should be highlighted that identities, including gender identity and sexual orientation, are not always a static concept and people can change over time. If someone’s identity does change over time that is no reason to be disrespectful of it. There should be no stigma attached to a shift in identity which occurs later in life, as many young people may have adults in their life that come out and be confused by this change.
Similarly, all identities should be respected and not challenged. In particular, bisexual people face much discrimination under the idea that it is a “phase” that someone will grow out of. Many studies show that bisexual people make up the majority of the LGBT community* but even the number of bisexual people does not stop the stigma around this identity.
While most bisexual people will identify as bisexual for their entire lives, they are still faced with being erased as either gay or straight depending on the gender of their romantic partner.
As humans we all make assumptions, every day. It’s part of how our brains work, to fit things into categories so we can assign information about it from past experiences. However, sometimes our assumptions are wrong and that’s OK. We feel this is an important concept to be introduced in RSE as it greatly pertains to relationships and personal wellbeing.
This is particularly applicable to LGBTQIA people because the unifying factor between all the identities contained in LGBTQIA is that it is outside what is assumed of people. People assume that people are heterosexual, or cisgender, or perisexual (non-intersex), or allosexual (not asexual), or monosexual (not pansexual or bisexual). This is why we have the concept of “coming out”; LGBTQIA people have to let people know that they are not what has been assumed.