The Representation Of Young LGBT+ People In School And Media
Jade writes about the lack of LGBT+ issues being discussed at school, or in the media, where they need to be.
LGBT+ issues mean a lot to me. A lot.
On February 1st, I officially came out as gay to my family. It was my own personal little piece of history to mark the start of LGBT+ History Month in the UK, but I couldn’t help feeling that it was a bit anti-climactic.
LGBT+ issues mean a lot to me. A lot. It’s something that’s been close to my heart since I discovered that being straight wasn’t the only ‘good’ option when I was about 13 (that’s 2010 if you’re my age and want to feel old), and even then I only managed to learn about it through my favourite celebrity at the time. It’s only now, with the cliché feeling of complete uninhibited freedom being absent, have I realised that the gap in representation for young LGBT+ people is more harmful than I thought.
Mostly everyone I know who’s LGBT+ has said that they began figuring out their sexuality or gender at the start of their teenage years, around the time that everything else in your life seems to be changing too. And of course, with puberty comes the inevitable PSHE (personal, social and health education) lessons.
…topics such as LGBT+ life are being ignored completely…
The curriculum for these lessons differs around the UK, but there are continuous complaints from students that PSHE is taught inadequately by teachers who aren’t trained to cover such a range of sensitive subjects, and that topics such as LGBT+ life are being ignored completely. It may be that some teachers are unaware that section 28, a law that forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools, was repealed in 2003, but as time goes on this excuse loses its credibility. Young LGBT+ people aren’t being given the opportunity to learn about themselves in schools, a place which is meant to give children the information and space to develop all aspects of themselves. Tiptoeing around such an important aspect of some young people’s lives sees them left isolated to struggle through what can be an overwhelming experience – school reports from Stonewall show that roughly half of LGBT+ young people have mental health problems.
The consequences range even further. In teaching a curriculum that assumes everyone to be cisgender and heterosexual, a door is opened for misunderstanding and ignorance to take hold, creating an environment of bullying and hostility for children and young people who identify otherwise. The same Stonewall reports from above exemplify how LGBT+ education is down while homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic bullying is up, and despite correlation not always equalling causation, I think this is one is quite obvious.
…I’m a strong believer in education as a tool against ignorance and hatred…
There’s also an importance in recognising that negative responses don’t always come from young people’s peers. It’s quite common to hear stories of people who were told by both family and friends that their sexuality or gender was ‘just a phase’ and that they were ‘too young’ to know their identity when they came out. And yes, it’s true that identity can be fluid and grow and change over time, but that’s absolutely no reason to brush off young people who are exploring themselves. Everyone goes through phases of everything – you probably liked some terrible band growing up but now you don’t, and I know that music taste and identity are nowhere near the same but just roll with me in the analogy here.
I’m a strong believer in education as a tool against ignorance and hatred, and I believe that something as small as discussing the definitions of basic LGBT+ terms with children could push us so much further in the fight against discrimination, and in supporting young people to explore who they are.
It’s simple to just tell children that they can like anyone, and that boys and girls don’t have to look and act certain ways.
Admittedly, if it was that easy, we’d already be seeing this. Perhaps the biggest argument against LGBT+ education is that it would be too explicit for children, in primary school especially, and this is a huge pet peeve of mine. Yes, “sexuality” includes the word “sex”. No, that’s not all that it’s about. Think back to how often you were asked about who your crushes were at primary school when you had no idea of the birds and the bees; probably a lot of times, right? And you’re not scarred for life because of that, right? It’s simple to just tell children that they can like anyone, and that boys and girls don’t have to look and act certain ways. That’s it.
The separation of sexuality from sex can be difficult for people to work through when you consider how often LGBT+ people’s stories revolve around sex, and this hypersexualisation by the media is something that Rife journalist Kaja has previously written about.
Ah, the media. I have a few choice words to say about the media, but that’ll have to wait for another time. The heavy emphasis on sex in LGBT+ media that Kaja discusses is what creates the stigma around proper education of these issues for children. Explicit media portrayals are automatically censored – with obvious good reason – and this emphasis then means that TV shows/films/books that are targeted to, or portray children shy away from LGBT+ themes.
In terms of educating older generations on the reality of LGBT+ youth, one example stands out to me.
Despite having no representation myself growing up, there’s a handful of well-executed portrayals from recent years I can think of. The most notable is ‘Steven Universe’, a cartoon about a half-alien, half-human boy named Steven and his family. The writer is a bisexual woman, and the show itself often explores female queerness and includes a non-binary character, all of which is presented as completely normal. My friends have also reliably informed me of ‘Avatar: Legend Of Korra’, featuring two bisexual female characters, and ‘Gravity Falls’, which has a background gay couple. These are all shows aimed at children and all have received positive reviews from both audiences and critics, proving over and over that young audiences are capable of understanding LGBT+ themes.
In terms of educating older generations on the reality of LGBT+ youth, one example stands out to me. Last month I watched ‘Fun Home’, a biopic musical about Alison Bechdel (the lesbian comic artist credited with the Bechdel Test), which shows her looking back on her younger selves and exploring her identity. The song ‘Ring of Keys’ sees 10-year-old Alison unable to process her admiration for a butch-presenting woman and singing that she knows her. Before watching ‘Fun Home’, I had never seen such an accurate representation of what it feels like to grow up with the idea that something within yourself is different, but the words to describe it are just out of your grasp. Giving young LGBT+ people a platform to highlight this experience for older generations to see is the way forward in gaining better understanding and dismissing the concept of being ‘too young’ to discover yourself, while also validating the people who may be struggling with the same feelings.
On a rewatch, this scene hit hard, and gives me an idea of why my coming out felt so underwhelming. Coming out was something I’d been putting it off for years due to school having taught me nothing about life as an LGBT+ person, as well as not seeing anyone my age with a positive outcome in the media I consumed. This desperately needs to be changed, and although a start has been made in the few years I’ve witnessed, there’s so much more that can and must be done to create a truly positive space for young LGBT+ people to grow.
If you want to get involved this LGBT+ history month, why not go to this event on Language and Representation in LGBT+ Culture