In 2012, 14-year-old Ayden Keenan-Olsen from Essex took his own life after being subjected to years of homophobic and racist bullying. In 2013, 15-year-old aspiring dancer Sinead Taylor hanged herself in her London home after repeated taunts from classmates because of her tomboyish appearance. Earlier this year, teenager Jamie Watson was left bruised and battered by a gang of youths in his local area who had constantly harassed him for being bisexual. And these are only a handful of many similar, awful tragic stories.
It astonishes me to think that so many children are subjected to such thoughtless acts of homophobic, transphobic and biphobic (HBT) bullying. Whether it’s because of their sexual or gender identity, appearance, behaviour, physical traits or because they have friends or family who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT). That is why Anti-Bullying Week is an important time for us to shine the spotlight on this issue and support parents, teachers and young people to take action.
In the school playground, for as long as most of us can remember, comments like ‘that’s so gay’ have been common insults. And boys can get told they’re ‘like a girl’ if they look or behave in a way that doesn’t conform to some narrow macho stereotype.
Stonewall has reported that ninety six per cent of gay pupils hear homophobic remarks such as ‘poof’ or ‘lezza’ used in school. But the repercussions of what is often seen as ‘just a bit of banter’ can have a big impact – particularly on young people who are often at an age when they are working out who they are.
School should be a safe place for children – a place where they are able to learn, to grow and discover who they are. And for most parts, our school system provides just that. However, young people who grow up in environments that are less diverse may have fewer opportunities to develop the awareness and empathy needed to create an inclusive environment.
I understand that these deep rooted problems can’t be solved overnight but we have the power as parents, as teachers and as carers to stop them before they begin. We can do this by coming together and teaching future generations to accept and respect everyone’s individuality and differences.
As Minister for Women and Equalities it is a priority of mine to help drive these changes. That’s why in September, I announced that we are giving £2.8 million to six initiatives that aim to tackle HBT bullying in schools, building on the £2 million we’ve already invested in 2015-2016. This new round of funding includes Stonewall working in partnership with faith organisations and faith schools across England to support LGBT pupils, and the Proud Trust’s Rainbow Flag Award which recognises schools for their achievements in preventing and tackling HBT bullying.
We also have recently funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop a new cyber-bullying guidance which provides advice for schools on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying. In addition, this week we have launched an online safety toolkit which contains a series of short films and bite size lesson plans to help schools deliver sessions about cyberbullying, peer pressure and sexting cyberbullying guidance.
We have come a long way already in helping address the stereotypes and judgement placed upon LGBT people. But we know that there is more still to be done to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating discrimination against LGBT people for good. I am proud to be at the forefront of this Government agenda and am truly passionate about continuing to push for change to make sure all people are treated equally.