Teacher Elly Barnes talks to Colin Warriner about raising LGBT awareness and tackling homophobia in schools
For some, the close of February marks the end of LGBT History Month in more than just the calendrical sense. Alan Turing and Oscar Wilde go back into the box as March approaches and things return to heteronormal. So it’s always encouraging to hear about places where the importance of LGBT History Month is felt year-round and the lessons reverberate long after too-short February has passed. One such place is Stoke Newington School, a comprehensive in Hackney, London, which has incorporated LGBT awareness into the curriculum and become a diversity training centre. The driving force behind the initiative was a spirited music teacher and Head of Year, Elly Barnes, who has kindly agreed to speak to So So Gay about the programme and fighting homophobia in schools.
Barnes has no doubts about the importance of LGBT History Month. ‘Its role is absolutely to create a cohesive community. It’s to raise awareness, it’s to give understanding. It’s for young people to acknowledge that LGBT people exist!’ She believes LGBT History Month is the most inclusive of all the celebrations of diversity observed by the school. ‘You can be black and you can be gay, you can be Christian and be gay. It spans all of the different diversities and that’s why our kids really like it, because every single student can get involved.’ She credits it with providing a launch pad for her diversity work in Stoke Newington, having become a Head of Year shortly after LGBT History Month was inaugurated. ‘I’d got the new Year 7 cohort, and it was such a brilliant position to get some autonomy to sort of … infiltrate 240 children’s minds,’ she laughs.
Barnes recommends any teacher beginning such a programme start off small. ‘I just don’t think you can just walk into a Year 10 or 11 lesson and start talking about transgender people,’ she cautions. ‘But it does grow. Very, very small beginnings and then it’s just the most wonderful thing to get involved!’ At Stoke Newington, she started by explaining what ‘LGBT’ means, then identifying famous LGBT people: ‘all people they knew, but they didn’t know they were LGBT.’ She has classes look at significant symbols: the pink and black triangles, the labrys and the lambda. Lessons on the Stonewall riots are effective, as ‘every student understands that you need to fight for your rights’ and ‘you can take it into the drama classroom.’ A later project involved pupils watching the music video for Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’: ‘The kids were really, really responsive to it because it prompted debate,’ Barnes enthuses. ‘You know, why have his parents thrown him out? Why did he get beaten up by those other boys? And the general consensus was, this isn’t right. Because he’s being who he is, it’s just the way the community deals with it.’
Throughout her lessons and training other teachers, Barnes follows a simple rule: ‘just give students facts.’ She explains words like lesbian, gay and bisexual to pupils, ‘because the reason they laugh and giggle and use them as derogatory terms is because they don’t know what they mean.’ After they know that, ‘they use the words in the correct way.’ It’s what they want, she says. ‘We had lots of conversations about, “Is it legal to be a lesbian?” Because the kids didn’t actually know if it’s legal or not! So I have to tell them, yes it is! And it is legal to get married – called civil partnership – and it is legal to adopt children.’ She is adamant that building that awareness is vital. Partly because ‘they are facts and they’re facts that young people need to know because it happens every day,’ and partly because ‘if there’s nothing in the curriculum that represents LGBT people, what is there for those young LGBT people in our school? There’s nothing – there’s nothing for them. So we have to reflect it.’
It’s apparent that in having such a programme, Stoke Newington School is virtually unique among British schools. The reason, according to Barnes: ‘As a school we are quite fearless!’ The school, she says proudly, has ‘tackled this absolutely head-on with absolutely no apologies for what we do.’ But this year there was a lot of angry noise around proposals to bring LGBT awareness into school lessons. Loudly negative reactions in parts of the media (some of which prompted responses from SSG) gave the impression this is still a controversial idea: has there been opposition to what she has introduced at Stoke Newington?
‘Yeah, absolutely,’ she answers casually. ‘I mean; that’s all part of it.’ She’s unafraid of hostility, but says has there has been very little from pupils’ parents. She estimates there have been ‘maybe five complaints from parents over the six years I’ve been doing this work,’ in the form of a note in a student’s diary. ‘But I don’t take that very seriously,’ Barnes explains, ‘because it’s just a note in a diary. If a parent has a real problem they will phone me.’ That’s happened twice, and each time she employs the same approach as with her pupils: ‘I just stick to the facts.’ She elaborates: ‘The facts are that our school is an inclusive school, and when you sign up to join our school you sign up to our diversity policy, and our school code says we respect each other’s sexual orientations. This is our school and you signed up to it. After that it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem.’
The ‘most difficult audience,’ at least initially, were other teachers. When the work was first begun a few members of staff objected. They have since left, but at the time their concerns needed to be addressed. ‘There were difficult times,’ Barnes recalls, ‘but what we did was we had open meetings where staff could express their views.’ In her experience, differences can be reconciled through discussion: ‘we can always overcome those issues.’
Now staff across the school embrace the LGBT-friendly curriculum. During History Month, every department does a project. One year, Design and Technology made ‘a beautiful tree’ covered in leaves asking the question, ‘what would this world be like if there was no homophobia?’ Pupils wrote their own comments on the leaves, which were turned into ‘a fabulous dress that someone wore on stage.’ Humanities examined the black activist, James Baldwin, while ICT did a project on Alan Turing, whose story Barnes believes is particularly resonant for students. When you explain the persecution he faced, she explains, ‘the kids understand that he was treated in an awful way.’ More relevant to them, however, is his role in the development of computers: ‘this links so directly into their lives! Kids can not survive without computers, so using him as a role model is fantastic.’
With so many projects undertaken since she started the programme, it’s difficult for Barnes to pick a favourite, although ‘the music side of things is always absolutely wonderful because the kids just love to get up and perform.’ Members of staff, too – one year, 60 ‘heartily’ sang ‘Go West’ in an assembly. She remembers one student, ‘who had been bullied badly in the school when we first started the work,’ choosing to sing George Michael’s paean to coming out, ‘An Easier Affair’ at a whole-school assembly. ‘It was one of those moments where you never know what’s going to happen – anything could happen with a thousand kids in that hall. And he sang the song and he got an absolutely rapturous applause from the audience. He was being bullied but there he was on stage singing this really powerful song and they loved it.’
An outstanding moment for Barnes was a performance and workshop at the school by lesbian rapper Mz Fontaine (born Naomi Romeo), who has since transitioned to identify as male and goes by the name Naechane Valentino. ‘It was absolutely brilliant,’ Barnes recounts. ‘She worked the audience, she walked around the crowd and got everybody involved.’ It seemed to have a transformative effect. ‘We had been having problems with a group of girls who had been particularly homophobic around the school. And it was like waving a magic wand. I know it sounds hard to believe but that ten-minute performance just got rid of homophobic opinions amongst so many of those students. I didn’t have any problems with them afterwards.’ To Barnes, it underlines the importance of bringing role models into schools. ‘You just “usual-ise” – that’s Sue Sanders’ word! – LGBT people within your community and within your schools, and you can create that environment where everyone can be who they need to be.’
Stoke Newington School’s ‘thrilling and electrifying’ History Month event this year continued in that musical tradition, with a concert in the school theatre. ‘It had a lovely positive and uplifting vibe,’ Barnes reported warmly. ‘The students rocked out to Joan Jett, Janis Joplin and Katrina and the Waves. Earlier in the day, they had a Pride march through Clissold Park, which provided a touching echo of history. ‘A man with his dog was staring in wonderment so I stopped to talk to him,’ she recalls. ‘He said he never thought he would see the day when school children would be fighting homophobia – he had been on the first Pride march in 1970 with the Gay Liberation Front!’
Homophobia is still a terrible problem in schools across the country, although Barnes admits she’s sometimes at a loss to understand why. ‘It hasn’t been illegal to be an LGBT person in my lifetime and I’m, like, nearly 40 years old! It’s not been illegal in my students’ lifetimes, so I always ask them where their homophobia comes from.’ She says they usually point to their family, or claim they don’t really mean it; that it’s just part of their language.
Wherever it comes from, Barnes wants to see tackling homophobia at the top of every school’s agenda. ‘All the equality laws and the equality policies are now all in place and schools should be doing this work,’ she argues. ‘It is a matter of child protection: are our young people – especially our LGBT young people – being protected in our schools? I don’t think they are!’ She points out that the abolition of Section 28 in 2003 means teachers can talk about these issues, and new Ofsted criteria mean ‘if they do not see your diversity policies being implemented in your classrooms then you will only get “inadequate” as your grade.’ She reassures the teachers she trains that resistance from parents and governors doesn’t matter: ‘You have got all the legal backup you need at the moment to use these words in your classroom.’
The first action they took at Stoke Newington School was to create a sanction against homophobia. ‘We put homophobia as a tick-box on our referral pads,’ Barnes outlines, so the kids could get detentions and then get sent home or excluded for being homophobic.’ It was important step, she says, but one backed up by explaining the importance of a cohesive community.
It is teachers who must be at the vanguard of efforts to tackle homophobia in schools, but most are unprepared to take on that responsibility. ‘This is the crux of the problem,’ admits Barnes. ‘Nine out of ten teachers are not trained; they don’t know how to deal with homophobic bullying.’ To that end, she has helped Stoke Newington become the first school to set itself up as a diversity training centre for teachers, which she encourages any to attend ‘if they want to make their school LGBT-friendly.’* There are many obstacles to overcome, though, such as a lack of confidence among teachers. ‘There’s a strange, strange thing where teachers seem to think if you talk about LGBT issues the kids will automatically assume that you are gay yourself,’ Barnes muses. ‘And that is absolutely not true. They just don’t! You’re just giving them facts!’ ‘If I could get that message to every single teacher,’ she says, ‘that the kids will not make a judgement about you, that’s half the battle won.’
She is one of several out members of staff at her school, for which she credits the effect of LGBT History Month in helping to foster a more accepting environment. She accepts that ‘not all gay teachers will have a desire to come out,’ but encourages all of them to know their rights. ‘It is legal to be LGBT and teach,’ she asserts. ‘You can say the word “lesbian” in your classroom. In fact, shout it! LESBIAN!’
Like all good schoolteachers, Barnes is warm and ebullient. But like her LGBT Hero, Sue Sanders (‘I totally admire what she’s done: she’s a kick-ass lesbian!’), she doesn’t back down from a challenge. That will serve her in good stead with so much still to be done to bring LGBT awareness into UK schools, but in Stoke Newington she already has some remarkable achievements under her belt. ‘It’s my job to change opinion,’ she says fearlessly. ‘It needs to be changed!’
*The next two training sessions of ‘Educate and Celebrate – How to make your school LGBT-friendly’ are on 22 March (NUT, Hamilton House) and 23 June (Stoke Newington School). Email Elly Barnes for details.