Owen Ryan reports on an initiative at Saint Caimin’s to bring about a culture of acceptance regardless of sexuality
HOMOPHOBIC bullying has cast a dark shadow over Irish secondary schools for many years and blighted thousands of young lives.
Name calling, intimidation and sometimes violence against young people who identify as LGBTI+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Intersex) or even suspected of being so, has been widespread in many schools.
While the country enthusiastically passed the same sex marriage referendum, has had a gay taoiseach and gay sports stars, discrimination based on sexuality is still a concerning and prevalent issue among Irish teenagers.
Given that virtually every year group in every secondary school must have LGBTI+ members, the impact of homophobia on young people can only be seen as hugely damaging.
However there are some efforts to fight back against it, and in St Caimin’s in Shannon teachers Cora Guinnane and Chloe Morey are helping to run a group for young LGBTI+ students.
On Monday one of the young people involved in it, a teenage girl, said that having a safe place to talk and interact is very valuable for the young people attending.
“It’s never going to be easy, no matter what anyone does it’s never going to be 100%, there’s always going to be someone who’ll turn around and say something, at school or at home.
“But it’s great to have a space where even for a while you can relax about it, no one’s going to judge you because you’re all in the same boat.”
Cora feels that the level of homophobia may not be as prevalent as was once the case, but it is still a serious problem, and she feels the peer support the group can offer is valuable. “When I started teaching there was a huge amount of homophobic bullying and I would have dealt with a lot of students who were struggling and had nowhere to go or no-one to turn to.
“Even some students who were starting out on their journey, it was fine me chatting with them, but I always felt it’d be good for them to have someone else who had walked some of that journey to help them… It’s about combating that bullying and saying it’s not acceptable. That’s changing culture, and we’re trying to do that. We’re getting there slowly I think.”
She feels it is very important that young LGBTI+ people know they are accepted, and she has been conscious of making sure the group has been given the status it deserves within the school. “We used to have our meetings in the boardroom, which is a place of importance, although it’s had to change this year because of Covid.
“We just want a culture in the school where we accept people no matter who they are or what they are, what their sexual orientation is or what their creed or culture is.
“We’re all people, all human beings, and we have a right to belong in our community. There should be no issues for people to operate in our school community, no looking over your shoulder, worrying if there will be bullying or people not accepted.”
The group is open to all students, be they LGBTI+ or young people who want to know more about the issues that are sometimes associated with sexuality.
Chloe says she would like to see its numbers increasing, while she is conscious that the group may potentially be hugely important to some of those attending, young people who may feel the need to hide their true selves everywhere else. “They mightn’t be out at home or to the rest of the school community, so that 40 minutes might be where they can most be themselves. It might be the time they feel most themselves.
“I’d only love it if more people, whether they identify as LGBTI+ or not, come and try and learn about it.”
Not so long ago it was almost unheard of for a teenager to come out to their classmates, and thousands of young people must have suffered in secrecy and silence, unable to speak to anyone at all about a fundamental part of themselves.
“To come to a place where you spend 80% of your time for five years and not be yourself, it’s just awful. That’s why it’s important the group is there,” says Chloe.
Cora also feels that a heavy price is paid by those who feel they haven’t the option of being as open as young heterosexual people might. “School is a hard place for young people who are exploring their sexuality. We’ve young people who wait until they leave school to be themselves, which is a very hard thing and it affects their mental health.
“That’s a key problem, so many young people struggle with their mental health because for years they were putting on a pretence or wearing a mask. That’s not okay.”
The young student feels that the group allows an exchange of experiences, which is very important for young people at such risk of isolation.
“It’s good to have somewhere to go, also with other students so you can get their experiences as well. At the time I first came out there wasn’t really anyone else in my year, it was me on my own, then more people came out as the years went on.
“School, not this school, but school in general, isn’t a good place to come out, people don’t feel comfortable with it. A lot of people I know who left school last year have come out, they felt they were finally comfortable enough to do something like that.”
One very positive point she makes is that homophobic and transphobic slurs aren’t as common among young people as they were even a few years ago, but she says that discriminatory phrasing is endemic, even in conversations that have nothing at all to do with sexuality. “It’s very casual now, people use the word ‘gay’ as an insult for something that has nothing to do with LGBT at all. I think it’s harmful, but it’s become such a normal thing.
“Someone could fall over or say I forgot my book and there’d be a remark ‘oh, that’s gay’, even though it’s nothing to do with that kind of stuff.”
It’s not hard to understand that such loose talk could be very upsetting to young people confused and worried about their own sexuality.
Chloe says that the language used is really important, and during Stand Up week earlier in the year, all students were given some information on it. She also says it is vital that homophobic remarks aren’t let go unchallenged.
“In the school it’s important that the staff come down hard if you hear anything that’s not supportive of the LGBTI+ community. That’s what we can do, and educate students and staff.”
The group member who spoke to the Champion says that she feels the group gives her and other senior students an opportunity to help younger teens.
“We have experienced school being LGBT, out or not, so we know what was good and what wasn’t, we know what the issues were and can explain to new people what to do differently.
“There are one or two first years and we can talk to them about what it’s been like for them in the first few months. It’s about what we can do to make it more comfortable for them, because they have to go through the six years of it now.”
She does feel there is a bit more tolerance among her fellow students now than was the case. “People are getting more accepting of it. I feel like as more people in the school are out, people are getting used to the idea.”
When her own sexuality became a subject of discussion among her peers, she feels things would have been easier had they been more informed. “If people were more educated about it, it’d be a lot less discomforting for people. When I first came out you’d get some girls saying ‘oh, you don’t want to date me do you?’, just because I like girls. They didn’t get that’s not how it works.
“At the time if they’d known it was completely normal, that I’m not different to them I just have different preferences to them, then I think it would have been a lot easier.”
She says she was very sensitive for a period of time, and very easily upset by what other people said.
While her sexuality was a big topic of conversation among her peers for a period of time, she says it stopped being news after a while and they moved onto other things.
Unfortunately she feels she has been labelled as ‘the gay kid’ a bit, although her sexuality doesn’t define everything about her.
“It’s not the worst thing to be known for, but it’s not my whole personality, my sexuality. But you’re put into that box, that’s what you are, you’re different.”
While there are still a lot of challenges for young gay people, there are people like Chloe and Cora helping in schools, and she is optimistic that there will be further improvements for LGBTI+ teenagers.
“I feel like it will get better, because it has got better,” she says.
Inevitably the stop-start nature of school since the pandemic began took some of the momentum from the group, with far fewer opportunities for interaction.
Chloe feels that some of those about to finish school won’t have got as much from the group as they might have done had times been different, but she says they can be very proud of helping to develop awareness in the school. “I always say to them that they are leading the way and they won’t realise until they leave school how important their contribution was.”
Knowing that the school will do whatever it can to help all its students has to be encouraging for anyone sending their son or daughter to St Caimin’s.
“If parents have a child who is exploring their sexuality and is transitioning to our school, it’s really important that they know our school is trying to promote LGBTI, trying to combat homophobic bullying and it’s a school that’s open to learn and support young people as they explore their sexuality.
“Sometimes people label you and it’s about trying to get away from those labels,” says Cora.
She would encourage other schools to start similar programs. “So many schools across Ireland are doing Stand Up week and they highlight that week, and they’re doing phenomenally, they were doing it before we were here, but if they could go that step further.
“A week is great and it has a huge impact, but then it loses that momentum. We’d have no problem with other schools contacting us here, and you can start small, even if you have only two students, as long as those students feel safe and supported for those 40 minutes.
“You’re not going to know everything, you have to educate yourself, we’re far from knowing everything, but we’re willing to learn and that’s the key.”
St Caimin’s has taken action to support its students, but Cora acknowledges that there is lots more to be done. “We have a very long way to go. We’re probably one of the only schools in Clare, one of the only schools in Ireland to have a group like this, but we have such a long way to go, such a lot to learn, but it’s a start.”
Summing up the work that is going on, Chloe says, “We’re trying to normalise something that’s completely normal.”