“School is not a safe space for LGBTIQ youth. Many of those who have told their teachers about being bullied have received no help, and have sometimes even been blamed for it themselves. Even more LGBTIQ pupils say that they have not told their teachers anything because they didn’t think it would make a difference," says Riikka Taavetti, researcher at the University of Helsinki.
LGBTIQ is an acronym used to refer to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or queer. On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on May 17, Taavetti described the situation of LGBTIQ youth in Finnish schools in the seminar Queering the School? Disrupting the Heteronormativity in Education.
“Many LGBTIQ young people face bullying and offensive speech in school every day. They are afraid to be themselves openly, fearing that they will be left out of their circle of friends at school or in their free time. It is possible to change what we consider the norm. Here teachers have an incredibly important role, as usual,” states Taavetti.
Together with her colleagues, Riikka Taavetti authored the pioneering study in 2014 on the situation of Finnish LGBTIQ youth. More than 1,600 young people from all over Finland participated in the study, and the results showed that LGBTIQ youth did not fare as well as their heterosexual and cisgendered counterparts. Similar results have been reached in several international studies, which all indicate that young people who identify as members of sexual or gender minorities are targets for discrimination, bullying and violence.
“We know that LGBTIQ youth face different forms of discrimination that adults understand and are aware of only partially. This study also gives examples of the gap between the generations and how they talk past each other. Young people are often left alone with their experiences of discrimination as they will not talk about them with adults – or sometimes even with their friends,” says Taavetti.
Must schools have gender-segregated toilets?
Adults who work with children and young people must recognise, highlight and disrupt norms which result in systematic discrimination.
“Schools maintain social norms on what we should be like and how we should behave depending on which biological gender we are assigned. Textbooks show two biological genders, girls and boys, and heterosexuality is the norm,” Taavetti continues.
Adults in the school can take small steps to help LGBTIQ youth feel significantly safer. Sometimes the only adults the LGBTIQ pupil feels accepted by are at school.
“Often small steps can have a great effect,” Taavetti points out.
For example, the school can map out physical spaces which are inaccessible for people who do not identify as girls or boys. Toilets and dressing rooms are typically dedicated to girls or boys.
“In our school we made all toilets gender-neutral after we discussed the issue in class. I suggest that we stop calling our pupils 'girls' and ‘boys’. Instead we can use the words which they prefer to be called,” says Elina Särkelä, a teacher of biology and geography at the Viikin normaalikoulu in Helsinki.
Results with small steps
Särkelä was one of the seminar speakers and presented a long list of small steps that have significant impact, not just for LGBTIQ youth but for all pupils.
“When we teachers are deciding where pupils should sit in class, making them line up or dividing them into groups, we can use other criteria than the children's assumed gender,” Särkelä suggests.
According to Särkelä, norm-critical pedagogy should be present in schools from first grade onwards. She and her colleagues know that in order to create an equal, gender-sensitive culture in their school, they must be fully inclusive. Society’s norms on sexuality, gender and other aspects should be opened to criticism, also in interaction with parents.
“We teachers have a great responsibility for our pupils' sense of safety and wellbeing. We should keep that in mind while working within the school’s curriculum,” Särkelä says.
She emphasises the importance of immediately addressing bullying and conflicts as soon as they arise. At the end of the day, the question is whether people can be who they are.