I was in Year 2 (aged 6) when I first heard ‘gay’ used as an insult. It was thrown out across the playground with such malice that I instantly knew it wasn’t a good thing to be called. The insult was aimed at a boy with mediumlength hair brushed over to one side (think Justin Bieber circa. 2010) and a high-pitched voice. I inherently knew that these stereotypically feminine characteristics were what had caused the attack, and I also knew, in that moment, that if I wanted to survive, I needed to get rid of my own ‘femme’ traits and start acting ‘like a boy’.

My school days were over 15 years ago, and you might hope that such bullying no longer exists; but, sadly, recent statistics suggest this is not the case. A recent survey found that 91% of LGBT+ students have heard negative language about being LGBT+ and 42% of them have been bullied, double the number of non-LGBT+ pupils.1 A 2019 YouGov poll found that LGBT+ bullying is the most common form of bullying in UK schools.2 The consequences are all too clear, with LGBT+ young people twice as likely to contemplate suicide, and black LGBT+ young people three times as likely.1 LGBT+ students are more likely to have high levels of anxiety, depression and panic attacks, as well as feel isolated and worry about their mental health.3 These consequences mean more young LGBT+ people will be accessing counselling and therapy, and therefore it is essential that practitioners understand that many will be experiencing bullying; what the root cause of this bullying is, and what they can do to make their spaces safe and LGBT+ inclusive environments. 

The roots of LGBT+ bullying 

Pop‘n’Olly’s Head of Education, Mel Lane, is a primary school teacher and teacher trainer with almost 30 years’ experience in the classroom. She focuses particularly on LGBT+ inclusion and her experience, as well as that of many other teachers we work with, appears to back up the research that shows how LGBT+ bullying is linked with the adherence to gender stereotypes.4 It is easy to see the link between gender stereotyping and the bullying I witnessed in my school playground – a boy singled out for having a stereotypically feminine hairstyle and voice pitch, treated as an outsider or, as I witnessed, being pointed at, ridiculed and told, ‘That’s so gay!’ 

The link to gender stereotypes can be connected to the notion that ‘children are not born prejudiced; it is a learned behaviour’.5 At the root of behavioural development is a child’s sense and accumulation of cues from their environment about who and what those around them (including parents, teachers and other key adults) like and don’t like, as well as who is considered ‘good’ in our culture, and who is shunned and/or considered ‘bad’.6 This underpins the development of social grouping with the forming of ‘in’ and ‘out’ group behaviours, where children are shown to ‘readily form biases in favour of their own social group’ and consequently develop prejudice towards members of ‘out’ groups.4 One of the most important aspects of this research is the finding that the cues children pick up on do not have to be explicit or even verbal to have a powerful effect on the development of prejudice. When we are talking about gender stereotyping, which is shown to develop as young as 18 to 24 months, this is influenced by what children see in the media,7 as well as the behaviour in their home4 and school environments.

Given this knowledge, is it any wonder that boys with longer hair and high-pitched voices attract harassment? For me, and so many others, this policing of gender stereotypes by classmates, reinforced by the media we are exposed to and the environment created at school and by other adults, meant that the only logical course of action was to conform – to reinvent myself as a ‘boy’ who was masculine, strong and sporty; a boy who was brave and didn’t express their emotions; a boy who, it turned out, did such a good job at ‘fitting in’, they lost their true identity along the way. 

What about the T? 

Transgender or non-binary were never words I heard growing up, and I never saw any positive representations of transgender or non-binary people in the media or in the world around me. Consequently, I spent my early life trying to fit myself into one of two boxes: ‘male’ or ‘female’. With my sex assigned at birth as ‘male’, it was clear which of these two boxes I was meant to inhabit. Given the lack of representation of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people for me to identify with, coupled with societal pressure, it is no wonder I found myself contemplating suicide by the age of 18. I was stuck feeling lonely and isolated, feeling like I was wrong, not enough, and not deserving happiness or love. 

When children don’t feel validated and supported, we teach them to feel shame,9,10 which is one of the most powerful emotions with both short- and long-term effects. We see this in the devastating mental health of many young LGBT people, and also in manifestations of anger or aggression.1,3,8,11 This means that, not only are LGBT+ young people bullied for not conforming to gender stereotypes, but the bullies themselves may well be acting from a place of shame too.11 

Understanding that LGBT+ young people are likely to experience bullying rooted in gender stereotypes helps practitioners to support them, and all young people, accessing mental health services. This knowledge enables them to make environments more LGBT+ inclusive, and better supports the needs of all young people. 

Gendered language

Children start to recognise gender roles between 18 to 24 months via cues from the adults around them. It is important that we are conscious and deliberate in not using unnecessarily gendered language. I am not suggesting we erase all gender-specific language, but instead propose diversifying some of the language we use to recognise gender broadness. Pretty. Sensible. Sporty. Strong. Helpful. Brave. When you read these words, do you have in your mind a specific gender? If so, consider which gender? Maybe even go one step further and consider why you associate it with this gender. And then stop! 

If we use different language for different genders, we make assumptions rooted in gender stereotyping. This affects the messaging children receive about how they should behave, dress or express themselves and, consequently, limits their options about who they feel they can be and how they can express themselves. Gendered language tells boys that wearing dresses is wrong, and that they cannot be pretty but must instead be handsome. It can confine girls to being sensible and obedient, rather than giving them permission to speak their mind or develop strong opinions. 

The impact of gendered language on transgender and gender non-conforming children can be devastating. When we hear language based on a binary view of gender, it erases the existence of genders outside of that binary, and can lead gender non-conforming children to feel inherent shame about themselves. The best analogy I can use to describe my experience as a young person is a room full of boxes. Most people, it seems to me, choose a box with a list of characteristics that perfectly describes them and hop right in. For me, however, I was stuck. I partially fitted into several different boxes but didn’t perfectly fit into any one. There was no box for me, and that was scary and shaming because it felt like there must be something wrong with me. I must be broken and not deserving of a place to fit or belong like everyone else. That shame and fear was all-consuming and still affects me to this day. 

When we broaden our language rather than limit it to gender stereotypes, we give children freedom for self-expression and options that show them there are so many ways to be human. This is not to say there’s anything wrong with words such as pretty, sensible, sporty, strong or brave, but we shouldn’t limit those words to particular genders.

Challenging language 

Allyship is not only about considering how we use language, but challenging our colleagues, children and those around us when we hear anti-LGBT+ language being used. When we challenge someone, it’s important to lead with curiosity rather than judgment. Asking someone why they have chosen to use that particular language, and using this question as an opportunity to help educate them on the meaning and impact of such language, can feel less confrontational.

From working with educators, we know that challenging language can lead to apprehension. One of the most effective strategies can be to develop a policy for staff on how to tackle anti-LGBT+ language, and emphasising leading with education and curiosity rather than shame or judgment. Allyship is about empowering ourselves, as well as others, to be able to stand up for and with LGBT+ people, to create more welcoming and inclusive environments for all. 

Visible allyship 

Children see many different things every day which form their view of the world. If what they see is restricted to a particular group or representation of people, we limit how they see the world, which leads to ignorance and prejudice. We need to show positive representation of LGBT+ lives, so that LGBT+ children see themselves (or their family members and friends) represented, and so that all children learn that being LGBT+ is just another way of being human.  

My colleague, Mel, is passionate about showing her allyship to LGBT+ people. The windows of her house look out onto the pavement, and she has displayed a bunch of stickers that show LGBT+ inclusion, including ones saying, ‘You are safe here’, ‘Trans Ally’ and the rainbow flag. Mel knew she was making a difference when she received an anonymous note through the door saying, ‘I pass your house on my way to school and it always makes me happy to see your stickers. Thank you so much.’ 

When LGBT+ people enter a new environment, we immediately look for signs that it is a safe space for us to be ourselves. In a therapy or counselling space, there is so much that can be done to make us feel welcome before we even start talking to a professional. These non-verbal touch points can be small and simple, such as having a diverse range of books on display, or they may be more explicit, such as the counsellor wearing a Pride badge or lanyard, or having a Pride flag sticker somewhere in the room. These things may go unnoticed to the majority of young people, but for those who need to see them to feel safe, the impact will be huge. This kind of visible allyship may also help parents feel more comfortable when finding the right environment for their child and help them to feel reassured too.

In my own experience of therapy, it made a major difference to know that my therapist was also queer. It made me feel instantly at ease in the space because I knew that it meant I could be myself without judgment or fear, but also that she may have some inherent knowledge of some of the LGBT+ specific issues I was tackling. It broke down an invisible barrier many people wouldn’t even consider. So, if you identify as LGBT+, consider whether you feel comfortable disclosing that, knowing that it is likely to have a significant impact on putting LGBT+ clients at ease.

Understanding the specific issues faced by LGBT+ young people, and how the environments, language and behaviour of those around them affects their emotional development, is fundamental to creating environments that better support them. We live in a world where LGBT+ bullying is a significant problem, but we can take solace in understanding that prejudice is learned and can therefore be un-learned. Understanding the gendered aspects behind this kind of prejudice can help practitioners position themselves to offer more inclusive spaces for children of all genders. 


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