High school students are being exposed to homophobic bullying in their physical education lessons, with a new study finding the classes are often the most hostile school environments for gay and lesbian students.
The classes, during which students learn about sexuality, can be deeply distressing for young students, leading to serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and even suicide.
The study, which was funded by beyondblue, found 98 per cent of students had heard casual homophobia in their PE classes, while more than 80 per cent heard it frequently. Casual homophobia describes phrases such as “that’s so gay”.
More deliberate homophobic remarks – “faggot” or “dyke” – were heard by more than 60 per cent of students in PE and a quarter of those surveyed had been physically abused or pushed.
“It’s like a constant drop of water,” Dr Caroline Symons from Victoria University, who led the research team, said. “You’re hearing it all the time and it’s corrosive to your self image.”
In positive environments students were able to develop more “unconditional self-acceptance” of their sexuality, which could then act as a buffer between homophobia and poor mental health.
Of the 400 same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people surveyed, almost half had thought about self-harm or suicide and about 14 per cent had attempted suicide.
A majority of the students found PE classes a little distressing and half found them quite or extremely distressing.
Professor Brett McDermott, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry, said the report begs the question “Is PDHPE the right place to teach sexuality?”
The president of the PDHPE Teachers’ Association, Peter Henson, said it was important issues of sexuality were not taught in terms of “normal” and “different”.
“You teach students what equal and respectful relationships look like – and they can take any one of 100 different forms – and you let each individual explore that concept within their own context.”
Haylie Bennett, a PDHPE Teacher at Pymble Ladies’ College, said it was important to promote “an environment that respects difference and diversity“ and to use inclusive language.
“I work at an all girls school and we really try to avoid using the word boyfriend when we are talking about relationships and replace it with the word partner,” she said.
Burwood Girls High School is not just anti-homophobia but a proud gay-friendly school. The school flies a rainbow flag and established a student group, True Colours, to promote sexual and gender diversity.
The school has also joined the Safe Schools Coalition launched in NSW last week to tackle homophobia and transphobia.
The principal Mia Kumar says the anti-homophobic agenda permeates every part of the school.
“It’s about making sure you provide a safe learning environment for everyone no matter who they are,” she said. “Students have to feel they are supported.”
Year 12 student Genevieve Brown does not identify as gay or bisexual but is part of the True Colours group and is passionate about creating an inclusive environment for her peers.
“I’ve got friends in my year and in other years who are bi or lesbian who don’t feel the need to broadcast it but do know that people in the school like myself support them,” she said. “And they know they could have a conversation around that topic if they needed to.”
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