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21 January 2015

Is an LGBT school a good idea?

If it would protect people from homophobic bullying, could a separate school be worth a try?

By Eleanor Margolis

When stories about the UK’s first school for LGBT kids recently began cropping up, I fell immediately into that defensive position the internet has beaten into me: “this is fake”. Either fake, or highly exaggerated. Perhaps the Daily Mail had run the headline “Taxpayer to fund gay school”, when what it actually meant was something like “0.00000001 per cent of taxpayer’s money to fund one school’s crackdown on bullying of LGBT students”.

It turns out though, that an LGBT school could become a reality. LGBT Youth North West, a Manchester-based organisation, revealed that they’ve received over £60,000 to take out a lease on a Manchester City Council building. Depending on what Manchester’s queer youth actually want, this building could be used as an LGBT community centre, or, yes, a school.

And so ensued the debate about whether or not an LGBT school is actually a good idea. And I have to admit, I’m stumped. And being ambivalent towards any “gay issues” news story is new to me. In fact, I’m almost certain that this is an absolute first. I’m used to anything involving gay rights being a question of “are you with us or against us?” But things, in the west at least, are beginning to get a lot more complicated. Now that we’re placing the rainbow flag under a microscope, shades of grey are starting to emerge.

My immediate diagnosis of the proposed school, once I’d established that this wasn’t one of those viral stories which, like last year’s alleged three-titted woman, turns out to be complete rubbish, was, “terrible, terrible idea”. This, I thought, is ghettoisation at its worst. Could anything confirm a bully’s belief that LGBT people are freaks of nature more than confining them to their own schools? No, the bigots are the ones who need to be worked on and, if anything, they should have specialised schools. We don’t need schools for gays, I concluded, we need ones for thick bastards.

Then I thought back to my own experience as a lesbian schoolgirl (no, this isn’t about to get pornographic). Homophobic bullying wasn’t a big problem at my secondary school – not that I noticed, anyway. But I still didn’t feel like I could come out. Most of the girls I knew discussed boys; gayness never really entered into the equation. It almost wasn’t an option. If I’d been offered a place at an LGBT school, I don’t think I would’ve taken it. I was too confused about my sexuality to base any life-changing decisions on it. But I can definitely see the appeal of an environment in which you’re free to be precisely as queer as you like, without making an intrinsically political statement and drawing attention to yourself.

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According to a 2012 report by Stonewall, 55 per cent of LGBT pupils have had to deal with homophobic bullying at school. The answer to this, you may well think, isn’t to put those kids on a high shelf, out of their bullies’ reach, and move on. You’re not going to cure a homophobe by making sure they don’t have to be around gay people. At the same time, why should today’s LGBT kids have to put up with bullying in the name of progress? When we say that homophobes need to be “exposed” to gays, we’re forcing those gays to be radical. Going by Stonewall’s 55 per cent, if you’re out at school, you’re probably going to be bullied. So, coming out in the first place is pretty hard core. This comes naturally to some teenagers, but others (like me), not so much. Children shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of a world that needs to change. Is an LGBT school the answer to this? I still just don’t know.