Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Time For Action Against Bullies

The Lib Dems have launched a petition against homophobic bullying, something the party’s MPs have been campaigning on for a few years; not the most glamorous or vote-winning cause in the world, but good on everyone involved for pushing it. It’s the last type of abuse by ‘group’ still socially acceptable for many; more difficult to identify than, say, racist abuse, and therefore to stop; and instead of relying on parents for support, many kids will feel they couldn’t tell them in a million years. Worse, if some parents found out, they’d be worse to their kids than the bullies are. It takes real determination and action by a school to stop homophobic bullying; lip service won’t cut it.

Conrad Russell used to say that Liberalism was about standing up to bullies. Liberals are on the side of anyone who’s picked on by someone else with too much power and not enough constraints, from governments, to businesses, to criminals, to spiteful kids in the playground. And the converse of standing up to oppression is enabling people to liberate themselves, which has made education particularly dear to Liberal hearts. There are few more absolute examples of what we’re about than making sure bullies are tackled in schools, and the reason that the Liberal Democrats are focussing on homophobic bullying in particular this time is that it is unusually hard to monitor and – unlike most bullying – there is sadly not yet a fully formed policy to tackle it in every school, nor even a fully formed consensus that it is wrong, so the petition calls for action to ensure that all pupils know all bullying will not be tolerated, and there are no exceptions.

I’m just about as out as a gay politician can be these days, but I can remember what it was like when I was at school. I remember being picked on and hating it, and though schools today are very different to those in the Eighties – not least that homophobic abuse is at least given lip-service recognition – they’re still not perfect, or even in all ways better. In a lot of playgrounds the word ‘gay’ is now an ubiquitous insult, and a lot of people see nothing wrong with it, and those that do don’t confront it (as even one of the few bits of last year’s Doctor Who that really, really got me seething testified). There are few people I feel more protective towards than gay or bi schoolkids, or, for that matter, straight or confused schoolkids for whom ‘gay’ abuse is still daily torment.

I was bullied at school with homophobic abuse; I don’t know if it was because they’d spotted I was gay long before I did, if it was simply because I was bookish and preferred a put-down to a punch-up, or if it was simply the easiest abuse to throw. I do know that, because it was what people who aimed to make my life a misery were throwing at me, it helped prevent me coming out even to myself for a long while. Because, you see, agreeing with them felt like a surrender. When I finally spotted the truth on a conscious level, I had three weeks of agonising, followed by the typically stubborn and overambitious – but, I have to say, right – decision that, as there was plainly nothing I could see wrong with me, there was something wrong with the world and I should change it.

This petition is a small way in which you can help change it.

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Aren't you grateful to Auntie Beeb for explaining to us that "gay" is no longer an insult?

Oh dear. Well, it wasn’t, but it’s been reinvented as such.

It’s not occurred to anyone where the insult comes from, then, or who it might hit every time it’s used? Or does playground slang suddenly get a ‘get out of homophobia’ free card, because playgrounds are such supportive and non-discriminatory places? And how are gay people supposed to tell the difference between someone who’s homophobic saying they’re rubbish by default, and someone posing as ‘in with the kids’ telling them they’re rubbish but, actually, it’s just a coincidence that it sounds like it’s about their sexuality?

So, if some racist term became ‘general abuse’, they’d be happy to use it, would they? Of course they wouldn’t. They’d just hold up shocked mittens when someone else did and call in Bonnie Greer to tut on Newsnight.
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