Speaking about her own experiences as a ShoutOut volunteer, Ruth Murphy discusses how our society still feels it can getaway with using LGBTQ+ slurs

The average age at which one figures out their sexuality is 12. The average age for an Irish person to come out as LGBTQ+ is 17. The gap between these years is roughly the amount of time we spend in secondary school; an interval during which the LGBTQ+ community are scared to come out. This fear stems from bullying, stereotyping, slagging and the creation of a stigma around LGBTQ+ people.

When I was in school, we sat around in a group while our teacher explained to us that we were hurting people when we misused the words “gay,” “faggot” and “dyke.” However, the reply from many in the class was “I don’t see why it’s offensive,” and so these words would continue to run rampant through the school. Later someone would say, “It was so gay of the teacher to tell us that we were being offensive.”

I was lucky to be taught even this much. Most schools in Ireland teach very little about LGBTQ+ issues. Many religious and non-denominational schools like to keep gay rights out of their ethos.

It is not on the curriculum, and anyway how are they supposed to teach about LGBTQ+ issues when many SPHE teachers aren’t even allowed to recommend the use of condoms? Teachers may fear that teaching topics that aren’t on the curriculum could get them into trouble with the state, or with their local religious order.

Unfortunately, this also means that teenagers are not taught the strength of their words. Despite laws on equality in the workplace, many teachers are actually afraid to tell their colleagues or students of their sexuality.

It may not be a student’s business who their teacher dates, but a teacher should not fear being bullied by their students if word gets out. Inequality in secondary schools can affect every member of staff as well as every pupil.

In school, every time I heard the phrase “that’s so gay,” I crept further back into the closet. With anything bad being called “gay” and anyone different being called a “dyke” or a “faggot” I became terrified of these expressions.

My fellow students had no idea how much they scared me with their words and I was afraid that if I stood up and said that they were being rude that I would instantly be labelled as “gay,” a word I feared because of the stigma attached to it. The word “gay” meant wrong or weird, and how was I to know otherwise?

In 2009, a survey commissioned by GLEN and BeLonG To found that 58% of respondents had witnessed homophobic bullying in their own school. This bullying in many cases lead to students skipping school (20%), dropping out (5%), self-harming, and even considering suicide.

Worryingly, another survey conducted in 2012 by an Irish charity, shoutout.ie, found that 55% of all students and 68% of LGBTQ+ students surveyed agreed that homophobic bullying was tolerated by teachers and staff more than other forms of bullying. A staggering 92% of students surveyed felt that their secondary school did not provide enough information and support on sexuality.

It is these harsh statistics that led to the establishment of ShoutOut. ShoutOut is an NGO set up and run by college students and recent graduates. It gives free workshops in Irish secondary schools.

The motto of the organisation is, “Being LGBTQ+ in Irish secondary schools can be really hard. We want to change that.” ShoutOut wants to rid Irish secondary schools of homophobic and transphobic bullying and the stigma around the LGBTQ+ community, and to teach Irish teenagers to stand up for their LGBTQ+ friends.

ShoutOut has over 100 volunteers who have gone to schools across Ireland, giving workshops to thousands of pupils. ShoutOut has invited schools in several counties to take on their workshops and have received requests from other counties (and one from a scout troop) to go and talk to young people about the issues facing LGBTQ+ youth.

Schools may be afraid to touch on LGBTQ+ issues, but having a volunteer come in takes the load of the teacher and gives a voice to an issue that is often ignored. Many students may feel more comfortable discussing sexuality and gender identity with a young volunteer than with a teacher they see everyday. These workshops are only one hour long, but they can make a huge difference to the lives of LGBTQ+ youth struggling to get through secondary school.

I became a volunteer with ShoutOut last year. A lot of students where we were giving a workshop admitted to using words such as “gay”, “dyke” and “fag” against the LGBTQ+ community or their friends and not understanding what made these words rude or offensive.

None of these teenagers disliked the LGBTQ+ community and none of them wanted to offend anybody. They simply spread words they were hearing everyday. ShoutOut teaches students like these that words can hurt people; that particular words may mean more than it seems at first glance.

ShoutOut likes to use simple, relatable language to spread a message of inclusion and positivity. They teach students that there is no reason to tolerate bullying and that LGBTQ+ teenagers are just like everybody else and should be treated as such.

Each workshop starts with volunteers telling the students a bit about themselves, reminding the students that the volunteers aren’t much older than them and aren’t that different to them.

At the end of each workshop the students are asked to write up a peer agreement outlining what the students plan to do in future to make their school a more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ people, which could include agreeing to stop calling things they dislike “gay” and standing up against homophobic and transphobic bullying in their schools and communities.

After these workshops, teenagers across Ireland may think before they speak. These workshops can create an inclusive environment for all. So hopefully someday when someone in school hints at someone being LGBTQ+, the person mentioned won’t feel their heart pound in their ears as their biggest secret is close to getting out.

Instead, they will know that people don’t mind who they like or what gender they are. It may take a lot of work for Irish secondary schools to reach this stage, but ShoutOut is helping us get there.