Many of our ideas about what is ‘sexually normal’ are perpetuated by institutions such as schools. Schools have often reinforced beliefs that heterosexuality is normal and that homosexuality and bisexuality are abnormal.
Difficult to tell
Many children know quite early which gender or genders they are attracted to. Almost a third know before the age of 12. But a 2007 survey found that only 40% of gay or bisexual high-school students had talked to other people about it. Of these students, 30% of 13-year-olds had told someone close to them about their sexuality, as had 47% of those aged 17 and older. Of those who had spoken to others about their attraction to their own or multiple genders, 24% reported that they could talk easily to family members – but 54% could not talk to their family at all about this.
Official and unofficial curriculum
The official curriculum is what schools intentionally teach and promote. This includes the sexuality-education curriculum, and discussion of sexuality in other subject areas, such as biology, English and social studies. Sexuality education often ignores gay, lesbian and bisexual identities. One of the gay students who evaluated a proposed sexuality-education resource in the early 2000s commented that he did not encounter anything against being gay when he was at school, ‘but there was never anything for it, and there was never any mention of the word ever.’1
The ‘unofficial curriculum’ involves things that are learned at school, but that are not officially or intentionally taught. The unofficial curriculum operates when a student calls another a ‘homo’ as a term of abuse. Some schools ban the use of this term.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer students
In a 2007 study approximately 4% of secondary-school students in New Zealand reported being attracted to their own or multiple genders. This finding was repeated when the study was done again in 2012. In 2007, 74% of these students felt safe at school all or most of the time, compared with 85% of their heterosexual peers. However, others found school unsupportive and decided not to tell others about their sexual identity. Of students who were bullied at school, young people attracted to their own or multiple genders were five times more likely to report being bullied because they were thought to be gay.
Some students report discrimination from other students and teachers. A 17-year-old lesbian said that after other students had ‘outed’ her, some teachers began to ignore her when she raised her hand in class. Other students called her ‘little dyke’, and said, ‘ewe she touched me,’ when she pushed past them on the stairwell. The situation became so bad that she eventually changed schools.2
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender students have the legal right to be free from sexual discrimination at school. Schools are required to provide an environment in which all students can experience their schooling positively. The 1990 National Education Goals include a statement about the need for ‘equality of educational opportunity for all New Zealanders, by identifying and removing barriers to achievement’.3 This was reaffirmed when the goals were updated in 2004.
The Professional Standards for Teachers also require that teachers ‘demonstrate expertise and refined strategies in the development and maintenance of environments that enhance learning by recognising and catering for the learning needs of a diversity of students’.4