‘No queer sex ed and homophobia goes unpunished’: This is what it’s like to grow up LGBT+ in UK boarding schools

·8-min read

Earlier this year, London private school headmaster Nicholas Hewitt proudly came out to his students, echoing the bravery of one of his students.

St Dunstan College is one of many wealthy private schools across the UK where a gesture like this could go a long way.

Sadly, however, the private sector is behind in its efforts to create a safe space for queer kids. So, what about boarding schools?

There are approximately 500 boarding schools scattered across the UK and Ireland and within those live hundreds of LGBT+ staff and students. Why is the experience of students at boarding schools different to those elsewhere? Well, you don’t leave.

Every minute is timetabled and you become a part of a closed-off community of young people like you, often in competition – always together.

You live with your best friends and your bullies alike and the added dimension of money makes suspensions and expulsions for homophobia or any kind of bullying few and far between, despite a “zero-tolerance policy”.

I grew up in this environment, in a house of 60 girls, surrounded by gossip, competition and the classic pitfalls of teenage life.

Heightened hormones are one thing at home, but boarding schools are a hotbed for angst, anxiety and insecurity. I came out to my friends when I was 14, and at first, it was OK.

I’d had crushes on friends – unreciprocated, of course – but it wasn’t until I started dating men that I realised my queerness was a problem.

When girls came out at my school – and I could count on one hand how many there were – they were branded as attention-seeking, or going through a phase.

They were sexualised by male students and doubted. When I dated men it was fetishised that I was attracted to women, and for a long time, I think I suppressed and doubted my sexuality out of fear and confusion.

Among the boys, all we ever heard with regards to discussions about sexuality was the use of gay as a slur. There were 1,000 iterations of ‘gaylord’ and their uses were varied.

If men were feminine they were victimised. There were no ‘soft’ men. It wasn’t until I met a gay teacher that I realised that gay women live totally normal lives, and I don’t think I truly accepted that women who love women can be romantic, normal, professional or parental.

We had no queer sex education and homophobic ‘humour’ was unpunished. Our campus was full of ‘normal’, nuclear families and queerness were never explored.

(Stock photograph via Envato Elements)
(Stock photograph via Envato Elements)

There was no downtime from this intense environment. Your day to day life was managed, timetabled and controlled and you were surrounded by your peers 24/7. They were not bad people 90 per cent of the time, but the environment was toxic to LGBT+ youths.

Many queer students have felt alienated throughout their time at boarding school, I know I certainly did.

I felt fetishised for my sexuality by fellow students and saw queerness as a negative attribute to have. PinkNews spoke to Lisa, an openly gay member of staff from a boarding school in the south east of England, who worked there from 2013-2016.

She shared that she felt that teachers were unprepared to deal with crises of sexuality, even if they themselves were queer.

“I had a student come to me to discuss the fact that she was gay and that she was confused and I’d had no training or places to point kids to so I didn’t really know what to say,” she said.

There is a lack of queer education which resonates across the education sector as a whole, but with the bulk of pastoral care falling to the school instead of the parents, there is a complete lack of resources available for students living in these oppressive environments, despite hundreds of thousands of pounds being spent on their education.

Lisa reflected: “I went to a state school, and I never considered the boarding school I worked at to be much different to that for LGBT+ people.

“But conversations about diversity and inclusion should have been different because they were taking place a decade later.”

Teenage Students In Uniform Sitting Examination In School Hall
(Stock photograph via Envato Elements)

Section 28 of the local government act – the legislation in place that prevented the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools – was repealed in 2003. Yet, the private sector still seems to be riddled with hushed tones on the topic of homosexuality.

Ed attended a boarding school in the Midlands until 2016 and he shared that his school initially didn’t have much of a support structure in place.

“I think what people have got to remember is that when I went there,” he said, “it was still only eight years after Section 28 was repealed and the legacy of that law I’m sure still influenced how schools were run.”

However, changes did start to come after a student came out publicly in assembly at Ed’s school.

It’s upsetting as someone who attended a school like this, that it takes coming out publicly, putting yourself in the firing line, to have any kind of honest conversation about LGBT+ issues.

When 4.4 per cent of young people across the UK identify as LGBT+, these schools should be doing better.

Michelle attended a boarding school in southern England until 2016 and came out as bisexual. About her school, she shared: “They’ve made strides in inclusion now.

“But, I think that the traditional aspects of private and boarding schools, especially for boys, make it difficult to implement.

“The older, richer generations still run everything at a certain level. A lot of people I knew came out after school because they were too scared. You got in more trouble for wearing a tank top than for homophobic comments.”

Homophobia or queerphobia of any kind should not have a place in any school. Even staff have fallen victim to homophobic abuse in a boarding environment.

Abi (name changed on request), a gay teacher at a UK boarding school, had not experienced any kind of outright homophobia in her years of teaching until three years ago.

When three of her students took to social media to spread homophobic hate speech in order to ‘tarnish’ her reputation among the student body, Abi was left hurt.

Even when she was teaching under Section 28, she had not faced any abuse of this kind. The issue was brought to the police, but Abi chose not to press charges, and the students remain at the school to this day.

Living in the same environment as those with openly homophobic attitudes has a truly damaging effect on anyone in the boarding school ‘bubble’.

It is one thing sitting next to someone at lunch who expresses those views, but when you share a room, a wall, a home with people who disagree with the way you love, it can have devastating effects.

With little access to the outside world, to current affairs or to alternative ways of living to the straight, white and gendered ways those within the school live, queer kids are left feeling oppressed, wrong and confused.

Being able to live as your authentic self within these communities of wealth and education is not made easy by those at the top.

Lisa explained: “If you weren’t married you had to ask the headmaster for his permission to have someone around.

“I asked the headmaster if my long term partner could come and stay on a more regular basis – as some of the straight teachers had this arrangement with their partners.

“He said, ‘I don’t know if that is particularly appropriate’, and the impression I got was that it was because we were two women.”

Group of female kids in school uniform that is outdoors together near education building
(Stock photograph via Envato Elements)

This very school just five years later is sharing posts in support of LGBT+ history month. It is covering its social media feed in rainbow laces to stand up against homophobia and bullying yet still isn’t stopping the cries of “GAY” on the rugby sidelines, or making allowances for trans students in the creation of gendered boarding houses.

When it comes to performative gestures in boarding schools and the private sector as a whole, Abi was honest.

“A lot of the time we are just jumping through hoops and it’s done fairly often over issues of racism and homophobia,” she said.

“There are PSHE lessons once every two weeks and there has been a session that discussed LGBT+ issues, but ultimately we are still a minority group within the school. I can understand why it could leave a sour taste in someone’s mouth, and I wish I could say it was different.”

What these schools need is a real injection of LGBT+ education, pastoral resources and open conversation, to enable kids to work out who they are, and do so safely and compassionately.

Progress has been made in the last five years towards creating a more diverse environment, but still, there are queer young people feeling like they have nowhere to go within their own home.

The private sector needs to put pride before profit and performative action to one side, using those resources and ideas to generate actual change.

Suppressing your sexuality should not be a side effect of the boarding school world, because it will continue to affect you for years into your adult life.

Mr Hewitt, I commend your bravery, but now let’s remind the rest of the private sector that not every privileged kid fits the mould.

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