‘Are you for the girls or for the boys?’ I was in second or third grade when two girls on the playground walked up to me and asked me the question. From then on there was only before and after. The two girlfriends didn’t realize it but they changed my life. In two ways.

I was about thirteen years old and until then had never been ‘in love’. The Internet didn’t exist yet and we didn’t have TV at home either. So I was fairly naive to say the least. Sexuality and relationships were not on the curriculum at school either. So I just wasn’t involved with it yet.

I really didn’t realize what was behind the ‘are you for the girls or for the boys’. They could just as well have asked whether I supported Club Brugge or Anderlecht. And just as I, as a West-Fleming, could only be for Club (I knew nothing about soccer yet I sang songs about ‘Anderlecht and the goalkeeper can’t catch the balls’), here too I chose the team closest to me. ‘For the boys of course,’ I said.

Had I been aware of the question behind the question, this would have been brave. A young teenager proudly coming out for being gay in a rural West Flanders municipality in the 1980s was exceptional. I would love to be able to say that this was my first LGBTI+ activist act. Alas, it was not activism, it was not courageous, it was childishly innocent.

And ‘stupid’ I thought when I noticed what the consequences were. Because from then on the bullying began, the swearing – ‘jeanette’, ‘potter’ – and the being excluded. It gave me a hellish time at school. When I think back on that period, I can’t recall a single happy moment. But like most LGBTI+ youth, I was able to hide how bad I felt. As a result, the teachers had no idea what I was going through. A few years ago, when my old school celebrated its 50th anniversary, I was invited to a party night. To share fond memories of the school. However, I had only negative feelings about it.

The only fun moments were those with the few friends I had. The small group of boys who made me feel safe. We laughed together at silly jokes and we thought we were having profound conversations. By the way, of the five guys I hung out with, three turned out to be gay too. But we didn’t know that at the time. I would have been happy to tell you a few ‘red ear’ stories about how we discovered together that we were into boys, but it would have been a lie… We each figured it out at our own pace and sometimes years later.

So for me, that search began the moment the two girlfriends asked me, full of inward thoughts about what was to come, if I was team ‘ ho’ or ‘ he’. And that was the second way they turned my life upside down. Until then, I had never laid awake wondering who I might fall in love with. But now I had to. I didn’t want to fall for boys at all, tried to push myself towards straight. Getting and reading “dirty books” was exciting, but didn’t really help. I hoped it would become clear to me when I turned 15. Or 16. But never did the ‘Aha’ moment come.

Until I found some books in the library (a kind of internet on paper) with stories about how nice it can be for a boy to fall in love with another boy. A book on sex education that looked at homosexuality not as a deviation but simply as one of the options. I recognized myself in that. Then the click did come. And with the self-acceptance also the steps forward. I could start sharing, I could push my closet door open inch by inch.

Those were the eighties. Meanwhile, thirty years have passed and we live in a totally different society. Women who can marry each other, male-male couples who adopt children, that you can have your gender changed on your identity card on simple request, … it was unthinkable in my youth.

But in education, not much seems to have changed. In any case, I was deeply disappointed to read in 18-year-old Joris Nitelet’s open letter that he himself ‘never had the opportunity to experience talking about LGBTQ+ in a positive way in the classroom’.

That’s terrible. Searching for yourself, discovering your sexuality, learning to accept yourself and building your first relationships… it’s something most young people struggle with. Puberty is intense for many. However, if these young people are also given the impression that they are doing the wrong thing, that they had better hide how they feel, then this requires even more energy and creates enormous stress. It goes without saying that this cannot have a positive impact on learning and grades. For example, the Flemish LGBTI+ School Climate Survey (2017) shows that 1 in 3 of LGBTI+ students regularly skip school when there is a negative school climate towards LGBT students. If there is an open attitude, it is only 1 in 10. But schools want to deliver strong young people, don’t they? Why does it seem like they pay so little attention to this?

When you talk to principals and teachers, they nuance. If LGBT sexuality and gender roles or stereotypes are never discussed at school, then the school is violating the attainment targets imposed by the government or the curricula, the translation of the attainment targets by the umbrella organizations.

For example, the umbrella organisation of Catholic education imposes a number of learning objectives on its elementary school and one of them is ‘being gender aware, acting in a gender friendly way and (re)recognising different forms of relationships’. This means that from the age of eight children learn that as a girl you can also be in love with a girl, as a boy with a boy and that you have to respect that even if you yourself are not like that. From about ten years of age, students should understand how gender roles are created, come to know that gender roles are taught, and learn that in everyday life they should not push people into gender pigeonholes.

The teachers and masters then get to work with that. For example, in the second kindergarten class of a school in Etterbeek last year there was a boy who liked to wear dresses. The teachers then worked around gender awareness and gender neutral toys.

My own son was in a school in the center of Brussels and without us, his two fathers, having to ask, 2 gifts came on Father’s Day and the Mother’s Day gift became a craft for his godmother.

And a school in Molenbeek set up a theme week a few years ago on ‘Me and the other’, where they worked with the whole school and the parents on gender and m/f role patterns, gay, lesbian and bi people, transgender people and resilience.

LGBTI+ and gender are also mandatory on the agenda in secondary schools. Since September 1, 2019, there are new attainment targets for the first grade of secondary education. And these also deal with relationships, sexuality and integrity.

Concretely, within Catholic schools in Flanders, this then becomes: ‘The pupils explain mental and physical developments of boys and girls within puberty (gender, identity and sexual orientation) and are aware of the possible influences of ideal images on the perception of their own body image (curriculum objective 40)’ and ‘The pupils deal respectfully with friendship, falling in love, sexual identity and orientation, sexual feelings and behavior, sexual development and changes in puberty (curriculum objective 44)’.

And so it came that in a textbook for the subject ‘Man and Society’ finally one of the personages has two daddies.

For the second and third grade of secondary education, the new attainment targets have not yet been approved, but it seems unthinkable that there would be no attention for sexual orientation and gender identity. At the moment, the cross-curricular final attainment levels still apply to these students, which, among other things, impose that students must be able to express themselves respectfully about friendship, falling in love, sexual identity and orientation, sexual feelings and behavior.

In addition to the lessons, there is also student counseling. These people have personal conversations with students who are not comfortable with the way they feel, who are afraid of the reactions at home or from friends, etc. They then regularly contact LGBT youth associations, Merhaba (LGBTI+ association for young people from a migrant background) or the transgender information point.

Compared to the 1980s, this is indeed a big advance, a huge advance even. But I have to make some comments about this. Because when 18-year-old Joris Nitelet says he has never experienced this himself, I know he is not lying. Indeed, between dream and deed there are many practical objections.

It’s great that a textbook “Man and Society” finally has a character with two dads, it’s good that the religion or morality teacher is already talking about Pride Month, and that homosexuality is now addressed in biology classes.

It’s just not enough. Out of the twelve or fifteen years a child is in school, this practically amounts to a few hours and that is too little to really make a difference. My own son has been taught about STDs longer than he has been taught about LGBTI+ relationships. After all, most people don’t like to talk about relationships and sexuality. Teachers are no different in that regard. But if you struggle with embarrassment, if you don’t feel comfortable with the subject, how can you teach positively and create an open discussion atmosphere about these topics?

Sometimes teachers don’t feel “armed” enough. Some young people are not immediately open to discussion, do not necessarily want to adjust their macho view of society, and may react aggressively. Others struggle with themselves in a different way and are just looking for a lot of information. It is not easy to always deal with this appropriately. So many teachers just avoid the subject.

The worst thing, however, is the ignorance that still exists here and there among teachers today. But if you’ve never learned anything about it yourself, haven’t gotten to know the nuances, then there’s a real chance that you’ll just confirm the clichés or misinformation. And that, unfortunately, still happens too often.

It’s too easy to skip these topics. Or to pass them on to a colleague who you hope will be better at it. But unfortunately, he also had a full plate… This is why you notice that it often depends on a few passionate or involved people whether a school is LGBTI+-friendly or not. And if they disappear, the theme disappears with them. It is too rarely structurally embedded.

Or else it is often ‘problem specific’: there is a blatant case of homophobia at school or a student starts his or her transition. Then one takes action, asks for help, and in-service training and counseling are provided. Is the “problem” gone (graduated) then the attention also fades away. 

Unfortunately, and I take my own story as an example, LGBTI+ students often hide the fact that they are bullied very well. Schools that think they have no problem with homophobia may just need to look a little closer.

Moreover, too many schools approach LGBTI+-ness as something “special,” something “different from everyone else”. But most young people don’t want to be different at all. We do not ask for special lessons, but for an open atmosphere at school so LGBTI+ young people can feel safe. No chapter on ‘homosexuality’ but just be in line when the textbook talks about relationships and families. LGBTI+ books being unlabeled on the book list. That Stonewall is automatically mentioned along when history classes discuss the struggle for emancipation. Illustrations that show two mothers even when the subject of the text has nothing to do with homosexuality and a school that naturally participates in Purple Friday or IDAHOT, the day against homo- and transphobia.

Can that work? Yes. I truly believe that the openness is there among most teachers and principals. But it won’t be easy. Not because they don’t want to, but because they haven’t been taught and often just don’t see it. Our society is still so hetero-oriented that many cis-heteros don’t even realize that they are propagating that hetero-norm always and everywhere. It’s like asking someone who doesn’t realize he is color blind to explain the difference between green and red.

So we will have to help them, come up with alternatives and solutions ourselves, demand adjustments from publishers of all textbooks, appeal to teacher training programs and help reform them. And continue to kindly correct the mistakes they will make.

The best day to start doing this was yesterday, the second best day is today. As in society, such a change in attitude in our schools takes time. It can be frustrating. But if we start now, the children of Joris Nitelet will have a good time at school. Without it mattering whether they are “for the boys or for the girls”.

This opinion piece appeared on Weekend.Knack.be on September 28, 2020. You can read it herehttps://weekend.knack.be/lifestyle/maatschappij/scholen-die-denken-geen-probleem-te-hebben-met-homofobie-moeten-misschien-gewoon-beter-kijken/article-opinion-1646619.html

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