Education is changing, but is it moving fast enough? Dr Jenny Hatley, Course Leader for Education Studies, talks about representation, inclusion and creating safety for the LGBTQ+ community in an educational environment.
A person, viewed from behind, is wearing a Gay pride hat

As an Education Studies lecturer, I hear many of the authentic and honest stories of student's educational experiences. To quote one of my first-year students: ‘Oh! You actually want to know what we think!’ Yes, we do.

We look at the research around student's education and, crucially, we ask questions, including 'is this right? and is it just?' What does education mean if you are LGBTQ+?  What are the effects of race, social class and family background on learning? These and other questions help us see ourselves and our experiences in a new light. They help us understand who we have been, who we are now, and who we want to become. That exploration is at the heart of Education Studies.

Students' three cries for change

Recently, we have been discussing student’s experiences of being LGBTQ+ at school. They have had a range of experiences. Some have been positive. They speak of schools who made equal room for LGBTQ+ voices alongside straight ones and where their relationships were valued equally. This is a sign of how times have changed – for some. But others have not been positive and in this case their stories show that education needs to listen to their three cries for change:

1. The Cry to be Visible

Representation matters. It makes a big difference if you can see someone like you. It shows you what is possible. You can feel like you belong and have a place. You might say that your school ‘didn’t talk about it but they didn’t say it was bad either’; yet silence sends its own message and if you are LGBTQ+, you receive that message loud and clear.

2. The Cry to be Safe

The transgender flag
The Transgender Flag

There are teachers who, even after all this time of campaigning, still didn’t challenge homophobic abuse including the negative use of the word ‘gay’. Trans students are still having to negotiate their use of basic freedoms such as which toilets to use and where to change for PE. On top of that, in some cases, Trans students are required to advocate to school leaders for their needs to be met whilst educating their peers.

These are all forms of pressure. Yet we still expect students to learn without realising that to learn, you need to feel safe.

3. The Cry to be Relevant

What do you do if you realise you are LGBTQ+, or are in a same-sex relationship, but the only relationships and sex education you receive centres straight relationships and treats these as the norm?  Don’t you also have the right to know how to be safe?

What do you do if you are part of a family with same-sex parents or carers, yet the only examples of family you see and hear about, centre on a heterosexual family with a Mum and Dad? Doesn’t your love for the adults who care for you and the ways you do ‘family’ deserve equal recognition? 

To fulfil its duty to promote equality and diversity, and be inclusive to all, Education needs to listen to these cries.

But how can we get away from the issues above and arrive at a place of inclusion? How can education move from social injustice, towards social justice?

From Injustice to Justice

A helpful point of view comes from Nancy Fraser, an American researcher who focuses on theories of social justice. She writes that for there to be social justice, one of the things that needs to be in place is recognition. This means that we must centre the voices of those affected and their experiences, rights and stories  and then act to ensure their equal participation. And that begins with listening.

Several Staff members holding up the Allies Group flag
Our Allies Organisational Team

In Education Studies, we listen in several ways. We listen through the stories of our students and the active debates and discussions we have in lectures. We listen by spending time watching, discussing and learning from stories such as that of Hannah Bradford, a trans girl who navigates her first day of secondary school in the CBBC series First Day, notable because the actress playing Hannah, Evie Macdonald, is herself trans.  We listen through the research and expertise of our guest speakers, including Dr. Rachael Bullingham  and Max Davies. And we listen to ourselves and the ongoing internal reflection and questioning that forms our every-day practice.

As a university we listen. Around campus you may see us wearing our rainbow lanyards and displaying our rainbow postcards as signs that we are LGBTQ+ Allies. We want to provide a safe and welcoming space for LGBTQ+ staff and students and those who just want to chat. Over 200 members of staff have signed up as Allies and that number is growing. With an increase in learning from home you may also see our digital badges, making visible our welcome in online spaces too.

But listening is only part of the answer. We must also act.

I am reminded of the quote from civil rights activist the late Maya Angelou:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

We must listen. And then do better.

And I am part of a team of lecturers who do just that – we listen, we reflect, and we act.  Because at its heart, it’s that simple. Listen. And do better next time. In Education Studies, we are always listening, always trying and always willing to do better next time.

A lot of people tell me that life for LGBTQ+ youth is better now than in the past and I applaud the ways in which it is. But it still isn’t better equally, for everyone. So we will keep talking about it in Education Studies, we will keep listening and we will keep learning. Until it is equally better, for everyone.

Dr Jenny Hatley is the Course Leader for Education Studies BA (Hons). Her main concern within education is social justice. This is a focus in all her areas of interest which have evolved from her development of educational provision across settings in both the UK and overseas. Jenny has recently been awarded the University of Worcester's Leading Teaching Award for her work to develop online learning and promote LGBTQ+ Equality across the University.

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