Bullying of LGBT youth ‘silent epidemic’ in schools

- research finds

Karen de Souza

Bullying of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) youth by fellow students as well as teachers is a “silent epidemic” in Guyana’s schools, a recent study has found.

“[C]hildren in school who identify themselves as LGBT [are] treated very, very badly. That’s one of the reasons there is such a presence [of LGBT persons] on the margin of the society, because they drop out,” activist Karen de Souza is quoted as saying in the report on the research, titled “TRAPPED: Cycles of Violence and Discrimination against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons in Guyana,” which was launched here on Thursday.

The report represents the results of desk and field research conducted by students from the Washington, D.C-based George-town Law Human Rights Institute over the period October, 2017 to February, 2018.

As part of the study, the researchers focused on the experience of LGBT students in Guyanese schools, where it was found that just one teacher could make or break their learning experience. In particular, it noted that some teachers use religion as a crutch to justify their abuse of gender non-conforming students. 

According to the report, education is one of the areas where interviewees reported the widest range of personal experiences, with many reporting negative experiences even as some reported experiencing little to no bullying or other discrimination in school.

“For those interviewees who expressed that they had a positive educational experience, a notable, shared factor was a connection with at least one teacher in whom they could confide if they needed someone to stand up for them and/or a group of classmates that they were close with, oftentimes other LGBT students,” the report said.

Conversely, interviewees reported that discriminatory treatment from a single teacher could have a great impact on students’ success in school and the likelihood they stay in the education system.

“Nearly one-third of interviewees who discussed their educational experience reported being bullied or otherwise discriminated against by a teacher because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and several detailed the concrete impact it had on their education – such as failing a particular teacher’s course,” the report noted.

One experience cited was that of Arun, a 23-year-old gay man in Vreed-en-Hoop, who spoke of being victimised by his math teacher.

“[My] maths teacher, she didn’t support me. She sent for my parents and she used to tell my parents… that I’m not doing my schoolwork and the boys and me, we are always having an issue, we are always having a problem… [She said that] I am disgusting, I am doing this, I am not doing that,” he was quoted as saying, before adding that the harassment reached a level where “whenever she come in the classroom to teach, I walk out of class…. Eventually, I failed maths.”

Rita, a 49-year-old transgender woman and former teacher who is currently a human rights defender in Region Three, also described to researchers how bullying leads many LGBT students to drop out of school and further marginalised them. “[W]hen the teacher realises that that’s a part of you, they start putting you at the back of the class and then you start getting maybe other punishment. They might send you to clean the yard and people talking about you in front of your face, people saying ‘anti-man,’” she said. As a result, she explained, many LGBT students start slipping away from the education system. “[T]hey slip… [They] leave home, don’t go to school… and they just come off the radar. [The school] don’t even mind if [LGBT students] don’t come back because they just don’t want [them] being there,” Rita said.

Several interviewees also detailed for the researchers the role that religion plays in the discriminatory treatment of LGBT students, especially by their teachers.

Valini Leitch, a human rights defender at the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD), recounted the circumstances of one student that SASOD helped who suffered discrimination from teachers and administrators who overtly invoked their personal religious views.

“Because she identifies as lesbian, they wanted to expel her. She was barred from going to classes. She was punished. The head teacher said she needs good beatings and prayers. Somebody wanted to throw holy water at her,” Leitch said.

While this particular student was able with the support of SASOD and a counsellor at her school to complete schooling, Leitch said there were many stories that did not have such a happy ending.

Another experience shared was that of Apatoa, an elected-leader in the indigenous community who also taught in a non-indigenous public school in Region Four for ten years.

He reported witnessing multiple instances of other teachers advocating personal religious beliefs in school, including their views on non-normative sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

“[People in] schools go around with these religious pamphlets. I see teachers doing this… in schools in Guyana, and there’s nobody to represent the students. The parents can come in but there’s a limit to what they can do. This is not just in indigenous schools but across the country. Teachers will say, ‘I’m a religious person. I’m in the right. I do the right thing.’ Nobody can challenge them; they are above the law,” he reported.

The report does not indicate any instance where a complaint was made either to the Ministry of Education or the Teaching Service Commission but does note that teaching regulations compel each teacher to assist students to exercise tolerance as they strive for understanding of other’s ideas and beliefs; deal justly with each student and treat each with courtesy and consideration; respect the confidentiality of information about a student or his home… unless its release serves a professional purpose, benefits the student, or is required by law; and make responsible efforts to protect students from conditions harmful to health and safety.

These provisions exist within the ministry’s written Code of Conduct for Teachers, which also contains provisions prohibiting discrimination against colleagues and students on the basis of “ability, race, colour or creed.”

In recent years, local civil service organisations working with LGBT persons have petitioned the Ministry of Education to amend the Code of Conduct to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories through submissions to regional and international bodies, and in-person meetings. However, the ministry has not yet acted on this recommendation, and the Code of Conduct awaits amendments to better protect LGBT students from discrimination by teachers.

Consequently, the report concludes that in order for Guyana to meet its obligation to take “all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect [children] from all forms of physical or mental violence,” as prescribed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the country should take action to specifically address the “silent epidemic” of the bullying of LGBT students in schools.

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