“Just because I think Dwayne Johnson is fit…”: Exploring the voices of young people who identify as LGBTQIA+
In part one of this blog we summarise the findings from our recent research project exploring the views and school experiences of young people who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic I (Dulcie) joined the Equality and Diversity Working Party in my service to think about how Educational Psychologists (EPs) can support social justice. Through this I became interested in understanding more about the school experiences of young people who identify as LGBTQIA+.
Literature indicates that EPs are well placed to raise awareness of important issues including the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ young people in their school communities (Marks, 2012). However, in order to do this EPs need to be informed and confident to prioritise conversations about sexuality and gender equality (Marks, 2012).
To increase understanding of young people’s experiences researchers have argued that we should strive to prioritise hearing the narratives of young people who identify as LGBTQIA+ (Abreu et al, 2021). The research I conducted aimed to do this by hearing the perspectives of young people using a focus group approach.
How this research was conducted
I contacted a secondary school within the Local Authority where we work, that I understood had an established and highly thought of LGBTQIA+ youth group. We asked if any of the members within that group would be interested in sharing their views and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
My aim was to understand more about the school experiences of young people who identify as LGBTQIA+ and if they could identify what helps or hinders them in school. I conducted a focus group of 16 young people aged between 12-18 years old who all identified as being LGBTQIA+.
Three overarching themes were identified through thematic analysis. Quotes from the young people are used to capture each theme and represent the voices of those who participated.
Challenges: “They call it the boys top set or the girls top set and in general it just doesn’t feel like you belong there”
The young people spoke at length about the challenges they had experienced in school. The challenges they outlined included:
- Being left out in peer groups
- Facing difficulties deciding when and who to come out to
- Experiences of homophobia from school staff and peers
- Teacher’s use of gendered language
- Challenges caused by the school environment such as using gendered toilets and changing rooms
What helps?: “I can’t explain how helpful it is to be listened to and feel heard.”
During the focus group the young people also discussed what had helped them to feel included in their school environment. Factors that they felt helped them were:
- Having LGBTQIA+ representation in their lessons
- Having unisex toilets and uniform
- Having LGBTQIA+ role models in their teaching staff and peer group
- Teachers using their preferred pronouns and names
- Feeling that their voices had been heard and acted upon
Moving forward: “Schools and staff should not shy away from using pronouns. Open the conversation and be ready to be corrected.”
The final theme identified from this research was about the changes the young people who participated wanted to see in education. The young people’s ideas for change were:
- Environmental changes in school to include unisex changing rooms and unisex toilets (throughout the school)
- Adaptations to be made in lessons to remove gendered expectations and to include more LGBTQIA+ representation
- All teaching staff to feel comfortable and confident to using LGBTQIA+ terminology and pronouns
- Having celebrations for pride month in school
A key learning point during this research has been if you’re not sure what language or pronouns to use, ask.
Having adults who felt confident and comfortable to ask the young people their perspectives and use appropriate language was repeatedly mentioned as being important. I acknowledge that in practice this is not always as simple as it seems and individual factors need to be considered. However I feel that as EP’s we are well placed to consider individual circumstances and facilitate a conversation to help create shared understanding between the young people, families and schools.
From the findings of this research we have created a webinar for schools along with the corresponding language document. The aim of this document is to help increase the confidence of education professionals who support students who identify as LGBTQIA+. We’ll explore this ‘language cheat sheet’ more in our second blog post, next week.
Abreu, R et al. (2021). LGBTQ student experiences in schools from 2009-2019: A systemic review of study characteristics and recommendations for prevention and intervention in school psychology journals.
Marks, C. (2012) Educational psychologists’ constructions of sexuality and the implications for practice, Educational Psychology in Practice, 28:1, 71-90, DOI:10.1080/02667363.2011.639346