Centre for Studies on Inclusive Education

supporting inclusion, challenging exclusion

Frequently asked questions on education for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender children and young people


What does LGBT stand for?

This is one of various acronyms referring to people’s sexual orientation and gender identity; it stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. Frequently used alternatives are LGB and LGBTQ, where Q stands for queer or questioning. Some children and young people may look or dress differently to their peers but this alone does not mean that they identify as LGBT, or that they will when they are older. Some are clear about their sexual orientation and gender identity, while others may be unsure or have not thought about it yet. For some, sexual orientation or gender identity may change over time. Children of LGBT parents/carers are no more, and no less, likely than children with heterosexual or cisgendered footnote 1 parents/carers to be LGBT themselves. It is also important to recognise that there are many words by which individuals refer to their sexual orientation and gender identity and that the terms lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning are not adopted by everyone.

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What does transgender mean?

When a person is born they are assigned a gender based on the appearance of the baby’s genitals. Some people (often referred to as ‘intersex’) are born with ambiguous genitalia or have sex chromosomal variations that become apparent during puberty or later in life but they, too, are usually assigned a gender at birth. People often assume that the gender assigned to a baby at birth will be the gender that that person will grow up to be. People whose gender identity and/or gender expression differs from the gender they were assigned at birth are known as transgender, often abbreviated to trans. Some trans people experience their own gender as unambiguously male or female. Others may describe themselves by a range of terms, for example un-gendered, genderqueer, queer or simply human, on the grounds that a binary gender system (for example man/woman, male/female) cannot capture the full spectrum of gender identities. Some trans people transition to the gender with which they identify. This means that they change gender, moving to their ‘acquired’ gender, with or without medical intervention (e.g. hormones or surgery). Some do not like the concept of ‘acquired’ gender, arguing that their gender identity has not changed and they have not ‘acquired’ a new one. The terms ‘gender reassignment’ and ‘acquired gender’, however, are extensively used in legislation (such as the Gender Recognition Act) and dominate the medical community’s understanding of trans identities. The Equality Act 2010 protects from discrimination anyone who is undergoing, has undergone or intends to undergo gender reassignment, with or without medical intervention.

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Why is transgender grouped alongside lesbian, gay and bisexual in the acronym LGBT?

Gender identity and sexual orientation are different characteristics of human identity and experience, yet they are often intertwined within political campaigning, activism, popular consciousness and school policy. Some people from within LGBT communities feel that there is no common ground and prefer that the T is not included, or even that lesbians, gay men and bisexuals all self-organise separately. Others feel that there is strength in numbers and recognise that all LGBT people can experience discrimination and bullying because they challenge conventional ideas of gender. It is worth remembering that some trans people may also identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual and that many trans people experience homophobia from people who confuse their gender identity with homosexuality.

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Some parents say promoting LGBT equality is contrary to their family values. How can we respond?

Parents can be reminded that LGBT people – both children and adults – make up a significant part of our society and of any society. They are sometimes less visible than heterosexual and cisgender people, possibly because it feels unsafe for them to be open about who they are. The fact that LGBT people exist is not up for negotiation.

Schools have a moral and legal obligation to make sure that LGBT pupils and staff, as well as those who have LGBT friends or family members, hear positive messages about LGBT identities in the way heterosexual and cisgender people take for granted. Schools would be failing their pupils if they did not challenge homophobia and transphobia consistently and if they did not educate all pupils about the important role LGBT people play in our society.

The Equality Act 2010 places a legal duty on schools to eliminate discrimination and harassment, advance equality of opportunity and promote good relations between people who have, and those who do not have, a number of protected characteristics. Gender reassignment, sex and sexual orientation are among these protected characteristics. Remaining silent about LGBT issues is not an option.

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We think it is inappropriate to talk to young children about sex, so we cannot do much about LGBT equality in primary schools - correct?

When talking to children of any age, people frequently make reference to sexual orientation without any mention of sexual activity, which is a different matter altogether. People in schools often refer to ‘husbands and wives’, ‘mummies and daddies’, or ‘boyfriends and girlfriends’ without any mention of LGB relationships. There is no reason why discussions cannot reflect the full diversity of families that exist in our society, without any worry that we are talking to young children about sex.

It is important to remember that the Equality Act 2010 places a duty on schools to recognise the existence of families based on same-sex partnerships, and to discuss these families as confidently and regularly as they do others. It is important that children from LGBT families feel that their families are recognised, accepted and respected.

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The phrase ‘that’s so gay’ is so common and harmless among young people, why do we have to challenge it?

People who use the word gay pejoratively may mean no harm, but those who hear it can feel it. Any use of the word gay to mean that something is nonsense, broken, or otherwise substandard, belittles gay identities. Pupils can be helped to understand the potential harm by being encouraged to imagine that the phrase was ‘that’s so Welsh (or German, or Christian, or any other significant aspect of their own identity)’. Gay identities are both entirely usual and a source of pride. Schools should ensure that all members of staff are equally committed to challenging any use of homophobic language. At the same time, it is important that people feel safe to talk openly about LGBT identities in school.

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What is transphobia?

Transphobia is a term used to describe discrimination experienced by trans people, people who are thought to be trans, or friends and relatives of trans people. Schools should ensure that anti-bullying policies address both homophobia and transphobia, while also making sure that staff and children are aware of the differences and overlaps between the two and feel confident in responding to each. Homophobic and transphobic incidents are both regarded as hate crimes within the legal system.

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What should we do as school staff if a pupil comes out to us as being LGBT?

Young people come out to staff for a variety of reasons, including a need for pastoral support, a desire for information or redress for how they are being treated.

The single most useful thing staff can do is simply be accepting and supporting. Young people have told us that they find it helpful when staff thank them for sharing this information with them. For some young people this may be the first time that they have ever verbalised their LGBT identity and the process may be nerve-wracking. Young people have also said that they find it helpful when staff listen to them and ask them why they have shared this information. For example, a young person may tell a member of staff that they are trans because they do not know who to turn to for information about transitioning, while another may disclose that they are bisexual because they do not feel their specific needs for information around safer sex are being met within the Sex and Relationship Education programme. Who, if anyone, the member of staff shares such a disclosure with depends upon the specific context, while individual schools have established child protection policies. These should be adhered to at all times. There should be no need for staff to share a simple disclosure of LGBT identity with anyone else unless a pupil requests it.

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We take bullying seriously and deal with it effectively – isn’t this enough?

Children and young people who identify as, or are perceived to be, LGBT (as well as those who have friends or family members who are, or are perceived to be, LGBT), face a very real and disproportionate level of discrimination and harassment in primary and secondary schools. In many schools homophobic or transphobic bullying are rife, but staff dismiss it as banter and do little, if anything, to challenge it. The Ofsted report No place for bullying (June 2012) suggests that this happens even in schools where other forms of prejudice-based bullying are more effectively dealt with.

It is vital that schools consistently challenge homophobic and transphobic bullying but it is equally important to discuss and celebrate LGBT identities. It is the duty of all staff to ensure that every member of the school community feels valued, irrespective of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or that of any family members. Just as racism cannot be fully countered by challenging negative incidents, it is important that schools help children and young people to understand heterosexist and gender normative attitudes, make them explicit and challenge them in a safe and supportive environment. Inclusive schools enable young people to be happy irrespective of who they are attracted to or how they choose to express their gender. Where schools foster a safe, welcoming and respectful atmosphere, and where diversity is genuinely valued and celebrated, homophobia and transphobia are significantly reduced, if not eliminated entirely.

Additional ways in which schools can celebrate LGBT identities and challenge heterosexist and gender normative attitudes are:

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Footnote 1

Cisgender and cissexual (often abbreviated to simply cis) describe related types of gender identity where individuals' experiences of their own gender match the sex they were assigned at birth. Sociologists Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for "individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity" as a complement to transgender. Back to question >>

Page last updated: Tuesday 27 January 2015

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