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Queerbashing is a habit that is acquired in the playground but refined on the way home

Comment: After school, clubs

Colin Richardson, Monday November 15, 2004, The Guardian

'The other boys call me a poof. I don't understand why." I did. I understood exactly what they meant. Martin was my best friend when I was a boy. He was an extraordinary child. A gifted artist and musician, he was sensitive, ethereal, almost
otherworldly. He was picked on for those very qualities that made him so special. Even as a seven-year-old, I knew instinctively that being a boy is a tricky business and I wasn't very good at it. Having briefly been bullied when I started at primary school, I discovered the hard way that appealing to adults for help was a waste of time. And since I was a weed, fighting back was not an option. So I decided to become invisible.

Through all my school days, I did everything I could to avoid drawing attention to myself. It worked, but at a cost. Self-negation is a kind of auto-bullying. I sustained myself with the belief that everything would get better when I finally left school. How wrong can you be? What, these days, is called homophobic bullying is not confined to the playground; and it isn't only inflicted on gay children. One of the most popular playground insults now is "gay", which - like "poof" in the 70s - doesn't mean homosexual so much as different and weak. Boys considered to be "gay" are, in the bullies' minds, boys who won't fight back. With that mindset, it doesn't take much mental effort for the bully to start to see all gay men as vulnerable, as people deserving of being picked on. As it turned out, I grew up to be a gay man and Martin didn't. And my belief that I would cease to be afraid of teenagers when I ceased to be one was rudely shattered.

I was in my late 20s when I was twice caught up in queerbashings, perpetrated by different teenage gangs. The physical injuries I received were minor - two of my friends came off worse - but the psychological impact was immense. Both occurred late at night, after the pubs had closed. The assaults were fuelled by hormones and inflamed by alcohol - typical of the drunken rampages that blight all our weekends. But evidence is starting to emerge that night-time isn't the only right time for bashing a queer. Homophobic assaults recorded by the police appear to peak twice a day. The first occurs, as you would expect, after midnight. But the other, slightly larger, spike occurs after 4pm - when school turns out. Queerbashing is a habit acquired in the playground but refined on the way home. The teatime bus is every bit as scary as the night bus. This week has been designated Anti-Bullying Week, and with violence against gay men again in the news, it couldn't be more timely. As part of its contribution, the government is launching new guidelines for schools on homophobic bullying. The schools minister, Stephen Twigg, is himself a gay man who was bullied at school, and says the initiative came about after he discovered that only 6% of schools had policies and procedures in place to deal with homophobic bullying of pupils or, indeed, of teachers.

The results of a survey of 877 year-nine and year-10 pupils (aged 13-15) and their teachers underline the scale of the problem. Two-thirds of the children and three-quarters of the teachers said they had seen homophobic bullying, but only 13% of pupils knew of rules or policies to prevent or punish it. And while a quarter of the pupils had been homophobically bullied, only 20% had reported it to a teacher. But if schools have failed to get a grip on the bullies in the classroom, they've done even less about bullying outside the school gates - largely because there's nothing they can do. A court case two years ago confirmed that schools have very limited powers to police the behaviour of their pupils once they are off school premises. On Saturday, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Brian Paddick, Britain's highest-ranking openly gay police officer, will address an audience of lesbian and gay teachers at the Pride in Education conference organised by the National Union of Teachers. Such dialogue between teachers and police officers has to be the way forward. If schools cannot exert authority over pupils after hours, the police surely must. Escorting schoolchildren home in police vans, tempting though that might be, is not the answer. But, as we enter David Blunkett's brave new world of community policing, with bobbies pounding the beat to the trill of their mobiles as eager citizens call up for a chat, there must be some third way between doing nothing and sending in the riot squad. We need a review of the law to see whether it is feasible or desirable to extend schools' duty of care to cover the awkward period when children are in the care of neither their parents nor their teachers. In the meantime, however, we need more active and visible policing outside school gates, on the school bus and in the streets around schools. Dixon of Grange Hill, over to you.

Colin Richardson is a former editor of Gay Times