FEBRUARY is lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month. It has been celebrated in the UK since 1997 and is based on the premise that, in order to understand the present and the future, the past must first be understood.
In many ways, the month is a celebration of the progression of gay rights over the past 30 years, from the eventual legalisation of sex between two adult men in Scotland in 1980, to the repeal of Section 28 in 2000 in Scotland (2003 in the rest of the UK). In theory, British society is approaching a stage where everyone is treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation.
However, the harsh reality is that prejudice is a day-to-day fact of life for many LGBT people: particularly young people. The challenge for education establishments is to support those students who may be struggling to come to terms with their sexuality, or who may be victimised because of it. There is also the arguably greater challenge of educating the rest of the student body in order to tackle ignorance and prejudice.
Recognising the importance of supporting LGBT students while simultaneously seeking to educate others, Stevenson College in Edinburgh is one of only two of Scotland's colleges to have been awarded the LGBT Youth Charter Mark. The charter is awarded by the charity LGBT Youth to organisations demonstrating high standards of support for young LGBT individuals.
The college's drive to improve the service it offers to LGBT students was kick-started two years ago, when a transsexual student sought help from Student Support Services. This individual was suffering such abuse from people within her local community that she had been forced to move house several times. Her case highlighted to support staff at the college the need for greater acceptance of, and understanding for, those students who didn't fall into the heterosexual category. Although the college had already worked hard to combat race and disability-related prejudice, very little had been done to tackle LGBT issues. Aware of research showing high levels of homophobia within further and higher education institutions, staff decided to take action.
Since then, Stevenson has developed a full programme of support, advice and awareness-raising activities, which are now in their first full academic year of operation. At Fresher's Week in September last year, a buddy scheme for LGBT students was launched. Eight students volunteered as buddies and have since received full training. The scheme is designed to work as a student-led support network, and it is hoped that the buddies will not only act in a supporting role, but also as advocates for equality among the rest of the student body.
Peer mentoring is commonplace in primary and secondary schools, but it seems to fade when students graduate to college or university, which is so often just the point when young people need additional support. Stevenson's LGBT buddy scheme is currently in its infancy, but it has the potential to become an excellent model for improving equality within a college. Already, its effects are being felt through the creation of a motivated core group of students. The buddies have thrown themselves into their cause, designing a leaflet on homophobic bullying to be distributed in February, as well as a badge for students to show their support for LGBT history month.
These student-led activities fit well with the wider programme of activities set to take place throughout February. The programme includes: a Valentine's Day quiz; two films exploring homosexuality and homophobia, which will both be preceded by a short film made by some of the young people from LGBT Youth; a large display in the college library featuring various materials relevant to LGBT issues; and a dedicated section on the student intranet. Various curriculum areas will be exploring the theme in class, with history classes looking at the social history of gay rights, communication and English classes exploring the issues through literature and creative writing and the exploration of photography in creative arts classes.
LGBT Youth will also run staff training sessions, to ensure teaching and support staff are not just aware of the issues, but feel confident in their knowledge of them and ability to tackle them. Research also highlighted the lack of confidence staff felt when speaking about sexuality issues: openness, inclusiveness and education are the keys to addressing this.
Stevenson College is determined to strengthen its commitment to equality and its reputation for treating all students, staff and visitors with respect. It is equally important current and future students know anyone, from any background, is welcome at the college, and that any kind of direct or indirect harassment will not be tolerated. In committing so openly to such a comprehensive policy of inclusiveness, there is a fine line to tread between promoting equality, and respecting religious and cultural views within the college. Staff have been encouraged that there has only been one incident where a student has objected to the discussion of LGBT issues.
The students who have volunteered as buddies have all been impressively mature, confident young people who are making a very positive contribution to the college community. Where staff may have expected vulnerable students to come forward, they have been proven wrong; what the buddies have shown is that those individuals who face prejudice or are seen as "different" – particularly during their formative years – often become strong, confident and generous individuals.
One of the buddies commented to a student support staff member recently that, a stand by the student refectory would let passing students see "we're just normal". The goal of Stevenson College is for no student, or staff member, to ever feel they need to demonstrate their normality.
• Kate Welsh is a lecturer and Anne Munnoch is the equality officer at Stevenson College, in Edinburgh.