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Outdated PDA Rules Outed Me To My School

I can remember the exact day that it happened. It was the day before my seventeenth birthday. My girlfriend and I had been seeing each other for just over three months at the time. We were pulled up for the simple act of holding hands in the corridor while walking to lunch. I was aware of the PDA rules; we were told about them because we were allowed to mix a little more with the boys on the other side of our split sex school when we reached sixth form. Yet, it honestly never occurred to either of us that simply holding hands would put us in violation of these rules, not least because straight girls held hands all the time with their friends and no one batted an eye.

Our head of Year 12 was the one to question us, asking us if we were an item and then informing us we were in violation of the rules. He asked my friend if she knew we were a couple. Thankfully she did, but I could not help but wonder what may have happened if we had not told her yet. It felt callous and like a total disregard to our privacy and, potentially, our safety.

I was terrified. I hadn't told my parents yet, and we were generally keeping our relationship quiet at sixth form- not entirely secret, but we were not shouting about it either. From that point on, it felt like our relationship was the school's property, and we were being watched and judged constantly. I did not know which teachers I could trust anymore. I remember we had to explain the situation to both our parents and hope that the news would not somehow make it back to our families.

We 'violated the rules' several more times during our two years in sixth form; often being humiliated and pulled out of form time and marched down the halls to each other's form rooms by the Head of Sixth Form. What made matters worse is the fact that our violations often came from student or staff reporting, so sometimes being stood simply too close together would result in being called up. I remember once, a group of Year 8s burst into the sixth form toilets while we were discussing something quietly, and I was stood over my girlfriend to discuss the matter privately. They told the head of Years 7, 8, and 9 (who also happened to be our English teacher) that we had been kissing, and I could not help but feel a sense of malice behind all this report. What did people gain from reporting these tiny affections (when they did occur) to staff members anyway?

I could not help but wonder that all this seemed questionable from a safeguarding point of view. This was compounded by the fact that the Head of Sixth Form, who seemed most antagonised by our relationship, was also one of the Heads of Safeguarding. It did not seem to occur to her why we were insistent on keeping our relationship a secret, which is somewhat concerning given her role.

It made me question what would have happened if something truly awful happened in our home lives, and that is why we were keeping a relationship a secret. Equally, her frosty relationship with us made it impossible to go to her with any issues we had, which, while not a huge problem for me, became a major issue for my girlfriend in our final year at school.

A survey of more than 6,000 students at 90 schools by LGBT+ Education Charity Diversity Role Models (DRM), found that 46% of the LGBT+ pupils did not feel safe at their schools. Additionally, gay, bisexual and transgender secondary school students were twice as likely (42%) to report such bullying compared to non-LGBT+ pupils.

I think this subtler form of homophobia, similar to what I experienced, has led to such high numbers on this survey. I never got bullied for my sexuality or relationship in a traditional sense, but I did have to deal with many microaggressions, such as the constant threat of being accused of being a pervert or just general ignorance. The boys scared me a little more, but I did not have to deal with them often. I knew they were more likely to get physical with me or harass me. Despite never really experiencing it, so it was just something constantly in the back of my mind.

Also in this report is the idea that "When asked if they had heard homophobic language at school, 54% of all the pupils surveyed said they had done compared to 26% of the 2,800 teachers who were also polled in the research." This shows the huge gap between teacher and student perspectives of homophobia: our school sent delegates to events hosted as part of a Stonewall scheme and seemed more than happy to promote themselves as a progressive and inclusive space, but they never really delivered on that promise.

I did not feel truly safe at school after turning seventeen because I did not trust anyone except my girlfriend. This ended up giving me the most anxiety in relation to school; I felt like each teacher was holding this huge thing over both our heads. I would have panic attacks in the toilets about what would happen if our teachers felt like we needed to punish us further: what if they decided to tell our families or stop supporting us in our university applications?

Most schools do not do enough to target homophobia and to prevent severe mental health struggles that come with it. There are no real mechanisms to protect LGBT students at a structural level, especially if there is no outright violence directed towards them. Most importantly, schools need to listen to students and put their needs first.

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