So why is 'gay' still a school hate word?
Camping it up on TV, like gay comedian Graham Norton, can lead to fame and considerable fortune. But even in liberal New York, it can be a nightmare if you're a homosexual schoolkid - and here it's worse. EDDIE LENNON reports
America's first fully-fledged public school for homosexual teenagers is soon to open in New York. It will cater for young gay people, many of whom have been discriminated against, bullied and beaten up by people who think being gay is somehow offensive or unnatural.
For those who are heterosexual and reasonably open-minded, the need for a special school to allow gay people to be themselves may come as a shock. The idea that someone's life could be made hell based solely on that person's sexual inclination may even beggar belief.
It is now 10 years since sexual relationships between gay people in Ireland were decriminalised. In other words, it is no longer a criminal offence for them to engage in such relationships. But for thousands of young people at school who are either gay or appear to be gay, life can be every bit as hard as a prison sentence.
Thirty-five-year-old Brian Finnegan, editor of Ireland's gay magazine, Gay Community News, says life for Irish homosexuals has improved, with the gay community here being more visible and more self-confident than before. And an Irishman, Graham Norton, has become a gay icon with his phenomenally popular TV chat show on Channel 4. But in Irish schools, it's still the bad old days for teenage boys who either are, or appear to be, gay.
Finnegan feels Ireland still has a long way to go as far as gay and lesbian people are concerned. "In education, things haven't changed at all. The education authorities have not addressed homophobia. Homophobic bullying is still huge in Irish schools. A recent survey found 100pc of bullying of boys in school used anti-gay slang. In schools, where bullying is still rife, to call people 'fag' or 'queer' is perfectly acceptable as a term of abuse."
Finnegan, who is gay, was bullied "very badly" at the all-boys school he attended. "It was pretty violent. I was regularly attacked by groups of guys. I was identified at 12-years-old as being gay. The bullying had a very debilitating effect; I grew up quite ashamed of myself. I had very few friends because, when you're identified as gay in school, you go to the bottom of the heap, below the geeks. You are untouchable.
"Boys tend to adhere to macho ideas so they're not going to associate with somebody who is, as it were, 'less than a man'. You grow up thinking something's wrong with you. When you're a teenager your prime objective is to fit in, to be just like everyone else. So as a guy, when you're identified as being gay at school, you're different in a way that's incredibly negative.
"My whole teenage years were a low point. It took me a long time to come to terms with who I was," Finnegan says. Three years of counselling after school benefited him enormously. "I didn't get over the bullying till I was in my 30s. I kept the violence under wraps for a long time; I felt it was my fault."
Finnegan says what really needs to be done to tackle homophobia in schools is for the Department of Education to instigate homophobia-related training for teachers and parents, as well as education for students addressing homophobia and the broader issues that affect gay and lesbian teenagers.
"There will always be a pressure among teenage boys to be macho. Gay teenagers in mixed schools often find life easier than those in exclusively male schools as they find friendship with girls. But the more educated people are, the more their actions will change and the less gay students will be ostracised."
What advice can be offered to teenage boys being bullied because they are believed to be gay? "They should phone the Gay Switchboard. There is nothing like support from people who identify with your situation. Remember that school finishes and there's a life beyond it. I had a terrible time at school and I can't emphasise that enough but now I have a very fulfilled and happy life as an adult gay man," says Finnegan.
"There are very strong links between the large numbers of young men committing suicide in Ireland and their sexual orientation," says Suzy Byrne, a lesbian and former president of the International Lesbian and Gay Youth Organisation. In 1995 the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network found a high level of gay people left school early, had difficulties in third-level education and the workplace.
Byrne and a colleague are currently doing outreach work in four schools (at the schools' request), educating students about gay issues. "We also address issues such as name-calling, bullying, physical violence and picking on the one or two individuals in the class who might be lesbian or gay."
Thirty-two-year-old Byrne, who is co-author of Coming Out: A Guide for Lesbians and Gay Men of All Ages, did not experience any homophobia at school because she had not yet 'come out' and declared her sexual orientation. "That was the mid- to late-1980s when the word 'lesbian' wasn't used at all. Only gay men's issues were visible. I studied at an all-girls school. There might have been slagging if two girls linked arms but that's something very natural for girls to do and nothing to do with sexual orientation.
"If it's discovered at school that a girl is a lesbian she may not be supported by staff, parents or teachers. I have met young gay people who have engaged in self-harm by cutting themselves or abusing drugs and are not able to tell anyone what's happening. Generally lesbians have a very rough time 'coming out'. At school they suffer differently than gay men. The abuse is more verbal, the bullying more name-calling. A circle of hatred is built up around them.
"There is a whole culture of teachers not putting down anti-gay taunts. It hasn't been highlighted or targeted. We should be fully implementing anti-homophobia programmes and support networks in all schools. We are eight years into the Government's Relationship and Sexuality Education Programme which says that sexual orientation should be dealt with in sex education in schools, in both Junior and Leaving Certificate. Very few schools are putting that into practice.
"There's still an awful lot of homophobia and violence against gay people. I was assaulted in 1995 after appearing on TV. I was kicked to the ground by three young lads who said 'there's the dyke from the Late Late' and was admitted to hospital with my injuries.
'It would be lovely to think gay people could walk down the street hand-in-hand with their partners. But gay people are still unwilling to do that because they don't feel safe. People are still very hidden about their sexual orientation. We have no gay politicians, judges, lawyers or journalists coming out. They haven't felt it any easier to 'come out'," says Byrne.
Senator David Norris almost single-handedly brought gay issues to the fore in the '80s and early '90s and was central in the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships. He says one survey found that, in 11 of 12 schools surveyed, students regarded homosexuals as undeserving of any rights because they were, allegedly, of no use to society. "Not one of the schools in the survey, even when they were made aware of this degree of discrimination, were prepared to do anything about it," says Norris.
He says such rampant homophobia in Ireland is hardly surprisingly in view of the institutionalised homophobia given as an example to its flock by the Catholic Church - who recently described gay people as being 'deviant' and 'unnatural'.
"There is a very malign influence from the Church, which is weakening, but it gets quoted by children in garbled versions of these dreadful pastoral letters by the Vatican's Cardinal Ratzinger - who is the head of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. He has a serious problem with homosexuality and is always attacking it. That is very damaging and dangerous," says Norris.
He says it is "really terrible" for the Church to deny gay people civil rights, in this case the right to marry. "To say that to allow gay people to adopt even their own children would be violence against those children from a group that has systematically protected the most violent abusers of children within its own ranks is the most brazen effrontery I could imagine."
Gay Switchboard: (01) 8721055 or 8721396 (8pm-10pm, Sunday to Friday, 3.30pm-6pm on Saturdays.
Outhouse (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-gender community centre): (01) 8734932 or www.outhouse.ie