Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Homophobic Bullying: Statements
On my own behalf and that of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank Senators Norris and Zappone for proposing the important and topical issue of homophobic bullying for discussion. I emphasise the Government's continued commitment to promoting respect for human rights and equality of opportunity in Irish society. Tolerance of homophobic bullying is simply not compatible with respect for the intrinsic dignity of each human being.
Good humoured, if sometimes robust, teasing and banter between colleagues, classmates and team mates are part of the culture of modern Ireland. It has an important place in social interaction, in building camaraderie and friendships. It can nudge us out of depression, help us see the funny side of situations, think more optimistically and can add enormously to the quality of life. There is, however, another darker side. Without good will, empathy or respect for others, what seemingly starts off as banter can quickly turn sour. To put this in context, the ground-breaking 2009 survey of Irish lebian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, people, "Supporting LGBT Lives", found that to avoid being threatened or called abusive names by work colleagues, almost one in ten respondents had missed work.
Bullying can be insidious. The dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is often a fine one. This is a question to which the Oireachtas has given careful consideration. In laws enacted by these Houses, we have defined bullying as repeated inappropriate behaviour, direct or indirect, whether verbal, physical or otherwise, conducted by one or more persons against another or others, and which could reasonably be regarded as undermining the individual's right to dignity. In the work environment, an isolated incident may be an affront to dignity but, as a once-off incident, is not considered to be bullying. I should stress, however, that it can he harassment. Harassment, in equality law, is any form of unwanted conduct related to any of the discriminatory grounds, such as gender or sexual orientation, which has either the purpose or effect of violating a person's dignity and of creating an environment for the person that is intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive. Such conduct may consist of spoken words, actions or gestures. It may also consist of the production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other material.
These are powerful definitions. They make it quite clear that certain kinds of behaviour are totally unacceptable in law. This is not because of any concerns of political correctness. Such kinds of behaviour are unacceptable precisely because they are harmful, both to the individuals targeted and to wider society. This point should by now be beyond dispute.
We know that bullying and harassment cause harm. If Senators are not familiar with the 2008 "Supporting LGBT Lives" study, I urge them to read it. For the most vulnerable, this research showed heightened levels of psychological distress arising from stigmatisation and harassment, leading to significant levels of self-harm and thoughts of suicide. Being physically threatened or attacked, or experiencing homophobic bullying in schools, were identified as risk factors for those who attempted suicide. Recent research from the United States goes further, and suggests identity-based bullying, such as homophobic bullying, impacts more severely on the victim than other forms of bullying.
It is quite clear in the employment context that bullying impacts on health and safety. Harassment on the ground of sexual orientation or gender identity is also a form of discrimination and as such is prohibited. A workplace in which bullying and harassment are tolerated and allowed to continue is neither a safe nor a productive environment for any of the persons working there. In other areas of public life, such as in accessing health care, education, transport, clubs and sports, harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity is also prohibited under the Equal Status Act.
There are means in law of pursuing complaints and seeking redress where a person has suffered bullying or harassment. We are strengthening these mechanisms with the forthcoming merger of the Equality Authority and Irish Human Rights Commission and the formation of the new workplace relations service, which will incorporate the Equality Tribunal. These new structures will be simpler and easier for members of the public to find and to deal with, and will provide more effective means of enforcing decisions.
I would like to focus, however, on preventive measures. Combating homophobic bullying and harassment successfully requires action on a number of levels. It starts with a recognition that a problem exists. The key to this has to be education, which extends into every facet of public life from school to work to community activities. In this regard, I cannot overstate the value of the persistent advocacy of NGOs representing LGBT people and their generosity in sharing their knowledge and skills. I refer to one example, a short video from BeLonGTo encouraging young people to support their LGBT friends called "Stand Up! Don't stand for homophobic bullying", which is currently the most viewed video posted online by an Irish charity with more than 1 million views. This also features in the first UN global campaign to tackle homophobic bullying, which serves to demonstrate the universal application and importance of this message.
Debates in public foras such as today's, and last May's Dáil debate on bullying in schools, also play an important part in normalising discussion of matters related to sexual orientation and, in particular, informing the public about the issue of homophobia. It is a matter for us, as public representatives, to promote respect for the rule of law and to challenge breaches of human rights as we see them, to do our utmost to encourage the businesses, employers, schools and voluntary groups in our communities and to take simple and practical steps to embed respect for all persons in the way their staff, customers or members interact.
What are these steps? For businesses, they start with taking note of two codes of practices, on bullying and on harassment and sexual harassment, respectively. It is a matter of great credit to the Equality Authority that we have had a statutory code of practice on harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace since 2002. This code was updated earlier this year and it is a powerful tool for employers who want to get things right. Advice and support on giving effect to the code is available to them from the Equality Authority. Moreover, a practical guide for employers on lesbian, gay and bisexual diversity in the workplace is available from GLEN, having been developed with support from the Equality Authority and others. In addition to tackling workplace bullying and harassment, this involves building a culture of respect in the organisation, recruiting and selecting fairly, reviewing terms and conditions of employment, and managing performance fairly . Community and voluntary groups, sports clubs and associations are encouraged to develop equal status action plans. The education sector, in post-primary schools in particular, has seen a sustained focus over the past decade on tackling bullying. Considerable work has been done by State agencies and NGOs such as the Gay + Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and BeLonGTo.
Most recently, the anti-bullying forum established last May by the Minister for Education and Skills brought together a range of experts, support groups and representatives of the schools sector to explore ways of tackling bullying in schools. The outcomes, recommendations and submissions from this forum are assisting the dedicated working group set up by the Minister to consider further actions required to tackle bullying in schools, including homophobic bullying, cyber bullying and racist bullying, in particular. A key element in dealing with the problem of bullying is having a school culture of awareness of the seriousness of the issue and having in place a whole school approach to dealing with it.
Anti-bullying policies work best where the entire school community, including school management, authorities, staff, students and parents all support and adhere to them. None of these measures on their own will eliminate completely homophobic bullying but used consistently and effectively, they can and will demonstrate such behaviour is unacceptable in a civilised society and has adverse consequences for bullies and their employers. We must now seek to address how we can deepen the impact of the measures that already are in place, as well as strengthening the culture of awareness in schools and businesses. I look forward to hearing the debate today, which always is both interesting and informed. There may be a question and answer session later.
I thank the Minister of State. I welcome both her contribution and that Members specifically are debating homophobic bullying today. Although they have had debates in the past on mental health and bullying in general, as the Minister of State has pointed out, while all young people are at risk of bullying and intimidation in schools, young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, people experience far higher incidences in this regard. Bullying at school is a huge risk factor for self-harm and suicide. The research presented to the Department's forum on bullying by the Gay + Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and BeLonGTo shows the stark reality in this regard, which is that 27% of LGBT young people have self-harmed, 50% of those under 25 have thought seriously about ending their own lives and 20% of those under 25 have attempted suicide. This is the stark reality of the issue under discussion today. Bullying of any sort directed at any victim is designed to cause hurt and fear and to make the other person feel small. However, in the case of homophobic and biphobic bullying, it is also designed to make the other person ashamed of who he or she is and who he or she loves. Fear in this regard means that over generations, many young people have gone in and out of schools feeling miserable and afraid on a daily basis. Moreover, fear they might be bullied has led to many people being afraid to reveal their true identity while at school on something as core as who they have fallen in love with and for this experience to carry on with them for a long time thereafter, as well as to make LGBT people invisible, not just in schools but in many parts of wider society as a whole.
It is welcome that much work has been done in recent years. The Minister of State rightly recognised the leadership GLEN and BeLonGTo have shown on this issue. It also is fair to recognise the teacher unions and management bodies have shown great leadership on this issue by coming together as a broad coalition and developing guidelines for schools. This sent out a message from the higher levels of the teacher unions and management bodies that they take seriously and seek the engagement of their members with the issues of diversity and tackling discrimination and prejudice, which is important. While it is good that such guidelines are in place, as with any policy the key issue is implementation and making sure they make a real difference on the ground. I welcome the participation of GLEN and BeLonGTo in the Department of Education and Skill's group examining the issue of bullying. I understand good work is being done there and the group is examining homophobic bullying in the context of prejudice in general because it is no different, no less ugly and no less harmful than are racism or discrimination against people with disabilities and should be seen in that context. At the same time, it is important to make a distinction in respect of homophobic bullying, in that one should introduce it in the overall context of discrimination but should have specific strategies to deal with it. A large part of that strategy concerns educating young people on diversity and difference, which can be complicated work. It is known from research to which teachers have provided feedback that many teachers feel awkward about this issue. I refer to teachers who would like to take a positive role but who are unsure about how to address it.
It is important that we equip them to do that. Bullying is one extreme but, of course, it must be seen in the context of the broader mental health agenda and the Minister of State's own brief. This is because positive mental health is important, as is teaching young people how to look after themselves and have the courage to seek help if they are worried before they end up depressed or harm themselves and teaching everybody to look out for each other. Prevention is always better than ending up with victims and having to have a disciplinary policy.
It is important that we have a way of teaching young people about the differences between different LGBT identities. I visited the Liberal Democrats' conference in Brighton over the weekend. I had the privilege of attending a session that its LGBT group and the British organisation, Stonewall, ran on homophobic bullying. They are dealing with the same issues as us. It is the same in other European countries from which we can learn. One thing that came across quite strongly was that when we are dealing with homophobic bullying, we must be careful not to phrase the debate as being either heterosexual or homosexual - there are so many different identities. Bisexual young people often feel alienated by that and a different approach is needed with transgender young people, which must be backed up by the overall State response to gender recognition. It is all very well to give a message in schools but what if we are not supporting it outside?
In that context, I refer to section 37(1) of the Employment Equality Act. We debated it here a number of months ago and there was support on all sides of the House for it to be changed. I do not know if the Minister of State will get an opportunity to speak again but perhaps she could speak to me afterwards to update me on what progress, if any, has been made in that regard. Again, it is all very well to teach young people that everybody is equal but if their teachers and role models are not equal and people are not treated with respect in the workplace, what message does that send out? It is contradictory and I hope progress has been made on that because it is urgent.
In that context, I also mention marriage equality. Again, all of this is so important in this broader context if we are going to truly recognise and celebrate diversity and genuinely recognise everybody for who they are and the value of their relationships. The reason young LGBT people are uncomfortable about who they are or are scared to admit who they are is not just because of their peers in the classroom but about the broader messages they get from society. It is long past time that we recognised that every committed relationship should be regarded with the same level of respect and recognition.
I think I have covered all the main points. I am slightly disorganised because I have just come back from a conference last night. I wanted to make the point that the issue should be seen in the broader context of mental health. I know the Minister of State recognised it in her contribution but I would stress the importance of peer groups. The Stand Up! video was incredible. This short piece presents messages, not just about homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying, but about bullying in general and teaching all our young people to stand up for their friends. It promotes the idea that if one sees a friend being isolated and discriminated against, one backs him or her up and makes the bully feel like he or she is the idiot and the one who should be isolated and ashamed.
In addition to having strategies for teachers, boards of management and different groups, it is so important that we equip young people with the skills to look after themselves and others and that we bring parents into that debate. It is also important that we ensure that when we have a more detailed strategy and, crucially, an implementation plan for dealing with homophobic bullying in schools, it is a whole-community approach.
I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. We are all aware of her commitment to and support for LGBT issues.
In a message delivered at a UN global consultation on homophobic bullying in Rio de Janeiro last December, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, referred to homophobic bullying as follows:
- This is a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights and a public health crisis. It is also a loss for the entire human family when promising lives are cut short.
He called on governments throughout the world to act to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people. Also in December, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released a groundbreaking report on the human rights of LGBT people. Therefore, it is clear that the issue of homophobic bullying is one that is of high importance at an international level. What exactly is it? It can be defined as any hostile or offensive action against lesbians, gay males, bisexuals or transgender people, or those perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. These actions might be verbal, physical or emotional harassment, including degrading comments, name calling, gestures, taunts, insults or jokes. An excellent example of this was contained in the Stand Up! video which hit home succinctly but got the point across. It can also include offensive graffiti, humiliating, excluding, tormenting, ridiculing or threatening to refuse to work or co-operate with others because of their sexual orientation or identity. They are terms that can be used for bullying in every sense. It is good that today we are concentrating on homophobic bullying and looking at it in context and in isolation.
While most adults in Ireland can be open about their sexual orientation, the reality for young people is very different. The teenage years are a challenging time for everybody but for those who think they might be gay, lesbian or bisexual it can be even more bewildering. In the past, homophobic bullying was viewed as not too serious, a bit of banter or teasing among youngsters that took place in the schoolyard, youth club or in the sports ground. However, it is recognised that this type of bullying is not only harmful, it is costing young people their lives.
The National Office for Suicide Prevention annual report 2009 showed that LGBT persons had shockingly high levels of suicidal behaviours. This was clearly linked to the experiences of homophobic bullying. The study found that 50% of LGBT young people under the age of 25 had seriously thought about ending their lives while a staggering 20% had attempted suicide. The study also revealed that the majority of bullying was taking place in schools and up to one third of these young people had been subjected to homophobic comments from teachers. As a former teacher, I found this shocking coming from those who are supposed to be teaching and leading. It is important that adequate training is provided for them and that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet.
International research has shown that for many, homophobic bullying at school can result in long-term social, emotional and psychological effects. Those who are bullied at school can become fearful of their peer group and isolate themselves from them. The young person who is repeatedly bullied at school can experience anxiety, loss of confidence, loneliness and depression which can result in problems such as punctuality, deteriorating academic attainment, poor attendance, truancy, dropping out, mental health problems and the idea of suicide. The findings are worrying and upsetting. In the review of the junior certificate, I hope subjects such as SPHE may be given a firm footing on the curriculum and that adequate training for SPHE is provided for the teachers concerned.
Equality legislation protects the rights of everyone in the State at places of work or places of leisure, transport and health care. All areas of our daily lives should be free from discrimination on grounds of gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability and race. Specifically, the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 requires schools to prepare a code of behaviour that specifies the standards of behaviour to be observed by students. All second level schools are required to have a number of policies in place, including one on bullying.
In August 2006, in order to reduce the administrative burden on schools, the Department of Education and Skills issued a template anti-bullying policy. This template built on previously issued guidelines on countering bullying in schools and included references to homophobic bullying.
This was a major step forward in breaking the silence and invisibility that often surrounds homophobic bullying in Irish second level schools, even at a policy level. Research carried out in the schools has established that while anti-bullying policies, campaigns and initiatives are working very well in most schools, there is an obvious reluctance on the part of many schools to be specific on the issues of homophobic bullying. This must be changed urgently. A school ethos cannot be rooted in the presumption that everybody in the school is heterosexual. School leaders will have to challenge such presumptions by making explicit reference to LGBT issues and providing relevant resources and other materials for use in the classrooms and around the school. This should remind everybody, including the staff, that although often invisible, people who identify as LGBT are valued members of the school community. What is most important is that no member of staff and no parent or student is left with any ambiguity in terms of where the school, including the trustees of the school, stand on the issues of homophobic bullying.
As recently as May last, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, established a forum to explore ways of tackling bullying in schools. Experts, support groups and representatives of the school sector were brought together to explore how best to tackle bullying in schools and to consider changes that might be required to existing practices. The Minister also established a working group to address the issue of bullying in schools, including homophobic bullying, cyber bullying and racist bullying. I welcome the fact that BeLonGTo and GLEN were both represented on this working group. It was an important move. The group is reviewing current measures and identifying priorities based on international research and the findings of the forum.
BeLonGTo was singled out for particular praise at the UNESCO global convention and in the Rio statement referred to earlier. Its work was highlighted as good practice and was included as a positive response to homophobia in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights report on LGBT human rights. At the beginning of September BeLonGTo youth services unveiled LGBT Youth Mental Health Ireland, a project which specifically supports LGBT young people around the country to develop positive mental health. The project, which was launched by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, who has been a strong advocate for LGBT youth, obviously recognises the gravity of the situation and the need for support for vulnerable young people.
In my home town of Dundalk I have been involved with the group Dundalk Outcomers for the last two years. I have been very impressed by its commitment to helping and supporting LGBT young people and giving them a chance to come out and be themselves. It has run some excellent festivals over the last two summers. This summer I attended some local events at which I was delighted to meet some former students of mine. It was really encouraging to see how we have progressed along the path of acceptance, inclusivity and diversity. However, we cannot afford to become complacent. We must work and although we have come a long way, we must keep moving.
For most adults it is possible to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in Ireland today, but for many young people daily homophobic bullying means it is still not okay. Our challenge is to ensure that this generation of young LGBT people is cared for, accepted, included and supported in their life choices.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. It is very difficult to encapsulate in a single definition the scourge that is homophobic bullying, and the devastating impact it has on LGBT people, particularly young LGBT people. Senator Moran cited the words of Ban Ki Moon which come close to describing it. Mary Robinson has said that homophobic bullying continues to be a society wide issue, and a link between it and suicide sends a clear message that this trend must be reversed.
Everybody in this Chamber agrees that homophobic bullying is a very serious issue. Like many, I am alarmed by the national and international studies that show homophobic bullying is endemic in schools. However, it is also an area in which much dedicated and targeted work is being done, both at governmental and non-governmental levels.
That does not mean we should be complacent; there is much more that needs to be done.
We should also be proud that Ireland is at the forefront internationally of efforts to eliminate homophobic and transphobic bullying from schools. The working group on tackling bullying, including homophobic bullying, cyber bullying and racist bullying, established by the Minister for Education and Skills in May 2012, is due to publish its report in the coming months. I commend the Leader for facilitating debates called for by Senators but, frustratingly, when preparing for today, I had to question the timeliness of the debate, and why we could not have waited for the report of the working group to be produced in order that we could debate its recommendations. I say that as a Senator who wants us to have a debate, but it should be on the recommendations when they are produced. Never one to waste a good opportunity, however, I will use this chance to say more about homophobic bullying.
A key objective of the working group is to help draft a roadmap towards the elimination of homophobic bullying from our schools and, as such, I will reserve my comments about how best to move forward until I have seen the report and heard from the Department about how it intends to implement the recommendations. The Seanad has an important role to play there.
I hope the recommendations coming from the report of the working group speak of the need for effective structural changes in curriculum policy, in support services and in teaching practices. The elimination of homophobic and transphobic bullying is an issue about which I feel strongly. I was delighted to be a member of the National Youth Work Advisory Committee when it produced its guidelines for the youth sector in Ireland, "Addressing Homophobia" in 2010. Tremendous work is also being done by NGOs and advocacy groups on behalf of LGBT young people in Ireland and I welcome the members of BeLonGTo and GLEN who are in the Visitors Gallery.
BeLonGTo is the national youth service for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in Ireland. In addition to providing vital nationwide youth work services, BeLonGTo runs a number of excellent and innovative initiatives. The most recent is the LGBT mental health initiative, which the Minister of State launched earlier this month. It is supported by the HSE's national office for suicide prevention, which I welcome, given the direct correlation between homophobic bullying and suicidal behaviour among LGBT young people. BeLonGTo was behind the hugely effective "Stand Up!" video campaign, which had 1 million views on YouTube, the most successful Irish charity video ever. I am not remotely surprised by this. I stood up for Jen back in March and I will never forget the sadness I felt at having to do so but equally the sense of pride and empowerment I felt at being part of a movement standing united against homophobic and transphobic bullying. I was greatly moved by it and I recommend any of my fellow Senators who have not yet seen it to look for the video on YouTube.
BeLonGTo should be very proud that its work in this area has been cited in a UN report as an example of good practice in this area and will be included in the UNESCO toolkit. I also commend the work done by GLEN which has been centrally involved in the progress that has been made in recent years by the Department of Education and Skills and all the education partners in addressing LGBT issues in second level schools.
I would like to raise a deep concern I have about homophobic bullying and the fear of violence, discrimination and stigma felt by LGBT asylum seekers in Ireland. While the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service does not provide figures for the number of LGBT refugees seeking asylum in Ireland, anecdotal evidence from groups working directly with asylum seekers, such as the Irish Refugee Council, points to an acute fear on the part of asylum seekers about disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity at the screening stage, even when the impetus for fleeing their country of origin was homophobic persecution. The Irish Refugee Council also has testimonies from LGBT asylum seekers about the immense stress they are under trying to conceal their sexual orientation and gender identities from fellow asylum seekers, with whom they are often sharing close living quarters in direct provision accommodation centres.
A common experience about which I have heard on numerous occasions involves a gay man who has fled his native country in which homosexuality is both illegal and subject to active persecution by his peers sharing a room in direct provision accommodation with four other men from the same country who is terrified they will uncover his sexual orientation and that he will be subjected to attack and persecution in the short term and if returned to his country of origin, where word would no doubt spread, his life would be in jeopardy. We have come far in many ways but these young men are being placed in accommodation where they have to continue to conceal their identity. That means Ireland is going backwards to a time to which we do not want to return. It must be ensured that support for protection against homophobic violence, discrimination and stigma are equally afforded to those living in direct provision. All asylum seekers entering Ireland should receive training, awareness and orientation about a wide range of issues, including LGBT rights and the principles of non-discrimination in the State. I encourage the Department of Justice and Equality to develop its work in this area, as further progress could be made.
I welcome the Minister of State's openness and look forward to the working group's report. She will witness following the input of Senators to the debate that the Seanad has a role to play. While I question the timing of the debate, it is a way for Members to stand up.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and, as usual, she has relayed words of wisdom which are appreciated. Bullying, particularly homophobic bullying, is a crime against humanity. While it is a political issue, thankfully, it is not a party political issue. There is unanimity across all political parties that this issue must be addressed and whatever steps must be taken to eradicate such bullying will be welcomed. I come from a county where Phoebe Prince was a student before moving to America. That was a high profile case of bullying and there was a sad case in County Leitrim last week, which was equally traumatic and tragic. This also encompassed cyberbullying as well as bullying in general. Bullying is a serious problem in our schools, especially with the advent of text messaging, Facebook and Twitter and other ways and means of perpetrating hurt against people and perpetrating acts that are not acceptable. As a society, we all have to be vigilant against bullying. Homophobic bullying questions someone's identity and makes him or her feel inadequate because of his or her identity. I commend previous speakers because most of what I feel has been reflected in their contributions.
I also commend the NGOs in this area, particularly those represented in the Visitors Gallery such as GLEN and BeLonGTo. The work they have done has paved the way to improvements. There is legislative provision in place but, hopefully, this will be tightened up going forward. I also await with interest the recommendations in the report of the working group set up by the Minister for Education and Skills. Senator van Turnhout is correct in the sense that we are talking in a vacuum but I am confident that when the report is published, we will have another opportunity to debate this issue. I will encourage the Leader to provide us with such an opportunity in light of the working group's recommendations.
We have all dealt with people who have suffered greatly as a result of homophobic bullying.
I encountered a case recently in which a hearse pulled up at the home of a young gay person seeking his remains. It was simply appalling stuff. This is the level of intimidation that is going on in society. As legislators, Members sometimes feel powerless because regardless of what legislation may be introduced, how can one prevent something like that from happening except by ensuring those responsible for it are held accountable? Everyone has examples of such bullying and the examples to which Senator van Turnhout referred regarding people seeking asylum in Ireland certainly are important and such issues must be addressed with absolute urgency. International experience is one thing but Ireland must take a lead. It will hold the Presidency of the European Union during the first six months of 2013 and I hope it will lead the way in coming up with best practice in respect of legislation and dealing with such bullying.
As I stated, bullying is bullying and in ways, homophobic bullying is the same as "ordinary" bullying. The only difference is it involves bullying based on identity and tries to make people feel their identity is in some way inadequate. This must be addressed and I note a very interesting discussion took place at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality at which the various NGOs made presentations. Having spoken to joint committee members afterwards, it was considered to be a most informative experience. On foot of the presentations given by the NGOs and the Oireachtas Members asking questions and discussing the issue, people came away from that experience much better informed than beforehand. In fairness to the Government, this issue has been at the centre of the Minister of State's agenda. She has quite happily attended or launched any initiative to which she has been invited and is in the House today because her attendance has been requested by Members. This issue is a centre point of equality. In this context, the merging of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission will bring a more focused and dedicated approach to dealing with all such issues, particularly those pertaining to equality and so on.
I look forward to the report and debating its recommendations and, more important, seeing a pathway to their implementation.
It is a victory. In that vein, I warmly welcome this debate and the opportunity for Senators to express their opposition to homophobic bullying in all forms, to propose some positive ideas on how to tackle the issue and to ensure the issue is high on the political agenda in order that tough anti-homophobic bullying measures and guidelines are put in place in workplaces and schools, where they are most sorely needed. As other Members have noted, homophobic bullying can occur anywhere to people of any age and in any profession or walk of life. It is not simply a matter for schools or businesses to deal with but rather is a matter for society as a whole and this important point must be remembered.
In common with other Members, I wish to focus in particular on homophobic bullying and its effect on young people. In common with my colleagues, I acknowledge the excellent work being carried out by the Gay + Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and the BeLonGTo youth group which, as has been noted previously, has been running successfully the Stand Up! campaign, which has won praise from the United Nations for its quality. I also commend and acknowledge the work of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which has played a progressive role on this issue.
It is not often we acknowledge the work being done in this area. It is crucial this work continues and that we listen to the experiences and ideas of people, including parents, who work with young people. Through my engagement with the youth organisation SpunOut, I have heard from young people who have experienced homophobic bullying at school that while there have been some improvements, it remains an extremely common issue in schools, which is worrying in this day and age. While the positive moves of recent years must be commended, we may need to open up our thinking and to look at related issues in terms of how they impact on young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, people in education.
I take the opportunity to thank two people from SpunOut, Patrick and Christine, for sharing their experiences with me. We can talk all day long in this House about issues but unless what we say is rooted in fact and real life experience, it will be irrelevant and will not help bring about progressive change. Christine spoke to me about how sex education in school dealt solely with heterosexual sex. The marginalising effect of this on young LGBT people needs to be considered. Christine also spoke of her experience of emotional blackmail by another school girl who became aware of her sexuality. While we have moved on, if the sexuality of a young school-going person is something that continues to stigmatised, we have a long way to go. This must be recognised.
Another young person, Patrick, raised with me a number of important issues which he believes need to be acted upon, including that homophobic bullying must be stopped immediately it occurs. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, stated that bullying can be insidious and that the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour is often a fine one. While we do not tolerate a festering of racist behaviour or abuse, some teachers and adults are uncomfortable or lack the knowledge to engage with homophobic bullying in a direct manner. This sense of discomfort needs to be addressed through education and positive peer pressure. A school's ethos should have no bearing on its approach to homophobic bullying. That is critical. Homophobia should be considered as unacceptable as racism or sexism. There should be no excuses for tolerating it. Any teacher or adult in a position of authority who does not immediately intervene when homophobic bullying occurs is failing young people and should be told so.
We are all aware of the prevalence of mental ill health in this country, in particular among young people in recent years. Bullying and being open about and dealing with one's sexuality can be a factor in this regard. Homophobic bullying is, therefore, a specific issue that must be dealt with sensitively but unflinchingly. I again commend the groups working to challenge homophobia, in particular those working with young people. I appeal to the Government and others to continue working with these groups. As I stated, we must be vigilant of homophobic bullying, ensure it remains on our agenda and is, where it occurs, constantly challenged. Like Senator van Turnhout and others I look forward to discussing the recommendations of the working group. I hope this is not just a once off debate cast into the chronicles in terms of what we have done. Young LGBT people need to be at the centre of our thinking. It is our voices rather than those of other interests that should provide guidance on this issue. This issue must remain on our agenda.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to the House. I only became aware a number of hours ago that this issue was being discussed in the House today. I would like to share my thoughts and observations on the subject matter with the Minister of State.
Homophobic bullying as a problem in schools is an issue which has only been explored since 2004. We are all aware that society and in particular our youth, not alone in Ireland but worldwide, are experiencing many problems, including alcohol abuse, misuse of drugs, obesity and racism. I do not foresee the problem of homophobia going away for a long time. I am not necessarily sure if the efforts through education will make a major difference. I note that 41% of teachers say that homophobic bullying is more difficult to deal with than is any other form of bullying in schools, the reason being their fear of also being targeted by the bullies.
I wanted to contribute to this debate because as a coach and mentor to many young boys and girls for a number of years I have dealt at first hand with victims of bullying, in particular young men. They have told me of how at school they were called "gay", "queer" or "fags". This type of slagging affects self-esteem and increases anxiety, often causing depression. Those slagging do not necessarily always know they are being bullies. However, bullying often becomes physical. When, as I once witnessed, a young man is thrown through a glass door in a secondary school, resulting in his head being cut open and him having to be brought to hospital, that is homophobic bullying.
Another young man whom I mentored was told when he tried to get into a nightclub that he could not go in because the bouncer at the door did not like his friend. The bouncer turned to his friend and said: "Get out of here you gay queer." When the first young man defended himself and his friend to the bouncer, he was dragged into the nightclub, had his trousers pulled down below his waist and shoes taken from him and was brought into a dark room and beaten. The Garda Síochána was called and the gardaí believed the bouncer. The young man was imprisoned in Kevin Street Garda station over night and had to eventually, after six months, plead guilty because he did not want to have to go to court. What kind of homophobic bullying is that?
In another instance of which I am aware, a young man was travelling to town in a taxi with a male and two female friends. They had not met each other for approximately three or four months over the summer. When the taxi driver asked where they were going and they told him, he turned and called them "queers" and told them to get out of his taxi. The young man took issue with this. The taxi man stopped in the middle of the Stillorgan dual carriageway and told them to get out of the car. When they did the young man slammed the door and told the taxi driver to go you know where. The taxi driver got out of the car and beat up the young man. I saw the photographs of the young man following that beating. He had blood pouring down onto his chest. The Garda was called, but gardaí did nothing. They provided no protection whatsoever for the young man concerned. There are no rights for these type of victims and action will not be taken against the perpetrators of homophobic bulling.
Young men and women are not only emigrating from this country because of economic difficulties and unemployment. They are emigrating because of homophobic bullying. I do not believe it will ever come to an end. We must work hard with schools, sports clubs and society to try to educate people of the harm done physically and mentally as a result of homophobic bullying.
I thank Senator Coghlan for sharing time with me. I did not give notice to speak on this issue but decided to come to the House and contribute to the debate because of the pervasive and endemic affect which I believe homophobic bullying is having on our society. In 2010, I compiled, with the Educational Research Centre, an Oireachtas education report on early school leaving.
We picked groups of kids at risk of dropping out of school. One of those groups were lesbian, homosexual and transgender youngsters. I had the honour of interviewing some of the children and one interview with a boy sticks in my mind and is the reason I am speaking on this topic. He was a kind and gentle 16 year old boy and his humanity remains with me. It was very difficult for him to stay at school and he said that GLEN and BeLonGTo helped him. His self-esteem had taken a beating and suicidal thoughts were common. He said that physical education was particularly difficult for him, especially in the changing room. We need to be alert to those areas and we need to give guidance to physical education teachers. This is not a school problem but a societal problem. I have a teenage son and I heard a group of his peers in a shop recently speak about homosexuality in a very negative way, saying that if they had sons who were homosexual, they would kill them. It is not just coming from these fine young people, it is an attitudinal problem. We need an information and promotional campaign in a positive way to promote tolerance of sexuality and acceptance of all sexuality. This must be in people's faces in order that the issue is not spoken about in silent tones. It is a wider issue than school and if we expect schools to solve it, we will fail. We have a long way to go on this issue but it is helpful and healthy to have this debate.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to join in statements on this important issue. We are all agreed on deploring homophobic bullying, which I regard as despicable behaviour. The same applies to all bullying. We can all endorse the comments made by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, when he declared that homophobic bullying is a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights and a public health crisis. It is also a loss for the entire human family when promising lives are cut short.
It is heartening that Ireland is seen as being to the forefront of efforts to eliminate homophobic bullying from schools. It has also been one of the driving forces behind UNESCO's global good practice policy manual. The Fianna Fáil Party supports and welcomes the decision of the Minister for Education and Skills to address bullying through the forum on bullying and through the setting up of a working group on tackling bullying. Bullying should be viewed in the context of a whole school approach to promoting mental health. However, while all young people are at risk of being subjected to bullying, research shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual and transgender young people suffer far higher incidences of bullying behaviour and that teachers find it particularly hard to deal with homophobia. In view of this, a specific strategy is required to address homophobic bullying. According to GLEN, homophobic bullying has been documented as one of the most pervasive forms of bullying in Irish schools. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people experience bullying at a much higher rate than other young people. Irish research shows that homophobic bullying is a significant causal factor in self-harm, suicide and other severe mental health difficulties. Two in five Irish teachers find homophobic bullying more difficult to address than other forms of bullying. Supporting LGBT Lives, a study funded by the HSE National Office for Suicide Prevention, found that among lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, 50% experienced verbal homophobic bullying, 40% were verbally threatened by fellow students, 25% were physically threatened by their peers and 34% heard homophobic comments from teachers. The last statistic may go some way to indicating why two in five Irish teachers find homophobic bullying more difficult to address than other forms of bullying.
The Fianna Fáil Party believes that, in addition to general measures to deal with and prevent bullying, a specific strategy is required to address homophobic bullying. We must ensure that measures to prevent bullying and deal with incidents form part of an overall strategy to promote positive mental health among young people. The focus should be on promoting young people's well-being. It is essential the Department of Education and Skills updates its current bullying guidelines, which were introduced in 1993. They must be updated to address racist bullying, homophobic bullying and cyber bullying, including the use of text messages and mobile phones in schools. This should be an emphasis on the more subtle ways available in 2012, particularly Facebook. The guidelines must be significant be strengthened so that schools are required to implement an anti-bullying programme. The programme should involve the whole school community. It seems that schools must have policies in place to address bullying and list clear actions that must be taken following breaches of the policies, schools can do as much or as little as they see fit in tackling bullying. I agree with the position outlined by Professor Mona O'Moore of TCD in her presentation to the recent forum on bullying, that the definition of bullying in the 1993 guidelines must be updated as bullying is currently viewed as one or more individuals repeatedly targeting another. Cyber bullying can involve just one damaging incident, which is sufficient to be defined as bullying; it may not be a repeated attack. Schools need to be provided with proper training and support to implement the guidelines in order to take a more proactive approach to tackling bullying. We face a challenge and the fight against prejudice and intolerance is never easy. Those vices will always seek new outlets but with time and education we can overcome the challenge. Let us look at how attitudes have changed in so many recent years. For me and for the Fianna Fáil Party, it is a challenge we are willing to meet. I wish the Minister of State continued success with all her great work. I am one of her biggest fans.
I also welcome the Minister of State. I recognise the good work of BeLonGTo, GLEN and the Union of Students in Ireland, which has a robust LGBT campaign. We must bear in mind that bullying is only part of the treatment faced by LGBT people. This discussion will take place in the wider context of other issues faced by LGBT people, particularly young LGBT people. It is not commonly known that the age of 12 is the most common age when such people discover their LGBT identity. At 16 years of age, they are most vulnerable to beginning to self-harm and 17 is the most common age to tell someone of their sexuality. It is also the most vulnerable age for attempting suicide for the first time. There is a significant issue in respect of treatment of LGBT young people. The statistics are quite startling. Some 50% of LGBT people under the age of 25 have seriously thought about ending their lives. Some 20% of LGBT people under the age of 25 have attempted suicide at least once. Homophobic bullying is a clear risk factor for self-harm and attempted suicide.
It is important to note that the age of greatest vulnerability for LGBT people is between 12 and 17, which corresponds to the period of second level education.
The Minister of State has mentioned that we have put in place certain protocols to combat bullying and that we have introduced equality legislation, but the reality of the matter is that research has shown young LGBT people experience marginalisation and present with a higher incidence of drug and alcohol abuse. In particular, they experience geographical isolation, and they also experience rejection among parents and family. They live with secrecy and are more likely to become homeless, and they are more likely to remain homeless when they have experienced homelessness. One of the most pressing issues is that LGBT people believe they have a lack of role models, although there has been an improvement in this regard.
We need to tackle the fact that LGBT people suffer from a feeling of invisibility in society, among other conditions. We can talk about all the measures we have put in place to tackle homophobic bullying in schools but the reality is that if we do not deal with the kinds of societal norms we present to young people, we will never deal with it. The kinds of people Senator Coghlan mentioned, who exhibit behaviour that is nothing short of that of animals, will never be tackled if we do not tackle social norms. As long as we have curricula for schoolchildren that present Ladybird-style, Jane and Peter, or mum and dad types of norms and fail to present the kinds of relationships with which LGBT people can identify, we will never tackle their lack of self-respect and the attitudes of the kinds of people spoken about the Senator Coghlan. If we do not regard the relationships between LGBT people as really equal in society ? I am not a great believer in the equal but different attitude to legislation ? the problem will continue to obtain. We must tackle marriage equality, for example. If we do not do so, there is very little point in saying all are equal and that we believe certain attitudes are reprehensible; if one believes in what one is saying, one should act upon it. One should be judged on one's words and on what one is prepared to do.
Section 31 of the Education Act was referred to by Senator Power. I raised this matter during the course of the debate thereon. If we discover that amending section 31 cannot be achieved legislatively because it is repugnant to the Constitution, the only way to tackle the matter will be through constitutional reform. If an LGBT young person does not see an LGBT teacher in his or her own school being treated as an equal, how can he or she believe he or she is also equal? Ultimately, norms, codes and legislation are fine, but if we do not back them up with sincere, genuine equality, we will never tackle the attitudes about which Senator Coghlan spoke.
I am filling in for Senator Reilly and did not intend to speak this evening. I am taking the opportunity to do so, however, because it is an important issue. I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the fact that we are having a debate on this issue. Many of the main points have been made. The most obvious point we should make is that we must all offer leadership on this issue. The first step the State and we, as legislators, should take is to ensure there is equal recognition for LGBT people. This means full equality and that we must go beyond civil partnerships such that LGBT people will be allowed to marry and have equal rights in the same way as the rest of us. If the State does not confer on its citizens equality, this is partly why many in society are not minded to regard people as equals and the reason they look at differences rather than equality.
The State has a great responsibility in this regard. We should all promote equality. All institutions in the State have a great responsibility. I include the church, whose views and teachings on homosexuality are completely outdated and should change. This is part of the problem. When one considers that the church has control over many of our schools, which matter is being examined, is it any wonder that sexual education is what it is? When views such as those of the Catholic Church are being expressed and when there is not full equality for LGBT individuals, is it no wonder that there is a very high level of homophobic bullying in schools and throughout society?
Everybody should begin by looking at himself or herself. I would certainly raise my children by making sure they viewed people as equals and recognised and celebrated difference, be it in respect of people who come from different communities or people of a different sexuality, religion, race, creed or colour. I would stress that we are all equal and all human beings. If we start by promoting this ethos among our own children, it will be the best possible start we can give them.
Leaving aside our personal responsibilities as parents are citizens, as legislators we have a responsibility to ensure that we do the right thing. I recognise that there have been some positive moves recently on civil partnership, but we still have a long way to go to ensure this State fully vindicates the rights of LGBT people. While it is very welcome that we are having a very constructive debate in this House today, and that we are facing up to the reality that many people are being subjected to homophobic bullying, we must examine the practices of institutions, be they educational organisations or businesses, and those in workplaces. We must also consider ourselves. If we are not prepared to look at ourselves, we have no right to point the finger at other organisations. I hope that, in the coming years, the Government, which is a year and a half into its term of office, will prioritise the need to ensure full and equal recognition for gay people in respect of marriage. Once the State takes these steps, young people, especially, will realise that LGBT individuals are equal in the eyes of the State, and that this is how they should be viewed by everybody. We must first look to ourselves and ensure we do the right thing as legislators.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, to the House and apologise for my being delayed. I was at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, which had a hearing on the merger of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, to which I know the Minister of State referred in her speech as one of the important mechanisms we hope will strengthen equality protection. Senator Zappone also attended the committee hearing. I apologise for not having been here earlier.
I was one of the Senators who spoke on 17 May, the international day against homophobia and transphobia. This was raised in the House. I am delighted we are returning to the issue, specifically homophobic bullying. Bullying in general and particularly the horrific consequences of Internet bullying or cyber-bullying, as in the very tragic case involving a young girl, have been in the news in recent days.
The sort of language used about cyber bullying can sometimes mask the real anguish and heartbreak that it can cause for people. There is much flippant talk about Internet trolls, anonymous people who post vicious and hurtful comments online. This sort of anonymous bullying can have really tragic consequences and certainly causes great distress.
The specific issue of homophobic bullying is clearly what we are speaking about and what the Minister of State focused on. The Government has taken very significant action thereon already. Homophobic bullying has been recognised internationally as a serious violation of human rights and a public health crisis.
The Minister of State referred to the efforts of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, through his Department to ensure that homophobic bullying is eliminated in schools. The programme for Government commits to encouraging schools to develop anti-bullying policies. As colleagues have mentioned, a great deal of work has been done by the anti-bullying centre at Trinity College in respect of the homophobic targeting of pupils by bullies. Research has been done on the higher incidence of bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, people in general.
The work at Government level has been important, but I take Senator Cullinane's point, in that it is not just a question of focusing on homophobic bullying or of taking action in schools, but of ensuring that Government policies are in keeping with the principle of equality and do not encourage, however indirectly, a perception in the community that people who are LGBT are less deserving of equal status. I refer in particular to the campaign for marriage equality, of which I have been a supporter. Recently, the Tánaiste referred to equal recognition as being an important civil rights issue.
As Senator Brennan wished to contribute, I will conclude. I commend the efforts at Government level, as well as the Minister of State's personal efforts.
Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall. Ar dtús cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Seanad. Gan dabht, I abhor bullying in all of its forms. At some stage, we have each heard of incidents of bullying and its horrific consequences. Homophobic bullying has been documented as being one of the most pervasive forms of bullying in schools. It begins at national school. The programme for Government commits to encouraging schools to develop anti-bullying strategies, in particular strategies to combat homophobic bullying. In 2011, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, established a working group to help draft a roadmap towards the elimination of homophobic bullying from our schools. This was a positive step.
Recently, President Higgins spoke of the destructive reality of homophobic bullying. He stated that it was an important issue, not merely an emotional one. Four out of five Irish teachers are aware of homophobic bullying in their schools, but research shows that only one in five LGBT young people who are victims of it seek support from their schools or teachers. The impact on young people's mental health is well known to us all and includes self-harm, suicide attempts and tragedies, such as the recent one in Dromahair.
Children and teenagers are now more susceptible to bullying in national schools. It can emanate from a variety of sources. A high proportion of young people have been subjected to some form of bullying, leading to tragic consequences in some cases.
According to a 2008 survey, the most common form of bullying was verbal, followed by exclusion and physical bullying. Bullying via written messages and electronic means has become more prominent in recent times. Young children are susceptible to electronic bullying, as the sending of messages to one another via that media continues to grow on a daily basis, particularly in light of social networking. This type of bullying was apparently evident in the sad case of a 15 year old girl who died recently. If possible, cyber bullies must be named and shamed.
I can recount two incidents, although they were not as serious as those described by my colleague. No one was beaten up, etc. A young boy was bullied going to, at and coming from national school. He told his parents that he did not want to go to school any more. They reported it to the teacher and principal, who were unaware that there had been any bullying. A young girl in sixth class who was ready to attend second level told her parents at Christmas that she would not return to school under any circumstance because she had been bullied.
People were staring at the girl. Bullying does not need to be physical. She left the school but was lucky enough to get into another school.
We have an obligation to those involved to leave bullying behind. Name and shame. Can there be a register like the one for sex offenders? Should there even be one? We must have progress. If children get away with bullying at national school, they will continue at second and third levels. We must nip it at the bud.
I thank every Senator who contributed to the debate. I am not saying it because I am standing here, but I always find Seanad debates to be passionate and well informed. They are free flowing and are not the set pieces to which I am used.
I will address Senator Power's fundamental question on section 37 of the Employment Equality Act. She asked for an update. As soon as the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC, and the Equality Authority have merged, the Minister for Justice and Equality intends to ask the new body to investigate section 37 as a priority. We are all conscious of the constitutional and other difficulties, for example, the fact that the people on the other side have rights as well.
When he was a member of the British Government, Jack Straw was interviewed by David Frost early on a Sunday morning when people like me have nothing better to do than to watch political interviews.
At 7 a.m. Jack Straw was speaking about equality when David Frost told him that he could not legislate for attitudes. Jack Straw agreed, but replied that he could legislate to ensure that a person's attitude would not detrimentally affect someone else. That is what the Government is doing. A great deal of work must be done in respect of the type of violence referred to by Senator Eamonn Coghlan. Someone can be physically abused for standing up to verbal abuse, yet his or her word on it might not be taken despite there being evidence and witnesses. We have all been there and know how it works. The State's institutions need to take account of this issue.
No one could claim that I am not completely in favour of equality. I always have been. It is something I no longer question, it is part of what I am.
I am not certain that marriage equality will stop bullying. Bullying is a separate issue. It is something insidious and we must be continuously conscious of it. We must stamp it out, even at the very early stages. As a grandmother of two young boys in national school, I know this type of bullying is used as a form of abuse, even when a child is not homosexual. That shows how endemic the matter has become and we must stop it. Even when a child does not understand the consequences of what is being said, it is still used, which I find very worrying. It must be stopped.
Being a teenager is difficult enough at the best of times. Imagine if a person's essence or sexuality is being questioned. It is what we are so imagine if this is challenged. Even if a person is not homosexual, bisexual or transgender, such a challenge in those circumstances must have serious repercussions. I do not accept that teachers should not deal with this because they do not know how to deal with this issue. Teachers deal with very difficult matters every day of the week and we could introduce a whole-of-school approach, where a teacher would not be isolated, alone or subject to the type of bullying that can go on in secondary schools, even with teachers. The Minister, Deputy Quinn, is putting in place this whole-of-school approach, and with it we could do something about this problem.
The first and only idea we must drive into society is that tolerance is above all else. We should be tolerant of other people's differences, no matter what they are, and in doing so we will have a better society in which we can all be more comfortable and live in a more open and generous fashion. As each of us can understand the difficulties that arise when a person's essence is challenged, we must be constantly on our guard against it. I saw the BeLonG To video Stand Up! and we have all done what it portrays through the years. It might have been under different circumstances or guises but we all did it. What we are saying is that people should support one another.
With regard to cyber bullying, our young people are now under more pressure than ever. We did not have to deal with Facebook, Twitter or texting when we were teenagers. We must get parents to have a serious look at what is happening in schools and communities because children and teenagers are not inclined to tell parents everything. Perhaps we should try to get adolescents to talk to one significant adult, even if it is not a mother, father or teacher. No one is coming to the table without the best of intentions, but homophobic bullying is quite a damaging prospect for society.