Growing up binary. Ending bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity

Last month No Bully was invited to Paris by UNESCO to join Ministers of education from across the world with leaders of other civil society organizations. We were convened to address education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender expression/ identity.

This was a significant meeting on many fronts. It is the first time that a UN agency has taken active steps to address any type of school bullying. And bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is the most controversial of all types of bullying – in a world where In at least 78 countries list it as a crime to be gay or lesbian or transgender.

When I was growing up in London gender expectations were simple. Britain followed a binary construct around gender expectations that is applied in almost every country in the world. Boys dressed and behaved like boys and at some point would realize that they liked girls. Girls dressed and behaved like girls and at some point would realize that they liked boys. It was an age when words such as gender identity, transgender and intersex were almost unknown.

Cultural constructions such as those around gender are typically Procrustean. Procrustes is a figure that featured in Greek mythology for his extraordinary hospitality. When guests approached his house, Procrustes offered them a bed for the night that would fit them exactly. While they slept he would make the necessary adjustments to make good on his promise: the shorter guests were stretched on the rack, the taller received amputations. When ten, twenty or thirty percent of students globally do not fit into stereotypical gender expectations, it causes Procrustean levels of suffering. The degree of that suffering varies from student to student and country to country.

Many of the nation states represented at the conference reported that over 50% of their LGBTQ students had experienced some form of violence or bullying at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Growing up binary, my time at UNESCO made me take an honest look at the assumptions I held about gender. Trans students rupture our binary system of gender identity. Gay and lesbian students challenge the symmetrical system of sexual orientation. If you are getting lost in the terminology, you can find on the right some of definitions that we used in the summit.

The two days concluded with Ministers of Education from around the world affirming their commitment to ending violence in schools based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

More information on the summit and UNESCO’s Out in the Open report is available here. The global initiative continues. In the next phase, which begins in Seoul in January 2017, we will meet to broaden protection and remedies against all types of bullying and cyber bullying across the world.