The statistics on homophobic bullying in schools make for a disturbing read. According to a study last year by Stonewall, teachers reported anti-gay incidents to be even more prevalent than racist ones, with 41 per cent of gay children having been beaten up. Ninety per cent of secondary school teachers said that they had heard anti-gay taunts among pupils, and the same proportion said that they have never received any training in how to respond to it. A recent Ofsted report described homophobia in British schools as “endemic”. Many blame the residue of Section 28, arguing that it confused and muzzled teachers in its banning of the “promotion” of homosexuality.
Last month, when the Government announced that by September all schools would be required to record homophobic bullying, along with all other kinds, in an attempt to combat the issue, the news was met with restrained optimism. Stonewall applauded the move. But Schools Out, a charity against homophobia in education, warned that this was insufficient. “There needs to be some sort of action that goes with it to help teachers tackle homophobic bullying,” said Sue Sanders, of Schools Out.
And now we have it: Stonewall has produced a feature film called Fit that dramatises the issue and a DVD of which will be sent out to every secondary school in Britain next month. The movie is based on the 2007 play of the same name with which Stonewall has toured schools around the UK. School films do not normally rank as must-sees with their low budgets and often clunking approaches to the subject matter. But this is rather different.
In an hour and 45 minutes, more insight into gay youth issues, sexual identity and the nature of bullying is offered than in any other film that has broached these topics. It is episodic; each segment follows a different member of a dance and drama class in a fictitious London school. It’s a kind of gritty take on the shiny E4 drama Glee.
At times, it even manages to make homophobic taunts funny. As two boys approach two female friends who are exchanging harsh words, one boy calls out, “Tension in the lesbian community?” This is a typical device in a film where all the characters are rounded — homophobes are not monsters, gays are not saints. The idea is to subvert stereotypes and humanise everyone.
So we meet Lee and Karmel; the former is a basketball-playing, skirt-hating tomboy, the latter a graceful, manicured beauty. Karmel is the lesbian. Next are the friends Tegs and Jordan — Tegs is homophobically bullied for his tap-dancing, Jordan is his football-obsessed protector. Jordan, it transpires, is in love with Tegs, who in turn has his eye on a girl.
Then there are the bullies: one closeted, one straight. Both are vicious. Ryan’s violence erupts from his sexual confusion and self-hatred. Isaac has learnt violence and hatred from his bullying dad. I come away wishing desperately that this had been shown at my comprehensive 20 years ago.
Fit was written and directed by Rikki Beadle-Blair, best known for his role in Metrosexuality, the 2001 BBC drama series. He is also an award-winning documentary- maker. “We wanted to do something about this culture of acceptance that homophobic bullying is inevitable,” he says. “Ultimately, we want to put an end to bigotry.”
But how will they ensure that teachers actually show it in class? “We’ll be doing screenings around the country for teachers to come to and ask us questions. Once they see that it is entertaining, educational and a good trigger for discussion we hope that that will be enough.”
Beadle-Blair adapted the play into a feature film. “When we were touring schools, we would ask beforehand who felt that being gay was a bad thing and almost all the children would put their hand up. After watching the play and doing the accompanying workshop, almost none did. But from the outset they all accepted that racism was abhorrent.”
Faith schools may prove harder to access. The Stonewall report found that 75 per cent of young gay people there have been subject to homophobic abuse, 10 per cent higher than in secular schools. Beadle-Blair is unintimidated. “We took the play to some faith schools and actually found that, because all religions have debate about theology, they were open to debate about sexuality. You don’t have to agree with homosexuality to agree that bullying someone for their orientation — or their perceived orientation — is wrong.”
Matthew Stinson, a former teacher who is now a psychotherapist and a youth development officer for Children Our Ultimate Investment, a charity for vulnerable young people, says: “This film could have a very real effect in helping to bring home the importance of this issue to all concerned. My only concern is that PHSE classes in schools, where this would most likely be played, are not always taught by specifically trained teachers, who therefore might not deal with the subject sensitively enough. You can’t just stick on a DVD and expect students to learn. There needs to be a carefully managed discussion around it.”