The theme of sexual orientation and homophobia is often still taboo in Swiss schools. Yet the problem is serious: gay youth attempt suicide much more often than their heterosexual schoolmates.
“The first time I heard about homosexuality I was quite young; it was when an uncle of mine came to a family occasion accompanied by another man”, explained a girl to her classmates.
“I must have been about ten, and it was with a schoolmate,” recalled another pupil. More dramatic is the story told by a young boy who grew up in an African country: “I was 13 years old and I witnessed the lynching of someone who was supposed to have ‘a devil in their body’.”
This late May afternoon, in a class at the St Imier vocational training centre in canton Bern, the talk is about homosexuality and homophobia.
Pascal Morier-Genoud, who has been involved in education on this topic in schools for the past ten years, is leading the discussion with the students, mostly aged 17 or 18. On this occasion he is joined by a young gay man.
“From childhood on we reproduce homophobic stereotypes without even being aware of them. The question of sexual orientation is something which will concern us all our lives. So it is essential that there is already awareness of this issue in school,” he said.
Awareness is all the more necessary given that one homosexual boy or girl in four attempts suicide, according to the most recent study on the issue, conducted in French-speaking Switzerland in 2000. This matches the findings of similar studies carried out in other countries.
The school environment plays an important role here.
“At school, being seen as different often leads to physical or verbal abuse. This concerns not only homosexuals, but even heterosexuals. It is enough just to be perceived as different. This lack of acceptance provokes stress and anxiety. As adults, our role is to protect children,” said Alicia Parel, recently-appointed national secretary of Pink Cross, the Swiss gay advocacy group.
When Morier-Genoud comes to the classroom, his aim is to question stereotypes and to talk openly about a topic which is still too often taboo. He also keeps in mind that in every class he speaks to there may be a boy or girl attracted to companions of the same sex and who is wondering about their own sexual orientation, but may not be finding answers.
“Is it true that homosexuals have a limitless desire for sex? Is homosexuality the same as paedophilia? In a homosexual couple, is there always one who acts the man and the other the woman?” Morier-Genoud is constantly dealing with these kinds of questions.
“No, practices involved in sexuality have nothing to do with sexual orientation. No, homosexuality and paedophilia are not to be confused, and anyway, did you know that nine paedophiles out of ten are heterosexual?,” he explained.
Morier-Genoud tried to make his listeners understand what a person with a different sexual orientation is facing.
“Try to think of what it means to work in a company where you are invited to staff parties and told ‘next time bring your partner, too’. And when you don’t, after four or five times they ask jokingly, ‘are you queer or what?’"
"Coming out is difficult, and it is all the more difficult because you are always starting over again. It’s enough just to change jobs. What would you think if, every time, you had to tell people around you that you were heterosexual?”
Fear of proselytising
Talking about these themes in schools is still problematic. “I come in only in the last two years of basic schooling (age 15-16) and then only at the request of the teacher,” said Morier-Genoud.
At times school administrators are afraid of being accused by parents of proselytising. Furthermore, there is a deep-rooted conviction that sexuality is a matter for the family. In recent months, there have been protests about a sex education project which is to be implemented from 2014 in all schools in German-speaking Switzerland.
“As long as we are afraid of seeming to proselytise and as long as people go on thinking that homosexuality is a disease transmitted by some mysterious virus, we will not solve any of the problems,” insisted Parel.
“Sexual orientation and gender identity are not something you choose, just as you do not choose your eye or skin colour. They are innate rather than acquired personal traits.”
Diversity in all its forms
One of the strategies to avoid unproductive controversy, said Parel, is not to concentrate exclusively on homophobia.
“The cantons of Geneva and Vaud have appointed an officer for issues of diversity and homophobia, whose mandate includes developing training modules for teachers. The advantage of this is that you can talk about diversity in all its forms: the fat, the thin, and so on. Everything, in fact, which makes school life more difficult for particular categories of people,” she said.
“To concentrate solely on the issue of homophobia does not make sense… We need to tackle diversity in a much broader perspective. Why leave out any children who are different in some way? They need our support too.”