Committee on Culture and Education

Come to my window: “Across Europe’s school systems, education about gender identities is not yet commonplace, leading to members of the LGBTQ+ community being marginalised and invisible. How can the EU support and promote adequate education about LGBTQ+ identities in education?

By Leonoor Wijdeveld (NL)

1. Relevance of the Topic

Currently, many schools and other educational institutions actively advocate against the LGBTQ+ population or ignore the needs and issues of this community. Although there have been some efforts towards bigger acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, 80% (pg. 15) of students witnessed negative attitudes towards someone perceived as LGBTQ+, 68% (pg. 57) of students experienced homophobic and transphobic violence and 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ students (pg. 35) felt discriminated against by school or university personel in the last 12 months. As the lack of acceptance, knowledge and support for the LGBTQ+ community, especially in adolescence, is harming the health, safety and societal participation pf LGBTQ+ youth (pg. 24-31), the urgency to tackle this problem is clear. The challenge to solve this matter lies in the limited competence of the European institutions, heterogeneous framework by Member States and major differences in perception of the LGBTQ+ community. The question remains how can the European Union (EU) weigh in on the variance in conservative or religious beliefs opposed to the LGBTQ+ community to support teaching vital information and supporting equality?

Recent articles on the attempted erasure of the LGBTQ+ community at reformed schools raised the question of what should be the role of LGBTQ+ information in education and how does this shape us? Organisation 113 Suicide prevention, together with the University of Groningen, published a factsheet in 2017 stating that 50% of Dutch LGB individuals and up to 70% of transexuals have had suicidal thoughts. Suicide attempts are 4 times as likely in LGB community and 5-10 times more likely in transgender individuals. In this fact sheet,  82% of LGBT individuals indicate school/work environment as important to them feeling comfortable and confident in their daily lives. 

Due to the lack of LGBTQ+ inclusion, LGBTQ+ youth experience exclusion through perpetuation of heteronormative views (pg. vii) within textbooks and materials and division by binary school uniforms (pg. 2-3), to name a few institutional biases. Consequently, LGBTQ+ youth often experiences a similar rejection by peers facing more bullying and harassment at school which is detrimental to their physical and mental health as well as their school performance. Finding creative solutions to support and stimulate LGBTQ+ education in Europe and its school systems, might aid lack of LGBTQ+ representation and integration, create more understanding among cisgender straight peers reducing bullying and bring more acceptance.

2. Key Terms

LGBTQ+ community: LGBTQ+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, +. The + stands for other orientations or identities not defined by the previous 5 words.

Gender: The WHO would define this as “Gender refers to the characteristics of women, men, girls and boys that are socially constructed. This includes norms, behaviours and roles associated with being a woman, man, girl or boy, as well as relationships with each other.”

Sub-definitions of gender include Cisgender (Identifying with the sex you were born with), Transgender (identifying with a different sex than you were born with), Gender Fluid (identifying with different genders at different moments in time. Some days you might identify more feminine or masculine) and Non-binary/Agender (not identifying with any gender).

Sexual orientation: The group of people a person is (romantically and) sexually attracted to. 

Sub-definitions of sexual orientation include Heterosexual (female-identifying individuals attracted to male-identifying individuals and vice versa), Homosexual (male-identifying individuals attracted to other male-identifying individuals), Lesbian (female-identifying individuals attracted to other female-identifying individuals), Bisexual (being attracted to both genders), Pansexual (being attracted to a person regardless of any gender characteristics).

Sex (noun): biological determination if you have female, male or intersex anatomy. Sub-definitions of sex are Male, Female and Intersex (individuals born with a variation in sex chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals).  

Heteronormative is an adjective to describe anything that presents being heterosexual and cisgender as the default. Heteronormativity classifies alternative gender identities and non-hetero sexualities as abnormal and unnatural. 

Visibility describes the presence of a community in the larger scheme of things. This entails representation of open LGBTQ+ people in corporations and politics, the possibility and presence of open conversation about the LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ issues as well as general attention for the LGBTQ+ community. 

3. Stakeholders

European Commission promotes the general interest of the EU by proposing and enforcing legislation as well as by implementing policies and the EU budget. The European Commission aims to promote equality, safety and active participation of the LGBTQ+ community in accordance with EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (article 19 and 21). Currently it is mainly supporting Member States and NGOs with funding, information and training programmes.

Member states governments  since the EU has only the competence to support, coordinate or supplement the actions of the Member States in this area (supporting competences), each State is responsible for its own legislation regarding LGBTQ+ regulations.

There are varying degrees of LGBTQ+ inclusion into national policies and variant levels of acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community in each member state. Different proportions of religious groups and beliefs within a member state might influence the stance of the government and what the government could do whilst also representing the people that put them in office.

Educators teach and influence students daily and in this case, they would be the implementing party of LGBTQ+ education. Even though some could be very willing to implement LGBTQ+ education. Widespread education programmes might conflict with some educators’ own conservative or religious values against the LGBTQ+ community or the values of the community they are serving. They have to deal with parents and children from different backgrounds that could possibly be against these education programmes.

LGBTQ+ people and communities might feel unsafe to express their identity at school and might be bullied or excluded. Neglect or disregard of LGBTQ+ people within education, such as heteronormative study materials, absence of LGBTQ+ communities in (sex) education and unawareness of LGBTQ+ needs, may lead to being misunderstood by peers and educators with subsequent bullying. This alone has a severe effect on their mental health and ability to develop to their full potential in their school career. In their adult lives, they are likely to experience disparities and inequality due to stigma, misconception and lack of understanding among the population.

LGBTQ+ activists, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), Networks and Movements aim to provide information regardless of school systems. They publicly support and fight for LGBTQ+ rights and bring their issues and needs to the attention of the public.

4. Conflicts

There is still a portion of society that is not supportive of LGBTQ+ relationships and identities. Non-heteronormative relationships and identities may clash with their own moral values or the perceived values of their specific (religious) community. When it comes to supporting LGBTQ+ education, this might bring conflict between schools and parents or the community and the larger school system enforcing LGBTQ+ programmes. 

Source: Special Eurobarometer 493 – “Discrimination in the European Union”. Fieldwork: May 2019

The different levels of recognition for LGBTQ+ people might also come into play. Only 16 Member States legalized same-sex marriage, whilst other member states merely have registered partnership. Unfortunately, inequality doesn’t stop at institutions like marriage or partnership, as some EU member states, like Poland or Hungary. 

As the European Commission has the supportive competence and only a very limited legislative competence regarding LGBTQ+ emancipation (mostly pertaining to recognition and family rights and not education), it will be more difficult to find some form of consensus among Member States that will bring about more widespread change. The European Commission can not actively enforce any programmes on member states nor schools. 

5. Measures in place & status quo

In alignment with the European Commissions “action list” for 2015-2019, the European Commission followed the 2018 recommendation of the council of the European union on inclusive teaching and currently supports various inclusive education projects financially through Erasmus+. This year, the European Commission presented a 5-year strategy (2020-2025) on LGBTIQ+ equality aiming to fight discrimination through legislation, making LGBTQ+ hate crimes punishable and funding anti-hate speech initiatives but the possibilities for education in this strategy are limited. Regarding education, the European Commission only has a supportive competence entailing funding NGOs and other organisations, providing information and research findings or trainings.

The European Commission also directly supports the organisations the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer Youth and Student Organisation (IGLYO) and Transgender Europe (TGEU)

ILGA (Europe) is an NGO that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights through widespread communication, strategic litigation and training of member organisations and LGBTQ+ groups. ILGA works on education by supporting projects by member organisations or related NGOs through knowledge sharing and offering trainings. They also advocate for inclusive education with different stakeholders, internationally, nationally and to schools directly. An example of such a project is  RAINBOW (Rights Against INtolerance: Building an Open-minded World), a project to connect LGBTQ+ associations and educators to built an educational toolkit for inclusive safe education.

IGLYO is a larger students organisation supporting 95 local member organisations with trainings, international events, information and resources. Inclusive education is one of the pillars of IGLYO and they promote this topic through raising awareness and gathering information on the current status of LGBTQ+ education. IGLYO publishes the LGBTQI Inclusive Education Index, which is a rainbow map showing how inclusive education is in every Member state, every 2-3 years. From further data collection, IGLYO published the Inclusive Education report which gives a quick overview on the status of inclusive education in Europe. 

TGEU specifically advocates for transgender rights and needs throughout Europe and Central Asia by organising events and trainings, raising awareness and advocating for trans rights. 

6. Food for Thought & Brain Munchies

  • What aspects of your academic life do you take for granted that could be very different for LGBTQ+ students?
  • What parts of the school environment are set into the educational system and what parts are formed by the teachers, students and programmes? How do these factors impact LGBTQ+ youth?
  • How can the EU support LGBTQ+ education when member states possess such diversity regarding both beliefs and legislation? 
  • In what ways could the EU make Europe a more safe environment for LGBTQ+ individuals whilst respecting or at least taking into account religious groups and traditional values of the member state?

7. Links for Research

  • Hear some experiences and information on LGBTQ+ inclusive education made by IGLYO

Link: Read the Stonewall article

  • Hear some personal stories of how LGBTQ+ education would have helped them, their kids or their students and what it could do in the future. 

Link: Inclusive Education Report (8pg)

  • Clear understandable overview of the LGBTQ+ education issues plus some suggestions for solutions.

Link: Rainbow map (legislation) and Rainbow Map (education)

  • Here you can see levels of LGBTQ+ friendly legislation or lack of LGBTQ+ legislation per European country. In the second map this is applied specifically to education.

Link: Fact sheet Download

  • Read this Fact sheet (2018) on LGBTIQ+ equality in the EU. 

Link: Press Release New Strategy

  • Press Release and summary of the new 2020-2025 action plan

Link: Dutch News: Protestant schools

  • Recent hot topic on LGBTQ+ acceptance in the Netherlands and its place in education. (English article)