There is no doubt that education plays a key role in building a safe environment in which young people can freely explore their sexual orientation and gender identity. By removing every possible germ from which homophobia of transphobia might grow, schools and universities are paving the way for an inclusive society.
Although the LGBT+ community has been flooded by a wave of acceptance in recent years, there is a growing need for even more inclusiveness. Through their research, KU Leuven scientists are seeking to contribute to a better understanding of diversity. Professor Kristof De Witte, Professor Oliver Holz and doctoral student Kaat Iterbeke at the Faculty of Economics and Business analysed the acceptance of homosexuality by students and teachers in eight European countries.
Discrimination within the School Walls
This research is part of Homo’poly, a project funded by the European Commission that is being conducted in several Eastern and Western European countries. Homo’poly strives for a better understanding of homosexuality in secondary and higher education. Indeed, it is evident from previous research that homosexuality and transphobia continue to find their way inside school walls to this day: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people feel discriminated against within educational institutions and are often the victims of violence and harassment.
Professor Kristof De Witte has also noticed this trend: “Homonegativity continues to be a very relevant issue, but researchers primarily pay attention to homonegativity among the general population. Much research has been conducted into individual characteristics: who is more or less homonegative? Hardly any attention was paid in the past to the attitudes of students and teachers. We are now trying to fill that lacuna.”
According to Professor De Witte, another reason to take a closer look at schools is based on socialization theory. Schools are crucial in the dissemination of social norms and thus influence the attitudes of students towards homosexuality. “It is extremely important to examine how teachers view homosexuality because they transmit their norms and values to their students both directly and indirectly. The same influence also takes place between pupils.”
Swearing in church
Makes this research special and interesting is the unique consortium of participating countries. And this is by no means self-evident. Professor De Witte: “it was no easy task to involve Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey in the research. And that is precisely due to the fact that in those contexts, discussing the subject of homosexuality is like swearing in church.” In line with the researchers’ hypotheses, the research demonstrated that students and teachers from Eastern European countries have more negative attitudes towards homosexuality than their Belgian counterparts.
“Finding respondents for our research in those countries was quite an unusual process,” Professor Holz tells us. “For example, an educational institution in Izmir in Turkey – a relatively progressive city – initially responded positively to the invitation to participate in our European project. As soon as the word ‘homosexuality’ was mentioned, however, the reaction immediately became the reverse. There was often also resistance from teachers, parents and school management.” But this only made the researchers even more motivated to make Homo’poly have a lasting impact in secondary schools and higher education.
By linking this research project to a similar survey from 2013, the researchers mapped how perceptions and attitudes towards homosexuality have evolved over the years. Although it was apparent that there has been a positive trend in the majority of countries, some countries manifest more homonegativity over time. Professor De Witte: “In Germany and Poland, the climate is changing. But on the positive side, the acceptance of homosexuality among students and teachers is growing in Hungary and Turkey.”
Learning to be accepting
Following on from the scientific research project, the partner institutions of Homo’poly developed didactical material on the subject of homosexuality, both for secondary (teaching material) and for higher education (online modules at www.homopoly.eu). This resulted, among other things, in the Kitchen Table Diaries. “Young people are given all kinds of questions about homosexuality to take home and discuss with her parents at the kitchen table. During lessons at school, the teachers then discuss these questions further”, Professor Holz says.
Professor Kristof De Witte and doctoral student Kaat Iterbeke tested this teaching material by conducting an experiment at a school in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. They investigated whether the teaching material does actually lead to a more positive attitude among students. The result? The more hours that are taught about homosexuality, the more tolerance increases. Moreover, the effect is more persistent the more the students are exposed to the material. “Pupils who were taught about homosexuality for six or nine hours, for example, spent more time talking to their parents about it afterwards.”
Information about sexual orientation and gender identity is still too often left to external LGBT+ organizations. The researchers therefore propose a thorough integration of inclusivity and diversity in the various university programmes. An added value of the Homo'poly project is the cross-fertilization that takes place between secondary and higher education. “It goes beyond scientific research. We are looking for teaching materials that work effectively. And which we can eventually implement on a larger scale.”
At the opening of the academic year the rector clearly defined what KU Leuven stands for: respect, safety and inclusion. Those are the three central values that are reflected in the university’s inclusion statement. To safeguard those values, KU Leuven is setting clear limits. Limits to exclusion, to stigmatisation, to hatred, to violence, to abuse of power, to racism and to discrimination. Only then are we truly on our way towards an inclusive university.