A group of activists in Bristol, UK, have launched a high school gender ambassadors programme, training teens to challenge sexism and homophobia in their schools. We spoke to one of the first ambassadors, 16-year-old Rose Blanchard.
I’ve never identified as particularly feminine, even at a really young age. I always wore trousers and hung out with the boys. And although I never got bullied or teased for it, there are definitely ways it’s made me feel uncomfortable throughout high school.
For example, in PE we had to wear skorts—tiny shorts with a skirt attached. I was the only one who asked to wear trousers instead as I wasn’t comfortable in them. It was looked down upon and I was made to feel a bit odd. I also missed out on going to prom, as I don’t wear dresses and didn’t want to get all dolled up. It didn’t really feel like there was an option if you weren’t a typical girlie girl.
Me and some friends heard about the gender ambassadors programme, which is run by feminist activists and educators Tiger, during assembly. I really wanted to learn more about feminism, LGBT and trans issues, as even though they’re more fashionable now and are being discussed in the media, I still feel it’s really difficult for teens to find out about them.
We don’t learn much about them in school—I only heard the word "feminism" for the first time on TV a couple of years ago, even though I’d always felt strongly about equality. If you want to search online you still have to wade through a lot of misconceptions, and it’s really tricky to know if you can always trust what you’re reading. The bad messages teens get from TV, families, and porn still outweigh the good ones.
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The program facilitators told ten of us we’d gain an in-depth knowledge of gender issues, and would be trained up to challenge sexism, homophobia, and transphobia among students and teachers at school. Although there isn’t really much bullying at my school – there’s a zero-tolerance policy, so no one gets away with it—there’s definitely a fair amount of ignorance.
Kids still make comments like "that’s so gay." I’ve been studying gender in my sociology class, and the boys will just roll their eyes or pull faces when we watch clips of women speaking about feminism. I’ve never really been confident enough to call it out before, but I’ve always wanted to be like "that’s not right!"
I think it’s more effective for these challenges to come from peers rather than teachers—teens are more likely to listen and take things on board when they’re coming from someone in their age group they’re already friendly with. I’ve never heard a teacher say anything offensive, but I do think some of them could be a bit better informed.
During the training sessions—which took place weekly for six weeks—we learned all about gender stereotypes and concepts of masculinity and femininity. I dragged one of my male friends along, and even though he wasn’t keen to come at first he found he really related to the discussions around the concept of what a "man" is, lad culture, and the stigma around boys showing their emotions. He said it was something he’d never talked about before. I know this is an issue that affects all my male friends, and their brothers too—they feel they have to act tough, or that they can’t cry.
We also learned a lot about trans issues and different genders, and met people who identify as non-binary, which was really interesting as none of us knew much about that. It’s taught me to be more open-minded and not to assume someone’s gender just because they look like a boy or a girl.
And we learned about what harassment is and how to report it. A lot of girls in the class realized they didn’t actually know what harassment was, and that a lot of what was described is often viewed as boys being boys.
We also practiced how to calmly confront ignorant comments and explain to people why things may not be quite the way they think they are. You can’t get angry with people, especially teens—they may just be misinformed, which isn’t their fault.
I’ve gone back to school way more confident in my knowledge on the subjects and my ability to challenge people. Even just yesterday, I heard someone say they didn’t believe it was possible for people could be non-binary. My friend and I stepped in and talked it through with them, and after a while they got it.
But I don’t think this is enough by itself—schools really need to start challenging things much earlier on, probably at primary [elementary] age. The programme leaders asked us how we’d like to introduce the younger kids to these ideas, such as putting together workshops for them. We decided to put on an exhibition for the younger kids with vlogs, artwork, poetry and more all designed to combat gender stereotypes.
My friend and I created posters around ideas of being a man, and also the pressures that girls face to look a certain way. I remember even when we were 12 or 13, my best friend was worried about her weight and always compared herself to celebrities. I know from my friends’ younger sisters that this is still the norm at that age—they think they have to be really slim and wear makeup all the time. It’s so sad, you should just be living your life. There’s definitely not enough done in schools right now to help girls see through this.
I also hope that by getting people to talk about masculinity, we can show the boys at school that gender issues are something they need to be concerned about too. At the moment, it feels like it’s seen as a girl’s thing. Apart from the friend I brought along, the rest of the ambassadors are all girls too.
Lots of teens like YouTube channels or Tumblr accounts because it’s someone your own age talking to you. But there’s still loads of homophobia and sexism on them. Even my little brother started repeating rape jokes after seeing them on YouTube. I hope, as gender ambassadors, we can build a better way for teens to communicate ideas with each other.