'We must tackle homophobic bullying in open and honest debate'
Beverley Mayor Margaret Pinder and her daughter Freya Bryson tell the Mail's Kevin Shoesmith about a plan to tackle homophobic bullying ...
A LIGHTER and a can of hairspray were produced from one of the schoolgirls' bags.
Freya Bryson, then aged 15, knew what was coming next as the girls laughed and jeered at her.
"They set me on fire just because I was bisexual," she says, scarred by the childhood memory but determined to draw from her own experiences to tackle the problem of homophobic bullying.
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Today, Freya is joining forces with her mother, Beverley Mayor Councillor Margaret Pinder, in a bid to educate schools about this form of bullying.
Now aged 22 and studying for a degree away from East Yorkshire, Freya, who attended all-girls Beverley High School, says: "This is something we both feel really strongly about tackling.
"Rightly, other forms of bullying, based on race and looks, are being tackled, but homophobic bullying has been overlooked to a large extent."
Mother and daughter plan to write to schools requesting an "honest and open" debate about tackling bullying and "outdated" views on sexuality.
If head teachers agree, they are considering visiting schools and giving assemblies about the topic.
Margaret, who is heterosexual, says: "We are talking about taking positive steps to address the problem.
"Regularly, you hear young people use the term 'gay' to describe something that is negative.
"But young people need to understand this is not an acceptable form of discourse. It is discriminatory."
Bullying is hard to identify, admits Margaret, who picks out homophobic discrimination as one of the hardest to detect due to the fact victims are often reluctant to report it to their teachers.
She says: "It's very hard for me because I am not in school. But I know teachers cannot spot every incident of bullying, in whatever form that might take.
"But we can seek to address it by having a very open and honest debate with head teachers and pupils themselves."
Margaret, who insists she has no quarrel with individual schools, says she is confident head teachers will take up their offer.
"From my own dealings with head teachers in Beverley, I am sure they will be supportive and work with us," she says.
"Schools tend to acknowledge bullying and strive hard to address it much more than in the past.
"I am doing this because I care very much about the next generation."
In a bid to connect with young people, Margaret says she and her daughter plan to use Lady Gaga as a shining example.
The gay-friendly singer has often spoken out against homophobic bullying and insisted young people should not be afraid to be themselves.
Last year, she released her second album, Born This Way, which explores the issue of sexuality.
Margaret says: "Lady Gaga has been very outspoken about the subject and I applaud her for it.
"We live in an age where it is no longer a criminal offence to be gay. We have civil partnerships. This really should not be an issue. To us, it is the same as having ginger hair – you're a bit different. But why not?
"Unfortunately, however, it seems it is still an issue for a lot of people."
Margaret believes some pupils will happily say they are gay, but there are many who are afraid of coming out.
She said: "Back in my day, a student would never had dared let on. Now, there are openly gay people in schools.
"However, a lot of people tend to 'come out' only once they have left school. Why is this so?
"Of course, people know they are gay when they are younger but they perhaps fear the reaction. This is something we want to look at."
Freya, who is studying for a degree in film and literature at the University of Warwick, says she experienced, first-hand, the cruelty of children.
"I found it very hard to approach staff at the school," she says. "For others, it's still something people feel uncomfortable talking about.
"All of my gay and bisexual friends today who went to high schools all over the country said they had a really difficult time, so it's not just here."
Freya, who left Beverley High School in 2008 after completing her A levels, says some girls made her life a misery.
"PE was awkward," she says. "Some of the girls would even make me get changed in the toilets.
"There was this perception that because I was bisexual I somehow fancied every girl at the school."
Freya was not seriously hurt in the hairspray incident, but as is often the case with bullying, it is the emotional scars that take the longest to heal.
"It really upset me that someone would attack me just because I happened to be a bit different," she says.
Sharon Japp, head teacher at Beverley High School said: "Beverley High School has a robust anti-bullying policy in place. Any incidents of bullying reported are investigated and procedures followed."