Homophobia hasn't gone away

Attitudes may have changed, but bullying still abounds. The difference today is the form it takes, says Ian Rivers

Ian Rivers

Like many others in education, I was surprised to see several references to homophobic bullying in the government's White Paper on teaching two years ago. Having lived through Section 28 and researched homophobic bullying throughout the early 1990s when there was little stomach to address this issue, even among lesbian and gay advocacy groups, I have to admit to remaining sceptical about the government's commitment and the Conservatives' about-face on issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality.

In the early 1990s we knew that horrible things happened to young people who identified themselves as lesbian or gay at school. At the same time, we did not really have any understanding of what bisexuality was, and even less understanding of the school experiences of transgender pupils. Being transgender was something that happened once a person had left school.

The absence of positive role models and of any recognition of lives lived outside the traditional confines of heterosexual marriage meant that young people not only felt isolated but were left without guidance or support.

Today we are told that homophobia is declining and that schools are changing. Certainly there are many resources available offering guidance that will ensure that many of the horrors I recorded in my own research are never repeated.

But is homophobic bullying declining? We have certainly seen a shift in the way in which heterosexual young men express their masculinity. Boys are more likely than ever before to be tactile and to express some emotion towards same-sex peers, and this is done without fear of being labelled "gay". My colleague, Mark McCormack, has demonstrated in his own research in sixth forms that, in this selective environment, homophobia is by and large a thing of the past and is just not acceptable.

But what about in mainstream schools? While heterosexual boys may be able to hug or have close contact with each other more than ever before, is the same true of boys who identify as gay or bisexual? If a pair of trainers can be labelled gay because they are not the right brand, does this mean that the term is no longer hateful?

Some argue that "gay" has become part of the daily discourse of young people and we have to consider how it is used before jumping to the conclusion that it is homophobic.

Of course, those who work daily in schools know that the language used by young people is much more rich and creative, and extends far beyond the use of simple terms such as gay. There are "bumboys", "faggots" and "fudge-packers" as well as old favourites such as "poofs". These words do not form part of the new daily discourse, but are used as terms of abuse against boys who are different, and not necessarily always gay or bisexual. Interestingly, there are fewer names associated with being lesbian, with "dyke" and "lemon" appearing frequently in surveys.

Being LGBT at school remains a mark of stigmatisation and this is felt most keenly in faith schools, according to The School Report by Stonewall. Truancy is high among victims of homophobic bullying and we know that it is often associated with indirect forms of bullying behaviour such as rumour-mongering, social isolation and, most insidiously of all, being frightened by a look. I ask the question, "How do we as educators respond or take action against something as subjective as the fear invoked by a look?" We cannot regulate thoughts, only deeds.

Today, homophobic bullying has found a means of expression through technology and social media. In 2011, we bore witness to the loss Roger Crouch felt at the death of his 15-year-old son, Dominic, who jumped from a six-storey building in 2010 after rumours circulated that he was gay. Following their son's death, Roger and his wife Paola sought to turn their tragedy into something positive and campaigned to end bullying. Yet, only a few weeks after they attended an awards ceremony where Roger was named Hero of The Year by Stonewall, Roger took his own life. A double tragedy for a once-happy family, and one that started with a dare to kiss a boy - a dare that was recorded and, it is believed, circulated via mobile phone.

Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University and visiting professor in the Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education at Anglia Ruskin University. He is the author of Homophobic Bullying: research and theoretical perspectives


- www.diversityrole models.org

- http:ellybarnes.com

- www.schools-out.org.uk

- www.stonewall.org.ukat_school.

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