19th January 2001 at 00:00
Adj - term of abuse. The word 'gay' has suddenly become the ultimate put-down in schools - even nursery children are using it to insult each other. And teachers - still mindful of Section 28 - are unsure how to tackle the language of homophobia. Wendy Wallace reports

The night before he started secondary school, it was the only thing he was worried about," says Michelle Gay, of her 11-year-old son. To have as your surname the most commonly used insult in the young male lexicon is indeed something to reckon with in a new school. As a teacher, Michelle Gay also has to deal with the many-layered meanings of her own name when she meets new children. "I tell them, 'You can laugh for two seconds, then I never want to hear anyone laughing about it again'."

The word "gay", as the dictionaries point out, once meant "carefree and merry, brightly coloured". Then it came to mean homosexual or lesbian, still usually an adjective but sometimes a noun. The dictionary makers have still to catch up with the latest meaning - "It'll probably come up at a new words meeting," says the editor of Collins English Dictionary, Andrew Holmes, "but we work alphabetically and we're not due to do 'g' for some time" - but in the playground "gay" now means "stupid". And gay, of course.

Nineteen-year-old Tom, now in higher education, is beyond the taunts of the classroom. He says: "In my first year of high school, the word was used to mean something stupid - the table could be gay. But so could a person. It was one of the reasons I took so long to come out. You think it's a bad thing. Now, if they shout 'gay' at me, I'll shout 'breeder' back at them."

Damilola Taylor is beyond those taunts too. The 10-year-old boy was repeatedly taunted at school with the word gay, before being killed in a knife attack last November. Damilola's father said that his son, who had arrived in London from Nigeria only two months earlier, did not know what the word meant and, during one of their long-distance phone calls, asked him to to explain it. Damilola committed the classroom crime of being different - Nigerian, apparently studious, and new - which would have been more than enough to get him labelled gay.

But there can be few boys of school age in Britain now who have not been called gay, whether or not their peers doubt their heterosexuality. Even pre-school children are using the word as an insult, says Michele Elliott, director of the anti-bullying charity Kidscape. "We're finding it used as a pejorative term in nursery school. I'm not sure they understand it, but they're picking it up from older brothers and sisters and it's definitely negative. Parents are particularly distressed by it."

The word may be used by children who don't know what it means, and applied to anything from tables to haircuts to trainers, but that does not detach it from its homophobic roots. Those most hurt by it are young people who are - or are wondering if they might be - homosexual. Mike Wong, 24, from Manchester, says: "It means stupid, pathetic, daft. The people who weren't well liked, didn't look right or have enough money were all labelled gay at my school. It was said to me on a number of occasions and it hurt. They seemed to know before I did."

Ian, 16, left school recently before taking his GCSEs because he could not take the bullying. "I had nearly every lad in the year calling me gay," he says. "One teacher tried to stop it, but I think a lot of teachers are not comfortable talking to schoolkids about homosexuality." Research from the United States indicates that up to one in three young gay, lesbian and bisexual students has attempted suicide.

Ex-teacher Sue Sanders trains teachers in combating homophobia. She believes the problem has worsened in schools over the past 15 years. "Language is much more upfront than it used to be. 'Battyboy', 'gay', 'shit stirrer' - all these are in common use. Another favourite is 'your mumI', as in 'your mum sucks cock' or whatever. It is all built on sexism, on stereotypes of gender. There is a very narrow concept about what boys and girls should do."

Boys calling each other gay - whether or not they are suspected of being homosexual - shows more than a simple desire to hurt, says Judith Price, head of personal and social development at the 1,300-student Twynham comprehensive school in Christchurch, Dorset. Her school won an award from the educational consultancy Osiris for its innovative programme on sexual health, but that hasn't precluded the use of gay as an insult at Twynham. "Homophobia, despite our best efforts, is increasing," she says. "It's moving further down the school. I think it's based on fears about their own sexuality. We still have a long way to go, not only with young people but generally, to prevent the kind of aggressive communication which is really the basis of bullying, and which young men in particular go in for."

Boys have a long tradition of jeering and name-calling, she says, springing perhaps from their feelings of vulnerability. "To insult each other is a way of preparing themselves for what they see as a difficult and hostile world awaiting them. The use of this term - which hits hard and cannot easily be refuted - is as much about their own survival as about a deep-seated ability to be prejudiced."

Whatever the roots of the use of the word as an insult (it appears to have come to us via the American television cartoon South Park, which makes humorous capital out of everything from genocide to famine) there is little to suggest that schools have made much effort to counteract it. Guidance on sex and relationship education from the Department for Education and Employment last summer said schools should tackle homophobic bullying. But not all do.

Constrained still by the spectre of Section 28, often uncomfortable about talking about sexuality at all, fearful of misrepresentation in the local and tabloid press, gay and straight teachers may find it easier to avoid the issue with their students.

Dishi Attwood is headteacher at the 400-pupil Moseley primary school in Coventry, where Michelle Gay started teaching Year 6 this month. She has to bear in mind homophobia among parents, she says, when dealing with pupils. "Attitudes towards homosexuality can be strong, and negative," she says. "I would feel I was putting my relationship with parents at risk if I went into the whys and wherefores of it. If I wanted to work on this as a topic, I would have to get support from governors and parents."

Dr Debbie Epstein, of London University's Institute of Education, has made a long-term study of violence in schools. "On the whole, schools are not very good at tackling homophobic bullying and name-calling," she says. "It's a Cinderella among the equal opportunities issues. Teachers don't know what to say. They can inadvertently make matters worse by saying, 'Don't call him that - that's horrible', which reinforces it as a term of abuse. They don't always think to ask, 'Why are you using that word? Do you know what it means?' "Certainly, London children know they're not supposed to be racist and that it's something they'll get into trouble for," adds Dr Epstein. "And boys know they shouldn't sexually harass girls. But with gay insults, they know they're not going to get into trouble. It's a safe insult to use."

Yet one London secondary school teacher told Dr Epstein that if staff at his school could tackle homophobia, they would simultaneously be tackling many of their most serious problems - violence, bullying and peer pressure on boys not to work.

Ita Macnamara is anti-bullying co-ordinator at Kingsbury high school in the London borough of Brent. Although the school has a well-developed programme using peer counsellors, she admits that the use of gay as an insult is rife throughout the school. "It's always meant as an insult, from one boy to another," she says. "It's the start of a bullying thing, because when it's used it's used with malice.

"It's a difficult topic to deal with, because doing a piece of work on it badly - and putting across the wrong message - is worse than not doing it at all. We probably need to do more about it. Currently it gets mixed up with work on HIV, but they're not two issues that should go hand in glove."

Stephen Birkett, a 49-year-old science teacher at a grammar school in Northern Ireland, is openly gay. In Northern Ireland, the word still refers only to sexuality, he says, but is also used as an insult. "When you're dealing with bullying, the boys will often tell you they've been called 'queer', 'gay' or 'fruit'."

Mr Birkett conducted a survey of young gay, lesbian and bisexual students in Londonderry and found most had been verbally insulted - and not just by fellow pupils. "Pupils use terms around homosexuality as terms of abuse and I'm afraid teachers too use terms like 'cissies' or 'big girl's blouse'.

"Nowhere near enough is being done to tackle it. Most teachers are still embarrassed to raise the spectre of homophobia because they don't want to talk about homosexuality."

'It means idiot'

"If teachers heard you call someone gay, they might put you in detention. I don't think they'd say anything about what it means. They just punish you, instead of showing you your moral faults." 11-year-old boy "People say, 'He's such a gay'. It means idiot. Nobody knows of anybody inside the school that is gay, so it's not something anybody thinks about. People think prejudice is really awful - like the Soho bombing - but still use the word because that's not what it means. If someone came out and started a gay club, then probably people wouldn't use the word half so much." 13-year-old boy "Some people don't know what they're talking about. Someone called me a 'gay, homophobic idiot'. I'm always telling my friends not to use it as an insult. There's nothing wrong with being gay. My auntie's gay." 12-year-old boy For a briefing on government legislation and DfEE guidance on gay and related sex education issues, visit The new DfEE anti-bullying pack and video is available (one free per school) from DfEE publications on 0845 6022260. The DfEE's anti-bullying website is How do you challenge the misuse of the word "gay" in your school? Email Wendy Wallace at:

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