Teens turn away from a world of 'gay' slurs

27th April 2012 at 01:00
Young people are increasingly at ease in a domain beyond heterosexual stereotypes, say researchers

Homophobic insults are commonplace in schools, with teenagers deeming anything they scorn - from haircuts to homework - as "gay".

But new research indicates that this is changing. Dr Mark McCormack, of Brunel University, claims that homophobia is now more taboo among teenagers than homosexuality.

"When I was in middle school, some kids would say 'that's gay' around the playground," says Justin, one of the teenagers McCormack interviewed. "But they wouldn't get away with it any more. We'd tell them it's not on."

"It's like racism used to be," says another teenage boy. His friend adds: "It's Neanderthal. Who cares whether someone's gay? I mean, get over it."

McCormack interviewed hundreds of sixth-formers at three schools, given the euphemistic - if descriptive - aliases of Standard High, Religious High and Fallback High. His results, published in a book this month, indicate that there is unexpected acceptance of homosexuality in today's schools.

"I would never say 'poof' or 'queer' or other words like that," says Joe, a pupil at Standard High. "It's wrong. I mean, I wouldn't say racist stuff, either." Equally, pupils did not use "gay" to describe behaviour or objects, or as a generic insult: it was only used in conversations about homosexuality.

(The exception here was Fallback High, where a small handful of pupils did use "gay" as an insult. But it met with significant disapproval from their classmates. "It really annoys me when those guys use that language," says one. "It's so stupid.")

Pupils also professed support for gay rights. "If you love someone, what does it matter if it's a man or a woman?" says Standard High pupil Jack. His classmate Nick adds: "Well, why wouldn't you support gay rights?"

Even those boys who were less comfortable discussing homosexuality were not actively homophobic. "I don't see what's wrong with homosexuality," says Dean from Religious High. "I wouldn't want to do anything gay, but then I'm straight."

Equally, the teenagers were happy to embrace a world beyond the stereotypically masculine. At Standard High, camp 1990s song Barbie Girl was played regularly in the common room. "You could say it's our school anthem," one boy says. His classmate adds: "It's brilliant. It's pretty gay, too." Elsewhere, boys talked openly about using conditioner to avoid dry hair.

This open-mindedness extended to gay pupils, too. "Being gay just isn't that much of an issue. It's cool," says Keith, a pupil at Religious High. Maxine, meanwhile, says that her friends were not surprised when she came out as a lesbian: "And no one else seems bothered."

Openly gay 16-year-old Max was elected student president at Religious High. His posters, framed with rainbow borders, showed him in his underwear. "No one bullies me or anything," he says. "They just think I'm really, really gay."

The teenagers' comfort with homosexuality also emerged in their willingness to be tactile with one another. At Standard High, a group of boys sat in the common room together. One had his legs on another's lap; another sat on his friend's lap. Martin slowly stroked Rob's leg as they talked, his hand tracing up and down Rob's thigh. "There was no apparent reason for this touching, except to serve as a sign of affection," McCormack says.

In school assembly, meanwhile, Ethan began to give a back-rub to Liam, who was sitting in front of him. Liam smiled and asked him to rub a little bit lower. "Coding these acts of homosocial tactility as an expression or indication of sexual desire is problematic," says McCormack. "One would have to assume that almost all of the boys...maintain same-sex desire."

Often, however, teachers lagged behind. "Don't you find it homophobic?" says Justin of Standard High, drawing attention to the absence of openly gay teachers. "Gay stuff is never spoken about in lessons." His classmate Nick adds: "Yeah, I asked Mrs Jones something once about homosexuality and she told us not to ask those questions."

Nonetheless, McCormack concluded that homosexuality is no longer the classroom taboo that it once was. "It is homophobia that is stigmatised at these schools today," he says.


The Declining Significance of Homophobia: how teenage boys are redefining masculinity and heterosexuality, by Mark McCormack, is published by Oxford University Press.


Dr Mark McCormack, Brunel University. www.brunel.ac.uksseeducationstaffdr-mark-mccormack

Changing attitudes

Then ...

Dr Mark McCormack spoke to three gay pupils from Standard High, now in their twenties.

Luke says: "There was no way I would have come out then. Are you kidding? If you did something wrong, someone would call you a 'fucking poof', and the teachers didn't care."

Matt says: "My friends probably would have been fine, but I wouldn't exactly have been supported. Some guys were pretty homophobic."

Alistair says: "I was aware of the occasional nasty joke and that upset me. But I'm definitely glad I came out."

Now ...

Gay pupils currently at Religious High spoke to McCormack about their experiences.

Greg says: "It's good here. I think coming out may have helped me make friends. Once people knew I was gay, I could be more relaxed around them. I could be more myself."

Erica says: "I've never got hassle for being a lesbian. People either think it's cool or they don't care."

Max says: "I talk about sex all the time. That's partly because I like to talk about it, but straight guys ask me questions about gay sex, too."

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