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Homophobic Bullying


Why is this an educational issue?

This question has two aspects. First it relates to bullying, which is a common behaviour in an educational setting. Bullying in general is harmful to both the target and the perpetrator. Educationally, it is bound to compromise academic achievement and is incompatible with good character, something that all education should be concerned with. Second, and more importantly, it relates to an irrational prejudice which is endemic in society. Ignorance is the prime target of education, even when it has no wider academic implications: especially when it regularly leads to injustice and wickedness, such as the Soho bombing and the murders of Damilola Taylor [Outrage, BBC News] and David Morley.

What is bullying?

The English criminologist, David Farrington (1993) defined bullying as "repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person" [Schools of Education at the University of South Australia].

Bullying can be broken up into a number of degrees. These are:

  1. Antagonistic behaviour
  2. Prejudicial behaviour and policy
  3. Threatening behaviour
  4. Material abuse
In an educational context, not all bullying occurs between students. The person who is in fact "more powerful" may not be the possessor of formal authority. Staff can bully students and vice versa. Teachers can bully each other or parents; parents be bullied by staff members. Teachers can be bullied by managers and vice versa.

What is homosexuality?

Through much of this century, the medical and scientific community defined homosexuality as sickness, deviance, sex perversion or a form of criminality. The word "homosexual" has never been a value neutral term. "Heterosexual" is only ever used in contrast with "homosexual": to mean "normal". A landmark event in the redefinition of homosexuality came in 1974, when the American Psychological Association officially repudiated the pathological definition of homosexuality. There is still no universally accepted definition of homosexuality [U.S.A. public affairs series FRONTLINE].

I suggest that Homosexuality has two aspects.

  • Physiologically: a (wo)man is homosexual if (s)he characteristically experiences sexual arousal in the context of the presence, image or thought of another human being of apparently the same gender.
  • Emotionally: it is the tendency to form close bonds of affection with others who are perceived to be of the same gender.
  • It is not entirely clear why these two characteristics should be closely related.

    Homosexuality in other cultures

    In ancient Egypt, where sex and religion were closely inter-twined, there is evidence that the gods were thought to have engaged in homo-eroticism. In native North American culture, recognizably homosexual men play shamanic or priestly roles. Homo-gender romanticism and eroticism were common in ancient Greece. The Athenians tolerated and approved of homo-gender affection and eroticism [Plato: "Symposium"]. The Spartans rigorously imposed homo-gender pairing, as a matter of social policy. In some contemporary native African cultures, similar arrangements are still traditional. These facts call into question any rigid categorization of individuals as homosexual and heterosexual, as is common in Anglo Saxon societies.

    Orientation vs practise

    Many commentators make a distinction between homosexual orientation and homosexual practise [Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1986)]. Someone of homosexual orientation desires, aspires to or would welcome physical and/or emotional intimacy with someone perceived to be of the same gender. A practising homosexual does in fact engage in sexual activity in a homo-gender context. At one level this distinction is unexceptional; on another, naive; on the deepest, it is pernicious. Few people would care to self identify as "practising heterosexuals". The very phrase "practising homosexual" carries connotations of wrongness.

    The distinction of orientation from practise has been used by the Catholic Church, as other religious bodies, to set the divide between blameworthy sin: which should be condemned as grossly immoral, an affront to the natural order, and liable to undermine family life and society at large and so legislated against in the strongest terms [Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1992)]; and an unfortunate disability, dysfunction, handicap and disorder which should be sympathetically tolerated. More recently, in the context of pedophilia scandals, this dividing line has been eroded [Nov/Dec. 2002 issue of "Notitiae"].

    Sickness, choice or characteristic?

    Some authorities still contend that homosexuality is some sort of psychological or spiritual sickness or disability. Some propose programs of treatment, based on various theories as to the root cause of the sickness. None of these have been demonstrated to be effective in changing anyone's sexual orientation, though some subjects have been trained to conform to heterosexual behaviour patterns. Of course, for those who are only concerned with deviant behaviour as sinful, this is an adequate change.

    Others speak as if homosexuality was a life-style choice: something that an individual elects for him/herself. This is not the experience reported by gay men or lesbians ["Two of Us" BBC film and book; "What's Wrong With Angry?" stage play; "Beautiful Thing", stage play; "Lucky", stage play; Freedom Youth].

    Others believe that sexual orientation is fixed by genetic (or at least congenital) factors. While this is plausible, and corroborated to a degree by physiological studies, it cannot be entirely true. Not all identical twins share the same sexual orientation.

    What fraction of the population is homosexual?

    The famous 1948 Kinsey report came up with the unpopular and startling result that as many as 10% of the male population was homosexual, basing this on self reported homo-gender sexual activity. Subsequent research has tended to result in slightly smaller figures, but there seems to be a consensus developing that between 5% and 10% of the male population is predominantly homosexual [U.S.A. public affairs series FRONTLINE]. All such figures are suspect. It is plausible, given the climate of opinion that exists, that many men who have homo-gender affectivity find it difficult to admit this, even to themselves and often do nothing about it. It is also plausible that many people who might regularly experience homo-gender affectivity if no pressure to conform to conventional stereotypes was imposed are trained into functional heterosexuality by socialization.

    The invisibility of homosexuality.

    Many people who have a distinctly homo-gender affectivity conform to conventional stereotypes in public and even in private. Many men marry and have passably normal sex lives with their wives, while pining for male affection and intimacy. Many of these are fond of and devoted to their wives and families. Many are happy, on one level. Some seek casual and even anonymous sexual contacts with other men [David Leavitt "The Lost Language of Cranes"], putting both themselves and their wives at high risk of contracting A.I.D.S. Others simply tolerate the pain of the situation in which they find themselves.

    Regularly, when evidence for the homosexuality of a respected individual (perhaps a historical figure such as Cardinal Newman [Meriol Trevor (1962)] or Alexander the Great [Mary Renault (1970, 1970, 1980)], or the Biblical King David[1 Sam 18-20, 2 Sam 1]) is advanced, it is dismissed as of no significance. David and Jonathan; as also Alexander and Hephiestion; as also Newman and Frs Froude and Ambrose St.John were "just good friends". Part of the reason for such rejection of "soft" evidence is that it is considered an affront to "accuse" such great and good men of so grave a moral taint. Similarly, even when there is overwhelming evidence that someone more common-place is gay, this will generally be missed or overlooked automatically. Most heterosexuals are incapable of recognizing even the most overt signs of homosexuality: short of explicit sexual behaviour, it is simply not compatible with their view of the world. So, the fact that uncle Joe is unmarried at sixty and may have had a "live-in gardener", Bill, for thirty years is not thought to have any particular significance.

    The exception to this rule is, of course, when the person in question is thought to be wicked, foolish or is generally disliked. So it is well known that King Edward II was besotted by his lover Piers Gaviston and that this homosexual relationship served to undermine the effective governance of the Kingdom.

    Homophobic bullying or homophobia?

    The epithet "homophobic" is unfortunate. It literally means "fear of homosexuals". It is generally speaking no such thing. Rather it is antipathy towards or hatred and denigration of homosexuals. Even allowing for this, the concept "homophobic bullying" is not a good one. It is used in a well intentioned but disingenuous manner. It is generally accepted that bullying is a bad thing. From this it can safely be argued that bullying someone because they are homosexual is bad: no matter what moral evaluation one has of homosexuality.

    Beliefs vs behaviour.

    The root cause of homophobic bullying is the belief that homosexuals are despicable, wicked or depraved. Until this fact is faced, no effective solution to the perceived problem will be arrived at. Immediately, however, a problem is encountered. Many would argue that the belief that "same gender genital activity is immoral" is a personal or religious matter, and as such is worthy of respect and toleration. Such a belief increasingly features as characteristic and even definitive of large groups of "Christians" and "Muslims". Members of these faith traditions campaign and insist vociferously on their right to condemn and stigmatize gay men and lesbians. Somewhere along the line, a choice has to be made between the principles that "homophobic bullying" is wrong and that "all religious and ethical views are to be valued, affirmed and welcomed".

    Some prejudicial behaviour might be justified.

    Sometimes it is sensible to distinguish between one behaviour and another that may at first sight seem only subtly different. If sexual intimacy between people of the same gender is the kind of threat to family life and society that some politicians, the Christian Institute and the Vatican insist that it is, then it might be proper to discriminate, even stridently, against gay men and lesbians.

    If homosexuality is immoral, then some measures taken against it, even by individuals, might be justified. No-one is to be condemned for defending themselves against a genuinely perceived threat. It is on this basis that the defence of "homosexual panic" against a charge of  murder was established in Anglo Saxon case law [The Liberal Party; Hansard 22 Apr 1998 : Col. 636; GayLawNet; GayToZee]. This has been used to justify or excuse someone for violently attacking another person whom they believe to be homosexual, even if they had no reasonable grounds for believing themselves to be threatened by that person! According to one author "It has been used at least 15 times in the last ten years to reduce charges from murder to manslaughter" [Gay Times (June 1996)].

    It should be apparent that this is a bully's charter. Similarly, an employer is entitled to sack any employee on the grounds that they are homosexual. For an employer to threaten to do this would surely constitute bullying: yet to do so is entirely legal.

    Not all bad behaviour is bullying.

    Clearly, it would be intimidatory and threatening of someone to speak badly of homosexuals (for example, as I have heard: "I think all gays should be rounded up in a field and shot") when they knew that they were in the presence of a gay man or lesbian. I presume that this would be construed as "homophobic bullying", because there would be a manifest intention to intimidate, threaten and frighten a particular individual: or at least a culpable recklessness in this regard. Now consider the situation where the speaker had no idea that (s)he was addressing a group that included a gay man. The effect on this man might be exactly the same. It might even be the last straw and cause him to commit suicide. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the speaker could not be said to have bullied anyone. If they had known that they were speaking to a gay man they might have refrained from expressing their opinion: exactly because they did not wish to be held responsible for any such outcome. They did not intend any harm towards an individual. They were merely expressing their sincere views as to the moral depravity of certain activities and their prescription for the penalty that society should impose. This, it would seem, is their right of Free Speech.

    Origins of homophobia


    Contemporary Orthodox Judaism, is antipathetic towards homosexuality. This antipathy can be traced back to Talmudic days. Strangely, the only texts in the Torah that can be understood as relating to some form of homosexuality are two obscure parallel verses in Leviticus. It is now commonly accepted that the Sodom story [Gen 19] is of no relevance [D.S. Bailey (1955)]. In opposition to this apparent condemnation, is the story of David and Jonathan [1 Sam 18-20, 2 Sam 1]. Contemporary Christianity has a similar view. Its textual credibility is reinforced by a small number of obscure verses in the Epistles of St Paul [Rom 1, 1 Co 6, 1Ti 1]. There is a good deal of historical evidence that in early Medieval times Church practise was far from homophobic and may have gone so far as the blessing of homo-gender "marriages" [J. Boswell (1980 and 1994)].  Islam has an even stronger position. Sharia Law proposes the execution of homosexuals. The Koran presents the Sodom story as a definite condemnation of homosexuality [Elevated Places: 80-82, The Poets: 165-166, The Ant: 55-56].

    Competitive masculinity

    One secular source of homophobia is extreme masculine competitiveness. Homosexuality is typically viewed as "soft" and "effeminate", and so associated with low status. In ancient Roman society, any male playing a passive, quasi feminine sexual role was thought to be degenerate and "less than a man". In contemporary Continental European society: especially Greece [T. Horner "Eros in Greece" (1978), p 54-74] or Turkey, a man who plays an active homo-erotic role is not generally viewed as being homosexual. Only his passive partner is so labelled. Hence it is possible for a married man to engage in frequent affairs with other males, or even have a permanent male concubine, and not conceive of himself as being homosexual: so long as he never plays a passive sexual role.
    "In Turkey, gay culture is completely different than [in the] U.S. and western Europe. Turkey is the only moslem country in which gay action is not illegal, and like most islamic countries almost every man would have sex with other men. In Turkish culture - actually in moslem culture - if two men have sex with each other, that does not mean that they are gay: it is just part of hidden culture. They just do it - and mostly they don't talk about it. Usually, gay means someone feminine and bottom..." [Istanbul Gay Guide]
    Many adolescent boys say that the worst thing anyone can call you is "gay". In accusing others of being gay they may seek to demonstrate their own masculinity.

    In contemporary casual speech "gay" is commonly used to mean "of poor quality", "undesirable" or "naff". I heard the word used in this way regularly at Queen Mary's VIth Form College, where I used to teach physics [2002-2004]. The adult male students to whom I presently [November 2004] teach electronics use it in my hearing with this meaning almost every day.

    Denigration of the female

    This is only possible in a society which views women and the feminine as inferior to men and the masculine. Sadly, this view is endemic (at a first view) in Western European Civilization as well as throughout the Muslim world. In such a culture, homosexuality is seen as a derogation from the perfection that is maleness: and as an approximation to the imperfect form of humanity that the female represents.

    Fear of the different

    According to Boswell, the appearance of militant prejudice against homosexuals in Europe, coincided with the emergence of hatred and fear of witches, Jews and Gypsies, in the Thirteenth Century. This was a period of uncertainty, threat and turmoil. It is plausible that anyone who was identifiably out of the common was stigmatized: excuses and rationalizations following after the fact.

    The Law

    It should be appreciated that whereas statute law exists to combat many forms of prejudicial and antagonistic behaviour, this is not true in the case of homophobia. Rather the opposite is the case [NASUWT (1998)]. Though homosexuality has been decriminalized for many years, homosexuals are rarely treated as equal citizens and are frequently discriminated against in the law.
    1. The offence of "gross indecency" could not be committed by two persons of differing gender, and not by two women [The Guardian, 01/12/99].
    2. "Section 28" Subsection 2A of the Local Government Act 1988 was widely understood to prohibit (and hence did in fact largely prevent) any discussion in Schools and Colleges of homosexuality in such a way that it is not treated as deviant [Leslie Stewart: "Two of Us" (1989), Patrick Wilde: "What's Wrong with Angry?"].
    3. Two persons of the same gender cannot contract civil marriage (this is shortly to change in the UK).
    4. Hence, a lifelong same-sex partner never accrues any rights or obligations as "next of kin".
      1. This fact can have profound and acutely distressing effects with regard to
        1. medical treatment,
        2. funeral arrangements and
        3. inheritance when a partner dies intestate.
      2. Neither can they benefit from various tax provisions,

      3. such as the exemption from inheritance tax on transfer of the familial home.
      4. Neither can they expect any "widows pension" rights.

      5. In particular, the teachers pension scheme rigidly excludes a same gender partner
        from any benefits upon the death of a member of the scheme.
        Only spouses can receive a widow(er)s pension.
    5. No one who self-identifies as homosexual is allowed to be a blood donor.

    6. The presumption is that homosexuals are sexually promiscuous
      and liable to be HIV+, whereas heterosexuals are not.
    These legal and quasi-legal disbenefits and distinctions are a strong statement that society disparages even life-long, loving, committed, non-promiscuous homo-gender partnerships. It is hardly surprising that many members of society hold views antipathetic to homosexuals; use intimidatory language of homosexuals, and exhibit aggressive behaviour towards homosexuals when the law validates such attitudes and practices by its very letter.

    Degrees of homophobia

    Below are listed four negative homophobic, and four positive homophilic levels of attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. They were originally developed by Dr. Dorothy Riddle, a psychologist from Tucson, Arizona.

    Homophobic attitudes

    Homophilic attitudes

    Manifestations of homophobia

    Homophobia can be manifested on a number of levels [Trenchard et al (1984), Rivers (2000),13-18].

    Antagonistic behaviour

    This is behaviour that establishes a climate of homophobia, even if it is not intended to do so. It is pervasive of society at large and the educational system ["Two of Us" BBC film and book; "Get Real" film, Avert], in particular. It consists of:

    Prejudicial behaviour and policy

    This is behaviour that specifically harms a specific individual or identifiable group

    Threatening behaviour

    This is behaviour that proposes physical violence to a specific individual or identifiable group.

    Material abuse

    This is behaviour that does material harm to some person.

    How common is homophobic bullying?

    In 2001, a parliamentary inquiry reported homophobia began in primary school playgrounds. Labels of "faggot" and "poofter" were routinely given to boys whose behaviour was perceived as in any way different. As with all forms of bullying, the reasons are a specious justification of premeditated violence. Homophobia was just a convenient justification for bullying in areas such as toilets, changing rooms and sports grounds. The report suggested that because it took place out of sight of teachers, the level of homophobic bullying cited by teachers might be grossly underestimated [D. Plummer (2001), 15-23].

    Various surveys have resulted in figures that are, I believe of little significance. It is manifest that antagonistic and prejudicial behaviour is common place. Threatening behaviour and material abuse is less prevalent: partly because of the change in the climate of opinion regarding homosexuals over the last few dozen years and partly because of their continued invisibility. Even so, it is frightening to learn that 51% of London Schools surveyed in 1997 reported one or two incidents of homophobic bullying in a single term and 5% ten incidents [N. Douglas et al (1998)].

    In December 2002, the Department for Education and Employment reissued its Anti-bullying Pack "Don't Suffer in Silence".
    The pack includes the following statement:

    22. Sexual Bullying can also be related to sexual orientation. Pupils do not necessarily have to be lesbian, gay or bi-sexual to experience such bullying. Just being different can be enough. A survey of 300 secondary schools in London found 82% of teachers were aware of verbal incidents, and 26% of physical incidents. Almost all schools had anti-bullying policies, but only 6% referred to this type. Factors hindering schools in challenging homophobic bullying include staff inexperience and parental disapproval.
    This last comment is backed up by the findings of a survey conducted in 1994 by the Health Education Authority of 1,462 parents. It found that while 94% thought schools should play a role in teaching pupils about sexuality, and 80% about HIV, only 56% thought that it was appropriate to teach pupils about sexual orientation.

    London University's Institute of Education found [N. Douglas et al (1998)] that:

    More recent research [N. Duncan (1999)] shows that homophobic bullying is widespread. It also suggests that teachers do not have the skills to deal with it. Pupils indeed report staff being implicated in it [Avert].

    Institutional homophobia

    In 1983, the American theologian, Tinney [quoted by Stephen Birkett of Foyle Friend], recognized seven manifestations of institutionalized homophobia.
    1. Conspiracy of Silence: There is an unwillingness to discuss homosexuality openly.
    2. The Denial of Culture: Gay people's contribution to history and culture is not recognized in school.
    3. The Denial of Popular Strength: Many schools say that they don't have gay pupils.
    4. Fear of Over Visibility: Institutionalized homophobia fears gay people being visible.
    5. The Denial of Self Labelling: Homosexuals are not allowed to determine what they are called by others.
    6. Negative Symbolism: This is the belief that gay people are morally inferior or even wicked.
    7. Ghettoization: This is the tendency of a society to isolate its gay members.
    During 1998, thirty-three lesbian, gay and bisexual people of 26 and under who were educated in secondary schools in counties Donegal, Londonderry and Tyrone were surveyed [Foyle Friend]. Only 30% of young people had ever heard their teachers mention homosexuality. Most of what they heard were passing comments and almost invariably they were negative about homosexuality and gay people. Many respondents referred to teachers' dismissive or abusive references to homosexuality. A number of gay boys indicated that they became isolated at school. Many pupils reported being bullied and even more refer to the impact of an all-pervading homophobia on their self esteem. Many gay teachers feel they have to keep their homosexuality a secret for fear of the consequences and some are instructed to do this by the authorities.

    Effects of homophobia

    The effects of homophobia are serious. The following list is adapted from accounts given by [Leicester Lesbian and Gay Action] and Stephen Birkett of [Foyle Friend ]:
    1. Loneliness and Isolation [Birkett].
    2. Low self-esteem, going as far as self-hatred [LLGA].
    3. Rejection by family [Two of Us, What's Wrong with Angry?].
    4. Rejection by friends
    5. Ghettoization


    I suppose that this grave situation has not been effectively tackled up to know because of:
    1. Institutional homophobia.
    2. Innocent lack of awareness of the problem, or of its gravity.
    3. A justifiable fear, on the part of management, of negative reaction from:
    4. The financial cost of implementing and policing such policies.
    It would be difficult to evaluate the relative importance of the above constraints. The sensible and automatic defence of an institution which is homophobic to a charge of homophobia is to give alternate rationalizations for its policy. It would be a brave person indeed who would openly challenge such an institution from the inside: at the very least, (s)he would put her/his career in jeopardy.

    Recommendations: How to combat homophobia

    The following measures [adapted from: School's Out! and Leicester Lesbian and Gay Action] should be taken to combat homophobia in Schools and Colleges:
    1. The institution should recognize it has lesbian and gay members and provide a positive,

    2. affirming and supportive environment for them [LLGA].
    3. The institution's prospectus should make explicit that homophobia will not be tolerated [LLGA].
    4. The institution's anti-harassment policy document should explicitly condemn homophobic bullying [LLGA].
    5. The institution's anti-discrimination policy should explicitly condemn homophobia [LLGA].
    6. The institution's equal opportunities policy should make explicit that

    7. homo-gender relationships are valued.
    8. A support/interest group should be set up for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff [SO].
    9. A "Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual" society be established through the Student Union.

    10. It should have its own intranet pages.
    11. Lesbian and gay sympathetic counselling be available to help

    12. those coming to terms with their sexuality [LLGA].
    13. Specific literature be available and on display and available

    14. on the College IntraNet [LLGA].
    15. The issues of "Sex, Love and Friendship" should be covered in Tutor Time or the equivalent.

    I would be happy to come and talk to interested parties and/or advise on the issues raised in this document.
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    Media Sources and Resources

    Novels, Plays and Films
    1. Jonathan Hardy (1993) "Beautiful Thing"
    2. David Leavitt (1986) "The Lost Language of Cranes" [ISBN 0 14 015922 3]
    3. Eddie de Oliveira: "Lucky", stage play (performed at  Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2001)
    4. Mary Renault (1970, 1972, 1980) "The Alexander Trilogy" [ISBN 0 14 006885 6]
    5. Leslie Stuart (1989) "Two of Us"  [ISBN 0 85140 749 8] BBC
    6. Meriol Trevor (1962) "The Pillar of the Cloud"
    7. Patrick Wilde: (1993) "What's Wrong with Angry?"
    8. Russell T. Davis (1999)  "Queer as Folk".
    TV series
    Educational Videos

    Web Sites

    1. Anti Bulling Network
    2. Avert
    3. Bully OnLine
    4. The Christian Institute
    5. The Department of Education and Skills
    6. Foyle Friend
    7. Freedom Youth
    8. GayLawNet
    9. GayToZee
    10. The Guardian, 01/12/99
    11. Hansard
    12. Homophobia in our schools: Growing Through Education
    13. Istanbul Gay Guide
    14. Joint Action Against Homophobic Bullying
    15. Leicester lesbian and gay action
    16. The Liberal Party
    17. OutRage : Homophobic Bullying
    18. OutRage : Damilola Taylor murder inquiry
    19. BBC News : Damilola Taylor subject to (homophobic) bullying
    20. Schools Out!
    21. Stonewall Lobby Group
    22. University of South Australia, Schools of Education
    23. U.S.A. public affairs series FRONTLINE

    The following are works either cited in the text or which helped inform its argument.

    The following is a list of books which could usefully be held in a School or College Library

    Novels, Plays and Films
    1. Leslie Stuart (1989) "Two of Us"  [ISBN 0 85140 749 8] BBC
    2. John M. Clum, Ed. (1996) "Staging Gay Lives" [ISBN: 0813325056] Westview Press
    3. Jonathan Harvey (1996) "Beautiful Thing" [ISBN 0 413 70570 6] Methuen Drama (Random House)
    4. David Leavitt (1986) "The Lost Language of Cranes" [ISBN 0 14 015922 3] Penguin
    Non fiction books.

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