Homophobic language is often used in ignorance, and therefore education is crucial.
Recently Stoke Newington High school was applauded for tackling homophobic bullying. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2010/oct/26/gay-history-lessons-bullying-schools. Fab that they have a new training division to support teachers in this, but for those who can’t access the training I thought I would blog some tips for teachers for tackling homophobia. These are just my tips – things I found useful and wish I had known about when starting to tackle homophobia in schools. The thing is this whole issue often gets bogged down in debate which is very frustrating as it means nothing actually gets done, so this was my attempt to rise above that and offer practical solutions for teachers. If you agree or disagree with these tips- that’s absolutely fine you are free to take them or leave them, but if you use them and they help please do let me know.
So here goes:
When you first start addressing a culture of homophobia in school it can be really scary, “what will the parents say”, “I don’t feel trained enough”, “What if they think I am gay” etc etc.
I would hope you are reading this post because you feel that you want to try and challenge the endemic culture of homophobia in our schools. It really helps if your school has robust policies on Anti-bullying including homophobic bullying and includes reference to Sexual Orientation as part of their inclusive ethos and Homophobia is not tolerated. If you can get your Headteacher on board do it. It is something that needs a top down approach and the classic “everyone singing from the same hymn sheet”.
Anyhow on an individual level here are some things to think about:
A note on language and terminology
Firstly an initial note on our language as teachers. We need to be careful of “heterosexism” – where we assume that everybody’s sexual orientation is heterosexual unless told otherwise. Heterosexuality is usually seen as ‘normal’ and can therefore imply alternatives are ‘abnormal’. These ideas of of “normality” and “abnormality” lead to discrimination and injustice. It is neither normal or abnormal to be gay, straight or bisexual- it is simply a part of who somebody is.
Terminology can be tricky in relation to discussing sexual orientation. Some people find the term Homosexuality or Homosexual offensive and prefer the synonym “gay” (which is sometimes be used to include lesbians and bisexuals, but may not be a term that lesbians or bisexuals want to be described as), some people prefer the term Queer but some people find that offensive. I have discussed this terminology issue at length with colleagues from PACE (A LGBT mental health charity) and Stonewall (LGB charity) and we agreed that the terms “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or LGB” were the most acceptable. Sometimes you may hear LGBT which is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. However please be very clear that gender identity and sexual identity are different things. If you are transgendered you may identify as gay or straight or bisexual.
Top tip for schools would be to try to use the term “sexual orientation” and not “sexuality”. This is because sexual orientation is simply a part of a person’s identity, whereas sexuality can obviously also include reference to sexual practices and obviously since sexual activity is illegal for students who are under 16, then it is a term that some parents and teachers can be uncomfortable with. The term “sexual preference” is quite outdated as it implies that sexual orientation is a preference (ie. a choice) rather than a simply a facet of who somebody is and therefore if it is a choice people can choose not to be gay. The term “Sexual Identity” indicates how someone has chosen to identify sexually, this may not always be the same as someone’s sexual orientation. You should always respect how an individual chooses to define themselves.
Dealing with homophobic incidents (this section is adapted from the Safe to Learn Homophobic Bullying Guidance)
It is important to differentiate between overt homophobic language directed at an individual “you are such a faggot”, “don’t be such a gay” “You bender” etc. and the popular culture use of the word gay- “that is so gay man!”.
Homophobia directed towards individuals needs to be dealt with seriously and if appropriate incident forms should be filled in and forwarded to relevant people in the school. Homophobic language directed towards an individual to make them feel bad about their perceived sexual orientation is bullying and needs to be dealt with accordingly. If students (both perceived victim and perpetrator) are actually friends who were just “cussing each other” and there wasn’t genuine malice in their statements then they need to be challenged for their use of homophobic language. If the homophobic language is not directed at anyone “this lesson is so gay” then students also need to be challenged for the use of this language (some suggested responses can be found below).
Please note that in the initial stages of tackling a culture of homophobia it may not be appropriate to issue detentions, this is because this will simply educate the student not to use that language in front of that specific teacher. Instead what we need to be doing is working towards a culture of tolerance and acceptance. Student will generally stop using homophobic language (in the lesson at least) when challenged about it. The message should be “you are entitled to your own opinions on this, (just as I am entitled to disagree with you!) however when your opinions are inciting homophobia then you need to keep them to yourself or express them in a very careful way that will not offend other people.” In Citizenship/PSHE Education curriculum opportunities should be provided to discuss homophobia. Also you could look at setting up a student group such as a Gay Straight Alliance.
The main thing at the moment is CHALLENGING every incident of homophobic language – soon students will realise it is unacceptable. If a pupil continues to use homophobic language, they need to understand the effect that their language has on other people, and therefore the use of sanctions may be appropriate. This could include asking the pupil to write why homophobic language is unacceptable in school. If the pupil continues to be homophobic, they could be spoken to by a member of SLT. A pupil may also be given detention if appropriate.
If a pupil continues to be bully others, schools may want to consider contacting parents or carers to discuss the issue and problem with them, and remind them about the school’s anti-bullying policy. Parents/carers also need to understand why homophobic language is unacceptable.
Some of my suggested responses for dealing with homophobic language and possible ways to answer some of the most common “issues” that students will try to debate with you.
(obviously some of these will depend on your own values, personality, time and energy! These answers are based on the ones that I have been found to be most effective in challenging some of the issues that have been raised most often within the classroom when discussing homophobia with students, the answers are based on a personal stance towards homophobia which you may or may not share- the most important thing though is that you feel confident enough to tackle homophobia within the classroom and the examples below are a kind of tool kit to try to help you to this end. (If you feel there is anything else that needs to be added please contact me).
Some standard responses
- “XXX School does not tolerate homophobic language”- usual response- “sorry miss/sir”
- “Do I need to fill in a homophobic bullying incident report about this?” (or whatever incident report your school has)- usual response is a resounding “no, no sorry sorry!”
- “You wouldn’t accept someone using sexist or racially abusive terms would you? How is this different? It’s still discrimination.”
- You could also reference the “some people are gay, get over it” campaign by Stonewall.
Some suggested responses to common issues & misconceptions that arise from their behaviour being challenged.
- If the student tries to use the excuse “But I’m not homophobic at all I just use “that’s so gay” to mean something rubbish/stupid” point out to them that by using that phrase in a negative context they are propagating a culture of homophobia (or words to that effect for Year 7’s!) and therefore the language is unacceptable.
- Sometimes students will use the excuse that their faith doesn’t allow homosexuality- to which a standard response is that all religions promote tolerance and respect for your fellow human beings or no religion condones bullying. You may have faith based opinions on homosexuality but it is how you express those opinions that matters.
- If once you have challenged them about their language and they try to say they were using the word gay to mean “happy”- repeat the sentence back to them and point out that the context was clearly negative, or sometimes dependent on the student, the situation and the context I have been known to pretend to believe them and say “oh good really, that’s nice because did you know gay also stands for Good As You?”
- Some students hold the horrendous misconception that all LGB people are going to fancy them/start sexually harassing/abusing them. This is usually put right with a harsh point out that they are not so attractive as everyone will fancy them, or a more gentle point out that do they fancy absolutely everybody of the opposite sex? On the sexual harassment/abuse front then you need to be very clear that sexual abuse/harassment of any form is wrong and needs to be reported. It is absolutely no more likely in gay people than straight people.
- Sometimes students will try and argue that “homosexuality is against nature” (or even that it doesn’t exist/they don’t believe in it!). Pointing out that gay people have existed in history since records began and also there are many species of animals that also have individuals that exhibit heterosexual and homosexual behaviour, therefore although no-one knows really why there are different sexual attractions within animal species including humans- it is pretty hard to refute that it exists in nature, always have and always will.
- Often students will try to say but “if everyone was gay there would be no more people.” The percentage of LGB people is usually quoted at being between 1 and 10% and this is quite stable and therefore there it is never going to happen that “everybody will be gay” especially as being gay is NOT catching (some students seem to think that it is!). Whether you are gay or straight you could still have a family if you wanted, although gay couples, alongside infertile heterosexual couples would need to look into options such as adoption, surrogacy, IVF etc.
- Sometimes students will say things like “well I am not homophobic but I don’t think it is right that ‘they’ should marry, have kids, kiss in public etc etc.” Usually gently pointing out that these things are basic human rights that everybody should have a right to and also it actually does not have to affect them personally. Perhaps discuss the use of “they” – it shouldn’t be an “us and them” – just an Us- Humans. I also have been known to come out with “if you are against same sex marriage then don’t marry someone of the same sex!” or “if you don’t want to see gay people kissing then you don’t have to look!”
- For students that have this conviction that being gay is a “choice” then you could point out that by “choosing” to be gay, you could potentially be “choosing” to be subject to continued discrimination, not be able to get married (although civil partnership is legal is not marriage), “choosing” to not have children/make it very difficult to have children”, “choosing” to be harassed, beaten up even murdered simply on the basis of the gender of the person you “choose” to fall in love with. When you put it like that it’s not really a “choice”. No-body really knows how sexual orientation arises (although it is subject of much research and debate) but it is generally agreed that it is NOT a choice, and it is something that is determined from quite early on in life (generally realised at around puberty when feelings of sexual attraction start to develop).
- If Students ask you about your own sexual orientation then it’s up to you how you respond, I like to answer “would it matter if I was gay?”, usually the answer is “no” and we get on with the lesson. Or I like to ask “Why do you want to know?” My sexual orientation has nothing to do with my students. I also often remind them of our ground rules for PSHE “no personal disclosures- just general situations and examples. If you did decide to come out then I would suggest you ensure you have the support of your SLT beforehand. If you are straight- please please don’t ruin all the good work by an emphatic “urgh NO I am NOT!” like it’s a bad thing!
Anyhow hope that helps. Just some things that kept coming up when I first started challenging homophobia in schools and at the time I wished I had a crib sheet like this to help me out! Funny thing is the kids started to challenge themselves once they had worked it through and I barely heard homophobic language after that. It had become the norm NOT to accept homophobia rather than let homophobia be the norm.
Contact me if you would like more help with addressing homophobia in your school.