Have you ever seen kids get picked on because of their sexual orientation or gender identity? A lot of us have. A lot of us have also wondered if anyone is paying attention to this situation. Luckily, Rebecca Haskell is. Rebecca, a graduate student, is studying homophobic and transphobic (HTP) bullying. She hopes that one day her research will influence school policies on bullying.
In an era when GLSEN reports that 59% of schools still don't include gay, lesbian or bisexual students in their harassment or non-discrimination policies, it's about time more people started addressing this issue!
I had the chance to ask Rebecca some questions about her work.
You are studying the effects of homophobic and transphobic bullying on high school students. What drew you to this topic?
As a high school student I often heard the words ‘gay’, ‘queer’, and ‘homo’ used as insults towards others or objects. These comments made it very difficult for me to openly explore and come to terms with my sexuality, and I knew there were others who must have been affected in the same way. I became disappointed in classmates when I was the lone voice of dissent in classes where others framed homosexuality as a sin or deviant lifestyle.
The lack of LGBT representation in the curriculum and the tentativeness of teachers to discuss homosexuality when the topic came up were even more disheartening. The exclusion of queer people in the classroom led me to believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans people were not accepted in my school.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network [GLSEN] found that 75% of students heard derogatory remarks such as "faggot" or "dyke" frequently or often at school. How is a kid supposed to address this?
Similar to the GLSEN study, the young people I talked to said they frequently heard homophobic name calling in schools. Some of the youth tried to use those opportunities to let others know that homophobic phrases can be harmful to students around them. Many, however, heard these comments so often that they couldn’t intervene all of the time.
Instead, they tried to spearhead campaigns to educate teachers and students in their school about the effects homophobic language has on students, especially those who are LGBT. Students used posters, stickers and buttons to help people become more aware of the language they use.
Another method they used was to find a trusted adult on staff who could help them address homophobic slurs and/or raise awareness about the presence of queer youth and teachers in the school. Teachers, counselors and administrators may not be aware of the language that’s being used or may not realize how harmful it is until it is brought to their attention.
Young people and educators can also find tips on the web by visiting sites like the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
The study also found that nearly nine out of ten students reported hearing "That's so gay" or "You're so gay" - meaning stupid or worthless - frequently. Teens who are called out for using that phrase often excuse their behavior by denying that they are referring to gay people. Why do you think there is such a disconnect? Or do you think that most kids consciously use this phrase as a homophobic slur?
Phrases like “that’s gay” are often used by students as a putdown to describe something or someone they think is awkward or stupid. I’ve asked straight and LGBT students why they use these terms, and most said they didn’t actually mean to imply anything about someone’s sexuality or that it wasn’t meant to be homophobic. The same young people thought that saying, “you’re gay” to a LGBT person was homophobic and not a behaviour they would engage in.
In most cases, according to these youth, students don’t use particular phrases intending to be homophobic, but it’s important that youth are encouraged to reflect on how the thoughtless language they use can affect those around them. The word ‘gay’ is used to describe a category of people who are attracted to the same sex; when used in a negative context ‘gay’ becomes synonymous with undesirable, no matter what context it is used in.
Is there any good news on the bullying front?
The good news is that not all young people who identify as LGBT feel as though they had a negative experience in high school. Many youth who responded to the advertisement for my study were ‘out’ in high school and felt comfortable and supported in the environment they were in. While this isn’t the case for all LGBT young people, the stories they shared provide evidence that some students respect their classmates regardless of their sexual or gender identity. In addition, some of the students praised their school administrators for helping to build and maintain an environment where sexual and gender diversity is recognized.
Finally, in past generations there has been a lack of institutional or informal resources for LGBT students, youth workers, and school staff wanting to address homophobia or transphobia in schools.
With the growing popularity of the World Wide Web as a medium of communication, many more people all over the world are able to access sites (such as this one) that provide information and support for others who are seeking an end to HTP bullying in schools.
Do you think your research will have a practical application?
I hope to provide new information that could be used by people who are interested in learning more about experiences of HTP bullying in schools. Along with special interest groups, school administrators, staff, and government officials can use the insights provided by the volunteers to inform policies and programs designed to address HTP bullying in high schools.
Making use of the knowledge gained from first hand accounts about various forms of bullying, how LGBT youth are affected, and why HTP bullying happens, can help to ensure that the strategies chosen are practical and realistic.
I’m also hoping that the study will advance research on homophobia and transphobia in schools.
If you are interested in participating in Rebecca's study, you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.