The example above is one I was hearing regularly in my own school when staff attempted to deal with homophobic bullying and language without prior training and support.
Telling a child that 'gay' isn't a nice thing to say clearly serves to re-enforce negative associations with being LGBT. If a child was to have gay family members or family friends the above remark, however well intentioned, could be particularly upsetting.
Before schools can train staff to feel confident and comfortable in tackling homophobic bullying, it is important to come to a shared view in schools of what constitutes homophobic bullying; remember anyone, boys and girls may be subjected to homophobic abuse as may staff and parents.
So what is Homophobic Bullying?
Physical, verbal hostility or offensive action against LGBT people or those perceived to be LGBT. Homophobic bullying has been widely reported in primary and secondary schools and the Stonewall Teachers Report and School Report provide compelling evidence to support the need to tackle homophobic bullying as a matter of urgency.
What forms can Homophobic Bullying take?
- verbal, physical, or emotional (social exclusion) harassment, insulting or degrading comments, name calling, gestures, taunts, insults or 'jokes'
- offensive graffiti
- humiliating, excluding, tormenting, ridiculing or threatening refusing to work or co-operate with others because of their sexual orientation or identity.
- the pejorative use of 'gay' as word to accuse, insult or offend e.g. 'You're gay' or 'Your pencil case is gay'
The Use of Homophobic Language and 'You're So Gay'
When I was at primary and secondary schools in the 1970s and 80s, homophobic language used included such expressions as 'faggot,' 'bender,' 'shirt-lifter' 'AIDS-boy' and 'benny'. Each generation seems to bring new variations and trends in pejorative words associated with being gay. Language as we know changes and adapts over time. The cause of homophobic bullying may be prejudice against LGBT people; it may be caused by fear, the 'phobia' in homophobia. This can be a fear of the unknown, or of someone who is perceived to be different in some way, or a fear which is based on uncertainty about the nature of their developing sense of identity.
Over the past few years the word gay has been commonly associated with the declaration of objects, clothes and behaviours as 'gay' meaning 'rubbish' or 'crap' or 'without value'. For a child, teacher or parent questioning their own identity or with LGBT family or friends, hearing the word gay used in this manner reinforces negative impressions. Many boys in my own school when asked said that the worst thing anyone can call you is 'gay' or 'lezzer.' Some children in my own school also were under the alarming misconception that only gay people get HIV or AIDS.
'They don't know what they are saying/they are too young to understand'
It is true to say that children imitate and repeat words and phrases as they grow up, and it is true to say that some Key Stage 1 children using the word gay to describe a piece of clothing or class-mate will be unaware of the real meaning of the word; however in my own school I found that 70% of KS1 pupils asked knew exactly what gay meant, albeit in a simple form. We must therefore be vigilant and ensure that each case is looked at on its own terms.
However, a child who does not know the meaning of a word such as 'gay' can be easily taught the meaning of that word, particularly if the word, when used in a particular way, has the potential to cause upset to other children or adults. To illustrate this point, when I was teaching in Year 2 in a Midlands school, a child was openly using the 'n' word to describe a child of Spanish descent in the class. When quizzed the child said he was saying the 'n' word as 'it means someone who is different'.
After some direct teaching input, a chat with parents and some whole class teaching around the effects words can have on another person , no further similar incidents were recorded.
To put it simply, the 'they don't know what they are saying' argument falls apart if one replaces the word 'gay' with a racist word; the strategies for dealing with the use of the word gay are no different to those we would use with the use of a racist word. Very young children, who do not understand what racism or homosexuality is, may be encouraged to indulge in homophobic or racist behaviour by their peers or as a result of cultural, family or social backgrounds in which racist or homophobic attitudes are openly expressed. If a child is unaware that a word or a word used in a particular way can offend, it is our job as professionals to explore their understanding and motivation, input appropriate teaching strategies based upon our professional knowledge of the pupils we teach and ensure that there is no reoccurrence. If a child uses a racist word without being aware of its meaning, we still educate that child as to the potential the word has to impact of the feelings of other; the use of homophobic language is no different.
Personally, I find the 'they are too young to understand' point of view doesn't place enough credit upon children who are awash with, and excited by, the facts of everyday life and capable of a lot more than we give them credit for. I have been in the situation several times whereupon a KS1 child is sent to me for a 'talking to' for using explicit sexual language in the playground, only for me to be told a few weeks later by a lunchtime supervisor that they can't possibly know what the word gay means when using it pejoratively. Young children from a young age are now steeped in sexual imagery, advertising, soap opera and misconceptions based on overheard discussions between older siblings or even parents.
No-one is advocating that we teach pupils about gay sex, but children can and should be taught the fact that LGBT people exist in the media, in schools, in places of work and perhaps in their own networks of affection; the Equality Act, OFSTED and many teachers now recognise this. In denying pupils the simple truth that LGBT exist from an early age, we begin to plant negativity and an air of secrecy and shame in young minds, some of whom, despite however scary it may seem, will grow up to be LGBT and may already be aware that something is different about them.
Please take the time to look at the page 'Effects of Homophobic Bullying' and ask the question; 'if these effects were attributed to race of disability based bullying would schools hesitate to pro-actively tackle the issue?'
In my humble opinion, schools that ignore homophobic bullying are negligent. There are a wide spectrum of views on LGBT people, some informed, some less informed, some positive, some indifferent and some negative.
The Inclusion for All approach is based upon the premise that school staff air and value these viewpoints and then move on together as a staff, because children come first.
Some key Facts from Stonewall Teachers and School Reports:
- Homophobic bullying is happening in primary and secondary schools.
- A child does not have to be gay to become a victim of homophobic bullying.
- 65% of young gay, lesbian and bisexual pupils have experienced homophobic bullying.
- 75% of young gay people in faith schools have been victims of homophobic bullying.
- 99% of young people hear the phrase 'that's so gay' or 'you're so gay'.
- 97% of pupils hear other derogatory remarks such as 'poof/queer/bender'.
- Less than a quarter - 23% of young gay people have been told in their school that homophobic bullying is wrong.
- Over 50% of lesbian and gay pupils have to hide themselves away at school.
- 35% of gay pupils do not feel safe at school.
- Only 25% of schools say that homophobic bullying is wrong.