Homophobic bullying is not like other types of bullying. If a student is bullied based on race, religion, their weight etc., they can run home to an understanding (often relatable) parent/family who understands their pain and can console them. Gay youth do not have that refuge as they 1) Are usually not out to themselves yet, and 2) fear being thrown out of their homes and family. This pent up frustration, hurt and anger eventually leads to what has (sadly) been happening in the media as of late. I have posted portions of my Graduate thesis as I believe some of the research is eye-opening.
Homophobic Bullying Is So Gay:
The effects of homophobic bullying are crippling today’s youth both emotionally and educationally. Schools lack the support on a legislative level to combat such abuse and our society as a whole encourages violence against gay and lesbians. Teachers are at a standstill dealing with homophobic bullying for various reasons including religious beliefs, personal insecurities, and lack of administrative backing. Gay students who are victimized feel completely helpless, and acts ranging from dropping out of school to suicide are common. My research study will examine the current attitudes of Special Education students in grades three through six and test whether a general anti-bullying lesson plan can reduce homophobic bullying.
“It is clear from the research that homosexuality is not the problem; it is however, homophobia.” (Cooper 2008, p. 434).
Homophobic bullying has affected students of all ages for years. The outcomes of such bullying can lead to depression, low self-esteem, dropping out of school, and even suicide (NEA today, 2004). School is a place where education takes place, but it is also a place to gather, make friends, socialize, and build character (Burke, 2008). What happens when the very place that is supposed to help form strong positive reflections of ones self is itself the hostile breeding ground for self-hatred?
Students of all grades and ages fall victim to names such as “sissy,” “fag,” “homo,” “lezzy,” and “dyke” (DeJean, 2004, p. 1). These names are horrific in and of themselves, but are even more devastating when heard by children who are struggling with their gender or sexual identity. The use of homophobic terms by fellow classmates is painful to gay students, and when educators use homophobic terms, the pain can be paralyzing. According to Adrienne Rich, “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing” (Logan, Chasnoff, & Chohen, 2002p. 5).
Many teachers fall disturbingly short when it comes to understanding this “invisible minority” of gay students (Dejean, 2004, p. 20). Teachers often assume that they have no gay students in their class, do not believe their statements are of a homophobic nature, or simply do not understand the devastating effects their words have (Larrabee & Morehead, 2008). When mixed with heinous and harmful words with the media’s often-demeaning tones, and with a typically unsupportive home environment, the results can be catastrophic to a student questioning his or her identity.
This paper proposes a study that will examine whether an anti-bullying lesson plan can reduce homophobic bullying by teaching students about the consequences of bullying and by giving teachers a tool for combating bullying behavior. My study will be implemented for one week in the convenience of my classroom, where the students feel most comfortable. I will use a Likert survey before and after the lesson plan to assess any differences in attitudes. Using our current behavior management point sheet system and teacher observation notes, I will keep data on the gay slur usage both before and after my study. Point sheets will give data regarding the frequency of slurs and name-calling, whereas class discussion and teacher observation will give me data on overall changes in sensitivity and attitudes. This paper will first examine the literature on homophobic bullying and then describe the proposed study.
II. Literature Review
To understand how one can curb homophobic bullying, one must understand the current literature on the subject. This section will discuss why this topic is important, clarify key concepts, examine teacher and student experiences as currently understood, and discuss what is missing from the existing literature that this study will assess.
A. Homophobic Bullying is a Problem
1. Prevalence of Homophobic Bullying.
Recent studies show that almost 92% percent of gay and lesbian students report hearing homophobic remarks in their schools (DePaul, 2009 para. 9). Students also report that a very small percentage of teachers (3.4%) address this type of abuse (DePaul, para. 12). More than 25% of reported suicide attempts are from gay and lesbian adolescents, with 10% just within the past year (SMYAL, 2006, p. 6). According to one study, on a school level almost 33% of gay and lesbians missed school in (just in the past month prior to this research) because of feeling unsafe or because of homophobic bullying (Presgraves, 2008). In one study, 53% of gay and lesbian students’ grades suffered greatly (Hansen, 2007). In another similar study, 28% completely dropped out (Nichols, 1999, p. 511). Interventions and policies must be implemented, as bullying is linked to physical and mental health problems (Bryner, 2010).
2. Policy Problems
Unfortunately, there are few, specific policies targeting homophobic bullying, even though these policies are crucial to decreasing this rising epidemic (Burke, 2008 p. 37). The problem lies not only in the lack of policies to prevent attacks, but within the policies themselves. A recent study showed that 96% of principals reported that their schools do in fact have anti-bullying policies, but that less than half cover homophobic bullying (GLSN, 2008).
3. Origins of Homophobia
Homophobic attitudes start at a young age—usually in the home. Many children come from homes where they often hear anti-gay remarks. Whether it is a casual joke around the dinner table or a blatant slanderous comment, anti-gay names are sadly common in many homes. Some homes are blatant with remarks whereas others who may have religious objections have a more subtle but clearly disdainful tone when talking of homosexuality (Macgillivray, 2004, p. 363)
The media is another medium for such divisive slander or inaccurate descriptions (Sheng, 2007, p. 100). Let us take for instance a well-known movie recently released (“Why Did I Get Married Too”) where the script called for a very feminine male actor to jump out of a cake—a clear historical Hollywood caricature of a gay person–who was derogatorily referred to as “bitch” and other demeaning references. If such portrayals/messages from the media are alive and prevalent today when we presumably have so much more understanding and sensitivity to minority groups, one can only imagine what the messages have been leading up to now when portraying gay persons. Take for instance how the Wayans brothers portrayed gay persons in “In Living Color,” these offensive stereotypes are nonchalantly accepted and sadly all too frequent.
4. Harmful Effects of Homophobic Bullying Statistics show that gay and lesbian students who are targets of homophobic bullying suffer greatly in their education. Students learn best when they feel safe in their educational environment (Tucker and Wagner, 2008 p. 248). When students feel safe, all walls are down and creativity and logic are at their peak. One of the key elements of a safe learning environment is a sensitive educator who creates a classroom of zero tolerance for homophobia and an environment of total inclusion (Wolfe, 2006 p. 202). A zero tolerance policy is one in which any type of name-calling is unacceptable and subject to punishment. When an educator ignores homophobic name-calling or homophobic bullying, however, that sends a strong message that such abuse is acceptable (NEA today, 2004, p. 1). Given this, it should be no surprise that gay students suffer tremendously from homophobic bullying and that furthermore they are indoctrinated with the mentality that abuse toward them is acceptable.
The challenges are insurmountable when one must struggle with coming to terms with their sexuality and concurrently dealing with rampant and crushing homophobia, all while dealing with a myriad other teen concerns. With name-calling, teasing, social exclusion, etc., gay and lesbian students experience more psychiatric disorders, higher rates of substance abuse, and increased risk of suicide (Craig, Tucker, & Wagner, 2008 p. 238). They are also more prone to engaging in at-risk behaviors, and some experts suggest that what is needed to reduce these behaviors are schools that promote a caring environment that respects diversity (Nichols, 1999, p. 506/509). In one study, it was found that because of homophobic bullying, 75 % of gay males experienced a decline in their school performance, 39% skipped classes, and 28% dropped out altogether (Nichols, 1999, p. 511). Another study concluded that gay and lesbian students were twice as likely not to pursue postsecondary education (Hansen, 2007, p. 843). Kevin Jennings (the Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools, US Department of Education) said of students dealing with homophobia, “If they’re sitting in that classroom and they’re terrified about what will happen when they try to walk home after school, they’re not going to learn” (Richardson, 2010 p. 48).
Students who endure homophobic name-calling suffer in other ways. If a student is fed up with being the target of harassing names and finally aggresses toward his or her abuser, it is not hard to imagine that he or she will be suspended from school, and, depending on his or her age, start a record that remains in his or her file for years. Other students turn inward shutting out the world around them and isolating themselves. Some students skip classes and skip days of school, while others drop out completely (Legal, 2002). To make matters worse, statistics show that students who drop out of school due to homophobic bullying usually do not return or go on to college (Hansen, 2007, p. 843). While some students are fighting back and skipping school, other students are so overwhelmed by the constant abuse they decide taking their life is easier than the day-to-day suffering (Legal 2002).
5. Teachers’ Attitudes towards Homophobic Bullying. Teachers are generally hesitant to act against homophobic bullying. Some teachers struggle with whether or not to intervene when they hear homophobic remarks because of their personal religious beliefs (Varjas, Graybill, Mahan, Meyers, Dew, Marshall, et al., 2007). Others teachers are concerned that if in fact they do intervene, they feel as if they are promoting the “gay lifestyle” (Higgins-Norman, 2008). Yet other teachers do in fact want to address homophobic bullying but are reluctant due to the lack of school policy backing them (Craig, Tucker, & Wagner, 2008, p. 244). In fact, the majority of schools today that have an anti-bullying policy that does not include sexual orientation (Minton, 2008, p. 180).
6. Ways to Decrease Homophobic Bullying. It is relatively easy to cut down on homophobic name-calling and abuse whether through parents, teachers or school administrators.
Reducing homophobic bullying starts with teachers addressing students who use homophobic slurs. When teachers intervene when they hear all types of name-calling, it sends a strong message that such words will not be tolerated. Teachers also could use inclusive terminology, various family dynamics and use examples of gay and lesbian role models in their classrooms (DePaul, Walsh, & Dam, 2009, p. 4). Instead of saying, “Mom and dad”, teachers could say “parents” or “guardians.” Teachers also must not assume that their students are heterosexual (para. 5). Students come from a variety of backgrounds and family make-ups from moms and dads to grandparents, to single parent homes, to same-gender parents, children of divorce, adoptive parents and the list continues. When using all-inclusive terminology, everyone feels included (para. 2).
School administrators can reduce homophobic bullying by including it in the school’s overall anti-bullying policy. When educators feel as if their school is behind them, they feel more equipped to address homophobia in their classrooms (Craig, Tucker, & Wagner 2008, p. 244). At the same time, students fully understand that from the administrator down, name-calling of any sort is unacceptable and aggressively addressed.
B. Key Concepts
1. Homophobic Bullying Defined.
“Homophobic bullying” is any actual or perceived attack on those who identify as gay or lesbian. Homophobic bullying includes any type of name calling that slanders gay and lesbian students, any type of threats, physical harm, coercion, intimidation, and cyber-bullying. Bullying can be perceived or imminent. Whether in the form of a threat, joke, physical contact or online, homophobic bullying is dangerous. However, homophobic bullying is not simply another type of bullying, as it is linked to current negative attitudes towards those gay and lesbian (Minton et al., 2008, p. 177).
2. ”Safe Space”
Countless studies show that many gay and lesbian students feel unsafe in their schools. Due to students feeling unsafe, many schools have adopted safe spaces. Safe spaces are a place where gay and lesbian students can go and be themselves without any fear of homophobic bullying (GLSEN 2009, p. 2). It is also a term used when referring to an educator who has a zero tolerance for any anti gay violence and/or harassment (GLSEN 2002, p. 2).
C. Students are Coping and Teachers are Afraid
1. Students are struggling to cope
Adolescents face many challenges surrounding their developmental years (Hansen 2007, p. 839) and even more challenges when adding the formative years (Cooper 2008, p. 429). For gay youth, the struggle is often insurmountable. It is estimated that gay youth are “coming out” (deciding to live openly and honestly regarding their being gay or lesbian) as early as 8 years old (DePaul, Walsh, & Dam, 2009, p. 2) and in many cases, even younger. Current studies show that every secondary classroom in the U.S. has at least one gay or lesbian student (DePaul, Walsh, & Dam, 2009, p. 2) and that the numbers are rising. Gay and lesbian youth not only have to “come out”, they must also learn to pave their own way in a heterosexual world. As one author puts it:
Coming out is a core developmental process for homosexual persons that spans many years. It usually begins in childhood with feelings of being different and progresses through various stages, including acknowledgement of homosexuality, disclosure to others, acceptance of a homosexual identity, experimentation and exploration, and intimacy. Ideally, the process ends in consolidation, a stage in which homosexuals no longer view themselves primarily in terms of sexual orientation…. the child who is eventually to become homosexual, in no sense goes through a period of anticipatory socialisation; if he does go through such a period, it is in reference to heterosexuality not homosexuality (because) the parents of a person who is to become homosexual do not prepare their child to be homosexual they are not homosexual themselves, and they do not communicate to him what it is like to be homosexual. (Cooper, 2008, p. 428-429).
School can be a difficult place for any student, but a student who identifies him or herself as gay or lesbian face tremendous challenges and obstacles. School is a place that provides students with an environment where they can socially interact with their peers (Poteat, 2007 p. 175) It is a place where young people learn many of their values, and where youth develop into healthy adults who respect one another (Legal, 2003). Gay students have to maintain their self-esteem and self-image in a world where the media portrays gays and lesbians as anything but respected citizens (Kam-lun, Ting-fan, Pak, Yuen, et al. 2005 p. 346). Another obstacle (just on the school level) is dealing with the attitudes of their peers and even school personnel.
As noted, reports of discrimination, homophobic bullying and violence are all too common in our schools. From rude jokes and comments, threats, vandalism, harassment, and more, gay and lesbian youth have encountered high rates of school homophobia (Elze, 2003, p. 226). In a recent study of students who are victimized in school, students stated that they are harassed and threatened on a daily basis, they were physically concerned for their well-being and have even had to change school’s due to “extreme harassment” (Elze, 2003, p. 232). Another student states:
I was viciously bullied at school on account of being gay. This included verbal and physical bullying and I had to be taken to a doctor after one particular beating. The response of the principal of the school was that the bullies’ behaviour was how ‘any normal girl would react.’ The inference was that I deserved it. The same principal also took it on herself to tell my parents, who didn’t know that I was gay. I was 14 years old at the time and my parents were shocked and embarrassed. So much so that my parents have never forgiven me and to this day nearly 20 years later continue to ‘punish’ me. (Higgins, 2007, p. 78).
Gay students do not feel safe and included in schools. In a sample of 120 students, 40% stated that when a class discussion on gay and lesbian issues came up, it was discussed in a negative fashion (Elze, 2003, p. 227). Students feel included most when they can identify with others. One gay teacher puts it this way: “I never saw myself in high school. Literature in English never included me. In every part of high school, my story was never told, or if it was told, it was through rumor and lies” (DeJean, 2004, p. 19). In a study by Margaret Crocco, one person states:
I encountered few gay or lesbian role models, never read any works by gay or lesbian authors and only heard about the issue in history class with a brief mention of the suspected sexuality of historical figures such as Jane Addams,” What this student perhaps meant to say is that she had never read any works whose authors had been identified as gay or lesbian. By not identifying authors in this manner, teachers simply collude with a system that keeps gays and lesbians invisible, both in history and in life. Another student indicated something similar about English classes “when we discussed Allen Cinsburg or Walt Whitman.” Several noted how little was said about the subject even in health classes. When schools made an effort to introduce diversity into the curriculum, this meant only racial and ethnic issues, not gender, and not sexual orientation. Textbooks,
unsurprisingly, were silent on the subject. (Crocco 2002, p. 224).
Gay and lesbian students often feel as if there should be shame attached to them and that there is a double standard. If two people of the opposite gender are discussing their relationship, it is acceptable. However, if two people of the same gender are discussing their relationship, it is perceived as flaunting their chosen lifestyle (Cooper 2008, p. 428). It is imperative that our youth are entering a building where they feel safe from discrimination and bullying should they talk about their relationships. Students need to feel as if they have an ally with their teachers against homophobic bullying. As one author so eloquently states, “A school that is not willing to take a stand for all students’ safety, well-being, and development as future citizens is a poor example of American education” (Nichols 1999, p. 517).
Options for gay and lesbian youth are limited because many schools’ anti-bullying policies do not include homophobic bullying and administrators can literally choose what type of discrimination and harassment they feel like addressing. One teacher was reported saying, “God created Adam and Eve” and “that’s not the way God intended it to be” to a gay student, and so the student was confused regarding who she was (Chase, 2008). If left to teachers, students are at the whim of personal beliefs over personal safety. One such extreme case was a teacher scolding a student for writing with his left hand, “There must be something wrong with you boy, if the wrong hand feels right to you. God gave you a right hand….” (Nichols, 1999, p. 508). The teacher went on scolding this student, mandating him to write with his right hand. Such feelings of rejection and wrongdoing can have significant and long-term negative effects on a student’s self-image.
2. Teachers are Afraid to Act
Teachers are generally as afraid to act as any other human being is. They grew up in the same society that bombards us with media and religious influences. Historically speaking the media has filled our homes and minds with the belief that gay men are only interested in molesting children, becoming hair dressers, or being the brunt of a tasteless joke ( Cooper, 2008, p. 426). Teachers come into the classrooms with preconceived notions, beliefs, biases, and knowledge. Although their beliefs and biases do not necessarily make their decisions, their “whole self” certainly may guide their decisions. Teachers are responsible for bringing as much knowledge, diversity and sensitivity into the classroom as possible to make the optimal learning environment for their students but often only reflect and identify their own beliefs and biases (GLSEN, 2009 p. 7).
Many teachers are unaware of their own biases when it comes to sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and many more lack knowledge of the fundamental struggles that gay and lesbians on a whole endure. One teacher stated that she was appalled to learn many gay and lesbians here in the U.S. can and have been fired from their jobs just for being gay, not realizing that there are no federal, or sometimes even state, legal protections for them (Larrabee, 2008, p. 6). Such complacency and ignorance is troubling. Of course, there are also teachers who in fact do want to speak up and understand the negative effects of homophobic bullying but have fear themselves. Many teachers say they have witnessed violence but choose to look the other way simply because of a severe lack of administrative support (O’Higgins-Norman, 2008, p. 76). If teachers feel powerless to intervene with homophobic bullying, we cannot begin to imagine how those targeted students must feel!
A recent study asked teachers about their discrimination policies at their schools. Almost 100% of school’s did in fact have an anti-bullying/anti-discrimination policy; but 90% of the teachers reported that their schools’ anti-bullying policy did not include homophobic bullying (O’Higgins-Norman 2008, p. 73). Between the policy’s message that is being sent, along with teachers not intervening while witnessing homophobic bullying, it is no wonder why we have this pandemic in our schools.
There are teachers who understand that homophobic bullying has detrimental effects on students, but do not intervene because they feel a moral conflict. Teachers have reported that they are unsure how to deal with homophobia in the schools, as they do not want to be perceived as condoning what they feel is wrong behavior (Larrabee, 2008, p. 6). Other teachers fear the possibility of being confronted by everyone from parents to co-workers and even other students. Teachers have stated that if they were to intervene with homophobic bullying, they may have to deal with others questioning them on their beliefs while others fear of being a target themselves (O’Higgins-Norman, 2008, p. 77). Simply put, bullying is not conducive to any learning environment and certainly not promoted in any religion. Teachers must understand the difference between acknowledging gay people and families in the context of building inclusive classrooms and feeling as if they are promoting what they do not agree with (Wolfe, 2006, p. 199).
There are teachers who demand their classrooms be free from hostility and homophobic bullying. Teachers are now getting themselves involved in various “safe school” programs and using a myriad of measures to ensure their classrooms have a zero tolerance for homophobic bulling. As one teacher so plainly puts it, “I am tired of people getting hurt instead of learning….students go to school to learn, not to go to war” (Craig, Tucker, & Wagner, 2008, p. 248). Many teachers are adopting all-inclusive terms in their classrooms and using words like “partner” instead of “boyfriend/girlfriend,” and they are making a conscious effort in not assuming. We cannot assume that students all have a mom and dad or that the prom date our student is speaking about is someone of the opposite gender. Teachers, as a way of continuing and broadening their knowledge are going out and getting involved and meeting gay and lesbians and their families. The more teachers know about gay and lesbians, the more they understand their culture and can be sensitive to them (Larrabee, 2008, p. 10).
D. What Can We Do?
While we know that students are doing their best to cope and teachers are afraid to act, what we do not know is what type of intervention will work for a specific situation. It is not clear that an anti-bullying policy will in fact reduce homophobic bullying. It is also unclear if age or perhaps a specific niche of students (as emotional disturbed or learning disabled) will necessarily benefit from such policies. This study will examine these issues by specifically testing whether a general anti-bullying lesson plan directed to students of different grades and of different diagnoses could cut down on homophobic bullying.
Homophobic bullying is crippling today’s youth both emotionally and educationally. Students are struggling to cope while teachers are afraid to act. Overall, schools lack the support on a legislative level to combat such abuse, and our society as a whole encourages violence against gay and lesbians. My study will examine student attitudes towards gay students and will assess whether a general anti-bullying lesson plan can help reduce homophobic bullying. It will also assess whether its effectiveness may depend on the type of diagnosis or the age of the student. Depending on the results, further follow-up will need to be completed as to whether the homophobic bullying reduction is sustained or is only a momentary or temporary reduction.
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