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homophobic bullying

Based upon 17 years of research, a new book on

homophobic bullying is offering guidance to schools. Its author, Professor Ian Rivers, explains

have relied upon third sector agencies, voluntary organisations, political lobbying groups and the unions to provide us with guidance on how best to keep our children safe at school. So, how should we tackle homophobic bullying? I


believe there are three basic principles or truths that are at the core of any intervention strategy: • All young people have the right to be educated in an environment free from fear and discrimination.

• All young people, regardless of actual or perceived sexual orientation, can be victims of homophobic bullying.

• All teachers and governors, regardless of personal beliefs, should be committed to challenging all forms of bullying they encounter.

While it has been argued tirelessly by some that

addressing homophobia in schools is tantamount to “promoting” homosexuality, it is a testament to the endurance of those teachers, parents and governors who value education that those strong moral or religious objections have not always prevailed. However, ironically those objections have often

been diversionary and usually not in keeping with the pronouncements of religious leaders. For example, in 1991, the Church of England’s

House of Bishops published Issues on Human Sexuality in which it was concluded that not only are committed same-sex relationships acceptable among the laity, but that Christians should reject all forms of hatred against lesbians and gay men. As early as 1986, the then Prefect of the Congregation

for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) wrote to all bishops making explicit the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to homophobia and its requirement that priests condemn it wherever it is found. In 1997, a spokesperson for the Dalai Lama outlined

His Holiness’s objections to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.

SecEd • March 24 2011

HE GOVERNMENT’S recent Education White Paper is littered with references to combating homophobic bullying but, as yet, there is little constructive guidance available from Whitehall. For the past three decades, schools

And while many followers of Islam condemn same-

sex relationships, punishment today varies according to the ways in which religious laws in a particular country draw upon the Qur’an’s writings. Thus, we must always be mindful of the fact

that there remains little consensus in the way in which societies interpret scripture, and how such interpretations are enacted in the secular world.

Who does homophobic bullying affect?

One of the challenges we face in trying to combat homophobic bullying is undoubtedly which statistics to believe. In my own early research I focused upon homophobic bullying and its long-term effects as experienced by lesbians and gay men. Today, I now acknowledge that this form of bullying is a much wider societal problem that affects all young people. Being called “gay” is a slur, and it is a slur that

cannot be easily challenged. In two studies I conducted with my colleague Nathalie Noret (York St John University), we worked with two local authorities and over 20 secondary schools to help them combat bullying. Between 2003 and 2006 we found that, while the number of self-identified bullies decreased, reports of being called “lesbian” or “gay” rose. Unlike many other studies, these were not young

lesbians and gay men recounting their experiences at school, these were pupils attending secondary schools, some of whom may, one day, identify as lesbian or gay, but the majority were young people who were simply being called lesbian or gay because it was an accusation they could not refute. Pupils know all too well that it is the one label that

many of us headteachers, teachers and governors feel least able to challenge. But why is this? Might it be because we have yet to be consistent in our message to staff, parents and pupils? Thus, if you were to review all your school’s policies and promotional materials, would statements about homophobic bullying, or any other form of discrimination, appear throughout?

Have you reviewed your policies/brochures?

Check that all your school policies, brochures and handbooks for parents and pupils include statements about homophobic bullying. If they do not, then ask yourself “why not?” Is it because of fear of upsetting teachers, parents, or governors? If you think they do, then your school’s commitment

to tackling homophobic bullying should be found in all of the following: school website, anti-bullying policy, handbooks for parents and pupils, the agenda of school meetings, student surveys, student consultation groups, PSHE classes, citizenship classes, records of INSET training, and curriculum celebrations of diversity such as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) History Month.

Are you afraid to tackle incidents?

Over the years, many teachers have said to me that they feel uncertain or afraid when tackling homophobic bullying because they do not really know what to say to pupils or indeed colleagues. Like all good actors, the key is rehearsal; find a form

of words that will help you explain why homophobia is wrong. If necessary, take your inspiration from pupils themselves through a simple class exercise (see boxout, right). Listening to pupils will actually give you far

more insights into their understanding of the concept of homophobia and how it has been rationalised than any government guidance.

Reframe yours and others’ thinking

While you may have to duty to record incidents of bullying, remember that bullying is a repeated behaviour and homophobic bullying is a behaviour that many pupils will perceive to be endorsed by others whom they perceive to hold power – families, community leaders, media personalities, counsellors and politicians. When first identified, perpetrators should be afforded

an opportunity to change their ways. Temporary or permanent exclusion is no longer the answer. The Education White Paper heralds a new way of dealing with excluded pupils where schools continue to have responsibilities for the care and education of excluded pupils. So, the challenge becomes to reframe the way in which we address bullying, and those who perpetrate it. We must also remember that pupils will see heated

debates on television about this issue, as well as comments posted on the internet, and they will also be aware of statements made by political leaders about lesbian and gay issues from which they draw conclusions about the acceptability of homophobic bullying. For example, there are four very distinct messages within a statement recently made by the Conservative Calder Valley MP Geoff Whittaker about the resource funded by the Training and Development Agency for Schools to introduce LGBT examples into various core curricula (including maths, science, geography and languages) He said: “This is nonsense (1). We have enough

problems in our country where we are far down the national comparative league tables in these core subjects (2). Teachers should concentrate on teaching the core subjects, so we become the best at those again. I don’t see how introducing LGBT themes into those subjects is going to help (3). This is not about being homophobic,

because there are other schemes around the education system which support the LGBT agenda (4).” At first glance, Mr Whittaker’s statement is entirely

negative: “It is nonsense.” However, as headteachers, teachers and governors we again have to reframe such statements in order to change the hearts and minds of the whole school community. For example “the LGBT agenda” is not one of

conversion by stealth; it is a government-initiated agenda to counter homophobia not only in schools but in society. Second, while there may be no perceptible benefits there are no perceptible drawbacks or dangers in using LGBT examples in core curriculum subjects. If two men living together earn £20,000-a-year and £17,000-a-year respectively, isn’t their combined income the same as a man and a woman living together earning the same salaries?

One last thought

In a world increasingly subject to the arbitrary and revisionist methods of measuring success, schools face many challenges, but are we ready to pay the price the US has recently paid in lives cut short all because the issue is one of sexuality?


• Ian Rivers is professor of human development at Brunel University, visiting professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University, a community governor at Uxbridge High School, and a patron of LGBT History Month. Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives is published by Oxford University Press (ISBN13: 9780195160536).

Where to look for guidance

• Kidscape: • School’s Out: • Stonewall: • Teachernet: (search for “homophobic bullying”)

Class Exercise: Challenging homophobia (40 minutes) The purpose of this exercise is to get pupils thinking about what homophobia means to them, their own behaviour, and that of others. It is broken down into three tasks:

Task 1: Q&A (whole class; 10 to 15 minutes) Ask pupils to answer the following questions: • Do you know what homophobia is? • What does it mean to be homophobic? • Why do you think people are homophobic? Answers should be recorded so they can be referred to later.

Task 2: Group Task (groups of five or six pupils; 15 to 20 minutes) Ask pupils to answer the following questions: • How many different ways can you think of that people display their homophobia? • Do you think it is acceptable to be homophobic? Why? Each group should be asked to report back on their answers.

Task 3: Our class commitment (whole class; five minutes) Ask pupils to vote on whether their class should make a commitment to stop homophobic bullying along with other forms of bullying.


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