Homophobic Bullying Anti-Bullying Network

Return Is homophobic bullying a problem in schools?

Homophobic bullying has been reported in primary, as well as secondary schools. It may be directed at young people of any sexual orientation and at children who have not yet reached puberty. Teachers, parents and other adults in schools may also be bullied in this way.

Homophobic bullying in schools can be a problem in a number of ways:

  • Children who experience it have their education disrupted. They may be unable to concentrate on lessons because of feelings of fear or anger. Their self-confidence may be damaged and, as a result, they may never fulfil their academic potential.
  • It can be a particular problem for teenagers who are confused or unsure about their own developing sexuality. Some victims are driven to the edge of despair or beyond, with lasting consequences for their emotional health and development.
  • Schools that ignore it, or deny its existence, are not helping young people to develop a concern for the welfare of minorities and tolerance of difference.

What is homophobic bullying?

Homophobic bullying can involve physical or mental violence by a group or an individual. It is often aimed at someone who has poor defences and who, as a result, may be significantly upset. Victims may be male or female. What distinguishes it from other forms of bullying is the language that is used. Words like “queer” and “poof” and “lezzie” have been used abusively for many years. They have now been joined by words (such as “gay” and “lesbian”) which were formerly descriptive but which now may be used as general insults. In some youth cultures, “gay” is now used as a derogatory adjective to describe objects and people that may have no connection whatsoever with homosexuality.

Both boys and girls may be subjected to homophobic abuse.


Why does it happen?

The root cause may well be prejudice against gay and lesbian people. Even very young children, who do not understand what homosexuality is, may be encouraged to indulge in homophobic behaviour by this general prejudice.

Individual motivations may be more complicated and, as in the case of other forms of bullying, may include a desire for power or a need for affiliation: some people gain satisfaction from imposing their power on others and a group will be strengthened if someone else is outside that group. Identifying people as being different because of their gender orientation may be a convenient excuse for isolating and persecuting them. The bonds that tie the members of a group together are strengthened because the members are not “different”.

Fear may also be a motivation - as the word “homophobic” suggests. This can be a fear of the unknown, a fear of someone who is perceived to be different, or a fear which is based on uncertainty about the nature of their own developing sexuality:

“Keep away poofta”.

“Here he comes, backs to the wall”.

Many adolescent boys say that the worst thing anyone can call you is “gay”. In accusing others of being gay they may seek to demonstrate their own masculinity.


Who bullies?

Both sexes can be involved in homophobic name-calling. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that boys are most likely to be victimised by other boys. The bullying, especially if it is physical or verbally aggressive, is often deliberate but sometimes bullies may not realise the harm that they are doing. They may believe that their victim enjoys their “jokes”, or that the label they have attached to him is simply a nickname.

Some very young children indulge in homophobic bullying. In one Scottish primary school the head teacher reported that boys as young as seven regularly used words like “poof” and “gayboy”.

Teachers are rarely accused of such overt actions but, by the careless use of words such as “sissy” or by simply failing to challenge homophobic name-calling, they can be perceived as giving tacit approval. One mother described what happened to her 9 year old son:

He is a sensitive wee boy who doesn’t enjoy sport. On a cold wet windy day he was standing shivering on the rugby field when the PE teacher came over to him and said, “If you’re just going to stand there shivering why don’t you do what you do best - go and play with the girls”.


Who is affected by homophobic bullying?
  • Children and adults who are perceived to be gay or lesbian
  • Young people and adults who are lesbian or gay
  • Children who have a gay or lesbian, parent or sibling
  • Everyone who teaches or learns in an environment where such behaviour is tolerated.

Young people who are sure of their identity as gay or lesbian, especially if they have chosen to reveal this to their peers, are likely to be subjected to some homophobic name calling. However, the majority of victims in schools are either too young to be certain about their sexual orientation - or are heterosexual. This statement is not intended to diminish the suffering of young people who are gay but rather to emphasise just how widespread the practice of homophobic bullying is. A sixteen year old boy described his experiences:

The others are always calling me names - things like gay and poofta and bummer. They do this just because I don’t enjoy football and the other stupid things which they like. I can’t stand it. I can’t sleep at night, I’ve been staying off school and I just keep thinking about what they say. Maybe it’s true but I don’t think it is. I like girls! I think I’m heterosexual.

Taunts do not have to be true to be hurtful. But taunts like this hurt so much because we live in a society where homophobia is so common.


What about Gay and Lesbian parents?

The Educational Institute of Scotland has produced a very useful document covering Lesbian and Gay equality in Education called, “Breaking Down the Barriers”. This document points out that in schools, there are a wide variety of family arrangements; both birth parents live at home in a married relationship; adoptive parents; single parenthood; extended family arrangements; new families through remarriage; gay or lesbian parent …Without an inclusive and non-discriminatory approach young people may feel their family arrangement is perceived to be ‘second best’.

Sometimes a teacher’s actions can have a powerful effect.

My youngest son Sam, (one of seven children) in his first year at primary school was making a calendar with drawings of his family members on it. When he came home with the calendar he had made he was upset. It was a mess because the teacher had made him score out one of the people and it was a big black blob where once there was a person. The calendar had a picture of Mummy, Sam and 3 of his 5 brothers and one blacked out person. I asked him why the teacher had made him scribble out that one. He said it was Mary and she was not allowed on his family calendar. Mary was my girlfriend and the teacher was fully aware we were in a gay relationship. The teacher had written each name under each person and then requested Sam to black out the one he called Mary - I was disgusted then and am still now at such biased attitudes".


Teachers can be victims too

It is not just pupils who can be subjected to homophobic bullying in schools. The following teacher’s account is also taken from the EIS document mentioned above:

I have been working in my current school for about 18 years… My gay sexuality is known to most of my colleagues. The senior management is aware of this also… I have lost count of the number of times I have had poof, bender or gayboy mumbled at me in the corridor or shouted at me across the playground. Recently I attended a performance in the local theatre accompanied by a gay friend. On approaching the theatre I could see a group of pupils in the shadows. Once they recognised me I heard my name being mentioned and then poof, bender shouted at the top of their voices. It was distressing. On another occasion I was walking with a group of colleagues to the local Tesco. I was singled out for abusive treatment. My name alone was constantly repeated and gay bastard and other abusive terms shouted at me. The group created so much noise, that members of the public turned around to see what the commotion was about. It was a particularly humiliating experience especially since I was singled out. I was unable to identify the pupils as they were hiding behind bushes. I reported the matter to the Headteacher. I am confident in who I am and confident in being a gay man but incidents like these do knock me.

It is important that any school anti-bullying policy should embrace all members of the school community - adult and child. This particular account also points to the need for other agencies, such as the police, to be involved in discussions about how incidents can be tackled. Episodes of bullying often straddle the invisible boundary between school and the wider community. This teacher was picked on precisely because he was a teacher - even though the incidents described happened well away from the school.


How should teachers react?

Homophobic name-calling should always be challenged in the same way that racist or sexist behaviour is. Normal anti-bullying strategies should be used when reacting to incidents and these strategies must have a clear place within the context of a whole school preventative policy. The most important thing teachers can do is to strive to create a positive, open, tolerant ethos in which matters of concern to young people are discussed calmly. If the response to homophobic bullying is purely reactive and short-term this may only serve to marginalise victims.


What should be taught?

The curriculum should include appropriate coverage of sexuality, although teachers must be sensitive to the age and emotional development of pupils and to the cultural practices and religious beliefs of families. Discussions about homophobia and other kinds of bullying and abuse may be included in a number of curriculum areas, including Health Education, Sex Education, Personal and Social Education, English, History, Media Studies, Modern Studies and Religious and Moral Education. The aim of such discussions is to allow children to develop the skills, values and knowledge which they need in order to protect themselves from harassment and abuse of all kinds and to become non-abusing individuals themselves. However, these skills and values will only be useful if they are unambiguously linked to knowledge and understanding about the contexts in which they can be applied. If young people learn that a skill like assertiveness can be useful in tackling, say, child abuse they will not necessarily assume that it can be used in other situations in which they find themselves, such as homophobic bullying. This is more fully discussed in an SEED sponsored publication, Promoting Personal Safety and Child Protection in the Curriculum (see below).

The reluctance of teachers to enter into discussions with pupils about homosexuality and homophobia will be overcome if there is clear agreement about what pupils need to learn and appropriate training for those teachers responsible for promoting this learning. A useful summary of advice and guidance relating to sex education is on the “Parentzone” website.


Discussing policy

All members of the wider school community, should be involved in discussions aimed at agreeing a general policy on all types of bullying, including that which is motivated by homophobia. Account should be taken of any Education Authority policy documents and advice from national bodies. New national guidelines on sex education were issued in 2001.

Specific guidelines about how homophobia should be tackled in the classroom should be discussed and agreed at a full staff meeting. In the absence of any detailed national guidelines we have drawn up a list of suggestions which we hope will help to initiate such a discussion.


Classroom guidelines - discussion points

In order to promote tolerant, non-abusive behaviour in their pupils and to protect themselves from accusations of bias or improper conduct when discussing homophobia or homosexuality in the classroom, teachers should:

  • respect the age and stage of development of individual pupils
  • let parents know that this is one of the topics that will be covered within the curriculum and invite discussion about this
  • make pupils aware that people have a right to express their sexuality in any way which is within the law and a responsibility not to harass others, whatever their sexual orientation
  • help pupils to understand that there are opposing but sincerely held views about homosexuality
  • inform pupils that different societies have different attitudes towards homosexuality - it is accepted in some, tolerated in some, and completely outlawed in others
  • provide pupils with accurate information about the law on homosexuality in this country
  • acknowledge the risks associated with some sexual practices without reinforcing stereotypical assumptions and heterosexual and homosexual behaviour
  • tell pupils that they are free to discuss everything which has happened in the classroom with their parents
  • challenge any homophobic remarks which are made about pupils or teachers during any class discussion.

They should not

  • make any assumptions about any pupil’s sexual orientation - it may take some time for this to be established - it may not happen until after the young person has left school - it is something the young person must decide for himself or herself
  • discuss details of their own intimate personal lives (heterosexual or homosexual) with pupils.

What does research tell us?

Research suggests that while homophobic bullying is common, there is no conclusive evidence to show that it is decreasing or increasing.

An English study by Ian Rivers of 190 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered men and women who were bullied at school, considered the long term effects of this childhood experience. The participants revealed a greater tendency to exhibit depressive tendencies, when compared to lesbian, gay and bisexual men and women who had not been bullied at school. However they did not suffer from low self-esteem. The study did not find that they had particular problems with anxiety or had insecurity problems with close relationships.


What is the attitude of the Catholic Church in Scotland to homophobia?

The Anti-Bullying Network does not comment on religious beliefs but it may be helpful to remind ourselves of this pastoral message from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which makes it clear that teachers in Catholic schools should tackle homophobic bullying and abuse.

"The Catholic Church clearly teaches the inalienable dignity of every human person created in the image and likeness of God. Every human person has the right to be free from bigotry, intolerance and fear. Every human person has the right to live his or her life in peace, irrespective of race, religion, colour, gender or sexual orientation. We condemn unreservedly violence or bullying perpetrated for whatever reason".
Statement issued on January 27th, 2000 by the Bishops of Scotland


All schools have a duty to tackle homophobic bullying

Schools should aim to have an ethos which is inclusive and tolerant of difference. There is no place for anything that might be perceived as condoning homophobic attitudes or behaviour. Teachers must explicitly condemn homophobic bullying and equip themselves to be able to discuss pupils’ concerns about homosexuality in a balanced manner that is appropriate to the age of the young people concerned. In fact it could be argued that if teachers fail to do this they will not be able to carry out their duty of care to their pupils, which includes doing everything possible to provide a safe learning environment.


What about Section 28?

“Section 28” is mentioned here merely as a matter of record. It has now been abolished and, in any event, schools have always had a duty to protect children from all kinds of abuse, including homophobic abuse.


Read this
  • Promoting Personal Safety and Child Protection in the Curriculum, available from the Anti-Bullying Network
  • Personal Relationships and Developing Sexuality - A Staff Development Resource for Teachers, published by University of Strathclyde, Faculty of Education, 1994
  • Sexual Bullying by Neil Duncan, published by Routledge, 1999
  • Sex Education in Scottish Schools - Scottish Executive Guidance published by Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2001

Surf this

The following web sites provide relevant information. Please note that we are not responsible for their content or availability and that some may contain explicit information about homosexuality:

  • The Terrence Higgins Trust
  • Stonewall – An organisation working for gay and lesbian equality
  • Health Education Board for Scotland
  • Stop the Bullying! - Joint Action Against Homophobic Bullying (aimed at young people)
  • LGBT Youth Scotland
  • EACH - EACH is a support service for young people affected by homophobia. It provides a FREEPHONE helpline to all parts of the UK: 0808 1000 143. Available 9am to 5pm weekdays and 10am to 12pm Saturdays, it gives someone the opportunity to be heard and offered further help and support. E-mail EACH here.
  • LGBT Youth Scotland have produced an Anti-Homphobic Bullying - Young People's Poster Resource Set. This set includes 4 A3-sized glossy posters and is suitable for schools, youth clubs, health services and general settings. Order form available in pdf here!

Return February 2004


Copyright
This information sheet may be photocopied or reproduced for use within schools and other educational establishments providing the Anti-Bullying Network is credited.