Homophobic bullying is “a moral outrage, a grave violation of human rights and a public health crisis.” ~ UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
Children’s growth is determined by the conditions in which they blossom. School, parents and friends shape and reshape their characters countless times until they reach maturity after they’d developed a solid sense of who they want to be and what they want to do. These conditions are to be understanding, helpful and aware of every challenge the child faces, including bullying. While many kids are bullied for their physical appearances, seeming uncool “nerds” or underachieving, some kids are bullied being homosexual, or merely being perceived as such.
Many students face bullying on the basis of their gender identity. Known as homophobic bullying, it can be defined as bullying behaviours that are motivated by prejudice against a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. No one deserves to be bullied. When students do not feel safe they may find it harder to learn.
Over the past decade, we have witnessed a concerted international effort to address issues related to bullying and school violence. However, until recently these efforts have failed to address homophobic bullying. Research demonstrates that bullying prevention initiatives, which address homophobic bullying can improve a young person’s sense of safety, help foster positive peer and school relationships, increase academic achievement, and enhance self-esteem. Studies show that it is not only lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth who experience homophobic bullying, but also learners who do not identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Current scientific knowledge suggests that sexual orientation is usually established in early childhood and that heterosexuality and homosexuality are normal expressions of human sexuality. Efforts to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation have been denounced as unethical and extremely harmful practices by every major professional health organization in North America. In addition to these statements, there is no recognized scientific evidence indicating that parenting, sexual abuse, or adverse life events influence an individual’s sexual orientation.
UNESCO convened the United Nations’ first-ever international consultation to address homophobic bullying in educational institutions. It brought together experts from UN agencies, NGOs, ministries of education and academia from more than 25 countries around the world. The consultation produced striking evidence on the extent of homophobic bullying in educational institutions worldwide, and provided many examples of best practice in terms of policy frameworks and interventions to prevent and address. The research indicates that between 3-10% of individuals are non-heterosexual. For example, a 2004 Canadian-based survey found that while 3.5% youth self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans-identified, 7.5% of the heterosexual youth surveyed acknowledged same-sex sexual behaviour. A 2006 survey of students in grades 7-12, conducted by the Toronto District School Board, found that 8% of students identified themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-identified, Two-spirited, Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ).
Who experiences homophobic bullying?
Homophobic bullying can affect anyone, may occur at any age and may be targeted at individuals:
- …who self-identify as non-heterosexual.
- …who are perceived to be non-heterosexual
- …who don’t conform to conventional gender norms or stereotypes
- …who have same-gender parented families or caregivers
- …who are parents, coaches, teachers and community members who are non-heterosexual
Homophobic bullying may be an isolated incident or a repeated pattern of behaviour. It can range from seemingly simple comments to physical violence. Homophobic bullying often happens in secret. Many youth are embarrassed to be singled out from the “norm”, or are afraid to report it and risk being “outed” or re-victimized by an adult.
Like all forms of bullying, homophobic bullying can occur in different ways such as emotional, verbal, physical or sexual.
Some of the more common forms of homophobic bullying include:
- Verbal bullying (being teased or called names, or having derogatory terms used to describe you, or hate speech used against you)
- Being compared to LGBT celebrities / caricatures / characters that portray particular stereotypes of LGBT people
- Being ‘outed’ (the threat of being exposed to your friends and family by them being told that you are LGLBT even when you are not)
- Indirect bullying / social exclusion (being ignored or left out or gestures such as ‘backs against the wall’)
- Physical bullying
- Sexual harassment (inappropriate sexual gestures, for example, in the locker room after PE or being groped with comments such as, ‘you know you like it!’)
- Cyber bullying (being teased, called names and/or threatened via email, text and on Social Networking sites)
Who are the bullies and why do they do it?
Homophobic bullies can be anyone and are often people who:
- think that being LGBTQ is wrong or immoral and don’t see their behaviour as bullying.
- hold traditional gender stereotypes and think that “girls should act like girls” and “boys should act like boys”.
- perceive LGBTQ people and their children as not worthy of the same rights and privileges as other members of society.
How common is homophobic bullying?
In 2008, Statistics Canada issued survey results that agreed with the findings from the McCreary LGBTQ youth study. In general, LGBTQ youth and adults experience higher rates of violent victimization including sexual assault, robbery, and physical assault and rates of discrimination three times higher than that of heterosexuals.
One research study from the United Kingdom suggests that LGBTQ youth “make up between three and five percent of the school population–two-thirds of whom are bullied regularly”. A number of other surveys of LGBTQ youth in the UK, USA and Australia indicate, between 30-50% of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have directly experienced homophobic bullying at school. Furthermore, one of the largest safe schools studies conducted to date, involving 237,544 students in grades 7-9, revealed that 7.5% of students reported being harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
Of those students who were harassed, they reported lower grades (24%), higher absentee rates (27%), greater depression (55%), and were more likely to make plans to commit suicide (35%) when compared to their heterosexual peers. A 2007 review of suicidal behaviour in children and adolescents published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry indicates that bullying has been shown to increase the risk for suicidal ideation and difficulties at school may act as a precipitant.
Is Being Gay the Problem?
It’s not being gay that makes some young people unhappy, it’s the negative reaction of other people that they fear, coming to terms with being ‘different’ and coping with it that’s difficult. It is even harder if this has to be done in secrecy from family, friends and teachers.
Lesbian and gay people of all ages can find themselves emotionally exhausted by having to reconcile how they are feeling inside with the problems others have in coming to terms with their sexual orientation.
How does homophobic bullying impact youth?
Contemporary research indicates that sexual minority youth report more emotional and behavioural difficulties; higher symptoms of depression and externalizing behaviours; more hostile peer environments and experiences of victimization; greater rates of bullying and sexual harassment; and less social support in both their family and peer group contexts when compared with their heterosexual peers. Sadly, suicide is the number one cause of death for sexual minority youth in North America. Importantly, it is not sexual minority youth who are inherently at-risk, rather it is the pervasive societal culture of homophobia and heterosexism that threatens their health, safety, and well-being.
In 2007, the McCreary Centre Society of British Columbia revealed some startling facts in regards to the well-being of LGBTQ teens. When compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBTQ teens experienced greater levels of violence and more negative health outcomes and were more likely:
- To have experienced physical and sexual abuse, harassment in school, and discrimination in the community.
- To have run away from home once or more in the past year.
- To be sexually experienced, and more likely to have either been pregnant or have gotten someone pregnant.
- To be current smokers, to have tried alcohol, or to have used drugs.
- To have reported emotional stress, suicidal thoughts, and suicidal attempts.
The study also showed:
- LGBTQ youth were less likely to participate in sports and physical activity, and reported higher levels of computer time.
- LGBTQ youth felt less cared about by parents and less connected to their families than heterosexual teens, and for lesbian and bisexual females, less connected to school.
- When bisexual youth reported high family and school connectedness, their probability of suicide attempts was much lower than for bisexual teens with lower connectedness, even when they had strong risk factors for suicide such as a history of sexual abuse and current symptoms of emotional duress.
What can you do to stop homophobic bullying?
We’re all part of bullying prevention, including homophobic bullying. We should intervene in homophobic harassment and name-calling when we hear it. Prejudice and hate are learned behaviours, but if we teach respect and an appreciation for differences at an early age before the seeds of intolerance take root, we might be able to fight the hate. Speaking out is important, so part of the prevention process is confronting homophobic bullying, when it is safe to do so, every time you see or hear it. If you recognize that your silence indicates your support for the bully’s behaviour, everyone will soon understand that homophobic bullying is wrong and not acceptable. Educate yourself and others regarding the negative consequences that homophobic bullying has on all children and youth.
If you, or someone you know, are the victim of homophobic bullying:
1. Tell someone you trust – Talk to a trusted adult or friend who respects your confidentiality. This may be a teacher, parent, relative, youth worker, counsellor, coach or faith leader. Remember, you don’t have to suffer in silence. Keep telling until someone helps you. No one deserves to be bullied!
2. Know your rights – Check out your school’s bullying prevention policies or student code of conduct. Your school has a responsibility to protect you from bullying and abuse. You have the right to be respected and feel safe at your school and in your community, regardless of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
3. Stay safe – Don’t fight back. Bullies want attention and fighting back gives them what they want. If you fight back, you may get hurt or make the situation worse. If you are a bystander, go for help and provide moral and emotional support to the person being bullied.
4. Write down everything – Keep a record about the incident, including the date, time, location and what was said or done. If you are being bullied online, don’t delete the message. You don’t have to read it, but keep it. It’s your evidence. The police or your school authorities can use this information to help protect you from further abuse
5. Remain calm – You do not have to reveal your sexual orientation or gender identity to seek help. Unless you are at risk for self-harm, your teacher or school counsellor does not have to tell your family or caregiver that you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, two-spirited, or queer (LGBTQ). You don’t have to deal with bullying on your own. Caring and trusted adults are available to help and support you.
6. Find support in your community – Check to see if there is a local LGBTQ youth group where you can meet like-minded youth. Consider enrolling in a school that has a gay-straight student alliance or diversity club. Often these schools will be welcoming spaces for sexual minority, questioning and allied youth.
What must schools do about homophobic bullying?
Schools are to have measures in place to tackle all forms of bullying amongst pupils, including homophobic bullying in the school community may include:
- School policies for both staff and pupils (equal opportunities, bullying policies etc.) including sexual orientation and gender identity issues
- Daily reinforcement of the use of positive language and the challenging of inappropriate comments made by staff and pupils through policy and overall school ethos etc.
- Awareness raising opportunities for staff and students, including positive imagery / posters and workshops / training delivered through specialist agencies
- Accessible and diverse support strategies in place to tackle homophobic bullying, including signposting leaflets for help-lines
According to homophobic bullying statistics from the (LGBT) community, about one fourth of all students from elementary age through high school are the victims of bullying and harassment while on school property because of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation. Unfortunately the primary reason for bullying is due to something that may set them apart from the norm, and that includes sexual orientation.”
- Bullied kids tend to develop difficulties with their studies and have trouble developing peer relationships. The situation is compounded and kids may become depressed and have thoughts of suicide.
- The results of one report suggested that 26 percent of male 12th graders who were the target of LGBTQ bullying had experienced thoughts of suicide within the previous year.
- Whether or not suicide and depression is higher amongst LGBTQ adolescents and teens has not yet been fully proven but most parents and school officials believe it to be true.
- Being on the receiving end of bullying in any form is damaging in some way to every child struggling with his or her identity.
Comedy writer and performer, Doug Faulkner, was subject to homophobic bullying throughout secondary school.
Because of his experience, he’s passionate about tackling homophobic bullying in schools. He describes what happened to him.
How did the homophobic bullying start?
“I’ve always been an extrovert, and I was quite effeminate when I started secondary school. At the time, I considered it part of my personality and nothing to do with sex or sexuality. It was just who I was. “Because I was very confident, the older kids wanted to put me down, and people in my own year group joined in.
“It started with homophobic name calling, such as ‘backstabber’ and ‘shirt lifter’. The first time I heard the word ‘gay’ was in a hateful context, and I didn’t even know what it meant. I just thought I was “uncool”. “By the time I was in the third year, I was being bullied a lot. It was always homophobic bullying. It would happen on the way to school on the bus, between lessons, sometimes during lessons and on the bus home. It wasn’t just verbal abuse but physical abuse too. Once, on the way home, my hair was set on fire. It took a lot of strength to get out of the house and face the bullying. Being ridiculed was part of my daily life. I was at the bottom of all my classes. My self-esteem was so low that I was almost suicidal. I didn’t know who or where I was. All I knew was that nearly everyone had decided that I was loathsome, vile and unnatural.”
Did the school do anything about this homophobic bullying?
“I’m dyslexic, so my school made me do an IQ test in the third year. I had the highest IQ in my year, but I wasn’t doing well academically because my self-confidence was so low. So the school sent me for counselling when I was 14.
“After counselling, my mum said to me: ‘Do you think it upsets you so much when people call you names because you think what they’re saying might be true?’ “I said to Mum: ‘I’m 14. That’s not a decision I’m prepared to make now. I have the right to experiment and find out about myself. But I’m not being given that right at school. They’re telling me what I am, and that it’s disgusting.’
“The counselling helped because it gave me a chance to express myself. After about a year or so of counselling I became more confident. I’d find different ways to try to stop the bullying, such as being the class clown or being nice to the right people.”
How did the bullying make you feel?
“I’d get a sinking feeling. As soon as I walked along a corridor I knew it was going to happen. It happened a lot in certain areas, such as walking from class to class, or going to and from school. “It gave me a victim mentality. I either loathed myself or I loathed everybody else for making me feel like that.
“Leaving school after GCSEs was the only way out. During the five years after I left school, the culture towards homosexuality changed. I came out properly to my friends when I was 19, and to my family when I was 20.”
Has your experience at school affected you in later life?
“On the negative side, I find it very difficult to have long-term relationships because it’s difficult to trust people. I’m scared they’re going to turn around and be hurtful. On the positive side, it’s helped me understand how different we all are, and how that difference makes us stronger.