Anti-homophobia education beyond bullying

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hélène Frohard-Dourlent, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

If there was any doubt that getting through high school is still difficult for queer and trans youth in Canada, Jamie Hubley’s decision to end his life last week in Ottawa is a painful reminder of that fact. Hubley’s suicide prompts us to reflect on the work that still needs to be done to make Canadian schools safe learning environments for all youth. This is hardly news to educators, activists and researchers who work with queer and trans youth. Many previous contributors to this blog series – including Malinda Smith, Rebecca Haskell, Kris Wells, and Brian Burtch  – have commented on the prevalence and significance of experiences of homophobia in the lives of queer and trans youth in North America.

These contributions also remind us that schools, unfortunately, remain a privileged site for the expression of homophobic and transphobic violence. Quick snapshot of the situation in Canada: the recent report published by Egale Canada under the direction of University of Winnipeg’s Catherine Taylor, “Every class and every school,” revealed that less than 5 percent of queer and trans youth never hear insulting comments about sexual orientation; that trans youth are almost three times as likely (and queer students more than twice as likely) to be verbally harassed about their gender expression than heterosexual youth; and two thirds of queer and trans students (as well as the same percentage of youth with queer and trans parents) feel unsafe at school.

The picture, however, is not all negative. In many places, educators, activists and scholars have worked hard to promote anti-homophobia education and bring positive change to school cultures. There are incredible community organizations doing work in schools, such as T.E.A.C.H. in Toronto, or Gab Youth and Out in Schools in Vancouver. And there are amazing individual teachers who make these issues a priority in their classroom. Teachers Federations have also stepped up, for example in British Columbia and Alberta, to take a stand against homophobic violence and provide workshops on the topic to their members. Most books on the topic, such as Elizabeth Meyer’s Gender, bullying, and harassment, as well as the blog entries mentioned above, all put forth many powerful suggestions for what educators and school administrators can do to help create safer school climates.


But despite the fact that many activists and scholars advocate a complex, systemic approach to the issue of homophobic and transphobic violence in schools, the lens of anti-bullying is often favoured on the ground as well as in the media. It is important to consider the implications of this focus on bullying for our anti-homophobia initiatives, and the limitations that it brings, especially when it comes to issues of gender identity and gender expression.

The increasing concern and awareness of the phenomenon of bullying has been, in a way, a great ally in the push for anti-homophobia education. There are countless campaigns and conferences that are actively generating knowledge on the topic in North America, such as Stop Bullying, Bullying Canada, The Many Faces of Bullying, and The International Bullying Prevention Association. This fairly recent anxiety surrounding bullying has often allowed anti-homophobia activists to legitimize their efforts in schools, whose doors were previously closed due to dubious accusations that anti-homophobia education is a form of proselytization and that it sexualizes schools. For educators who have been fighting these discourses for years, the notion of anti-bullying can be a powerful argument in favour of doing anti-homophobia work. Some people may fight efforts to educate youth about sexual (and, to a lesser extent, gender) diversity, but who would fight against attempts to reduce (homophobic) bullying?

In many ways, this strategy has been effective in making the voice of anti-homophobia education heard, and we should celebrate the possibilities that have been opened up in some school districts, classrooms and Teacher Education programs as a result. It is crucial not to underestimate or diminish the impact of these efforts to make the topic of sexual diversity visible in schools, especially for youth who may feel alone and isolated. However, I believe it is also essential that we be self-reflexive and critical of how the dominance of anti-bullying narratives has both enabled and constrained ‘anti-homophobia’ work.

The term ‘anti-homophobia’ itself is problematic. Like the notion of anti-bullying, it reflects a focus on individual violent attitudes and behaviours. When (homophobic) bullying happens, the culprit is seen as one (or maybe several) individuals. Whether we are doing preventative or punitive work, we shape our response accordingly: we target it to individuals, whether that means children, parents, or educators.

Efforts to fight against homophobic bullying tend to focus on educating students out of their possible individual prejudice and/or misconception. As Gerald Walton, among others, has argued, this individualistic approach fails to connect homophobic bullying to its roots in social messages about sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender. When we try to identify, lambast or blame ‘bullies,’ we are so focused on the wrong done by specific individuals that we forget the fact that bullies are not aberrations in our culture. Rather, such bullying is a harsh reflection of how queer, trans and genderqueer people are perceived in our society.

Homophobic bullies could not exist if they had not picked up from society that gayness is ‘unnatural’, that same-sex couples are less legitimate than opposite-sex couples, or that binary genders are foundational to the order of the world. There is a fundamental bias in the idea that it makes sense to teach children about heterosexuality before homosexuality, or that young children would be ‘confused’ if confronted with images of same-sex couples. Children and youth pick up on such biases. When we teach students that puberty leads to (heterosexual) reproduction, when we only choose stories or exercises that feature opposite-sex partners, when we make jokes about boys liking girls in class or assume that our students are only straight, when we get upset over boys wearing dresses – every time that we do such things we send subtle but powerful messages to youth and adults that what is ‘normal’ is one (masculine) man and one (feminine) woman.

These behaviours are not, by our common understanding of the words, examples of homophobic bullying. People who say or do these kinds of things (and I do not exclude myself here) rarely would describe themselves as homophobic, and they would be extremely upset to be labeled as such. Yet all of these attitudes participate in creating a climate, in our schools and beyond, where homophobic bullying becomes not only possible, but often logical. Rather than ask the question, why would teenagers bully each other over pink shirts, we need to ask the question: Given the environment in which they live and learn, why wouldn’t they?

I am not arguing that we find new scapegoats for the problems that queer and trans youth face in Canadian schools. Rather, I am suggesting that we need to be more attentive to the subtle ways that heteronormative discourses circulate in schools in ways that empower homophobic verbal and physical harassment. More than anything else, I am also arguing that we need to make the question of gender(s) central to our efforts to create positive school cultures. Homophobic bullying and heteronormative mechanisms are sustained by a gender binary system. It is not just about including transphobia in our work, it is about exploring how transphobia and homophobia are made intelligible because of the presumptions about gender expression and gender identity.

Our recommendations to educators and schools, as well as our own research and work in classrooms, need to reflect these connections. We need to be more vocal about the significance and impact that the gender binary plays, subtly, in stories of ‘homophobic’ as well as transphobic bullying. I think Elizabeth Meyer’s suggestion that we use the concept “gendered harassment” is a powerful first step towards rethinking what makes our schools unsafe for queer and trans students.

I want to end this entry by discussing a specific case, Pink Shirt Day in Canada. It is an example of how efforts to address homophobic bullying can be conflated with anti-bullying efforts that don’t acknowledge the role that gender plays in the equation. Pink Shirt Day is a campaign that invites students to wear pink to school on a particular day in order to send a message that bullying is not acceptable. Although the event started as a grassroots student effort in response to an instance of gendered harassment in a Nova Scotia high school, Pink Shirt Day has become a national campaign whose origin story does not mention homophobia.

The question of why a male student would be harassed for wearing a pink shirt is completely erased on the Pink Shirt Day campaign’s official website. When news stories do mention the gendered (‘homophobic’) nature of the harassment, they usually fail to underline the implicit conflation of sexual orientation and gender expression that justifies calling a boy ‘gay’ for wearing a color that is perceived as feminine (pink). Notably, in an 8 October 2011 National Post article, a British professor of sociology argued that a child coming home in a pink shirt may be troubling if a parent has a moral discomfort with homosexuality. The assumption that there is a straightforward connection between effeminacy and homosexuality goes unquestioned.

Whether the connection between sexual orientation and gender presentation is erased as in the Pink Shirt Day campaign or made hypervisible as in the National Post article, such examples underline the problem of conflation. In both instances, the role of gender policing is ignored, and in the context of anti-bullying, this approach works to make further invisible the gendered roots of homophobic violence in schools.

By focusing on individual displays of ‘homophobia’, we let bullies become an excuse not to look at our own schools and at our own practices, and not to question how we, as educators, administrators, parents, and scholars, may have helped to create an environment where these acts of bullying become intelligible. And while this focus has often rallied people around gay youth, the issues faced by trans youth are often forgotten, marginalized, or conflated with ‘homophobia’.

If we hope not to wake again to the news of the suicide of one more queer or trans youth, we need a broader perspective, one that focuses on how heteronormative mechanisms function pervasively in our schools and classrooms. This work requires that we unpack our beliefs and assumptions about gender in ways that may be uncomfortable, but are nonetheless necessary. Anti-bullying has gotten us this far. If we want to continue improving school cultures to make them welcoming for all students, we need this shift from homophobia to heteronormativity and from homophobia to gendered harassment.

Hélène Frohard-Dourlent is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver.


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