Victims of homophobic bullying often have no one to turn to for support. Former headteacher Roger Smith highlights the importance of the fight to eradicate this form of destructive behaviour

Homophobic bullying is a growing cause of concern for children and young people. The NSPCC’s child protection helpline, ChildLine, reported that in April 2006 27% of their calls related to sexual orientation issues. In fact homophobic bullying was the most common single problem. Sadly, as ChildLine suggests, it may be an especially effective or powerful form of bullying because victims are particularly unwilling to seek help. One of the reasons for this is that it would force them to talk about why they were being bullied in the first place.

What is most depressing is that this kind of bullying may be more successful because it is often not taken as seriously as other forms of bullying. In a previous article on bullying (Primary Headship, February 2006) I argued that there should be zero tolerance as far as any kind of bullying is concerned and that there has to be an ethos of ‘telling’ as well as an anti-bullying policy that invades every corner of the school. That means that it needs to be part of the curriculum, the rewards and sanctions system, assemblies and the work of the school council. 

 This is especially true of homophobic bullying which can, and unfortunately does, become the defining aspect of a young person’s school life. Because being ‘gay’ is seen by many children as ‘wrong’ or ‘not normal’, callers to ChildLine indicated that friends are more likely to be unsupportive, to join in with the bullying or even to initiate it.

What is even more disheartening is that callers were also critical of teachers, claiming that they did little to stop this kind of bullying. Their careless use of such words as ‘sissy’; telling boys who are not very good at games to ‘go and play with the girls’ and simply failing to challenge homophobic name calling were all examples given.

What is it and why does it happen
Like other aspects of bullying, homophobic bullying can be both physical and mental and involve groups or individuals. It is often aimed at children who are different by being quiet, shy, speaking with a different accent, etc, and who have poor defences. They can be male or female but what makes this kind of bullying stand out is that its language is in common usage and is drawn on consistently as a form of abuse. For example, ‘gay’ rather than being purely descriptive, is now used as a derogatory adjective to describe people and objects.

There still seems to be a general prejudice against gay and lesbian people, so like all other forms of bullying it becomes a wider social problem as well as one that each school has to resolve. But what motivates individual bullies is less easy to define. Most have a need for power and to dominate as well as belong to the group. Identifying people as being different because of their perceived gender orientation puts victims conveniently outside the group and the persecutor firmly within it. But fear may also play a part.

Growing up is fraught with all kinds of problems and homophobia is the fear of the unknown – the fear and uncertainty about what is happening in each individual’s developing sexuality. For many boys for example, being called ‘gay’ is the worst name of all to be called. By accusing others of being gay, bullies may think they are just demonstrating their own macho personalities.

Who is affected?
Homophobic taunts can be used in hurtful ways largely because we live in a society where homophobia is still common. Some very young children indulge in homophobic bullying. It is certainly not confined to secondary schools. It can affect anyone including:

  • children who are perceived to be gay or lesbian
  • young people and adults who actually 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.

The majority of victims are young or uncertain about their sexual orientation or are simply children who just don’t follow the norms of the school’s ethos. They may not like football or sports in a school where competitiveness and success in these areas is celebrated more than any other achievements. They may be very musical or be good at art, drama, dance or singing in a school where these kinds of activities are not praised or accepted as ‘normal’ achievements.

What should we do?
Each school should have a rigorous anti-bullying policy. It has to be seen to be high profile with posters, peer pressure and support systems, buddy schemes, assertiveness programmes, counselling and mediation schemes. No part of the school must be seen by staff as a no-go area and by pupils as their own territory. Break times and lunchtimes must be strictly supervised so that bullies and potential bullies recognise that their lives are being made difficult and that all teachers and adults have the skills and the determination to deal with them.

Homophobic bullying needs to be recognised as even more insidious than other kinds of bullying. Homophobic name calling, for example, should be challenged in the same way that racist or sexist behaviour is. The most important general thing you and all your colleagues can do is to create a positive, open, tolerant ethos in which matters of concern to all pupils – and especially those who may be vulnerable – are discussed calmly. If the response to homophobic bullying is a short-term, knee-jerk reaction it can marginalise victims.

Discussions about bullying of all kinds can be included in Health and Sex Education, but should also be part of all curriculum areas. Circle time discussions are also important. They can help children to develop assertive skills which they can use to protect themselves and challenge harassment. They may also help potential bullies to think before they act and even begin to empathise with their potential victims.

Of course one of the most important and powerful strategies to prevent this kind of bullying is firm leadership from the top, whether from central government, LEAs, governors and headteachers. Every child needs to feel supported and understand that no adult in school will tolerate homophobic bullying and that outside school there is a society that feels the same.

What is the DfES doing to help?
The Education Action Challenging Homophobia [EACH] together with the gay and lesbian equality group Stonewall is working with the DfES to produce guidance on ‘Understanding and Responding to Homophobic Bullying’. This will be available as a web-based resource in spring 2007.

EACH has presented evidence to the DfES on the effect of homophobic bullying and the organisation makes it quite clear that it is ‘our’ problem – all of us need to be involved. It recognised this form of bullying as a whole-school issue, affecting the classroom behaviour and attitudes of all children, as well as their educational achievement. In other words, EACH sees it as part of the raising standards agenda.

Perhaps the most distressing piece of evidence presented by EACH is the isolation suffered by children who are targeted by homophobic bullying. It suggests that, unlike other victims of bullying, victims may well feel that they can’t even turn to their parents for support.

Tackle it vigorously and demonstrate your determination to stamp it out. Make sure that homophobic bullies understand that their behaviour  will never be tolerated.