Homophobia in British schools is not news. From the dark days of Section 28 to Stonewall’s well-established ‘Education For All’ campaign, the plight of LGBT schoolchildren – and students perceived to be LGBT in our schools – is well documented. Dr Mark McCormack feels so passionately about the subject that it formed the basis of his doctoral studies. He has recently focussed his efforts on researching the extent of homophobia in the school context, the results of which are summarised in his book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality.
The most obvious first question to ask Mark McCormack is what motivated him to begin the process of writing the book; ‘As a closeted gay student at school, I had worked out at some level that homophobia wasn’t just or even mainly about hating gays. Having seen kids I thought heterosexual being the subject of homophobic bullying, while I managed to escape it for the most part, I realised it was also about marginalising people who were different. Then, while training to be a teacher, I noticed an absence – namely, the pervasive homophobia of my youth wasn’t there. Sure, there was some homophobia but it felt very different from my school experiences. That motivated me to do my PhD and research the issue of masculinities, homophobia and schooling’.[pullquote_right]In the 1980s and 1990s, everyone went to great lengths to avoid being socially perceived as gay, because homosexuality was so stigmatised[/pullquote_right]Interestingly, one of the key findings in the book is that it is no longer ‘fashionable’ to be openly homophobic in the school environment. We are keen to hear McCormack thoughts as to why it was ever acceptable; ‘I’m not sure fasionable is the right word. Rather, it was fundamentally necessary to be homophobic because otherwise you were suspected of being gay – and then ostracised – yourself. I use the concept ‘homohysteria’, defined as the fear of being socially perceived as gay, to explain this – in the 1980s and 1990s, everyone went to great lengths to avoid being socially perceived as gay, because homosexuality was so stigmatised. And what was the best way of proving you’re not gay? By being homophobic’. [pullquote_left]The use of language is complex and sometimes the meaning, intent and effect of it will all be different[/pullquote_left]A great deal of anti-homophobia work in schools revolves around the use of homophobic language. We ask McCormack if he believes that using such language means that the person is inherently homophobic themselves, to which he responds; ‘The use of homophobic language is normally quite a good indicator of someone having homophobic beliefs or attitudes. My point in the book, however, is that words are not automatically or necessarily homophobic. So ‘that’s so gay’ can be homophobic, if it is said in a homophobic environment by someone who espouses homophobic views. But if it is said by a gay kid, or a straight kid with pro-gay views and gay friends, it isn’t necessarily homophobic. In my book, some of the straight and gay kids use this language jokingly together to bond’. He is keen to point out the difference between intention and perception on this point; ‘The use of language is complex and sometimes the meaning, intent and effect of it will all be different. But we also need to recognise that language evolves and that it is perfectly logical for me to have experienced hearing ‘that’s so gay’ as homophobic and for the participants today to interpret it as not being homophobic’.
McCormack thinks the recent scandal involving Catholic schools encouraging staff and students to sign an anti-marriage equality petition is telling; ‘I think it highlights the generational shift. Here, adults and a socially conservative institution were trying to structure kids into homophobic attitudes. And how did the press find out about it? Because the students complained. The book is called The Declining Significance of Homphobia , not the End of homophobia. This issue also supports the arguments in the final chapter about ensuring all schools have to buy into equality laws, and that we cannot be complacent’.[pullquote_right]In one chapter, I even show how students critique the school for not being more supportive of gay rights[/pullquote_right]Moving on, we ask McCormack if he feels that recent changes have led to homosexuality being ‘celebrated’ or merely ‘tolerated’, his response to which is unequivocal; ‘I think these changes are profound and significant, going far beyond tolerance of homsoexuality. The lives of LGBT students are different in these schools, and the attitudes expressed by their heterosexual peers are genuine and deeply-held. In one chapter, I even show how students critique the school for not being more supportive of gay rights. Yes, the decline in homophobia will be mediated by a host of factors, and homophobia will remain in various places for various reasons, but this shouldn’t stop the realisation and recognition that profound changes have occurred’. [pullquote_left]Homophobia is no longer an effective policing mechanism of masculinity[/pullquote_left]There is indeed cause for optimism in many of McCormack’s findings, not least the conclusion that heterosexual students no longer feel embarrassed being affectionate towards one another or expressing their ‘femininity’. However, we ask him whether he thinks there is a risk of confusing the recent trend of ‘metrosexuality’ with a decline in the significance of homophobia. ‘Metrosexuality is a very powerful concept for understanding how men became sexualised and enjoy being sexualised and the objects of sexual desire. It is true that dressing well doesn’t lead to pro-gay attitudes, but my argument is that softening of masculinity so that One Direction are the new models of masculinity for today’s youth – compared with Vinnie Jones for my generation – has come about because of a decrease of homophobia. Quite simply, guys are able to engage with their feminine side; there has been an expansion of acceptable gendered behaviours for guys, because homophobia is no longer an effective policing mechanism of masculinity. I address this on pages 43-45 in the book’.
We put it to McCormack that some may say that students ‘saying the right thing’, specifically that homophobia is just as bad as racism, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s how the problem is truly viewed either by students or by staff dealing with homophobia. He explains; ‘First, if homophobia has become stigmatised so that people have to suppress their own homophobia, I think that’s progress. The notion that a prejudice driven underground is worse than one in the open is nonsense to me and pays no experience to the lived experience of people who have suffered overt discrimination. But I do also recognise the serious point in the question. And there were a few ways I examined this. First, I triangulated data, so interview data corroborates participant observations. Second, the experiences of the LGBT students I interviewed supports the straight students assertions that they have pro-gay attitudes. Put simply, the experiences of the gay students at these schools is strong evidence. Also, the way the straight students interacted with gay students and myself further supports their attitudes and behaviours correlate. Finally, the methodology is important here. I was in the first school for six months and got to know these guys pretty well. This isn’t like surveys, where some kids spend ten minutes filling it out one time; this is rich, contextualised data with people I was spending a great deal of time around’.[pullquote_right]In two out of the three schools, I didn’t experience any form of overt homophobia at all[/pullquote_right]It seems that the academic’s experiences in school were overwhelmingly positive. We wonder if he could pick out a single most heartwarming moment; ‘Good question. I think rather than one specific moment, it is more the regular and frequent expressions of emotional support that straight guys can give to each other. Hugging a friend who was about to take a driving test; telling friends that they love them; that kind of thing. Regular small acts that are evidence of the profound change in masculinities that has occurred’. And the worst incident of homophobia encountered while carrying out his research? ‘In two out of the three schools, I didn’t experience any form of overt homophobia at all. In the third school, there were three times the word ‘poof’ was used – and it always pertained to worrying about ‘looking like a poof’. This was said by three quite marginalised students, and the language further marginalised them from their peers’.
Reassuring indeed. It only remains to ask, then, what Dr McCormack believes still needs to be done to eliminate the scourge of homophobia from our nation’s classrooms entirely; ‘There is some evidence that homophobia is worse among younger kids – and that it decreases as they reach sixth form. However, new research is needed on this because before mine, people were arguing that all school environments were homophobic. We need to find out whether this difference is real, or whether it’s because no-one has done the research and found out a change has occurred here as well. Other questions are; how do experiences change dependent on race or ethnicity, geographical location, class and sexuality?’
The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality is available to purchase from Amazon now.