Homophobia, misogyny and school bullying
School of Education, University of Wolverhampton
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick, 6-9 September 2006
Over seven years in the 1990s the author carried out a research project into gender conflict and pupil culture in four UK secondary (High) schools. The findings of that project included evidence of a variety of homophobic practices, but these were preserved and reinforced by more general anxieties that appeared in a variety of sex-fear and sex-hate practices described as "sexual bullying" (Duncan, 1999).
The phenomena of homophobia and misogyny are presented here as virtually inseparable ideologies within the discourse of hypermasculinity that prevailed in the four comprehensive schools, and, as such, structured gender relations within the pupil culture. The material here concentrates on a distillation of findings that are given a fuller analysis elsewhere (Duncan, 1997) and uses fewer voices to aid coherence in this shorter document.
"Gay" in the Canon of Sexual Insults
When asked about what insults would be most hurtful to boys, the pupils’ replies were quick and emphatic:
Y7 Boys (Age 11)
ND: What is the worst thing they could call you?
Brian: Pervert, or poof.
Both boys’ and girls’ groups concurred that the most hurtful thing a boy could be called was the term "gay". All the groups were well acquainted with the idea of "gay" referring to homosexual males. All the interviewees also understood that this meant males who were sexually attracted to other males. But this was not the intended meaning for the vast majority of times the term was deployed against their peers. As with girls being called "slags" for entirely non-sexual behaviours, the term "gay" had been distorted and dislocated from its mainstream common-sense meaning.
The connection between the distortion of these two key terms lay in the application of subcultural social processes that intended to ascribe a low value to an individual for non-conformity to an ideal. In the four schools in which I conducted my research, the term "gay" was mainly used to denote boys who did not possess enough of the qualities that fitted the ideal male stereotype of the dominant peer-group.
"Gays" were seen as the negative opposite of being "one of the lads". To be a real boy, or "a proper lad" or "all right", you had to show certain qualities that were highly esteemed by the arbiters of masculinity in these schools – the hard lads. To qualify, you should have all or most of the following: sporting prowess, physical strength, mental toughness, a propensity for aggressive and violent behaviour, a low regard for adult approval, an abusive relationship with those perceived to be weaker, and an exploitative attitude towards females. This last attribute is especially vital in the context of wider social relations, but all these "qualities" have a great relevance with regard to (working class) boys’ scholastic achievement (Salisbury and Jackson, 1996; QCA, 1998; Raphael Reed, 1999).
Other research, notably by Mac An Ghaill (1994), describes the range of masculinities available within schools. It is acknowledged that there existed a variety of expressions of "maleness" in the schools researched, however, the dominant form of masculinity within these schools was overwhelmingly macho in nature – a hypermasculinity, and subsequently subordinated all other potentialities.
Those boys that fell well short of the mark of this ideal masculinity were not simply called "gay", but also became the butt of jokes and casual, sometimes physical, abuse from both boys and girls. There were other, non-sexual, insulting terms that lesser boys were abused with: "boffins", "swots" and "creeps", all implied compliance to adult expectations, in hard work at school and deference to authority (cf. Willis, 1977).
"Dweebs", "wimps" and "geeks" were other names ascribed to boys who were more inclined to reading, playing quiet or fantasy games, and avoided rough or dangerous activities that appealed to the "proper lads". The real cutting term, "gay", however, subsumed all the negativity inherent in these labels and fused them with a dysfunctional sexuality as well. "Gay" was the insult par excellence, and if the cap could be force-fitted, the abuse would follow:
Y11 Boys (Age 15)
Carl: We get on with them all really, except for the gays.
ND: What gays?
Adie: Cos they are wimps, most of them we’ve battered in lower school, when we were younger like, and they wouldn’t want to be mates with us anyway. I’ve got nothing against them, like.
Adie’s magnanimity in not holding a grudge against the wimps and gays he has battered indicates the hard boys’ motivation for inflicting physical violence upon other boys. There is nothing personal in the attack, it’s just their duty as "proper lads" to police gendered behaviour to ensure that hypermasculinity retains its hegemony in the local culture.
"Proper lads" were expected to follow a harsh code of behaviour in their social relations to constantly prove their masculinity. They were always on the lookout for ways to highlight differences between themselves and the lesser boys, whether labelled "gay", "wimp" or "dweeb". "Proper lads" had to popular with the girls, but emotionally distant. They needed to flirt, date and move between enough desirable girls to enlarge their sexual reputations but at the same time, avoid close relationships or shared pleasures. Boys who associated mainly with girls but did not exploit them, were seen as "gay" by other boys, though many girls spoke positively of this type of platonic friendship as being a mature and desirable one.
Being friendly with girls was something that a number of boys raised tentatively in the interviews. They were of the opinion that most boys did like that sort of relationship, but were afraid of ridicule by their friends if they tried:
Y10 Boys (Age 15)
Carlton: If the boy was really popular with all the girls and he used to really hang around and talk to them all the time, he’d be called a poof or something.
ND: Cos he’s going out with loads of girls?
Ben: It depends...
Aaron: Not in my case it doesn’t. Well, it depends if he’s hanging around with loads of girls all the time, then I suppose he would be.
ND: What, because he was just friends with them?
ND: Right, I see. What you’re saying then, is that if a lad wasn’t trying to go out, like boyfriend and girlfriend, but was friendly and nice to girls, and being able to talk to them about things they liked, have a laugh with them and sat with them in class, that he might be called a poof by the rest of the lads?(1)
Although misogyny was essential to being a "proper lad", one had to be effective in exercising it. In dominating and mistreating the girls in school, one needed to tread a fine line. One should abuse and exploit girls, but not all girls, and only if one can do it in a nonchalant manner: scrapping with them is unmanly (see also Francis, 1998: 88), therefore "gay", and will be punished by more expert misogynists:
Y10 Boys (Age 15)
Pinxi: Yeah. The lads in our year, the ones who aren’t dweebs… Like there are two lots, one lot, and our lot who all hang around together. And if one of the dweebs picked on a girl in our year we would get him, all the lads in the top level. We would come down and it wouldn’t matter, cos we know we could batter him easy.
Between untermenschenheit and hypermasculinity there were the majority of the boys, occupying a laddish no-man’s land. These boys were not strong willed enough to dominate all others but rubbed along well enough with the hardest boys to avoid persecution, and tacitly supported the abuse of the "gay" boys and the exploitation of girls.
There was a constant struggle to acquire a reputation for being popular amongst both sexes, but only on a strictly gender-regulated basis. The term "loner" was used to insult pupils who had no, few, or low-status friends. "Loner" in this context was devoid of the macho allure of the Clint Eastwood persona, with little value being given to aloofness or reserve. Instead the term connoted abnormality, freakishness, unpopularity and friendlessness. "Gay" boys were generally such social rejectees and neglectees, and their plight often meant that they paired up with one another for friendship and security. When this occurred it gave an excellent opportunity for further attacks and accusations for being a "pair of gays", or "bum-chums".
The evolution of the peer-groups’ subcultural construction of "gay" developed from half-understood mainstream notions mixed with their own imperatives for esteemed masculinities. The boys needed to define their toughness in opposition to the weaknesses of others. For the boys who did not have the power to define any social categories, their identities were defined for them by the dominant group. Being homosexual or effeminate did not necessarily figure in the construct of "gay": the term simply meant that they were powerless to reject any label. The formula was that you were "gay" if someone said so and you were unable to refute it. In other words, if someone could say you were "gay" with impunity, then you were "gay.
To be called "gay" once or twice was not seen as a problem, especially joking between friends, but it still needed swift rebuttal. If the name-calling went unchallenged it would be repeated until the label stuck.
Y10 Boys (Age 15)
Aaron: I don’t mind if they just say "gay" once, right, but if they keep saying it, keep on saying it and start spreading it and that does your head in.
It was the threat of persistent name-calling, and the powerlessness to resist it, which pupils really feared. No one seriously believed that if you got called "gay" enough times it would turn you into a homosexual. What it would do, however, was to advertise your socio-sexual reputation as being so despicable that you became emblematic for everything undesirable: an anti sex-symbol. Your social position was reduced to a level where no one wanted to be associated with you and anyone could abuse you. In a different context (referring to the term "slag"), some of the girls captured the essence of this same social power: if enough people say it’s so, it makes it so.
The word "gay" itself was so laden with meaning that it overspilled into other areas where its connotations with everything useless and dysfunctional were applied even to inanimate objects. One teacher gave the example of some of his Y7 boys criticising his new car because it was not flash or powerful: " Sir’s car is gay!" Another teacher added that his pupils frequently cursed school equipment that did not work as required thus: "this pen’s ran out of ink, it’s gay!"
Coming Out and Getting Kicked In
During interviews with older, harder boys, there was a powerful denial of the possibility that any of the so-called "gays" were actually homosexual, such genuine perversions were imagined only to exist in some other world:
Y11 Boys (Age 15)
ND: Some people reckon about one in ten people grow up to become homosexual, but no one really knows. But if that was right, how many kids in Blunkett Rise School?
Carl: About 800 isn’t there? Oh yeah, I get it! (Laughs) So ten percent, aw, that…80 of them in this school! No way…no way, man!
Adie: (Laughs) Half of them must be lezzies. Ha ha.
ND: What I am interested in is how you would get on with a kid who was gay.
Adie: He’d get kicked in.
Carl: Definitely, he’d get his head kicked in, wouldn’t he?
Adie: Ahh, he would. If a homo kid came to this school, he wouldn’t want to stay. He’d not last here, he’d get kicked in straight away.
ND: But if he was already here, someone you knew. Like I told you, you might end up feeling that you were gay yourself, it’s possible.
Carl: I don’t think so.
ND: Well what would you do if Adie told you he was? Just suppose.
Carl: There’s no way I’d be mates with a poof!
ND: What about you?
Adie: If he was a queer? I’d slap him, I would. I would not have him coming near me.
Carl: It’s right. I would do the same, not hit him, but tell our mates and we’d probably all get him. Let him know.
ND: Really? You would have your best mate beaten up because he is gay?
Carl: But like you say, it’s what we would do, but we’re not gay. We’re not gay.
Adie: If there was gay kids in this school, I would have moved schools.
This excerpt exemplifies two important patterns in the data. Firstly, there was a complete denial of real homosexuality in the boys’ homosocial world. Secondly, if a friend "became" homosexual, he would be cast out. The tendency for boys (even the more moderate pupils) to deny the existence of homosexuality was especially pronounced amongst the older groups. In these interview sessions there was a consensus that even strong friendships would be broken if one of the members declared a gay identity. The response, as above, was incredulity followed by a beating before expulsion from the friendship group.
The public nature of this hostile reaction was clearly to reaffirm one’s own reputation as safely heterosexual. Several younger boys suggested that they would remain friends with a gay boy, but only if he promised not to tell anyone else about his sexuality, if he broke the promise, the straight boy would publicly dissociate himself from him. The threatened reaction of violence is perhaps contingent on the first belief: "there are no queers here, and definitely not amongst my best mates". This wilful misbelief enabled an absurd answer to my absurd proposition. Epstein and Johnston (1998), encountered similar denial of homosexuality amongst young primary school children where, despite discussion of an example of lesbianism, the children could not conceive of the relationship in terms outside of the most improbable heterosexual explanations.
Throughout the interviews and the observations, not one boy identified himself as gay in the general mainstream sense. There were no known homosexual pupils in any of the four schools, or at least none suggested by the staff. Such secrecy is hardly surprising given the prevailing attitudes to homosexuality exemplified above, and the fact that none of the schools had strategies in place for supporting such disclosure on a confidential basis to staff who could offer help in negotiating minority sexual orientation.
Whilst dominant male codes actively promoted violence against "gays" other forms of sexual persecution were considered to be perverse. An important example was of older, harder boys debagging and sconner-baiting younger boys(2). In this case, the younger victims constructed the aggressors as "pervs" rather than "gay":
Y7 Boys (Age 11)
Brian; Like, just ‘cos I was new to this school, right, and I was walking around, these second years (Y8) were acting big and they came up to me and asked me if I was a sconner and everything.
Colin; They’ve got to be pervs to want to know stuff about your private lives, ain’t they? (…)If them bullies they’ll have you, punch you and that.
Alan; Like I was walking home, and they said "if youm a sconner, jump the fence." And I was walking and I daren’t jump the fence right, and they pushed me over it and a nail went through my foot.
The vital difference between forms of male-to-male sexual bullying is in the power of the aggressors. Despite being directly predatory on the younger boys, the older boys could resist the term "gay" as they had the power to define their actions as "sconner-baiting", a detested but definitely masculine practice. The younger boys didn’t even think of the term "gay" to describe the older boys, as it connoted a weak and submissive form of boy, not the dominant aggressive males in this scenario. Instead, they constructed the older boys as having an excessive masculinity, albeit an unpleasant and perverted one, and called them "pervs" rather than "gays" behind their backs.
These variations of relative age and physical power in how the pupils construct their concept of "gay", are pointers to the motivation for homophobia and sexual bullying in schools. There may be many other deep reasons for homophobia to exist outside of schooling (Herek, 2000), and some of these will also apply within schooling, but the findings of this research indicated a particular school-based set of forces that encouraged and nurtured it within those institutions; confinement, competition and disavowal of sexuality.
The dynamic interaction between these factors is explored in depth elsewhere. For this paper, it is suffice to illustrate the duality of sexual bullying through the intertwining of homophobia and misogyny. Although these two expressions of sex-hate appear dichotomous, they are really two sides of the same blade.
When communities, in this case, schools, develop a hierarchy of esteemed sexualities with hypermasculinity as the dominant form, then repercussions are felt as pain throughout the social system. Boys become embroiled in combat for an aggressive hypermasculine reputation. Many fear exposure of their less aggressive traits such as gentleness, reflexivity, empathy and co-operation, and deny, disguise or change these qualities by colluding in homophobic attacks on weaker, "effeminate" boys. At the same time, they reinforce their masculinity through disrespectful and exploitative relationships with girls.
Notes1. In the course of the interviews the interviewers occasionally offered a summary interpretation of what had been intended. The interviewees sometimes challenged the interpretation, and this gave confidence that they were resistant to having words put in their mouths.
2. Sconner was a local term used extensively in two of the schools to denote a sexually immature boy who had no pubic hair. Debagging was the practice (in all four, and many more, schools) of a gang pulling someone’s trousers and underwear down to publicly expose and humiliate them
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This document was added to the Education-Line database on 19 January 2007