Homophobia and masculinities among young men (Lessons in becoming a straight man)


Homophobia and masculinities among young men (Lessons in becoming a straight man)

By Michael Flood

Presentation to teachers, O'Connell Education Centre, Canberra, 22 April 1997.


Outline of the talk

I will begin with a quick overview of homophobia and heterosexism in society. I'll then discuss the links between homophobia and gender, and specifically, homophobia and men and masculinity. I'll then look at schools in particular, and describe the consequences of homophobia for young gay men and lesbians themselves. I'll then move to an outline of schools' obligations to make schools safe for all students, and describe some strategies for change.


Basic definitions of homophobia/heterosexism

Homophobia refers to fear and hatred of homosexuals and to anti-homosexual beliefs and prejudices. Typical homophobic beliefs include the idea that homosexuality is unnatural, sick, perverse or dangerous, while heterosexuality is natural and normal.

Another term is heterosexism, and this term is useful because it emphases the following:

That people who are heterosexual receive privileges and benefits and recognitions while those who are non-heterosexual do not. In other words, that there is a system of injustice and oppression organised around sexuality.

That heterosexuality, the dominant term, is silent, unspoken and normalised. Essentially, there is "a presumption of heterosexuality which is encoded in language, in institutional practices and the encounters of everyday life" [Epstein & Johnson, 1994: 198].

Gay men and lesbians are subject to a range of injustices and disadvantages, which together make up a system of oppression. Homophobia, the fear and hatred of gay men and lesbians, is central to contemporary heterosexual culture, and heterosexuality is compulsory in nearly all spheres of everyday life. Gay men and lesbians experience cultural invisibility, they are routinely told that their innermost feelings and desires are disgusting, dangerous, just a phase or non-existent, they are denied civil and legal rights and the recognition of their partners and relationships, their consenting sexual relations are criminalised and policed, and they are subject to verbal and physical harassment, bashings and even murders.

(Heterosexual privilege) As this list suggests, the other side of these injustices and disadvantages is the fact of heterosexual privilege. Very briefly, heterosexual relationships are subject to social support and status, both informally through friends, families and communities and formally through such rituals and institutions as weddings and marriage. There are many positive images of heterosexual people and relationships. Heterosexuals can be intimate and sexual in public and can talk about their partners or lovers freely. Heterosexuals are free from discrimination based on their sexual orientation, can adopt children, can get insurance for their partners, and so on.

One of the most important aspects of contemporary heterosexuality is its hegemonic or culturally dominant status as natural, normal and spontaneous. "Heterosexuality is not primarily experienced as a sexual identity but rather as something inherent in being human." [Wilton, 1994: 85] Heterosexual identity operates in analogous ways to "whiteness" and "maleness", as normative and often invisible to the individuals who occupy its positions. To be heterosexual is above all to be non-homosexual.[1]

Think for a moment of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the once-a-year parade through the streets of Sydney. And then realise that all other days, there's a heterosexual mardi gras, with heterosexuals flaunting their sexual desires and practices in public, and heterosexuals forcing their heterosexual lifestyles onto others. I mean, I don't mind if you're heterosexual, just don't it in public... (I'm not suggesting that us heterosexuals should stop being heterosexual in public, except in gay and lesbian-specific spaces. Just that we can be more aware of the heterosexual privileges we do receive.)

(A positive gay/lesbian culture) While gay men and lesbians do experience the injustices described above, it is also true that in the last 30 years we have seen the emergence of a positive and supportive gay and lesbian community and culture. There are now safe and supportive spaces for the expression and exploration of same sex desires, practices, relations and identities. However, adolescent gay men and lesbians have less access to gay and lesbian communities and cultures. They don't have financial, geographical or social access to such adult spaces (and may not be interested in having it), and may only be able to participate in gay and lesbian communities when they leave home or leave school.

(Homophobia hurts everyone.) Everyone is hurt by homophobia and heterosexism.[2] While gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and others who do not fit dominant heterosexual norms are oppressed, those who do fit these norms, members of the dominant group, are also hurt and limited in this system. It is indeed in everyone's self-interest to work to combat heterosexist oppression.

Homophobia locks all people into rigid and gendered ways of being that inhibit creativity and self expression. It compromises the integrity and humanity of heterosexual people by pressuring them to treat others badly. Homophobia inhibits one's ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of the same sex. Societal homophobia adds to the pressure to marry, which in turn places undue stress and often trauma on heterosexual spouses and children. Homophobia may encourage premature sexual involvement to prove that one is normal, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Homophobia combined with sexphobia (fear and repulsion of sex) results in the elimination of any discussion of the lives and sexuality of LGBT people as part of school-based sex education, keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of AIDS. Homophobia can be used to stigmatise, silence, and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but who are in fact heterosexual. Homophobia prevents heterosexuals from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBTs, contributions that are social, theoretical, political, artistic, familial, religious and so on. Finally, homophobia inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.


Link between homophobia and gender, and in particular between homophobia and masculinity

So far I've been discussing homophobia and heterosexism in isolation, but they have a very powerful and fundamental relationship to the organisation of gender. Homophobia is a deeply gendered phenomenon; constructions of gender and sexuality are interrelated and mutually constitutive, such that dominant masculinities, femininities and heterosexualities are interdependent. Hegemonic masculinity, the dominant model of how to be male, in particular is structured by homophobia.

This relationship between homophobia and masculinity is evident in the first place in boys' and men's relatively stronger allegiance to homophobic attitudes and emotions than women's. Males are more homophobic in their emotional reactions to homosexuality, and homophobia is also correlated with traditional views of gender and family roles [Herek, 1986].

This connection is not simply about attitudes, but about the very definition of maleness and masculinity itself. Masculinity is defined as essentially heterosexual and defined against or in opposition to homosexuality, as well as femininity. "Real" men are heterosexual men, and the dominant model of masculinity is of a heterosexual masculinity. Homophobia is a constitutive part of heterosexual masculinities, and this involves the expulsion or denial of homoerotic desire [Epstein & Johnson, 1994: 204].

Growing up, men are faced with the continual threat of being seen as gay and the continuous challenge of proving that they are not gay. In short, boys and men are kept in line by homophobia. Step outside the boundaries of masculine behaviour and you're immediately faced with verbal and physical attack. Homophobia leads men to limit their loving and close friendships with other men. The fear of being identified as a "poofter" leads men to behave in hypermasculine and aggressive ways and to close up emotionally.

A number of other points are relevant here.

* Homophobia functions if you like as the dragon at the gates of an alternative masculinity; it polices the boundaries of conventional masculinity. On the one hand, homosexuality is perceived as gender betrayal. On the other, deviation from dominant masculinity is perceived to be homosexual.

[extra point] This conflation or slide between gender and sexual orientation is evident when I say I'm doing research on masculinity and people respond with comments about gays, or when men making critical comments about masculinity are taken to be gay.

* Gay men have a different experience of masculinity to heterosexual men. While gay men get some of the privileges of being male, they also suffer oppression and discrimination because of their sexual identity.[3]

* The issue of homophobia also shows the power relations between men. Gay men suffer oppression at the hands of heterosexual men similar to those inflicted on women; they are bashed and killed by heterosexual male gangs and mocked for their "effeminacy". More generally, heterosexual men receive social status and approval as heterosexual men, while gay men do not (at least in the straight world).

* It has been encouraging to see growing attention to homophobia among men in the men's movement and others concerned with men and masculinity. However, so far this "homophobia" has often been understood in the men's movement as referring mainly to the fear of intimacy between men. Less attention is given to other aspects of homophobia -- the contempt and attacks directed specifically at gay men because of their sexuality, and the discriminations and injustices that gay men face. Gay politics involves a wider critique of the fact of "compulsory heterosexuality" and the heterosexist ideology that says being straight is "natural" or biologically determined, and we must also incorporate this more fundamental critique.

* [A new point] Boys' and men's violence has become the focus of growing public concern and action. We cannot address this violence without also addressing homophobia. Homophobia and heterosexism are directly implicated for example in boys' and men's bashings and abuse towards other boys and men, in the young male recreational sport of `poofter-bashing' and in other hate crimes directed at those who are non-heterosexual or who are perceived to be non-heterosexual, and in some forms of violence directed at women (such as abuse of lesbians).

The strong relationship between homophobia and masculinity is also a factor in boys' and men's practice of date or acquaintance rape and other forms of sexual violence. Boys and men may seek to have sex with women to prove to themselves and to others that they are heterosexual, to prove their manhood and to gain status among their peers.

* As a general comment, I want to say that the issue of homophobia is not "just a gay issue", but a crucial one for all men and for any consideration of how to change masculinity. If we want to understand how boys and men are kept within the boundaries of dominant masculinity, if we want to understand the diverse realities of men's lives and the power relations between men, then we have to look at homophobia.

* Heterosexual men can only benefit by becoming aware of homophobia. If we are less distanced from gay men and less bothered by the idea that others may see us as gay, then we're far more able to step outside conventional masculinity. We're able to seek greater closeness and intimacy with other men and allow ourselves a more emotional and sensual personality. If the psychosexual dynamic of homophobia is removed from our senses of self and from our relations, we will feel less compelled to constantly prove ourselves and to do power to others in the name of our maleness. We will less afraid of and hostile to sexual diversity. Like the slogan says on a t-shirt I wear, men can be "straight but not narrow".

One of the roles heterosexual men can take up here is to act as allies to gay and bisexual boys and men. We can acknowlege gay boys' and men's existence, affirm the validity of gay sexuality, defend gay boys and men from attack and support gay and lesbian struggles.


Some general comments on schools

First, I should make a few brief comments about schooling and sexualities.

- Through their formal and informal processes, schools play an important role in constructing gender and sexuality, whether schools like or intend this or not [Redman, 1994: 142]. As Peter Redman argues, "schools operate as significant cultural sites in which understandings and practices concerned with sexuality are actively constructed, reproduced and lived out, both in the formal curriculum and the hidden curriculum." [141] They "operate as important public spaces in which young people learn about and construct their sexualities and come face to face with the different value society places on heterosexual as opposed to gay and lesbian identities." [142].

- While heterosexism has a general cultural presence in society, and schools are part of this, heterosexism also takes specific forms in particular institutions such as schools [Epstein & Johnson, 1994: 211].

- Heterosexual dominance is evident in the official practices of schools through the silencing and negation of same-sex eroticism in the curriculum, institutional inaction about routine homophobic taunts and violence, and a multitude of practices through which the relations between girls and boys are organised [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 116-117].

- There is a commonsense assumption that children are `innocent' about sexual norms and relationships, and this is related to an apparent desexualisation of the school context. To quote Epstein and Johnson (1994), "Paradoxically, sexual constructions are all-pervasive in the school context, while, at the same time, sexuality is specifically and vehemently excluded from the formal curriculum or confined to very specific and heavily guarded spaces." [217]

One of these heavily guarded spaces is sex education, and here sexuality is represented typically through heterosexist assumptions, and the emphasis is on biological and procreative functions and on sex as danger, not as pleasure [ibid]. There is little inclusion of students' own sexual cultures and their own experience is largely ignored.

- At the same time, student sexual cultures themselves are permeated by heterosexism, even though they involve resistance to schooling [Epstein and Johnson, 1994: 223]. Heterosexuality is the constant backdrop in students' lives.

- Students themselves are active makers of sex and gender identities. Much of this work goes on at a collective level in peer groups, and sex and sexuality are discussed and played out between and within male and female peer groups [Mac an Ghaill, 1994: 90-91].

Impact of homophobia on gay and lesbian students

Many lesbian and gay young people have negative experiences and memories of schools and education [Nickson, 1996: 163]. They experience verbal and physical harassment and violence,[4] marginalisation, and other injustices in what is a systematic pattern of bigotry, exclusion and oppression.

The consequences of this for gay and lesbian students are increasingly well documented, and include isolation, confusion, marginalisation, higher rates of personal stress and alienation, lowered self-esteem and self-hate, poor school performance, dropping out of school, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.[5]

There are both similarities and differences between the operations of injustice and prejudice to do with sexualities and other axes such as gender or race. One difference is to do with the experience of marginalisation. A young person from a NESB background experiencing harassment and marginalisation at school could report the students or teachers involved, get informal supprt from other NESB students, and go home at night and get support from their family, both directly and indirectly through cultural and community norms. A gay or lesbian young person experiencing harassment on the other hand probably won't report the harassment because they have no way of ensuring that the school staff won't perpetuate it, they find it difficult to recognise others who feel the same way they do, they can't talk to their family because they're scared of being rejected or humiliated, and they have no guarantees that their friends will not turn on them. Without a positive reference group, they are more likely to internalise negative messages about themselves as gay or lesbian.[7] Thus, because of the operations of homophobia and heterosexism in schools, young gay men and lesbians are placed in a very difficult if not impossible position.

I am not saying that gay and lesbian students always have a worse time than students from NESB backgrounds, and it's worth keeping in mind that there are students who are both gay or lesbian and NESB.

Lesbian and gay teachers too face a very difficult position, and are subject to the same silencing and harassment. They cannot depend on support from the school hierarchy, other teachers or even the union, and they may find it difficult to `fit in' with the `ordinary' sociability of the staffroom. Moreover, they are constrained by the widespread myth of gays and lesbians as dangerous to children. In relation to students, they have to negotiate a dilemma between being available to support lesbian and gay students and putting themselves at risk [Epstein & Johson, 1994: 224].

[A later note: I should also have included discussion here of the children of lesbian or gay parents, or children with lesbian or gay siblings etc.]

Having said all this, I want to emphasise that it is important not to adopt a reductionist approach in which lesbian and gay people appear only as problems or victims [Mac an Ghaill, 1994: 167]. We need to avoid reinforcing the common pathologising of homosexuality, in which gay and lesbian people's difficulties are interpreted as the product of their sexual orientation rather than as an understandable response to prejudice and oppression.

Mac an Ghaill's school research found that being gay is in many circumstances a positive and creative experience, and he describes male students' positive self-representations as gay [167]. And as with most situations of oppression, there is resistance. Young gay men and lesbians adopt creative strategies that challenge heterosexism [167], and create spaces for the joys and pleasures and loves of same-sex sexual relations and identities. The same is true for students in general: student sexual cultures thrive and many students experience great pleasure, intimacy and excitement in their sexual explorations while at school [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 119].

(Homophobia and other problems in schools) There are also important ways in which homophobia is fundamental to other problems in schools to which energy is now being directed. One of the most obvious is violence.8 Homophobia and heterosexism are an important part of the operation of violence in schools. In particular, people may become violent towards gay and lesbian students or to anyone whom they perceive to be gay or lesbian. Others may resort to violence to prove that they are not gay, including resorting to anti-gay violence. One of the most important ways in which the boundaries of heterosexual masculinity are enforced is through the threat and use of violence. Anti-gay prejudice can incite and escalate conflicts, both as the basis of the conflict or thrown in in the form of insults and epithets during the conflict [Blumenfeld & Lindop, 1996b].[9]

Homophobia makes schools unsafe for all students, and addressing anti-gay violence and prejudice is an important part of any school's plan to combat violence.


Boys and schools in particular

The lives of boys at school, like those of many men in general, are structured by forms of compulsory heterosexuality, misogyny or sexism and homophobia [Mac an Ghaill, 1994]. These three elements are interconnected, and they play crucial roles in the formation of boys' male and heterosexual identities.

Boys' lives at school involve a constant watching of themselves and others, an intense gendered and sexual surveillance. Boys who are perceived as `sissies' or `wimps' or `girlish' are punished and ridiculed. Masculine banter, including name-calling, jokes and teasing, positions and re-positions each other in hierarchies of power and status, and this relentless barrage produces a hardening and toughening of each other.[10] Homophobia exerts a fundamental influence on male-male relations at schools, and for boys the stigma of being called homosexual is excuse enough to react with physical violence [Renew, 1996: 154]. In the context of dominant cultural ideologies of what it means to be male, boys and young men focus on power and competition and the need to be in control.

Male peer groups involve both pleasures and perils. This same compulsory and competitive proving of one's masculinity can make them a lonely and unsupportive place. In relation to sexuality, young men in many male peer groups compete with each other, measuring success in terms of sexual conquest and experience [Holland et.al, 1993: 14]. It is impossible to reveal vulnerabilities and sexual difficulties to other boys, and there is a constant effort to create and maintain an image of acceptable masculinity [ibid].

There are various practices at school that provided a quantitative index of manhood. Through boys' prowess in culturally exalted forms of masculinity, they can prove themselves as men or as masculine. Sports is a common arena for this, as are sexual relations.[11] [MF: ie, getting `manhood points']

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of masculinity at schools, and one which continues in later male life, is male heterosexual ambivalence towards women. Comments such as "What's wrong with you, ya woman", "You're a girl", "You're playing like a girl" and so on are used to put down other boys. Femaleness and femininity here are negative terms which should be avoided and repelled. And male teachers and male students conflate assumed gay behaviour with femininity in order to slander the former, ie, using femininity to put down gayness [Mac an Ghaill, 1994: 164].

At the same time as boys show contempt for femaleness and the stereotypical qualities of femininity, they also show attraction to girls. Girls are objects of sexual desire, fascination and even obsession.[12] Many of the young men develop relations with girls with a contradictory mix of pursuit and disinterest, fear and fixation [Mac an Ghaill, 1994: 102].[13]

The intertwining of dominant forms of both masculinity and heterosexuality is visible in boys' sex-based harassment of girls. This combination of sex and power has been ignored and even confirmed by school structures and curricula. One example is the implicit message in some sex education that males have an urgent and unstoppable sex drive, from which girls must protect themselves [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 118].

A central dichotomy in many young men's lives is between their projection of a public confident masculinity and their experience of private anxieties and insecurities [Mac an Ghaill, 1994: 99]. This relates to a more general contradiction in society between men's collective position of power and many men's sense of personal powerlessness [McLean, 1996: 29]. This is especially the case in the arena of sexuality, and this is a site of both men's perpetuation of power and men's emotional vulnerability and dependence.

At schools boys are already well on their way to learning dominant models of masculine sexuality, models similar to those adopted by their teachers and their fathers. They learn first and foremost that the successful physical performance of masculine sexuality is essential for the confirmation of manhood and their sense of gender identity.

Boys learn to deny emotion and to focus all their needs for physical affection and nurturance onto sex. They become both emotionally incompetent and emotionally constipated [Doyle, 1989: 158]. They may find themselves ill-equipped to deal with the emotional requirements of sexual relationships, and through dominant models of masculinity they internalise a pressure to prove themselves to be knowledgeable and potent sexual performers. As Chris McLean writes, "The pursuit of power and control denies men love and sensuality, and leaves only desire and the excitement of conquest." [cited in Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 118]

For me, one of the most troubling aspects of this process is the ways in which boys, and men too, are taught to be sexually violent. The dominant model of masculine heterosexuality invites males to always take the initiative, to behave in aggressive and coercive ways, to not take "no" for an answer and to push through women's resistance, and to justify all this through such ideas as the myth of the uncontrollable male sex drive or the provocative woman. In effect, this is a rapist sexuality, which many boys and men then take up and act on.[14]

Finally, boys often experience powerful feelings of sexual interest in other boys' bodies, have regular exposure to each others' bodies, and some will engage in same-sex sexual activity such as mutual masturbation [McLean, 1995: 32]. However, the overriding influence of homophobia makes it impossible to admit to feelings of interest or curiousity. Equally, feelings of affection between boys can only be expressed in hard and jokey ways, with the only legitimate forms of physical contact being body-contact sports, rough-and-tumble play and fighting [ibid, 32-33]. In brief, you can express affection through punching your mate, but not through hugging him.

[?? MF: Boys learn not only that the only option they have is to be heterosexual, but that they must be a particular sort of heterosexual man. Having a sexual orientation towards girls and women is not enough, and they must also be willing to objectify women, to persuade them to have sex ??]

While I've just made a series of comments about boys and young men in general, I should say that there are also important differences among them. In particular, most schools will show multiple and contradictory masculinities, and different male peer groups with different masculine subjectivities and practices. Mac an Ghaill's research investigates this in detail, and others such as Bob Connell have also commented on this. School masculinities and male peer groups are shaped by class, race, ethnicity, by the official curriculum and patterns of authority of the school, and a host of other factors. Gay male students will be positioned and will position themselves in different ways among these peer relations.[15]

Finally, I have been focusing on the lives of boys, but a full account of the operations of masculinity and sexuality in schools would also include male teachers, and their involvements for example in gender regulation.[16]


What teachers and schools can do

* The obligations of schools:

Schools aim to enable their students to reach their academic and social potential. Schools help create social values and mores and have a role in educating against ignorance and prejudice [Liggins et.al, 1994: 21]. Once we recognise the very serious consequences of the ignorance, bigotry, discrimination and violence related to sexuality, and the operations of this in schools as elsewhere, then the responsibility of schools is clear. Schools must act to remove anti-homosexual prejudices and injustices, and promote inclusive, affirming and just policies, curricula and relations.

Schools have a duty to ensure that their learning and social environments are in the very least, not dangerous to some students on the basis of their real or perceived non-heterosexual sexual orientations [Nickson, 1996: 161-62]. Students who experience discrimination and vilification have a moral and legal right to expect freedom from such harassment, and teachers have a moral and legal obligation to ensure such freedom [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 111, citing Puplick].

Some people will argue that to implement anti-homophobic education is to `promote homosexuality'. I would respond that anti-homophobic education is not about promoting homosexuality, but about acknowledging the reality of its existence and relevance, in the same way that schools acknowledge the reality of diverse cultures and backgrounds. This argument is akin to claiming that anti-racist teaching about racial and ethnic diversity is converting people into Aborigines or members of non-Anglo cultures!

Adopting anti-homophobic policies and curricula is about student safety and students' right to a respectful and supportive learning environment. Providing a safe environment for LGBT students is integral to providing a safe school environment for all students and to helping students learn and live in a society filled with diversity [Blumenfeld & Lindop, 1996a]

In the same ways that schools address prejudices and oppressions related to race and ethnicity, gender, class and bodily ability or disability, they can also address those related to sexuality. Resistance to anti-homophobic teaching is lessened or prevented if the emphasis in the work teachers do is on broader themes such as social justice, marginality, prejudice and discrimination, and lesson plans and materials exemplify this integration [Pallotta-Chiarolli, 1995: 76].

Also, one can't `convert' people to homosexuality. There is no evidence that a person can "recruit" another into a particular sexual orientation, and no evidence that attempts to change people's sexual orientations have ever been successful. Furthermore, many adolescent boys do engage in same-sex sexual experimentation (eg mutual masturbation), and most of these boys will eventually adopt stable heterosexual identities.

Having said all this, I would also say that schools so far have been doing their darnedest to promote heterosexuality, and a particular model of heterosexuality at that, and that this fundamentally fails to deal with the realities of both students' and teachers' lives.

* Education policies

There are also policy obligations to address homophobia in schools. In the ACT education department's latest statement on `Across curriculum perspectives' to do with gender equity, teachers and policy-makers have been given not merely a license, but an obligation, to challenge homophobia and heterosexism in classroom practice, curricula and school policy.[17]

* Anti-homophobia resources and programs: There are two Australian programs focused on homophobia that I know of, the Blockout: Kit on homophobia from the Second Storey Youth Centre in Adelaide (1994) and the New South Wales Department of School Education 6-lesson module, Violence against homosexual men and women (1992). There is also an excellent resource from the New Zealand Family Planning Association, titled Affirming diversity: An educational resource on gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations (1994). Further afield, educators in the US have been developing anti-homophobic educational strategies for several years now, and organisations such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network, the Safe Schools Coalition and others have further resources available, some via the internet.

Paul Van de Ven has been evaluating the effectiveness of short anti-homophobic courses in schools [Van de Ven, 1996]. He surveyed 130 students aged 13-16 on homophobia, to measure the impact of the NSW teaching module, which involves 6 lessons and about 5 hours of teaching time.[18]

An important finding of this study is that it is possible to reduce anti-homosexual bigotry through educational interventions such as this [194]. Among the high school students, the NSW kit had a significant and enduring impact on their behavioural intentions, but not on their dread or discomfort. The module had a significant impact on female students' attitudes, homophobic anger and behavioural intentions. However, the positive effects were less for male students, and some of the positive effects lasted less for male students [192].[19] I interpret this as about homophobic masculinity, and the ways in which homophobia is tightly woven into young men's sense of self, peer relations and worldviews, and thus more resistant to change.

While Van de Ven argues that we can reduce homophobia through short courses, he also states that teaching against homophobia must be complemented by other strategies that address the sources and maintenance of pervasive homophobia and heterosexism in schools [194]. And this brings me to my next point:

* Everybody writing and working in the field of homophobia and schools agrees that we what need in fact are whole school strategies -- not just one-off courses which are optional inclusions in a school's curriculum, but a systematic set of strategies which address homophobia at all levels, of policy, curricula, classroom practice, and the entire range of formal and informal teacher-student, teacher-teacher and student-student relations.

Strategies to address homophobia and injustices related to sexuality should be the same as those being used to address gender inequalities and gender equity. In the same way that it is now widely recognised that whole school approaches are required to undermine the formal and informal operations of gender injustices, the same is true for homophobia and sexual injustices. And as I said before, these two are deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing, and strategies which address one will by their nature also be required to address the other.

I won't go into great detail on what these strategies look like, because from your knowledge of gender equity strategies I think you can figure them out. But I will give some brief comments on issues at each level of intervention, and also comment on some interesting aspects of tackling homophobia.[20]

(At an institutional level) Schools must work to support gay and lesbian teachers and students. Schools should seek to provide an environment which is inclusive and affirming of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in all aspects of school life [Liggins et.al, 1994: 21, Nickson, 1996: 170]. The visibility and inclusion of gay and lesbian people within schools, and interpersonal contact with them under favourable circumstances, is very effective in reducing homophobia [Van de Ven, 1996: 195].[21]

(Within the curriculum) Gay, lesbian and bisexual perspectives should be incorporated across the curriculum and in all resources and teaching practices. Not just in curricula on personal development, sexuality and family, but in curricula on any aspect of human life.[22]

(At a classroom and playground level) The evidence is that teachers can be very influential in shifting students' perceptions, and that even small efforts -- a few words, an anecdote, a poster -- can produce shifts among students. Making `the unmentionable' part of daily teaching practice plays an important part in changing school culture [Pallotta-Chiarolli, 1995: 70].

The resource book, Affirming diversity, includes an excellent list of guidelines for being inclusive [Liggins et.al, 1994][23] Some of the practices they suggest for being inclusive include: Always assume that some of the people you're working with are gay and lesbian, and that others will have gay and lesbian friends and family. Establish tolerance and non-harassment as group norms. Include sexual orientation issues in discussion of human rights and discrimination. Verbalise your support of gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Have appropriate resources on display. Include diverse family forms, sexualities and relationships in any discussions of family and community. Respond to anti-gay slurs and comments in the same way that you would respond to racist or sexist slurs.

One emphasis here is on making homophobic behaviour unacceptable to your student and teaching population in a personally relevant way, and moving away from traditional disciplinarian approaches except where absolutely necessary [Nickson, 1996: 171-72].

One issue at stake here is parental support.

* Parental support: Lori Beckett, writing as a parent herself, says that parents are usually depicted as, and assumed to be, morally conservative and opposed to social justice issues such as anti-homophobic initiatives. While there is a vocal minority of parents who espouse ultra-conservative views about sexuality and sex education, she writes that a majority of parents in fact are sympathetic to equity issues. At the 1993 annual conference of the NSW P&C Federation, a motion was carried supporting the inclusion of a homophobia component in the Personal Development, Health and Physical Education syllabus. Another three motions were carried at the subsequent state-wide meetings of parents [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 110]. (See p. 110 for details.)

There are some further issues of relevance for anti-homophobic education:

Further issues in anti-homophobic education

- (1. Focus on heterosexism.) Some anti-homophobic programs focus on the problems experienced by gays and lesbians and their strategies of resistance. While this material is important, people such as Lori Beckett and David Denborough argue that we should be focusing on heterosexism [Beckett & Denborough, 1995: 112]. Just as on gender we have to tackle boys' maintenance of gendered power relations, on sexuality we need to tackle the presumption of heterosexuality and the ways it is maintained and policed by heterosexual students, teachers and informal and formal school processes.

- (2. Heterosexual teachers should take a lead.) While support for affirming diversity is the responsibility of all staff, heterosexual teachers should take a lead, especially in schools where the climate makes it difficult for gay, lesbian and bisexual staff to be open about their sexual orientation [Liggins et.al, 1994: 21]. Gay and lesbian teachers who are `out' are very important advocates, but they should not alone have responsibility for addressing heterosexism, and in many ways heterosexual teachers are in safer positions to do so [ibid].

* (3. We will need to encourage a greater investment in the anti-homophobic discourses students already have, and make non-homophobic subjectivities desirable.) Homophobia is a learned behaviour, and it will not simply be `unlearned' by formulating a policy which says that it is unacceptable [Nickson, 1996: 166]. At present, for most schools and most students, there is not an alternative model of behaviour which is recognisable and accessible and non-homophobic [ibid]. Students, and people in general, will only change their investments in the discourses of homophobia, sexism and so on by entering or taking up other and more desirable discourses and thus constructing a new self [Misson, 1996]. So, an important strategy in anti-homophobic teaching is to provide attractive new ways of being.[24] Many students already have anti-homophobic and anti-heterosexist discourses at their fingertips, so one strategy is to make students want to use them more and invest more in them. (Of course, there is still an important place for teaching these alternative and anti-homophobic discourses in the first place.)

To summarise

We need to address the ways in which heterosexuality is built into and spoken by the everyday routines and structures of school life. We have to consider the ways in which gayness and lesbianism are systematically denied, marginalised and constructed as `other'. We will need to confront sexism and deconstruct the hierarchical and repressive notions of gender that give rise to homophobia [Van de Ven, 1996: 196, various citations]. And we have to take into account student sexual cultures, and the role of homophobia among boys in particular, and try to enable students to find new ways of being and seeing that make sense within their own lives.[25] Boys, men and masculinity will not change much until homophobia is radically undermined. Tackling homophobia is therefore a key task for anyone concerned with gender and sexual relations.



The following resources are listed below:

(1) Anti-homophobic teaching resources
(2) Homophobia, heterosexism and schooling: further reading
(3) Internet resources on homophobia and schooling
(4) Further references cited in this article

(1) Anti-homophobic teaching resources

Note: The further reading under (2) below also contains many examples of anti-homophobic teaching and educational strategies.


Blumenfield, Warren J. 1992 "Conducting antiheterosexism workshops: A sample", in Blumenfield, Warren J. (ed) Homophobia: how we all pay the price, Boston: Beacon Press


Liggins, Sally, Wille, Annenarie, Hawthorne, Shaun and Rampton, Leigh 1994 Affirming diversity: An educational resource on gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations, Auckland: Auckland Education Unit, New Zealand Family Planning Association


Miller, K.P. 1994 Blockout: Kit on homophobia, Adelaide: Second Storey Youth Centre


New South Wales Department of School Education 1992 Violence against homosexual men and women: a module of six lessons for presentation of a unit of work on homophobia, Sydney


(2) Homophobia, heterosexism and schooling: further reading

Note: There is now a substantial literature on the construction and organisation of young women's and men's sexualities and genders. While the following list focuses on homophobia and schooling, a wider list is available as part of The men's bibliography: a bibliography of writing on men, masculinities and sexualities. This lists more than six-thousand books and articles, and includes sections on working with boys, gender and education, and so on. It is available on the Internet, at: http://online.anu.edu.au/~mgf608/mensbiblio/MensBiblioMenu.html


Beckett, Lori and Denborough, David 1995 "Homophobia and the sexual construction of schooling", Dulwich Centre Newsletter, No's 2 & 3


Blumenfield, Warren J. (ed) 1992 Homophobia: how we all pay the price, Boston: Beacon Press


Blumenfeld, Warren and Lindop, Laurie 1996a "Road blocks and responses: Responding to resistance from teachers, administrators, students, and the community", New York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network


Blumenfeld, Warren and Lindop, Laurie 1996b "Violence prevention", New York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network


Crumpacker, L. and Vander Haegen, E.M. 1993 "Pedagogy and prejudice: Strategies for confronting homophobia in the classroom", Women's Studies Quarterly, 3 & 4


Epstein, Debbie (ed) 1994 Challenging lesbian and gay inequalities in education, Buckingham: Open University Press


Epstein, Debbie and Johnson, Richard 1994 "On the straight and narrow: The heterosexual presumption, homophobias and schools", in Epstein, Debbie (ed) Challenging lesbian and gay inequalities in education, Buckingham: Open University Press


Epstein, Debbie and Sears, James T. (eds) 1998 (forthcoming) A dangerous knowing: Sexual pedagogies and the master narrative, London: Cassell


Fine, Michelle 1993 "Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: the missing discourse of desire", in Weis, Lois and Fine, Michelle (eds) Beyond silenced voices: class, race, and gender in United States schools, New York: State University of New York Press (Also in Harvard Educational Review, 1988, 58(1))


Friend, Richard A. 1993 "Choices, not closets: heterosexism and homophobia in schools", in Weis, Lois and Fine, Michelle (eds) Beyond silenced voices: class, race, and gender in United States schools, New York: State University of New York Press


Garber, Linda (ed) 1994 Tilting the tower: lesbians teaching queer subjects, New York & London: Routledge


Griffin, Jacqui 1994 The Schoolwatch Report: A study into anti-lesbian and anti-gay harassment and violence in Australian schools,


Harbeck, Karen (ed) 1992 Coming out of the classroom closet, New York: Harrington Park Press


Hatton, E. and Swinson, S. 1994 "Sexual orientation, policy and teaching", in Hatton, E. (ed) Understanding teaching: Curriculum and the social context of schooling, Sydney: Harcourt Brace


Jones, Carol and Mahoney, Pat (eds) 1989 Learning our lines: sexuality and social control in education, London: Women's Press


Laskey, Louise and Beavis, Catherine (eds) 1996 Schooling and sexualities: Teaching for a positive sexuality, Geelong: Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin University


Mac an Ghaill, Mairtin 1994 The making of men: masculinities, sexualities and schooling, Buckingham: Open University Press
Includes Chapter 3 "Sexuality: Learning to become a heterosexual man at school", Chapter 5 "Schooling, sexuality and male power: Towards an emancipatory curriculum"


Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria 1994 "Butch minds the baby: boys minding masculinity in the English classroom" Interpretations: Journal of the English Teachers' Association of Western Australia, Special edition: "Boys in English", 27(2)


Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria 1994 "A terrain of intervention and resistance: AIDS and sexuality issues in the English classroom", Realising the Future, Australian Association of the the Teachers of English National Conference, Perth, July


Pallotta-Chiarolli, Maria 1995 "Can I use the word `gay'?", in Browne, Rollo and Fletcher, Richard (eds) Boys in schools, Sydney: Finch Books


Rench, J. 1990 Understanding sexual identity: A book for gay teens and their friends, New York: Lerner


Sears, James T. (ed) 1992 Sexuality and the curriculum: The politics and practices of sexuality education, New York & London: Teachers College Press


Sears, James T. and Williams, W.L. (eds) 1997 (in press) Overcoming heterosexism and homophobia: Strategies that work, New York: Columbia University Press


Unks, Gerald (ed) The gay teen: Educational practice and theory for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents, New York & London: Routledge


Van de Ven, Paul 1994 "Comparisons among homophobic reactions of undergraduates, high school students, and young offenders", Journal of Sex Research, 31, 117-124


Van de Ven, Paul 1995 "Effects on high school students of a teaching module for reducing homophobia", Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17, 153-172


Van de Ven, Paul 1995 "Effects on young offenders of two teaching modules for reducing homophobia", Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25, 632-649


Van de Ven, Paul 1995 "Talking with juvenile offenders about gay males and lesbians: Implications for combating homophobia", Adolescence, 30, 19-42


Van de Ven, Paul 1996 "Combating heterosexism in schools: Beyond short courses", in Beavis, Catherine and Laskey, Louise (eds) Schooling and sexualities: Teaching for a positive sexuality, Geelong: Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin University


Van de Ven, Paul, Bornholt, L. and Bailey, M. 1996 "Measuring cognitive, affective, and behavioral components of homophobic reaction", Archives of Sexual Behavior, 25, 155-179


Wolpe, AnnMarieWithin school walls: the role of discipline, sexuality and the curriculum, London & New York: Routledge


Woog, Dan 1995 School's out : the impact of gay and lesbian issues on America's schools, Boston: Alyson Publications



(3) Internet resources on homophobia and schooling

Note: These are all American resources.

Gay, Lesbian and Straight Teachers' Network


Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)


Chadron College Campaign Against Homophobia


Safe Schools Coalition of Washington


The Schools List


The P.E.R.S.O.N. Project


Fighting the far right (Includes material on combatting anti-gay initiatives in schools and elsewhere, defending anti-homophobic education)


(4) Further references cited in this article

Doyle, James A. 1989 The male experience, (2nd edition) Iowa: W.M.C. Brown


Herek, Gregory 1986 "On heterosexual masculinity", American Behavioural Scientist, 27, pp. 545-562


Holland, Janet, Ramazanoglu, Caroline and Sharpe, Sue 1993 Wimp or gladiator: contradictions in acquiring masculine sexuality, WRAP/MRAP paper 9, London: Tufnell Press


Kinsman, Gary 1987 "Men loving men: the challenge of gay liberation", in Kaufman, Michael (ed) Beyond patriarchy: Essays by men on pleasure, power and change, New York: Oxford University Press


Marcus, Eric 1993 Is it a choice? Answers to 300 of the most frequently asked questions about gays and lesbians, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco


Mason, Gail 1993 Violence against lesbians and gay men, (Report no. 2), Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology


Nickson, Amanda 1996 "Keeping a straight face: Schools, students, and homosexuality, Part 1", in Beavis, Catherine and Laskey, Louise (eds) Schooling and sexualities: Teaching for a positive sexuality, Geelong: Deakin Centre for Education and Change, Deakin University


Redman, Peter 1994 "Shifting ground: Rethinking sexuality education", in Epstein, Debbie (ed) Challenging lesbian and gay inequalities in education, Buckingham: Open University Press


Wilton, Tamsin 1994 "Feminism and the erotics of health promotion", in Doyal, Lesley, Naidoo, Jenny and Wilton, Tamsin (eds) AIDS: setting a feminist agenda, London: Taylor and Francis


Wilton, Tamsin and Aggleton, Peter 1991 "Condoms, coercion and control: heterosexuality and the limits to HIV/AIDS education", in Aggleton, Peter, Hart, Graham and Davies, Peter (eds) AIDS: responses, interventions and care, London: Falmer Press