by Ian Rivers
Recently I learned of yet another suicide of a young gay man which has been attributed to sustained bullying at school. Phillip Parker was 14 years old when he took his own life on Friday January 20th, 2012. Surely it has to be wrong for any young person to feel so helpless that the only way to be freed from the torment of the bullies is to commit suicide.
Homophobia is a relic of a bygone age, yet it is a relic that many hold on to when they see the world they know — the world that has given them power over others — crumble. It is a relic of hateful world in which those who are different are pathologised and made “sick” by a society that wants uniformity, or made “criminal” by a legislature that wishes to hide its own vice and corruption behind the wall of heterosexual “purity.” Homophobic bullying is the manifestation of a culture of sickness where children are taught that it is acceptable to torment the class “fag” or “dyke” because he or she is not like them; he or she somehow less human and does not feel what they feel, and is really someone who needs “treatment” not respect.
Yet, in a world where there are so many issues for use to focus our energies, homophobia remains front and centre in the minds of political leaders, and this feeds down into our schools. The debates and arguments we, as adults, have in our homes and our churches, the political speeches of our leaders and the air-time they are given are processed and synthesised by young people and, ultimately, what they have heard and understood becomes part of the discourse of the classroom and schoolyard. So, is it acceptable to tell gay kids that they are weird, abnormal or perverted? One can imagine the response, “Yes, of course it is, the man on the TV said it was wrong to be gay!” And how much more compelling is that argument when “the man on the TV” may one day be President of the United States?Homophobic bullying is not sanctioned in law, at least not yet, though a couple of politicians in the State of Tennessee are doing their level best to enact legislation that would seek to offer those with strong political, philosophical, or religious views that others may find “uncomfortable” First Amendment protections. Homophobic bullying is something that every parent, every teacher, and every administrator needs to tackle. The last two years have seen far too many young lesbian and gay people deliberately take their own lives because they cannot endure the torment the face on a daily basis. National campaigns such as “It Gets Better” provide hope for the future, but we need to offer so much more to our young people for today and for tomorrow. School should be a place of learning, a place of enrichment, of exploration and revelation. It should not be a place of daily torture or one where ignorance reigns. Let’s relegate that to the historical fiction sections of our libraries under Hughes, T. (1857) Tom Brown’s Schooldays.
There are lessons to be drawn from not taking action to stop all forms of bullying, including homophobic bullying. Successful prosecutions against principals, faculty, and school districts are recorded where the failure to protect students who were beaten up or subjected to gay slurs has been found to violate students’ rights under the 14th Amendment.
In 2012, homophobia should be nothing more than an echo of the past, with a monument in a few major cities, and a few choice sections in a history book. History teachers should be asked the question, “Why did this occur? I don’t understand how people could be so hateful to members of their own community.” At the moment this is a pipe dream, but LGBT History Month tells us that the world is changing bit by bit by bit. That advances in lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender human rights have been made, and marriage is for some same-sex couples a reality — not only in the United States but in other countries.
The evolution of Gay-Straight Alliances, the work of organisations such as GLSEN, the It Gets Better Project, the Matthew Shepherd Foundation and the Trevor Project give us hope that schools will be places where intolerance and homophobia no longer exist, and where the first and foremost priority will be education.
I have given nearly two decades of my life to the study of homophobic bullying. My dearest hope is that my work will one day be consigned to the historical records, and only dusted off as a curio rather than as a resource.
Ian Rivers, PhD, CPsychol, FBPsS, FInstLM is Professor of Human Development at Brunel University and author of Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives. He has been an active researcher in the field of bullying behavior, and homophobic bullying in particular, for over two decades. He is the recipient of several awards and honors for his work and is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society.