By Mark McCormack
Leading British gay rights charity, Stonewall, have produced a new report into the extent of homophobia in British schools. Surveying 1,600 sexual minority youth, it finds that 55% of lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students experience homophobic bullying, 96% hear “homophobic remarks” and that homophobia frequently goes unchallenged. This builds on their 2007 report, which argued that homophobia was “endemic” and “almost epidemic” in British schools. These are harrowing findings, but they obscure rather than reveal the social dynamics of many British schools today.
It is important to recognize that no peer-reviewed, academic research has ever documented such high levels of homophobia in the UK. Indeed, while scholars found schools to be homophobic in the 1980s and early 1990s, more recent research, including my own, has argued that there has been an erosion of homophobia in school settings. I suggest this difference in findings is the result of methodological and analytical flaws in Stonewall’s survey.
The first issue is one that always besets quantitative research on sexual minority youth — participant recruitment. Although the report itself does not document the methods of recruiting sexual minority youth, one of the authors wrote that it involved contact with “LGB groups, school and college portals, FB, a few tweets” (personal correspondence). It is well-known that the young people who attend LGB groups, and are known by teachers as LGB in schools, tend to be those who have had bad experiences, oftentimes because of their gender non-conformity. By recruiting participants from these groups, the report is biased toward hearing the horror stories — from those who have had bad experiences — and likely has more to say about gender non-conformity than sexual minorities. While bullying based on gender non-conformity is as horrific a problem as bullying for any other reason, it skews the results to be about a particular type of LGB youth.
The second problem is one of attrition. Although Stonewall have not made the survey questions available, I read through them when the survey was live. It took 15 minutes to read all of the questions, which were repetitive and asked if the participant had experienced a wide range of events (from positive acts to extreme homophobia). The long survey biases the report towards those who have had bad experiences; young people who have suffered homophobia will be far motivated to complete the survey than those whose sexuality has not been a significant issue. Highlighting this, a gay male academic colleague of mine took the survey, and reported to me that he quit half way through; it was just too long. This, of course, brings up another issue; anyone can fill the survey out and there is no method of controlling for actual school-attending youth.
None of these issues would be significant if Stonewall had tempered their claims of generalizability. The School Report 2012 is an important document to the extent that it helps illuminate the troubled lives of students who do suffer sustained homophobic harassment. In other words, it demonstrates how students who have a bad time have a bad time. What it does not and cannot do, however, is provide generalizable statistics on the experiences of LGB youth in schools. The great shame, then, is that the report consistently makes claims about the experiences of all LGB students, never recognizing the limitations of its sample.
This overstating is evident in other ways. For example, the quotes given to support statements in the report frequently appear to be exemplars of the worst case. So when the report claims that “more than half” of LGB students “experience homophobic bullying,” the accompanying quote refers to a death threat where someone would “shove a knife up my arse and in my throat.” This is sensationalist reporting and not representative research, and it serves to obscure the reality of many LGB people’s lives. Furthermore, Stonewall’s continued insistence that ‘that’s so gay’ is homophobic (discussing it in a section on bullying) demonstrates a lack of willingness to engage with contemporary debates on homophobia in school settings. And while it finds that many LGB students dislike ‘that’s so gay’, it does not account for whether the youth interpret this phrase as bullying.
The overwhelming emphasis on the negative aspects of homophobia in Stonewall’s School Reports is somewhat perplexing. After all, they have a range of publications examining changing attitudes to homosexuality in the United Kingdom, most of which document significant improvements with some negative issues. For example, in Living Together, Cowan (2007) found that 87% of British citizens report they would be comfortable with their MP being gay, and 86% would be comfortable if a close friend was gay. Yet when it comes to schools, Stonewall’s presentation of the data is unremittingly negative. It may be that Stonewall staff are unaware of the methodological and analytical flaws, or that they are influenced by their own experiences at school. Or maybe they have found an area that receives great media attention and loosens the pockets of financial donors. Whatever the reason, it is significant that The School Reports are so very negative despite seemingly positive findings located in its latter half.
It is not my argument that homophobia is no longer present in school settings. Rather, my argument is that what is needed is high quality, methodologically rigorous research to examine when and why this occurs. This would involve researchers going into schools and surveying a range of students. It would require time, money and effort on recruiting the full panoply of sexual minority youth to ensure that all their voices are heard. This takes a great deal more work than simply posting a survey online and recruiting through existing networks who are likely to have had a particular school experience. The School Report 2012 is a missed opportunity to inform the debate on homophobia in British schools, but the greater concern is that its overwhelmingly negative tone may encourage kids to stay in the closet.
Mark McCormack is a qualitative sociologist at Brunel University in England. His research focuses on the changing nature of masculinities among British youth. In The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, he examines how decreased homophobia has positively influenced the way in which young men bond emotionally and interact in school settings. You can follow him on Twitter @_markmccormack.
Image credit: Gay Men Hands Clasped. Photo by Lisa-Blue, iStockphoto.