Sexual orientation prejudice and homophobic bullying

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25th Apr 2017 Sociology Reference this

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In today’s society, many homosexual individuals are dealing with harassment, threats, and violence on a daily basis. Homosexuals are far more likely to be victims of a violent hate crime than any other minority group in the United States, according to a new analysis of federal hate crime statistics (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2010). Research shows that almost two thirds of lesbian, gay and bisexual teens experience homophobic bullying in British schools (Equality and Human rights commission, 2007). Similarly, many homosexual teens in U.S. schools are often subjected to such intense bullying that they are unable to receive a satisfactory level of education (Chase, 2001), with 28% of gay students dropping out altogether (Bart, 1998).

Homophobic bullying is currently an issue of epidemic proportions in society today, so much so that both the British Prime Minister David Cameron, the U.S. President Barack Obama, and many more politicians, activists and celebrities have recorded personal messages for the ‘It gets better’ campaign, a project set up in September 2010 to inspire hope for gay youth facing harassment. This campaign came about as a response to the recent string of suicides among young homosexuals in the U.S.

I feel that the design of an intervention to tackle the problem of sexual orientation prejudice and homophobic bullying is of the upmost importance to society, as the benefits to society from reducing homophobic bullying would far outweigh the costs of funding this intervention in schools. The harm from bullying and the toll it takes – not only on young homosexual teens but also to society at large – is far greater than people realize. I feel it is less likely that a youngster will succeed in life and have the ability to fully contribute to society without an adequate level of education. Statistics show that anti-gay bullying truncates a child’s academic ability to excel – for example, 7 out of 10 pupils who experience homophobic bullying state this has an impact on their school work and also their attendance (Stonewall, 2007). And the cost, while initially about the child, is a greater cost to us as a society in the long run.

However, perhaps the most significant cause of concern to society is the grave issue of suicides committed by gay teens. In September 2010 alone, 5 young people, victims of homophobic bullying, committed suicide. One of these victims, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York City after discovering classmates has posted videos of his sexual encounters on the internet. Another, thirteen-year-old Asher Brown, shot himself after severe harassment by fellow classmates. I feel that this snowball effect of teen suicides in the U.S. highlights the damaging effect of homophobic bullying to society, and I am proposing an intervention to prevent such occurrences from escalating.

Aims

The aim of this intervention is to reduce the incidences of homophobic bullying behaviour in the mainstream school setting by changing attitudes towards homophobic bullying. In order to do this I would suggest educating pupils on issues around sexual orientation and also on the severe negative consequences of bullying. I would introduce weekly classes in the curriculum designed to focus on these particular issues – for example, it could be taught in pastoral care classes, not only with the aim of educating the children and reducing the bullying, but also empowering pupils to report bullying. One recent study which has had major success with the introduction of a gay awareness class was Stoke Newington School in London. In one lesson, pupils were taught about significant gay historical figures who positively contributed to society, such as authors and playwrights James Baldwin and Oscar Wilde, artist Andy Warhol, and mathematician, computer science pioneer and war time code breaker Alan Turing. Elly Barnes, the teacher who runs the class in Stoke Newington School, stated that, four years on from when she initiated the scheme, homophobic bullying has been more or less eradicated in the school (Learner, 2010). I feel that this case is a positive and pioneering exemplar from which many schools could learn.

Design

As I feel a one-time lecture on homophobic bullying would have little impact on levels of bullying in the long-term, I am proposing a weekly class to be run in schools with the agenda of educating pupils on issues around sexual orientation and also on the severe negative consequences of bullying. I would introduce weekly classes in the curriculum designed to focus on these particular issues – for example, it could be taught in pastoral care classes, not only with the aim of educating the children and reducing the bullying, but also empowering pupils to report bullying. I am proposing that the intervention take place at the school setting, as bullying so often stems from within the school environment, and the aim is to eradicate this at the grass roots.

Methods

Before starting the intervention I would measure the pupils’ attitudes towards homosexuality using an affective questionnaire and a cognitive questionnaire – the Index of Homophobia (Hudson and Ricketts, 1980) and the Modified attitudes towards sexuality scale (Price, 1982), respectively. I would then ask students to fill out these questionnaires again at the end of the school year so as to measure whether attitudes have been improved following the intervention.

I would use a direct approach to reduce the sexual orientation prejudice by including a weekly pastoral care class into the school’s curriculum in which educators would promote diversity in multicultural societies, group equality, and teach pupils about the history of the Gay Rights Movement. I would also aim to get the pupils involved by having group discussions and role-plays to increase empathy for outgroups, and by bringing in gay guest speakers in order to improve understanding and attitudes, and to correct some misguided stereotypes and faulty generalisations that heterosexual pupils may hold against their homosexual classmates. I would also hope that having the chance to meet a positive role model from the gay community who does not conform to the negative stereotypes would create dissonance-induced attitude change. I would attempt to change the social norms of the school environment, by introducing a zero tolerance policy in the school, which states that no-one shall be discriminated against for their religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation, and educate the teachers so that they also must follow this policy.

Also, I would set aside a class to talk about the issue of derogatory phrases and how they could make gay students feel, as a recent study showed that 97% of gay pupils hear offensive phrases such as “dyke”, “bender” or “poof” used in school and 98% of gay pupils hear the phrases “that’s so gay” when people are referring to something they feel is rubbish or stupid (Stonewall, 2007). The intention would be to create perspective-taking (i.e. “How would you feel if you were gay and heard those derogatory phrases?”) and instil empathy for the outgroup.

One theoretical framework which supports this is the Intergroup Contact Theory (Allport, 1954). Allport proposed that intergroup contact between two groups should reduce prejudice as long as the following were present: common group goals, equal status, intergroup co-operation and support of authorities. Therefore in the intervention, I would set tasks which both groups would have to work on to achieve a superordinate goal, I would structure the task so as the groups must rely upon each other in order to achieve this superordinate goal, and I would make sure that equality of all sexual orientations is promoted. The school itself and its educators would constitute as the authority which supports both groups. I feel that this would work in either a real situation (whereby gay individuals have disclosed their sexuality to their classmates and feel confident to be categorized as homosexual) or in an imagined situation (for example, a role-play, as many pupils who are gay may not wish to disclose this information, nor would we force them to do so). I believe that the latter may well occur as in order to avoid social stigma many gay young people hide their sexuality. Therefore, in this instance I would use the theoretical framework of ‘Imagined Intergroup Contact’ (Crisp & Turner, 2009). This theory suggests that simply getting participants to conjure up a mental simulation of a positive intergroup encounter leads to improved attitudes towards the outgroup.

I would also use indirect approaches to reduce prejudice by educating pupils on moral reasoning, promote egalitarianism within the school setting, and promote respect, understanding and tolerance of others no matter what their background is. I would also incorporate modern media into the school environment, such as using examples from music, film and TV programs to teach pupils about other cultures and groups. This is supported by the ‘Parasocial contact hypothesis theory’ (Schiappa, Gregg and Hewes, 2005), which states that the illusion of face-to-face contact with interaction can change prejudices, as people process mass media relationships in the same way as they process real-life interpersonal interactions. Schiappa, Gregg and Hewes (2005) found that parasocial contact reduced prejudice toward the outgroup.

Although the intergroup contact theory can be used for many groups such as opposing ethnic minority groups, opposing religious groups, opposing sports teams and so on, research has shown that the theory has been particularly successful in reducing prejudice toward homosexuals. Applying the intergroup contact theory to sexual orientation groups, Herek (1987) found that heterosexuals who had experience of pleasant interactions with a homosexual tend to accept the homosexual community in general. It was also shown that increased contact with a homosexual was a better predictor of changed attitudes than any other factor, including gender, race, socioeconomic background and so on (Herek and Glunt, 1993).

I would also create a classroom discussion about why certain individuals may feel threatened by homosexuals, and address the issues as to why this symbolic threat may come about, such as perceiving that your ingroups moral values and religious beliefs are different from the outgroups. I would increase perceptions of similarity between hetersexuals and homosexuals by highlighting examples of gay individuals who are good role models, religious, and so on, to show that they are not so different from straight people.

One issue we must think about when introducing such curriculum into the school setting is whether parents will approve. I would propose sending letters home to parents detailing the intentions behind the sexual orientation awareness class and highlighting the need to reduce bullying within the school. However, I would ensure that children could withdraw from the class if they strongly wish to do so; as some of the pupils’ families or religious/cultural communities may be homophobic and may disapprove of their participation, and we would not want the pupils to suffer negatively from attending this class, for example, to become ostracised from their community. Therefore we would strongly encourage students to take part, but would not force it upon them. However, the teacher who pioneered the gay awareness class in the Stoke Newington School in London, Elly Barnes, stated that she has only ever received a few complaints – “A parent complained after her son told her he had seen a film at the school that showed two men kissing. I told her we are an inclusive school and it is part of the curriculum”(Learner, 2010).

In conclusion, I propose that a school-based intervention is essential to reduce sexual orientation prejudice and homophobic bullying amongst teens in schools. I would hope that a curriculum which promotes diversity, understanding, acceptance and equality will go a long way in reducing homophobic bullying and equally, I am optimistic that the introduction of an anti-discrimination policy which all students and teachers must follow will help protect the students.

Resources

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books

Bart, M. (1998). Creating a safer school for gay students. Counseling Today.

Chase, A. (2001). Violent Reaction; What do Teen Killers have in Common? In these Times.

Crisp & Turner (2009). Can Imagined Interactions Produce Positive Perceptions? Reducing Prejudice Through Simulated Social Contact. American Psychologist, Vol 64, Issue 4, pg.231-240.

Herek, G. M. (1987) The instrumentality of attitudes: Toward a neofunctional theory. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 99-114.

Herek, G. M., & Glunt, E. K. (1993). Interpersonal contact and heterosexuals’ attitudes toward gay men: Results from a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 30, 239-244.

Hudson, W.W. & Ricketts, W.A. (1980). A strategy for the measurement of homophobia. Journal of homosexuality, 5, 357-372.

Learner, S. Making homophobia history. In The Guardian, p5 of the EducationGuardian section, October 26th 2010 issue.

Price, J. H. (1982). High school students’ attitudes toward homosexuality. Journal of School Health 52: 469-474.

Schiappa, E., Gregg, P., & Hewes, D. (2005) The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis. Communication Monographs, 72, 92-115

The School Report – The experiences of young gay people in Britain’s schools. (2007) Stonewall.

Under attack (2010) The Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law centre, Issue 40.

Valentine, G. & Wood, N. (2010) The experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual staff and students in higher education. Equality and Human rights commission, research summary 39.

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