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April 28, 2005

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Homophobia overlooked as cause of bullying

Theories about bullying that focus only on individual complicity do not explain why bullying has become a high-profile issue in the past 20 years.

March 21 was the first day of Beyond Rhetoric, a national conference on bullying, held in Ottawa.

No one could have predicted that it would also be the day that a 16-year-old boy would open fire in his high school in Red Lake, Minnesota. Seven people were killed before he turned the gun on himself.

The March 23 edition of the National Post described the shooter as a “quiet, much-teased loner.”

OGerald Waltonne can easily categorize school shooters as simply emotionally disturbed. However, doing so individualizes the problem of violence and bullying and ignores important social factors that create contexts in which bullying thrives. Theories about bullying that focus only on individual complicity do not explain, for instance, why bullying has become a high-profile issue mostly in the past 20 years. Before 1980, bullying was widely regarded as common kids' behaviour, certainly not serious enough to warrant the plethora of related programs and educational policies that exist today. In light of media coverage of events such as the Red Lake shootings, times have certainly changed.

 Organized by Child and Youth Friendly Ottawa (CAYFO), approximately 500 people attended the three-day Beyond Rhetoric conference, ranging from educators and youth social workers to police officers and politicians. Although it was not a strictly academic conference, researchers gave presentations on their research. Keynote speaker Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) lead delegates in song and spoke about his anti-bullying initiative called Operation Respect. The conference program thus creatively reflected a multitude of perspectives on a complex and vexing issue.

Under pressure from the scrutiny of media, concern about bullying in schools has dramatically increased, witnessed through the proliferation of related policies, resources and research programs. The 1997 murder of Reena Virk in Victoria galvanized educators, administrators, and parents in Canada to find ways of effectively curbing bullying specifically and youth violence generally. Ironically, however, Reena's death occurred neither during school hours nor on school grounds. Eight years later on April 12, 2005, the third trial of Kelly Ellard, one of the accused, once again commanded the media spotlight with a guilty verdict of second-degree murder.

In British Columbia, a recent Liberal government task force on safe schools recommended an overhaul of existing safe schools policies to better address bullying. Some key observations in the report, such as pervasive use of homophobic slurs in school bullying, were not addressed in its list of recommendations. Ironically, the report is entitled Facing our fears, accepting responsibility.

As a doctoral candidate in the faculty of education of Queen's University, I attended Beyond Rhetoric and gave a presentation on homophobia based on my doctoral research. My argument was that homophobia is not just a problem for a small minority of special interest students, namely gays and lesbians. Instead, I argued that homophobia is one example - though a prominent one - of how difference is stigmatized. Widespread anxiety about difference is evident in actual incidents of bullying. Most people recognize that bullied children are somehow deemed different from their peers. However, in spite of the proliferation of educational programs that promote the celebration of diversity, the notion of difference is largely ignored in educational policy and research related to bullying and safe schools.

Several people who attended my presentation initiated thoughtful dialogue about homophobia in schools and how it continues to be overlooked in safe schools initiatives. This discussion confirmed for me that the topic of homophobia must be included in both national and international forums. Yet, related research studies and safe schools programs and policies rarely even acknowledge homophobia. Of approximately 60 school districts in British Columbia, for example, only four even mention the word in any of their district policies.

How is it that such a typical and obvious form of violence continues to be largely ignored or minimized? Schoolyard bullying often includes vitriol such as faggot, dyke, queer, and more recently mo as abbreviated code for homo. Gay  is routinely used to describe anything judged inferior or undesirable. These remarks are usual rather than unusual, yet are rarely identified and challenged.

Rarer still are programs designed to support gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens, though the school districts of Vancouver and Victoria have each made recent and significant strides in this direction. 

Discussing sexual orientation of students and related issues is politically explosive. Yet, all students are potential targets of homophobic violence. Especially among boys and young men, homophobia functions as social insurance against questionable manhood and so is treated as unremarkable, even beneficial. Young boys are pressured to perform real man bravado, which means being both masculine and straight. Gay men, by comparison, become viewed as inferior versions of men. It leaves little surprise, then, that young men would employ terms such as faggot to effectively bully, tease, taunt, and otherwise torment each other.

Azmi Jubran knows such bravado only too well. A former student of the North Vancouver school district, Jubran has taken legal action against the board for allegedly not putting an end to such bullying while he was a student. Jubran happens to be heterosexual, yet homophobic slurs were the chief form of bullying from his peers. Jamie Lazarre of Prince George hung himself in 2002 for the same reason. His suicide note said that he could no longer take the ongoing homophobic bullying from his peers. Hamed Nastoh of Surrey filled his backpack with rocks and jumped to his death from the Pattullo bridge in 2000. He, too, was routinely attacked with homophobic remarks from his peers.

Homophobia is not merely behaviour of a few hateful individuals who target a few unfortunate victims. Like other forms of prejudice, homophobia is a social problem. For males, it is indicative of the high social value placed upon manhood and thus is a significant force in the organization and regulation of gender in society.

Collective anxiety about bullying continues to focus upon individual behaviour of students  which programs and policies are meant to regulate. Speakers at Beyond Rhetoric focused their presentations mainly on behaviour and small group dynamics rather than on larger social prejudices that are expressed through schoolyard bullying. Managing behaviour through policy such as codes of conduct is a valid strategy. But leaving out discussion about stigmatization of difference as it relates to bullying is a significant oversight, particularly by those who study bullying and who design programs to enhance school safety. Homophobia is an important example of how students are targeted for being different regardless of actual sexual orientation. The notion of different-ness and how it plays out in social relations in schools must be further examined through such opportunities as Beyond Rhetoric.


 

Gerald Walton is a research grants facilitator in the faculty of education at SFU and a doctoral candidate in the faculty of education at Queen's University. He will defend his dissertation on bullying later this year.


 

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