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school age homophobia

This from Salon:

On Thursday, Judith Warner wrote about both Carl Walker-Hoover and Eric Mohat, a 17-year-old who shot himself after a bully flat-out suggested he should, adding “no one will miss you.” And once again, the tormenters were focused on the victim’s failure to conform to gender norms, so the bullying manifested as vicious homophobia. “Eric liked theater, played the piano and wore bright clothing, a lawyer for his family told ABC news, and so had long been subject to taunts of ‘gay,’ ‘fag,’ ‘queer’ and ‘homo.” As Warner puts it, “The message to the most vulnerable, to the victims of today’s poisonous boy culture, is being heard loud and clear: to be something other than the narrowest, stupidest sort of guy’s guy, is to be unworthy of even being alive.” She quotes one teenage boy who told author C.J. Pascoe, “To call someone gay or fag is like the lowest thing you can call someone. Because that’s like saying that you’re nothing.” Pascoe herself, who spent 18 months studying the culture in a Northern California high school, says that the boys there “have the sense that to be a man means something and is incredibly important … To not be a man is to not be fully human and that’s terrifying.” To not be a man is to not be fully human. To be gay is to be nothing. In case anyone was unclear on the connection between homophobia and misogyny, there you go.

It’s a passage worth remembering next time someone starts blathering about how the social movements have won and, because there’s a gay kiss on some soap opera, we’re now all on a perfectly level playing field. Obviously, the Salon piece is about the USA. Is it as bad as that in schools in Australia? Doe anyone know?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I think it’s bad here. There is a high suicide rate in this country for young men – and much of that is, I think, around fears of not being normal. And, you know, who actually knows what normal is? So there are a young men who are very anxious that not feeling ‘normal’ means they might be gay, and that this would be a terrible thing. And I think violence between young men is related. Two of my male students have been severely beaten in recent years. One was gay bashed, in Oxford st – he’s not actually gay but that’s beside the point. the other -now severely disabled – had his skull broken for checking out someone else’s girlfriend. Both crimes full along some spectrum of sexual anxiety.

  2. My three year old son recently started ballet classes. We live in the suburbs, and he has already lost playmates at the preference of their parents. Fathers bringing their daughters to class stare at him uncomfortably, and the girls themselves often fo their best to exclude him (‘What’s HE doing here?’). Other mothers have asked me if he ‘likes dressing up in girls clothes or wearing make-up’ and if I’m worried about him. I tell them no he doesn’t, however if he did, myself and his other two parents would have no concerns at all.

  3. I think in rural areas, especially, there is a huge risk in terms of isolation and self-harm. My nephew’s eight and attends a very hippie alternative, community-style school and still the phrase ‘that’s gay’ or ‘you’re so gay’ stands in for ‘that’s awful’, ‘that’s stupid’, ‘you’re inconsequential/irrelevant/dumb’. The documentary *milk* reminds us of how recent many of the changes in terms of homophobic discrimination by employers and the state actually is.

  4. It’s weird, though, the contrast between the ubiquity of homophobia in the schoolyard and its (relative) rarity in public life. Do people grow out of it or is there just a huge amount of self-censorship taking place?

  5. No, I don’t think there is a relative rarity of it in public life. Think of the Michael Kirby abomination or the ‘homesexual panic’ defence, let alone the continued lack of legal parity for gay couples. In certain circles this might be less common, but imagine if you were a gay kindergarten teacher or phys ed instructor at a school. Also, as far as I know (and I don’t know all that much, admittedly) the research shows homophobia is still quite common in research surveys even here in Aust, compared with, say a willingness to admit to negative ideas about other races (with the possible exception of Middle-Eastern people and Indigenous people). Think of the furore about gay marriage that has so succesfully overtaken the US.

  6. I get that but you wouldn’t see someone use the phrase ‘that’s so gay’ as a substitute for ‘that’s awful’ on TV or in the newspapers or, I would have thought, in most social interactions. So there’s still a big jump between the way people behave in the schoolyard and once they get outside.

  7. When I was at school, the slur was ‘gay lord’ (?!). I don’t know if this meant you were ‘lord of the gays’ and therefore the gayest of all, or if you were a lord who happened to be gay…

    Interestingly though Kalinda, I’ve noticed that the word ‘gay’ is being reclaimed in a kind of ‘urban definition’ way in inner city Melbourne of late. I gave a friend a birthday present recently and an onlooker commented: ‘Wow, that’s fantastic, I can’t believe you made that, it’s totally gay!’ Maybe the word ‘hetero’ could be used as a slur, as in: “Yuck, this sandwich tastes totally hetero, I can’t believe I actually paid money for it.”

    And yeah, Jeff, I reckon there is a very large amount of self censorship as people get older, and there is still that sense of: ‘It’s okay, each to their own, it doesn’t bother me… just as long is it’s not my daughter/son/brother etc’…I’ve met a lot of ‘orphans to out-hood’ in my time. And of course, it also doesn’t help that young evangelists are on the rise.

  8. I dunno, Jeff, I reckon I’ve heard just such a term in mainstream sitcom TV, with all the associated negative connotations of unmanly, cowardly, effete, ineffectual and so on.

    Maxine’s point is an interesting one. I guess reappropriation and reclamation of terms with pride and humour is a longstanding tradition. ‘Acceptance’ can become a bit of a ‘don’t ask/don’t tell’ pseudo-tolerance where as long as it’s private (hidden) and not ‘inflicted’ on others… Still, none of us will know for sure the mood on this topic unless we do some research into changing attitudes and demographic breakdown of these into area, age and so on.

  9. But don’t those examples confirm my point, since they they’re mostly (I think) about school age kids. I mean, I’m not saying that there’s not homophobia in the rest of the world, just that it’s interesting how much more extreme it seems to be in the playground. If that’s true, what does it mean?

  10. For crying out loud Jeff, what queer-friendly country are you living in? Me and my queer mates want to come camping in your hunky dorey Hundred Acre Wood.

    Naturally, EVERYTHING is more extreme in the playground. Kids wear their thoughts on their sleeves and give in easily to peer pressure, and schoolyard bullies don’t have to face up to adult criminal convictions. Child victims obviously do not have the choice of walking away, going to a different workplace, surrounding themselves with like-minded non-bigots. They often do not have the emotional capacity to deal with their situation. They are stuck within constant reach of their tormentors, seven hours a day, five days a week. As some of Kalinda’s links describe, child homophobes are often not reprimanded. Their behaviour is positively reinforced by the silence, or participation of their elders, sometimes including their parents.

    I once complained to a primary school teacher that I was being called ‘Nigger’ and ‘Blackie’ by a certain child. Her response. ‘So?’. This, from the person charged with my well-being every weekday for two years.

  11. I still think you’re missing my point. It’s not just that homophobia’s more extreme in the playground cos everything is more extreme there, cos you can think of other, adult contexts where homophobia is mandated.
    Ok, here’s an example that’s been bothering me a lot. I listen to a lot of Jamaican dancehall. Now there’s always been homophobia in reggae but over the last decade it’s increased exponentially, to the point where almost every major artist has released records not just denouncing gays as abominations but — in many cases — calling for them to be killed.

    Here’s an account, pulled off the web more or less at random:
    “Sizzla was among the headliners at the massive Rebel Salute outdoor concert in St. Elizabeth, Jamaica, which drew 30,000 fans this past Jan. 17.”

    “”Throughout the night, Capleton, Sizzla and others sang almost exclusively about gay men,” Amnesty International reported in a May 17 alert. “Using the derogatory terms for gay men – ‘chi chi men’ or ‘battybwoys’ – they urged the audience to ‘kill dem, battybwoys haffi dead, gun shots pon dem. Who want to see dem dead put up his hand’ (kill them, gay men have got to die, gun shots in their head, whoever wants to see them dead, put up your hand).””

    It’s depressing in so many ways, especially since the artists now at the forefront of the homophobia are the so-called conscious DJs, the ones who are most outspoken on political and social issues. Sizzla’s albums Praise Ye Jah and Black Woman and Child are absolute masterpieces and Capleton’s a really talented DJ.
    There’s all sorts of explanations for what’s happened and why. But the point is that there’s now a particular context within reggae where homophobia has been normalised. More than that, it’s now a signifier of authenticity and commitment, in much the same way as certain customs of Islam (such as headscarves) serve as for some Islamists. Whenever the top DJs go to Europe now, there’s protests at their shows — and then when they go back home they put out tracks about how they ‘nah apologise’, about how they stood up to the forces trying to change their lyrics. So there’s now pressure on DJs who aren’t homophobic to demonstrate their hardcore cred by putting out a ‘bun batty man’ track.
    Perhaps it’s not the most exact comparison but do you see the analogy I’m making? Within a generally homophobic society, there’s particular contexts and subgroups in which homophobia can take on a particular weight. Isn’t it at least arguable that something similar is happening in schools?

  12. I’m aware of the dancehall thing. It’s really interesting, especially the ‘One Love’ contract artists have to sign to agree not to incite Homophobia. You can read my artcle on the subject at: http://gaynt.e-p.net.au/feature/one-love-2.html for the ‘Homoglobia’ column I write for Evolution publishing, which canvases Homophobia globally.

    As outlined in my article, Homophobia in dancehall Jamaica is in a sad way mostly reflective of the views of mainstream Jamaica, just more vocalised. I guess yes, in same way, I believe, homophobia in Australian schools is reflective of the views of mainstream Australia, just more vocalised.

  13. I hadn’t seen your article. Thanks for that.
    There’s also a group of dancehall fans organising against homophobia — I forget the name of their organisation.
    The problem with the statement they all signed — I think Sizzla signed it, too – is that it was largely driven by the record labels. From memory, both Buju and Sizzla subsequently denounced the pact. Certainly, neither has substantially changed their lyrical content.
    Again, it’s a tragedy. Buju Banton started out as a fairly mindless promoter of slackness: that was the period in which he recorded ‘Boom bye bye’. But he evolved into a fantastic artist. His Til Shiloh is a phenomenal record. Nonetheless, he retained all the homophobia. I saw some horrific footage of him ranting at the crowd at Rebel Salute a few years back.
    It’s all so depressing. If Buju or Anthony B or anyone like that toured here, there would probably be pickets (cos there usually is in Europe now).

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