The boys who behave dangerously

Boys who dislike football risk homophobic abuse from their classmates every day. Anyone deviating slightly from the norm faces verbal punishment for being different.

Only a few weeks ago, nail bombs ripped through the streets of London, aimed at three groups of people - Afro-Caribbeans, South Asians, and lesbian, gay and bisexual people. All these groups are subject to prejudice, hatred and discrimination.

People were injured in all three attacks, but the Soho bomb - placed in a busy pub on a sunny Friday evening of a bank holiday weekend and set to go off at 6.30pm - killed, as it must have been intended to do.

In the hours and days after the bombing, organisations such as Stonewall and London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard had more hate calls and letters than in the whole of the rest of this year. People laying flowers on the site of the bombing were physically attacked. The message, both explicit and implicit, was: "We're glad that you were attacked. We wish more of you had died."

The Soho bomb was allegedly placed by a single individual but, taken together with the hate mail, it is only the tip of the iceberg. How many people are behind each hate letter or phone call received?

How many feel the same, but don't write? How many don't feel quite so strongly, but share the general antipathy towards lesbians and gays?

Homophobic abuse, even violence, is an everyday occurrence in schools. A survey of 1,000 schools carried out at the London Institute of Education showed that 80 per cent were aware of homophobic bullying in their playgrounds and classrooms. It is mundane, ordinary; part of the rough and tumble of schooling.

Terms used abusively range from "gay" and "lezzie" to the more aggressive "battyman", "bender", and "bumboy". These terms are not reserved for those young people perceived as lesbian or gay. Rather, they are generalised terms of abuse, used against youngsters, particularly boys, who deviate from the norm.

Identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or simply being uncertain about one's sexuality can be tough for young people. In 1984, Lorraine Trenchard and Hugh Warren found that one in five lesbian and gay youngsters had attempted suicide, and more recent American research suggests that the majority of teenage suicides may be connected with homophobia.

Of course, times have changed since the Eighties. We have had lesbian and gay sexuality on almost all the soaps and in popular culture generally. Politicians and pop stars alike have come out and been accepted, even by the right-wing tabloids.

And many young lesbians, gays and bisexuals are confident and accepted in their families, thrive at school and make the most of the many activities available in the big cities. The Pride March and Festival on 3 July were thronged with just such young people.

But that does not make heterosexism unimportant. Nor does it make homophobia acceptable. At stake are not only the lives and happiness of young people identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual, but also those of many more who identify as heterosexual.

Homophobic abuse does not touch only those at whom it is apparently directed. It acts as a form of policing, or punishment, for not quite fitting in to "acceptable" modes of behaviour.

Girls, at least up to the age of puberty, are able to get away with being "tomboys". This makes them more like boys, which is not merely acceptable but even desirable while they are young. Later, when they are meant to be attractive to boys, being a tomboy may be more of a problem, but in primary school it is usually pleasurable.

But the combination of homophobia and misogyny is deadly for boys. My research has shown that "sissy" boys are highly likely to be bullied in school playgrounds. The worst possible insult to a boy, in many schools, is to call him a girl, and this is closely followed by the whole range of homophobic terms.

This means that boys have to work very hard to avoid being seen as feminised. They must fit in with the demands of macho masculinity, at least while they are at school. From an early age they must constantly prove that they are "real boys", demonstrating their credentials as heterosexual, tough "lads".

One of the most common strategies for doing so is the use of homophobic jokes and abuse. Another is playing football, which dominates the space of many school playgrounds, driving to the margins girls and non-footballing boys. For a boy to dislike football is dangerous, and likely to provoke homophobic comments - especially if he is seen as a "boffin". Ironically, those boys who have girls as friends, rather than having "girlfriends", are also likely to be labelled "gay".

Many teachers are aware of this, though few schools do anything to reduce the levels of daily, run-of-the-mill homophobia. Only last week, I saw a well-meaning teacher including the words "lesbian" and "gay" in the list of unacceptable words that she was agreeing with her class should not be used in sex education lessons.

Elsewhere, I have frequently heard teachers tackle the use of the term "gay" as a term of homophobic abuse by explaining to pupils that it is a horrible thing to call anyone. Worse still, some teachers use homophobic and sexist banter to control boys.

There are also some schools that are doing good work to reduce homophobia and misogyny, at the same time supporting those boys who might figure as "sissies". In one such school football is confined to a part of the playground known as "the cage".

Each junior year group plays mixed-sex games on one day a week, and the girls play on their own on Fridays. The result is that football does not dominate, and both girls and boys play other games, together and separately. Girls are more skilled and confident in football, and boys have other options in their play. Playing with girls, and inventing dramatic narratives, have ceased to be "evidence" of being gay.

In another school, older boys and girls work in single-sex groups for part of the time and then discuss what difference it makes. They consider the pressures on them to behave in particular masculine and feminine ways. This allows a space for the unhappiness with being "macho", felt by many boys, to be expressed, and for different versions of masculinity to become possible.

Another school places issues of homophobia alongside other forms of discrimination in the social studies, history and personal, social and health education curricula. Assemblies may feature Martin Luther King's birthday, commemoration of Stephen Lawrence, or Pride.

But others are, understandably, nervous of being berated by the tabloids. Moreover, Section 28 has a pernicious influence. It prohibits the "promotion of homosexuality" by local authorities but, as has recently been confirmed by the Government, does not apply to schools or teachers.

However, many teachers believe that it applies to them and genuinely think they may not take action against homophobia. Others take refuge in it to justify their lack of action. What it says, symbolically, is that homophobia is legitimate; that the writers of hate mail are justified.

The Government has the opportunity to repeal Section 28 in the Local Government Bill next session. Failure to do so would give the message that the Soho bomb and hate mail are condoned. But repeal is only a beginning. We need to tackle homophobia and misogyny seriously as part of a strategy for improving schooling for boys and girls.

The writer is reader in education at the Institute of Education, University of London. With Richard Johnson, she wrote `Schooling Sexualities', published by the Open University Press

Arts and Entertainment
'A voice untroubled by time': Kate Bush
musicReview: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
peopleJustin Bieber accuses papparrazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
Life and Style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Ukrainian Leonid Stadnik, 37, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, the world's tallest living man, waves as he poses for the media by the Chevrolet Tacuma car presented to him by President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko in Kiev on March 24, 2008.
newsPeasant farmer towered at almost 8'5'' - but shunned the limelight
Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in ‘The Front Page’, using an old tech typewriter
Life and Style
Could a robot sheepdog find itself working at Skipton Auction Mart?
techModel would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian
Angel Di Maria poses with Louis van Gaal after signing for Manchester United
sportWinger arrives from Real Madrid and could make debut on Saturday
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Hooked on classical: cellist Rachael Lander began drinking to combat panic attacks
musicThe cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow...
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Assistant/Nurse all cheshire areas

£7 per hour: Randstad Education Cheshire: We are a large and successful recrui...

Year 4 Teachers needed for day to day supply across the region

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Year 2 Teachers needed for day to day supply

£110 - £130 per day + Competitve rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Yea...

Year 6 Teachers needed for day to day supply roles

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ye...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis