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

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