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Faggot.
Sissy.
Lesbo.
Queer.
Gay-boy.
Dyke.
Lezzie.
You’re so gay.


Oh, there’s nothing like the sounds of children playing on the school playground. Sadly, increasingly, it is the sound of hatred, as gay-oriented and homophobic taunts have risen to a level that has school officials taking notice. Well, some school officials, anyway.


Playground bullying and classroom teasing is nothing new, of course. There are few among us who can’t recall at least one incidence of feeling picked on in school. Still, the rise in gay-related taunts and abuse has serious ramifications for how the next generation views gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. The negative associations of such language are evident even when the recipient of such taunts isn’t old enough to fully understand them.


Take, for instance, the case of third-grader Emmett English in Bethesda, Maryland, reported in the Washington Post story “A Lesson in Cruelty: Anti-gay Slurs Common at School”. After wearing a red Gap sweatshirt to school, the boy was called “gay” by a classmate. The insult troubled him: “I didn’t know what that meant but I knew it was something bad.” (Laura Sessions Stepps, 19 June 2001)


Rebekah Rice knew what it meant when she hurled the insult at classmates who taunted her for her Mormon upbringing. The high school freshman at Maria Carillo High in Santa Rosa was warned about her use of hate speech and the incident was recorded in her school file. (Unfortunately, the students taunting Rice were not similarly disciplined.)  So Rice and her parents are suing the school. The basis of their suit is that the school’s actions violated her First Amendment rights over the use of language “which enjoys widespread currency in youth culture.” It’s the legal equivalent of the childhood excuse, “But all the other kids do it.” (“‘That’s So Gay’ Prompts a Lawsuit”, 28 February 2007)


And Rice is right. Almost all the other kids do it, because they are rarely held accountable when they do. A survey of students by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reveals that 81 percent of students hear homophobic speech frequently and 66 percent of school children have used homophobic slams such as “That’s so gay” or “You’re so gay”, despite the fact that 72 percent of these kids know someone who is gay. (“Most America High School Classrooms Have at Least One Gay Student”, Contemporary Sexuality, November 2004)  The California Safe Schools Coalition reported in 2004 that 200,000 students were subjected to anti-gay bullying in that state alone.


Granted, the word “gay” has been accepted by society as representative of the homosexual population and is most frequently used in a non-spiteful manner. But in the situations involving Rice and English, the use of the word “gay” was meant to be hateful. Many kids argue that the slurs have nothing to do with sexual orientation, instead meaning “bad” or “stupid”. For years, a similar argument has been made about the “N word”. Many of those who use it claim that it’s not a racial slur, but a slam against anyone who is lazy or shifty, regardless of race. But that lame rationalization doesn’t make the word’s use any less hurtful or malicious. Language based on a demographic characteristic and used to be hurtful causes psychological harm to the members of that demographic group, regardless of the context in which the language is used.


Yet it’s not just the word “gay” that is heard as an epithet in schools throughout the US. GLBTQ,  an online encyclopedia for gay culture, notes that “fag” is one of the most frequent insults used in high schools and all of the slurs listed at the beginning of this essay are commonly heard. In approximately 80 percent of cases, the target of the insult isn’t even homosexual or bisexual, according to the National Education Association.


Whether the recipient of the insult is actually gay or not, the effects of constant homophobic teasing and bullying are staggering. In its 2006 report, “Strengthening the Learning Environment: A School Employee’s Guide to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues (2nd Ed)”, the National Education Association reports how damaging such behavior is.  According to the report, students who are the victims of sexual orientation-based harassment are two times more likely to use amphetamines and are more likely to binge drink or smoke marijuana. The rate of depression is twice as high for these students, and understandably, they are more likely to commit suicide. Their grade point averages are 10 points lower than students who are not harassed. Consequently, they are also less likely to go to college


Most troubling is the propensity for violence in relation to such students. These students are five times more likely to be injured by a weapon at school, and there is a 300 percent higher likelihood that they will carry a weapon to school, either for protection or for revenge.  The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports that the shooter in five major school shootings (Moses Lake, WA; Pearl, MS; West Paducah, KY; Littleton, CO and Santee, CA) were victims of anti-gay bullying. While there were certainly other factors that led to these tragedies, the GLSEN notes studies which shows that boys react more strongly to being called “gay” than any other form of harassment, including being physically assaulted.  (Kevin Jennings, “GLSEN Statement on Reports of Anti-gay Harassment at Santana H. S.”, 08 March 2001)


Image from Chariotdist.com

Image from Chariotdist.com


What’s more, the increase in cases of HIV and AIDS is correlated with the increase in gay persecution. Education reports that students are so fearful of such persecution that they fail to get educated on safe-sex practices. (“Homophobia ‘as Unacceptable as Racism’ in Schools”, 19 May 2006) The lack of comprehensive sex ed programs has helped to bolster the myth that only queers get AIDS; thus, any student wanting to learn how to prevent it must be queer. For some students, they’d rather risk contracting the disease than stepping forward to learn about AIDS prevention and risk being labeled as gay by their peers.


So naturally, school officials are doing everything possible to deal with the problem, right? That depends on the school district. A growing number of school districts are incorporating sensitivity training about homophobia and sexual-orientation related bullying into their curriculums. Such training benefits both students and teachers, and contrary to right wing protests, it does not promote a homosexual lifestyle or teach homosexuality. What it does do is allow students of all sexual orientations and religious backgrounds to better comprehend the ramifications of harassment.


Still, there are far too many areas of the US which have yet to introduce such training. GLSEN reports the results of 15 lawsuits brought by students subjected to sexually-oriented harassment. These students were subjected to a variety of vile behaviors, including name-calling and verbal abuse by both students and teachers, simulated rape in front of other students, actual rape, banishment from classes, reassignment to special education, physical assault, vandalism, stabbing, being urinated upon, and death threats. In some cases, the victim was gay; in others, he or she wasn’t, but was perceived to be; and in some cases, the abuse begin at such an early age that the victim couldn’t have known what his or her sexual orientation would be.


In all cases, school officials and teachers ignored or dismissed the abuse, sometimes participating in it, and it wound up costing them. Awards to the victims range from $40,000 to $1.1 million. (“Fifteen Expensive Reasons Why Safe Schools Legislation Is in Your State’s Best Interest”, 01 September 2005)


Unfortunately, there are countless more cases yet to be decided, and far too many cases where school officials aren’t held accountable by juries. Most troubling is the undocumented number of cases where the student puts up with the abuse, never raising questions or challenging school policy or actions.


Those who protest anti-harassment training and legislation are those who most open themselves up to the types of lawsuits GLSEN describes. Parents need to fully understand the consequences of ignoring gay bullying. As stated before, students subjected to harassment suffer in their studies and quite personally. It is hard to believe that any parent could endorse practices which make students fail, commit suicide, or bring weapons to school. 


Regardless of personal or religious beliefs, we all want our schools to be safe places, and sexually-oriented bullying makes them less safe for all students. If that isn’t incentive enough for parents to teach their children to treat others with compassion, they should realize that their children could be the defendants in bullying lawsuits and could very well leave high school owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the “sissy” whose life they made a living hell. One doesn’t have to approve of homosexuality to disapprove of cruelty and persecution.


Kids struggle enough with identity issues, making friends, fitting in, and finding love, regardless of their sexual orientation. Realizing that they are gay or bisexual is a harsh reality for many. A constant reminder of the disdain some in society feel for them is often too much to handle. It is as children that we learn about socialization; gay bullying teaches some children that hatred and condemnation is acceptable, while teaching others that they will never be useful members of society. Is this really a lesson we want taught in our schools?

Michael has been writing for PopMatters since 2000. His primary focus, aside from queer culture, is television reviews and commentary, and his article Male Bashing on TV has been reprinted in two college textbooks. He currently lives in Louisville, KY, and is a Lecturer of Communication Studies at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, IN. As a teacher, he has an interest in the study of contemporary political rhetoric and argumentation. He and his partner Jim have been living in un-wedded bliss since 1995.


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