Homophobic bullying in schools – beyond the statistics.

Homophobic bullying in schools – beyond the statistics.

Why should we talk about bullying?

Before starting to write this article, I listened to several public speeches on the matter. I don’t think that one can talk about homophobic bullying by just hearing about it. Or just any type of bullying in general. One has to experience bullying on their own, see it with their own eyes, feel it in their heart and body. Otherwise, it will just be an “issue”, the bully and the victim will be just statistics, and the rest of us – spectators. One of the major disadvantages of anti-bullying strategies is exactly the fact that they are written by people who have never been bullied. Even the solutions they offer are programmed-political, only from the point of view of adults, ignoring the usual behaviors of teens and children and disregarding systematic challenges.

Below I will talk about a strictly academic description of bullying. However, before that, please imagine that you are going to a place that’s important to you, to people that are important to you, while you still don’t have any emotional, hormonal, physical or mental stability. You are going to school, a closed system, in which there are strictly written rules about being liked, establishing yourself, popularity and exclusion. Those rules for you are the most important thing in the world at that moment. Peers are the driving force behind your existence, and relationships with them are the main tool of self-awareness. Meanwhile, things are not sorted out at home yet, you are still not accepted and in reality you don’t even know if you are ready to accept yourself. You just have this feeling that you love in a different way, look differently from others, and, shortly, things are not going according to what media, family stories or others’ experiences have shown it should be like. At this time, you are being laughed at, people avoid sitting next to you, hit you, write mean comments about you on social media, do not add you to group chats, beat you after school, spread rumors about you, and humiliate you in front of everyone, and you have done nothing to deserve this (or even what is there to do that would deserve this), you are just yourself, that’s all. This closed system does not accept you, because, who you are, is a threat to the existence and stability of the system. As a solution you are offered to 1. Become stronger and protect yourself (Somehow. Just like that, one day you just wake up, escape that vulnerable position that you never chose and, voila, become strong). 2. Talk to an adult. An adult, who is not free from homophobic sentiments themselves, and even if they were, they would not be able to protect you anyway.

This is exactly why in the LGBTQ community, especially in younger generations, the suicide rate is quite high – for example, in the US, the suicide rate of LGBT teens is three times as high as the rate of heterosexual teens. [1]

The problem of homophobic bullying has been the subject of much research. For instance, one research conducted in Spain has revealed that those students that are not identified as heterosexual, compared to their peer, are subject to more bullying and cyber-bullying. According to this research, the reason for increased aggression and 20% more cyber-bullying was their sexual identity [2]. According to the research conducted in Georgia in 2020, 28,6% of respondents talked about bullying on the basis of gender expression, since a significant cause of violence against students was based on socialization that is masculine or feminine in nature – “a boy should be manly and girls should be feminine, otherwise, they will be oppressed” [3]. A research on bullying in schools done in 2015 revealed that teenagers are often bullied for their religious, gender and sexual identities. The research found that during particular years of school, mostly in the 7th to 9th grades, many of the students participate in bullying [4].

I can present a whole list of international and local researches on this subject, however, I think we are past trying to prove this point. We are past that stage in which to convey the problem of homophobic bullying we needed surveys, in-depth interviews, correlations and regression analyses. We are past that stage in which we cited: “Recently underage suicide rates have increased significantly… It is clearly stated in the recommendations of convention of the children’s rights that the main reason for underage suicide is particularly abuse toward them, which includes bullying at school.” [5] We are past this, because this does not need to be proven anymore. Of course homophobic bullying is painful, and of course it hurts both the bully and the victim, and of course adolescents are disturbed by this. Some adolescents are unable to deal with so much and sometimes they prefer to not exist anymore. Of course this leaves inerasable, traumatic trace in the psyche of the adolescent. Imagine, if you were abused so frequently, so systematically and so viciously, and you had zero ways to defend yourself, how would you feel?

There is no need to repeat for the thousandth time that schools are not ready to manage homophobic bullying (or any type of bullying), do not put any effort into it or whatever they do is wrong. This is also supported by lots of researches. I think it’s about time for us to stop viewing the issue of homophobic bullying as a separate theory. Instead, we should take responsibility to help those adolescents and children that are in pain. It might sound pathetic, but “it’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child” [6].

What is bullying [7]

Definition

Bullying is defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior at school that causes both the bully and the victim to have serious, long-term problems.

For a behavior to be considered bullying, the following two principles should be fulfilled:

1.     Unequal redistribution of power – children that bully others have more power. For example, they are physically stronger, know other’s secret’ are more popular and accepted, etc. The power balance is not permanent and it shifts, so do the roles of the bully and the victim and as a result, putting effort into maintaining power is an everyday part of a school life. For example, in a heteronormative society, person that is perceived as heterosexual has more power and privileges (is accepted in their family, society, etc.), compared to homosexual and a person who is perceived as a gender non-conformist (viewed as sinful, ill, filthy, etc.)

2.     Repetition: aggressive behavior repeats more than once, or has the potential to be repeated.

Types of bullying

Bullying can be:

Verbal – making fun of, threatening.

Social – ignoring, excluding from group, spreading rumors, public humiliation.

Physical – hitting, spitting, pushing, destroying possessions.

 

Parties involved in bullying

Here we can distinguish between children that are directly involved in bullying and so-called spectators.

People directly involved are:

the abuser – the person that bullies the other. This is a child that engages in aggressive behaviors

directed at their peers (abusing people of other ages is not bullying anymore, it is a different type of abuse). There is usually a whole range of risk factors that push a child / adolescent to bully their peers;

 A victim that is being abused – in our case it’s a child/adolescent that is being attacked for their sexual and gender identity.

If a child is not directly involved in bullying, then they might be passively strengthening or weakening the bullying process. That’s why it is important for children to know what to do when they see bullying. Other people involved are:

A helper: they don’t start picking on other kids, but they are the helpers of leader bullies. And sometimes they bully others on their own.

Interested spectator – this is the whole audience that urges the aggressive behavior by commenting on, laughing and looking at it.

Neutral spectators – people that don’t get involved in bullying. They don’t support or oppose it. Nevertheless, “status quo” audience is still an audience, and research has shown that audience urges the bully to demonstrate their power.

Protectors: children who actively try to stop bullies, defend the victims.

Where can bullying take place?

The answer is easy – everywhere. If bullying is officially detested at school then the bully will try to find a victim in less noticeable places – bathroom, school yard, space under the stares. If the bully needs audience, then it might be a hallway or a classroom. If they need even a bigger audience – then cyber-bullying might take place, bullying in a digital space, or exclusion. Cyber-bullying involves attacking people on social media, purposefully excluding people from particular events or groups, spreading information, and it might be just as painful as humiliation that takes place in a non-virtual space. I am lucky that bullying directed at me was just bruises from being shot with a toy gun instead of publicly posted screenshots.

Homophobic Bullying

Everything described above concerns all types of bullying, including homophobic. A victim of homophobic bullying might be anyone who: (1) confides in their friend about their sexuality and gender identity, who will spread this information without their consent. Such acts are bullying since the place the child/adolescent in a vulnerable position. It is also possible for this information to be accidentally leaked, which further aggravates the victim’s position. (2)  for various reasons, people around thought that they were lesbian, gay, or transgender. At the same time, in particular, the position of this child/adolescent in researching/determining his/her own sexuality or gender identity is less important for the bully. (3) Is a friend, family member or a supporter of someone that is openly non-heterosexual.

 

What can we do?

Maybe the main question that we get after all of this is the following: what do we do? It is obvious that systematic changes are still far away and we can’t only rely on those. Of course, it is important to consider the recommendations that experts give us, however, until we can get there, what can we do right now? What do we do if having an earring, colorful hair, even slightest of non-conforming behavior causes the children to experience a great deal of moral and physical pain?

Let’s start with the bully. Why do they do this? To establish themselves, to appear cool, so that their privileges bring them a certain social status, a benefit. It is easy move forward by humiliating others. If we are lucky enough to have a chance to change a person’s life for the better; if we find ourselves as a teacher, Bailiff, principal, class tutor, psychologist, guest expert, trainer, activist that is trying to change the system – we are given the chance to show the abuser that there are healthier ways to establish oneself, express aggression and to be competitive. It is not natural to lock up so many pupils of the same age in a shared space – it creates unnatural and cruel conditions for competition. We, as adults, are responsible for establishing such values with our behaviors and attitudes that will ease this difficult situation. We should stop romanticizing school. Everyone remembers how hard it was to survive, how much energy went into achieving and maintaining a certain status with the peers. If there are no sports events, competitions, informal education methods, such as clubs, circles, then the bully has nowhere to experience a sense of victory, to release their physical energy, they will always choose the easiest way to self-establish. However, if the school does provide these options – then we should help them become involved. It is important to have discussions not only with the bully, but with the whole school. For example, to have formal debates on what bullying is and what homophobic bullying is. It will be the best if this is done before the bullying occurs – it is way easier to prevent than to deal with it after it has already occurred.

Usually the bully themselves is a recipient of aggression and has learned that the best way to deal with problems is to oppress the weak. I will also note here, that the whole weak-strong dichotomy is artificial, that people with non-heterosexual identities are weak only because we collectively think that. That’s why, to end bullying it is necessary to have an empathetic talk with the bully, at least ask them about their family situation, find the source of the aggression.

However, the main thing that we can do is to take control of the bully inside of us. No matter how many clubs open in schools, how many politically correct ideas we sound, if we, people working at schools, at the bottom of our hearts believe that it is okay to beat a boy for having an earring – then nothing will ever change. That’s why I want to ask: what do we personally lose because of the fact that some people are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender? What does this fact cause in our hearts, that we do not oppose bullying? This is not just a theoretical question. It’s just that we have been told and made to believe so many times that people of different sexual orientations and identities are yucky, how conscious are we of the reasons that make us irritated?

At the same time, it is crucial to work with victims of violence. This is extremely unfair, but dealing with bullying requires the victim to become stronger as well. The victim themselves should put effort into it, understand how important it is and not let the bully to violate them. Of course I don’t mean those cases, in which the victim is physically beaten because the abuser is stronger or there are few people attacking at once. We have many examples of how fatal can such conflicts be and in such cases we should have strict and timely response. But in dealing with being laughed at, exclusion, rumors, cyber-bullying – these are the things that we can for sure support the victims of violence in, to help them see that it is only temporary. Talk to them, remind them of their strengths, help with self-acceptance Against the background that peers do not perceive them as equals. Maybe for children our support means less than acceptance from peers, but with this we are helping the children in becoming more self-aware, for this experience to not become trauma once they have graduated from school, that will hinder their well-being and functionality for the rest of their lives. Let’s show the victims of bullying that we respect them, that there are other attitudes apart from the positions of their bullies. The stronger the victims of abuse become, the less power are the bullies are given in deciding other people’s significance, the harder it will be for bullies to abuse.

Also let’s mention the easiest to control and least important link – spectators, especially the neutral ones. Here we are given the chance to change even more. If bullies do not have the audience, the cases of bullying will decline. Actively oppose to bullying at schools, make it into something unacceptable, undesirable. By setting an example, support the spectators to stop urging the bullies. This is the easiest field to change, all you need is appropriate information and attitudes.

 

And finally,

When I was 17 years old I studied in America with an exchange program. We had a very interesting history teacher, a young girl that knew the subject well, seemed genuinely interested in our education, put a lot of effort into her lessons being active and easy. She gave us homework, listened to us, gave us feedback/ I felt as if I could express myself during her lessons. At the same time, she was strict and did not let us flunk our homework. With such approach, she became an authority and her words meant a lot to me. I remember that once boys in class kept throwing letters at each other, looking at me and laughing. I still don’t know what was happening or what they had written. The history teacher took the letters, skimmed through them and became very upset. She stopped the lesson and asked: “What have we been learning here the whole year? How democratic countries develop?” Everyone went quiet and then answered this rhetorical question with a “yes”. Then she asked: “Is it not a part of this development to respect every nationality?” – “yes” – we murmured. She asked “Does everyone deserve respect, no matter their nationality?” this was followed by another ashamed “yes”. She just looked at us and said “okay”. Such behavior never repeated again.

It has been 20 years since then. No other teacher before or after that has supported me so much. Even back when I was physically abused, which still hurts me as I’m writing this just as much as it did back then. I look at awe in everything that girl did: how she established herself, how she gained our recognition, treated all of us with respect and how important the anger of such authority figure turned out to be. How she stressed the unacceptability of this behavior in such way that she did not particularly mention neither the bully nor the victim, being myself. How did this issue become a responsibility of the whole class and how it connected to higher concepts; Easily, in a way that adolescents can understand, without too much philosophy. How she reacted to such a small case of bullying.

When my exchange year ended, the semester was not over yet. I had to leave without finishing, having a graduation. I remember the last day of me being at school: everyone was in the class while I wandered around the hallway, sobbing. I did not want to leave. So I sat down and wrote a thank you letter to my history teacher. I broke the rules – I walked into a class in the middle of the lesson and gave it to her.

Even though during all of the years of my school education I have experienced sexist bullying that had such an effect on me, that while being a very open and trusting person that is oriented on communication, I still cannot trust a single man. If there is a man next to me, physically, it bothers me and I start defending my own space. And this can’t be changed at this point with neither therapy, nor overlooking my past. Despite this, I remember the strong intervention of a young history teacher in the state of Utah very well till this day. I returned from America completely different – more confident and dependent on myself. I needed an example, that despite all of those things that had happened to me before, there was always a different path, an alternative. That I was defended publicly just once and I remember it even 20 years later. I can’t say that that’s the whole reason I chose a profession in which I would support people. However, I can say for sure that this experience showed me the power of empathy, this is our privilege, to stop homophobic bullying, recall our pain and give it meaning. It is our privilege to help others. This is our privilege to not stay as spectators.

Author – Lika Barabadze, Psychologist.

[1] CDC. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/ss/pdfs/ss6509.pdf

[2] Paz Elipe María de la Oliva Muñoz Rosario Del Rey.. Homophobic Bullying and Cyberbullying: Study of a Silenced Problem. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28569622/

[3] Tabidze Nukri, Khatuna Kharchilava (2020). Queer bullying in schools. Equality movement

http://www.equality.ge/6576

[4] Subeliani Ana, Acho Khachidze, Homophobic bullying in public schools

https://osgf.ge/bulingis-prevencia-skole/

[5] https://osgf.ge/bulingis-prevencia-skole/

[6] Dostoevsky, the brothers of Karamazov

[7] https://www.stopbullying.gov/

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