Paul is 15. He was bullied at school after he told a friend he
was gay, and his friend told everyone else. Isolated, hurt and
afraid to go to school, Paul ended up in hospital after taking an
overdose. Even then, he did not want his parents and teachers to
know that he was gay, and blamed the overdose on the pressure of
school work, writes Natalie Valios.
Paul is one of many children and young people who have called
ChildLine as a result of being bullied – infact, it is the
most common problem mentioned to the helpline’s staff. But,
as with other forms of bullying, it has taken time for homophobic
bullying to be recognised as a distinct problem, and for steps to
be taken to address it. As a result, calling someone homophobic
names in the playground is now seen as more acceptable than racist
abuse or the 1960s taunt of “spastic”.
Homophobic bullying is characterised by abusive name calling,
physical abuse, inappropriate and uninvited touching, sexual
innuendos and propositions, pornographic material and, in its most
extreme form, sexual assault or rape.
And pupils do not have to be lesbian, gay or bisexual to become
victims of such attacks.
Ali Harris, project manager for Stonewall, a voluntary
organisation that works for legal equality and social justice for
gay, lesbian and bisexual people, says: “Quite a lot of
homophobic bullying is of those who aren’t gay or lesbian.
They just aren’t perceived to conform to a gender norm or are
perceived to be different.”
So how prevalent is it? A survey of 300 secondary schools in
England and Wales in 1997 found 82 per cent of teachers were aware
of verbal incidents and 26 per cent were aware of physical
bullying.1 Almost all the schools had anti-bullying
policies, but only 6 per cent referred to homophobic bullying.
Yet the use of homophobic insults is extremely common in many
schools. “The word ‘gay’ has become the standard
put-down,” says Harris. “And one of the reasons we
believe this is happening is because teachers don’t respond.
There is a culture among children that they can say it and get away
Some teachers might not consider the use of the word offensive
because most lesbian and gay pupils are invisible, says Andrew
Mulholland, senior health promotion specialist at Bolton Public
He set up and chairs the Bolton Homophobic Bullying Forum. This
multi-agency group was set up in 1998 because many local schools
were reluctant to do anything about the issue. During awareness
training at schools, the use of the word “gay” to
describe both objects and people in a derogatory way was
acknowledged by staff to be widespread. Some felt it was just the
current word to replace others such as “crap” or
“When it was pointed out that the word ‘gay’
related to the identity of some of the students in their school,
and that hearing the word being used negatively on a regular basis
would affect the development of a positive self-image, many staff
changed their opinion,” says Mulholland.
Teachers are sometimes uneasy about challenging homophobic
bullying because it may lead to questions they are unwilling to
answer around sexuality, says Andrew Mellor, manager of the
Anti-Bullying Network, an independent organisation funded by the
Scottish executive and based at the University of Edinburgh.
“They may want to help a young person struggling with
their gender identity, but they don’t want to draw attention
to them, or make assumptions about them. And they are worried about
tackling it without offending people,” he says.
And research2 has shown that homophobic bullying is
rife in schools because teachers are inhibited by section 28 of the
Local Government Act 1988, which prohibits local authorities from
intentionally promoting homosexuality.
Confidential interviews with teachers in the research revealed
that they ignored the problem because of uncertainty around their
legal position – confusion which results in an environment
where pupils think they can get away with it. The research
concluded that homophobic bullying is the most widespread form of
abuse in schools.
But what many teachers fail to realise is that the legislation
applies to local authorities, and has never legally applied to the
activities of individual schools, teachers or governors.
Additionally, section 104 of the Local Government Act 2000
stipulates that section 28 should not stop schools from taking
steps to prevent any form of bullying.
Schools already have a legal duty to draw up an anti-bullying
policy – which should be fortified by the government’s
anti-bullying pack for schools.3 This refers explicitly
to homophobic bullying. It recommends strategies to combat it,
including challenging homophobic language and exploring sexism and
sexual bullying, through the curriculum.
But the impact of homophobic bullying on young people whose
sexuality is still developing can be severe. More than half of
those bullied contemplate suicide, with 30 per cent attempting it
more than once. Nearly three-quarters become truants, resulting in
lowered academic achievement. Seventeen per cent go on to have
long-term mental health problems.4
So what can schools do, apart from having anti-bullying
policies? A recent report5 suggests a whole-school
– Identifying the problem by noting incidents.
– Identifying the factors in the school that might hinder or
support anti-homophobic bullying work.
– Considering when developing school policies whether there needs
to be specific mention of homophobic bullying.
– Providing pupils with anonymous ways to put across their
– Giving pupils access to a confidential service.
– Consulting with parents about an inclusive bullying policy.
– Providing specific training for staff on how to tackle homophobic
Mulholland says: “Homophobic bullying is the last
acceptable form of discrimination in schools, and the
discrimination of choice for young people, because they have
learned it has become a form of abuse that isn’t
It’s time they were re-educated.
1 I Warwick, N Douglas, G Whitty and S Kemp, Playing it Safe,
Terrence Higgins Trust, 1997
2 D Epstein, R Johnson, Schooling Sexualities, OUP, 1998
3 Department for Education and Employment, Bullying: Don’t
Suffer in Silence, DfEE, 2000
4 I Rivers, “The bullying of sexual minorities at school: its
nature and long-term correlates”, Education and Child
Psychology Vol 18 (1), 2001
5 I Warwick and N Douglas, “Safe for all: a best practice
guide to prevent homophobic bullying in secondary schools”,
Citizenship, Vol 21, 2003
– Thirty-seven per cent of lesbian, gay and bisexual young
people are bullied at school.
– Of those, 69 per cent are bullied once a week or more.
– Average duration of homophobic bullying is five years.
– Only 22 per cent of those bullied told a teacher. Of those only
16 per cent gave the reason behind the bullying.
– Only 39 per cent of those bullied told someone at home, and only
15 per cent explained why.4
Source: “The bullying of sexual minorities at
Impact on young people
“On my way to class people kept tripping me up and calling
me faggot… one of them punched me in the face and knocked me
down. Then they all started kicking me. I reported it at school and
the boy who punched me was suspended, but I didn’t say what
it was about – I was embarrassed. For the next two weeks I
was beaten regularly. I didn’t tell my parents – I had
told my mum I was gay and she had reacted very badly and told me
never to tell anyone else. The beating eventually stopped, but not
the verbal abuse. Teachers would hear it, but most of them ignored
it. I started to feel suicidal. I started missing lessons to avoid
trouble, so I didn’t get the grades. At school I just wanted
someone to say: ‘You are not a freak, there are thousands of
people like you and you are going to be just