Opinion: Why we need to tackle homophobic bullying now

In recent years, Liberal Democrats have been political frontrunners in identifying ways to tackle the insidious issue of homophobic bullying in our schools. In a 2010 interview with Attitude, Nick Clegg called for all schools – including faith schools – to implement anti-homophobia bullying policies and teach that homosexuality is “normal and harmless”. Our 2010 manifesto said that we would “confront bullying, including homophobic bullying, and include bullying prevention in teacher training”, with the coalition agreement stating that the government would “help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying”. It is to our credit that, in government, we have played a significant role in making sure that tackling homophobic bullying in schools has remained high on the agenda at the Department for Education.

Stonewall recently launched the School Report 2012, a major piece of research conducted by the University of Cambridge, looking at the current experiences of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people in Britain’s schools. It found that over half of gay pupils in Britain’s secondary schools experience homophobic bullying. Shockingly, the research, based on a national survey of over 1,600 young people, also found that nearly a quarter of gay young people have attempted to take their own life, and more than half deliberately harm themselves.

The School Report 2012 also reveals that 99 per cent of gay young people hear homophobic language like ‘that’s so gay’ and ‘you’re so gay’. However, a quarter of gay young people – rising to over a third in faith schools – report that teachers never challenge homophobic language. In schools where teaching staff never challenge homophobic remarks, the rate of homophobic bullying is far higher than in schools where such language is always challenged.

The new Ofsted inspection framework has helped enormously to focus schools’ attention on what they are doing to tackle homophobic bullying. Since its introduction in January, over 100 Ofsted reports have made specific mention of homophobic bullying.

But we still have a great deal further to go if we are to wipe out homophobic bullying and language from schools. We should be using our position in government to make sure that academies and free schools take the issue of preventing and tackling homophobic bullying seriously, as well as ensuring that, as part of the shake-up of teacher training, we equip teachers to deal with all forms of bullying.

And locally, working directly with Stonewall has been proven to help reduce the overall level of homophobic bullying significantly in individual schools and local authority areas. So if you are a councillor, please encourage your local authority to join the 60 councils which already work directly with Stonewall as part of the Education Champions programme. And if you are a governor, teacher, or parent then ask your school to join Stonewall’s School Champions programme.

Together, we can create a future where every young person in this country is able to develop their talents to the full, without the fear of their lives being blighted by homophobic bullying.

* Sarah Rose is Education Champions Coordinator at Stonewall, and previously worked as the Political Assistant to the Lib Dem Group on Wokingham Borough Council and as Agent and Constituency Organiser to Chris Huhne MP and Eastleigh Liberal Democrats

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  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 12:10pm

    Bullying is a sign of distress in general, and not just of the bullied. All forms of bullying need to be tackled, not just homophobic.

    For homophobic, I wonder whether people are going about it right? Schoolchildren are subject to an astonishing range of pressures and have little real help in handling them. Pressures to perform academically, to conform to social models, to buy this and that and those, pressures from dissonance between home life and what others think home life should be like, and of course pressures around handling the body’s perplexing changes from puberty.

    As the saying goes, the bully is a victim too. Bullying is one of the ways some of these helpless people let the lid off, even keep some form of control of their turbulences. So, if the root cause is not actually homophobia but some other thing, a successfuk eradication of homophobic bullying may simply result in some other problem – possibly a worse one – appearing somewhere else.

  • @richard
    Oh well – we better do nothing then to stop homophobic bullying – in fact maybe we should encourage it to prevent possibly worse bullying somewhere else

  • I take issue with the insistence that calling something gay is homophobic. I’ve grown up using the word gay as a verbal expression of annoyance or disdain, as well as understanding it to have a separate meaning as homosexual. Everyone used it that way, that’s what it means to us.

  • Mark Argent 6th Aug '12 - 8:34pm

    Picking up Richard’s comment, yes bullies are often also victims and lacking in strength. But that mitigation is a little like saying that racism on the far right is OK because it’s often done by people from the white underclass. Surely a school (or any other institution) has both to address specific instances of bullying, and the broader context that makes it happen. What makes the gay issue tricky is that there are people for whom homophobia is seen as a legitimate exression of religious or racial affiliation: here it is absolutely essential that schools help pupils learn that religious or racial identity is not undermined by refraining from homophobic behaviour. This actually leads out into some very big implications for citizenship — concerned with how people in a diverse society learn to live together — which means that counteracting bullying is both about safeguarding the individuals concerned, and relevant to the far wider community.

    Charles’ comment is tricky. The pejorative use of the word “gay” seems relatively recent — there’s at least a question of how far it disguises homophobic sentiment. There’s a parallel with using “black and white” to distinguish “bad and good”: as a caucasian I might argue that this is pretty inoffensive and nothing to get het up about. If I picked up any overtones they would imply that I am good, so I’d feel fine. If my skin colour meant people referred to me as black, I wonder whether I would feel as ambivalent?

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 10:18pm


    Did I write that bullying is OK? No I did not!

    Efforts to stop bullying have been going on fora long long time, and seem to have been rather unsuccessful. The most obvious thing that has the potential to cause it is the stress that youngsters come under from parents, teachers, peers, and media, together with the absence of much help for youngsters to deal with that stress. Why does that happen? Because the people producing the stress and not giving the help have not been able to deal with their own issues properly.

    If people really want to stop bullying, I suggest that they need to enter and understand that stressful and helpless world. If and when that happens, I suggest it will be seen to be a lot more complex than people seem to think.

  • er, while this is well-meant, I’m not sure that the suggested approach to this problem is any antidote at all.

    Any success at repressing negative feeling will only be short-lived unless the underlying causes are countered by a more productive behavioural response pattern. The processes involved in bullying don’t need to be understood, they need to be acted against.

    ‘Bullying is bad’ simply does not provide tools to eliminate the unwanted aggression – it only reinforces conformist sentiment by replacing one prevailing orthodoxy with another, which is something liberals fundamentally and constitutionally oppose.

    Bullying is bad because it devalues difference. Just saying it is bad without explaining what precisely needs to be overcome just supports equally undesirable homogenous states and practises.

    Bullying is bad because it encourages intolerance. The fight against bullying will only be successful if we stand up for tolerance.

    Bullying will continue while we talk about issues and around the individuals. Society must engage with these people and stop lecturing them, for as long as we do they will only see they are being bullied by the state and follow this lead.

    @Mark Argent
    does ‘black and white’ distinguish good and bad? I understood it to express stark, axiomatic oppositions, not value judgements (although admittedly these are easily layered on top according to the subject).

  • Richard Dean 8th Aug '12 - 1:22pm

    It seems unlikely that action against bullying will be successful if it is not based on a thorough understanding of the causes and processes involved in bullying. Our counter-actions themselves may indeed be among those causes and processes. Love conquers all, so it is said, but the process by which it does so is usually underpinned by some form of understanding.

  • There should be no bullying down to the “normal and harmless” homosexuality.

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