It is back-to-school time and many parents and educators are doing everything they can to ensure that their children and students have a safe, welcoming, and stimulating school environment to return to when classes begin. Many teachers and principals are already in full-time in-service meetings and workshops addressing issues related to gender and learning, bullying and school safety, as well as developing the curriculum for the first month of school. Unfortunately, most of these schools will fail in their efforts to reduce bullying because anti-bullying programs are overly generic and vague and do not directly address some of the most prevalent harmful and most ignored behaviors in schools: gendered harassment. Anti-bullying programs do not specifically talk about: sexual harassment, homophobic harassment, and harassment for gender non-conformity. So what can concerned parents and teachers do?
How is gendered harassment different from bullying?
The first step is to understand the differences in these behaviors and why schools tend to ignore them.
Gendered harassment is a term used to describe any unwanted behavior that acts to assert and police the boundaries of traditional gender norms: heterosexual masculinity and femininity. It is related to, but different from bullying. (Meyer, 2006)
Bullying is any behavior that repeatedly and over time intentionally inflicts injury on another individual (Olweus, 1993)
Harassment is any biased behavior that has a negative impact on the target or the environment and can include negative religious, racial, sexual, and homophobic behaviors (Land, 2003).
In other words, bullying is repeated and intentional hurtful behaviors directed at a specific person, whereas harassment includes unintentional or intentional behaviors that are discriminatory in nature. Harassing behaviors can be targeted at a specific person, or be general comments or behaviors that are derogatory to an identifiable social group. As a result, it has much broader impacts on the classroom and school culture. Forms of gendered harassment include: (hetero)sexual harassment, homophobic harassment, and harassment for gender non-conformity (or transphobic harassment). I link these three forms of harassment because they are linked to the norm-setting and policing of narrowly defined traditional heterosexual gender roles (Larkin, 1994; Renold, 2002; Smith & Smith, 1998; Stein, 1995). Although physical bullying is often the most obvious form that is acknowledged and addressed in schools, verbal bullying and harassment are also prevalent and often ignored even though they have been found to be quite damaging to students as well. Hoover and Juul found in their study on bullying that repeated verbal attacks by peers are as devastating as infrequent cases of physical abuse (1993, p. 27). Most bullying policies and interventions are not designed to get at the more persistent and insidious forms of harassment that occur in schools. Canadian researcher Gerald Walton (2004) observes that bullying and zero-tolerance policies, "do not consider the cultural and societal antecedents of violence in schools. Neither do these programs consider psychological violence"(p. 29). The UK is introducing a new program this fall to help schools teach children of all ages about gender bullying and violence.
I began investigating this problem as a result of my experiences as a high school teacher in the U.S. observing the hostile climate that existed for bisexual, gay, lesbian, questioning, and transgender (BGLQT) students in my school. During my first year of teaching I observed a very bright and athletic student - a leader in the school -- dissolve into depression, drug use, and skipping classes as a result of how her friends were treating her. She had fallen in love with a young woman she had met that summer and her classmates made sure she felt their disapproval. In addition to being excluded from her peer group, she was verbally harassed on a regular basis. This change in her school experience was enough to send a previously strong and confident young woman into a downward spiral of self-doubt and dangerous behavior. As a young teacher who wanted to support this student, I felt frustrated and angry by what the other teachers allowed to happen in their presence at the school.
As I investigated this problem further, I learned that although BGLQT youth are commonly targeted for harassment, they are not the only ones suffering due to the homophobic and heteronormative climate of the school. Any student whose behavior is perceived to be different in some way can be isolated and harassed using anti-gay insults, and any student who wishes to establish his/her place in the social pecking order of the school must engage in heterosexualized discussions and behaviors which often include various forms of gendered harassment - this pressure is particularly strong for boys and young men as documented by C.J. Pascoe in her book,
Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School
Why is gendered harassment a problem?
Students who are harassed in their schools have been found to be more likely to skip school, abuse drugs and alcohol, and have a higher rate of suicidal ideation (Bagley, Bolitho, & Bertrand, 1997; Irving & Parker-Jenkins, 1995; Rigby & Slee, 1999; Sharp, 1995; Slee, 1995). Most of these students perceive school as a dangerous place which causes significant damage to their level of engagement in the school community. One group of students that is regularly targeted in schools is BGLQT youth (California Safe Schools Coalition, 2004; Kosciw & Diaz, 2006; Reis, 1999; Reis & Saewyc, 1999; Taylor et al., 2008). In a national phone survey with youth in the U.S., the National Mental Health Association (2002) found that 50% of the respondents reported that students who were gay would be bullied most or all of the time. In another U.S. survey, 90% of BGLQT students report hearing homophobic remarks in school frequently or often (Kosciw, Diaz, & Gretytak, 2008). What is disturbing about this trend is not only its prevalence, but the lack of educators' effective intervention to stop this problem. In the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2008 School Climate Survey, 82% of BGLQT youth say that their teachers rarely or never intervene when hearing homophobic remarks (Kosciw et al., 2008, p. 22). In a study in California, students were asked how often they heard biased remarks (sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, religion, race, disability), and how often teachers intervened. The forms of verbal harassment which students reported hearing the most were based on sexual orientation, race, body size, and gender presentation. The forms that students reported teachers were least likely to interrupt were sexual orientation and gender presentation (California Safe Schools Coalition, 2004).
10 things parents and teachers can do to address gendered harassment:
1) Educate yourself: read blogs, newspaper articles, and books that address the root causes and forms of gendered harassment in schools. My book:
Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools
is a good place to start. I also post regular updates on twitter @lizjmeyer to current resources.
2) Be proactive: Set clear standards for language and behavior. For parents this starts NOW and for teachers it is most important during the first month of school. Model and explain what you expect: be clear and consistent.
3) Stop name-calling: use the "stop and educate" approach so your child/students understand why it isn't okay to use the words "gay" or "lesbian" as insults. Be sure to explain that it is perfectly appropriate to use it to describe someone who proudly identifies as such: "your uncle is gay and is getting married to his boyfriend." The difference is the intended message - is it to harm or hurt or is it to celebrate and inform?
4) Learn your school's protocol for responding to and reporting bullying: my research showed that many teachers were not familiar with their own school's policies. The more you know the better you can respond.
5) Use inclusive and gender-neutral language when talking about families and relationships - this promotes better understanding of diversity and helps reduce feelings of invisibility and isolation for people whose families and relationships are different from the heterosexual two-parent nuclear family:
a. instead of husband or wife say: spouse or partner
b. instead of mom or dad say: parent or primary caregiver
c. instead of boyfriend or girlfriend say: "special someone" or "crush" or "love interest"
6) Join or create a working group at your school to address issues of gender, bullying & harassment: invite teachers, administrators, parents, and community members to participate in this group. Possible projects include: community education campaigns, revising and updating policies, or conducting a school-wide evaluation of dangerous physical spaces and targeted groups that are particularly vulnerable.
7) Create a safe space in your class or home: post signs, brochures, stickers, or wear buttons that show that you are a safe person to talk to about gender and sexual diversity and that you will provide non-judgmental support to children/students and families. Some are available at GLSEN.
8) Make sure there are books for children of all ages that address issues of gender and sexual diversity in your home, classroom, and school library. The school library journal recently published a list of young adult novels: and there are many early childhood books available about family diversity as well:
9) Join a local advocacy group: parents and teachers can connect with valuable knowledge and resources in your area. Some national groups that have many local chapters in the U.S. include PFLAG and GLSEN in Canada, EGALE is the national organization that can connect you with local advocacy groups in your province.
10) Invite an expert in to work with your school community. I am offering a year of FREE consulting to help 2 schools (one in the US and one in Canada) address these issues. More info here. Deadline to apply is Sept. 1, 2009.
Bagley, C., Bolitho, F., & Bertrand, L. (1997). Sexual assault in school, mental health and suicidal behaviors in adolescent women in Canada. Adolescence, 32(126), 361-366.
California Safe Schools Coalition. (2004). Consequences of harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender non-conformity and steps for making schools safer. Davis: University of California.
Hoover, J. H., & Juul, K. (1993). Bullying in Europe and the United States. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 2(1), 25-29.
Irving, B. A., & Parker-Jenkins, M. (1995). Tackling truancy: An examination of persistent non-attendance amongst disaffected school pupils and positive support strategies. Cambridge Journal of Education, 25(2), 225-235.
Kosciw, J., & Diaz, E. (2006). The 2005 national school climate survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Kosciw, J., Diaz, E., & Gretytak, E. (2008). 2007 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York, NY: GLSEN.
Land, D. (2003). Teasing apart secondary students' conceptualizations of peer teasing, bullying and sexual harassment School Psychology International, 24(2), 147-165.
Larkin, J. (1994). Walking through walls: The sexual harassment of high school girls. Gender and Education, 6(3), 263-280.
National Mental Health Association. (2002). "What does gay mean?" Teen survey executive summary. Alexandria, VA: National Mental Health Association.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
Reis, B. (1999). They don't even know me: Understanding anti-gay harassment and violence in schools. Seattle: Safe Schools Coalition of Washington.
Reis, B., & Saewyc, E. (1999). 83,000 Youth: Selected findings of eight population-based studies. Seattle: Safe Schools Coaltion of Washington.
Renold, E. (2002). Presumed innocence - (Hetero)sexual, heterosexist and homophobic harassment among primary school girls and boys Childhood - A global journal of child research, 9(4), 415-434.
Rigby, K., & Slee, P. (1999). Suicidal ideation among adolescent school children, involvement in bully-victim problems, and perceived social support. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 29(2), 119-130.
Sharp, S. (1995). How much does bullying hurt? The effects of bullying on the personal well being and educational progress of secondary aged students. Educational & Child Psychology, 12(2), 81-88.
Slee, P. (1995). Bullying: Health concerns of Australian secondary school students. International Journal of Adolescence & Youth, 5(4), 215-224.
Smith, G. W., & Smith, D., Ed. (1998). The ideology of "fag": The school experience of gay students. Sociological Quarterly, 39(2), 309-335.
Stein, N. (1995). Sexual harassment in school: The public performance of gendered violence. Harvard Educational Review, 65(2), 145-162.
Taylor, C., Peter, T., Schacter, K., Paquin, S., Beldom, S., Gross, Z., et al. (2008). Youth Speak Up about Homophobia and Transphobia: The First National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools, Phase One Report. Toronto, ON: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust.
Walton, G. (2004). Bullying and homophobia in Canadian schools: The politics of policies, programs, and educational leadership. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 1(4), 23-36.