11 February 2014 12:21

As someone who studies language, I’m interested in what we say, why and how. Language is powerful and has powerful effects.

My research centres on representations of lesbian and gay parents in children’s literature as well as homophobia and homophobic bullying. Homophobia is currently a huge issue for schools and it motivates a wide range of bullying from direct, physical forms to indirect, psychological forms. Take homophobic language for example, if ‘gay’ and ‘rubbish’ are used synonymously, there exists a semantic relationship between homosexuality and that which is valueless, worthless, waste.

To combat the kinds of homophobia this type of language underpins, LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) History Month takes place in the UK every February as a celebration of the history, culture, and achievements of LGBT people. The month was introduced following the repeal of a notoriously homophobic piece of UK legislation (Section 28) which, between 1988 and 2003, prevented local authorities from intentionally “promoting homosexuality” or the teaching of “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” in state maintained schools. Similar legislation has only recently been enacted in Russia, marring the Sochi Olympics also taking place in February, and considering widespread international condemnation of the legislation, it is sobering to think that political attitudes in the UK may not have been much different little over a decade ago.

Following the demise of Section 28, the legal landscape for the rights of LGBT individuals and same-sex couples in the UK has flourished. Legislation now prevents discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation (Equality Act 2010), secures equality in matters of parenting and adoption (Adoption and Children Act 2002); and, most recently, enables marriage (Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013).

Yet, in spite of all this inclusive legislation, the LGBT community still faces some serious and uniquely difficult real world challenges as a result of homophobia.

Let’s look at health.

The Lesbian and Gay Foundation in 2013 published The Lesbian, Gay, Bisesxual and Trans Public Health Outcomes Framework Companion Document providing a concise overview of the inequalities experienced by LGBT people. Some of the statistics are terrifying:

56% of young LGB people deliberately self-harm compared to 1 in 15 young people in the general population. LGB people are twice more likely than heterosexual people to consider or attempt suicide. LGB people are 7 times more likely to use recreational drugs than the general population. Where 19% of heterosexual males in the general population and 15% of females report binge drinking, the figure almost doubles for gay/bisexual males (34%) and lesbian/bisexual females (29%).

The roots of these kinds of behaviours are undoubtedly rooted in homophobia, whether perceived or actual.

Now, let’s look at homophobic bullying.

Bullying, victimisation with an intent to threaten or inflict physical or mental harm (including self-harm) on another, is a ubiquitous part of the school experience for all young people whether they are directly involved or not – you don’t have to be bullied to be effected by it.

The 2010 Tellus Survey from The Department for Children, Schools and Families shows that 46% of young people said they had been bullied at school, 21% said they were bullied outside of school and 25% reported worrying about being bullied.

A growing body of research on homophobic bullying is beginning to bring to light the kinds of impacts young LGBT people disproportionately face. UK-based LGB charity Stonewall reported in their 2012 School Report that 55% of young LGB people experience homophobic bullying in British schools. Ditch The Label’s 2013 Annual Bullying Survey shows that young lesbian, gay and trans people are at higher risk of experiencing physical bullying and sexual harassment, as well as having their studies and social lives impacted on by bullying, than their heterosexual counterparts. Young LGBT people as a whole are at a higher risk of experiencing verbal bullying and cyber bullying, they are more frequently bullied and the effects of bullying are more likely to lead to self-harm, truancy, suicidal thoughts and anti-social behaviour.

But you don’t have to identify as LGBT to experience homophobic bullying, e.g. children of same-sex parents. The latest ONS figures suggest with some certainty that there are around 122,000 same-sex cohabiting or civil partner couple families living in the UK with estimates of children living in same-sex parent families ranging from 19,000 (Stonewall) to 25,000 (ONS). Although those figures are shaky at best, it is probable that tens of thousands of children are put at high risk just because they have two mums or dads.

One of the most salient aspects of homophobic bullying is verbal bullying. Stonewall have claimed that the use of homophobic language in schools is endemic with 96% of LGB students reporting hearing homophobic remarks used in schools, and 99% report hearing things like ‘that’s so gay’.

The effects of such linguistically engrained and mundane forms of homophobia reveal themselves when children start to disengage and self-harm. To be sure, if this kind of exclusionary behaviour is left unchallenged, it becomes legitimate; homophobia becomes acceptable. The challenges, therefore, are in tackling both overt instances of homophobic bullying, but also covert forms of homophobia that might be harder to spot.

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