“The 2009 survey of 7,261 middle and high school students found that at school nearly 9 out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment at school in the past year and nearly two-thirds felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation. Nearly a third of LGBT students skipped at least one day of school in the past month because of safety concerns.”
An analysis of National School Climate Survey data over 10 years showed that since 1999 there has been a decreasing trend in the frequency of hearing homophobic remarks; however, LGBT students’ experiences with more severe forms of bullying and harassment have remained relatively constant. (Source)
In other words, no. The schooling environment is more dangerous than ever, and it isn’t because everyone is saying fag.
It’s too bad, too. Compared to the task of shifting the cultures of our schools, banning a word would be so very easy.
Unfortunately, the culture of bullying in our schools is far more complicated than the deployment of four-letter words.
In C.J. Pascoe’s ethnographic study Dude You’re a Fag, the term fag is a policing mechanism used in the construction of masculinity and sexuality of all boys at “River High.”
Which means that it is inaccurate to say that fag is a strictly homophobic epithet:
“Homophobia is too facile a term with which to describe the deployment of fag as an epithet. By calling the use of the word fag homophobia—and letting the argument stop there—previous research has obscured the gendered nature of sexualized insults. Invoking homophobia to describe the way boys aggressively tease each other overlooks the powerful relationship between masculinity and this sort of insult” (Pascoe 54).
Some students at River High even claim that the term fag had nothing to do with sexuality:
“Darnell told me, “It doesn’t have anything to do with being gay. Similarly, J.L asserted, “Fag, seriously, it has nothing to do with sexual preference at all. You could just be calling somebody an idiot, you know?”
The boys went on to say that you could be called fag for almost anything.
Yet the word fag is directed at, and used most often by boys. Even if it is just used to call someone an idiot, it has gendered connotations. Pascoe found that even though it can be used in a huge variety of situations, it was most often used to call someone incompetent. Because competence is central to masculinity, the effect is that the boy who the epithet is directed at becomes a temporary symbol of a failed man.
The boy who calls the other boy a fag also defines their identity through the deployment of the word. In using it against someone else, he positions himself as “not a fag.” Similarly, through his use of the word, he positions the target of the word as incompetent, unmasculine or weak.
Gender is always the first target.
This can be seen in statistics of violence against transgender populations. Are they targeted because of their sexuality or gender expression?
The San Francisco Department of Public Health surveyed 392 MTF and 123 FTM transgender people. Here are some of the results:
83% of MTFs (male-to-females) and 85% of FTMs (female-to-males) reported verbal abuse because of their gender identity or gender presentation.
37% of MTFs and 30% of FTMs reported physical abuse.
37% of MTFs and 20% of FTMs reported housing discrimination. (source)
On Glee, instead of fag, slushies are deployed. The most bullied individuals and groups in McKinley High are not gay, but members of the Glee Club. They don’t get slushied for their sexuality, yet the slushies to the face delivered most often by football and hockey players are policing mechanisms for “failing at the masculine tasks of competence, heterosexual prowess, and strength or in any way revealing weakness or femininity” (Pascoe 54).
Girls get slushied, too, but the target is most often the boy who deviates from masculine gender norms.
One can see the slushie as part of the discourse which disciplines boys for behavior which the gender police (in this case, the football players) read as digressive.
“Any boy can temporarily become a fag in a given social space or interaction. This does not mean that boys who identify as or are perceived to be homosexual aren’t subject to intense harassment. Many are. (Pascoe 54).
It would be easy to simply blame the football players on Glee for their slushie harassment, just as it would be easy to punish boys who deploy the term fag in the hallways. Yet, as research shows—fag or no fag—schools are hostile environments for LGBT students.
This is in part because masculinity is not just the property of those with male bodies, but also a process that takes place in schools and is defined as “sexualized and publicly enacted dominance” (Pascoe 166).
The rituals that reify masculinity as a space of dominance happen all of the time in high schools in big and little ways. There are performances at assemblies, school dances, prom. There is also “playful” shoving in the hallways, the names that both boys and girls are called, the ways that girls’ bodies are looked at publicly by boys to validate their heterosexuality.
As an educator, you cannot change the culture that exists outside of your classroom, but you can make your classroom a safe space for all of your students.
Here are some ways you can help disrupt the culture of LGBT and gender-based harassment at your school:
- Form a GSA.
- Hold assemblies which help students see the ways that bullying is often part of gender-based-violence, and is part of a large culture in which being a man is often about asserting dominance over women, and about being “not a woman.”
- Put posters up in your classroom representing difficult gender identities and sexualities.
- Integrate LGBT themes across the curriculum.
- Fight to change school dances, assemblies, and proms to better reflect the gender diversity and sexual identities among students.
- Hold a school-wide Day of Silence.
- Position yourself as an ally for your LGBT students.
- Fight for gender-neutral bathrooms.
Go to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN) for more information and ideas.