Not a paradise

The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality  by Mark McCormack, a review

By Stephen Cox 

An old gay campaigning slogan was “Gay Liberation is Everyone’s Liberation”.  The theory went that in a society that was not hostile to male homosexuality, and which did not use fear of homosexuality and effeminacy to police male feelings and behaviour, men would feel free to be more gentle and mutually supportive, to the benefit of both men and women. 

Mark McCormack’s book contains bold claims that this is happening, to an extent which would have seemed odd even ten years ago.  His research is based on three sixth forms, in an unnamed southern city, where he spent substantial time hanging out with male sixth formers.  Part of his methodology was to come out to them as gay three or four weeks into the research, partly to see if their conversation or attitudes changed.  (He says they didn’t.) One of the sixth forms was in a religious school, another in an academically struggling school, to check his findings from the main research site, a middle of the road state school.

Mark McCormack’s findings appear almost too good to be true.  He found that in all three schools, male sixth formers thought homosexuality utterly unremarkable.  Homophobia was generally equated to racism and seen as unacceptable.  Furthermore, in each school there were no openly gay teachers nor were gay issues addressed on the curriculum.  Yet straight students noticed this, deplored it, and attributed it to prejudice.  The most cutting criticism of homophobia is that these young men thought it was immature, something one might run into among younger children but certainly to be put aside by manhood.

Straight men’s friendships have always been important to them, but these young men were open that a value of friendship was the explicit ability to support each other emotionally.  These young men could talk over their problems with their peers.  They were physically close, and tried to keep their social groups from being cliques. Some gay men were popular and some less so, but this was around interests and temperament not sexuality. A camp gay man could be elected student president, running a deliberately flamboyant campaign.  The heterosexual majority enjoyed his personality and appreciated his honesty.

Yet other surveys paint a different picture of the experience of today’s young people.  A Stonewall survey of young people found that “almost two thirds (65 per cent) of young lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils have experienced direct bullying. Seventy five per cent of young gay people attending faith schools have experienced homophobic bullying.”  Less than a quarter had been told by their school bullying on such grounds was wrong.

In a 2009 Stonewall survey of teachers “Nine in ten secondary school teachers and more than two in five primary school teachers (44 per cent) say children and young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, currently experience homophobic bullying, name calling or harassment in their schools.”   

Crucially, how far is Mark McCormack right?  In one sense, a group of young men who are largely unprejudiced exists – we have the experience of Young [male] Friends. But it is different to assume this is universal.   There is good survey evidence that hostility to homosexuality has collapsed since the 1980s.  There aren’t positive role models in most schools but the media, and social media, do provide them.  Legal discrimination is being swept away and same sex relationships publicly affirmed through civil partnerships.  Mark McCormack says that surveys such as Stonewall concentrate, for example, on support groups where children and young people are more likely to have experienced difficulty.  But others would say that Stonewall’s large, national, surveys conducted by research companies cannot lightly be dismissed, in particular because they have asked teachers, who are easy to find, what their experience might be.

My counter evidence comes from my son’s experience in one North London comprehensive, clearly much more enlightened than my own school days, but nevertheless not quite a paradise.  “Don’t ask don’t tell” is the motto. In a school of such diverse communities, attempts to discuss homosexuality plunge into the mutual tensions between secular society and three groups – black evangelical, Muslim and Greek Orthodox families.  There is a striking difference between the strong and necessary promotion of black pride, history and culture – civil rights and the slave trade – and the complete absence of any discussion of LGBT matters outside fleeting references in sex education and RE.

There is a film on the black civil rights movement called “Eyes on the prize”.  Mark McCormack suggests that the prize of a new and equally authentic masculinity is still there.  He may be a premature prophet, but the educational bureaucracy will have to change.  OFSTED (the official body for inspecting schools) now expect to see evidence of policies to tackle homophobia during a school’s inspections.  Suddenly my son’s school is looking for action not words.

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