Help young people interrupt and prevent homophobic name-calling and harassment

Many strategies can help prevent behaviors that target youth based on sexual orientation, gender and gender expression.

Although recent research shows that the levels of hurtful behaviors that target young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ) are declining, the rates of these behaviors continue to exist at alarmingly high levels. This is especially true related to the prevalence of homophobic language about sexual orientation, gender and gender expression that’s commonly used not only by many young people but by many adults as well. According to a study published in the Psychology of Violence journal, there are connections between a young person’s tendency to dismiss the seriousness of sexual harassment and their use of homophobic name-calling and bullying behaviors.

The study’s findings suggested that without an understanding about the significance of these issues and the impacts of these behaviors, young people may have an elevated risk for increased violence and harassment in the future.

Homophobic name-calling involves using derogatory labels or phrases related to sexual orientation, gender and gender expression. This language is used to shame or exclude young people from what’s considered to be heteronormative – the “accepted” or “legitimate” ways to express sexuality, gender, masculinity and femininity. Some young people – more frequently boys – use homophobic name-calling as a tool to assert power over others, including those both within their friendship groups and young people within the larger peer setting. The middle-schoolers within the study who used this language most frequently were also those who were most likely to dismiss the seriousness of the effects of harassment language and behaviors. Because of this, the researchers stressed that anti-bullying policies and prevention programs for early adolescents should address the issues of homophobic name-calling as well as the tendency of many students to dismiss the seriousness of sexual harassment.

There are a variety of strategies that educators, parents and other caring adults can use to help young people understand, prevent and interrupt homophobic name-calling and harassment behaviors.

Consider the following ideas:
  • Begin conversations about these issues early. GLSEN research about biased language and hurtful behaviors in elementary schools showed that 45% of students reported that they heard comments like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” from other kids at school sometimes, often or all the time. Twenty-three percent of these elementary-aged children also reported that students were called names or bullied because of being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.” Help children explore differences – including differences related to sexual identity, gender identity and gender expression – in healthy ways and continue these conversations throughout their development.
  • One of the reasons that homophobic language and other kinds of hurtful behaviors are perpetuated is because too few people are willing to speak up and use their voices to interrupt them. Help young people (and adults!) identify and practice ways to move from being passive bystanders to becoming powerful allies for those who are the targets of these behaviors.  
  • When you have conversations with young people about these issues, they may describe homophobic name-calling as being “all in fun” or “just the way we talk to each other.” Help them recognize that using this language contributes to a hostile environment for LGBTQ youth. When students are the targets of hurtful language and harassment behaviors (directly and indirectly), they’re at higher risk for poorer health and academic outcomes. Help those students who are experiencing the effects of a hostile environment know their civil rights within educational settings related to harassment based on sex, gender, sexual orientation and other areas of human differences. Explain that Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972 prohibits all forms of sex discrimination – including discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression that doesn’t conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity. Point out that schools are required to have a Title IX coordinator, and the person in that role can be an important resource for students and families who are concerned about these discriminatory behaviors.
  • Keep in mind the importance of supporting the healthy sexual identity development of all young people – including LGBTQ youth. Find ways to deepen your own learning about connections between healthy sexual identity development and attitudes about gender, gender identity, gender expression and homophobia.
  • Finally, be open to challenging your own beliefs, attitudes and behaviors related to sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, and notions of masculinity and femininity. Think about the messages you may consciously or unconsciously convey in the language you use with and about boys and girls that might perpetuate gender bias and narrow conceptions of gender. As part of your learning, be willing to step up and challenge the gender status quo with other adults as well.

To learn about additional resources for addressing and preventing homophobia, you may be interested in the research and resources available from GLSEN, such as ways to involve students in Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) that are designed to improve school climate for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. You may also be interested in the variety of resources provided by Michigan State University Extension related to helping parents, educators and other adults understand issues of bullying, bias and harassment in the lives of young people. Among these is the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which is designed to help adults and young people work in partnership to create positive relationships and inclusive settings.

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