Last week, during my commute from work, I heard a segment on the NPR show “Talk of the Nation” that addressed the use of security cameras in public schools. Several administrators participated on the panel, most of whom sang the praises of these cameras, and they noted that the cameras were intended to reduce harassment, violence, gang-related activities, and drug-related issues. Although many thoughtful points were made, and it was a generally well-rounded discussion, not once was LGBTQ-related bullying and harassment addressed. So we’ll address it here.
This past week, the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) released The 2011 National School Climate Survey, which presents data collected from 8,584 students between the ages of 13 and 20. Specifically, the survey documented the experiences of LGBT students with regard to (1) indicators of negative school climate, such as verbal or physical harassment; (2) the possible negative effects of a hostile school climate, such as poor academic performance; and (3) the degree to which supportive resources, such as GSAs, were available in schools.
The findings presented in this report are extensive, and not particularly surprising, in my opinion. While things do seem to have gotten better over time, in that more resources are available for LGBTQ students, the school climate for many LGBTQ youth continues to be chilly. What’s interesting to me, though, is that a lot of the harassment that LGBTQ youth experience is the kind that’s unlikely to show up on security cameras. Consider these specific findings, for example:
84.9% of students heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91.4% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
61.4% heard negative remarks about gender expression (not acting “masculine enough” or “feminine enough”) frequently or often.
71.3% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often.
55.2% of LGBT students were victims of electronic harassment sometime in the past year – usually through things like text messages or postings on Facebook.
If someone makes a negative comment under their breath, just within earshot of the target of that comment, it’s unlikely that a teacher will catch it – and it’s unlikely that the security cameras would be sensitive enough to pick it up. And when it comes to cyberbullying, security cameras are useless – which is probably why electronic harassment has escalated in recent years. One of the panelists on the “Talk of the Nation” segment said it best: “If students who are misbehaving are certain that they’re going to get caught, then they won’t misbehave.” Students who mutter homophobic or gender-phobic comments under their breath, or who wait until they’re in a noisy, crowded hallway to make comments, or who restrict their harassing behavior to cyberspace – those students are pretty certain that they won’t get caught. And thus the culture of anti-LGBT harassment persists.
The effects of what I’ll refer to as “stealth harassment” are powerful. For example, a recent study published in the American Journal of College Health titled “’That’s So Gay!’: Examining the Covariates of Hearing This Expression Among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Students” found that, among the 114 LGB young adults surveyed, hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” was associated with feelings of isolation, headaches, poor appetite, and eating problems – all of which are classic signs of stress and anxiety. With those anxiety-related symptoms, it’s no wonder that homophobic remarks like this have the potential to mark the beginning of a slippery slope, leading to absenteeism, poor academic performance, continued social isolation, and possible depression and suicidal ideation. All from three simple words.
Students aren’t the only ones who contribute to a chilly climate. In fact, it’s very common to see teachers and other school personnel engaging in what I’ll call “passive homophobia.” When a student says “That’s so gay,” and a teacher says nothing, that’s passive homophobia. If a student tells a joke that makes fun of LGBTQ people, and a teacher laughs, that’s passive homophobia. Failing to challenge the issue perpetuates the problem.
But it’s also common for teachers to engage in “active homophobia.” According to the GLSEN survey, 56.9% of students – more than half – reported hearing homophobic remarks and/or negative remarks about gender expression from their teachers or other school staff. These school employees are making conscious, deliberate statements – and if these are the school employees who are reviewing the security camera footage for anti-LGBTQ harassment, then we’re in trouble. In fact, Neal Conan related this incident on “Talk of the Nation”:
When a dean saw two girls kissing in the hallway, he shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They pulled her out of school.
Whether the harassment is active or stealth, it’s still clearly woven in the fabric of our schools. And, based on the data, if all we did was eliminate the use of the phrase “That’s so gay,” that alone would have a tremendous impact on our LGBTQ youth. So here’s my call to action: next time someone uses the phrase “That’s so gay,” tell that person to stop.