Thursday, March 13, 2008

Is homophobic abuse "endemic in schools"?

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers thinks so:
"More than 70% of teachers have heard put-downs in their school or college that refer to sexuality, according to a survey of 268 teachers by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. In particular, teachers report that pupils routinely use the term "gay" in a pejorative manner."
The other 30% have their heads up their asses. But Zoe Williams reckons the ATL are being a tad literally-minded:
"I do not for a second pretend to know what's going on with today's yoof, but I do know this: when schoolchildren call one another "gay", they do not mean homosexual. Or maybe they do sometimes, but not always. The word, paradoxically enough, having been appropriated by homosexuals in the first place, has now been seized back by homophobes to mean "rubbish" or, on some occasions, "broken"."
Some terribly earnest Liberal Democrat lady takes issue with this:
"Zoe Williams manages to reduce bullying and prejudice to semantics. Yes, language changes and I'm all for a living vibrant language. But changes in language do not happen by coincidence. I think the fact that gay, in the playground, now means rubbish, crap or broken is as a result of homophobia. What about those teenagers who are gay and hurt by these insults being thrown around? What about the gay teachers and adults around them? Did Zoe Williams consider them when she suggested that we all give up because teenage 'yoof' culture will win out in the end."
If you read both pieces, I think you'll agree it is unfair to accuse Zoe Williams of reducing bullying and prejudice to semantics.

Here's some observations of my own:

The use of 'gay' as a pejorative term is indeed widespread - and obviously it has a homophobic origin. Nevertheless it is true to say that when it is used it does not always, or even usually, refer to sexuality.

It does not follow from this that it is acceptable - although I don't think this is what Zoe Williams was saying exactly. The thing is, I think it's the Lib Dem here that is reducing prejudice and bullying to a question of semantics because while homophobia is indeed prevalent in schools, the use of the term 'gay' as a term of abuse is not indicative of its increase. Bad enough being a teenager, even worse being one who is a bit different, and I'd imagine pretty nightmarish being a gay teenager in a Glasgow school. However, it remains the case that there is a much greater toleration of homosexuality amongst teenagers than there was fifteen or twenty years ago.

But what do I know? More than any of the people linked above, that's what. But this is part of a wider issue: concerns over the language people use should not be dismissed as political correctness - but it is a mistake, I think, to imagine that you can alter people's attitudes simply by policing what they say.

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