Silent homophobia

By professor Henrique C. Nardi, Institute of Psychology

Rio Grande do Sul Federal University (Brazil)

In Canada, there is the effort of conservative school boards to “protect” the religious values of their families by banning early childhood books that validate the lives of gay families. According to psychologist James T. Sears, Professor at Penn State University (USA), even in countries where Christianity has less influence, such as in China, the prominence of the family and family duty has an enormous influence on attitudes about homosexuality and the willingness of young people to choose a same-sex partner. “The pervasiveness of religious influence in public schooling can also be seen in European countries (notably those in the South and East)”, says Sears in the following interview.

Sears is author of Teaching and Thinking About Curriculum: Critical Inquiries (1990, 2001, EIP Press), Growing up Gay in the South: Race, Gender, and Journeys of the Spirit (1991, New York: Haworth Press), Sexuality and the Curriculum: The Politics and Practices of Sexuality Education (1992, New York: Teachers College Press), When Best Doesn’t Equal Good: Educational Reform and Teacher Recruitment, A Longitudinal Study (1994, New York: Teachers College Press), Bound by Diversity (1994, Columbia, SC: Sebastian Press) and Overcoming Heterosexism and Homophobia: Strategies that Work (1997, New York: Columbia University Press), among others.

Based on your vast experience and knowledge about LGBT youth affirmative politics in the field of education, could you summarize global situation in terms of best practices and main political disputes?

Policies and practices range widely across the globe. Among those countries with the most LGBT youth affirmative policies are Canada, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. These policies are often the result of a combination of legal rulings and legislative mandates. In Canada, for instance, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Human Rights Acts have firmly established the rights of LGBT Canadian citizens. In Europe, the growing prominence of the EU has resulted in legal guarantees through accords such as Article 13 of the Treaty of Amsterdam. This legal process, in turn, created a favorable environment for LGBT youth-affirmative policies and programs.

Many countries are simply silent on this issue. Japan and China, as examples, have no official policies prohibiting (or protecting) sexual minorities whereas Malaysia actively persecutes homosexuals as do the mostly Muslim countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Translating affirmative queer youth policies into practices in the field, however, have proven more elusive. In my work in New Zealand, for example, there is a significant gap between what is mandated at the national level and what youth experience practically in schools. The New Zealand school system was decentralized in the early 1990s, and every school has its own Board of Trustees. Schools devise their own teaching programs, which must be compatible with the National Curriculum Framework. Teachers, counselors, and administrators—especially outside the urban areas—are not well-educated to the needs of queer youth, skilled in meeting their needs, or even supportive of them. Most schools do not allow young people to bring a same-sex partner to their annual School Ball, an event that is traditional part of a young person’s ‘coming of age’ experience.

The gap between public policy and educational practice can be found in all countries, but one cannot simply assume that because countries such as New Zealand have enacted policies (or even developed curriculum guidelines) that these changes are felt in the classroom. Even in the Netherlands, arguably one of the most progressive countries in the world on LGBT issues, only about one-in-ten schools invite local LGBT organization to conduct some sessions every year.

Outside of formal education, there are more opportunities to provide support for queer youth. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, Rainbow Youth provides support, contact, information, education and advocacy for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, takatäpui, and fa’afafine (LGBTTF) youth. Rainbow Youth, led by youth themselves, facilitate three regular groups where LGBTTF youth can meet, socialize, and gain support from others experiencing similar issues. Such initiative can be found in many countries, including some of the most religious like the Republic of Ireland and the United States. Governmental support for youth programs, notably Belong2 in Dublin, and, in my work in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, integrating homophobic bulling into the overall anti-bullying policies/programs are important indicators of how quickly homophobic policies can be transformed into affirmative ones. Similar radical transformation can be seen in the Australian state of Tasmania. And, for those countries which have a longer history of affirmative policies, other innovative programs are developing. In Canada, there is now a summer leadership camp for queer youth. Camp FireFly has been very successful, receiving positive media coverage and results. There are efforts to expand this to other parts of the country.

As you can see, until now I have omitted the United States (among others) since youth policies are generally the province of individual states and municipalities. Thus, like Brazil, one may find affirmative policies in specific geographical areas. In the U.S this would include states such as Wisconsin, California, and New York (ranging from anti-harassment/bullying policies inclusive of sexual orientation/gender identity to financial support of educational programs such as the famous Harvey Milk High School in New York City).

How big is the influence of religion?

Political disputes often revolve around religious issues. In Canada, the debate has centered on the certification of teachers in religious schools and the compatibility of their religious moral codes with the nation’s requirement that teachers value all sexual orientations equally. There is also the effort of conservative school boards to “protect” the religious values of their families by banning early childhood books that validate the lives of gay families.

Even in countries where Christianity has less influence, such as in China, the prominence of the family and family duty has an enormous influence on attitudes about homosexuality and the willingness of young people to choose a same-sex partner. This, coupled with an authoritarian regime that discourages organizing of any kind, means—at least from my visits to China—nearly insurmountable problems in collectively addressing issues of queer youth.

The pervasiveness of religious influence in public schooling can also be seen in European countries (notably those in the South and East). Obligatory education, as an example, in Italy includes weekly at least one hour of Catholic religion teaching, which offers doctrinaire positions against homosexuality, as well as deeply religious sentiments of Polish citizens which makes organizing so difficult. Even in supposedly more secularized European countries like France, despite the country’s progressive civil protections of homosexual citizens’ rights, there is no requirement for the schools to address any specific needs of LGBT youth and few organizations work with them.

Religion’s counterveiling policy influence can also be clearly seen in South Africa, which has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Nevertheless, LGBT youth report deeply entrenched homophobia within their school contexts; with both staff and pupils responsible for name calling (e.g., “moffie” – an Afrikans, derogatory term, denoting overtly feminine characteristics), exclusion, and both physical and emotional abuse. While private schools may have recourse to better trained and more up to date counselors, the majority of state schools simply do not have the funding to better equip their staff. This inadequacy of LGBT training and personal bias is also reflected in professional mental health training and practice in South Africa.

Yet, even in some countries where religion and the state are intertwined, significant progress has been made. In Israel, with the rise of the Labor Party in the 1990s, there have sweeping civil reforms for homosexual and transgender citizens. In education, most of the progress has been made at the university level, there is now some efforts to work with queer youth and to XX.

But the reluctance of governments to support queer youth affirmative programs can also be masked under the need for “financial restructuring.” Hence, the very successful Massachusetts safe schools program supporting gay-straight alliances in schools and the much touted Triangle Program in Toronto have faced serious challenges under the guise of “budget balancing.”.

While the meanings and language associated with same-sex and “gender-appropriate” behaviors varies across culture, as it has across time, what is more common is the omnipresence of negative attitudes towards people who do not conform to social and sexual norms. Even in cultures where certain forms of same-sex behavior are more or less accepted, it usually is not public or discussed. Across the globe, the mandate forms of heterosexual behavior and to perform heterosexual rituals is ubiquitous. So, too, then is homophobia, heterosexism, and heteronormative—often interlocked with issues of race, gender, social class, and post-colonialism.

Could you describe the research’s main advancements in this field and the more obscure or uncertain areas that need to be explored?

Probably the most well-researched areas relating to LGBT youth and education are around what might be terms “deficits and risks:” suicidality; drug abuse; sexual promiscuity and unsafe sex practices; eating disorders; depression and poor self-concept. The data for placing queer youth at risk is certainly unassailable after two decades of this research, but it is also misleading.

It is misleading since it has focused on the minority of LGBTQ youth who have the most visible problems and needs. There are now efforts underway—which I think need much greater exploration—that researches the capacity-building of queer youth and those who evidence resilience, despite the routine homophobia and heterosexism they confront. By looking at both the psychological characteristics of these “resilient queer youth,” and at those protective factors (e.g., family, community, peer group, school) that have contributed to their resilience, we can move beyond the single deficit/at-risk narrative of queer youth and, most importantly, looking at how specific and targeted programs can enhance youth resilience.

While it is important to change governmental policies, a change in such policies does not guarantee changes in the lived-experience of queer youth. After the hard work of legislative and judicial reform, comes to harder work of grass-roots organizing and community development. Once the legal and bureaucratic hurdles are reduced or eliminated, we have the responsibility to engage in a research praxis, which marries extant research knowledge and theoretical insight for educational action. And, it is this dialectical relationship between theory and practice, that we can realize real and sustained improvement in the quality of life for queer youth—and for everyone. In order to do this, researchers must be collaborative engaged with youth workers, policy persons, and youth themselves.

Beyond the need to move from the psychopathology of at-risk behavior to the psychology of resilience, we need to move forward with research that is transnational, interdisciplinary, longitudinal, multi-paradigmatic, and uses various methodologies. This requires moving away from the hegemony of U.S. research as we develop working cross-cultural teams to move to the next level of research issues impacting everyday practice and the lives of young people. Here we need to think about expanding our populations of interest (e.g., rural, indigenous, special needs), enlarging our sites (e.g., from secondary to primary schools), developing both standard measures (e.g., sexual behavior) and emic standards (e.g., sexual identities), applying various analyses (e.g., post-colonial, phenomenology, queer theory), involving youth as partners in our research while moving beyond logocentrism in our design and analysis. In short, we must enter into the next generation of research.

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