Homophobia in Middle School

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Related page: Lesbian & Gay Parents of Teens

Nov 1999

I am getting more concerned about the amount of homophobia going on in my son's middle school (King, in Berkeley). He comes home from 7th grade and tells me stories regularly about the kinds of things kids are saying (all things they don't like are gay, accusing kids of being gay for wearing certain clothes, etc,) complaining about gay teachers, etc. I know it really bothers him, and it certainly affects his feelings that he can't tell kids that he has lesbian moms. I'm wondering what has been done at other schools on this issue, and if any King parents would like to talk with me about what we could do there. Please feel free to respond to my individual e-mail or to this newsletter. Thanks. Ellie

I'd like to second what Ellie wrote about homophobia in the schools. I have daughters in 5th grade at Columbus and in 7th grade at King, and they very much fear that other kids might find out that they have two moms. That means they refuse to invite new friends home, and it affects every part of their lives. We need the schools to support kids with alternative families, and to provide tolerance education for the kids who have learned never to use racist or ethnic epithets but who call each other faggot with impunity. I've spoken to teachers and administrators at both schools and have been impressed with their enlightened views and their support of our family, but how do we get that translated to changed behaviors at recess?

My daughter is a sophomore in a private school. The term gay is used by her and her friends as an all-around negative. I mention this to confirm that the problem is not limited to your son's middle school. This must be very hurtful for your son since he closely identifies himself with you as his moms. If he is willing to discuss it that might help to diffuse some of his feelings. Would it help to talk about how we sometimes negatively stereotype any group we deem different from ourselves and how unfair that is. The middle school and high school years are ones when kids find it *especially* difficult to be different from their peers. His greatest loyalty is undoubtedly to his family, but he also wants to fit in and be accepted at school. He's in a tough spot. My heart goes out to your son and you. I would consider offering him some professional counseling to help him handle this.

I'm a former King parent (my son just started 9th grade at BHS) and I have noticed the same levels of homophobia you're talking about in the junior high schools. I don't think it ever goes away as an issue, especially for boys, but I think jr. high is the hot bed of it. I have some thoughts on the subject from having spoken with my own son about how to deal with it, but can't say I've had the time right now(I'm a single parent who's been in graduate school for the past three years) to confront it on a school-wide level. If you'd like to talk by phone sometime to brainstorm ideas, I'd be happy to think with you about the issue, even if I can't offer to roll up my sleeves right now.

Actually, I am currently writing about the inherently oppressive (to boys/men) nature of conventionally defined masculinity for a seminar I'm attending next month in Chicago on the subject of Masculinity at the End of the Millenium in which we're going to be discussing the social construction of masculinity. In the paper, I bring up the subject of homophobia as one of the most manipulative features of the patriarchy's iron grip on men. We know a lot about its fallout on the rest of us, but I think we tend to overlook the price that boys/men pay for their privileges in this culture. I think it's critical for boys to get support in this area so that they don't become agents of oppression in order to avoid becoming targets of it. They need to understand that they have another option, which is to see through the crap and be allies to each other. Thanks for raising this extremely important issue.

My son is a junior at BHS. For the past few years, he and his friends have consistently used gay as an all-purpose negative pejorative. At first I ignored it - I thought well, it could be worse. After all, 'Gay' is the polite word adults use; at least they aren't using cruder words. Also kids seem to go through a stage in middle school where they begin cursing a lot amongst themselves, so I figured this was a phase that would pass by soon.

But it continued on into high school, and it started bothering me a lot more. We have very close family friends who are a lesbian couple. So I started to call him on it. I'd say What if our friends heard you saying that? They would be very hurt. He told me they know we don't mean it like that. It's just a word kids use to mean 'messed up'. I told him how hard it was on our friend when she was in high school and she knew she was different. I asked him how he'd feel if he were gay and kids all around him were making fun of people like him all the time. He doesn't seem to believe there are any gay kids in high school, or at least, not any that he knows personally.

When my son's best friend, who is bi-racial, called somebody 'gay', I told him what kids used to say when I was in high school in Alabama in the '60's and asked if he could relate to that. He said kids still use those words - they are just words. We know it doesn't mean anything. When I reprimand them, my son and his friend tell me, half jokingly You are too paranoid! You think everybody is racist and sexist! However, I persist. I call them on it every time. When a kid visits who's never been to our house before, and uses the word 'gay', I see my son cringe because he knows I'm going to embarass him by calling the kid on it. But stubborn persistence does seem to eventually pay off at home at least, though I feel sure he will join in at school with other kids when no one is around to correct him.

Yesterday I brought it up with him again after reading Ellie's message. I told him about how she said her child feels when he hears other kids using the word 'gay'. This time my son told me that a good friend's mother is a lesbian. I didn't know. I asked him how the friend feels when he hears 'gay' all the time, and he said We all know not to say 'gay' around him because he will beat us up. I was surprised - I didn't know how to respond. I think he didn't really mean that they are afraid of getting beat up, but that they are more sensitive to the feelings of the friend, out of respect to the friendship. But I said So should I suggest to Ellie that her son should go around beating up the other kids who use 'gay'? Is that how to solve this problem? He said in frustration I don't know! Why are you asking me? How should I know!

It struck me that my son really doesn't know how to resolve the conflicting pressures of the need to fit in with the desire not to hurt anyone. Maybe the conflict is too difficult for him to work out on his own, and he needs a firm rule that he can follow (or not follow) without having to think too hard about it. So that's my goal at home - zero tolerance for derision. At school - well, every school my kids have attended has a rule about respecting others. So the rule is in place, we just need to keep reminding our schools that we really do want it enforced. I am not so sure about organized enlightenment sessions - my experience from being a woman in a male-dominated field is that mandatory institutionalized enlightenment can backfire and cause the intended recipients more harm than good.

One thing we parents can do is to have a rule that no one will ever be derided in our presence and insist that all kids stick to it when they are around us. We have to set a good example too. I doubt whether any of us makes fun of other races and genders in front of our kids, but do we make fun of religious people? or trailer trash? or politicos we don't agree with? If we do that, we can't ask our kids not to. The other thing we can do is to keep trying to appreciate and support the kids and the adults who are different, so they don't have to either suffer silently or else be brave enough to stand up to the crowd. In Berkeley, different might mean a kid who wears pants that actually fit, so we have to keep an open mind about what it means to be different. But Berkeley is a better place than anywhere else I can think of for all kinds of differences to be accommodated. The way I think it's going to happen is we make sure the 'respect' rule is in place, and then each of us must optimize the home situation, and work on having a ripple effect.

It isn't just kids of alternative families that are affected by this. My son came home one day asking what Gay meant. I later learned he'd been teased by other boys for having friends that are girls, for being interested in arts and not in team sports, for preferring to do gymnastics on the bars in school (which mostly only girls do) instead of playing football or basketball and for having a shirt the color purple! He was eight years old! It horrifies me to see that his slight deviation from the stereotypical boy has brought such repercussions, especially in Berkeley. I would think his talents and charms would be appreciated by more than just his teachers and the girls! It saddens me to think that his options are to turn away from his true interests to fit in or stick with them and be taunted and teased.

Thanks to Ginger for a most enlightened response to Ellie's concerns about adolescent homophobia. I hope more parents and teachers will continue to attack this problem with such persistence in the family and one-on-one at school. Homophobia is an anathema to my daughters, now ages 15 and 17, though neither is gay, and we (heterosexual) parents are not activists. Both girls are sympathetic and supportive of gay and lesbian people and issues, and have themselves been considered weird because of it. Since they do not attend an ordinary school, they may not hear so much of this pejorative use of gay as it crops up in school yard culture. They attend BHS alternative Independent Study program, where they find it a relief to be individuals both in their academic relationships with teachers, and in their friendships with other teens. There are many reasons we've chosen Independent Study, but one is to avoid the often toxic attitudes and cliques that are fostered in the usual schoolyard social life.

I hope I'm not too late with my 2 cents about Ellie's message. I've been aware of this issue for many years, since my older son (now 19) was at Albany Middle School, where this type of insult was very popular 6 or 7 years ago. It wasn't until he reached high school (in Moraga), however, that he started to use gay as a pejorative for everything under the sun. It took me a while, but I was relentless about not permitting sexual orientation to be used as an insult, and I finally broke him of the habit (at least when I'm around). I also tried working on the underlying attitude (it didn't help that his father was deeply homophobic), and I think I've made progress as he has matured and his analytical abilities have really kicked in. This became such an issue at his high school that last year they had an evening program for the entire school community about it. After attending the assembly (which was required by one of his teachers), my son was more open to thoughtful discussion about sexuaI orientation and issues of privacy, respect for difference, etc. I asked my 10-year-old about his school, and he tells me that there are some disgusting guys who use inappropriate language and who talk about sex in general, but that he and his friends don't (they are still too busy just being 10 to worry about issues of sexuality). I anticipate, however, that the issue will come up again when he gets to middle school next year (although I'm hoping that the family discussions he participated in with me and his big brother over the past 4 years have registered). Ellie, I'm so sorry that you, your partner, and your son are going through this. Middle school is such an insecure, miserable time in any case, and any type of difference makes you so vulnerable (my older son went through this with his ethnicity on 2 fronts--Puerto Rican/Jewish). I hope you and other MLK parents can find some strategies to support your children through this and to combat these attitudes at the school.

I have been following the discussion of homophobia and now have some information to add. My family has been impacted deeply by this gender problem and I chose to persue solutions . I don't want or need to revisit the events, needless to say Berkeley is not so enlightened as one might hope.My son lost his innocence and endured hardships no child should. Rather than engaging a legal solution I pestered district administrators to implement the policies I learned about through research especially through LAMBDA. I attended policy and legislative sessions at the Oakland GLSEN[gay lesbian straight educators network] conference.Some of Berkeley's teachers and students from the Diversity project put on terrific sessions as well. I made contact with them and other parents including the parent education project called CPEP.CPEP did a full day on Racism and Homophobia. I keep pressuring the BUSD Title IX coorindator, the school board,Chris Lim, Jack through a uniform complaint procedure, all the while during my homework for the eventual meeting to create policies and practicies to prevent homophobia. This did not reguire re-inventing the wheel ,more it was a understanding of more practical administrative steps. Hence here is what Berkeley has currently adopted as poliy as of late spring '99. We have basically the same anti-slur policy as San Francisco, this is necessary to back up rules and discipline actions. Joaquin Riveria and Pamela Doolan wrote a superb and comprehensive professional development policy which includes staff development and inclusive curriculum adopted in k-12 . These changes will take time. East Bay GLSEN and the national GLSEN are currently creating curriculum for K-12. We here in Berkeley need to have all staff receive training including noon supervisors and student safety officers . It wouldn't surprise anyone if I said staff currently are overwhelmed. I trust this will eventually occur. I have ask Karen Sarlo of BUSD public information to put these two policies on the website, I haven't seen them yet. I also learned how important a quality sexual harrassment policy which incudes procedures eliminates the messy outcomes of poor training. I bought the district officials the best one I could find . I still am unclear as of the status but have been invited to a meeting to discuss this. I know these solutions are still not enough . They are the necessary first steps. I'm committed as so many of you are to continue as we become the global community we are meant to be. Warmly, laura

p.s. AB537 amending the CA education code to include anti-discrimination of gay or precieved as gay students has been signed by the Governor Davis last week, we now join the other states who have shown leadership

The BHS Gay/Straight Alliance has programs planned for the middle school to help students with awareness and compassion.

As a teacher who is working on tolerance and diversity at my middle school, the largest part of the equation is not being addressed in our district, and that is the home environment of the students. We have zero tolerance for homophobic attacks or slurs at our school, since they are covered under personal safety or sexual harrassment rules, but as one writer said, we can't control what is said and we can't effectively deal with things that are said without our knowledge. Some students do tell us about name calling, but it's like a flood tide occuring at all times. Our staff has had training on Safe Schools, engaged in many staff development discussions, videos, workshops, GLISN panels and still feel that our knowledge and ability to turn back the tide of homophobia is limited. The parents in our community felt that any discussions of homosexuality should not be included in our health curriculum. Our faculty is drafting a letter requesting its inclusion to the curriculum, but will that be enough?

We were so disheartened to find after an inspiring lunchtime ( teacher) viewing and discussion of the film Respect For All that a student had written homo on a white board in the locker room during the same lunch hour. It is not possible for schools to deal with all of society's ills and proceed with education as if everything is just fine. We are committed to making a change, however. Our district is flying 20 teachers to the Museum of Tolerance's training sessions in L.A. next week. We know it will be inspirational, but hope it will be effective. It would be helpful if there was a program similar for parents. Any suggestions? We've had GLISN talk to them, too.

I want to thank Laura for her insightful and practical info re homophopia.

I want to add one comment on the homophobia issue. We are a lesbian couple and our son went to a private elementary school in Berkeley, where two of his teachers were lesbian moms. He went to King for junior high and suddenly discovered that his family is unusual. He was fairly closeted about being the child of gay parents for 7th and most of 8th grade. By late 8th grade, most of his friend knew and one of his friends, he found out, also had a lesbian mom. Although there was a lot of general homophobia expressed, he didn't experience any personal hostility. We were pleased by the acceptance that we, as parents, received from the principal and our son's teachers at King. His friends tend to be flexible types, but he has felt acceptance by other kids at Berkeley High. When I recently asked how he feels about telling kids about his family (he's a senior), he said it isn't a problem. There is certainly a lot of homophobia at Berkeley High, but there is a certain amount of tolerance as well--or maybe he has just been lucky.

I want to thank everyone who responded to my issue about homohobia in middle schools - both publically and privately. I was very moved by many of the messages, and found the perspectives and suggestions to be very helpful. I would like to figure out how to work on this issue at King, and I will contact the people who told me they also would like to see what we could do. The more I talk about it with both parents and teens, the more complex it gets. Now I see that we're not just talking about homophobia, but also gender roles, and how kids are teased for being outside any perceived norm.

It's hard to see what we can do to help our kids to stay open to all kinds of diversity, and understand the impact of their use of words like gay. Teachers can't control what happens during free time at school, and a zero tolerance for homophobia policy seems to have no impact when teachers aren't around!

A 7th grade friend of ours at King (a girl) just told me this weekend that she told a new friend who asked her why her answering machine message refers to 2 womens' names - that she had two moms, and her friend just walked away from her. This girl says she finds the homophobia at King to be an extremely unpleasant part of going to school there!

Thanks again for all your support.