To understand the persistence of anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment, we need to recognize that anti-LGBTQ bias is deeply entrenched in middle and high school kids' social hierarchies. Youth construct and maintain social categories -- who is popular and who is definitively not -- through the language they use. Students establish and reestablish their own position within the school social hierarchy by verbally marking others' positions as higher or lower than their own, and much of this verbal policing targets how students "do" their gender.
In other words, youth whose appearance or behavior does not meet the cultural expectations for masculinity or femininity are targeted with teasing. This behavior is largely considered to be a "normal" part of growing up and "surviving" adolescence, and being socially successful requires savvy engagement in this kind of verbal banter. It is possible that those who "bully" are youth who carry this "normal" targeting behavior to excess in a culture that allows them to access social power through devaluing others. Therefore, it is important to consider the ways in which "bullying," in various forms, is actually socially advantageous for the students who do it successfully. In short: bullying works.
Every student's speech, behavior, and dress is regulated and evaluated by cultural rules about the "right" way to exist in the school environment. As teachers, we know children mortified to get on the school bus in the "wrong" kind of blue jeans or girls who are perpetually self-conscious about their appearance for fear of possible social sanction. Youth's multiple gender policing practices often fail to draw adults' attention, or if they do, they are viewed as "normal behavior."
For example, it is considered normal for boys to roughhouse with each other in a competitive way that challenges each other's physical strength. The "loser" of these tussles is often labeled with words like "wuss" (a combination of the words "wimp" & "pussy"), "wimp," "fag," "girl," and other words intended to feminize him, thus devaluing his strength and toughness. These "boys will be boys" behaviors routinely reinforce the expectations of a traditional, physically dominant heterosexual masculinity. Further, this name calling reasserts the superiority of the manly straight man over other genders by demeaning both women and gay men, equating failure to win a physical competition with less masculinity and a reduced gender ranking.
For girls, spreading rumors about another girl's sexual reputation, insulting other girls' clothing, criticism of girls' attractiveness through commenting on weight, breasts, skin, and hair, and socially excluding girls as punishment for various perceived social infractions are all considered "normal" girl behavior. Youth operate within these acceptable dynamics of aggression to battle -- using gender policing -- for position in school social hierarchies, establishing who is "in" and who is "out." In labeling others, they clearly identify the most degraded, devalued positions in the school social order -- these largely continue to be "fag" for young men and "slut" for young women. Calling someone else these names passes the hot potato. If you call someone a slut, you are simultaneously declaring yourself to NOT be a slut. Students who are socially powerful are those who successfully convey heterosexuality and normative gender and avoid negative marking.
Targeting others for their failure to "do" gender "right" is a learned strategy for improving or affirming one's own social status. LGBTQ students -- or those who are perceived to be -- are the most vulnerable in this system, but all students are susceptible to gender regulations at all grade levels. Schools participate in elevating the social status of students who successfully demonstrate heterosexuality and gender conformity, and thereby support social positioning practices that privilege idealized heterosexuality and this narrow idea of "normal."
When we facilitate QuERI professional development workshops in schools, we ask educators to think about the groups of students who are most often honored for their success in school. We ask them to think about their schools' highly visible ceremonies, celebrations, and rituals and consider the embedded messages about what the school most values in its students. For example, schools that invest significant time and money into raising the visibility and prestige of men's athletics -- without doing the same for women's athletics or other extracurricular activities such as the arts or academic clubs -- are communicating to all students that physically powerful men are valued and deserving of high social status and that athletic success warrants greater praise and is of more value than, say, the academic success of the debate team.
Schools need to be self aware about the cultural norms embedded in their policies, curricula, practices, traditions and rituals and how peer-to-peer aggression actually serves the preservation of these norms. Until we can really think through "why" bullying works, and the ways that schools participate in gender regulation and evaluation, we are not likely to make any real strides in curbing the harassment LGBTQ and other gender non-conforming students experience in schools.
Our ideas on bullying have been formed both through our own teaching and research in schools and through engagement with the research and writing of others in our field. A more in-depth and academically referenced version of this first series in the QuERI blogs will be published later this year in the education journal Multicultural Perspectives.