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What Do We Know About Young People's Attitudes Toward Difference and Toward LGBTQ or Gender-Nonconforming Youth?

07/11/2012 11:34 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

What do we know about young people's attitudes toward difference and toward LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming youth?

This commonly asked question reflects a belief that youth who target LGBTQ peers or who use homophobic language do so because they are intolerant of LGBTQ identities or they lack empathy for the experiences of others. It also implies that educators and researchers need to focus attention on how individual students -- the bullies -- are deficient in their beliefs about LGBTQ and differently gendered people. In short, the implicit "problem" to be solved here is kids who engage in homophobic action and speech -- the ones with the bad attitudes. We argue that this question is too narrowly focused on individuals and needs to be broadened to explore the cultural sites in which youth develop these attitudes.

Young people's attitudes about difference are partially formed in a school-based social scene that rewards conformity, and school is a primary cultural site where youth learn the "rules" about who men and women are supposed to be. Catherine Lugg of Rutgers University tells us that children learn "their place" in the larger "U.S. political and social order through their public school experiences" -- and that place has a great deal to do with gender. Those who are viewed as not doing their gender "right" -- in other words not demonstrating the gendered behaviors and attitudes culturally associated with their biological sex -- are "marked" and policed by their peers and denied access to social power and popularity. Those who most exemplify gender conformity are often highly visible and celebrated (the iconic high school cheerleader and the quarterback) by peers and school. These patterns indicate that youths' marking and targeting of their LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming peers is not based solely on (real or perceived) sexual orientation, but rather on the ways youth evaluate and value gender conformity. The further a young person strays from idealized forms of masculinity and femininity, the more vulnerable they are to patterns of policing as well as more severe forms of violence. LGBTQ youth are often the most vulnerable in this system. Therefore, conversations on how youth think about difference need to move beyond questions addressing individual attitudes and behaviors and toward the ways in which schools (often unknowingly) privilege some groups of students and marginalize others based on gender and sexuality difference.

There are, however, changes in how children and youth view and value gender conformity as they grow older. Educational research consistently indicates that verbal and physical harassment increases as children transition from elementary school to middle school and changes again in tone and content in transition to high school. Elementary students' worlds are largely segregated by gender, with boys and girls occupying different physical spaces within schools and often positioning their social groups in opposition to one another (the girls vs. the boys). While it can be difficult for children who do not feel they fit neatly into the "girl" or "boy" box to navigate this segregated world, elementary-age children do also experience a certain amount of flexibility around gendered expectations and are often allowed to engage in "cross-gender" behavior or activities. Pressure for children to "out-grow" gender transgression intensifies as they get older and gender expectations become more rigid.

As children enter adolescence, social rules begin to change, and as youth are expected to engage in the heterosexual dating scene, peer groups alter to include boys and girls, and paths to social power become more exclusive and competitive. Expectations for gender conformity intensify, which implicitly gives youth permission to police peers' behavior -- rewarding those who conform and punishing those who do not. Researchers have described these changes in a variety of ways. We know that female athletes approaching adolescence fear not being viewed as "feminine enough," not being seen as attractive to boys, and being marked as lesbian. Many cease to play sports in middle school. We know that middle school can be more difficult than elementary school for transgender children because of the increasingly strict gender expectations. We know that students who are not seen as gender-conforming are often unable to achieve popularity in high school. We know that female students who excel in academics, sports, and the arts but who are not a part of the heterosexual social life of high school often feel like their contributions are not valued. We know that high school boys carefully manage their expressions of emotion and kindness to avoid accusations of femininity. We know that words like "fag" and "slut" are among the most feared and most used in high schools to target students as outside of acceptability -- these are words that police gender. Research consistently tells us that normative gendered expectations shift but are omnipresent in K-12 school experiences for all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.

Ubiquitous messages about who youth are allowed to be limit possibilities for how peers can relate to one another, the kinds of difference that are acceptable and rewarded in the school social scene, and how individuals can understand their own gender identity. Such strict regulation of difference produces a school climate in which LGBTQ youth are at risk for violence, and this will likely not shift until school professionals are better able to understand the effects of a heterosexist school culture on all members of a school community. It is important for schools to develop ways to think about and "see" their school environments as sites where some students have power and some do not -- thus the potential for violence, harassment and ridicule are always there. The goal is not simply ending individual students' aggressive or intolerant behaviors. It is also understanding these attitudes and behaviors as products of the social order operating in school.

When trying to understand why kids bully and which kids tend to be targets, it is important to step outside the image of the traditional bully/victim binary -- which supports the cultural myth that aggressors are youth who have a tendency toward violent behavior or have an impulse to wield power over peers whom they perceive to be weak in some way. This happens in peer cultures, but it only accounts for a fraction of the peer-to-peer aggression in schools and is only symptomatic of a larger problem. Targeting others for their failure to "do" gender "right" is a learned mechanism for improving or affirming one's own social status, and schools are (unknowing) participants in both teaching youth to use these tools and privileging some groups of kids over others. It is, therefore, important to examine how schools institutionalize heterosexuality and thereby support social positioning practices that privilege the traditional gender-conforming behaviors associated with it. Our next blog will explore this.

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.

'Heterosexism, Perfection, and Popularity: Young Lesbians' Experiences of the High School Social Scene.' ELIZABETHE C. PAYNE. Educational Studies. Vol. 41, Iss. 1, 2007