10/29/2013 02:05 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Rethinking LGBTQ Bullying

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. There have been countless PSAs, Facebook posts, and news articles about bullying awareness; suggestions for children's books and lesson plans that will teach children to be "nice"; and recommendations for intervention circulating all month. Despite the vast number and sources of these bullying awareness messages, they all are rooted in the same understanding of what bullying "is" and what we should do about it. The "problem" of bullying is repeatedly discussed in our culture as a problem with "bad" children who lack empathy, lack social skills, and need to learn to "be nice" to others. This idea that bullying is the result of poorly behaved children masks larger issues of inequality, fails to grasp the actual "function" of bullying, and neglects research examining kids' negotiations of the social hierarchies in their peer groups. "Anti-bullying" responses to this understanding of "the problem" include protection for individual victims and overlook these larger social issues, as well as "the role that schools play in the reproduction of social relations along axes of class, gender, race and ... sexuality" that privilege some and marginalize others.

The key question neither asked nor answered in these approaches is the question of who gets bullied and why. When educators understand "the problem" in this limited way, the cultural, systemic privileging of heterosexuality and gender normativity is never called into question, the marginalization of LGBTQ youth is reproduced and re-entrenched in new ways, and schools avoid claiming responsibility for their complicity in the aggression targeting LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming youth.

This dominant way of discussing bullying is rarely questioned because it aligns with the cultural mythology of the K-12 school experience. This mythology has a socially unifying force: Anyone who has been educated in U.S. public schools can provide a recognizable narrative of "the bully," and while there is a collective desire for the bully to be eliminated, there is also an acceptance of the bully's presence as a rite of passage or "normal." The problem of pervasive and persistent targeting and harassment of LGBTQ students fits easily into this collective memory of schooling: "Sure, the sissy guy gets bullied in school. It's always been that way." However, this interpretation of LGBTQ harassment fails to address why LGBTQ students have historically been hypervisible figures of "deviance" in the school environment (and thus the targets), and why, for decades, homophobic epithets like "fag" have served as such powerful tools for stigmatizing any student who falls outside social norms.

Traditional bullying approaches do not account for the social norms that dictate who students are "allowed" to be in the school environment, or who has access to power and prestige in the social culture of school. Furthermore, anti-bullying policies, though claiming "protection for all," do not address the "specific ways that particular children, and not others, are continual targets of peer violence." This is a critical point because dominant constructions of bullying -- defining the problem as "autonomous acts ... that can be accounted for through the character of one faulty individual" -- fail to address the role that bullying plays in preserving the power of privileged groups.

Speaking specifically about LGBTQ bullying, challenging this dominant definition means recognizing how acts of violence are embedded in and reproduce "normative power structures" that organize, reinforce, and police ideals of masculinity and femininity. Acts of LGBTQ harassment are "reiterations of the dominant order" that normalize the marginalization of students who do not conform or meet the rigid standards of traditional gender in some way. Bullying LGBTQ students is an act of social violence not only against an individual, but against gender and sexual difference. And in this way, bullying is a political act.

We propose a new definition of bullying that aims to provide a more useful framework for (1) understanding the social nature of the aggression that occurs between peers, and (2) designing interventions that will address the cultural roots of peer-to-peer aggression. Further, we wanted to develop a definition that challenges the dominant ways of viewing bullying and draws attention to the daily violence that often fades into the landscape of "normal" adolescent behavior. We argue that it is imperative to keep this subtle aggression in the foreground because it reflects the cultural norms embedded in a given context -- like a school or community -- and is the mechanism through which youth regulate the boundaries between "normal" and "deviant." Finally, we take the position that a majority of peer-to-peer aggression in U.S. public schools is some form of gender policing, and we believe that bullying must be redefined to account for relationships between peer targeting and structural inequalities:

Bullying is overt verbal, physical, or technology-based ("cyber," text messaging, etc.) aggression that is persistently focused on targeted person(s) over time. This behavior is visible aggression that has escalated from a larger system of low-level or covert normalized aggression that polices the boundaries between "normal" and "different" in a specific social context. Targeted person(s) are victimized because they are perceived to be outside the boundaries of "normal" as culturally defined within a peer group. This aggression is a tool for acquiring higher social status in a peer group because by targeting others as "different," the aggressor claims a higher position in the social hierarchy and reinforces the social "rules" of acceptability. Peer-to-peer aggression typically replicates structural inequality, and therefore patterns of targeting are likely to reflect systemic marginalization along lines of gender, sex, sexuality, race, (dis)ability, and class. Bullying frequently reinforces gender norms -- ideas about "correct" and "normal" masculinity and femininity. Students who are viewed as having non-normative gender (and by extension, sexuality) are frequent targets. Not all aggressive behaviors between students can be termed "bullying"; some are the result of individual conflict or personality differences.

By redefining bullying in this way, we hope to disrupt the cultural mythology of bullying as a taken-for-granted, coming-of-age experience in U.S. K-12 schools. This definition is meant to create emphasis on the cultural roots of "the problem" of peer-to-peer aggression, which will ultimately drive interventions that focus on shifting cultural norms.

As Jessica Ringrose and Emma Renold argue, "The hegemony and ultimate stranglehold of the bully and anti-bully discourses over educational research, policy and practice is in much need of a critical overhaul." Moving forward, research on and a re-envisioning of in-schools aggression must address the "socio-cultural dimensions of bullying and aggression" and the "intense" social competition and gendered expectations central to what it means to be a gendered person at school.

At QuERI, we are looking for ways to achieve sustainable change, and for any change to be sustainable, school interventions must take on the task of cultural change alongside violence intervention. The current anti-bullying paradigm does not offer the tools to accomplish this goal. By refusing to name what is most often targeted -- gender and sexual difference -- conversations on bullying fail to examine the power dynamics of bullying and the ways that these behaviors function to reproduce marginalization and reinforce narrow parameters for gender and sexuality.

What is needed are interventions that understand the problem of LGBTQ bullying as rooted in cultural values, not in individual "bad" children, and that see schools as sites where traditional genders and heterosexuality are valued, rewarded, and given positions of power and prestige. With this understanding, it becomes possible for schools to examine the implicit and explicit messages they send about who "matters" and is valued in school life and who does not, and how this gives implicit permission to target some students. Ultimately, this lens provides a richer understanding of how students are stigmatized in school, and this understanding is imperative for designing interventions that have any hope of creating sustainable change.

This blog post is based on a QuERI research article published this month in QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, "LGBTQ Kids, School Safety, and Missing the Big Picture: How the Dominant Bullying Discourse Prevents School Professionals from Thinking about Systemic Marginalization or... Why We Need to Rethink LGBTQ Bullying," by Elizabethe C. Payne and Melissa J. Smith.

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