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A Promising Report Card

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What is surprising in The Declining Significance of Homophobia, sociologist Mark McCormack's new book from Oxford University Press, is not that homophobia among 16- to 18-year-old boys in secondary education in the U.K. has declined, but that it has fallen out of fashion.

To be sure, opinion polls, both in the U.K. and in the U.S., support the view that attitudes toward gays and lesbians are rapidly changing among teenagers. The UCLA Cooperative Institutional Research Program's 2011 survey of incoming, first-year, American college students found that 71.3 percent supported marriage equality for same-sex couples, a 6.4-percent increase from 2009, the biggest shift among all the political and social indicators studied.

McCormack, 28, a Brunel University education lecturer in London, set out to find out what forms homophobia takes among youngsters today. To do so, he spent a year carrying out ethnographic research in a representative cohort of British youth drawn from three high schools -- one known as "comprehensive," another religiously based, and the third attended by learning-disadvantaged students -- in an "average" U.K. town in the south of England, perhaps a British equivalent of Lima, Ohio.

But if he expected to find an atmosphere like that seen in Glee's McKinley High, where gay acceptance mixes uneasily with hostility, he instead discovered schools more like Dalton Academy, where gay students are overtly embraced.

McCormack told Gay City News that recent graduation cohorts have exhibited remarkable changes in attitude and behavior. Six years ago, he said, gay students for the most part wouldn't dream of coming out, and four years ago, they were largely too hesitant to do so. Two years later, they still feared a personal cost of doing so, but they often stepped up anyway.

The balance seems to have tipped toward gay students seeing more disadvantages to staying in the closet. In one colorful case, being openly gay offered a clear advantage. A gay 16-year-old was elected student president and was playful about his sexuality in his campaign. "For Freedom, Fairness and Fun!" read his posters in large letters next to a photo of him dressed in his underwear. In smaller print the poster read, "Because he'll do whatever you'll ask him to."

The student president apparently knew his electorate well. Teenage boys told McCormack they view homophobia in the same light as racism. Their interaction in the school's common room, relatively free from oversight by authorities, is telling: When a boy made a comment that rang anti-gay to his peers, he was immediately corrected, an upbraiding he accepted with an apology.

Does that sound fantastical? It did to McCormack, who was closeted in school less than a decade ago. The climate in his all-boys school in London was so toxic with homophobia, he said, that it was only on graduation day that he came out. When he shared that experience with the students he met doing his research, they had a hard time visualizing such a handicap existing so recently.

McCormack, who subtitled his book How Teenage Boys Are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, found high school boys, straight and gay, less worried about managing a reputation as macho or as a jock. Yes, jocks still rank high in popularity, but the softer, more inclusive standard of masculinity McCormack found makes for a schoolyard closer to an equal-opportunity ideal. Schoolboys show a greater appreciation today for energetic, engaging personalities based in values such as authenticity and self-definition.

So many youths see themselves as gay-friendly that they are less likely to wonder if their friends are gay. If someone hasn't come out, his friends will usually assume that means he's simply not gay.

That attitude, McCormack argued, contrasts strikingly with the "homohysteria" (a term coined by his doctoral adviser, sociologist Eric Anderson) that greeted the earlier wave of gay visibility, accompanied by the specter of AIDS, in the 1980s and '90s. Back then a boy, whether gay or straight, grew up inhaling and exhaling homophobia. Many youths carefully distanced themselves from anything or anyone even remotely thought of as gay; that branding came at too high a price.

The fact that much of that energy need no longer be expended, McCormack asserted, benefits straight youths no less than gays.

McCormack is careful not to carelessly generalize from his sample, specifically on the experience across the pond in the U.S. Still, his message is clear: Gay visibility, at least in some quarters outside the usual haunts in London, New York, San Francisco, and the like, has shifted to a new, gay-inclusive default, with meaningful implications for the lives of both gay youth and their peers. McCormack's case studies provide concrete examples to bolster the picture that the UCLA data only hints at.

McCormack provides a nuanced contrast to a comprehensive 2006 study carried out by Stonewall, Britain's largest LGBT rights organization. The group found that the well-being of gay students was most influenced by school policy and teachers' attitudes.

"Pupils who are taught positively about lesbian and gay issues are 60 per cent more likely to be happy at school and 40 per cent are more likely to feel respected," the 2006 study found. Clear policies against bullying and their consistent enforcement have a decisive effect on gay students' feelings of acceptance and safety, Stonewall concluded.

In talking to students, however, McCormack found that they felt their attitudes were out front of school policies.

"So, do you think this school is bad for homophobia?" one student asked him.

"No, not really," McCormack replied. "I wish my time at school was a bit more like this." McCormack wrote that the youth "looked a little perplexed" at this.

"Don't you find it homophobic?" the student asked. "There are no openly gay teachers," he explained, adding, "Gay stuff is never spoken about in lessons."

Another student said that when he asked a teacher about homosexuality, "she told us not to ask those questions."

With straight high school boys showing clear signs of more positive attitudes toward their gay peers, it is more, not less, important to match that progress with formal school policies. Gay-friendliness on the ground doesn't let society's institutions off the hook for offering responsible leadership. The Declining Significance of Homophobia should serve as a reminder of the timeless lesson taught by Socrates, that education begins with the teachers.

The piece first appeared on Gay City News. I also reviewed the book in Hebrew on Havana.