In the course of interviewing and speaking with sixteen lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) youth for Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools (coauthored with Brian Burtch), I heard from young people just how prevalent homophobia and transphobia were in their high school experiences. This might come as a surprise because students, teachers and administrators rarely see outright physical forms of harassment against LGBTQ youth. The former students I spoke with talked about more subtle forms of homophobia and transphobia which made the young people feel like they were not represented nor welcome in their schools. They spoke of a complete absence of LGBTQ people in the curriculum, of unchallenged outright homophobic comments made under the guise of personal opinion (for example, “I wish all gay people would die”) and of homophobic slurs being used to describe people or objects in a negative way (for example, “That’s so gay”). These experiences were not rare – they were a part of everyday life for the young people I spoke with. Still, many of the youth described their high school experiences overall as positive.
As I listened to the young people speak about their high schools experiences I had a hard time understanding how they could describe them in such an affirmative way. When I asked why they characterized their experiences as positive, the young people all said the same thing – I felt supported. Whether they were supported by friends, by one or more teachers or a school counsellor, the young people who felt that someone was there to intervene or to just listen as they spoke about their experiences were able to cope with the homophobia and transphobia in high school and to maintain a sense of self worth. What I realized from this work was that we all can, or as I see it must, do something every day to address homophobia and transphobia. Some ideas include:
· Check your own language. Phrases like ‘that’s gay’ are common vernacular and can impact the people around us. Although people don’t often make the link between the phrase and LGBTQ identities, using ‘gay’ as a synonym for stupid, disagreeable, dumb sends a message that LGBTQ people are stupid, disagreeable, dumb.
· Intervene when others say something homophobic or transphobic. We may not use homophobic or transphobic language ourselves, but if we fail to intervene when other people do, we are saying that LGBTQ people are fair game and are appropriate targets. Let others know that their language is hurtful and that you won’t stand for it.
· Provide positive messages about LGBTQ people. The youth we spoke with said that where there were not negative things said about them there was silence – and silence can speak volumes. Let people know that it is OK to talk about LGBTQ people and by extension to identify as LGBTQ by providing positive examples and role models for young people.
Young people encounter homophopbia and transphobia daily – our efforts to counter those messages must be daily as well. We all have some impact on LGBTQ youth – the question is whether we will contribute to, or challenge, the homophobia and transphobia they sometimes see as insurmountable.