Help young people explore connections between homophobic slurs and attitudes about masculinity

Adults have a responsibility to help kids understand and challenge homophobic name-calling and other hurtful behaviors.

Have you ever discussed with the young people in your life about how often they hear kids use slurs related to sexual orientation? Research studies, such as the National School Climate Survey published by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), have shown that homophobic name-calling is one of the most common forms of victimization in schools. Findings from a recent study of homophobic name-calling among middle school students suggested that a young person’s willingness to target others with this language is strongly influenced by their peer group, as well as their own and their group’s attitudes about gender and masculinity. Boys were more likely than girls to report higher levels of using homophobic name-calling, and the rates were higher for older middle school students. Boys in these higher grades also reported higher levels of attitudes related to traditional masculinity – meaning masculinity that reflects values including dominance, traditional gender roles, and a lack of emotion.

All of the adults in the lives of young people – including parents and other family members, teachers and other school staff, and staff and volunteers of youth organizations such as 4-H – have a powerful role to play in helping kids understand, prevent and interrupt these kinds of hurtful behaviors. Consider the following ideas:

  • Even though homophobic name-calling and the presence of traditional attitudes about masculinity were found to be more prevalent among boys, it’s important to help both boys and girls build skills for interrupting hurtful behaviors. Help them think about what might prevent them from speaking up – and help them identify and practice strategies for using their voices to interrupt homophobic name-calling and for being allies to those who are targeted.
  • Don’t wait until young people are in middle school to have conversations about these issues – start young! GLSEN research about biased language and hurtful behaviors in elementary schools showed that 45 percent of students reported that they heard comments like “that’s so gay” or “you’re so gay” from other kids at school sometimes, often or all the time. Twenty-three percent of these elementary-aged children also reported that students were called names or bullied because of being a boy who acts or looks “too much like a girl” or a girl who acts or looks “too much like a boy.”
  • Help kids challenge notions of masculinity that are narrowly-defined and based in dominance, power and control. Provide a picture of masculinity as including characteristics like caring, openness to differences, strength of character, and a willingness to be vulnerable and ask for help when needed. Help them build social and emotional intelligence and explore what it looks like to be courageous, open-hearted and sensitive to the needs of others.
  • Be open to challenging your own notions about gender and other areas of human differences. Think about the messages you convey in the language you use with and about boys and girls, and be willing to consider the impacts of your own beliefs, attitudes and actions related to differences.
  • The authors of the study about homophobic name-calling stressed that some young people appear to be more resilient when it comes to being targeted by these behaviors. Think about ways you can help kids develop resiliency as they navigate these and other challenging situations.
  • If young people (and other adults!) describe homophobic name-calling within peer groups as “all in fun” or “just the way we talk to each other,” help them understand that these behaviors contribute to a hostile environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students. Keep in mind that being targets of harassment behaviors (directly or indirectly) can put students at higher risk for poorer health and academic outcomes.
  • Finally, keep in mind the importance of supporting the healthy sexual identity development of young people – including LGBT youth. Take time to deepen your own learning about connections between healthy sexual identity development and attitudes about gender, gender identity and expression, and homophobia.

Michigan State University Extension provides opportunities for adults to learn more about ways to support the health and wellbeing of young people – including ways to prevent bullying, bias and harassment. These efforts are part of the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which includes a curriculum designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to create positive relationships and settings.

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