Homophobic slurs and attitudes about masculinity – is there a connection?

Recent study links middle school students’ use of homophobic name-calling with peer influences and beliefs about traditional masculinity.

Many young people report that homophobic slurs and name-calling are a common part of their everyday experiences. According to findings from the 2013 National School Climate Survey (conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network – GLSEN), nearly three-quarters of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students reported hearing the word “gay” used in a derogatory way often or frequently at their school, and two-thirds heard homophobic remarks (such as “faggot” or “dyke”) often or frequently. A recent study published in the Social Development journal looked at the homophobic name-calling behaviors of middle school students. The findings suggested that a young person’s willingness to target others with this language is strongly influenced by their peer group (the friends that they spend a lot of time with). These hurtful behaviors are also influenced by their own attitude and their group’s attitudes about gender and masculinity.

The study involved having students complete a survey two times (the first time in spring and the second time in fall), so that the researchers could identify any changes in their responses over time. The survey asked these early adolescents how often they had called others (including their friends) homophobic names, how often they had been called these words by others (including their friends), and their experiences related to general bullying behaviors. The study also assessed their attitudes about traditional masculinity – meaning masculinity that reflects values including dominance, traditional gender roles, and a lack of emotion. Some of the study’s findings include:

  • Boys and girls reported similar levels of involvement with general bullying behaviors related to both bullying others and being targets of these behaviors. However, girls reported less involvement with using or being targeted by homophobic name-calling, and they reported significantly lower levels of traditional masculinity attitudes compared to boys.
  • While there were no differences across grade levels related to being targeted by homophobic name-calling, seventh- and eighth-graders reported higher levels of carrying out these behaviors toward others. Students in seventh and eighth grade also reported higher levels of traditional masculinity attitudes compared to younger students.
  • When students responded to the surveys, they identified other students within their friendship group. Having this information allowed the researchers to assess whether there were changes in behaviors and attitudes over time that could be connected with the overall peer group. The results suggested that masculinity and gender played a significant role in maintaining behaviors and norms within peer groups. The study found that boys who have been called homophobic names themselves (which often occurs within the homophobic banter of a friendship group) and who have friends with traditional attitudes about masculinity and who engage in high levels of homophobic bantering are among the most likely to call others homophobic names.

There are a variety of strategies that the adults in kids’ lives can use to help them understand, prevent and interrupt these kinds of hurtful behaviors. To learn more, refer to the article titled Help young people explore connections between homophobic slurs and attitudes about masculinity. You may also be interested in exploring the variety of educational opportunities that Michigan State University Extension provides for adults who are interested in addressing these issues. 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 that are free of bullying, bias and harassment.

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