Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Decline of Homophobia?

I finished the book I was reading last night, The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality by Mark McCormack (Oxford, 2012).  I'd found it on the New Arrivals shelves at the university library, and of course I was skeptical, so I decided to have a look at it.  McCormack is a young gay British sociologist, and the book is based on fieldwork he did in three English high schools, though of course he surveys other literature as well.  There is evidently quite a bit of evidence of a sharp decline in homophobia in the past decade among young people in England generally, and to a lesser extent in the US.  That much I knew, though I am still somewhat skeptical.

When I was a college student at Indiana University forty years ago, I encountered very little homophobia personally, though I heard about incidents involving other people.  Even in my small-town Indiana high school, I neither saw nor experienced much fag discourse or competitive machismo. It seems that younger people are generally less uncomfortable with homosexuality than older people, which suggests to me that there is a life-cycle pattern of increasing homophobia with age.

Still, McCormack's fieldwork yielded some fascinating results.  He began at the school he calls Standard High, near a middle-class neighborhood but with a "demographic similarity to the population of the United Kingdom -- its students reflect the race and class profile of the country as a whole" (12).   After three months he was so surprised by the environment he found there that he decided to observe other schools in the area, settling on Religious High (the largest of the three, with over a thousand students) and the much smaller Fallback High, in a poorer neighborhood but still "rated by the school inspector as good (the same as Standard High)" (ibid.).

What he found was a nearly total absence of homophobia and an inclusive, non-stratified masculinity among boys in all three schools (the few exceptions were at Fallback).  There were not many openly gay, lesbian or bisexual students, but they were comfortable in their environment, made friends easily, and experienced no harassment or bullying.  One openly gay boy was elected Student Union president at Religious High (see pages 76ff).

Just as remarkable was the lack of stratified masculinity among the heterosexual boys: while jocks were still among the most popular students, there were other bases for popularity, and nonjocks weren't devalued or excluded.  McCormack documents popular boys going out of their way to include others.  Of Tom, the one openly gay boy at Standard High, McCormack reports,
Sam, a large, muscular, heterosexual student, said that he is friendly with Tom.  "Whenever I see him around, I say hi.  He's a nice guy."  When I asked Sam whether Tom's homosexuality makes him less popular, he responded, "No.  That's irrelevant.  He's a quiet guy.  I think he's here to work more than have fun."  Joe provided another example of this inclusivity when he told me that he once felt bad seeing Tom sitting alone on a bus.  Knowing about Tom's shyness, he summoned two friends, and together the boys sat with tom for the rest of their journey.  Joe said "He was all on his own.  I mean, I couldn't just let him sit there" [78].
This is confirmed not only by McCormack's observation but by Tom's own account of his comfort at school.

McCormack also observed that straight boys were very physically affectionate with each other, draping themselves over each other in the common room, hugging easily, and generally touching each other comfortably.  Nor were there any physical fights at Standard or Religious High during the academic year, and only one early on at Fallback High.  This story especially impressed me:
The boys also play sports together, regardless of their athletic ability. For example, Daniel is not particularly popular at Standard High, and he walks with a limp.  Nonetheless, as he was passing a group of sporty boys who were playing tennis, they asked him to join their game.  Whereas this invitation would once perhaps have been designed to humiliate Daniel, these boys were sincere in their offer.  They welcomed him to the court, and, after rally back and forth for several shots, Rob offered Daniel advice on improving his serve.  Afterward, Rob commented to me, "If we were playing another school and it was competitive, you want your best team.  But it's just for fun, then anyone can play.  Why not?" [100]
That sentiment is downright un-American; I love it.  It reminds me that when I was in junior high and high school -- and remember, we're talking rural and small-town Indiana in the 1960s -- I was neither interested in sports nor good at them.  But most other boys indulged me when I made mistakes during Phys Ed class, and were encouraging and helpful.  The only hassle I got came from the teacher-coaches.  Which is an indication that homophobia and masculine stratification have never been evenly distributed in society. 

All this baffled McCormack, who'd experienced harassment as a high school student in the 1990s.  He even called in another researcher to observe for a few months, to confirm that he was seeing what he thought he was seeing.

McCormack points to research which indicates similar changes throughout the UK, and it appears that homophobia may be declining in the US as well.  He attributes this to increasing numbers of openly gay people in society generally, including media: even in the absence of openly gay students in the schools he observed, McCormack found that many of the kids had grown up knowing gay relatives and family friends.  This made homophobia uncool.  He found no indication that the changes had occurred because of school or teacher interventions, which mostly seemed to be absent anyway.  The changes McCormack documents happened from the ground up, rather than being imposed from above, which I find very heartening.

While it's heartening to read about the environment McCormack describes, where a range of styles of masculinity co-exist comfortably, I'm still wary of getting too optimistic.  Just in England and the US, there have been historical periods when males were as demonstrative with one another as the boys in these schools.  Somewhere along the line that changed, and it could change again.  Still, it's up to us to try to make sure it doesn't.  I think today's visibility of gay people in society is unprecedented, and it appears to be a factor in the decline of homophobia.  There has been some concern about the apparent decline in "gay identity" among young people in the US, but I think it will be okay as long as people can date, love, and romance people of their own sex openly, whether or not they label themselves.  Gay identity doesn't seem to be waning in McCormack's Britain, and the existence of gay bars and organizations seems to be compatible with the inclusive masculinities he describes.  It'll be interesting to watch future developments.

Homophobia seems to be less endemic in the contemporary UK than in the US, though the same grassroots resistance has been going on here.  Here we have many adults who are working hard to suppress such change, and they need to be opposed by other adults.  Bigots have warned that the gay movement wants to "normalize" homosexuality, relying partly on the ambiguity of the normal.  If by "normalize" they mean "make homosexuality the norm," that is, mandatory for everyone, then of course they're lying.  But if "normalize" means "regard homosexuality as a regular variety of human sexuality," then they're quite right, and people of good will should understand this difference so they can oppose bigotry more effectively.  Of course bigots don't want homosexuality to be regarded even as an acceptable variation; they want to suppress it.  The rest of us, by which I mean heterosexuals as well as homosexuals and bisexuals, must push back.

An example of what I mean: the Student Union at Standard High organized a kiss-in to protest the appointment by the new Conservative government of a vocally homophobic member of Parliament as Minister for Equalities.  Only a few students opposed the protest.
Larissa said, “Leave it, Max, I don’t care.” Max responded, “You don’t care about homophobia, about gays getting discriminated against?” Larissa tersely replied, “No,” and her boyfriend added, “Why should we care? It’s their choice, they should face the music”  [xxiv].
At that point, some other students called Max over to talk to them.  The usual American liberal reaction to Larissa's boyfriend would be to yatter about his use of the word "choice."  I think it should be our attitude to bigots: It’s their choice, they should face the music.