With the recent suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Justin Aaberg and Billy Lucas, it seems like an impossible task to ignore the ramifications of homophobic bullying.
With all of these unnecessary deaths culminating in a short period of time, Rebecca Haskell and Brian Burtch’s new book Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High School (Fernwood) feels all the more pertinent. The authors present a nuanced look at how 16 queer adolescents navigate the homophobic and transphobic territory of high school in British Columbia.
While theory does play an important role throughout the work, a more in-depth application of Foucault and Bourdieu only materializes towards the final pages. The rest of the text examines the varying degrees of bullying, the motivation behind this taunting, and the ways that teachers and administration can improve the quality of life for queer teens and their allies in high school.
Though bullying does garner attention from the media, often these reports ignore the gender and sexuality aspects of this torment. Further, when bullying becomes a hot topic, it is usually sensationalized and focuses on extreme forms of physical violence. While the authors argue that cases of bashing are to be taken seriously, it’s the more subtle forms of intimidation—name calling, verbal taunts, gossip and exclusion—that inform the experiences of their sixteen subjects.
These forms of ‘gentle violence’ often heighten when teachers ignore them. Further, when teachers put a stop to the use of ‘bad words’ like ‘fag,’ ‘dyke’ or ‘gay,’ they fail to address the homophobic nature of the dialogue.
The adolescents provide three primary motivations behind the homophobic and transphobic actions of their peers. First is the strict adherence to gender codes. When queer youth defy the rules of the traditional gender binary, they face a barrage of insults. These taunts serve to harm and to regulate ‘proper’ versions of femininity or masculinity. As such, sexual orientation and gender identity intertwine, making it difficult to discern if the bullying is homophobic, transphobic or both.
However, most of the students, as well as the authors agree that trans individuals face the most virulent forms of attacks. Another motivation for bullying is the lack of queer issues, or queer figures, presented in school. The students felt that if their classmates could see and hear positive messages of same-sex relationships, the desire to bully might diminish.
Finally, the students suggested that the bullying they faced was simply part of the maturation process in high school.
It was disheartening to read about the students’ interactions with some of their teachers — especially when professors acted as though bullying wasn’t taking place or that homophobic and transphobic intimidation was not an issue whatsoever. In other cases, teachers behaved in a manner that was outwardly hostile to queer students. One lesbian student recalls her teacher saying that Jesus did not approve of gays and lesbians.
If queer youth must face the harassment of their peers, as well as the apathy or bigotry of their teachers, it’s not surprising that many gay teens skip school, withdraw from their social circles, drop out altogether, or end up on the street.
One point of contention with this book is that it doesn’t investigate how gender and sexuality intersect with cultural background, ethnicity or social class. These identities influence how queer teens are perceived and treated in and out of school. However, the authors acknowledge this omission within the first few pages, just as they explain that while their research does not address cyber bullying, this particular form of violation through digital social networks is on the rise.
Yet, I appreciate that the authors do not portray their subjects as helpless victims or suggest that everyone’s high school experience is 100% negative. They make a point of discussing moments of resistance, of queer youth fighting back or founding gay-straight alliances in their schools. Likewise, some of the students brought up instances where their teachers offered them support, encouraged dialogue, or introduced queer sexuality and history as normal parts of the curriculum.
In addition, whereas the book outlines a great deal of hurt and turmoil, the authors insist that there must be more research on moments of positive interactions. In examining these uplifting exchanges, perhaps we will be able to create a better learning environment for queer youth and their allies.
While this book is an engaging and accessible read for anyone interested in queer youth culture, it’s my hope that it ends up on the desks of teachers, councilors, principles and administrators, so that there is a larger network of individuals in positions of power that can work together to eradicate homophobia and transphobia from the educational system altogether.
—— GET THAT FREAK
Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools
By Rebecca Haskell & Brian Burtch Fernwood Publishing
ISBN: 9781552663783, $17.95 CAD/USD, 126p.