Sunday, 8 April 2012

Schools: Kissing To Be Clever

Eleanor Mills in The Sunday Times today has become the nth journalist to get a feature - 'Cuddling Schoolboys Kiss Homophobia Goodbye'- out of research by Mark McCormack and Eric Anderson on how homophobia is declining among teenage boys.*
The first of these - 'Straight Men Kissing More' - appeared in The Guardian over a year ago; McCormack has a book published later this month.
I don't blame them, it's really interesting stuff. 
“I noticed the difference as soon as I entered the sixth-form common room,” he tells Mills. “Boys were sitting in circles chatting; one had his feet on another boy’s lap, another dangled his arm over another’s shoulder. They were constantly touching each other and always hugged each other hello and goodbye. That would have been unthinkable when I was at school.”
Eleanor Mills helpfully points out; "His book argues that these behaviour changes are due to the normalisation of homosexuality in the culture surrounding these boys as they have grown up."
Well, duh.
She holds up One Direction as proof of how today's young men are all touchy-feely and homo-friendly.
But so were Take That twenty years ago, Smash Hits called them (approvingly) a "Girlie-bloke" pop group. 
Even so it's as obvious as rain that there has been a marked decline in anti-gay attitudes - and their acceptability - across society in the last 25 years.
And, yes, adolescent males, the most neurotically homophobic sector, are losing their "homo-hysteria", too.
Though Fagburn is with Barney Frank, who argued that most young men aren't homophobic, they just think they should be.
The problem with journalists zoning in on Mark McCormack's research is that it's a study of just three British schools, all sixth-form colleges, which arguably foster a culture where appearing "adult", sophisticated and even academic are valued among students.
Something made clear in McCormack's original title for his book, Gay Friendly High Schools. 
But is this - loaded word coming up - normal? 
A 2007 Stonewall survey had 65% of lesbian, gay and bisexual school pupils reporting having experienced homophobic bullying.
97% said they often or frequently heard homophobic remarks. 
Over half of gay pupils said they didn't feel able to be themselves at school.
And over a third did not feel safe or accepted at school.
In a 2009 Stonewall survey; "Nine in ten secondary school teachers... say children and young people, regardless of their sexual orientation, currently experience homophobic bullying, name calling or harassment in their schools."
Homophobia may be declining in significance generally - and homophobia may be seen as "gay" in some colleges - but sadly it still seems to be in rude health in many of our schools. 

* 'It’s Just Not Acceptable Any More’: The Erosion of Homophobia and the Softening of Masculinity at an English Sixth Form. Read it here.

  The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality by Mark McCormack is published by Oxford University Press on April 19th.

Postscript: There's an interesting tug of war going on, better documented in the US, where more school kids are coming out, and younger, and are finding more straight pupils supportive, but simultaneously, and perhaps due to this increased visibility, anti-gay bullying may be the worst it has ever been.
Witness for example It Gets Better, the rise of Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools, and all those all-singing, all-dancing mass anti-bullying, pro-gay videos on YouTube.
Here's one of the biggest videos from Cypress Ranch High School, Texas.

Update: A blog from Mark McCormack on Psychology Today - Men 2.0: Masculinities, Sexualities and Homophobia - is a good introduction to what he's arguing. Also see his comments below...


  1. Book launch, talk at Gays The Word, London April 26.

  2. Thanks for posting a link to the book launch - all welcome!

    Thanks for the blog post above. I just thought I'd add that while you're right that the book's data is from three sixth forms, two were strategically selected because they were likely to be *more* homophobic - a christian college and a college for disaffected youth. Also, in the final chapter, I also link it in with other research that documents decreasing homophobia in other places.

    There are two issues with the Stonewall survey. The first is that the participants were mostly LGBT kids who attended LGBT youth groups (and were therefore most likely to have negative experiences - LGBT kids who don't suffer at school tend not to join the groups). Second, they use 'that's so gay' as a measure of homophobia - in the book, I argue why this is a problematic thing to do.

  3. Ah, thanks Mark.

    Interesting about the Stonewall survey, I didn't read the small print and thought it was just done online...

  4. It was mainly done online - but sent out through user groups like LGBT groups as well. It's not all bad by any means, but it has its own issues relating to generalizability

  5. Hi Fagburn I wrote a rather critical review of Mccormack's book here:

    as you can see in my review, I reference your favourite ex public schoolboy Mark Simpson.

    But you have shown why Simpson is relevant. You mentioned Take That. And Simpson has shown clearly how since at least the 80s if not before, masculinity has been changing dramatically. Mccormack doesn't reference Simpson once in his book.

    QRG/Elly Tams
    (yes I am the one who was outed as a 'troll' by Paul Burston. But you don't have to hold that against me!)

  6. Hi Fagburn,

    It's fair to point out that the research on young straight men being more gay friendly and more physically tactile with each other is much more extensive than the three schools Mark did his research in.

    There is a great deal of research showing this, throughout the United Kingdom, Canada, Australasia and even the United States. I've conducted much of it myself, and readers can freely access it on my webiste

    This is not to say that all is perfect, but it is to continue with the conversation that there is a real and profound shift underway - and it seems to be growing day by day.

    Professor Eric Anderson

    1. Thanks Eric.

      I agree there's clearly a profound shift going on.

      Sorry if this post sounded dismissive of your work.