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Op-Ed: It’s not about banter – it’s about bullying

Op-Ed: It’s not about banter – it’s about bullying

By Mark Henrickson

The recent publication of the Out on the Fields study of homophobia in sport in English-speaking countries has highlighted what sexual and gender minorities know all too well: homophobia is alive and well and living in our communities. Let us be clear: this study is not about banter; it is about bullying.

Whether it is in classrooms or boardrooms, on the street or on the sport field, pitch or paddock, the dominant social understanding is that heterosexuality, and its accompanying rights, institutions and privileges, is normal, natural, inevitable, and desirable. This view, called ‘heteronormativity’, is what surrounds children and young people from birth. Heteronormativity is reinforced by media and every social institution, and can be accepted uncritically by young people as they become adults.

Heteronormativity is accompanied by the notion of heterosexual privilege, by which heterosexuals assume the right to establish ‘normal’ behaviour and relationships, and to demean non-heterosexually conforming behaviour. Heterosexual privilege assumes the right to shout ‘faggot’, ‘queer’ or ‘dyke’ at two men or two women walking down the street holding hands, minding their own business. It assumes the right to label, exclude, and humiliate people based on assumptions about the way they behave or love. It assumes the right in some countries to engage in so-called corrective rape of women who are perceived as lesbian, or to jail, torture or execute gay people for the crime of being who they are.

Heterosexual privilege in every country educates young people about how they must behave in order to avoid being excluded or humiliated, including ensuring that young people conceal any non-conforming identities. In 1983 the late poet Adrienne Rich wrote “Heterosexuality has had to be imposed, managed, organized, propagandized and maintained by force”. In other words, homophobia, heteronormativity and heterosexual privilege are simply sophisticated words for social bullying.

Out on the Fields is an on-line study of 9,494 people (and 26 per cent of these identified as heterosexual) from the major English speaking nations — USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand — and asked them about their experiences in sport. This was a self-selected and very large sample, with 651 participants from New Zealand. (It is notoriously difficult to recruit probability samples for studies of sexual and gender minorities because many people in these groups feel the need to conceal their sexuality identities).

Among key findings, the study found that 73 per cent of participants felt that youth sport is not safe and welcoming for gay people; 80 per cent of participants said that they had witnessed or experienced homophobia in sport; 84 per cent of gay men and 82 per cent of lesbians had been the target of verbal assaults, and 19 per cent of gay men and 9 per cent of lesbians had been physically assaulted.

These findings are very consistent with the 2003 Lavender Islands national study of 2,269 people in New Zealand which found that three-quarters of gay men and two-thirds of lesbians had been verbally assaulted, and 18 per cent of gay men and 9 per cent of lesbians had been physically assaulted because of their sexuality. It seems that not much has changed.

The findings from Out on the Fields will be nothing new to sexual and gender minorities. Queer communities have experienced intolerance and hate in many arenas, whether it is from religious authorities, in a classroom, an athletic team or PE class, a parliamentary debate, or simply walking down the street. What Out on the Fields does is to turn the focus on where the problem really sits.

Calling someone ‘queer’ or ‘faggot’ is not a gay problem: it is a straight problem. It is a problem for heterosexuals. People who engage in social bullying are lesser people because of their bullying, and they teach our children to be lesser, more intolerant people. That is the challenge to New Zealand sport and the wider society.

The messages from Out on the Fields are directed at both heterosexual people and sexual minority communities. To heterosexuals the message is: this kind of bullying is your problem, and you need to fix it. The study challenges heterosexual coaches, officials, and players to stand up and declare themselves against bullying of any kind in sport, and particularly homophobic bullying. It challenges heterosexual academics who study sport to conduct full scale studies of sport in New Zealand to document the scope of homophobic bullying in all codes, and to make clear recommendations to address the problem.

To sexual minority communities, the message is equally clear: the battles are far from over. Author Michaelangelo Signorile warns against ‘victory blindness’. With all that gay, lesbian and trans communities have won in the last few years in the legislatures, courts and media it is easy for us to sit back and think ‘We won’. But Out on the Fields reminds us that there is still much more to do.

Now it is clearer where the work must be done to ensure healthy young people and societies: not only in queer communities, but in mainstream heterosexual communities.

Mark Henrickson is Associate Professor of Social Work at Massey University, Auckland.


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