by Milka Ramirez, Ph.D.
On February 12, 2008, Lawrence “Larry” King was shot in the head by a classmate while attending a computer class in Oxnard, California. The next day, Lawrence died at the age of 15. Newsweek (Setoodah, 2008) described the shooting as “the most prominent gay-bias crime since the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard,” bringing national attention to issues of gun violence, as well as gender expression and sexual identity among youth in schools.
It was Lawrence King’s death that gave birth to work that I do today. It is as if Lawrence whispered in my ear and said, “Remember me, for I am not dead. I am the undead.”
Unfortunately, the death of Lawrence King is not an isolated incident. Various studies contend that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) youth in our schools navigate an often hostile and violent school climate (Kosciw, 2001, 2005; Kosciw & Diaz, 2005, 2009; Morrow, 2004; Peters, 2003; Rivers & Cowie, 2006; Ryan & Futterman, 1998; Wackerfuss, 2007). Yet, the host environment of the school setting is where the everyday stressors, complex family problems, and complex community problems are laid to rest, right at the doorstep of school social workers. As LGBTQ youth are a segment of school social workers’ clientele, these social workers are in a unique position to address violence directed at them. To do so, social workers must understand the plethora of challenges that LGBTQ youth face in school settings and the powerful effect of homophobia in the lives of sexual minorities.
The term homophobia is rooted in Wainright Churchill’s 1967 study of attitudes toward homosexuals. It was used to describe a pervasive cultural fear of erotic or sexual contact between members of the same sex (Zemsky, 1998). Conversely, heterosexism is viewed as the insidious manifestation of heterosexual privilege. Although there is not a uniform meaning for the terms homophobia and heterosexism, homophobia has typically been used to describe negative individual anti-gay attitudes and behaviors, whereas heterosexism usually refers to societal level ideologies and patterns of institutionalized oppression of non-heterosexual people. Heterosexism is described as a belief system that values heterosexuality as superior to and more natural than homosexuality.
Additionally, people who may not be considered homophobic may manifest heterosexism. When LGBTQ individuals are targeted as victims of violence, discriminated against, denied access to legal protection, or denied services, the person(s) behind these acts do so out of homophobic attitudes that serve to maintain heterosexual privilege (Appleby & Anastas, 1998; Herek, 1990).
These concepts are important to understand, as they work in tandem and have historically been oppressive and discriminatory forces that, if left unchallenged, result in negative consequences for LGBTQ populations.
For instance, Kosciw et al. (2001) found that:
- Nearly 85% of LGBT student respondents heard “gay” used in a negative way (e.g., “that’s so gay”) frequently or often at school, and 91% reported that they felt distressed because of this language.
- 71% heard other homophobic remarks (e.g., “dyke” or “faggot”) frequently or often.
- More than 50% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff.
- 63% stated that they felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and nearly 44% because of their gender expression.
- 38% had been physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) in the previous year because of their sexual orientation, and 27% because of their gender expression.
- 18% had been physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) in the previous year because of their sexual orientation, and 12% because of their gender expression.
- More than 50% of students were victims of cyber bullying (or harassment by text messages).
- 60% of students who had been harassed or assaulted in school did not report the incident to school staff, most often believing little to no action would be taken or that the situation could become worse, if reported.
- 36% of the students who did report an incident said that school staff did nothing in response.
Not surprisingly, students who experience higher levels of victimization based on their sexual orientation or gender expression tend to have higher levels of depression and lower levels of self-esteem. When we think of violence, most of us think of physical and verbal violence, as described above. However, I invite you to view violence from another perspective—one that interrogates unseen or indirect forms of violence.
Unseen Violence as a Form of Indirect Violence
It is important to understand that overt violence is deeply rooted in unseen and indirect violence (Morrow & Messinger, 2006; VanSoest & Brant, 1995). When thinking about violence directed at LGBTQ youth, I would like you to consider this perspective. I believe that understanding this perspective will help our profession think of ways to intervene at a systemic level, bringing about organizational change that focuses on institutional change. Thus, I ask that you reconceptualize violence, and examine “visible” violence from a viewpoint that interrogates submerged or “unseen” violence. To do so, I draw on VanSoest and Bryant’s (1995) conceptual framework, contending that insidious forces embedded in America’s structural-cultural foundations give rise to institutional levels of violence, which in turn manifest seen violence, such as hate crimes. They contend that “violence is more deeply embedded in U.S. culture than this society wants to believe; it is the foundation of many revered ideals and institutions” (p 549).
McPhail (2000) contends that hate is woven into the very fabric of our society. She asserts that the history of the U.S. is rooted in war and violence and that violence is culturally entrenched in our everyday lives. When examining society’s prejudicial attitudes and beliefs toward sexual minority populations and their communities, McPhail frames negative attitudes and beliefs about LGBTQ populations within the context of historical hate and violence against sexual minorities. She contends that hate crimes, sodomy laws, and gender violence are clear examples of hate and violence directed at sexual minority populations. Furthermore, she argues that a historical and contemporary example of oppression and discrimination against sexual minorities is deeply rooted in societal structures that perpetuate negative attitudes and beliefs toward sexual minorities.
Now, how does this relate to my call for reconceptualizing violence in relation to homophobia in our schools? An example may be in order. Following VanSoest and Bryant’s (1995) framework of reconceptualizing violence, let us examine the ideological worldview of patriarchy and heterosexuality in “American” society. I would argue that in “America,” hegemonic structures are embedded within the very fabric of its existence, so much so, that it is, by and large, passively accepted as a dominant structural-cultural worldview. I would also argue that patriarchy and heterosexism is so deeply embedded in American culture that it has become a collective way of thinking, in which violence against LGBTQ individuals is deeply rooted, giving rise to institutional levels of violence against sexual minority populations.
Institutional Levels of Violence
For instance, religious institutions in “American” society are rooted in Judeo-Christian belief systems, and these systems are fundamentally structured on the notion that marriage is the union between a man and woman (for the purposes of procreation). Thus, sexuality that falls outside of this definition has traditionally been viewed as dangerous, needing to be controlled and obliterated. And in America, to be Christian is to be American and to be American is to be Christian. Thus, Judeo-Christian belief systems are embedded in the very policies implemented in American society (which in turn govern sexuality and sexual expression). This is seen in “American” policies and laws that have historically limited, prohibited, sanctioned, and controlled who may enter the institution of marriage and who may legally adopt children. One need only pay attention to the rhetoric in our society surrounding same-sex marriage and same-sex parenting to understand the impact of cultural and institutional violence on sexual minority populations, even in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage.
You may say: fine, but what does this have to do with Reconceptualizing Violence: Homophobia in Our Schools? Well, I would argue, as VanSoest and Bryant (1995) do, that structural-cultural world views of patriarchy and heterosexism give rise to institutional levels of violence that subjugate LGBTQ individuals, thus perpetuating the belief that sexual minorities need to be controlled and that LGBTQ individuals are the “other.” As a result, what we see is violence perpetrated on sexual minorities. Thus, seen violence does not occur in a vacuum. It is embedded in structural-cultural worldviews that give rise to institutional levels of violence that inflict control and marginalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer youth in our schools. It is prevalent in the lack of policies and laws that fail to protect sexual minorities, popular culture’s negative and limited depictions of LGBTQ individuals in the media, and “othering” LGBTQ individuals, ultimately supporting seen violence and acts of homophobia in our schools.
What Can Be Done
Jane Addams, the foremother of social work, rooted our profession in social justice and human rights, calling upon social work to act to readdress inequities that oppress disenfranchised and marginalized populations. Recently, scholars have speculated that Jane Addams may have been a lesbian (Morrow & Messinger, 2006; Fredriksen-Golsen et al., 2009). Thus, if she were alive today, I suspect that she would call for social work to champion the rights of LGBTQ populations. She would call upon us to act, and act we must!
- We must become supportive educators and advocates for comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies that are inclusive of LGBTQ youth.
- We must question our worldview and ask how our worldview supports violence against LGBTQ communities, women, children, and communities of color (and so on). Only then can we collectively begin to unpack what Patricia Collins refers to as the interlocking levels of oppression, and rise to the challenge put forth by Cathy Cohen, who calls for us to resist colluding with the enemy.
- We must challenge these worldviews in our classrooms, workplaces, homes, neighborhoods, and communities.
- We must act to adopt the belief that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently spoke of when he stated that an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must move beyond the role of bystanders and become up standers.
- We must insist on human rights for this population and take responsibility for becoming adequately trained to meet the unique needs of LGBTQ youth, so we may harness their strengths and resiliency to overcome adversity.
- We must build alliances in our schools, workplaces, homes, communities, places of worship, and political structures.
- We must carry the torch of Jane Addams forward, remembering her words: “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
My hope is that you will find a way to incorporate the rights of LGBTQ individuals in your lives, advocate for LGBTQ individuals in your schools, workplaces, homes, communities, and places of worship, so that another death like that of Lawrence King does not happen again. Never again!
I hope you hear the voice of Lawrence whispering in your ear, “Remember me, for I am not dead. I am the undead.”
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Setoodeh, R. (2008, July 18).Young, gay and murdered in junior high. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/id/147790.
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Wackerfuss, A. (2007). Homophobic bullying and same-sex desire in Anglo-American schools: A historical perspective. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Services, 19 (3/4), 139-155.
Zemsky, B. (1998). Homophobia. In W. Mankiller et al. (Eds). The reader’s companion to U.S. women’s history. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 259-260.
Milka Ramirez, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, Social Work Department. Dr. Ramirez’ dissertation study, “An Examination of Homophobia and Social Work Practice Among a Sample of School Social Workers,” was drawn from a national sample.