Mark McCormack and the declining significance of homophobia

  • Dr. Mark McCormack is a senior lecturer of sociology at Durham university.
  • NUT General secretary, Christine Blower calls on schools to include a “positive portrayal” on same-sex relationships
  • Dr. McCormack beehives dealing reactively to homophobic bullying is not the answer to bullying.


Dr. Mark McCormack is a senior lecturer of sociology at Durham University and has published over a dozen journals which look at homophobia, gender within education and LGBT issues within 21st century Britain.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.39.08To Mark, who is gay, his school life, which was only a decade ago was overshadowed by what was known as section 28, a now obsolete government legalisation.

Brought into effect on the 24th of May 1988 under the Thatcher government, the legislation stated the British schools, “Shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.”

The legislation even goes on to state that schools:

“Shall not promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Yet for Mark, Section 28 was a just small section on the canvas of homophobia in 1980s Britain.

Having lived through the 1980s, Mark is adamant that that era, specifically the late 80s, was the peak of homophobia in Britain. Why? A cocktail of, as he described, right-wing conservatism under the Thatcher administration and more broadly the sudden rise and prominent media coverage of HIV and Aids (An illness often stigmatised and connected to homosexual males) in Western countries led to an overall increase in the visibility of the LGBT community within Britain.

Perhaps then it’s not surprising then that as Mark said:

“When I was at school, no one was openly gay. Be that students or teachers.”

Mark was clear though to point out that bullying back in the late 80’s and throughout the 90’s was still unacceptable in schools across Britain. However, what struck me was how according to Dr. McCormack, gay language was never really picked up on in British schools as a form of bullying.

Dr. McCormack highlighted several quantitative research projects, but perhaps it’s the British Social Attitudes Survey that supports Dr.McCormack most when he says that there has been ‘profound’ improvements in the general population’s attitudes towards homosexuality.

Yet, country to what both the BSAS survey and Dr. McCormack say, other surveys such as Stonewall’s 2014 Teachers Report, seemingly show that homophobia still excites as a large scale problem in Britain’s school.

Is this the case? Has homophobia decreased in Britain, or is the problem still a major issue facing Britain’s schools today?

You only have to look at this video, which went viral last year to see that homophobia, within Britain at least, is still a major issue. In it, two radio presenters walk through Luton as part of a social experiment. Despite both men being ‘straight’, throughout the experiment they walked through Luton’s city centre holding hands as if they were in a same-sex relationship. The end result: they are effectively victims of homophobia.

Now this is just one small example, you could argue that is an anomaly but it shows that the issue still exists, homophobia as an umbrella term, is still around in 2015.

The obvious question is, has the level of homophobia schools decreased or are there specific reasons why the British school culture is instead insulated from the broader British population, which despite some isolated incidents, according to Dr. McCormack seems to be more accepting of homosexuality than ever before?Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.39.26

Eight years ago, when Stonewall published its 2007 Teachers report, it was damming of the state of homophobia in Britain’s school, going as far as to say that, “Homophobic bullying is almost epidemic.”

Yet was it ever this bad? Well, Mark was quick to protest the picture that Stonewall was painting back in 2007. He actively explained how no academic research ever showed the level of homophobia that Stonewall found in 2007, and that’s is including the 80’s and the 90’s when Section 28 was in act.

Yet what started out as a conversation about homophobic bullying, turned into a discussion about the impact the web has had on the homophobic bullying.

To use Dr. McCormack’s exact words, the arrival of the Internet and more importantly, social media has lead to a liberating age for young people in the Britain who are announcing their sexuality, colloquially known as ‘coming-out’ over social media and not, as was the norm before at school, where it often lead to homophobic remarks being made towards that given individual.

You only have to look at the massive rise of  ‘Coming out’ YouTube videos in the past several years. Connor Franta (Above), Tyler Oakly and Troye Sivan are just three, high profile examples which show the massive rise that the internet has had. Yet, the truth is the internet is also a place which shows homophobia is still alive and well.

Despite being based in America, the video below shows the problem of homophobia is still alive. When you see Daniel, who is 20 being both physically assaulted and then substantially kicked out from his family home, you’re quickly reminded that the issue still exists in the world. It may not be the UK, but these videos go to show that for many young, LGBT people are still aware that homophobia exists and that if they ‘come out’ they could be facing them same as those in these online videos have been facing. Whether that be good or bad.

You have to remember that a decade ago Facebook was in its infancy, The iPhone (And even Smartphones as we know them today) did not exist. One could argue that we’ve come further, in terms of digital technology in the last 15 years then for the entire length of humanity beforehand.

Admitting to yourself is, for many you homosexual people, the first step in accepting themselves for who they are and it can be daunting. The idea of feeling isolated is an all too real one for many people. You may know your gay, but, of course, there is no one else you know who is gay and so who do you talk to?

This is where Dr. McCormack believes the internet has had the biggest impact in tackling homophobia.

When Facebook did come along in 2005, Dr. McCormack was still in university and he, as did everyone joined the latest MySpace killer and over time he started connecting with friends who were at his university. To Dr. McCormack, people were more open about their sexuality on Facebook, often leading him, as he said having the reaction to finding someone he knew was gay as, ‘Oh my god, he’s gay?’

Before the rise of social media, alas for Dr. McCormack, his middle and high-school years, he was under the perception that he was the only gay student at his school, despite the very fact that it was in all likely hood, this was not the case. In a sea of teenage life lessons, it seemed that the rise of the internet had given Mark and many other LGBT students a platform where they can start being more comfortable with themselves.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.39.36

As Mark said, coming out over social media, “Makes it easier, it’s less scary.” He talked about how it’s not just coming out to the thirty students in your class or the hundred students in your year, but instead everyone you know, including family and friends who are not at your school on a platform where your in control of what can be seen.

Dr.McCormack said, “If you come out on Facebook, over school it won’t be ‘fag’, ‘poof’ or ‘queer’ that you get as responses it will simply just be likes.”

There is still the issue that people can get homophobic messages on social media, in the very same way that they would say it to your face if you came out at school. In 2013, an Instagram post featuring two gay dads, Kordale and Kaleb went viral on Twitter. For all the wrong reasons. The image which shows them with their two daughters was subject to a torrent of homophobic abuse including phrases such as, “You faggots’ and ‘Queer’ to name just two examples of them being targeted as a same-sex couple.

But for Dr. McCoScreen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.39.45rmack, generally this rarely happens on the web, especially in the 21st century. It’s seems, that social media is helping to reduce homophobia in not just Britain but also the wider world.

But has the rise of the web destroyed the concept of homophobia, well Dr.McCormack thinks that’s not the case. “One thing I’m absolutely clear about in my talks and my work is that homophobia has not completely gone. It’s now religion and locality which are still factors in homophobia in 2015.”

But how do we deal with homophobic bullying as a nation when elements such as religion get involved. On the one hand you can argue that we have no right to influence someone’s personal  religion, we are a democracy after all. Yet equally same-sex relationships are a modern staple of life in Britain, the LGBT community can get married and have children, exactly as heterosexual couples are able to do. So are schools not simply doing their duty of educating students on modern life by avoiding the LGBT issues?

“What I argue is that dealing reactively to homophobic bullying is not the answer because actually most teachers are decent people and won’t tolerate homophobic bullying. Homophobia is become less acceptable and out and out homophobic bullying is not accepted. What we need is a sex education of a sexuality education where we are talking about the latest gender and sexuality issues from a primary school age. So instead of giving kids the typical banana and a condom, it’s also talking about a diversity of family.”

Often though, the argument is presented that children at that age don’t know what sexual identity or even what sex is, but Mark presented the idea as it not having to be teaching primary school children about sex, but instead about the modern nucleus family.

One idea that he presented to me is that when you’re in primary school you use (and still do) colour in the different types of ice-cream to get as many flavours as you can, using it to teach kids about maths. Yet, equally you could do that for family types. How many dads and how many mums can you have, how many different ways can you organise that? It’s subtle, it skirts the topic of sexual intercourse (The often concerning element for parents of young children) but at the same time it does introduce children to the modern reality of same-sex relationships.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.40.00

As a child, I was taught about marriage between a man and a woman. But now that gay marriage is legal in the United Kingdom why should children not be taught about how men can marry men and woman can marry other woman. Surely, it’s not demonising or being detrimental to their education because, after all, it’s a modern staple of British life.

At the same time, should my nephews who are both entering primary school not learn what in the sense their uncle is? Should UK schools not educate my nephews that actually, the fact that their uncle has a boyfriend and not a girlfriend is completely normal.

To Dr. McCormack it’s not enough to say that because homophobia has, in his opinion decreased to say that, ‘Oh we’ve won we don’t need to worry about it (Homophobic bullying) anymore.’ His answer is quite the opposite, namely that  we’ve got this far, we need to use that to go further.

“The fight we need to be fighting now is not about homophobic bullying because, yes, it’s still an issue, but people recognise that it’s an issue. The fight has to be about sex education and to go further than prevention but structure one that recognises the modern diversity of sex, the pleasure of sex and the complexity of sexuality.

Screen Shot 2015-05-01 at 19.40.08

Dr. McCormack goes on to explain how, “Science shows people start understand sexual identity at 10. Sex education is not just about sex and sexuality as in are you gay, straight or bi but being more diverse than that. The fact is that in today’s society people in school will not just have straight parents, but there will also be gay and lesbian, and bi parents. If we’re not talking about gender and sexuality and what gay means we are serving to exclude those families, those with gay brother and sisters or those with gay family members.”

Speaking to some old schools friends I come across the feeling that, perhaps then the entire PSHE system in the UK needs to be overhauled. In 2009, when I received 1-Hour of sex education, our only resource was a video called, ‘Some of your bits aren’t very nice.’ Yes it was it hilariously bad in production value but more importantly it was a video from the 1990’s and the lesson was taking place in 2009.

“We’re talking about education being a democrat institution that everyone goes to, what’s the argument for saying, ‘but we’re not talking about your parents.’ How is that going to work in reality? It does not.”

But, Dr. McCormack was clear in say that it’s not enough just for a teacher to react by saying to a student, ‘That’s homophobic stop it,’ instead according to Dr. McCormack this should it be used as a moment to open up a route in to talk about homophobic bullying more broadly in the classroom?

Dr.McCormack was clearly a big supporter of improving sex-education and this was highlighted by his closing statement. “Schools have a duty to protect their kids. Part of that duty giving them good sex education.”

But that is just the opinion, from one academic. What do you think? Should PSHE be reformed, should same-sex education be mandatory for every UK student and school? Do you still witness homophobic bullying at school or even in public? Let us know in the comments section below.

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