Suggestions on how the international education community can prevent school based homophobia and homophobic bullying and harassment. by Lawrence Burke, Ed.D

On February 12, 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King an eighth grade student at the E.O. Green School in Oxnard, California, was shot in the head for being gay. He died several days later. His assailant, another male student, only 14 years of age, approached him from behind, while King was sitting in class, at his computer. King had been subject to t homophobic bullying and harassment in and out of school. Why do such tragedies occur, and how can they be prevented in the future? It seems to me that there is a case to be argued for the education of youngsters about the terrible consequences of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This article offers seven steps towards the elimination of homophobia and homophobic bullying and harassment in international schools.  It recognizes the usefulness of a values framework created by the American Educator, David Purpel, to support and argue for the implementation of the seven step program. Furthermore, the insightful case work study by Associate Professor CJ Pascoe provides one perspective upon from which the argument is predicated. That is, schooling is a primary site for the formation of a deeper psychological understanding of a developing child’s psychosexual and emotional character, and as such requires particular attention within any values based school program. The seven steps which I advocate are able to be implemented and practiced in all international schools, even those in which any positive acknowledgment of homonormativity[i] could be perceived as undermining the school’s special character, or be perceived to be in contradiction of the civil or religious laws of the host country. A socially inclusive PSHE program which is imbued with transformative values, along with equal opportunities across a school’s curricula, creative positive support and solutions, rather than punitive sanctions against perpetrators of homophobic violence, a peer support program, a compassionate and caring counseling service, and the promotion of personal and professional responsibility in interpersonal relationships throughout a school community, are the foundations upon which the seven step program is implemented.

Bullying, harassment and discrimination of any sort is very counter-productive in the school environment and should be addressed. Also, given our key avocation is the education of the young towards the greater aim of creating more just, humane and kinder societies, in which we all want to live, the elimination of these behaviors should take on a greater urgency.

Homophobia, a fear, loathing and hatred of men and women of all ages because of their sexual orientation is on the increase. In particular it is on the increase in schools. Associate Professor CJ Pascoe argues that the basis of homophobic bullying and homophobia is sourced in the “structure of sexuality at school…because masculinity and femininity are forged through a heterosexual matrix””[ii] especially though the middle and senior school years as children move into puberty and further on into adolescents. Pascoe argues persuasively that schools are powerful socialization agents, and as such have a clear ethical responsibility to ensure that the students who graduate hold core values of respect, understanding, tolerance and acceptance of difference. When this does not occur tragedies like the Lawrence King murder occur.

It is 36 years since the murder of George Duncan, whose death led to homosexual law reform in the Australian State of South Australia. Dr Duncan, an academic and a university lecturer, was in an area near the Adelaide University footbridge, a purportedly noted meeting place for homosexuals, as they were denied any other kind of civilized place to meet and socialize. On the night of May 10 1972 he was set upon by unknown attackers and thrown into the Torrens River, where he drowned.  A lengthy investigation by Scotland Yard, led to two South Australian police officers being charged over the attack, but they were later acquitted through legal argument[iii] (which is not always just argument)

It is 10 years since a young university student, in the US State of Wyoming was murdered because of his sexual orientation. On October 7 1998, Matthew Sheppard, a 21 year old undergraduate at the University of Wyoming was brutally attacked, and tortured by two young men who hated him because of his sexual orientation[iv]. He was left to die. Matthew’s assailants could offer no rational explanation for their behavior. The community from which the assailants came was shocked that two of their own could be responsible for such a terrible crime. According to interviews carried out with local people, both assailants had had a good education and had been raised in a caring Christian centered community.[v]

The educational environments from which Lawrence King, Professor Duncan and Matthew Sheppard emanated were fraught with negative stereotypes about masculinity and femininity. In all cases their respective societies reinforced the negative images of these concepts, perhaps unwittingly, through powerful institutionalized messages about heterosexuality and heteronormativity[vi].

A particular example of this is recalled by Pascoe. She writes that “hypermasculine environments such as sporting events continue to be events of intense harassment…” [vii]for young gay students, and that “…masculinity and sexuality are deeply embedded in school socialization processes, like sporting events, dancing and high school dances…”[viii] particularly through the sport a teenage boy or girl chooses or the way he or she dances.  “…if a boy manages maneuvers like back flips, or spinning, rather than hip and body movements he’s considered heterosexual, whereas any other movements and he’s stereotyped as “a fag”[ix]

The making and selling of these and similar concepts of masculinity and femininity are a multi-billion industry throughout the western world. Furthermore, there are deeply held social, cultural and religious values about gender and gender roles which transcend western societies and are found across all cultures. In would be naïve to assume that these deeply held values do not impact on the very nature of our International School communities, because essentially our school communities will reflect the values of our client base.

So the question becomes one of imparting transformative values to our students rather than values which reinforce negative stereotypes with their powerful, destructive outcomes. The Educator, David Purpel breaks down the layers of meaning in the debates, discussions and arguments about values. His argument that a conflictual model operates in schools, perhaps unbeknown through a lack of institutional awareness, highlights the inherent contradictions in the values, which infuse the modern educational process.[x]

Transformative Values Institutionalized Values
community individual
worth achievement
equality competition
compassion sentimentality
responsibility guilt
democracy authority/power/coercion/control
universalism ethnocentrism
humility arrogance
commitment alienation/displacement/complacency
faith reason
professional   responsibility self deception


The suggestion here is that such a dichotomy creates confusion and frustrations for students and educators. We end up applying simple solutions, to complex problems. Discussions on curriculum reform, electives, student behavior, codes of conduct, assessment procedures, exam results, sporting prowess, and building maintenance, while important, are more often than not prioritized over the core issues confronting some students and teachers daily, like, bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia and discrimination. Purpel suggests that in denying the more complex reality of interpersonal relationships we legitimate a false consciousness, which could lead into a self-deception about how successful we are in educating the young.[xi]

What could be done to correct this misrepresentation, and alleviate the personal anguish, suffering and struggle of teachers and students in the international school environment, who suffer from bullying, sexual harassment, homophobia and discrimination?

Firstly, it is worthwhile to look closely at the Mission Statements of international schools and see if they are inclusive of all the rights by which a person is dignified:

Our recruitment policies match our mission: we are inclusive. We hire very young teachers and very experienced teachers. We hire single teachers and teachers with partners. We also welcome teachers with children, who have a wonderful experience at ISB. We are totally non-discriminatory in terms of age, sex, religion, culture, and sexual orientation.

What counts for us is intelligence, energy, commitment to students, passion for learning, a collaborative approach and a close alignment with our mission.’[xii]

International schools, like the International School of Brussels, are role models for the global international school community. Unfortunately, of the many philosophy and mission statements of International schools I surveyed, only 3 had a similar Equal Employment Opportunity caveat in their Mission Statements like the International School of Brussels. Yet, it would be naïve to suggest that every international school could include a caveat which acknowledges its homonormative members, particularly when the host country of an international school has a legal basis for its non-inclusivity platform for the homonormative community. Nonetheless, a more generalized statement could acknowledge and respect differences, while being non-offending to the civic and/or religious laws of the host country. At ISB as well as many other international schools; administrators, teachers and students are respected for who they are, what they may become through their humanity, and what they may contribute to the educational communities to which they belong. They are not defined by a particular aspect of their human nature.

I know of no other group in any society or culture who are defined by the sexual aspect of their lives as are the homonormative minority. It is my opinion that this has emerged firstly, because of the negative perception and repression we have endured for centuries, and secondly, unlike our heteronormative cousins, we seldom have had positive role models on which to base our lives in a functional society. And as Pascoe argues, the dominant cultural model will define the terms of human relationships on both a group and interpersonal level, and not always positively.[xiii]

The paradox of course is that from a heteronormative position it can be argued that a person’s sexual orientation doesn’t matter. Or does it? Would it make any difference to know that Albert Einstein was a heterosexual? Or that John Maynard Keynes was a homosexual? Perhaps not, but given my point that positive homonormative role models are essential for creating non-discriminatory schools, and non discriminatory societies, and eliminating all kinds of homophobic violence, then such an understanding of Keynes’ life is essential; after all the tolerance, acceptance and understanding of Albert Einstein et al is assured because it is taken for granted. Why leave it to governments to educate through legislation for our safety when history along with other subjects, offer such a positive, valuable and powerful learning experience?

So, it may be a worthwhile piece of social history for students to know that Andrei Nikolaevich Kolmogorov and Pavel Sergeevich Aleksandrov thought to be the finest mathematicians of the 20th century belonged to the homonormative community. Their mathematical achievements were recognized by their fellow mathematicians and by the Soviet officialdom – both were high-ranking members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.[xiv]

These men lived together as a happy, balanced, harmonious couple in a society perceived by many to be ruthless in its discouragement of difference.  There are others too; Christopher Isherwood was an English author. Pier Paolo Pasolini was an Italian film director, and Yuki Mishima a famous Japanese author. Eleanor Roosevelt was U.S. stateswoman and wife of a US President, while Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar were Roman Emperors. Not to forget James 1st of England and Pope Benedict IX, both ruling over large populations in which one’s sexual orientation could lead to torture and death.[xv]

The point here is to show the homonoramative individual’s rightful place in our schools and wider communities, because of who they are and what they may become, and over time to shift the focus from just one aspect of their human nature. To this end the following seven steps are offered as way to assist us to develop school communities which are kinder, and more tolerant and accepting of differences. The eventual positive benefits for our students, colleagues, school communities, and societies will be immeasurable.

Step 1: Incorporate into the school’s mission statement a clause of social inclusivity which either explicitly or implicitly implies the acceptance of difference and welcoming of all people regardless of their gender, religion, color, sexual orientation and political views.

Step 2: Develop a personal and social educational programme with transformative values.

Step 3: Ensure equal opportunities are available across the curriculum for both genders.

Step 4: Develop creative solutions to reverse discrimination, bullying and homophobia. For

example nominate a day per term in which to celebrate unity through diversity.

Step 5: Develop a peer support programme in which trusted senior students provide

a safe, secure environment in which junior students can grow through their

fears and insecurities about differences.

Step 6: Provide a supportive, caring and confidential counseling service for all

members of the school community, particularly the student body.

Step 7: Promote personal and professional responsibility through interpersonal relationships.

Education can lead to change for the good, but: we may well ask what good? Who’s good? I  think that universals still exist insofar as every human being requires love, acceptance, and wants to be acknowledged and cared for by others. However, if what I have argued for is to be achieved within an educational framework with such a purpose; then that purpose must be stated.


[i] I use this term along with homonormative to describe the normal life style of homosexual oriented individuals    and their communities.

[ii] Pascoe, CJ, Dude You’re A Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, p27

[vi] I use this term along with heteronormative to describe the normal life style of heterosexual oriented individuals

and their communities.

[vii] Pascoe, CJ, ibid, p.67

[viii] Pascoe, CJ, P.68

[ix] Op.cit

[x] Purpel, D, The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education,

pp. 28-64

[xi] op.cit

[xii] accessed 15/3/2008

[xiii] Pascoe, CJ, ibid, pp 1-24

[xv] Op.cit

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