Like Any Other High School, but Without Bullies

Mark McCormack spent six months researching teen boys in the U.K. What he found was a culture of acceptance that defied cultural expectations.

Consider the scene: Tom, a small, shy, openly gay high school student, sat at the back of the school bus on his own. He saw three of the most popular, athletic boys get on the bus, fresh from soccer practice. As they made their way down the aisle, they saw Tom alone and moved toward him.

What happened next?

Not what you’d expect. The boys, in fact, sat down to talk with Tom. “I didn’t really know him well,” one later told me. “I knew he was the gay kid at school, that’s all. … He was all on his own. I mean, I couldn’t just let him sit there alone. Nobody should have to sit alone.”

When I started researching the gendered behaviors of 16- to 18-year-old male students at Standard High in the U.K. in 2008, I expected to document the ways that homophobia and aggression continued to stratify young men into a competitive, damaging hierarchy. This is, after all, what decades of research has told us: boys and men use homophobia to “prove” their heterosexuality, and in doing so they simultaneously marginalize other men who are more feminine, or less popular than themselves. This then causes a stratification of men with the athletic heterosexual boys at the top and gays at the bottom. Because this so accurately described my own school experience, it was with some trepidation that I first entered Standard High, the co-educational high school where I spent six months collecting data.

However, on first entering the social area where students socialized in their free time, the difference from my own school experience was palpable. In that large open space, full of students eating lunch and socializing, I was immediately struck by the physical closeness of the male students, and the affection they had for each other. These young men weren’t just close to each other, they were gently touching—and they were doing this as a sign of platonic love.

I walked over to a group of students I had seen earlier in a P.E. class. These young men, congregated in the center of the common room, were different from the high school students of my day. Not only were they were fashion-conscious, wearing designer underwear that showed above their low-slung jeans, they also styled their hair and used moisturizers. But the difference was about more than just looks: they spoke and treated each other in softer, more inclusive ways. These boys greeted each other with hugs, sat on their friends’ laps and gave each other massages.

When I was a student in school, these actions would have resulted in these boys being called gay. They would most likely have been bullied for it. Yet at this school, these boys were some of the most popular male students. What was going on?

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Popularity in Pro-Gay Schools

The key to understanding the change in masculine behaviors of the young men is their attitudes toward homosexuality. Quite simply, the heterosexual students at Standard High espoused pro-gay attitudes. This is something I document in detail in my forthcoming book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia. Here, I show that these boys, as well as male students in two other schools, intellectually supported gay rights and maintained friendships with openly gay peers. They did not use homophobic language and condemned the overt expression of homophobia. What I want to focus on in the rest of this essay, however, is how this inclusive school environment influences how popularity is determined.

I examined how popularity was constructed in this school because it was markedly different from what one might expect. Even though some boys were more popular than others, this popularity was not maintained through the harassment of peers or through risk-taking behaviors.

The “jock” was not king at Standard High. Boys ascribing to a wide range of masculine archetypes (including geek and emo) could be popular. These boys came from both privileged backgrounds and areas of socio-economic disadvantage; they included students of various ethnicities and boys of various athletic abilities. When I analyzed what made a boy popular, I found that it was dependent on the extent to which he maintained other characteristics. I identified four main categories of behavior that increased one’s popularity at Standard High: charisma, authenticity, emotional support, and social fluidity.

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1. Charisma

Just like with more traditional forms of masculinity, a boy’s popularity at Standard High is primarily maintained by entertaining his peers through high-octane behaviors. It is these “fun-loving” acts of extroversion that really catapult a boy to popularity. For example, one week in the common room entertainment was provided by boys using a skateboard. They performed tricks, trying to outperform their friends. The success of the trick, however, was less important than the exuberance with which it was performed. The most popular performances were the funniest and the most physical, and boys who could do this best received the most praise.

This idea of charisma raising popularity was also supported by interviews with students. For example, Alex, a quiet student who plays in a rock band, commented, “The bigger the character you are, the higher up you are.” But contrary to the charisma of aggressive and macho boys, students argued that charisma raised the spirits of all students. As Ian said, “Say it’s a wet and rainy day and everyone’s down, you can always rely on someone doing something, just to make everyone laugh again, and feel a bit better.”

2. Authenticity

It used to be the case that those boys who did not engage in extroverted behaviors were socially marginalized as nerdy or gay. However, at Standard High more introverted students can be popular if their behaviors are deemed to be part of “who you really are.” One of the popular students, Ian, said, “Take Sam, he’s a bit different. But I got to know him, and he’s really cool. I like his individuality.” As Jack said, “It’s ultimately about comfortability with yourself.” This was demonstrated through the clothes that the boys wore. That is, a wide variety of clothing styles were on display at Standard High, and while clothing was important, what mattered was not the style of clothes you wore, but that it “fit” with your personality.

3. Emotional support

One of the most heartening and perhaps surprising aspects of what constitutes popularity at Standard High was that the giving of emotional support was an ordinary and valued way of life for boys at this school. Indeed, boys spoke of their close friendship openly; as Matt said, “I love my friends, and I could rely on them if I needed to.”

I frequently observed this kind of support between male friends. However, boys also provided reassurance during public events as well. One example of this came during the election of “student officers.” Here, students had to give a speech as to why they should be elected to one of the various available positions. Each candidate had to give a three-minute speech in assembly, and each was applauded before and after they did so. However, Simon was rather awkward during his speech, and spoke rather hesitantly. Despite not being particularly popular, he was equally applauded by his peers. Furthermore, later walking past a group of the most popular students, Matt called out, “Well done, Simon,” and Ian added, “Yeah, it’s not easy to do.” There was no heckling, and the boys praised Simon’s willingness to take part.

4. Social Fluidity

The final element of popularity at Standard High complements both inclusivity and support. Here, social fluidity recognizes how boys befriend a broad range of peers. Contrary to what earlier research has shown, boys are not part of antagonistic cliques and value the ability to move between social groups at Standard High. Indeed, there are no real cliques at Standard High—just groups of friends. Alex described this well by saying, “When you enter the common room and your friends aren’t there, you can just talk to other people.”

The boys value this sociability, and this was most powerfully demonstrated by how they decided to celebrate the end of the school year. In the last week of the summer term, approximately two-thirds of the students organized a five-day holiday together to the same seaside resort. One of the key components of this trip was that everyone stayed together. As Matt said, “It’s important we go as a group, so we can all celebrate the end of the year together.” At Standard High, popularity is achieved by including peers, not excluding them.

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What does this mean?

I started this essay by talking about the absence of homophobia in this school. I did so because attitudes toward homophobia are central in determining how young men act. In homophobic cultures, where homosexuality is stigmatized and gay people are marginalized, men will be aggressive and homophobic to prove that they themselves are heterosexual. As Professor Eric Anderson theorizes in his book Inclusive Masculinity, in settings where pro-gay attitudes are prevalent, men can engage in a whole host of behaviors that would have been unthinkable in a homophobic zeitgeist. One example of this is men kissing.

One of the key findings from my research on young men is that they are rapidly rejecting bullying and marginalization as ways of feeling good about themselves. Popularity is determined by how extrovert, authentic, and inclusive a boy is, not by how many other kids he can beat up. This isn’t to say that bullying has been eradicated, or that no boys will be or feel excluded, but it is to document a key change in the social dynamics of boys in this school.

Furthermore, I found a similar atmosphere at two other schools: one school with a religious ethos and one for working-class youth who had troubled educational experiences. Now, of course, it is quite possible that these behaviors are less prevalent in the U.S., where attitudes toward homosexuality are less inclusive. But homophobia is decreasing in America, and it is likely that it will influence boys’ behaviors in similar ways. Fundamentally, it is important to recognize that not all boys, and not all schools, are homophobic and violent. These boys reject homophobia, esteem inclusive behaviors, and promote emotional bonding. It is something we need to celebrate.

This article is based on a research project described in: McCormack, M. (2011). “Hierarchy without hegemony: Locating boys in an inclusive school setting.” Sociological Perspectives, 54(1), 83–101.

—Photo Sean Fujiyoshi

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See more:

The Gay Kids Are All Right

Mostly Straight, Most of the Time

Battling the Bullies

 

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About Mark McCormack

Mark McCormack is a Lecturer in Education at Brunel University, England. His book, The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, will be published with Oxford University Press in January 2012.

Comments

  1. So what happened? I mean– the image I have, when I hear “UK Schools,” is a hyperviolent private boarding school system where “buggery”– rape– is the norm. I mean, I realize that is a decades old media stereotype, but did that system exist? & how was it dismantled?

    • That system does still exist, albeit in a much more muted form. The thing is it only ever referred to a small selection of schools here in the UK – ‘public’ (more accurately independent, upper class and expensive) schools such as Eton and what have you.

      However, the romantic image of the old boarding house is still incredibly resonant in British culture. For instance, part of Harry Potter’s success resided came from tapping into this archetype with Hogwarts. So it’s still the image of UK schooling that is projected overseas.

      My experience in a bog standard comprehensive was a lot similar to that described in this article. Popularity was achieved more on the basis of positive characteristics such as charm or athletic achievement, although the stratification was more distinctive and less inclusive than Standard High’s. Being nerdy or introverted did tend to place a person in the unpopular category, and people tended to adhere to the stereotypes of either section (I confused a lot of people by being nerdy and yet at the same time athletically successful). Bullying still existed, but it was more often the case that unpopular people were left out of things and ignored rather than actively got at.

      The biggest difference was that homophobia still ran rampant. There was one openly gay guy in my year, and whenever we got changed for sports he was forced to change in a different room because many guys didn’t want to be near him in an unclothed state and would even literally push him out of the changing rooms. I don’t think it a coincidence that others came out as gay only after they left school.

      That was a few years ago now though, so hopefully Standard High shows where the future is headed.

      • William says:

        My experience was similar this. I left secondary school in 2006. There were a few gay guys in the school. No-one really cared. They were nice people so everyone got a long. It wasn’t really something we thought about. I think that’s the way the vast majority of the UK is turning though. There are pockets of (mainly religiously driven) homophobia who get more air time than they should. It’s an on-going battle, but I think we’re winning.

  2. Everything always has to be women blaming with you. You can never take a positive article such as this without blaming women in some way.

    • You’re right that I focus on 16-18 year old men rather than women, but I spent 6 months with these guys and ‘hanged out’ (did ethnography) with them in both masculine peer cultures and intra-gender ones. There simply was very little evidence of guys playing up to girls in more damaging ways. If they did play up to girls, it would be in one of the ways mentioned above (particularly through charismatic behaviours). There is little to suggest, however, that these behaviours are the result of playing up to girls. Rather, there is much to suggest that the expansion of gendered behaviours is the result of decreased homophobia.

      • Mark McCormack says:

        Hi,

        I’m glad you’ve had similar school experiences. How I collected data was through 6 months participant observation (with boys in their own groups and around girls, in classes and in social time) and I noticed little difference between when they interacted with girls and when they didn’t. To be clear, they may have acted in different ways, they may have been more charismatic, they may have postured more — but this posturing did not include homophobia, misogyny, bullying or social marginalisation. I also did in-depth interviews with boys to triangulate/corroborate findings.

        I guarded against confirmation bias on a number of counts. First, this wasn’t what I was expecting to see – I was expecting to see at least some homophobia and/or misogyny and some marginalisation. Then, when I didn’t, I recalibrated my frames of analysis to look for more subtle/implict forms of this behavior. I also spoke to members of staff who don’t maintain power over students (cleaning ladies, the caretaker/groundskeeper), and they supported my observations. Finally, I did also speak more informally to female and gay students to see if my observations tallied with their experiences (here, I would feed them false observations as well, to see if they would contradict them – they did). There may be a whole host of reasons why your experience was different, but I do think there is little confirmation bias here.

        With the homoerotic point, yes, and that depends on the context and the reasons behind it. Although I wouldn’t argue that none of the tactility of the boys at Standard HIgh have any sexual component, I do think that it isn’t about sexuality (this is a complex area and I’m simplifying my view here) – however, in the military I think it is primarliy about sexuality. That would be one reason for the difference.

        • Thanks for the reply.

          In regards to you guarding against confirmation bias, I suppose I should have been clearer. What I meant is that perhaps you worked from the presumption that only a “pro-gay attitude” equals less homophobia, misogyny, bullying or social marginalization. There are a host of other factors that could produce the same result. What I do not understand is how you determined those other factors played no part at all.

          For example race used to be a much greater issue. However, by the time I got to high school in the late 90s it was not. That resulted in kids from different racial groups socializing. However, it did not in and of itself result in the virtual absence of social marginalization, bullying, misogyny, misandry, or any other prejudice. There were other factors at play that caused the near absence of those problems in my high school.

          Again, what specifically led you to conclude that only “pro-gay attitudes” prompted the difference in boys’ behavior?

          • To be honest, that question demands a long, detailed answer that wouldn’t be suitable here. In the book, I go into detail about the history of scholarship that documents the centrality of homophobia to masculine behaviors. The argument is basically that homophobia was the most effective policing mechanism of masculinity (because in a homophobic culture, anyone can be gay), so as homophobia declines, there is a marked expansion in gendered behaviors. I’m not saying it is *only* this – the rise of feminism probably helped too, and I’m sure there are other influences – but I am arguing that homophobia is the predominant issue.

            I’m not just trying to sell copies here (the book is out winter time of spring 2012), but I do explain why there (and it takes thousands of words) and it is based on a substantial amount of gender scholarship.

  3. I’m not entirely clear on a few things.
    Are these all boys schools or are these mixed schools?
    Group dynamics do change when people from the other gender are introduced. If these are mixed schools it would mean a fundamental change in not only the way these boys interact amongst themselves, but also in what they perceive to elicit positive responses in girls.

    It is implied in the article that this is due to a more positive attitude towards homosexuality.
    Is there an active policy to promote this change of perspective? And how does that relate to the exposure to the same general media as we are all exposed to? How do they maintain this attitude outside of the school walls?
    Or is this part of a larger cultural shift?

    So many questions.
    It does sound like a school I’d want to send my kids to.

    • All good questions. I can answer one: it’s a co-ed school.

    • Yes, all good questions.

      It is a co-ed school, and the other schools were co-ed too. There is little to suggest that things would be markedly different in single sex schools (informal discussions with my undergraduates and work in schools would support this).

      One of the fascinating things was that this decrease in homophobia was at the cultural, not institutional, level. These schools hadn’t implemented pro-gay initiatives (we don’t have GSAs in the UK), Standard High didn’t even include sexual orientation in its antibullying policy. Rather, it is something that has occurred at a cultural level, among youth in particular. I think this cultural change is primarily attributable to increasing gay visibility and gay legal rights. These students have openly gay friends, listen to gay DJs (one of the most popular DJs on the most popular youth station is openly gay), listen to openly gay popstars, hear from openly gay politicians, etc etc etc. Homosexuality has become normal.

      There is then a final element of a virtuous circle. As homophobia decreases, these boys can be more emotional and touch each other. They then realise that neither of these things are sick or wrong, and so homophobia decreases some more. Etc.

      Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. Interesting.

    First of all, I don’t want my son kissing boys in school. Or girls for that matter. Hell, there are some schools that have banned hugging (although I think that’s overkill), but my point is it’s not the setting for it. Nor is group massage. Frankly the description at that point really creeped me out, although that’s nothing to do with homophobia and much more to do with my disdain for PDA.

    I hope my son attends a high school in which homophobia is extinct. Bullying too. But I just have a very hard time imagining Standard High as you’ve described it, with no exclusion or jockeying for position when it comes to getting female attention. Did they know you were there monitoring them? I have to believe that would account for some modified behavior on their part.

    • While there is a limit to how much physical affection kids should be showing each other in public (groping, making out, etc.,), really, it creates an atmosphere of warmth and caring for one another. At their age, I think touching is very important. The clear communication of affection is important.

      Some people take issue with the idea of boys/girls touching each other affectionately, but often that is an adult reading sexuality into the behaviour of adolescents. The affection they show each other is more akin to a pile of puppies bouncing on each other, and nothing like the bacchanalian orgies people sometimes are imagining.

  5. I am a teacher in Toronto at an arts focused public high school, and what is being described sounds so much like the school I teach at. In fact, while I read this it sounded EXACTLY like my school.

    I had assumed that what made my school different was that it’s an Arts school. I think that as a result of being an arts school, they are more open-minded and liberal about gay rights, but clearly that is not what is necessary to create an environment like you describe. Boys don’t fight at our school. There is no physical bullying that I have ever seen or been privy to. There is next to no aggression in their interactions. Nerdy kids are best of friends with jocks. The jocks are often as likely to be nerdy and awkward. That strange kid who would get put in a dumpster at another school is constantly having love thrown at him by everybody.

    To hear this happening in other schools awes me. It gives me hope.

    Thanks for writing this!

  6. I don’t believe everyone who doesn’t support or want to be around gays is homophobic. I don’t fear or hate gays, I just don’t want to have anything to do with them outside the context of business or work. The way i look at it is when girls I’ve liked, i would try to be friends with them but they were standoffish because they didn’t want to give me the wrong impression. Thats how i would view gays. I don’t consider that homophobic.

    • Jennifer J. says:

      Mark, are you saying that your only female friends are women in whom you are sexually interested, so as to not give someone the “wrong impression”? If so, you’re severely limiting your pool of potential friends.

    • Me, if you also don’t have any female friends who you don’t sleep with, then no, it’s possible you aren’t homophobic. If you do have female friends, then your argument that you don’t want to give ‘the wrong impression’ falls apart and shows your homophobia.

  7. Fascinating article — although, I wonder how women fit into all of this. Whenever people hear about bullying, they tend to think about boys bullying boys, but in a lot of ways it’s just as bad for girls. Did your experience at these schools sense if this impacted women at all — was there the same openness and respect at these schools for the girls as there was the boys?

    (Yes, I know this is the “Good Men” project, but I figure since this article is about bullying that maybe you’d have some insights there, as well. Bullying, in general, is a problem — but for whatever reason, I think the social dynamics between why it happens within the different sexes is, well, different.)

  8. Amazing article. As a teacher in a US public elementary school I’m curious to know if the Standard High staff did anything specific to encourage the decreased homophobia beyond the general cultural shift taking place beyond the school walls. What can I do to help bring about that same kind of tolerance in my school/town? Are there out staff on faculty? Have these students known out teachers prior to their high school experience?

    • My argument in the book is that it is mainly the result of a general shift, but that having pro-gay policies and initiatives in schools is vital for full equality. Looking at how schools become gay friendly where the culture doesn’t already exist is the research project I am currently planning! In the nearer term, things that can help are:
      have gay visibility – this might be an openly gay teacher coming out and discussing his/her experiences in an open way; it might be having posters about LGBT issues
      support a Gay Straight Alliance
      Make punishment for homophobic bullying equal to racist bullying
      Talk about inclusion in general terms (ie foster a more inclusive atmosphere)
      Talk about LGBT issues holistically in the school curriculum.

      In terms of Standard High, no out gay teachers or former out gay teachers. But a MUCH more positive media atmosphere relating to sexuality than the US (although homophobia is decreasing in the US as a broad social trend, particularly among youth(

  9. Girls do NOT like aggressive bullies anymore than anyone else does and it is ridiculous to say so. I think these boys sound wonderful, and I wish our schools were more like this. We appreciate sane, kind, and affectionate.

    • Here are your own words: “Certain types of masculinity tend to not be rewarded by women, this is a little different now since less masculine men have been selected as useful political allies, but the rewards tend to end there and the preference for the more assertive male persists as the preference among women . . . women tend to select and reward more assertive or masculine males.”

      These are YOUR words. I’m saying that they are flat out wrong. They exist in service of a self-pitying, resentful, misogynistic untruth.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel like what you’re saying is that because these boys are nice they’re not assertive. At least, this is the implication I get. I get that aggressiveness and assertiveness are two different things, but at the same time it’s like you’re saying boys can’t be nice AND also assertive.

      • I said the WORDS are untrue. And I said the WORDS service an untruth. I’m neither inferring anything nor implying anything about you. I’m not responding to you as a person at all.

      • Transhuman says:

        @Jen, being assertive is not the same as being “an aggressive bully”, you are challenging a statement that the author did not make.

  10. Hi Mark McCormack. Were you educated in our -the uk- middle or high school system (state or private)?

  11. What is the exact name of this school? Google doesn’t turn up anything on a “Standard High” in the UK. And “high school” is not a term uniformly employed in the UK to refer to the equivalent of a US high school.

  12. Really happy that homophobia is disappearing :)
    So nice to read some good news.
    At my uk comprehensive we all avoided the aggressive males – it’s just looks, clever and funny or affectionate . I think the macho thing is a bit of a media construct tbh – but then macho men lie about how successful they are with women .

  13. Amyloveschoa says:

    that’s good for the homosexuals that way that don’t get pick on by the straight people. just because their diffrent from them!! they make better friends. they have better feelings than the straight ones.
    they should have these school in USA.

  14. My experience as a teacher and I think most research bears out is that bullying peaks in the younger grades with boys and girls around 12-15.

    -Rae

    • Yep, I remember that by age 15 when everyone was concentrating on GCSES (UK) no one really cared about each others differences anymore, plus social groups had changed a few times. Everyone basically ‘grew up’ a little bit. In my school lots of trouble makers had dropped out or been removed or became pregnant

  15. Joshua Pines says:

    In the UK, I think that bullying of redheads (“gingers”) is more common than of gays. Not sure what that means.

Trackbacks

  1. […] This amazing piece at The Good Men Project paints a scenario that would, for the Religious Right, be absolute hell.  Not only is the gay kid in school not bullied, berated, or verbally/physically abused, the popular athletic boys talk to him and make friends with him: Consider the scene: Tom, a small, shy, openly gay high school student, sat at the back of the school bus on his own. He saw three of the most popular, athletic boys get on the bus, fresh from soccer practice. As they made their way down the aisle, they saw Tom alone and moved toward him. […]

  2. […] A school void of ant-gay bullying? Where is this play? Heaven!? Nope, it’s the U.K. […]

  3. […] about bullying on this blog, including here and here. To end on another up note, here is a really terrific article out of the United Kingdom that I came across and wanted to call to your attention. It shows that […]

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  5. […] Mark McCormack spent six months researching teen boys in the U.K. What he found was a culture of acceptance that defied cultural expectations.  […]

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