Like Any Other High School, but Without 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.


  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:


        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.


    • 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.


  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 [...]

  4. Sources…

    [...]here are some links to sites that we link to because we think they are worth visiting[...]…

  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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