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The Declining Significance of HomophobiaHow Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality$

Mark McCormack

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199778249

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199778249.001.0001

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The Study

The Study

(p.11) 2 The Study
The Declining Significance of Homophobia

Mark McCormack

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter provides the background of the schools studied in this research. It provides demographic data on the three schools and highlights the importance of the British context. It also explores the issues around being an openly gay researcher in the setting, and how this positively facilitated collection of richer data from both gay and straight students.

Keywords:   methods, gay, reflexivity, demographics, context, school

Data for this research come from the ethnographic study of three high schools in the south of England: “Religious High,” “Standard High,” and “Fallback High.” The schools are located in “Standard Town,” where the majority of students live. However, the schools also draw students from rural areas and residents of the nearby major city, and Religious High has the widest geographic intake. All schools take students from the south of England, and more precise locations are not given in order to preserve the anonymity of the institutions.

Religious High

Religious High is the largest of the high schools, with approximately 1,000 students between the ages of 16 and 18. The school is situated just outside Standard Town, and students come from the town, the nearby major city, and the surrounding rural area. Accordingly, there is a broad range of students, with a spectrum of class and racial groups. Students there are granted more social freedoms than students at the other sites. For example, there is a smoking area for students, no uniform policy is prescribed, and students are allowed off campus when they are not in lessons. However, Religious High has a religious affiliation, and it is therefore guided by a Christian ethos that might be expected to uphold socially conservative views concerning gender and sexuality. The Christian denomination of the school is kept secret here in order to preserve the anonymity of the high school.

Standard High

Standard High is situated on the north side of Standard Town, near a local park. Middle-class families live in the surrounding area, and Standard High is the school of choice for most of these households. A former grammar school,1 Standard High maintains a reputation for good behavior and high grades, and its results are rated (p.12) as “good” (rather than “excellent” or “satisfactory”) by the school inspectorate. There is no school uniform for the 16- to 18-year-olds, but other rules about smoking, piercings, and behavioral codes still apply.

Standard High maintains demographic similarity to the population of the United Kingdom—its students reflect the race and class profile of the country as a whole. Students come from working- to upper-middle-class families. Ninety percent of the students are white British, and the remaining ten percent comprise a variety of other racial and ethnic groups. There are approximately 200 students aged 16–18 in the high school, almost all of whom attended Standard School from the age of 11.

Fallback High

Fallback High is situated 1.5 miles from Standard High. It is found south of the river in Standard Town, and the nearby houses are smaller and more dilapidated than those near Standard High. Fallback High has a poor reputation in the area compared to the other schools, but it is rated by the school inspectorate as good (the same as Standard High). Although the high school is affiliated with Fallback School, few students move on to the high school. This is attributable to the fact that Fallback High functions primarily to provide educational opportunities to troubled students who have previously struggled academically and/or behaviorally. With only 18 male students in total, the school’s focus is on giving students the opportunity to achieve a range of key skills that will equip them with entry-level qualifications required for the workplace. All students are white and working class. However, because of their troubled social and educational lives, these students are not representative of working-class youth more generally.

All three high schools are located approximately two miles from each other in Standard Town. There are no other schools for residents this age nearby, so there is no selection bias with these research sites. Data collection occurred between March 2008 and July 2009.

The participants are the 16- to 18-year-old male students in each school. Most of these boys self-identify as heterosexual, although there are also some openly gay and bisexual students, and one openly (female-to-male) transsexual student. I also did not ignore female students’ behaviors or views when they had relevance for the research. Although the majority of students have lived nearby in recent years, three students I interviewed had moved south in the previous year. These boys did not, however, comment on a North/South divide.

The British Context: The Sixth Form Versus The High School

There is an important contextual issue with regard to the schools in which I collected data. Although I call the research sites “high schools,” there are in fact (p.13) differences between U.S. high schools and what we in Britain call “sixth forms.” One key issue is that attendance at a sixth form is not compulsory in the United Kingdom. Those youth who have not engaged at school or who desire to leave for any reason are able to find employment or training in other areas.2 I have called my research sites high schools because they resemble high schools found in the United States and because this book is aimed at an international market. However, there are some considerations that need to be taken into account when thinking about the British sixth form and how it relates to the U.S. high school.

It is a substantive issue that sixth forms have their own discourses of gender and sexuality that might differ from those in earlier levels of schooling. The move from compulsory state education to sites where students have actively chosen to stay in education (instead of entering the labor market) is, as Redman and Mac an Ghaill (1997, p. 169) comment, a “key cultural transition that involves young people in new social relations . . . and requires new forms of identity to handle them.” They argue that the sixth form is a space where forms of masculinity that are more dependent on intellectual capability than on displays of physical strength or sexual prowess are available. Archer and Yamashita (2003) document that when working-class boys consider staying on in postcompulsory education, they experience a tension between holding onto their “authentic” masculinities, which are linked with educational failure, and staying on in education and “leaving” these identities (p. 127).

Drawing on the issue of class, Kehily and Pattman (2006) argue that sixth form students negotiate their middle-class identities as a mechanism to distance themselves from younger school students. This seemingly draws on Aggleton’s (1987) study of sixth form students at a private school, where privileged students seek to portray themselves as autonomous and authentic individuals. However, although the issue of postcompulsory education is likely important, it is hard to distinguish the impact of this from that of the age of the students and, with Aggleton’s study, the fact that data was collected at a private school3.

Pertaining to the age of students, the 16- to 18-year-old age bracket appears to be the point at which young people start seriously defining themselves against institutional norms (Anderson, 2009), and they are less likely to passively adopt the rules that society dictates to them. This means that 16- to 18-year-old boys are perhaps better labeled as emerging adults (see Arnett, 2004). In short, researching male youth in sixth forms—or, indeed, in high schools—means that one is investigating people with a well-developed sense of agency, in an age range that is characterized by the attempt to develop an individual identity and sense of purpose (Arnett, 2004; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1984).

None of this is to suggest, however, that sixth forms are ideal sites in which students can float free of social structures. In many ways they are very similar to (p.14) high schools, particularly with respect to the discourses of sexuality and gender that circulate within them. Redman and Mac an Ghaill (1997) argue that sixth form students adopt an “intellectual muscularity” in place of physical displays of dominance. They posit, however, that this is merely a new style of the same type of orthodox masculinity. That is, boys do not adopt pro-gay attitudes and esteem feminine behaviors in the process of entering sixth form settings. Instead, they recontextualize once-feminized activities (namely, academic success) as consistent with orthodox forms of masculinity. Redman and Mac an Ghaill argue that “muscular intellectualness did not transform heterosexual masculinity’s disavowal of the ‘feminine’ and the homosexual, it merely reproduced them in a new form” (p. 171).

Accordingly, although it is necessary to recognize that the sixth form is a unique educational site, one must be cautious about how much change this space provides. Given what the relatively sparse literature on masculinities in sixth form education shows with regard to heteromasculinity (see in particular Redman and Mac an Ghaill, 1997), as well as the research from other countries (see Pascoe, 2007), it would be wrongheaded to argue that sixth forms have traditionally been cultural sites where more progressive attitudes proliferate.

Data Collection At The High Schools

I first collected data at Standard High for a period of six months, a duration that LeCompte and Goetz (1982) suggest is suitable for a school-based ethnography. By the sixth month in this setting, the continued collection of data was not adding conceptually to my emerging theoretical framework. Instead, examples confirmed and supported the classification system I had devised (Goetz & LeCompte, 1981). Rather than continue to collect data at Standard High, I decided to expand my research to two other high schools. This was to guard against the argument that Standard High was an anomaly—that even though students at Standard High represent the demographic make-up of most of the British population (primarily white and middle class), Standard High was for some reason more gay-friendly than most high schools in Britain. Accordingly, I selected two high schools where elevated levels of homophobia might be expected to be found; if these sites were also gay-friendly, it would suggest that what was occurring was the result of a broad cultural shift and not of institutional factors.

I undertook research at Fallback High because it was a site where high levels of homophobia might prevail. As a school that exists for disaffected, socio-economically disadvantaged students who are seeking to gain basic qualifications for manual labor and other low-paid work, it might be expected that students here would maintain higher levels of homophobia (Froyum, 2007; Redman & Mac an Ghaill, 1997). Second, the site was chosen because of its geographical proximity to Standard High. Geographical proximity helps one to limit geographical location as a factor while recognizing the unique local culture of each site.

(p.15) I carried out the same methodological procedure, which I detail below, as I did at Standard High. One difference, however, is that I planned to spend less time at this site. This is because I had already developed the main analytic themes from Standard High. The reason for collecting data at Fallback High was to investigate the extent to which the findings (of low homophobia and high physical tactility) might be a unique phenomenon of Standard High. Accordingly, I sought to compare findings between the two sites.

After spending three months at Fallback High, I expanded my research to a third high school. Having found lower rates of homophobia than expected, I selected Religious High because of its religious affiliation. This was strategic because religious schools are sites that are likely to maintain elevated rates of homophobia (Hillier & Harrison, 2004). Its proximity to the other research settings held geographical location as constant as possible in this research.

It is also worth noting that Standard Town is not known as a metropolitan or liberal town. Its main employer is a large factory, and it does not have high street fashion outlets in its shopping mall. In other words, there is no obvious reason for Standard Town to be particularly socially liberal. Furthermore, selecting schools that are expected to have higher-than-average levels of homophobia adds to the credibility of my findings, as well as to claims of generalizability. Flyvbjerg (2006) calls this the “most likely” case, in that these were sites where homophobia was more likely to be found. By finding the opposite of what is expected to occur, the rigor of the findings is improved.

Conducting The Study

Data was collected with as diverse a set of students as possible at all these sites. This was facilitated by undertaking initial observations of a wide variety of lessons (including art, music, physical education, math, and english). This enabled me to socialize with a broad range of students. I also came into contact with students in their social areas, and I attended various clubs and group meetings. Although I undertook measures to ensure that a diverse sample of students was accounted for, it is possible that a small selection bias occurred, as homophobic students might have distanced themselves from me—however, there is no evidence that this was the case.

The most illuminating data was collected away from teacher supervision—in the common rooms, on playing fields, and off site during break times and lunch. I maximized the time I spent socializing with students in these environments, and I adopted an informal ethnographic approach. I sought to minimize social markers of difference between myself and the participants, styling my hair and dressing as was fashionable in each setting. This was made easier by my age (24). I also adopted many of the male students’ colloquialisms. However, it is important to note that I did not try to present myself as a student. As Wax (1971, p. 49) comments, such attempts can look “silly, phony, and mendacious.” Wax further argues (p.16) that participants can view assurances that the researcher is one of them as “rude, presumptuous, insulting, or threatening.” Accordingly, I presented myself as sympathetic to students’ views, eager to get to know them better, and appreciative of their engagement with me.

In order to gain students’ trust, and consistent with this type of informal ethnography, I participated in minor rule-breaking behaviors. Examples of this varied across the different settings. For example, at Standard High this included playing sporting games in the common room, accompanying students off campus for lunch (not allowed at that school), and not commenting when I witnessed students copying homework. At Fallback High, students would loiter around the main gates of the school, which was prohibited by the administration. I would socialize with the students here. When students were reprimanded for doing this, I was treated as if I were one of them. This was prearranged with the school administration and seemed to strengthen my rapport with these students. At Religious High, there was less opportunity to engage in such activities because of the more lenient rules. The main ways in which I broke rules there were by occasionally helping students with homework and not commenting on other work being copied in my presence.

My own identity also influenced my social interaction with students in other ways. Many students asked about my relatively recent experiences at university. They wanted to know what it was like living away from home, attending lectures, and experiencing university life. Although I was clearly older than the students, my similar ethnicity and class status relative to the majority of students meant that I was familiar with many of their cultural references. For example, I shopped in the same clothes shops as many participants (River Island and Topman), watched the same television shows that they enjoyed (including Skins and Family Guy), and listened to the same radio stations (Kiss and Radio 1). These similarities enabled me to join in the informal discussions that pervade daily life.

In order to reduce the visibility of the research process, the taking of notes was left to immediate recall (Spradley, 1970). Often notes were recorded using immediate recall after leaving the presence of participants, but on other occasions I was able to use my mobile phone to text message notes to myself. This was frequently possible given the prevalence of texting in the common room. If, as happened on occasion, I was asked whom I was texting (a question I interpreted as a mechanism for starting a conversation), I would respond by giving a short answer such as, “Just sorting my plans for tonight,” and then I would chat with the student.

In order to follow a controlled method of recording, managing, and interpreting field notes, annotations were recorded as quickly and in as much detail as possible after the event. After taking notes in the field, I systematically spent an hour or two writing them up and making initial interpretations (Barnard, 2002). Furthermore, time was taken to reflect upon earlier steps, using a method of making notes upon notes (Holt & Sparkes, 2001). I also discussed my findings with colleagues, who would often interrogate some of my early interpretations. All of this contributes to what I perceive to be a cyclical rather than linear method of ethnographic interpretation and analysis (Delamont, 2004).

(p.17) In-depth interviews complement the participant observations by providing rich data about participants’ attitudes. In addition to hundreds of informal conversations, I conducted 22 semistructured, in-depth interviews at Religious High, 10 at Fallback High, and 12 at Standard High, strategically selecting boys from a representative sample of subcultures within these settings. Each interview covered issues of friendship, bullying, attitudes toward homosexuality, perceptions of masculinity and popularity among peers, and understandings of homophobia and homosexually-themed language. The interviews were semistructured, meaning that although an interview code was prepared beforehand, it was used only for reference. I worked to ensure that interviews were as relaxed and informal as possible. That being said, in order to ensure the confidentiality of the interviews, they occurred in a private room with the door shut. Permission for interview was obtained from the head teacher (principal), the student, and a guardian of each student being interviewed. No student or guardian refused, and several students volunteered to be interviewed.

Being a Gay Researcher

Given the impact of sexuality on the research process (Coffey, 1999) and the positive outcomes of discussing one’s sexuality freely (Kong, Mahoney, & Plummer, 2002), I deemed it necessary to be open about being gay. I came out in the third week of data collection at each site, initially examining levels of homophobia when students did not know of my sexual orientation. I detected no change in levels of homophobic language as a result of my being open about my sexuality. I also believe, as Anderson (2009) suggests, that my openness about my sexuality enabled me to undertake an informal ethnography and facilitated the further reciprocal disclosure of personal information with students. For example, some students asked what it was like to attend gay clubs and pubs, what it was like coming out, and how it affected my school experience. This enabled me to examine participants’ attitudes toward homosexuality in a natural and free-flowing way. Talking about my sexuality made me closer to several key informants, and it certainly helped develop my relationships with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.

Being open about my sexual identity was also important ethically. First, it promoted a positive attitude toward gay visibility, potentially providing a role model for LGBT youth. Furthermore, it meant that I treated participants with respect for their role in the research process. As Chang (2005, p. 192) writes, “[I]f a researcher can choose to hide his or her sexual orientation for certain reasons, then why do participants need to be honest in telling their own stories without any struggle?” The obvious point is that in the absence of extreme and overt homophobia, the disclosure of personal information regarding one’s sexuality is likely to encourage mutual respect and reciprocity.

It is also possible that knowledge of my sexuality influenced some students to avoid contact with me. Some students might have exaggerated their support of (p.18) gay rights or tempered their use of homophobic language because they knew of my sexuality. There is, however, evidence to suggest that this was not the case: Students did not change how they acted after I came out. Although I do not believe that being openly gay caused me to miss aspects of homophobia, it must be pointed out that if that were the case, this would be unique data in and of itself because it would indicate that homophobia has been driven underground. This is notably different from a time when students were homosexualized for associating with gay people (Mac an Ghaill, 1994).

With regard to my own reflexivity, I employed several procedures to ensure critical reflection. Following Mauthner and Doucet (2003), I explicitly examined my personal, emotional, and theoretical influences that are implicated in any analysis of data. I allocated specific times and places to reflect on my data collection, maintaining a reflexive and critical position throughout the data analysis. I also had other scholars cross-code parts of my data. Recognizing the ways in which my own feelings and emotions affect the collection of data, it is also important to be aware of the trepidation I felt initially entering the field. Having a school experience that I feel is accurately described by Mac an Ghaill’s (1994) and Epstein’s (1997) work, I had worried about entering an educational setting that I had experienced as homophobic in my youth. However, questions of how I would deal with observing social marginalization and homophobia ultimately were not important; I never witnessed these behaviors or attitudes. These students did not bully each other, marginalize less popular students, or deploy overt homophobia.

Being surprised by how these findings contrasted with my own experiences, I analyzed my data. Maybe I was exhibiting a form of reverse relative deprivation; Anderson (2005a) documents this with the openly gay athletes he researches, who did not recognize the homophobia they encountered because they were expecting it to be worse than it turned out to be. Also, I wondered whether my acceptance into their social groups meant that I did not recognize their faults. Had I grown too close to my participants? Had I “gone native?” I believe I guarded against these issues on several counts.

First, I used inter-rater reliability. Accordingly, another experienced ethnographer observed lessons and collected data with students in the common room at Standard High. He spent four months in the setting and collected data both independently and with me. This strengthened the reliability and validity of my findings, enabling interrogation of the ways in which my own personality influenced my data (May & Pattillo-McCoy, 2000). It also provided the opportunity to further improve my data collection techniques. And when this openly gay researcher collected data in the field, he did not find homophobia either.

Second, I am conscious of the seriousness of implicit forms of homophobia (and heteronormativity) and critically interrogated my own analysis and observations. I looked for other interpretations of events, examined the links between the interview and observational data, and considered the different views of a wide range of students. Put simply, I do not want to write away a form of social oppression, so I took steps to guard against this. Finally, as my time in the field progressed, I recalibrated my frames of analysis to look for more implicit forms of (p.19) homophobia and heteronormativity. It is based on this analysis that I discuss the way many participants are still implicated in the privileging of heterosexuality, and I develop the concepts of “heterosexual recuperation” and “gay discourse” in order to understand the mechanisms by which this occurs.

Third, I investigated the extent to which participants acted differently when I was present, as students can have hidden motives for their engagement with adults. Willis (1977), for example, documents the ways in which school-aged boys actively “wind up” teachers, knowingly altering their self-presentation. With this in mind, I checked on the extent to which participants might have intentionally misrepresented the levels of homophobic language I found in the schools. I spoke with two key participants about my findings in each setting (Carspecken, 1996). I even strategically presented some untrue findings regarding homophobia in order to check whether these students were willing to contest me. All but one of the six students disagreed with the false findings, and the other deferred to me as the expert. Furthermore, I spoke to members of the staff who spent time with students but maintained little authority over them. This group comprised women who worked in the common lunch areas, as well as cleaners at each school. All adults said that they noticed no difference in how the students behaved when I was in the school as opposed to when I was absent.


(1.) Grammar schools select students according to their ability. Students who wish to attend a grammar school have to pass a test that they take at the age of 11. This academic history often means that former grammar schools have a good reputation.

(2.) Young people in the UK now have to stay in education or training until the age of 18, but this change occurred after data collection.

(3.) Private schools make up a small percentage of schools in the United Kingdom, with approximately 7% of students attending them. (p.20)