Dept. of Education ‘Gender Violence’ Summit Lays Blame on ‘Homophobia’

By Penny Starr | April 8, 2011 | 3:55 AM EDT

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addresses a summit designed to prevent and punish sexual and gender-based violence in U.S. schools, including bullying or sexual harassment of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender students. ( Starr)

( – Two days after issuing new guidance designed to make American schools that receive federal dollars comply with Title IX sexual discrimination laws, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a national summit on “gender-based” violence and laid much of the blame for bullying and sexual harassment on campuses on “homophobic conduct.”

Reading materials” distributed at Wednesday’s event in Arlington, Va. featured articles by academics and other experts that repeatedly identified homophobia as a cause of mistreatment of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender students, from middle school through post-secondary educational institutions.

“This is the first time the federal government has taken this proactive step to help schools, universities, and colleges to prevent sexual violence,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, opening the summit.

“It’s also important to remember that the role of sexual stereotyping can play a role in other forms of bullying, harassment and violence,” he added.

The new guidance issued Monday in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter was preceded by one issued last October, which said that while Title IX does not specifically prohibit discrimination for sexual orientation, the law does protect students – including gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender students – from sex discrimination.

“As we pointed out in our October 2010 Dear Colleague letter, many instances of harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students involve sexual stereotyping,” Duncan said.

In her “Overview of Sexual Harassment” article for the summit, panelist and Wellesley College professor Nan Stein wrote that most anti-bullying studies and reports “have not been responsive to the problem of homophobia.”

“There is no magical transfer between bullying prevention efforts and sexual harassment prevention; talking about bullying and omitting from the discussion any mention of sexual harassment, gender violence or homophobia does not change the behaviors of students who engage in sexually harassing and violent conduct,” she wrote.

“Talking about bullying is not an inoculation against sexual harassment or gender violence; likewise, talking about bullying without talking about homophobia will not prevent homophobic conduct, which may be the pathway to sexual harassment and gender violence conduct.”

Stein asserted that children should be taught about sexual harassment and homophobia.

“Moreover, we must talk accurately about behaviors – if it’s sexual harassment, call it that; if it’s homophobia, call it that,” Stein said. “We must resist the temptation to speak in euphemisms.”

Stein cited the work of adolescent psychologist Lyn Mikel Brown, who said that “calling behaviors what they are” could start a conversation that “invites children to participate in social change, and ultimately protects them.”

Stein also included her own recent study about the overlap between sexual harassment and bullying at middle schools.

“The results indicated that for any given student in the study there was very little overlap between bullying perpetration and sexual violence perpetration,” Stein said. “In other words, bullies and perpetrators of sexual violence are different students in middle school.

“The key link between bullying and sexual harassment/violence seems to be homophobic conduct,” Stein said.

The summit reading materials also included an article by James E. Gruber & Susan Fineran focusing on studies where homophobia is cited as a cause of violence.

They cited a 2007 study that found “being a target of homophobic victimization had a significant psychological and social consequences for students.”

A 2004 study cited in their article claims “it appears … that homophobia may be a ‘normalized’ means of categorizing and victimizing peers during adolescence that has devastating consequences for some teens, in particular, sexual minorities.”

Kevin Jennings, founder of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and now head of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, said at the event that gender-based violence was “an academic issue.” ( Starr)

Gruber and Fineran also referred to a 2005 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that claims “more than 80 percent of [surveyed] students reported hearing derogatory homophobic comments.”

GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings, who is now the head of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools – which hosted the summit – said gender-based violence has to be addressed to make schools safe.

“There are still people out there who, when they hear we are doing this summit today, are going to say, ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with schools anyway,’” he said.

“The fact is, young people don’t check the rest of themselves at the door when they enter the school and become a student.”

Jennings said that addressing gender-based violence is part of President Obama’s mandate to improve U.S. schools.

“So, let’s first and foremost recognize this for what it is, from the U.S. Department of Education’s perspective,” Jennings said. “This is an academic issue.”