Sexuality and education are a combustible combination for British media and politics. The recent debates about sex education and gay rights in Birmingham schools have brought to attention again how thinking about sexuality in schools – and homosexuality in particular – is controversial and even taboo for much of British society.
The education system failed its lesbian, gay and bisexual students in the 1980s and 1990s – a period which British Social Attitudes survey reports show was the most homophobic period in recent history. Rather than seek to protect sexual minority students, the then Conservative government introduced Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which prevented the promotion of homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’ in schools. The main effects were to silence discussion of sexual minorities and discourage teachers from dealing with homophobic bullying.
Section 28 was repealed in 2003, part of a growing liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality in British society (Weeks, 2007). Data from the 2017 survey document a 17-percenage point increase since 2012 to 64 percent of adults who think that same-sex relationships are ‘not wrong at all’. More inclusive school spaces have emerged, growing numbers of sexual minority youth come out at school and are increasingly accepted by their peers.
Despite this trend, documented in academic research, gay rights charity Stonewall produced a series of reports that found homophobia to be endemic and ‘almost epidemic’ in schools. These reports had significant media and policy influence, and are part of a recent trend of charities funding and authoring research reports on homophobia in British educational settings. Between 2012 and 2017, ten reports were published in this manner by the charities Ditch the Label, Metro, and the NUS, alongside Stonewall.
In a study recently published in Sociology, I undertook a critical analysis of these ten reports to examine whether they are producing forms of knowledge that differ significantly from academic research in the area. In this work, I treated the reports as data and adopted a social problems approach, considering what claims-making activities are present in them, the rigour of the studies, and what master narrative is present across the documents.
Claims, methods and trauma
The reports all focus on homophobia and the harm done to LGBT young people in education, particularly through homophobic bullying. Homophobic bullying is seen as an issue for sexual minority youth only, and the reports do not discuss issues that are more contentious in the media – such as sex education in primary schools.
Notable across all reports was the role the funding charity played within them. All reports explicitly discussed the associated charity, early in the document, at the end or both. All reports also laid claim to the expertise of the associated charities and groups. The process of making claims to expertise within the research reports while not discussing expertise of other relevant charities serves to advertise the funding charity while not drawing attention to other, competitor, charities.
The reports also referenced other reports while giving few or no citations to academic research. Self-referencing and the exclusion of academic peer-reviewed is a way of claiming expertise in the area and positioning the charity as an important actor in tackling the social issue. The exclusion of academic research also means that the reports do not have to deal with findings that contradict their own results.
These reports contrast with academic research and have systematic methodological limitations. None of the reports provide sufficient information to allow assessment of validity and reliability, nor do they discuss ethical issues despite asking children as young as 12 to recount potentially traumatic experiences, including physical violence and rape, in an anonymous survey format.
Perhaps the most significant issue is that all the reports are designed in such a way that negative effects are likely to be exacerbated. Contrasting with diverse approaches in academic literature, all reports use online survey methods as the primary method of data collection. Because these are likely to have high rates of attrition and non-random sampling, they are likely to increase the number of false positive results—where someone reports something as happening when it did not. Having surveys that take some time to complete mean those with negative experiences are also more likely to complete them.
The findings are then reported in such a way that emphasizes the worst findings. In several reports, the quotes given to support statements are frequently exemplars of the worst case.
These quotes are often written in large colourful text, drawing attention the worst examples. The experiences of harm tend to be nearer the front of the report, while more positive experiences are further back.
Analysing the narratives of these reports, it is clear that they are advancing what is known in the social problems literature as a trauma narrative of LGBT youth. Jeffrey Alexander’s influential theory of cultural trauma holds that trauma is not only an individual experience but also a cultural one: for something to be recognized culturally as a trauma it must meet various social conditions (see Alexander 2012).
Using Alexander’s framework, it becomes clear that present across the reports is a master narrative of LGBT youth experience as one of trauma. The pain of homophobic bullying is presented as a likely outcome for LGBT students, whose youth is emphasized across reports. These young people are framed as being no different to other students, and the responsibility for combatting homophobia is located with teachers, schools, and the Government.
The research reports produced by campaigning charities are not rigorous forms of peer-reviewed research but are better classed as forms of advocacy which highlight a social problem and simultaneously champion the funding charity as expert to help resolve the issue.
These reports have been published in a context where charities are under increased financial pressures and take on business-like approaches to further their agenda. These reports help do this because they attract media attention and funding—key markers of success for large charities in the 21st century.
One might ask, so what? Homophobia is an issue that is still relevant in society and the history of sexual minorities in the UK is rarely told: Does it matter that the reports influencing media discussion and funding are not rigorous?
I think it does for two reasons: first, abandoning systematic and rigorous empirical research contributes to post-truth politics. Evidence-based policy may have its flaws, yet these reports further corrupt evidence-based policymaking.
Second, the efficacy of such politics is untested even as it becomes increasingly common. For example, at Brighton pride this year, political statements were placed on lamp-posts across the city. One of these stated “1 in 5 LGBT people have experienced a hate crime in the last 12 months”. A horrifying statistic. But it is unlikely to be accurate. The statistic comes from a Stonewall report, yet the Crime Survey of England and Wales reports approximately 30,000 LGB people reporting a hate crime in that year – on a conservative estimate of the LGB population this is more like 3 percent than the 20 percent paraded at Pride.
This matters because evidence suggests that hearing about incidents increases LGBT people’s feelings of “vulnerability, anxiety, anger, and sometimes shame”. We simply do not know how much this occurs, or how damaging it is. There is a worrying rise in hate crime and social policy and activism should address this. But exaggerating claims of harm to make a broader political point may well have unintended consequences.
The same concern relates to how best to campaign for a comprehensive, progressive sex education. My contention is that we are best placed to argue for this change by recognizing the positive change that has occurred among young people, and that concern around sex education is not just about homophobia but other issues of sex and sexuality. Advocacy research that avoids these issues is not the answer to combatting homophobia and heterosexism in society.
Alexander, J.C. (2012). Trauma. Cambridge: Polity.
McCormack, M. (2019). ‘Advocacy research on homophobia in education: Claims-making, trauma construction and the politics of evidence’. Sociology, Epub ahead of print. DOI: 10.1177/0038038519858585
Weeks, J. (2007). The World We Have Won. London: Routledge.
Mark McCormack is Professor of Sociology at the University of Roehampton. His research examines how the decline of homophobia in British society maps onto people’s everyday experiences of gender and sexuality. He is lead author of the introductory sociology textbook, Discovering Sociology.