Homophobia Starts in Elementary School; Teachers Do Little

PHOTO: Clare Davidson-Sherman, 8, is the adopted daughter of Karen Davidson-Fisher and her wife, Bobbi Davidson-Fisher.
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Clare Davidson-Sherman, the adopted daughter of Karen Davidson-Fisher, has "several mommies" -- her biological one, her adoptive mother's former partner who has joint custody, and now Davidson-Fisher's legal wife.

The 8-year-old has come face-to-face with bullying in her Omaha, Neb., public school. One of her third-grade classmates used a derogatory and "sing-songy" tone as she taunted, "Clare has lesbian moms!"

"She was upset," said Davidson-Fisher, a 39-year-old former mental health therapist. "But the teacher talked to the kid. There are at least three kids in my daughter's class who have same-sex parents. It's something that needs to be taken care of."

Since then, bullying hasn't been an issue for Clare.

Now, the first survey of its kind, "Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States," reveals that homophobia is pervasive in elementary schools and, unlike Clare's school, most teachers do little to intervene.

At this age, bullies use words to attack those who are different, but if not curtailed early, warn advocates, verbal teasing turns to violence at the middle school and high school level.

The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) examined homophobia and gender nonconformity among 1,065 students in grades 3 to 6 and 1,099 teachers in grades K to 6 in a survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

Students and teachers were asked about their school climates, including hearing biased remarks, witnessing and experiencing bullying, as well as lessons they received on bullying, gender issues and family diversity.

An estimated 45 percent of students and 49 percent of teachers said that the word "gay" was most often used in a negative way, for example, "That's so gay."

Many also report regularly hearing students make homophobic remarks, such as "fag" or "lesbo," and negative comments about race and ethnicity. Three quarters of the students report that children are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity.

Victims were most often targeted because of their body size, not being good at sports, how well they did their schoolwork, not conforming to gender roles or because others thought they were gay.

But only 24 percent of teachers report having personally engaged in efforts to create a safe and supportive environment for families with LGBT parents, even though nearly half of them regularly heard students making homophobic remarks.

Nearly 1 in 10 of these elementary students revealed they do not always conform to traditional gender norms, according to the survey: "Either they are boys who others sometimes think, act or look like a girl, or they are girls who others sometimes think, act or look like a boy."

Those students also say that they are less likely to feel safe at school.

"Words like 'sissy,' 'fairy,' 'faggot' and 'dike' are weapons of choice for children who want to hurt their peers," said GLSEN's executive director Eliza Byard. "Learning words can wound someone and turn into patterns of bullying.… It can be painful and limiting for children who are outside some artificial norm."

Studies in grades K through 12 reveal that when children reach middle school, 40 percent of all LGBT students report having been physically assaulted because of gender expression or identity.

"As a society, we have been witnessing for the past couple of years the dramatic evidence of what can happen when bias and bullying are allowed to mature and develop through the school years," said Byard.

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