Promoting equality and respect for LGBT pupils in Physical Education: ‘activist’ students’ perspectives

Zack Williams is in his final year of the MAPE Programme at the University of Edinburgh. In this post, he provides a summary of the research he carried out for is Educational Studies 4 Independent Research Project.

Promoting equality and respect for LGBT pupils in Physical Education: ‘activist’ students’ perspectives

For many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pupils, repeated acts of bullying, prejudice and intolerance make school a place of hostility and fear (Kosciw et al, 2012). Physical Education (PE) is highlighted as a subject that is traditionally challenging for LGBT youth. This is because the environment can perpetuate social norms of hyper masculinity and homophobia leading to a negative climate in PE (Clarke, 2006). There is a dearth of research that focuses on LGBT pupils’ experiences in PE and fewer studies that have analysed these perceptions through the eyes of pupils. Consequently, I carried out a study that explored the views four pupils who formed an activist group that aimed to give a voice to the young people in the school and support their rights. Importantly, of these four ‘activist’ pupils, two identified as LGBT whilst the remaining two identified as heterosexual and cisgender. The aim of my study was to gain a deeper insight into their perceptions of how LGBT pupils experience PE and to understand the ways in which they think PE could promote equality and respect for LGBT pupils. Analysis of the data generated from the focus group interview I conducted resulted in four main themes: Homophobia in PE, Supportive PE, Hegemonic Masculinity & Identity and finally Future changes in PE.

Homophobia in PE

The group believed that homophobia remains a big issue for LGBT pupils in PE, especially verbal abuse and derogatory slurs that were experienced or witnessed by the pupils. For these young activist pupils, the demographic of the school was a contributing factor to the frequency and the severity of homophobic victimisation for LGBT students. The school is situated in a rural part of the UK and the group believe that this contributed to a more traditionalist outlook on society and a less tolerant attitude towards the LGBT community.

Supportive PE

Previous research has shown most PE teachers will have witnessed, to some degree, homophobic abuse throughout their careers. However, research suggests that limited action has been taken towards dealing appropriately with incidents, and many have been brushed off as insignificant (Morrow et al., 2003). However, in this study the group disagreed with the literature and highlighted the positive impact their supportive PE department has on the wellbeing of LGBT students, not only in PE but in their wider school life.

Hegemonic Masculinity and Identity

This theme highlights that male pupils who have their identity questioned are stigmatised if they do not conform to societies perceptions of specific activities, especially when a male takes part in activities that are perceived to be feminine (Atkinson and Kehler, 2012). The group discussed their own experiences in PE, emphasising that boys who participated in activities that were perceived to be feminine led to negative reactions from peers. Similar to Buston and Harts study (2001) the group highlighted that people who were perceived to be gay were subject to verbal and physical abuse and therefore believed pupils refrain from taking part in less masculine sports or activities for fear of being ostracised.

Future Change in PE

It was extremely valuable to listen to the group discuss ideas surrounding what could be done to create a more equal and respectful PE for LGBT pupils. The group highlighted that homophobia was prominent in changing rooms therefore they believed that introducing gender neutral changing rooms as a strategy to prevent this. Furthermore, the group agreed with much of the literature advocating for further professional learning opportunities for PE teachers in LGBT inclusiveness. They believed that this would give teachers the knowledge and confidence to handle sensitive and challenging issues. Finally, and arguably most importantly, the group believed that more has to be done in PE to raise the awareness of LGBT pupils’ experiences in PE and to educate the wider school. They believe that this could be achieve by establishing a group with straight allies and supportive teachers.

Concluding Comments

I hope that this study encourages more consideration in the PE and Education worlds towards the experiences of LGBT pupils in PE. With PE in Scotland positioned at the forefront of Health and Well-being now, more than ever, is an appropriate time to investigate the PE climate for LGBT youth. I believe that gaining an insight from these activist students on their perceptions of LGBT students experiences in PE has been an invaluable learning experience for myself as I can start to use some of the ideas discussed in this paper in my own practice, to make PE a more inclusive and equal environment.

Reference List

  1. Buston, K. and Hart, G., 2001. Heterosexism and homophobia in Scottish school sex education: exploring the nature of the problem. Journal of adolescence24(1), pp.95-109.
  2. Clarke, Gill. 2006. Sexuality and physical education. In The handbook of physical education, ed. David Kirk, Doune Macdonald, and Mary O’Sullivan, 723 –39. London: Routledge
  3. Kosciw, J.G., Bartkiewicz, M. and Greytak, E.A., 2012. Promising strategies for prevention of the bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. The Prevention Researcher19(3), pp.10-14.
  4. Morrow, R.G. and Gill, D.L., 2003. Perceptions of homophobia and heterosexism in physical education. Research quarterly for exercise and sport74(2), pp.205-214.