The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality

July 12, 2012

The term "groundbreaking research" is often bestowed too lightly, but it is richly deserved in the case of this book. Mark McCormack offers a pioneering and remarkably inspiring account of the declining significance of homophobia, and how teenage boys are redefining masculinity and heterosexuality (and homosexuality). It allows the reader to enter into a new way of thinking about and understanding the nuances of homosexual and heterosexual peer relationships in a secondary education context, and it begins to dispel the common belief that the majority of secondary schools (in the UK, the US and elsewhere) are rife with multiple levels of oppression, social exclusion, marginalisation and homophobic manifestations. Although it may still be the case in many secondary schools around the world, this piece of research encourages us to start asking and framing our empirical studies in a more open-minded way, without the a priori assumption that "all high schools are inculcated within a homophobic framework".

McCormack's new paradigm of framing our understanding about adolescent sexuality and pro-gay attitudes must be commended. But more importantly, the young people (gay and straight alike) who participated in this study merit the greatest accolades. They gave voice, in a profound and most articulate manner, to the fact that secondary school students have taken it upon themselves to alter their attitudes and disposition towards homosexuality, homophobia and heteronormativity. This is without doubt one of the strengths of the book - it provides us with an ethnographic prism into these changed realities as heterosexual and homosexual peers begin to develop a modern and contemporary understanding of and respect for each other. McCormack has captured this brave new world with conviction, resilience, honesty and a healthy dose of humour.

In reading the book it is pos-sible to see how these burgeoning relationships have begun to change. While the author acknowledges writing from a purist sociological perspective, his findings have significant implications for policy and practice. This book should be read and embraced by all professionals working alongside and engaging with young people - including social workers, mental health professionals, teachers, allied health professionals, counsellors and support workers. It is our responsibility to develop and support a policy of zero tolerance for homophobia in secondary education settings. This book clearly supports the hypothesis that it is possible and should be pursued. McCormack will doubtless argue that the findings are not generalisable (in the purest theor-etical sense), but they do provide snapshot evidence (from the three UK secondary schools in the study) of how secondary-school teenagers are creating a new frame of reference as they negotiate their own sense of masculinity, sexuality, gender identity and homosexual-heterosexual binaries.

While I appreciate the need to contextualise this book with an appropriate theoretical paradigm (which McCormack covers in chapters 2 and 3), I would have preferred it if more of the book was dedicated to the narratives and experiences of the teenagers themselves. Their anecdotes (in chapters 7 to 11) made the most interesting reading, and demonstrate the extent to which cultural shifts in the UK have influenced and underpinned the declining significance of homophobia for teenage boys. Although this book has been written, by the author's acknowledgement, for US and UK audiences, it encourages all of us engaged in sexuality research to examine whether these studies (and their results) could be replicated elsewhere. What, for example, would we find in similar schools in South Africa, Brazil, India, Australia or China?

The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality

By Mark McCormack. Oxford University Press. 166pp, £32.50. ISBN 9780199778249. Published 19 April 2012

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