UK psychologist and professor Ian Rivers discusses his recent trip to America’s Heartland and how, as an anti-gay bullying researcher, he was received.
Editor’s note: This is Ian Rivers’ first column at The New Civil Rights Movement. We welcome him and are very grateful to have such an esteemed advocate for the LGBT community on board as a regular contributor.
This year I have visited America three times – once to Washington, D.C., once to Atlanta, Georgia, and, most recently, I visited Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska. In Washington, D.C., and Georgia, my sexual orientation was not a problem. No one noticed. Why would they? Occasionally the odd server noticed I was British, but that was about it. To all intents and purposes I was, on those occasions, a private citizen and not someone who is going to have a significant effect upon anyone else’s life or family.
However in Nebraska it was a different story; I was there in a different context. Now, before I begin to describe my experience let me be clear on one point, I was never subjected to homophobia of any description. I was met with warmth and respect, and for this I am truly grateful. The people I met in Nebraska were giving, supportive and willing to listen. Why were they listening to me? Well, I was an invited speaker at conference on bullying behavior and later I was an attendee at a think tank held at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
For those of you who have no idea who Ian Rivers is, I am a psychologist. I am also professor of human development at Brunel University London, and a visiting professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University. I was one of the very first people to study the phenomenon that we now call “homophobic bullying.” My research was neither profound nor ground-breaking, but it did unravel some of the dynamics of this phenomenon which is now seen in many of our schools.
In Omaha, I spoke about the lessons we have learned from two decades of research on homophobic bullying, and also on understanding bystanders’ experiences when they observe bullying taking place.
However, it was the first topic, homophobic bullying, that had clearly caused some consternation. I learned just before I was about to give my speech that at least one Roman Catholic organisation had felt it necessary to withdraw its support for the conference because the line-up of speeches included those that dealt with “sensitive issues.” This was an important lesson for me, and indeed for another colleague, also gay, who was presenting his research. Sensitive issues are those for which, seemingly, there is a desire to ignore or, at the very least, leave unacknowledged.
In the case of homophobic bullying, the organisation clearly felt that by supporting the conference, it would support my standpoint. And what was my standpoint? In a state with the motto “Equality before the Law,” my point was simple: all children and young people should be safe at school.
As a researcher on this issue, I had also taken solace from the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s pronouncement in 1986 that, “It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the Church’s pastors wherever it occurs.” This statement, which was contained within a letter to all bishops and authorised by the then pope, John Paul II, made it clear that while the Church considered homosexuality to be “instrinsically disordered” (a term that is, in itself, instrinically challenging), the persecution of those who are or are perceived to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, should be condemned “wherever it occurs.” Doctrine suggests that good and faithful followers should condemn such discrimination, but practice seems to infer that the message from 1986 has yet to filter down to many local congregations.
At the end of the day, I spoke, I was listened to, and even a local news channel thought I had something to say, and I was happy to oblige. My visit to Omaha and then to Lincoln was a remarkable experience. I met some wonderful researchers, but I also met some very interesting Nebraskans. Along with other keynote speakers, we spoke at a local Masonic lodge and while one of my more adventurous colleagues asked members of the lodge if they would accept gay initiates (the answer was a definitive “no,” by the way), there was never any disrespect shown to me personally.
Back in the U.K., I am surrounded by Nebraska memorabilia, a book bag with a huge white “N” in a sea of scarlet, t-shirts that I hope my personal trainer will one day sculpt me into, and finally the memory of my visit to Memorial Stadium and the great sense of pride Nebraskans have in football.
(image: Ian Rivers’ Nebraska baseball cap and coffee mug, and his books.)
Ian Rivers is Professor of Human Development at Brunel University, London. He is the author of ‘Homophobic Bullying: Research and Theoretical Perspectives’ (Oxford, 2011), and has researched issues of discrimination in LGBT communities, particularly among children and young people, for nearly two decades.
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