Matrimonial bliss turned into an employment nightmare for a gay Catholic high school teacher in the suburban sprawl of Southern California after a local newspaper published photos of his big, gay wedding in July. St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Glendora sacked the teacher Ken Bencomo shortly after he tied the knot with his partner of some 10 years, reports the Los Angeles Times.
Bencomo, 45, and his much younger partner, 32-year-old Christopher Persky, were among the first gay couples who got officially hitched at the San Bernardino County Assessor-Recorder’s Office after the US Supreme Court’s decision clearing the way for gay marriage in The Golden State. Bencomo taught at the all-girls high school for 17 years. His lawyer Patrick McGarrigle, told the Times that school officials knew about his sexual orientation for roughly 10 of those years. Bencomo had brought Persky to school events and presented him as his partner at times during those years.
However, school officials were less than pleased when photos of Bencomo’s wedding ceremony appeared in the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. On July 12, Bencomo was told that the private school would not renew his contract for the school year beginning this fall. School officials expressly referred to the wedding, the photos and the attendant publicity.
Gay Teachers: Are They At Risk?
Remember the Briggs Initiative, the 1978 California ballot proposition that would have banned gay and lesbian teachers from working in public schools. The Initiative failed with flying colors, becoming one of the few ballot victories for LGBT rights during the 1970s. Or make that any decade, for that matter. The idea that people would want to root out gay teachers from public schools is a pretty scary proposition. And though you might think that the sentiment died in 1978 along with the Briggs Initiative, think again.
A poll was recently taken by a national research organization surveying Republican attitudes on a number of issues, among them the question of whether openly gay teachers should be allowed to teach in public schools. A whopping 73 percent of Republicans surveyed said that gay people should not be allowed to teach in public schools. And all of a sudden it feels like the 1970s again.
NEA GLBT Caucus
Fearing Openly Gay Teachers
Wikipedia: Briggs Initiative
Anniston Star: Bill to Protect Gay Teachers
Blog: Can Openly Gay Teachers Work in Public Schools?
Huffington Post: Gay Teacher Wears "Out" T-Shirt
GOP Senator: Gays Shouldn't Be Teachers
Sex Education in Alabama
Creating a Safe Learning Environment
Everyone is entitled to a safe learning environment, no matter what your sexual orientation is. I think it is important to let the LGBT students know that we care, and that they are not alone. It is the duty of a teacher to keep order and command respect for everyone in their classroom, and I am sure many people sincerely would like to create a safer environment for LGBT students. There are ten suggestions that were compiled by Youth Pride, Inc. that would help with reducing homophobia in your environment:
1. Make no assumption about sexuality.
2. Having something gay-related visible in your office or classroom.
3. Support, normalize and validate student’s feelings about their sexuality.
4. Do not advise youth to come out to parents, family and friends as they need to come out at their own safe place.
5. Guarantee confidentiality with students.
6. Challenge homophobia.
7. Combat heterosexism in your classroom.
8. Learn about and refer to community organizations
9. Encourage school administrators to adopt and enforce anti-discrimination policies for their schools or school systems which include sexual orientation
10. Provide role models.
It is important to incorporate this suggestion into the school. LGBT students need to be protected and I think the best way to start that is by educating their classmates and peers on what it means to be LGBT. “Opening these conversations with young children gives us an opportunity to prevent prejudice, discrimination, and violence and to support the lives of all children just as they are."
An estimated 6 to 11 percent of school children have gay or lesbian parents, and another 5 to 9 percent will at some point realize that they are homosexual. Even with these statistics, schools are still hesitant to include gay or lesbian curriculum into the school. The fact remains that in the present 21st century, gay and lesbians no longer represent a taboo. Students are choosing to come out while still in school, and they are expecting to be accepted. No matter what a student’s sexual preference is, they deserve to be able to come to school and feel like they are safe. Whether or not it is the teacher’s or school’s responsibility to educate students on LGBT issues, is still to be decided. But in the meantime it is of utmost importance that these students are treated with respect and equality.
Reading Resources: Book Lists
LGBT Students' Bill of Rights
The right to fair and accurate information about sexual orientation in textbooks and other classroom materials.
The right to unbiased information about the historical and continuing contributions of lesbian, gay and bisexual people in all subject areas, including art, literature, science, sports, and history/social studies.
The right to positive role models, both in person and in the curriculum; the right to accurate information about themselves, free of negative judgment, and delivered by trained adults who not only inform lesbian, gay and bisexual students but affirm them.
The right to attend schools free of verbal and physical harassment, where education, not survival, is the priority.
The right to attend schools where respect and dignity for all students, including lesbian, gay and bisexual students, is a standard set by the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, supported by state and local boards of education, and enforced by every district superintendent, principal, and classroom teacher.
The right to be included in all support programs that exist to help teenagers deal with the difficulties of adolescence.
The right to legislators who guarantee and fight for their constitutional freedoms, rather than legislators who reinforce hatred and prejudice.
The right to a heritage free of crippling self-hate and unchallenged discrimination.
(From the P.E.R.R.S.O.N. Project. Adapted by GLAAD/SFBA's Project 21 from Project 10 (Los Angeles Unified School District) and from the National Education Association's "Teaching and Counseling Gay & Lesbian Students Action Sheet")
Gay Teachers in the Public Schools
Question: Can openly homosexual teachers work in public schools?
Posted below are various responses submitted by visitors to the weblog, Answers.Com. The collection of comments is presented here unedited.
Why does it matter? I am currently in school majoring in Elementary Education and I have had gay teachers and coaches for that matter. Gays and lesbians do not get this degree so that they can prey on children, which is what most christian, straight people think. I find that to be very sick! I think it is sick that a christian would think that of another person. I have never heard of a gay or lesbian child molestor. It has always been a straight married man/woman or a straight man period. Plus, what about those so called "hot" female teachers who prey on young boys? That is sick too! Why is it that so many "good" straight people think gays and lesbians are the perverts or deviants when clearly it is their own kind? I guess that is a way to take the focus off of them. They use the bible to hide behind too.
Being a gay or lesbian is never a choice or a decision that one has to sit and think about making. This is how they are born into this world by straight parents who raised them in a straight world. Nobody can be influenced to be a gay or lesbian. They have the same dreams and goals as anyone else in this world. To have a good job that they are happy with, have partner and a family of their own, own a small home and have a happy life. Is that to much to ask for? Why do they always have to be targeted with such hateful behaviors that hurt them and their families? What happened to live and let live? People need to start focusing on more important matters at hand like the state of our economy, the homeless and foster children, and most of all our education system.
Gays and lesbians are always forced to be in the closet, when closet are for clothes, not people and their lives. How would straight people feel if they were forced to live a lie all the time or always hide who they are? I think they would feel just as bad as many gays and lesbians do. I will never ever expect that from anyone. I find it to be a horrible way to treat other human beings.
Yes, two gay teachers teach at my school and it doesn't matter whether they are gay or not just as long as they get the job done in the best way possible.
A person's sexuality should not influence whether or not that person has the ability to teach. Students are taught by a wide range of Professors - of different nationalities and creeds. A person who is there to teach you a subject in school is not there to teach you the ways of being Homosexual. Students, with very young spirits and unchallenged minds, are sometimes easily influenced, and at others quite 'hard headed'. Yet I do not believe anyone can be 'influenced' to 'be' homosexual. It is a decision, and if a person is at a an age of which he/she chooses such a lifestyle -it is a sole decision. If a homosexual teacher pursues and wishes for a student to become homosexual that is a different story. He/She is crossing the Teacher/Student boundary. However, being homosexual does not suggest that one can not do his/her job of teaching.
An openly gay teacher can teach math or science or English just as well (or badly even) as an openly straight teacher. Just as a straight teacher is not likely to be preying on their opposite gender students (though a few do) the fact a teacher is gay is no indication they're any more likely to do so with their same gender students. Being gay, especially if open about it, is no more a problem for a teacher than any other trait.
Well, almost. One BIG problem they face is the fear and prejudice of parent who choose to think being gay means uncontrolled sexual depravity and that their son or daughter must not be in the vicinity of the teacher. Their often openly hostile views and desire to cause all manner of trouble for the (otherwise just as qualified as any other) teacher can be seen as a very negative influence on the class and the morale of the school.
Still, it doesn't change the fact the gay teacher is just as likely to be a good teacher as any other in the school. In fact, they may bring a little more to their class in the way of showing and instilling compassion, openness to other views and fighting for the "underdog". But then any good teacher would do that too.
NEA Provides Bullying Prevention Resources
The NEA (National Education Association) acknowledges that bullying is a major problem in today's classrooms and offers resources and training for bullying and harassment prevention in the classroom. In the January/February edition of NEA Today Magazine, they state: "Today’s bullies have more ways than ever to devastate their victims. It’s time to reconsider the role educators can play in stopping them." The NEA article cites recent events. The New Jersey college freshman who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in October isn’t the only young person allegedly driven to death by bullying. Consider the California teen who hanged himself from a backyard tree in September or the Texas 13-year-old who grabbed a gun from his stepfather’s closet a few weeks later.
These high-profile and
heartbreaking incidents have happened so frequently in
recent months, especially among gay and lesbian
students, that there’s a new word for the phenomenon:
bullicide. And it’s left educators and parents alike
wondering—just what in the world are we doing wrong? How
is it some of our children can be so mean? And others so
despairing? Aren’t these anti-bullying programs, popular
in so many schools, working at all? It’s possible that what we
think we know about bullying isn’t all we need to know —
it’s also possible that some of the most commonly held
assumptions are misguided or that far too many adults
still don’t believe bullying is a serious problem.
The NEA article suggests that many bullying programs apply a one-size-fits-all approach to problems on campus. They train teachers and support professionals to be watchful and consistent (often at a high price). But while it’s critically important for every adult on campus to recognize and stop bullying, most of these “top-down” programs look promising, but don’t go far enough. The article insists that educators really have to do this work with students. It likely starts with a needs assessment, going into a school and understanding what are the major issues. Is it harassment of gay kids? Is it kids with disabilities? Who are the harassers? You have to engage kids in creative ways to work through those issues: responsive classroom work, the work where you have kids sitting in circles and processing this information.
A whole-school culture shift needs to happen. And that takes the commitment and active involvement of teachers, counselors, support professionals, administrators, parents, and students. It is the kind of work that the NEA Bullying and Sexual Harassment Prevention and Intervention Program has provided (for free) to schools across the country for more than a decade. Its cadre of trainers and curriculum guides helps define both bullying and its impact, provides important data and legal information, and also specifically works to activate the “bystander” — an oft-untapped resource in bullying prevention.
NEA Today Article: Bullying! Does It Get Better?
Common Myths About Bullying
Bullying and School Safety Resources
NEA Report on Status of LGBT People in Education
NEA Training Program: Safety, Bias and LGBT Issues
Tips for Dealing with LGBT Harassment in Schools
LGBT Concerns in the Classroom and On Campus
schools and other institutions seek to convey to the public that they
value diversity and embrace multiculturalism, oftentimes they tend to
take a rather narrow approach. In making genuine efforts to create
an open and affirming environment for all their students or
constituents, they may define diversity in a manner that is sometimes
too limiting. To foster a truly inclusive environment, schools and
institutions must consider a broader definition of diversity and more
all-encompassing view of multiculturalism.
Any diversity training with broad-based credibility must address a wide range of minorities and sub cultures than includes race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, religion, politics, personality, and, yes, sexual orientation. Any meaningful discussion of diversity issues should include sexual orientation and the concerns of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Teachers and instructors who seek to present a classroom curriculum that is balanced and objective might consider what blind spots or omissions their current lesson plans may have. In teaching such academic subject matter as history, social studies, politics, science, literature, music, and the arts, instructors may want to consider what bias has unwittingly been introduced into the curriculum by the omission of certain groups whose contributions have been ignored.
In a society that is disproportionately white, male, Christian, and heterosexual, there oftentimes must be a rather deliberate effort by teachers to present material from the non-white, female, non-Christian, and gay and lesbian perspectives. By now, schools are very familiar with efforts, especially in history and literature coursework, to broaden classroom curriculum to include the contributions of African-Americans and women. Efforts have also been made to include Asian, Hispanic, and Native perspectives. Schools can be, and have been to some degree, instrumental in broadening the minds of students to appreciate elements of other cultures, religions, and lifestyles that differ from their own.
Students' education is greatly enhanced when they recognize the vast diversity of backgrounds from which major contributions have been made in areas of history, social studies, politics, science, literature, music, and the arts. Many important contributions have been made throughout society and down through history by people who are gay and lesbian. To avoid bias and to expand learning, these various leaders, politicians, scientists, authors, artists, musicians, and poets should not omitted from the curriculum.
Identifying the roots and causes of bullying and eliminating bullying
behavior has been a critical focal point for schools over the past
several decades. Because it is a common occurrence among school
aged children; and because of its impact on the victims; teachers,
counselors, and administrators take very seriously their role in
providing effective intervention.
Bullies prey on classmates they perceive to be weaker or different. They target other students because of a myriad of stereotypical features that they view as odd related to physique, physical appearance, clothing, and behavior. Many times, students who are perceived to be gay and lesbian, or who are effeminate or "butch," or who act "sissy" or "tomboyish" become the victims of naming-calling, harassment, and violence.
Counselors and administrators seeking to put a stop to bullying might
consider how often gay and lesbian students
are targeted by bullies and implement programs that include some
sensitivity to that segment of the student population.
Harassment, like bullying, creates a hostile environment whereby the balance of power is disproportionate. Victims of harassment are often subjected to inappropriate behavior simply because they are in the minority role in a particular setting. Perhaps a woman finds herself alone in an all-male setting. Or perhaps an African-American finds himself the lone exception in a classroom of white students. Or perhaps a Buddhist student is the only one of his kind in a classroom of Christians.
Likewise, a gay or lesbian person is an easy target for insensitive heterosexuals who might unwittingly, or even intentionally, create a hostile or harassing environment through their ongoing homophobic or heterosexist behavior. Any sensitivity training conducted for staff or students must surely include the LGBT perspective to be effective.
Ethics are at the heart of all professional behavior. Adherence to ethical standards is expected from any counselor, teacher or administrator who is regarded as a professional.
Unethical behavior on the part of the practitioner usually impacts
negatively on the clients, students and consumers of the services
Therefore, any effort to focus on the necessity of ethical standards is
also a sincere act of advocacy on behalf of the individuals who might
otherwise be affected.
Most statements of professional ethics include admonitions to practitioners who violate confidentiality, engage in inappropriate relationships, and who are insensitive to the cultural concerns of their clients. Any understanding of ethical behavior, therefore, must include the expectation of the professional to avoid insensitive or derogatory behavior towards gays and lesbians.
Equal opportunity in any setting means that no acts of bias will take place based on factors related to race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, or sexual orientation. Any discrimination policy that hopes to be inclusive, or to have any long term credibility with all members of society, must include sexual orientation. The rights of all members of society must be protected, and gay and lesbian individuals should be included in that protection.
(From Michael Lebeau / 2006)
Understanding Diversity: Culturally Relevant Teaching
As an effective teacher in
the 21st Century it is important for educators to have a conceptual
understanding of diversity. This understanding must go beyond just
clarifying differences and begin to develop into a layered, social
justice-oriented multicultural perspective.
This can only be achieved thorough exploration of historical/political/socio-cultural factors that contribute to America's various ways of learning and living. Teachers must understand the roles of power, privilege and oppression and the complicated fashion in which they permeate our society.
Teachers should process
this information with great care and reflection so that they can make
appropriate and socially just classroom decisions (both curricular and
non-curricular). Teachers who acknowledge the relevancy of various
cultural contributions instill cultural pride in their students and a
sense of personal connection to curriculum.
(From Dr. Barb Beyerbach & Thurman D. Nassoiy)
Curriculum: Themes in Literature
Educators should consider incorporating gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender themes into their English Literature classrooms. It is important to remember that we teach people, and people come in various shapes and sizes and have various beliefs and lifestyles.
It is inevitable that, at one point or another, students will encounter these issues within their daily lives: comedians joke about it, rappers condemn it, and authority figures often chastise it.
How can we be sure that our students, tomorrow's leaders, really understand it? Is it fair to allow a TV show or a singer, however biased they may be, to teach them about LGBT issues? Or should it be presented to them in a controlled, objective environment?
The first step to creating a safe environment in your classroom for LGBT teenagers is to understand the nature of homophobia.
(From Brooks, Fowler, Leonhardt, Wharton, Williams)
Reading Resources: Book Lists
Bullying in Middle School
July 16, 2008
Gay at 12: Young Teens Openly
Many Middle Schools Don't Have Policies to Safeguard Against Anti-Gay Bullies
Sean has felt since the age of 2 or 3 that he was a boy in a girl's body. Telling his parents at age 11 was difficult but coming out as transgender among his seventh-grade classmates was like walking into a lion's den. When Sean first shared his sexuality with his mother, "She didn't take it well," he said. "She cried for about a week, but then went on the Internet and understood it better."
About a month before Sarah's "transition" to Sean, his mother informed school officials, but no one told teachers or students. "One day I was Sarah with female pronouns and Monday I was Sean with male pronouns, without any explanation," said Sean, a pseudonym for the central New Jersey teen who wants a fresh start in high school this fall. "I was bullied every day, shoved into lockers, beaten up and made fun of," said the 14-year-old. "The teachers were standing right there, saying nothing or just not aware of it."
Things got so bad for Sean that he dropped out of middle school, and his mother home-schooled him for the remainder of the year.
Like Sean, an increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender -- LGBT -- children are "coming out" earlier than high school because of greater cultural acceptance. But in the immature and sometimes predatory world of middle school, Jason's experience is not uncommon, according to advocacy groups.
Taunting and bullying often goes unnoticed by teachers, and administrators have few policies in place to handle it. Only 11 states have enacted laws to protect schoolchildren from being bullied specifically because of sexual orientation. At Sean's school there wasn't even a sex education program, according to his mother.
More Teasing in Middle School
In a 2005 study conducted by Harris Polling, "From Teasing to Torment," teachers reported that middle school students were 30 percent more likely to be teased about their sexual orientation than high school students. "There seems to be something about the onset of puberty that makes those years different," said Kevin Jennings, founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. "Moving from small to larger schools, cliques and social pecking order are a bigger deal."
Most children are aware of their sexuality between the ages of 8 and 11, according to Jennings, but are told they are "too young" to know their orientation. "That makes it even harder for them," he said. "People don't believe them."
In the last year, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network has seen a "huge surge of interest" in addressing anti-LGBT bullying in middle schools. Much of it has been a reaction to the February killing of openly gay student Lawrence King. The 15-year-old was shot twice in the head by a classmate in California.
In 2007, students from 520 middle schools participated in a Day of Silence to raise awareness about sexual orientation. After King's 2008 murder, 1,046 middle schools participated in a vigil.
Today, the network sponsors about 110 gay-straight alliances -- or GSA clubs to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students -- nationwide. But that number, compared with 3,000 such clubs at the high school level, may still not be enough.
Josh Rivero enrolled in a virtual high school after he was repeatedly threatened at his Brevard County, Fla., middle school after trying to start a GSA club. "The conversation [about his sexuality] started in eighth grade, but since elementary school he'd been called a fag," said his mother, Lisa Rivero.
By middle school, Josh's grades began to drop and his stress level soared. One classmate bullied Josh in cyberspace, sending homophobic messages and calling him names on the school's MySpace page. "The school did nothing," said Lisa Rivero, who sought help and later began a local chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, or PFLAG, where she now serves as president.
The threats soon became physical and Josh's mother, at the suggestion of the school's principal, reluctantly filed a temporary restraining order against her son's tormentor. "He had a right to go to school and get an education without being bullied," she said. "We had no issues with him being gay. What we had the most difficulty with was accepting our fear that we knew our son would be a target."
Rivero said students need support, but teachers also need training. "It starts with teachers in the classroom," she said. "A lot of them stepped up and intervened, but there were other teachers who looked up at him and said, 'What do you want me to do?'" The Riveros lobbied unsuccessfully for a Florida law to outlaw sexual orientation bullying. As his mother sought support, so did Josh, now 16 and in high school, forming a GSA at his school.
Students 'Take Control'
Josh "took control" of the situation, his mom says. Indeed, it is the students themselves who are emboldened to make their schools more comfortable for all those with differences.
Leah Matz of St. Peter, Minn., first came out as a lesbian at the age of 12 in the seventh grade where she says gay issues were talked about in "hushed tones." The taunts began after she pioneered the first GSA. "The harassment started right away," said Leah, now 15. "They were hollering derogatory terms, then it escalated to physical harassment. I was tripped, pushed and spit on by both boys and girls."
The GSA grew in numbers, but so did the taunts. Her breaking point came when she found the words "Dykes Suck" painted on her locker. Club members organized a rally against bullying and homophobia, selling T-shirts that read "Stop hate, just love." Leah called the press and got television and newspaper coverage of the event.
Not all reaction was positive: Leah was criticized in a letter to the editor in the local newspaper for "recruiting" students into the "gay lifestyle." But she says this is a school safety issue, and most of the members of her GSA are not gay, but "straight allies." "Students feel more comfortable now in schools because of GSA," said Matz. "Because of our efforts we are stronger people and face our adversaries."
Leah's mother, Kathy Chalhoub, had no problem with her daughter's sexuality. "I feel really fortunate to have a child who felt free to come to me," she said. "My fear was for her." "There's always a blessing in every curse and what Leah has gone through has had such good come from it."
But experts say many middle school administrators have no policies in place when it comes to sexual orientation bullying. "I never dealt with this as a middle school principal in the 1990s," said John Norig, director of program development for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which is beginning to address the issue. But even progressive schools with strong anti-gay harassment policies said coming out is particularly hard in middle school.
"I still don't believe it's safe for 11- to 14-year olds to come out without support," Alison Boggs, principal at Casey Middle School in Boulder, Colo., told ABCNews.com. She has seen one or two students a year come out. "About 98 percent of the kids are questioning at this age," she said. "Many are not coming out right away and some are not gay." But for those few who feel strong enough to come out, the school sends them to a counselor so they feel "supported and accepted" at the school.
Doing 'Whatever It Takes
The Boulder school starts each year explaining to students that all categories of harassment are forbidden. When incidents occur, they are dealt with swiftly and individually. "We do whatever it takes," said Boggs. "We can't let it go and assume we did it in class and everyone heard it."
"Like other forms of sexual harassment, once they are educated, kids do pretty well and will stop if we make it clear," said Boggs. "In this age group, they are still forming their identity, and they may be sure, but not all that sure," she said. "But they are feeling safer to express themselves."
Jody Huckaby, national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, agrees, but said, "There's so much more work to be done to create a safe environment for these kids." Even in families with parental acceptance, there is a great need for support and education and information for other family members, neighbors and the community, said parents and advocates. And now, many children who have been raised in same-sex families are entering elementary and middle school. "When Bobby shows up with two mommies, sexual orientation presents itself at earlier and earlier ages," said Huckaby. "The work to develop curricula has to be done earlier. "It's a reality that gay people exist and it's easier and easier for kids to develop a language around the fact that they are different."
(From Susan Donaldson James, ABC News Internet Ventures, 2008)
Alabama's Safe Schools Project
Equality Alabama leads in formation of Alabama Safe Schools Coalition
Equality Alabama has joined education advocates in forming the Alabama Safe School Coalition (ASSC). The ASSC is comprised of organizations and individuals committed to ensuring for all Alabama public and private school students a safe learning environment free of discrimination, harassment, and bullying.
"The data show that existing policies are inadequate to protect sexual minority youth," observed Equality Alabama project coordinator Glenda Elliot, leader of the ASSC. Indeed, in an ongoing survey of current and former Alabama high school students commissioned by Equality Alabama, 62% of respondents indicated that they heard homophobic comments at school at least daily. 51% reported being verbally harassed, 15% being physically assaulted, and 26% being sexually harassed on account of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Shockingly, 72% of respondents indicated that school officials had corrected the offending students less than half the time or never.
"Because of the inadequacy of existing policies to address the epidemic of campus violence," Elliot continued, "the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition advocates the implementation of comprehensive and inclusive non-discrimination, anti-bullying, and anti-harassment policies to protect all students, including sexual minority youth."
You can support safe schools by participating in the school climate survey, by signing the safe schools petition, by joining the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, or by making a donation to Equality Alabama's safe schools initiative today. Successful implementation of the proposed policy changes will require broad-based, statewide support. Your participation is needed!
Each Child That Dies: Gays and
Lesbians in Your Schools
Many of you will ask what an article on lesbian and gay issues is doing in this monograph on Multiculturalism. It will seem odd that this often invisible minority is addressed with issues of ethnic and racial diversity. However, it is important to look at prejudice broadly, not just at prejudice directed towards race and gender, etc.
All forms of prejudice are based on ignorance and misconceptions and there are many misconceptions and much ignorance about gays and lesbians. If we are to ever effectively eradicate the pain caused by discrimination, we must recognize that we perpetuate prejudice by only addressing those issues that are familiar, i.e. race, ethnicity, gender, and sometimes disability. In so doing, we are effectively saying that discrimination is in fact acceptable and it is only certain groups that are to be protected. The deafening silence that pervades the issues facing lesbian and gay children and adolescents results in leaving these children to fend for themselves in a hostile and brutalizing environment.
This monograph will attempt to provide you with sufficient information so that you can begin to make the gay and lesbian young people in your classrooms sense that perhaps you are not unaware of them, even though they are largely invisible in society. Much of the information you read here will challenge many of your beliefs and feelings about this community. All we ask is that you attempt to read this with an open mind and most of all an open heart.
convenience we will use "gay and lesbian" to include bisexual and transsexual)
Imagine waking up one morning and living in a world where everywhere you look, you see no one like you.
--a world where your
family is not like you
--where the relationships are not like yours
--where what you see in movies, books, and magazines is not reflective of your life
--where if you speak about yourself you are subject to being brutalized verbally and physically
--where on Sunday mornings, many spend much of their time listening to respected ministers ranting and raving about what a moral pervert you are
--where the country to which you pledge allegiance denies you the same equal treatment that is enjoyed by your neighbors.
And if that isn't enough,
imagine dearly loving someone else and having to keep it totally secret
because if you don't you will be punished -- cast out of your home by
your family, ostracized by your friends, perhaps losing your job. This
is the world of the lesbian and gay young person.
IS THIS A SIGNIFICANT ISSUE FOR EDUCATORS?
Yes, because the suicide rate for these kids is 30% higher than for any other group of youngsters. Not acknowledging the existence of gay and lesbian students puts educators at risk of having to live with the question of whether or not they contributed to a young person's suicide or murder. Educators are in the position of speaking out in ways that give children and adolescents messages of support. Every time they hear a derogatory comment about gays and lesbians and let it go unchallenged, they give a message of non-support. Many an adult lesbian and gay has stated that they are alive today because one teacher stood up for them or took an interest in them. One person can make a difference. In the words of Ellie Weisel, "Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented" (Weisel, 1988).
Yes, because according to the Kinsey report in 1948 (Kinsey, 1948) approximately 10% of 5300 males reported being more or less homosexual. In 1953 Kinsey et al (Kinsey, 1953) found that in a study of 5,940 white women, 2 to 6% reported being more or less exclusively lesbian. In 1970 a Psychology Today study of 20,000 readers found that 37% of the males and 12% of the females had had some same gender contact. Many other studies continue to find that anywhere from 2 to 35% of men and 3 to 12% of women have had some homosexual contact.
From these studies it seems clear that all communities in this country have gay and lesbian people in their midst. It is likewise reasonable to assume that every school district in the country has lesbian and gay students, teachers, administrators and other school personnel. Furthermore, there is a growing number of gay and lesbian parents whose children attend our schools. The bottom line is that it is impossible for school administrators to know how many lesbians and gays are in their schools. Given this impossibility, a reasonable, statistical assumption for the purposes of planning would be to assume that about 10% of your students, parents, teachers and staff are gay or lesbian.
TEACHING POSITIVE VALUES REGARDING HOMOSEXUALITY
IS NOT ABOUT TEACHING SEX
One of the most common beliefs about the lesbian and gay community is that it is about sex. This is reflected in the focus on the bedroom of gays and lesbians by media, politicians, religious groups, etc. Even members of the lesbian and gay community will say that they don't talk about their personal lives because what they do in the privacy of their home is nobody else's business, implying that their lives are only about their sexual behavior. Talking about sex and sexuality is controversial at best in our schools. This commonly held attitude that homosexuality is about sex puts it into a hotly debated controversy in terms of its appropriateness for school discussions.
One of the practical implications of this attitude is that often when presentations re. gays and lesbians are proposed for school-aged young people, principals will say they have to get permission from parents for children to attend the sessions. The principals' perception is that a sex lecture will be given. Asking parental permission to discuss homosexuality with their children reflects and perpetuates the attitude that it is about sexuality and usually guarantees that children will not hear the information they need.
Even in schools where the presentations are allowed, they most often are confined to high school-aged adolescents. If you believe that homosexuality is about sex, then you don't have to concern yourself with it until the children reach puberty. The implication of this is that children before the age of 12 or 13 receive no education or supportive messages about homosexuality. To focus only on sex amongst lesbians and gays is to ignore the wide range of cultural and emotional elements in the gay and lesbian community. As with other cultural groups lesbians and gays have their own literature, poetry, music and art, as well as other aspects of any cultural community.
Gay and lesbian teachers and administrators and school personnel must be provided a safe environment in which to come out of the closet.
The attitude in our school system which requires lesbian and gay
school personnel to be closeted affects their effectiveness, not
only with gay and lesbian youth but with all youth. If for no other
reason, everyone should be concerned about teachers' effectiveness.
This attitude also means that lesbian and gay young people have no mentors. Gay and lesbian students will often "suspect" that some teacher is one of them but the teacher's silence and lack of acknowledgment of their gender orientation leaves the student totally without role models or mentors. Furthermore, the message communicated is that being lesbian and gay is so bad that one must keep totally hidden. Taking this one step further, gay and lesbian students are often treated badly by their lesbian and gay teachers who reject any attempts the student may make, in desperation, to reach out for some understanding.
Many teachers will often explain their decision to be closeted by saying they need to maintain the "respect" of the parents, administrators, other teachers, etc. Rather than create bridges with the accepting members of their school community to form some safety and protection, they instead shun those people and court the "respect" of their avowed enemies. This behavior was well documented in early Nazi Germany when many Jewish people believed that the way for them to be safe was for them to be invisible or to attempt to join their enemies. Now, like then, there was no safety for the German Jews and there will be no safety for American gay and lesbian teachers unless they begin the long and frightening process of "coming out."
This implies that non-lesbian, non-gay teachers and administrators must do their part to make it safe for gay and lesbian teachers and administrators to be out. They must actively work to make the school system a safe community for everyone.
Just as they have
learned to not accept racial, ethnic, or gender slurs, all educators
must speak up when lesbians and gays are maligned or discriminated
All too often people sit in small groups and remain silent when they hear racial, ethnic, anti-women, or homophobic jokes. By this behavior they participate in some of the most reprehensible forms of discrimination. Even if they are uncomfortable, frequently listeners will remain silent or even participate in the conversation in order to fit in. This most often occurs in small groups where there is no obvious member of the targeted group present. Because gays and lesbians so often choose to remain invisible, they are frequently members of a small group where anti-homosexual remarks are made. To speak out against the homophobic jokes or comments is tantamount to admitting one belongs to the community. Lesbians and gays who choose to remain in the closet are often terrified of being found out. To sit silently means participating in their own bashing in order to hide. For non-gay, non-lesbians, the risk of speaking out is of being believed to be something that has been labeled perverted, abnormal, evil, sinful, etc.
Teachers have learned to address issues which have to do with race or gender discrimination. The skills needed are the same. The only difference is the fear that if they address homophobic remarks they will be "suspect." Clearly only someone who is lesbian or gay would speak out against "gay bashing" comments. These fears must be overcome so that teachers may respond in an educative way to homophobic behaviors, just as they respond to racist and sexist behaviors.
Schools must make a
conscious effort to teach the whole truth, including information
about and by gays and lesbians.
It is consistently amazing that when college-aged people are asked to identify major figures in history who were lesbian or gay, they draw a complete blank even though they have studied these figures in high school. A stunning example of this is that although students know that James Baldwin was African American, they do not know that he was gay and that a major reason Baldwin left the United States to live in Europe was because he felt so uncomfortable living in the U.S. as a gay man. For any high school teacher to teach Baldwin and not to talk about the issues he faced as a gay man is as unprofessional as it would be to not mention that he was African American.
This type of distorted teaching is perhaps one of the most insidious aspects of the prejudice against the gay and lesbian community that infects the professionalism of education. Leaving lesbian and gay issues out of education distorts history, much as leaving out women and various racial or ethnic groups has distorted history to the detriment of the whole society.
One of the fastest growing areas in publishing is in gay and lesbian studies. Fortunately that means there are a growing number of books for teachers, young people, and their families. Every school should begin to look at this material and start the process of placing age appropriate material in school libraries. Teachers should make sure that they encourage pupils to include them in their reports.
IF WE FOLLOW THESE
SUGGESTIONS WILL WE BE ENCOURAGING HOMOSEXUALITY?
A major objection that lies behind many educators' reluctance to discuss gay and lesbian issues with their students is the belief that young people may be "recruited" into a lesbian and gay lifestyle. This reluctance rests on the belief that people make a choice to be gay or lesbian and that children are vulnerable to being swayed into being homosexual.
Until very recently, the focus of the research on homosexuality has been to determine "how did they get that way?" Unfortunately the driving force behind the research was that after first determining the cause, the cure would soon follow. This research direction in the 1940's and 50's created an atmosphere of pathology when viewing the homosexual community that still remains today in many quarters of our society. Fortunately, beginning in the 1950's with the evolution of organizations like the Mattachine Society, the Society of One, and the Daughters of Bilitis, many lesbians and gays challenged that view (Blumenfeld, 1989; Legg, 1994). They were successful in convincing people like the psychologist Evelyn Hooker (Hooker, 1965) and others (e.g. Marmor, 1980; Bayer, 1981), to reevaluate the nature of the research that was being conducted. This reevaluation successfully rejected the earlier theories of emotional pathology in homosexual men (early research was focused exclusively on gay males). However, it did not answer the question of "cause."
Today the question of "cause" remains an open question but it clearly seems that we are moving closer to the answers. The most recent research by LeVay (1993) and others has opened the door to the issues of biology and genetics as major contributors to the ideas of gender orientation in both the homosexual and heterosexual communities. While we don't have the "real" answer to this question it has become increasingly clear that neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality is entirely about sexual behavior and certainly is no more about choice than, for example, height or gender.
Continuing to believe in the idea of "choice" leads to continuing to debate the issues of free will, sin, and morality with groups which see it as a "choice", and wastes time which could be spent in more productive discussions.
Continuing to believe in the idea of "choice" leads to the perpetuation of pain, guilt, and anger that parents of gay and lesbian young people often feel. They are told that they are responsible, e.g. they may be told to get little Johnny involved in sports to stop his interest in ballet dancing. The implication is that they can do something about this or could have done something, i.e. that it is their fault. Educators have many opportunities to help parents understand that having a child who is lesbian or gay is not a result of the parents having done something wrong.
Continuing to believe in the idea of "choice" implies that children or adolescents who are gay or lesbian decide to be "that way," perhaps having heard a presentation about homosexuality or perhaps wanting to "get" their parents somehow. They decide this knowing that they will place themselves in the most frightening situation imaginable. The prejudice and discrimination against lesbians and gays that children and adolescents are exposed to frequently results in school drop outs, adjustment problems in school and home, homelessness, a variety of other emotional difficulties, and all too often suicide. The idea that someone would freely choose this is obviously ludicrous when you stop to reflect. Gay and lesbian romantic attractions occur in the same way as opposite gender attractions occur in straight youth, i.e. normal maturation of the sexual development of the human body. There are NO differences except in the object of those attractions. In other words, lesbians and gays and non-gays, non-lesbians are much more similar than they are different. The one difference is the gender to which they are attracted.
Regardless of how gays and lesbians get here, we need to consistently focus on the fact that they are here and we have to realign the school curriculum to include them in a positive way.
While the question of "cause" will continue to be open for discussion, it essentially should only remain in the realm of the pursuit of knowledge and should have no bearing on the issues we address here in this paper. John Boswell (1980) in his ground breaking text on Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, states that "the issue of who is "black" or "colored" or "mulatto" is only vexing to societies affected by racial prejudice; such differentiations, if present, are much looser in cultures not concerned to categorize people by skin color." It is easy to translate this comment of Boswell's into today's struggle to determine the "cause" of homosexuality.
In summary, these children are your students and the adults are their parents and your colleagues. They are the class clown, the high school star athlete, the class valedictorian, the ordinary kid next door, your neighbor, your sibling, your child, your principal, your teaching partner. Unfortunately, because of the invisibility, it is often virtually impossible to identify the lesbian and gay community in your school. Tragically this invisibility has led to our collective ability to ignore the problem and failure to design a curriculum that will address these issues similar to the curriculum that has been developed to address the issues of other at-risk communities such as ethnic, racial, female or disabled groups.
Each child that dies by their own hand is a child with loved ones who are left behind to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Each child that dies by their own hand could have become that adult who found the cure for cancer. Each child that dies by their own hand could have been that adult that made world peace possible. Each child that dies by their own hand may have been that invisible child in your school.
(From Wiggsy D. Sivertsen, L.C.S.W. and Terri B. Thames, Ph,D.)
Reading Resources: Book Lists
Educational and Classroom Resources
Safe Schools Coalition
Respect for All Project
Equality Alabama: Safe Schools
Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation and Youth
Gays & Lesbians In Your Schools
UNCCH: Diversity in the College Classroom
Strategies for Inclusive Teaching
Working With Diverse Students
Gay & Lesbian Issues in Education
Education Reform: Lesson Plans
LGBT School Resources
Web Quest: Multicultural Lesson Plans
Advocates for Youth: LGBT Resources
LGBT People & Events: Classroom Resources
Web Quest: Equality for All
Web Quest: Culturally Relevant Teaching
Web Quest: Diversity Lessons
Web Quest: Cultural Diversity
Web Quest: Because They Don't Look Like You
Web Quest: LGBT Issues in Our Literature& Our Lives
LGBT Web Quest: Religion & Culture
Web Quest: Ethnic Issues & Global Studies
Web Quest: ABCs of Diversity & Multicultural Resources
Web Quest: Intro to Bullying
Web Quest: Bullying
Librarians Internet Index: Bullying, Violence & Safety
Web Quest: Bye Bye Bullying
Web Quest: English Curriculum Bullying Resources
Alternative Literature Lesson Plans
All Things Queer: School Resources
Web Quest: No Bullying Proposal
Web Quest: Bullying Resources
Caucus on Social Theory & Art Education
Web Quest: Sociology of Discrimination
Web Quest: Show Me Science
SIECUS Mini Book: Talk About Sex
Understanding Anti-Gay Violence and Harassment in Schools
Association for Lesbian Gay Bisexual & Transgender Issues in Counseling of Alabama