The Ick Factor, Part I

Hot on the heels of The Teachable Moment comes another collection of short stories by educators, One Size Does Not Fit All: Diversity in the Classroom.  My offering for this collection draws upon my experience co-teaching a high school (junior & senior-level) course called Multicultural Studies, in which we examined many of the groups that contribute to the cultural fabric of the United States.  Specifically, I recall my experiences teaching a unit that explored the history of and current issues facing the gay community, and contribute my thoughts on the importance of covering such topics.

As with “Alleviating Shakes-fear”, this story will be published here in two parts.  Any differences between this version and the final published version are attributable to the editing process, and all names used herein are pseudonyms.

The Ick Factor

Toward the end of the 1990s, when colleagues at one of my former schools approached high-level administrators regarding a request from students to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) club, the response they got was concise and impossible to misconstrue: “Over my dead body.”  The process to start an extra-curricular club was pretty straightforward, and while clubs had come and gone over the past 40 years due to varying degrees of interest, none of the faculty involved could remember ever hearing of a potential club being told, “You may not exist.”  Essentially, a group of kids was being told,“You do not have the same rights as every other student in this high school” by adults who supposedly had their best educational and social-emotional interests at heart.

If you were a gay student at that time, the shortsighted decision of an administrator might not even appear on your radar amidst the daily verbal barrage of your classmates calling each other “faggot” and referring to everything they didn’t like as “gay.”  And whether or not a club was sanctioned by the school couldn’t possibly mean much to those actively targeted, and in turn bullied, because of their homosexuality, real or perceived.  That being said, eventually the school’s GSA did get approval and remains active a decade after its inception.  Fortunately, the aforementioned administrator did not have to die for this to happen, but his choice of idiom was fairly apt: multiple studies report that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, & questioning (GLBTQ) youth attempt suicide at rates of anywhere from double to quadruple those of their heterosexual peers.  In less severe, but no less significant, terms, GLBTQ people have historically been marginalized, underrepresented, and misrepresented in ways that have made it very easy for people to discriminate against them.

One arena in which GLBTQ people have been most severely underrepresented has been the American school system.  Whether due to disapproval, ignorance, or fear of controversy, the contributions and achievements of GLBTQ individuals have rarely been celebrated or identified as being part of the GLBTQ community.  Representation is important for a number of reasons, especially in schools.  For one, the simple act of acknowledging the existence of GLBTQ people throughout history provides some sense of perspective to people who are too young to realize that being gay is neither new nor a fad.  In addition, there are the caricatures portrayed in the media—the butch, sleeveless-flannel-wearing lesbian and the overly effeminate, impeccably dressed gay man—that can be addressed in school, thus broadening the perceptions of our students.

GSA clubs play a role in this effort, but there is still a lack of visibility, curriculum-wise, in the schools.  I feel privileged that I was able to bring some of these issues to my students for discussion and analysis when I taught a class called Multicultural Studies.  It was an elective course, open to juniors and seniors, and team-taught by an English teacher (me) and a Social Studies teacher.  Over the course of 18 weeks, we examined different ethnic, religious, and social groups within the United States and learned about many different facets of the groups, from historical issues to current events, and how they operate within and contribute to the greater fabric of American society.  One unit of the course focused specifically on issues pertinent to GLBTQ people.

The material covered in this unit varied from year to year, but topics included same-sex marriage (as well as many of the related legal issues), the presence of GLBTQ people throughout American history (for which I recommend the excellent documentary Out of the Past), issues faced by GLBTQ youth and the roles and functions of GSAs.  We also spent time each year discussing the students’ opinions on the appropriateness and necessity of covering different GLBTQ-related issues in a class like ours.

The course was reliant on discussion, but our GLBTQ Studies unit always seemed even more discussion-driven than the others, due in large part to our students’ desire to have an open and honest dialogue about a topic that, for many of them seemed like another world.  In fact, we used to begin by asking the students why they thought this unit appeared in the course curriculum at all.  Responses typically focused around the usual broad themes: reduce prejudice and discriminatory acts, and trying to understand “where they’re coming from.”  When pressed, however, most of our students had difficulty articulating more specific reasons.  It was usually the students who had gay relatives (or, in some cases, identified as gay themselves) who were able to give more insightful, nuanced answers:

“My uncle has been with his partner for ten years, and they want to have a family, but they’re not allowed to adopt.”
“A friend of our family is gay, but he doesn’t act all flamboyant like Jack on
Will & Grace.  He’s just a normal guy.”
“What people don’t get is that we’re just like everyone else in most regards, but we’re seen as these crazy things, and that’s really frustrating!”

During these discussions, my co-teachers and I welcomed any and all questions, even the ones that tended to put us on the spot a bit (e.g., “Why do we have to learn about homosexuality?  Why don’t we do a unit on heterosexuality?”).  Thankfully, those types of questions were few and far between, and most were of a more thoughtful nature.  Since this was an elective course, the students who chose to take it tended to be more sensitive to those issues, even if they didn’t know exactly what they were.  But even among this group of students that skewed toward progressive and open-minded, issues surrounding homosexuality were still a bit more taboo and uncomfortable for many of them to deal with.

In the midst of a research and discussion activity about same-sex marriage laws, one student seemed unusually anxious.  Part of this activity was to designate different areas of the room as representing different opinions, and we asked our students to physically relocate based on their views on what the legal status of same-sex marriage should be.  As most of the students made their way toward the position areas that supported marriage, this student sat still, then reluctantly headed over to one of the “against” areas.

My co-teacher and I began polling the class to find out what reasons the students had for their chosen positions.  When I came to Anna, she immediately jumped on the defensive: “I like gay people! I don’t have anything against them, really! I have friends who are gay!”  As I tried to draw her back to the topic at hand, Anna almost seemed on the verge of tears when she said, “I – I think they should have all the legal rights we talked about, but you just can’t call it marriage, because it’s not.”

My memory of Anna is that she was very progressive overall, and certainly open to considering multiple perspectives on many of the topics we covered in the course.  On this day, however, she drew her own personal line, almost apologetically, as if her “liberal cred” was at risk.  Compared to the general student body, this belief would be considered very progressive (or heretical, depending on who you ask), but in this group, Anna was definitely in the minority; most students in her class came out in favor of full marriage benefits, including the name, for same-sex couples.

As I expected in the ensuing discussion, her classmates asked, “Why would you give them all the rights, but not the name?” and, in this instance, the difference came down to Anna’s personal definition of marriage: “It’s between a man and a woman. If it’s between two men or between two women, it’s something else.”  When pressed for the obvious (“Well, if it’s not marriage, then what is it?”), she answered, “A civil union. A domestic partnership. I… I don’t know…”.  When Anna trailed off at the end, it almost sounded to me like she was struggling with her own definition of marriage.  It may have been an uncomfortable moment for her, but I believe that she was challenged to really think hard about what she believed, and perhaps consider the validity of a viewpoint that contradicted her own.  At any rate, the hugs and friendly shoulder rubs between Anna and the classmates with whom she disagreed reassured her (and me) that there were no hard feelings, and that they were following our class rule of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

As a teacher, I was pleased to see Anna stand up for what she believed in, despite being among the minority in the class.  In this course, rather than simply present facts for memorization and regurgitation, one of our goals was to get kids to think critically about the subject matter and to hash out their thoughts, opinions, and questions with their classmates.  We strove to create a place where students could not only learn about GLBTQ issues (and to these students, almost everything was new information), but, more importantly, discuss them with peers in a non-judgmental, safe environment.

It is important to note that not all discussions came down to taking a “pro-gay” or an “anti-gay” stance. My students seemed to respond most passionately when we talked about issues facing GLBTQ teens, because these were more tangible to them. Our class learned about Harvey Milk High School and the Walt Whitman School, two schools set up specifically to serve the needs of GLBTQ students who are unable to attend their home school due to harassment or violence. After reading about the populations these schools serve, most students seemed pretty on-board with the idea:

“This totally makes sense. There’s no reason gay kids should have to drop out of school just because of bullies.”
“I think it’s great that these kids have a place to go where they’re safe and they can continue their educations in peace.”

The mob mentality would usually take over at that point, with everyone chiming in about how great it was that these schools existed. If we were lucky, though, we’d have at least one or two students who were a bit more savvy about the implications:

“Wait, wait, wait… You’re telling me these kids can’t go to their own schools – where they live – because their principals won’t do anything about the bullying?”
“Why isn’t the school being held accountable for dealing with the harassment instead of pretty much making these kids choose to go somewhere else?”
“This sounds an awful lot like ‘separate but equal’ to me…”

These were the kinds of discussions I relished. In these instances more than any other, I think even my more homophobic students stopped seeing gay people or gay kids and just started seeing kids.  Teenagers have a pretty acute sense of social justice, and even my most conservative students would never say that bullying and harassment are acceptable.  I always felt these were more constructive discussions to have because we weren’t hung up on “gay is OK” and “no it’s not”, but rather, here’s an issue we can all agree is a problem: what is the fairest way to achieve some kind of resolution?

(to be continued)

One Comment

  • I’d just like to clarify one point that I just noticed now, re-reading this for the first time since last November: in my discussion of “Anna” (not her real name), I mention that I was pleased that she stood up for what she believed in. My reasoning for this is not because I agreed with her (for the record, I didn’t and don’t, not that that should matter), but rather, I saw her refusal to go along with the majority – even when it would have been much more convenient and comfortable for her to do so – as a potential sign of maturity and intellectual honesty (something I wish to see in all my students) as well as an opportunity for her to be challenged on her belief (again, something that is good for all of us from time to time, and something I tried to do with all my students on a variety of opinion topics, regardless of whether or not I agreed with them).

    I would have liked to explain this in further detail in the original piece, but I had a word limit to honor.

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