The design of the course asked students for their input, their opinions, and their reflections upon reading articles and viewing films that allowed them to move past the stereotypes and deal directly with the issues of intolerance, violence, and double standards applied to one particular group of American citizens. Just as our pre-unit discussions showed that most students could not give a reason why these issues could or should be studied, they also showed that most students were ignorant as to the issues themselves. For example, while they all knew that same-sex marriage was a hot-button issue, only a handful of them knew it was legal in one state (Massachusetts, at the time), even fewer knew about the existence of civil unions and domestic partnerships, and I think I could count on one hand the number of students who understood the legal, societal, and economic benefits that marriage affords people in the US. I say this not to belittle my students, but to illustrate that their apathy was not due to a lack of caring or an active hatred of GLBTQ people, but rather, simple ignorance that the issues even exist. Once we supplied the basic historical context and facts around issues like same-sex marriage, the students drove the discussions, and while we would step in to probe or re-direct, there were times when the discussion was so genuine and the passions so enflamed, I almost felt like an intruder doing so.
At times like these, I debated internally as to whether I should share my personal opinions on the topic. On one hand, I certainly didn’t want to influence the discussion and have students “side” with me for brownie points. On the other hand, I felt hypocritical asking my students to share their opinions so freely without doing so myself. I decided years ago that I would share my personal feelings on this (and other) topics in the course of discussion, but I frequently reminded the students that these were just my opinions, and not fact, and would frequently tell my students, “I could very well be wrong about this – I would love to hear what you think.” I think that modeling openness without proselytizing went a long way toward fostering an environment of sharing. Sometimes, students would even actively seek my opinion – during one debate about the appropriateness of discussing same-sex families in elementary school curriculum, a student asked me, “Mr. B., how would you feel about Dylan [my son] learning about this in elementary school?” I feel that to deflect the question would have been disingenuous, so I answered honestly: “Yes, I think it’s important that he learn about the various types of families that exist today – not just same-sex and opposite-sex, but nuclear, extended, single-parent, and others. How many of you come from families that you feel have been underrepresented in the books you’ve read or stuff you’ve studied?” Without forcing my view on them as the “right” one, I answered honestly, and was able to draw some parallels between a family structure that was unfamiliar to most of my students (same-sex parents) to some that were more familiar.
For a unit of study that focused on a group defined by sexual orientation, I think quite a few of our students were surprised that we spent very little time discussing sex itself. My response to that was always the same: to do so would be to reduce an entire group of human beings to one personality characteristic.
I preferred crafting the discussion as not a sex issue, but one of human and civil rights (i.e., state-sponsored discrimination against gays, violence and harassment against people who are, or are believed to be, gay, selective enforcement of sodomy laws, issues surrounding rights of marriage). You might think that talking about sodomy laws in particular would trigger the “ick” response, especially since I used to start that lesson with a request for the definition of sodomy! After the initial giggles and awkward glances, the class was usually able to cobble together an appropriate definition. My purpose here was not to shock, but rather to compartmentalize. As soon as we established a commonly agreed-upon definition, I would ask, “Can gay people perform these acts? Can straight people perform these acts?” Once we established that yes, both gay and straight people can perform these acts, we could put the sex issue aside and go for the meatier stuff: “In what ways, if any, should these two groups be treated differently under the law?” Students were then able to think about the legality of enforcing laws with one group of people and not others. Usually, at least a handful of students would also take the class in the direction of the legislation of sex acts between two consenting adults, and how feasible they are to enforce, as well as their constitutionality. Again, more often than not, my students could see the social injustice issues a bit more clearly once we effectively removed the so-called “ick factor” that so many people get hung up on.
I was astounded, yet gratified, when students would tell me, “You know, I never thought about gay people as just people before taking this class.” One of the activities that I felt had an enormous impact was when we invited Sharon and Barbara from our local chapter of PFLAG (Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays) [ed.: Just realized now that PFLAG actually stands for Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays. I apologize for the error.] to come speak about their own experiences with their gay and lesbian children. I always used to smile when they’d say, “Our kids are not drag queens and leather daddies, although that’s usually what you see on TV when you see gay people. My son is a college student. Her daughter is a doctor. They’re regular people, just like everyone in this room.” Hearing these concrete examples helped our students to see beyond the stereotypes and, as my students said, see gay people as just people. Once that stigma of “otherness” was removed, or at least reduced, real discussion about human rights and civil rights could take place.
More often than not, by the end of the unit, my students reported feeling much more sensitive to, and better informed about, GLBTQ issues and how they related to their own lives, even if they did not identify as GLBTQ. In addition to the “they’re just people” comments, the biggest payoff for me was that my students were given access to facts and realistic portrayals of GLBTQ people that did not fall within their very narrow cultural frame of reference. Regardless of how (or even if) their opinions about GLBTQ issues changed, I was more interested in seeing my students base their opinions on factual information, rather than misinformation.
At the end of the course, long after we had completed this unit and moved on through others, our students were asked to break into small groups, research a topic pertaining to any one of the groups we’d studied, and design a 45-60 minute lesson to be taught to elementary or middle-school age children. Invariably, at least one or two groups would ask to design a lesson on GLBTQ issues. As much as my co-teacher and I would have loved to do this, it was not possible. When we presented our cooperating teachers with the list of groups our students might cover in their classes during our pre-project planning, we were specifically and repeatedly requested to not have students teach on GLBTQ issues. We reluctantly agreed, but I always made a point of telling the class exactly why the GLBTQ unit was off-limits.
It is easy to discriminate against any group of people perceived to be significantly different from you because as the differences become more significant, there is more room for judgment to come into play: the way those people do x, y, and z is gross/immoral/disgusting/wrong/not in line with what I believe to be right. From there, even passively turning a blind eye to injustices inflicted by others is easier than fighting for equality. However, when any marginalized group is humanized, rather than demonized, the differences begin to seem less important than the underlying similarities we all share as human beings. People are less likely to discriminate or commit acts of violence against those they deem to be “like us.” Keeping GLBTQ issues visible in the public school curriculum is important not only to the students in those classes, but to the country as a whole, for when we decrease homophobic words and actions (along with racist, sexist, and other discriminatory acts), the greater society can only benefit.