October 23, 2008

That's So Gay: Overcoming Homophobia

Warning: Language in this post may be offensive to some.
Sometimes I like to throw random pictures up on the SmartBoard just for fun. For example, I'll put random pictures of ponies in my PowerPoint slides or a picture of Snuffleupagus on the screen when class starts. It seems to lighten the mood, and it's a good conversation piece, and I don't know, for some reason, I think it's kind of funny. One funny picture is this one of what I think looks like a frolicking llama.

I had this on the SmartBoard when the students came in to class, with the words "Frolicking Llama" underneath it. While I wasn't looking, someone crossed out "frolicking llama" and wrote "frolicking faggot" instead. When I saw this, I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it; it was actually really funny. Trust me, you had to be there. Then I remembered that one of the students in that class is a lesbian and thought, "gee, maybe I shouldn't laugh at this." I stopped laughing eventually, totally backpedaled, scorned the students who did it, and bit my tongue to keep myself from laughing for the rest of the hour.

The sad truth is that anti-gay behavior is rampant in public high schools, at least the ones I've been in. My favorite is when people call objects gay, as in, "this computer is gay." It's gay this, gay that, students accusing each other of being gay – and it happens all the time.

What do you do when you see this in your classroom? I usually ignore it. I figure that students hear this type of stuff all the time, and one teacher isn't going to make a difference, and after all, it's really not all that offensive, is it? But I'm starting to change my mind.

In my two years of teaching, I've worked with a number of openly gay students. More than I expected actually. It usually comes up very casually in conversations between students, like this: "when I told my manager about my girlfriend…", or "I'm not going to college there – I'd be the only gay kid." I suspected that some of these students were gay, but with others, I had no idea.

I never considered myself homophobic, but I've started to view these students in a different light recently. Every one of them is a well-adjusted, normal kid with lots of friends. They are all highly respected by their peers. Their peers all know about their homosexuality, and they honestly just don't care about it. The gay students are really not treated any differently by the kids than anyone else. Students are not afraid to talk about it; they can even joke about it; but it's just not a big deal to anyone. To their friends, their homosexuality is NOT a salient characteristic. They are students, not gay students.

Their courage impresses me. The traditional wisdom is that society doesn't like gay people and homosexuals are wierd. These students prove those notions false. They're fully functional and highly respected among their peers. They have the maturity to rise above some of the anti-gay behavior that happens in schools and not let it bother them.

All staff at our school have the option of adding rainbow stickers to their ID badges in order to show their support for GLBT students and faculty. I've decided not to, but I can start creating a better atmosphere by calling out students who make offensive or ill-informed remarks.

How does this issue play out in your classroom? What is your response to it?


Anonymous said...

This article is so gay. Just kidding. Some kids relish being different. Some kids get up in your face about it. It's hard to tell which is which. I don't think kids realize what they are saying when they say half of what they say because they hear their parents saying it. As teachers we have influence, but ultimately their behaviors are formed mostly by peer and parental influence.

Danielle D. said...

I have witnessed a lot of homophobia happening in high schools recently. In the high school that I teach in, it is not uncommon to see students ridiculing eachother for their sexuality. I even overhear them saying things in the classroom. Also, my little sister goes to a high school in a very small country town, and I monitor her myspace account. I am constantly reading profiles saying "I hate faggots." "If your gay don't even talk to me." "Kill all the faggots." Just to name a few. It is awful that this kind of talk is happening in schools. Ya, maybe being homosexual is not the norm in the small town, but everyone has their differences, and should not be punished and ridiculed for them. While it seems that one person cannot make a difference, I truly feel that they can. Maybe not to every student in the class, but atleast to a few.

Anonymous said...

gay=find a better word
retarded=are you a doctor qualified to give a medical diagnosis
faggot=etymology of said term, ending with "what you are saying is that people should be burned alive. how do you feel about that?"
comments on other people: "that's none of your business. no personal comments."
i fail to see the humor in "frolicking faggot" but maybe that's b/c there seems to be some seriously misplaced homophobia going on in my state due to Prop 8. it is your duty to create a space where all students are respected and feel safe. so yes, you NEED to address the use of such terms as "gay" when meaning stupid, whether or not any of your students happen to be openly LBGQQT. you have more influence then you think.
i'm glad that the openly gay students at your school are viewed as being what all the students who walk through our classroom doors are--students--but the world is not such a happy place and attitudes allowed in one place can transfer to another where things might escalate. so yeah, don't make a federal case out of it, but do address such issues with your students. fyi, i teach middle school.

John Spencer said...

We have that problem in our school, where there seems to be an aspect of the local culture that over-emphasizes heterosexuality and machismo.

However, I've found that if I correct students every time when they say, "That's gay," and then I explain how, in an office environment, it could be construed as sexual harassment, they figure out quickly.

I think this has lent itself to students being more open in my class. True, like racial tensions, much of it probably goes underground. However, I want kids to feel that my class is a safe place.