Since this is my first column I suppose I should tell you a little bit about myself. I'm not your typical Oasis columnist; I don't fit the writer profile of "identified queer or questioning youth." What I am is a teacher in a suburban high school in the Northeast. When I emailed Jeff asking if he thought I might be able to contribute something, he encouraged me to take a stab at this column. Hope you enjoy it.
High school is an inherently heterosexual place. Conversation in the cafeteria centers around what guy is seeing which girl this weekend. Or what they did the past weekend. Boyfriends and girlfriends walk down the hall holding hands. The yearbook each year immortalizes for posterity a class couple, and unless your high school is a lot more liberal than mine, it's always a boy and a girl. We won't even talk about that High Celebration of Heterosexuality.....the Prom. So what's a gay/les/bi student to do not to feel left out?
It has become fashionable and politically correct in the past few years to change the white, male, European bias that has traditionally been found in textbooks. As a math teacher, I've noticed that word problems now contain names that are obviously female, African-American, Asian, Native-American.....representative of every group that has been underrepresented in the past. The one group that seems to have somehow missed the bandwagon is homosexuals. I mean, when's the last time you saw a word problem in math that began, "Tom and his partner Dave are saving for retirement...."?
If that were the only problem facing gay youth as they work their way through high school, I could probably live with it. But for many teens, school is a very difficult place. They dread getting up in the morning. Even for students who are not out or even suspected of being gay, school can be an uncomfortable place. And that, at least in part, is the fault of teachers.
It's every teacher's responsibility to create an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable and can learn without fear of harassment. But many teachers allow gay-negative comments in their classrooms. We've all heard things like, "Shut up, faggot" or "This assignment is so gay" go unchecked by teachers. The comments sting, they hurt, and they keep coming day after day after day. I had this conversation this past spring with a senior that I'm out to (he's straight); let's call him Mark. He didn't believe that it happened nearly as much as I said it did; I guess he thought I was being dramatic to make a point. So I asked Mark to try a little experiment. I asked him to really pay attention to what was said in class, in the hall, in the cafeteria for an entire school day and to count up the comments that were offensive to gay/les/bi students. When he came to see me the next day, he told me that he had never really noticed it before but that there were "tons" of those comments thrown around all day. And not one of them was challenged by a teacher or administrator in the building.
So why does this happen? If a student uttered a racial or ethnic slur in school it would surely draw the attention of the adults around. Yet gay-negative comments go unnoticed by virtually everyone except those they hurt the most. Part of the problem is that, for the most part, gay/les/bi students are invisible. If a student uses the N-word and there is an African-American in the room, it's fairly obvious who has been offended. But if someone uses the word "gay" in a derogatory way, who's been hurt, unless there happens to be someone out in the room? But that attitude ignores the numbers (I'm a math teacher; I had to get this idea in here somehow). My school has about 1800 students in it. If you use the one-in-ten statistic, that means there are roughly 180 les/gay/bi students in my school. Each mainstream teacher sees about 120 students per day. So, on average, we each can expect to have 12 gay students in class. To ignore comments that bash gays is to ignore these students and to deny their right to learn in a place where they can be 100% comfortable and safe.
So now that we've identified the problem, what can we do to get to a solution? In part, we need to educate teachers (now there's a fun little twist....but even teachers can learn something new from time to time.). Many older teachers were brought up in an era when homosexuality was not discussed openly. They may be uncomfortable in dealing with the gay-related comments they hear. But remember, uncomfortable or not, it is every teacher's responsibility to address those comments and to guarantee you a safe, comfortable learning environment.
For you, the biggest step is to make your teachers aware that the problem actually exists and needs to be dealt with. If you're comfortable with doing it, you can talk to the teacher directly. Or you could ask a guidance counselor to speak to the teacher without using your name. But for many of you, that's not an option; you're not ready to come out to those people yet and that's OK. If that's the case try typing up a note explaining the problem and sliding it into the teacher's mailbox. It's safe for you and should open the teacher's eyes to the extent of the problem. If you have any comments or suggestions for next month, email me at BCEagleGuy@aol.com