When a teacher raises gay and lesbian issues in the classroom, some students respond with intellectual curiosity, but often the consequences are less positive.
* become embarrassed and uncomfortable;
* become hostile;
* question the teacher's sexuality;
* make homophobic accusations against other students in the class or against other students and staff within the school;
* report the class activity to administration/parents;
The following suggestions are offered to prevent or minimize these potentially negative consequences:
1. The teacher should be as relaxed and non-combative about the topic as possible. Students often sense teacher discomfort with subject matter and, when they do, will often take advantage by acting out. The teacher should not signal "CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC TODAY". As much as possible, the subject should emerge from the class context. If a short lesson is planned, it should be seen as a thoughtful response to student needs. For example, the teacher could say, "Last week's discussion about Elton John brought out some strong opinions about gay people. I've gathered some material together on this subject that I think will help us sort out our feelings about gays and lesbians. Today we are going to read a short story about a boy who thought he was gay at a young age and what he did about it."
2. To the question "Why do we have to learn about this?" the short response might be, "Because our community is made up of all kinds of people and it will help us all to get along, even if we don't think we like one another," or "We spend a lot of time in this class figuring out how straight people operate in this world. We can spend a little time trying to figure out the same thing about gays and lesbians. After all, about 10% of the population is gay or lesbian. That's a pretty large minority group." A more thoughtful answer is to explain that the often ignored history of gay/lesbian people can teach us much about stigma, identity, sub-cultures, and survival, lessons that have connections with other groups and kinds of people.
3. When the teacher's sexuality is questioned, the responses are complex:
* Whatever answer he/she ultimately gives, a critical question for the teacher to ask at the start is, "Would my being gay or lesbian influence how you feel about me or about homosexuality?"
* If the teacher says he/she is not gay/lesbian, but still cares very much about gay/lesbian people and wants to know more about them, he/she provides a role model of caring and intellectual curiosity.
* If the teacher says he/she is gay/lesbian, it can teach that someone the students like, respect, and learn from may be gay/lesbian. The teacher need not share personal information (eg., whether he/she has a lover) beyond his/her orientation, unless he/she thinks it appropriate. Sharing personal erotic practices is no more acceptable for a gay/lesbian teacher than it would be for a heterosexual one.
* If the teacher declines to answer the question,he/she may provoke speculation. Such uncertainty may be good if it helps students to see that one can't identify a person's sexual orientation by means of superficial markers or stereotypical behaviors. In fact, a non-gay teacher might use this strategy for a time, and then, after revealing his/her sexuality, discuss the nature of students pre-conceptions and expectations. On the other hand, if a gay/lesbian teacher declines to answer, students may interpret the silence as shame. Teachers who stay in the closet while teaching tolerance may undermine their goal of establishing the dignity of gay/lesbian people.
4. If students begin conjecturing or making homophobic remarks about other students in the class or school, the teacher must condemn such behavior as invasive and inappropriate. As wonderful as it might be for gay/lesbian students to stand up for themselves and demand respect, teachers should be careful not to force such a confrontation. Students, even those who are open in other settings, have a right to privacy.
Often those students who ask questions or make positive comments about homosexuality are derided as gay. Teachers therefore need a tactic for deflecting attention away from speculation about another student's sexuality during class discussions.
The teacher could say, "I have no interest in guessing if any student or teacher is gay or lesbian in this school. I will assume by statistical probability that approximately 10% of the people in our community are gay or lesbian or will be as adults. It's natural to have questions in your own minds about gay and straight people's sexuality, including having some kinds of questions about your own. But don't put other students up for public examination. We can invite gay and lesbian speakers to our class to answer our questions."
Bringing up the 10% figure in this context is more productive than starting off a discussion of homosexuality by flagging that 10% of the class itself is gay or lesbian. That observation invites an inquisition.
5. If a student at any time volunteers the information that he/she or someone dear to them is gay/lesbian, that is a wonderful opportunity to explore that student's feelings and perceptions as a member of the class. Such brave students deserve teacher support and nurturance, but the teacher should avoid speaking for them. It is more effective for peers to talk to each other when they are trying to understand difference. The best role for the teacher is to reiterate and make concise what each "side" is saying and, above all, to keep emphasizing both gay and non-gay people's membership in the school or school district "community."
6. If students ask questions about another staff member in the school, the teacher may respond as suggested for questions involving other students. In certain cases, the teacher may say, "I don't discuss other teachers' sexuality. If you want to talk to Ms. or Mr. Smith directly, why don't you do that." Be aware that students might go directly to that staff member and misrepresent what you suggested. If the colleague knows in advance what your response to such questions is, your words are less likely to be misconstrued.
7. Be prepared to speak with administrators and/or parents about the nature of your classroom activities on the subject of homosexuality. Some parents may be upset. They need to be told of the value of education for diversity. If a critical mass of your school staff agrees on the need for preventing homophobic name-calling and violence, that should give you leverage. (It always pays to have your professional allies lined up before the controversy begins.) Conservative, religiously orthodox, or homophobic parents may take some comfort in the notion that the staff is primarily concerned with how people are treated in the school. If individual students or their parents are unhappy with the teaching that all people are equal and deserving of respect then they may continue to believe whatever they want. As long as their beliefs don't lead to behaviors that harm others physically or attack their dignity, beliefs are not the first concern of the school. But of course, beliefs are a concern of the school.
The principles of liberty and justice for all depend upon a belief system that may be in conflict with certain commonly held religious and political beliefs. Let the intellectual conflict between bigotry and tolerance thrive. Teachers should have confidence that for many of their students, given the support of a loving and rigorous academic environment, this conflict will resolve itself in favor of principles of respect for human difference.
8. The majority of students value most being accepted and liked by their peers. The norm of the class, as expressed or supported by the teacher, can be a communitarian one. Therefore, the primary goal in reducing classroom homophobia is to stress the membership of gay/lesbian people in the peer community. That is best, though rarely, done by gay and lesbian class members themselves. In the absence of openly gay or lesbian students (or teachers), however, and unless the non-gay teacher keeps his/her own sexuality in doubt, the remaining option is to imply the presence of lesbian/gay people, keeping the focus on their feelings without bogging down in speculation over who the gay members are.
This balancing act is difficult for any teacher. But keep in mind that arguing for the abstract rights and worth of people who are not group members will not work with most students. Teenagers learn first how to be considerate of the rights of those around them, for whom they already have a predisposition to care. Such feelings can be nurtured in school settings that emphasize community and caring. The inclusion in that community of any unfamiliar minority will take some work and not a little conflict, but the result is worth it.
9. The more class governance and decision-making are shared between teacher and students, the more likely the communitarian model will prevail. Group debate and democratic process create community feeling and responsibility.
The above suggestions are offered for dealing with the affective and ad hominem responses of students. Answering students' more substantive questions about the nature of homosexuality and about gay/lesbian history and culture is another matter. Space does not permit a discussion of curricular concerns.