One of my students broke my heart today.  She asked me, “doesn’t it bother you when people say things?  People call me a dyke because I used to be one and it hurt.”  In our tiny little community in rural Pennsylvania, being different in any way is cause for verbal taunts.  Bigotry runs rampant despite teachers’ attempts to quell it because the students receive the message at home that bigotry is acceptable.  Teachers are limited at every turn by the outcry of “promoting a homosexual agenda” when all we want is for our children to see school as a safe place.  According to the 2003 National School Climate Survey:

An overwhelming majority (92 percent) of GLBTQ students reported frequently hearing homophobic slurs, such as ‘faggot,’ ‘dyke,’ or ‘that’s so gay.’ Moreover, schools’ faculty and staff contributed to the problem by either making such comments themselves or failing to intervene when they overheard such remarks.

  As someone who works in the public schools, I hear these words many times a day.  Why is the overwhelming use of these words a problem? 

1) In a recent survey, 33 percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students reported attempting suicide in the previous year, compared to eight percent of their heterosexual peers;  in another study, gay and bisexual males were nearly four times more likely to attempt suicide than were their straight peers.  GLBTQ youth often internalize negative societal messages regarding sexual orientation and suffer from self-hatred as well as from social and emotional isolation. They may use substances to manage stigma and shame, to deny same-sex sexual feelings, and/or as a defense against ridicule and violence.

2)  Thirty-nine percent of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students and 55 percent of transgender students reported having been shoved or pushed. Transgender youth were about one-third more likely to suffer physical harassment on account of their gender expression than were gay, lesbian, and bisexual students on account of their sexual orientation.

  In other words, verbal harrassment leads to violence, either through physical attacks or attempts at suicide.  This is the same progression that occurs with domestic violence.  Words matter.  Calling someone a “dyke” or a “faggot” is never acceptable.  So, why would many adults not comment about hearing these words?

Many adults  fear discrimination, job loss, and abuse if they openly support GLBTQ youth.

  Just look at the harrassment the future Secretary of Education has endured for suggesting the creation of an GLBT friendly high school (bigots not welcome).  Note that he was not recommending segregation, just tolerance and the ability of teachers to make these students feel safe.  Yet, there was a huge public outcry.

  Thus far, I have only addressed the first issue: “People called me a dyke”; the second issue is the “I used to be one”.  As most of us know, your sexual orientation doesn’t just magically change overnight.  People simply go into the closet or participate in risky behaviors trying to “prove” their heterosexuality.

In one study of 15- to 22-year-old men who have sex with men, 23 percent reported having had at least five male sex partners in the past six months and 41 percent reported unprotected anal sex. Seventeen percent of men of mixed race/ethnicity and black background were HIV-infected, as were 14 percent of African Americans/blacks, 13 percent of men of mixed race/ethnicity, and seven percent of Hispanics. HIV prevalence among whites and Asian Americans was three percent each.

In one study, nearly 17 percent of bisexual women reported unprotected vaginal or anal sex with a man during the last two months.

   The quandary I ran into: how can I respond to such a comment sensitively and still maintain my job?  I chose to sidestep the issue and say that people always say things, but that you can’t let them get to you and that it is different in big cities than it is in small towns.  I feel like I didn’t do enough.

   I protest for equal rights so that our children will feel safe and grow up in a climate of love rather than hate.  People need to stop hiding behind their religion as an excuse for bigotry because that is all it is: an excuse.

  Some helpful websites for those GLBT youth:

   Scholarships: http://www.hrc.org/issues/youth_and_campus_activism/8644.htm

   Advocates for Youth (including pamphlets like, “I think I might be a lesbian”): http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/index.htm

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