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Empowering Students from the Classroom Out
"If there was a gay dude in here, it’d either be me or him,” my student declared vociferously. I took a deep breath—I had anticipated this. We had just finished our last unit on Death of a Salesman, we were done with the End of Course Exam, and we had about a week and a half left until finals. I’d decided that we would do thematic days until it was time to review, and today was Worldly Wednesday. In small groups, my 11th graders chose whether they would read about Iranians being detained for making a cover of the music video of “Happy,” Chipotle banning guns from their stores after gun rights activists in Texas came into a restaurant with automatic rifles, a stay of execution in Missouri triggered by the botched execution in Oklahoma, or the recent overturning of gay marriage bans in Oregon, Pennsylvania, and my current home of Arkansas.
Teach For America recently introduced a national LGBTQ pilot in several states to empower corps members, regardless of personal identity, to better support their LGBT or questioning students. In Arkansas, the participants talked about introducing LGBTQ literature to the classroom when anticipated resistance to the reading could be high. We talked about introducing choice—if the students chose to read about the LGBTQ community, then parents can’t really be all that upset at the teachers, right? We talked about using articles instead of books—shorter texts mean less time for opposition to form. We talked about queering the traditional canon of literature—to show that LGBTQ lit isn’t just its own genre and to have an expert backing up the content. And, finally, we talked about bundling the issue into a larger unit on identity and potentially bullying. I’d spent the year talking about Safe Space with my students in a general sense, but I’d just put up a GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) sticker on my door and I was ready to intentionally bring up a conversation about the LGBTQ community in class. Now, here we were, and a student who had only looked at the headline of the article was in full-on opposition mode. I opened my mouth to respond, but another student beat me to it.
“Man, if you gay, you gay. That’s just how it is. I don’t see a problem with it,” interjected the student sitting next to the first speaker. “Nah, it’s wrong,” said the first. “I’m gay,” responded the second. “No you ain’t,” retorted the first, having known this student for years and being close friends with him. “Well, no,” he replied, “but if I were, we’d still be cool.” “Yeah, I guess so,” said the first, “I only know one gay dude, and we cool. We tight. But all the rest, naw, man, that’s just not right.” The second replied, “naw, if you gay, you gay. You just…gay.”
The three of us continued on the conversation. The language wasn’t always sensitive, but the dialogue would make any facilitator proud. We had talked about LGBTQ rights in my classes before, and student opinions varied widely, but those conversations had arisen organically. This was our first intentional conversation, and I was starting to think I had been anxious for nothing. Then, another student chimed in from across the room: “If I met a f** I would beat them up.” There was a frightening sort of anger contained in his raised voice, and I responded, “That would be a hate crime, and you would go to jail. It’s one thing to voice your opinion, but you cannot threaten others in this classroom.” He slammed his fist down on his desk, “I don’t care. I would do it.” I opened my mouth to push him further, to try to understand and challenge the views he was expressing, but the bell rang, and he was gone.
That’s been the story of talking about LGBTQ rights in my classroom this past year. We’ve had amazing conversations, and we’ve had moments that have been regrettably curtailed by the bell. I’ve been amazed, not so much by the acceptance among some of my students and the intolerance among others, but by the ability of my students to have incredible dialogues with each other. In another of my classes, without any prompts from me, two students had a passionate debate about gay marriage that ended with a hug and an “I disagree with your position, but I respect you. And I appreciate that you respect my position.”
During National LGBT Pride Month this June—and every month—conversations are taking place across the country about LGBTQ issues, and how best to support LGBTQ students in the classroom. There are a lot of challenges. Students may be blocked from LGBTQ support or informational sites at school because of unfair web blockers. There are incredibly high rates of homelessness, dropping out, abuse, and self harm among LGBTQ teens in our region. And there are also resources—Just Communities of Arkansas in Little Rock, Human Rights Campaign in Little Rock, GLSEN, community members, and, yes, teachers. But, as I was reminded by my students in class that day, conversations between peers can be much more impactful than conversations between teachers and students. It is my hope, and the hope of my colleagues, that we can all work together in the community to affect change. We want to create a safe space for students to talk to one another about bullying, barriers, rights, actions, and justice.
I truly hope that one day all children will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education, regardless of their race, class, zip code, gender, or sexual orientation. That day has not yet come. But by continuing to have the difficult conversations, whether organically or intentionally, and by empowering students to facilitate those conversations on their own, that day will come a little sooner and shine a little bit brighter.