“That’s so gay!”
“He called me gay.”
I’m an elementary school teacher, and back when I was a closeted lesbian, hearing these words from my students immediately caused me to shudder. I hated dealing with those situations and the conversations that ensued. I certainly did not want to say anything that would cause my students (or their parents) to question my sexuality. I feared that my response would be misconstrued and my professional integrity would be cast into doubt.
I was unsure how best to respond and was scared to respond in a way that would be uncomfortable for everyone. My typical response when I heard those types of statements was to try to find out exactly what was said, and tell the student who said it, “We don’t use those kinds of words.”
“Those kinds of words.”
Unknowingly, I taught my students that the word gay was vulgar and that it had no place in dialogue or conversation. Although I had hoped not to bring any attention to this word, I was doing just the opposite. I was bringing negative attention to the word gay and unintentionally promoting it as a word to use when one wanted to hurt another person’s feelings. By not saying anything more than, “Don’t use that word,” I was actually saying a lot.
In the 15 years that I have been an educator, I have had to re-teach myself not to shudder or fear these conversations but instead to embrace the opportunity to teach kids about diversity. But I’ve had to do it on my own; there has been no professional development offered at the school or district level to assist my colleagues and me. Instead, I have employed numerous resources, including Teaching Tolerance, to better handle those conversations. I now know that my response to this type of name-calling will have a huge impact on my students—either positive or negative. Through my own professional learning, I have gained the knowledge to see these moment as opportunities to help my students understand family diversity, how to steer clear of gender stereotypes and to recognize bias-based bullying. I now know that asking questions like, “Why would you choose that word?” or “Tell me why you think being gay is an insult” or “How do you think that would sound to a gay person?” goes a lot further than just shutting down the conversation.
Sadly, I know that many teachers, gay and straight, struggle with how to handle these conversations. When I approached my school counselor about implementing a school-wide anti-bullying program that included sexual orientation, her response was that she felt our students were “too young and innocent to hear some of the things” that were included in the proposed program.
Certainly, talking to children about sexual orientation should be handled carefully; however, the conversation needs to happen. Hopefully, administrators, counselors and teachers facilitating these conversations will be equipped with the tools and the skills to make the school environment safe for everyone. We know that when students feel safe—physically and emotionally—they are more successful in school. As educators and community leaders, we must create an environment where everyone, teachers and students, feels safe to be themselves. If students do not hear “gay” used appropriately, then they will learn to use it negatively. As educators, we must be willing to have that conversation—with our students and with each other.
Aaron-Brush is an elementary physical education teacher in the Birmingham, Alabama, metro area.