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September 1, 2011
Vol. 69
No. 1

Breaking Silences

The first step in stopping antigay speech is talking about it.

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It was a typical November morning at a suburban East Coast high school. While staff and students with first period preps or study halls finished their morning coffee or made final preparations for the day, others were already engaged in classes, and support staff and administrators went about their busy early morning routines. In the quiet hallway, one could hear teachers delivering instruction, students engaging in group work, the band rehearsing, teachers and office assistants making copies, and attendance officers calling the parents of absent students. These were comfortable and familiar sounds. But a very different kind of noise was about to disrupt the calm routine.
Midway into first period, white business envelopes with the words READ ME printed in capital letters over a background of handprints rendered in red tempera paint began to appear in students' hands. More than 30 of these envelopes found their way through the halls and classrooms, passed among friends and classmates and shared with teachers. In each envelope was a copy of a document titled "Faggot: A Look at Homophobia in Our School." Written by "Fabulous," a pseudonym most of the 2,300 students at the school recognized as belonging to an openly gay male student, the full-page letter began with the statement: "It is my profound hope that through this letter, you can begin to comprehend the despicable behavior of some of the students and more importantly the faculty at our high school."

A Disturbing Message

Fabulous contended that although racial slurs were "deemed inexcusable" at the school, the term faggot had gained widespread (and accepted) use in the building; in his view, this derogatory, antigay language was an epidemic. In alerting the school community, Fabulous also articulated a key factor that he believed perpetuated homophobic language in schools—the silence of educators and other bystanders. He encouraged readers to circulate the letter to students and staff alike.
That circulation, however, quickly ceased when the administration confiscated and shredded the letters (an action that they explained was based on some incendiary commentary about a specific staff member). The overarching message of the letter and the charge that the school's climate was un welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans gender (LGBT) students was ignored. Ironically, the administration's actions (and inaction) seemed to preserve the very silence that Fabulous had set out to disrupt.
As a central office administrator when this happened five years ago, I did not have a strong sense of the climate in the district schools. Three incidents helped me recognize the problem. One was Fabulous's letter. Another was news of a teacher who had had anti-LGBT taunts hurled at him by students. Finally, I learned of a middle school student who was hoarding late bus passes so he could avoid the threatening, anti-LGBT remarks of students on his regularly assigned bus route. These stories reminded me of my own experiences as a gay man and educator. Troubled by these stories and my memories, I felt I needed to help make our schools safe for all students.

Not Just One District

Turning to research, I soon learned that Fabulous was onto something. Pejorative, anti-LGBT speech in schools was then and is still something of an epidemic across the United States. Research from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) continues to suggest that phrases such as "you're so gay" or "don't be such a fag" and epithets such as dyke, faggot, homo, and sissy as well as other slurs and graphic taunts are part of the regular vernacular of the youth in our schools. On GLSEN's most recent National School Climate Survey, 63.7.percent of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, and 72.4.percent heard homophobic remarks, such as faggot or dyke, frequently or often at school (Kosciw, Greytak, Diaz, & Bartkiewicz, 2010).
Likewise, research continues to support Fabulous's assertion that the silence of educators helps perpetuate the epidemic. In the latest GLSEN study, 41.4.percent of self-identified LGBT students reported that staff members never intervene, and another 43.4.reported that staff members only sometimes do so (Kosciw et al., 2010). That only 16.percent of students surveyed reported that staff members always intervene is certainly distressing, especially when most educators believe that all students have a right to be physically and emotionally safe in school. This research suggests that there's a disconnect between teacher belief and teacher practice.

Starting the Conversation

As a former teacher who struggled with how to handle antigay speech in my own classroom, I felt that the best place to start was to engage colleagues in sharing their own experiences. My intent was to conduct a research study, but the work soon morphed into something I had not anticipated.
I invited the faculty in Fabulous's school to join me in a process of reflection, one-on-one sharing, and open discussion. The process began with a survey that I hoped would provide some information that a group of teachers might then study further. I asked the teachers about homophobic language they'd heard students use, specific incidents they'd observed, and what actions they took when observing such incidents. The teachers' responses confirmed the allegation Fabulous had made about the extent to which such language existed in the school. What's more, my findings matched what was then the most recent survey from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, in which 91 percent of students reported hearing homophobic remarks in their schools, with 75 percent stating that this occurred frequently or often (Kosciw & Diaz, 2006). My survey showed that 81 percent of teachers in the school had heard homophobic language from students.
I followed up the survey with individual and group meetings during which teachers constructed a complex glossary of homophobic and anti-LGBT words and phrases, shared descriptions of the stances they'd taken toward such language, and declared what they hoped to do in the future and what outcomes they desired.
Beyond a nonresponse to such incidents ("I pretended not to hear it…. I didn't have time to stop the lesson"), teachers described themselves as acting as the gatekeepers of language in their classrooms ("We don't say that in here") or the caregivers of the victims of such speech ("That makes her feel bad"). Very few thought about treating these moments as broader educational opportunities ("What do you mean by 'that's so gay'?").
One science teacher, for example, shared the story of teaching a lesson during which he intended to explain the properties of various metals and the kinds of reactions they have to one another. To establish the difference between two types of reactions, he often began by saying, "Some metals are bullies and will always react, and some metals are wimps and won't react." When the teacher prompted students with a word association exercise designed to help them remember the two types of reactions, a student who was not fully paying attention offered the word fag for the metals the teacher typically referred to with the term wimp. In response, the teacher scolded the student while the rest of the class simply watched and listened.
Given the analogy the teacher had set up, this was a perfect opportunity to discuss bullying, name calling, and homophobia. The student's mistake provided a wonderful entry point into what could have been a rich discussion if the teacher had gone beyond challenging the student's use of the chosen pejorative and asked the class to consider the pervasiveness of bullying of LGBT students or students perceived to be LGBT.
Members of the group expressed concern about their relevant knowledge and skills and about how administrators, parents, or board members would view a teacher seizing such teachable moments ("I don't want to be accused of advocating certain morals or discussing an inappropriate topic"). They seemed eager to explore this further.

Teachable Teachers

Initially, I resisted the notion that these conversations were professional development, but soon I realized that some of the teachers wanted to fill in gaps in their knowledge and gain skills in responding to homophobic speech. I decided to abandon my script and let the teachers lead our conversations. Although the teachers initially wanted to be given answers and strategies for responding to homophobic speech, they came to value the introspective nature of the experience. In an especially poignant reflection, one of the teachers commented,Though I had hoped to get "the answer" for how to deal with students' various manifestations of homophobia, what I got out of participating was more than that: a sense of my own concerns, values, and assumptions that play into the ways I deal with students whom I perceive as needing protection or correction in class.
When sensitive, well-crafted spaces for conversation about teaching practice are paired with well-designed trainings such as those available through GLSEN chapters across the United States, teachers can truly begin to address troubling speech and seize those moments for educational purposes.

Teachers Learning Together

When treading on what one teacher called such "squishy ground" as formulating responses to homophobic or anti-LGBT speech (or other forms of oppressive language), explicitly technical and personally unexamined approaches to skill development may not be as effective as a more situated approach in which teachers reflect on their own experiences (Lave & Wenger, 1989). Enabling teachers to question their teaching practices prepares them to consider a broad array of educational possibilities that reside in the experiences they're already having.
It takes courage to break the silence and have hard conversations about aspects of teaching practice that we otherwise tend to repress or ignore. But if a school community sincerely wants to stop anti-LGBT speech (or other oppressive language or activities), they must ensure that the "noise" created by students like Fabulous is not only honored, but deeply considered and, above all, never silenced.

Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

Kosciw, J. G., Greytak, E. A., Diaz, E. M., & Bartkiewicz, M. J. (2010). The 2009 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth in our nation's schools. New York: GLSEN.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1989). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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