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April 1, 1997

Supporting the Invisible Minority

A hidden minority group of gay and lesbian students attends our schools. Pioneering educators in Stratford, Connecticut, have provided a leadership model to meet the needs of these students.
In every school, there is a group of forgotten children—a hidden minority of boys and girls whose needs have been ignored, whose existence has been whispered about, whose pain is just beginning to surface. These are our gay, lesbian, and bisexual students.
A Harris Poll, released in June 1992, said that 86 percent of high school students would be very upset if classmates called them gay or lesbian. A 1989 report from the federal government suggested that gay and lesbian youth were three times more likely than their peers to commit suicide (Remafedi 1994). Historically these teens have been given derogatory names by society and ignored by their schools, except as the butt of jokes. As teens come out, or go public with their sexual orientations, this oversight is becoming increasingly unacceptable. Studies show that the mean age of coming out for sexual-minority youth is declining, at least in urban areas. For 1993 the mean age for males was 13.1 years; for females, 15.2 (Baily and Phariss 1996).
In the two places where a child should feel safe and supported, gay and lesbian youth are routinely reviled: family and school. Gay or lesbian children who are taunted usually have nowhere to turn.
Educators have a clear professional mandate to address the needs of sexual minorities. Organizations such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education have passed resolutions that protect the rights of sexual-minority students and staff. Even most businesses acknowledge the necessity of respect for diversity of all kinds (Carson 1993, Mickens 1994).
Educational leaders often deny there is a problem when it comes to sexual minorities in the schools. In a statewide survey of Connecticut teachers and administrators in 1991, respondents indicated that they recognized the plight of gay and lesbian students, admitted that next to nothing was being done for them, and expressed hope for a solution. The results showed a dichotomy between the perceptions of teachers as a group and those of administrators: Teachers called for action; administrators claimed there was no need or that programs were already in place to address these issues (Woog 1995). The good news is that even in such an environment, great strides can be made, as they have in Stratford.

The Coming Out of Leadership in Stratford

What makes Stratford Public Schools unique in the state and perhaps in the United States? The school system has an openly gay high school teacher, an openly gay elementary school principal, an openly gay middle school teacher, and a middle school assistant principal who openly accepts that one of her sons is gay. In our district, the actions of a few have had unimagined consequences, even in the face of administrative reluctance or objection (Anderson 1996).
I began teaching in Stratford in 1985. In 1991 three events converged to change my life as a teacher. First, in October, Connecticut extended civil rights protection to gay and lesbian citizens, one of nine states to do so to date. Second, during the summer of that year, I began writing a bimonthly column on gay and lesbian concerns for the New Haven Register. Third, as my official evaluation goal, I chose to examine the needs of gay and lesbian students and to evaluate how the school system was meeting those needs.
I found that little is being done in U.S. schools to ameliorate the educational opportunity for gay and lesbian students (Harbeck 1992; see also Rienzo et al. 1996). Nevertheless, in Stratford, we have raised sensitivity levels and provided increased support for gay and lesbian students and staff. We have found that most educators are caring people, but they are fearful and look in vain for direction from our educational leaders (Anderson and Edwards 1996).
In lieu of leadership and policies, many educators in Stratford and in other cities and states have taken steps on their own to help reduce discrimination in our schools against those who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. The amazing thing is the progress made with this scattered approach. It is discouraging, however, to note that few schools are replicating successful programs.

Fragmented State and National Leadership

Kevin Jennings (1994) and David Woog (1995) have chronicled the stories of U.S. educators who are gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Yet the stories illustrate that schools have no unified procedure or policy concerning sexual orientation of educators or students.
Another researcher, Harbeck (1992), describes a program called Project 10, which began at a dropout-prevention center founded in 1984 by Virginia Uribe at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Project members produced a video documentary on the plight of gay and lesbian students. It was entitled Who's Afraid of Project 10?
In another isolated example, the New York Public Schools in 1985 opened the Harvey Milk School, an alternative high school, to provide psychological, social, and academic support to gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. This school is part of the youth advocacy work of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which also publishes posters and resource materials.
These are partial solutions to local manifestations of a national problem. Until recently, Project 10 and the Harvey Milk School were the extent of organized efforts to address the needs of sexual-minority students in concrete terms.
Two states have begun using data to make decisions about gay and lesbian students and education. In Massachusetts, the Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth (1993) produced an excellent study of the issues affecting gay and lesbian students, from poor school performance to suicide. The study makes recommendations for schools, for families of gay and lesbian youth, and for state agencies and the Massachusetts legislature. An important result of this report is that the State Board of Education now requires all teacher certification programs in the state to include sensitivity training on gay and lesbian issues.
The Minnesota Department of Education (1994) published a resource booklet that addresses how to include issues related to homosexuality in school policy, instruction, and student services. This text challenges schools to examine their environment and then to develop a more sensitive, inclusive place of learning.
A third state, Connecticut, began addressing homophobia in the schools in 1991, through the Sex Equity Newsletter of the State Department of Education. This newsletter features resources, information, and guidelines similar to those of Massachusetts and Minnesota.
All three states are addressing five important issues (Anderson 1994). Stratford has made progress in all five.

Effective Approaches to Sex Equity

Professional development. In the past few years, Stratford has begun to provide workshops and forums that address sexuality issues. In the first, during the 1992-93 school year, about 30 teachers attended voluntarily; only one administrator participated. At a 1994 workshop on "The Invisible Minority," no administrators attended. One of the presenters was Garrett Stack, an openly gay elementary school principal—and my life partner. Another presenter was Ann Edwards (see p. 68). Other forums have included limited presentations—mostly on sexual harassment and cultural minorities—at the annual "World of Differences" workshops.
Support staff and services. Stratford guidance personnel have increasingly been supportive of gay and lesbian issues. Several guidance counselors displayed posters that I provided. One poster declared "Homophobia Is a Social Disease." One counselor has a rainbow sticker, pink triangle, and other gay paraphernalia on her bulletin board. The school psychologists, school nurses, and social workers also provide support to students.
Sexuality in the health curriculum. Like most high school health textbooks (Baily and Phariss 1996), Stratford's text contains only one paragraph on homosexuality. The high school health teachers, however, are supportive and articulate. One teacher, Lea Dickson (1995), has written a resource directory for ASCD's Gay and Lesbian Network. After two years of lobbying the central school administration for permission, two teachers recently invited me to address their senior health classes on homosexuality. At one class session, a panel of "adults in relationships" included both heterosexual and gay couples. I proudly participated, representing Garrett Stack and myself. Student response to these classes has been overwhelmingly positive.
Library resources. The Stratford High School library held a diversity exhibit in 1993. It included noted gay and lesbian Americans—James Baldwin, Martina Navratilova, Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, Audre Lorde, and Walt Whitman—as well as members of other minority groups. The exhibit occurred without incident. One librarian posted a list of 20 possible topics for research papers, including "civil rights for gays and lesbians." One high school recently held a "Stop the Violence Week." The library exhibited Elaine Landau's (1986) Different Drummer: Homosexuality in America, as well as works from two series for adolescents by Chelsea House Publishers: Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians and Issues in Gay and Lesbian Life (see Gough and Greenblatt 1992).
Curriculum support. We have found that any teacher can transform the curriculum into an inclusive experience for students. For example, a social studies teacher included sex equity issues in a unit on civil rights; in an English class, a student wrote a research paper on gay parenting. In another English class, an Advanced Placement student developed ways to include gay and lesbian material in the curriculum. I used the TV drama Serving in Silence about Col. Cammermeyer, as well as some of my New Haven Register columns, as extra-credit activities in my English classes (see Resources).

Conversations and Civility

Most of our efforts in Stratford have focused on educating the educators. The administration has been less comfortable with services and support for students (Anderson 1996; see also Riddle 1996, Rensenbrink 1996). Despite the lack of policy, we are slowly creating a supportive environment for our gay, lesbian, and bisexual students and staff.
A highlight of our equity movement was a 1995 conversation with the superintendent. The superintendent listened to parents, teachers, and students express concerns about equal educational access. He encouraged us to continue in our support for equal education for all and cautioned moderation in our choice of actions. We have found that careful planning, mutual respect, and civility go a long way toward achieving real progress.
References

Anderson, J.D. (1994). "School Climate for Gay and Lesbian Students and Staff Members." Phi Delta Kappan 76, 2: 151-154.

Anderson, J.D. (1996). "Out as a Professional Educator." In Open Lives Safe Schools, edited by D. Walling. Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.

Anderson, J.D., and A. Edwards. (1996). Out for Life. Las Colinas, Tex.: Ide House.

Baily, N., and T. Phariss. (1996). "Breaking Through the Wall of Silence: Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Issues for Middle Level Educators." Middle School Journal 27, 3: 38-46.

Carson, C. (1993). "Perspectives on Education in America: An Annotated Briefing." Journal of Educational Research 86, 5: 259-310.

Dickson, L. (1995). Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Issues in Education, An ASCD Resource Directory 1994-1995. Fairfield, Conn.: Garden Gates Communication.

Gough, C., and E. Greenblatt. (1992). "Services to Gay and Lesbian Patrons: Examining the Myths." Library Journal 117, 1: 59-63.

Harbeck, K., ed. (1992). Coming Out of the Classroom Closet: Gay and Lesbian Students, Teachers, and Curricula. Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Press.

Jennings, K. (1994). One Teacher in Ten. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Landau, E. (1986). Different Drummer: Homosexuality in America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: J. Messner.

Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. (1993). Making Schools Safe for Gay and Lesbian Youth: Breaking the Silence in Schools and in Families. Boston: Author.

Mickens, E. (1994). The 100 Best Companies for Gay Men and Lesbians. New York: Pocket Books.

Minnesota Department of Education. (1994). Alone No More: Developing a School Support System for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth. St. Paul, Minn.: Author.

Remafedi, G. (1994). Death by Denial. Boston: Alyson Publications.

Rensenbrink, C. (1996). "What Difference Does It Make? The Story of a Lesbian Teacher." Harvard Education Review 66, 2: 257-270.

Riddle, B. (1996). "Breaking the Silence: Addressing Gay and Lesbian Issues in Independent Schools." Independent School 55, 2: 38-47.

Rienzo, B., J. Button, and K. Wald. (1996). "The Politics of School-Based Programs Which Address Sexual Orientation." Journal of School Health 66, 1: 33-40.

Woog, D. (1995). School's Out: The Impact of Gay and Lesbian Issues on America's Schools. Boston: Alyson Publications.

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