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Skills for Educators

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Why We Need to Address Lesbian and Gay Issues in Our Schools

Contributed by Janet Stanley

While most educators want to create a safe environment for all students in their classrooms, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth (GLBTQ) have historically been omitted from this effort at inclusivity. GLBTQ students often experience overwhelming isolation, confusion and fear of rejection if their secret is revealed and the threat of physical and psychological harm is real. In addition, they often consider dropping out of high school due to the hostile environment they are confronted with daily.

Similarly, lesbian and gay teachers in our schools face challenges their heterosexual counterparts do not. The issue of whether or not to disclose their sexual orientation, and how to do it, is often a source of great anxiety. Non-gay teachers and administrators who bring their spouses and or significant others to school functions don't think twice about how others might react, or if they could lose their jobs because of their choice of a mate. They are not accused of bringing the intimate details of their private lives into the classroom, as gay teachers might be, by mentioning their spouses in conversations with their students.

Youth with lesbian and gay family members may also face issues of isolation and rejection. For those teens, the decision of whether or not to disclose this information to their teachers and their friends may cause a great deal of anxiety. Lesbian and gay parents also worry about rejection of their children by others, and as a result, often hesitate being involved with school activities for fear of being found out.

With these concerns and fears faced by GLBTQ youth, teachers and students with lesbian and gay parents or other family members, the question often posed is what can schools do to create a safe environment for all? The following four steps may assist educators in raising awareness and education about the GLBTQ community on school campuses, in turn creating a safer and more inclusive environment for everyone.

Step #1: Diversify your library's resources.

Step #2: Implement in-service trainings for all school staff as well as students.

Step #3: Create and enforce a zero tolerance policy.

Step #4: Explore your own attitudes and beliefs.



Step #1: Diversify your library's resources.

Libraries can be a safe haven for students to learn about GLBTQ issues and concerns. Libraries can increase their resources to include any number of books, journals, magazines and articles specific to lesbian and gay topics. Books discussing famous gay and lesbian figures and the contributions they have made to history, civil rights, literature, the military, the performing arts, journalism and more can be added to library shelves.

Journals, magazines and books designed specifically to address pertinent topics relating to GLBTQ issues including, but not limited to: lesbian and gay families; parenting; coming out; hate crimes and bias incidents on school campuses; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG); and counseling GLBTQ youth. Taking this step can help break the silence and contribute to making schools safe for all students.

Some specific examples of resources include:

  • Two Teenagers in Twenty: Writings by Gay & Lesbian Youth, by Ann Heron

  • Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth -- And Their Allies, by Ellen Bass, Kate Kaufman

  • Becoming Visible: A Reader in Gay & Lesbian History for High School & College Students, by Kevin Jennings

  • Growing Up Gay/Growing Up Lesbian: A literary Anthology, by Bennet L. Singer

Before including these or other titles in your library, preview each one and check your district policies regarding the inclusion of books and written materials that have frank discussions of sexuality.

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Step #2: Implement in-service trainings for all school staff and students.

In order to implement a school-wide culture of zero tolerance for hate crimes and bias incidents, schools need to provide regular in-service training for all staff and youth. Training should:

  • provide information on how to identify hate crimes and bias incidents and provide practice in appropriate ways to respond.

  • help create a culture in which all staff feel responsible for establishing and maintaining a non-hostile, bias- and prejudice-free learning environment.

  • provide information about the school's zero tolerance policy.

  • include the code of discipline as it relates to name calling, and verbal slurs as they relate to sexual orientation.

  • provide sensitivity training that increases understanding of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and questioning individuals. Such training will provide a venue to discuss why this issue is such an important aspect in creating safe schools.

  • provide concrete tools to enrich existing curriculum to ensure the inclusion of lesbian and gay persons and their contributions to the arts, music, math, science, literature and more. By acknowledging these contributions, both past and present, we will be making our schools safer and more supportive of everyone.

  • be repeated to ensure all school employees get trained.

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Step #3: Create and enforce a zero tolerance policy.

A district policy is necessary in creating a zero tolerance culture in our public school system. In order to be effective, the policy should originate with a school board resolution stating that each school is responsible for creating an environment that fosters positive attitudes and practices among students and staff.

The school board should state its strong commitment to providing school environments that are safe and that encourage respect for individual differences. The school board should state clearly that all students and staff need to know that acts of hate, threats, or harassment, based on one's gender, race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, handicapping condition or physical appearance, will not be tolerated. Further, the resolution must clearly state that harassment against GLBTQ teachers or students will not be tolerated, whether it be between students, students and teachers, or among teachers themselves.

District policies need to define hate motivated/bias incidents and hate crimes and need to provide guidelines for handling incidents and providing staff in-service. Use the checklist below to evaluate your current policies and practices. A "No" response indicates areas you might want to strengthen.

The checklist below can help you ascertain where your school is in moving toward a school environment that is safe for all and encourages respect for differences.

1. A non-discrimination policy has been disseminated to students and staff and is visibly posted on the school campus.
2. A sexual harrassment policy has been disseminated to students and staff and is visibly posted on the school campus.
3. A protocol for addressing bias motivated incidents/hate crimes has been developed.
4. School personnel have been identified who are responsible for responding to bias motivated incidents/hate crimes and are known to students and staff.
5. A grievance procedure has been developed and put in place.
6. A procedure has been developed and materials distributed to students and staff outlining disciplinary action to be taken as it relates to bias motivated incidents/hate crimes.
7. The policy mandates that there are GLBTQ sensitive counselors and support staff who are known to students and school personnel.
8. The policy mandates that GLBTQ issues are included in the diversity curriculum.
9. The policy mandates that staff in-services on issues related to sexual orientation are in place.
10. Guidelines for referring perpetrators and their families have been implemented.
11. When possible, a gay/straight alliance has been established on the school campus.

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Step #4: Explore your own attitudes and beliefs.

Before any of us can embark upon this journey of inclusion of GLBTQ youth into our schools, we must be willing to evaluate our own beliefs and attitudes. Addressing homophobia and heterosexism lies at the heart of promoting gender equity in the classroom and preventing hate motivated incidents and hate crimes on our school campuses. Creating a safe space for all of our youth includes providing accurate information about who they are and the world they encounter. In order to accomplish this lofty goal, we must be willing to challenge ourselves and our beliefs.

The following self-assessment tool can help you examine how your beliefs contribute to, or take away from, a safe environment for everyone.

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About the author:
Janet Stanley has over 15 years' experience as a sexuality educator for youth and adults with a special emphasis on GLBTQ individuals. She has consulted with ETR staff for over ten years and is currently the Executive Director of Pacific Pride Foundation in Santa Barbara, California.