This is a sensitive topic, but one that I’ve been wanting to comment on for some time. I am extremely proud of my school for its hard work over the past few years to diversify our student body. We’ve increased the numbers of students from foreign countries and other minorities from within the United States. It makes for a much more interesting environment to work in and my class discussions have greatly improved owing to the different perspectives. If Thomas Friedman is indeed correct that the world is becoming flatter than it is absolutely necessary that students learn how to relate and respect those with very different personal histories and cultural/religious beliefs. We still need to do more to diversify our faculty, but I have no doubt that we will make progress.
The one area that I am still very concerned about is in the area of sexual harassment, and more specifically, the language of homophobia. Let me start out by saying that I have no intention of getting into a discussion about whether homosexual behavior is immoral or whether it is a matter of choice. And please don’t write me to tell me that homosexuals are condemned or welcomed by God. I am not interested. As to my own position I am convinced by the limited number of scientific studies that I’ve read that it is indeed "natural" and therefore the morality question is entirely misguided. On the other hand, to reduce any individual to one category can easily be categorized as dehumanizing. We are all complex beings and we perceive ourselves as more than our politics, race, religion, sexuality, and nationality. [Amartya Sen explores in his latest study the pitfalls of this kind of identification in the context of nationality and religion.] In short, I don’t see any difference between our attitudes about sexuality and racial prejudices. In fact, many of the same arguments against homosexuals were also used as justifications for Jim Crow and other racial stereotypes not too long ago. My interests are focused on how a school community ought to handle this issue. This post is not directed specifically at my school as I feel that schools across the country have failed to deal with this problem.
There are a number of issues that need to be addressed here, both from the perspective of a school community and my role as a teacher. I work at a school that has committed itself to educating students beyond the classroom to include character and honorable behavior. From our "Philosophy Statement" contained in the Student Handbook:
We at St. Anne’s – Belfield believe that the transmission of knowledge, the encouragement of curiosity, the development of rational thought, and the cultivation of responsible, honorable behavior are the great ends of education. In asking students to master a specific body of knowledge, we seek not to impart knowledge alone, but to instill the lifelong habit of learning. Although we expect our graduates to be prepared for the nation’s finest colleges and universities, our true purpose is to create a challenging yet charitable atmosphere where students gain skills necessary for both creative and disciplined thought, where they have opportunities to achieve in athletic and artistic endeavors, where they understand their responsibility as a member of a community, and where high expectations of both their personal and intellectual lives are complimented by the School’s commitment to nurturing students in the spiritual dimension of life. (my emphasis)
I wholeheartedly support this Philosophy Statement and believe that it captures the values that our faculty and staff hope to impart to our students. As I read it, our statement commits our faculty and staff to the project of creating a safe environment where learning can take place and where students feel comfortable, protected, and respected. I assume that this means addressing any and all problems that prevent or detract the community from attaining this broad goal. The application of this statement seems to leave the door open for those who do believe that homosexuality is morally/religiously problematic since I assume we can agree that the security of all our students is of top priority.
How to go about addressing the problem of homophobia and its manifestations on campus, however, is not straightforward and while I am committed to addressing the assumptions that lay behind this particular set of beliefs it is not at all clear how to go about it. If my responsibility is to educate beyond the classroom than it is not at all clear where the line is between my role and the student’s parents; notice that we probably wouldn’t even assume there is an issue here if this were about race. We can approach this problem by considering two examples. In one example a group of students is taunting a fellow students with inappropriate language such as "fag" or "gay." In another example that same group of students is isolated and talking about a fellow student and using the same language. Now I assume that it is my responsibility to intervene in the first example and take appropriate action against those students involved. The second example, however, may not be as clear cut as there is no clear target present. From the perspective of our Philosophy Statement, however, I do believe that action is appropriate. First, I do not want to hear such language, and more importantly, it adds in a negative way to the overall school environment. Failure to challenge such talk is tantamount to legitimizing it within the community. While I favor intervention in the second example it is still unclear what the response should include. Given my earlier concerns, am I to reprimand the students for their beliefs or the vocalizing of those beliefs on campus? The problem is that implicit in the reprimand for vocalizing those beliefs on campus is a criticism of the content of those beliefs.
The solution to this problem would be a very clear statement issued on behalf of the school outlining a Zero-Tolerance policy concerning sexually-harassing language of any kind. Until then and even in lieu of I fully support the establishment of such groups as the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). These organizations offer a safe zone for students who feel intimidated or who feel that the school has not acknowledged the problem.
A GSA is a group organized and led by students to create a safe, supportive, and accepting school environment for all. What is unique about gay-straight alliances is that they are open to any student, regardless of sexual orientation, who would like to take a stand against harassment of and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Unfortunately, GSAs sometimes face opposition, mostly due to misconceptions about their mission and what occurs at their meetings (and other times, simply due to homophobia).
I think it is important to acknowledge that groups such GSA would be unnecessary if sexual identity were not such an important issue for some along with the aggressive behavior that often accompanies the language. One can easily imagine an analogous example involving a similar organization focused not on sexual identity, but race. My guess is that few people would have a problem if it was the case that students were being harassed for racial reasons. The other point about these organizations is that their purpose is to challenge harassment by being inclusive. I would sponsor an organization such as GSA in a heartbeat.
It should be clear that this post raises more questions than it answers. And as someone who is extremely sensitive to harassment of any kind I am concerned primarily with guidance from above or a statement that reflects our position as a school community. I am uncomfortable with having to question my role in dealing with examples of homophibia on campus. Without a statement I remain unclear as to the extent to which my responsibility as a faculty member involves challenging student’s beliefs (apart from a statement on behalf of the school). What doesn’t change is that I do have a responsibility to protect the interests of the student body.