Homophobia On Campus

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. 

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5 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Sep 30, 2006 @ 5:46

    Liza, — I truly appreciate you taking the time to write such a thoughtful response to this post. If change is going to take place on our campus it is going to happen through the initiative and care of students such as yourself. Your response gives me hope that it is indeed possible. I should tell you that action on this issue is closer than you think.

    Hey Liza, thanks for reminding me why I teach.

    Mr. L

  • Liza Chabot Sep 30, 2006 @ 0:12

    Dear Mr. Levin,

    I’ve always been too afraid to reply to your blogs for fear that I’ll appear ignorant or won’t put up a well-supported argument, but this is something I care passionately about. I’m often disgusted at the little amount of toleration and acceptance in our highschool community. You can hear horribly offensive terms such as “gay” and “fag” thrown about like they don’t even mean anything. They’re just as bad as racial slurs and come out of a deeply hateful part of our culture and our community that I absolutely cannot stand. And what is most disturbing is the appearance of these biases and stereotypes in some of the faculty who are supposed to encourage our differences as well as healthy relationships among students. This cannot happen in a community that ignorantly lives by stereotyping.

    I really don’t understand why people need to draw distinctions into the word love, and I don’t believe religion to be any sort of justification for doing so. As Zooey explains in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, “all legitimate religious study MUST lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold.” Religion is about understanding how similar everyone and everything is. It’s about love; all forms of it.

    I’ve actually wanted to start a Gay Straight Alliance for years now, but have almost been too afraid to, which, in itself, says a great deal. With your comments, willingness to sponsor, and clear declaration of the goals of a GSA group, I just might pluck up the courage… and perhaps get a few people I know who are interested to follow suit.

    thankyou for posting on such an important issue


  • Cash Sep 28, 2006 @ 16:56

    I think we have to remember we’re talking about high school kids. High school kids sometimes seem like they are hard-wired to push each other’s buttons in various ways, sometimes without malice, sometimes with malice.

    But they are educable.

    The Catholic Church considers homosexual behavior to be a sin, but when I was a student at a Catholic high school, the priests kept telling us the Church’s position on sin was to hate the sin but love the sinner.

    It seems to me the school’s faculty and staff need to speak with one voice on this and need to educate their young scholars on what is not appropriate behavior toward one another. Not only do teachers need to put a stop to homophobic language, but they also need to explain why such language should be stopped. The school’s administration needs to be on board with this policy and periodically remind the students why such language is not to be used.


  • Amy Predmore Sep 28, 2006 @ 16:10

    Mr. Levin-

    Thank you for your thoughts. As a teacher at the same school, I share your concerns. When I hear homophobic language on campus, I am uncertain about how to respond. One challenge is that for high school kids, sexuality, whether it be homosexuality or heterosexuality, is new to them and they still don’t know what to make of all the strange new things going on in their bodies. And, high school kids desperately want to fit in– to be thought of as “normal”, to be “normal”. So, if these kids who really want to fit in can’t make sense of their own sexuality, that’s scary to them. What if they are gay? Then, they won’t fit in… So, I think the problem here is that homosexuality is still stigmatized in our society as being abnormal. Somehow, in our school, we need to “normalize” it. We need people within our community who are homosexuals to step out, to speak out, and that takes tons of courage. And we need to provide them a forum to do so… We need parents, teachers, students among us to help us put a face on homosexuality. But, that’s an easy thing for a heterosexual person to ask for… and a really difficult thing for a homosexual person to do.

    Ms. Predmore

  • Mark Valahovic Sep 28, 2006 @ 15:40

    Mr. Levin,

    The question you pose is a valid one: “How do we deal with homophobia in our classroom/school?” or “How do we keep our classroom safe?” There is a former student of mine who still – to this day – remembers how I dealt with it once in the classroom two years ago. This student still remembers the heat from my eyes and the outrage in my voice. Now, I think of myself as a rather animated teacher, but this particular student had never seen me more (intensely) animated than the day I dealt with a “gay” comment. I have even heard this student warn his friends to never do it in my presence. I guess word has spread as far as my tolerance for that kind of language because I haven’t had to deal with it in the classroom for almost two years; but I do hear it in the halls all the time.
    Overall, the encounter was a success for me – my classroom remained a safe place for any type of student to learn – however; the result was a failure. What’s more…it always will be. It was a failure because I know that the student who made the comment was not swayed in any way shape or form to change how they react towards homosexuals. The only thing he/she learned was not to verbalize it in my classroom. What would have made the result a success would have been a student who actually questioned the impulse to hate.
    Unfortunately, I think that is as far as we can go – to keep our classrooms safe. I grew up having to overcome a lot of racial, religious, gender, and sexual prejudices that were part of my culture until the age of eighteen. The only thing that actually made me question my impulse to react negatively toward someone who was different from me was when I actually cared about someone who was different from me. And if the kids we teach are homophobic, I don’t think they will question their impulses until the exact same thing happens to them. Not until their love for another human being shakes the very foundations that govern their characters.

    From one teacher to another,

    Dr. V.

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