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Is There Really Dignity For All?

 
Peter DeWitt (@PeterMDeWitt) is an elementary principal in upstate, New York. He blogs at Finding Common Ground for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press). He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Teach.com is thrilled to welcome Peter as a contributor to our blog!
Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students

Some educators reading this don’t think there is an issue with LGBT students. Others who are reading know there is and want to know how to help because they believe LGBT students are an often ignored population. However, there is another percentage of readers who don’t want to talk about LGBT issues and they dismiss it. They resist talking about LGBT issues because it makes them uncomfortable or they have a philosophical issue with it.

After a decade of seeing high profile celebrities come out on national television or television shows and movies that include LGBT characters, many would think that our society has come a long way. The U.S. is much more open than it used to be, but some of the openness is based on tolerance and not acceptance. No one wants to be tolerated. There are pockets of accepting communities but there are others where LGBT students do not feel safe.

We need not look any further than a 2009 study entitled From Teasing to Torment by the Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) which reported “84.6% of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, 40.1% reported being physically harassed and 18.8% reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation. 72.4% heard homophobic remarks frequently or often at school (p. 26).

Parents send their children to school so they can learn, but they expect them to be safe. GLSEN’s research shows that LGBT students are not as safe as they should be. Anyone working in education knows that in order for students to learn to their fullest potential they need to feel safe first. Unfortunately, not only do LGBT students face risks at school, they face risks at home as well. They worry that their families will disown them, which is a reality if they are being raised in an intolerant home. LGBT students who lack support from home and school are at high risk of the following:

  • Experimenting in high risk sexual behaviors
  • Experimenting or continuous use of alcohol and drugs
  • Dying by suicide
What Schools Do to Help
"No one should underestimate the value of teachers’ including gay people when they talk with students about cultural diversity. Just hearing the words “homosexuality” or “gay/lesbian/bisexual” in an accepting context sends a powerful message to young people, and creates the potential for a tolerant environment" (Lipkin, 1995, p. 39).

I once participated in a conference where the presenters had attendees stand up if they were the youngest child, the oldest child, a twin or an only child. Each time attendees sat down they had to stand up when the presenters announced something like "stand up if you are a man or woman" or "an advocate for gay issues." At the end of the icebreaker the presenters asked how it made attendees feel. Many of the attendees mentioned that hearing "only child" made them feel good because it’s never acknowledged in their daily lives. I began reflecting on how important that would be for LGBT youth to hear the word gay used in a positive way because I know that does not happen enough.

Educators may ask why it is their job. They ask why it’s important to differentiate between gay and straight students. The reality is that advocates for LGBT students are not asking for teachers and administrators to put labels on students. They are, however, asking that educators not avoid using the word gay in a positive way. Additionally, advocates ask that educators not avoid or ignore when they hear students use the word gay or any other references to LGBT students that are used in a derogatory way toward another student in school.

To push the envelope further, it is additionally important that LGBT curriculum be used in schools. This can be easily done by including literature that has gay characters or offering an LGBT section in a library. Social studies teachers can have debates around some LGBT issues like gay marriage or gay rights and all middle and high schools should have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA). GSA’s are not to only talk about “gay” issues. GSA’s are to talk about and act upon making schools a safer and more nurturing environment for all students.

In the End

For far too long there has been a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in schools much like there was in the military. Although it may have been abolished in the military it is still very strong in schools. As a school administrator I wonder why this happens. Why is it so difficult to make a place for all students in schools? This question is often met with a religious argument, but this is not a religious issue. This is a human rights issue where students, who parents ensure their trust to us every day, send their children to school so they can learn.

Our job as educators is to make sure that our students receive a high quality education. We often spend as much time caring for the social-emotional side of students as we do the academic side because we know the two go hand in hand. However, too many educators, including administrators, ignore LGBT issues even though they know that they have gay students and parents. It’s time for schools to change that and join the 21st century and create safe spaces for all students.

Sources:

GLSEN. (2009). 2009 National School Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools New York, NY: GLSEN. Lipkin, A. (1995). The Case for a Gay and Lesbian Curriculum. In G. Unks, The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adolescents (pp. 31-52). New York: Routledge.

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in guest blogs are those of the contributing writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by Teach.com.

 
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