Homophobia, defined as an irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuals, continues to be a rampant problem in North American schools. Homophobia derives from heterosexist ideology, that is, the belief that heterosexuality is inherently superior to, and justifiably dominant over, nonheterosexuality in its various forms. Heterosexism manifests in two main forms: cultural heterosexism, the stigmatization, denial, or denigration of nonheterosexuality in cultural institutions; and psychological heterosexism, a person’s internalization of this worldview, which erupts into homophobia. The world of schooling, which requires attendance and is charged with teaching, nurturing, developing minds and bodies, has frequently proven to be fertile ground for perpetuating both sorts of heterosexism. Manifestations of heterosexism are woven throughout curricula, and homophobic attitudes commonly erupt into verbal and physical harassment/ violence among school peers, often with teachers and administrators doing little to interrupt it.
Most first-grade children already have ideas about what it means to be gay, even though much of what they have learned may well be incorrect, born of fear and prejudice rather than factual information. Derogatory epithets surface among peers during primary education and become routine in high school, where homophobia often ripens into verbal and physical abuse. Schools are in a position to correct children’s misinformation early on, but this unenviable position as a fierce battleground for this divisive issue prompts many teachers and administrators to avoid such conflicts by conflating gay and lesbian identity with “talk about sex,” labeling both “age inappropriate.” Much peer harassment goes uncorrected by teachers who are afraid to address students directly on issues of sexual identity, not because of teachers’ animus against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (henceforth LGBTQ) people, but because they feel ineffective dealing with such issues.
While pressures of coming into sexual identity are difficult for all adolescents, LGBTQ teens face particular struggles. Fearing being labeled lesbian or gay, or facing those feelings in oneself, inhibits development of close relationships with members of the same sex in all youth, not just gay and lesbian teens. However, LGBTQ teenagers are especially preoccupied with their social discomfort, often encountering difficulty concentrating in class, shunning classroom participation, shying away from extracurricular activities, and dropping out of school. With few traditional support structures to lean on for help, LGBTQ youth often perceive themselves to be stranded in an environment that shuns their very existence.
These negative sentiments damage the self-esteem of LGBTQ adolescents and increase the likelihood of self-destructive behavior. Thus, LGBTQ youth are one of the nation’s highest risk groups. Many LGBTQ teens fend off accusations of being lesbian or gay by engaging in premature heterosexual involvement, leading to high percentages of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Further, LGBTQ youth are not only more likely than their heterosexual peers to use drugs and drink alcohol to excess, but studies on youth suicide consistently find that they are two to six times more likely to attempt suicide than other youth.
The situation in schools is dire for LGBTQ teens, but they are not alone in suffering the consequences of heterosexist manifestations in schools. Curricula on the family are standard fare in most elementary schools. Yet, most progressive approaches to diverse family constellations still do not embrace discussions of families with same-sex parents despite the fact that 6 to 14 million children in the United States are reared by at least one gay or lesbian parent and that as many as one family in four includes a lesbian or gay member. The educational system’s function as a heteronormative community creates confusing scenarios for children torn between love for their families and the need for acceptance by peers and teachers.
Further, while lesbians and gay men are growing more visible in many walks of North American life, teachers who come out in school still risk harassment, dismissal, and physical violence. Thirty-nine states have no employment protection for lesbian and gay teachers, so coming out is both financially and psychically risky. Regardless of merit, vast numbers of dedicated LGB teachers do not feel physically safe in school because of their sexual identity.
Heterosexism has not been without challenge in schools. The National Education Association (NEA) adopted their Code of Ethics in 1975, which specifically states that educators shall not exclude, deny benefits, or grant advantages to students because of sexual orientation. Online organizations educate citizens about how to promote educational policies and reforms that can foster the health and well-being of lesbian and gay students. Chapters of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) in some school districts provide support, education, and advocacy for sexually diverse students, teachers, and families. GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network) has also developed a presence in many communities by providing assistance in setting up gay straight alliances in schools, providing educational materials, and lobbying legislative bodies.
That said, conservative Christian groups, like Focus on the Family and the Eagle Forum, continue to expend enormous amounts of time and financial resources fighting the efforts of the National Education Association and lesbian-gay advocacy groups. With growing numbers of gay-straight student alliances now in existence, many of these opposition groups have shifted their focus to the curriculum, hoping to prohibit any discussion of LGBTQ issues, even in sex education classrooms.
Teachers, counselors, administrators, and teacher educators, who so frequently have deemed questions of sexual diversity to be outside their purview, undoubtedly will be called upon to take a stand in the battle to create environments that are both physically and psychically safe from the often-disastrous effects of homophobia in schools.
- Birden, S. (2005). Rethinking sexual identity in education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Letts, W. J., IV, & Sears, J. T. (Eds.). (1999). Queering elementary education: Advancing the dialogue about sexualities and schooling. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Sears, J. T., & W. L. Williams (Eds.). (1997). Overcoming heterosexism and homophobia: Strategies that work. New York: Columbia University Press.
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