As our hands met in greeting each other, I tried to make eye contact with Phillip but he would not let me. The handshake was just a formality, and eye contact certainly was not necessary. After all, I was only there to tell him that he “chose” to be gay; then I would tell him that he must go straight or he's going to burn in hell, and I would most likely end the conversation with some lame cliché' like love the sinner, hate the sin.
Or would I?
Phillip may not have gotten what he expected on that day, but his hesitation to talk with me was, no doubt, justified. He, and others like him, know too well the prevailing attitude of many people toward individuals like himself. The derogatory tones coming from the pulpit, the chiding barbs of inflammatory humor about gays that sneak into daily conversation.
So what exactly is homophobia?
Homophobia is an unjustified or unreasonable fear of the unknown, a fear that I believe is alive and real in today’s schools. Homophobia can be anything from an inward feeling of disgust or hatred towards people who are LGBT or ex-gay, to an outward verbal display of disapproval or even violence.
I can see the change in body language when I talk to some of my heterosexual friends about my struggle with homosexuality. Their arms get folded over their chest and their head looks down as if to say “let’s not talk about this anymore.”
Sometime ago I heard the story of a man who was struggling with unwanted homosexual thoughts. For quite a while he lived in fear that someone would find out about this struggle, but when he finally drummed up enough guts to disclose it to a friend whom he had known for 13 years, his friend wouldn't even ride in a car with him. I’ve heard stories of men refusing even to shake hands with someone who is homosexual!
Words like "fag," and "dyke," are hurtful to those who identify themselves as lesbian or gay, while words like “pretender” or “freak” are often used to describe ex-gays. If you hear someone using these phrases, politely remind them that their remarks could be hurtful.
When the subject of homosexuality comes up in a classroom discussion, teachers and students should use words which reveal their genuine concern for those who may identify themselves as homosexual, or are in the process of changing their sexual orientation.
Phrases like "That's so gay,” limp wrist impersonations, and derogatory jokes about LGBT or ex-gay individuals should not be tolerated. Those who use derogatory terms in reference to homosexual students are contributing to their isolation and mistreatment. Furthermore, homosexual students who feel rejected by their teachers are less likely to report physical or sexual assaults to authorities.
Much debate has taken place about whether or not homosexuality should be addressed in schools. But whether we like it or not, children are already learning lessons about homosexuality in schools. Lessons are learned each time a student or teacher makes a derogatory remark about homosexual people or, even worse, fails even to recognize that lesbian and gay students exist.
Katherine Whitlock, in her book Bridges of Respect: Creating Support for Gay and Lesbian Youth, writes:
Adult [acceptance of] homophobia places lesbian and gay youth at great emotional and sometimes physical risk.1
Research from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 84% of LGBT students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation.2 However, the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 1% to 2% of students aged 12-18 had been called a derogatory word related to their religion, disability, or sexual orientation.3 More research needs to be done on this issue, but no matter what the numbers say, we know that the use of anti-gay slurs at school is a problem.
All schools have students who have either identified themselves as homosexual, are questioning their sexuality, or are in the process of changing their sexual orientation (ex-gay). These students should not be made to feel like second class citizens. No matter where they are in the process of defining their sexuality, these students should be treated with respect and dignity by their school teachers and classmates.
A 1988 survey of self-identified heterosexual youth found that only 12% said they would want to have a homosexual person as a friend.4 We need to teach students that it’s ok to be friends with someone who is lesbian or gay. Religious people particularly need to teach their children that it’s ok to befriend someone who is lesbian or gay, even if they disagree with homosexuality.
For more information on combating homophobia in your school, order Inqueery's latest resource: The Homophobia Stops Here. For answers to commonly asked questions about homosexuality visit our Questions & Answers page.
1 Beth Reis, Opposing Viewpoints (San Diego: Greenhaven, 2000), P. 141. 2 2003 National School Climate Survey 3 2002 Indicators of School Crime and Safety report 4 SIECUS Report, April/May 1998.
Last Updated 4-4-06
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