A few days ago I saw someone on Facebook post a link to a news story about either a student or a teacher being suspended for discussing the new song “Same Love” by Macklemore. Then yesterday I saw another person post a link about students in Ontario playing the song for their gay teacher as a show of support. I hadn’t heard the song until this morning. I was driving across town when it came on the radio. As I was listening to this song and thinking about how young people across this country may be hearing this message for the first time, I was inspired.
Growing up in suburbia at a time when my home state voted to ban same-sex marriage, I didn’t understand why so many people cared about other people’s business. I took the issue to heart in middle and high school when I was bullied because people merely thought I was gay. I see why, with my flamboyant mannerisms and nasal tone, but of course that doesn’t make it right.
Now, as a teacher, I see where students pick up the idea that it’s okay to dislike someone for who they are as a person. Whether parents mean what they say or not, their children pick up their words, use them, and take them to heart. It’s the same with the programs they watch on television. It’s so bad that you can walk into my building and hear our kindergarteners call each other gay, know what it means, and declare it “nasty.”
While I may have been bullied from time to time in high school, I’ll never forget the one student who really stood up for me. One day before class, I was being threatened by one of our fellow students. I don’t think this kid was serious, and, generally, I’d brush off negative comments. I’ve got thick skin. But, Taylor Flaska didn’t like what he heard this kid say to me, so he pulled him aside and slammed him against the wall. He told this kid that if he ever laid a hand on me then he would have to deal with him. That moment will stick with me for the rest of my life, because Taylor made me feel really valued as a human being. We weren’t friends. He just did the right thing.
When Taylor passed away last year, I promised myself that I would carry on his legacy in my classroom. When I hear a kid use the word “gay” as an insult, I either engage in a quick whole group discussion to reinforce the idea that it’s okay and that we all love different people or pull the student aside and remind them that there are many gay people in our city and that it isn’t respectful to use the word gay in a mean way. They’re young, so I try to put it in simple terms.
I’ve been inspired to see federal and state governments as well as Teach For America begin to address bullying as a major concern in our schools. At our most recent All Corps Meeting in Milwaukee, we had a guest from a local LGBT resource center come in and share some statistics about LGBT youth (graduation rates, homelessness, suicides, etc) and also answer questions about how we can and should approach sensitive subjects in our classroom. I think the best advice we heard that day was to address negative comments (as opposed to sitting in the silence) and reinforce the idea that it’s okay. If we allow ourselves as educators to be blind to the issue, it won’t get better for our students.
While I love that governments and TFA are embracing the rights of our students, I also believe it is time for both of them to step up and serve as a bigger advocate for our LGBT corps members. I know that I haven’t heard a loud and clear message of support for our LGBT corps members in Milwaukee, and the question of whether or not corps members can or should come out remains an elephant in the room. I personally don’t think it’s acceptable to place our corps members where they feel uncomfortable. I have taken it upon myself to be an advocate for LGBT individuals in my building, and they should do the same.
Last year, I knew of one same sex parent of a student in our building. When staff members would say anything about this individual’s orientation, I pointed out the fact that this person’s partner was a loving individual who cared for our student and that was all that mattered to me. In fact, even when older staff members would say that they weren’t used to it and couldn’t accept it, I countered with the fact that same-sex relationships have existed as far back as at least Ancient Greece and that being old isn’t an excuse for their prejudice. A bit harsh, I suppose, but as veterans of the Civil Rights Movement I believe that they needed a wake up call on LGBT rights.
We as a society are making progress, and I think “Same Love” is a message that will continue to spread across this country. Statistics show that my generation is much more open to the idea of same-sex relationships and rights than those who came before us, and I hope that the next generation can stamp out the hate that perverts so many innocent minds. Whoever you are and whatever you do, I urge you to think about your words and actions, how they impact those around you, and how they may be carried on by the children who look up to you. Gay or straight, they are our future.