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Ten Action Points and Resources for Educators Dealing with Gay and Lesbian Issues

The suggestions below are not all-inclusive, but are intended as starting points as you begin to think about how to end homophobia in your school.

Gay and lesbian members of the school community need to know that their schools value equality and that they are protected against discrimination. Schools should add "sexual orientation" to their non-discrimination statements in all school publications as a way to communicate their commitment to equal treatment for all.

Every member of the community has a right to play his or her role without fear of harassment by peers: it is the school's obligation to take pro-active measures to ensure this right. However, in too many schools, physical and verbal harassment against gay and lesbian people is the norm. Schools must make it clear that neither physical violence nor harassing language like "faggot" and "dyke" will be tolerated. Clear harassment policies, which include sexual orientation as a protected category, must be developed and then publicized to the entire school community, so that the consequences of and procedures for dealing with such behavior are clear to all.

Studies consistently show that personal acquaintance with gay and lesbian people is the most effective way of reducing homophobic bigotry. Both gay and straight students benefit from having role models such as openly gay teachers coaches and administrators: straight students are offered an alternative to the inaccurate stereotypes with which they have been raised, and gay students get the chance (often for the first time) to see healthy gay adults, which gives them hope for their own future. Schools need to create the conditions necessary for gay faculty to feel safe in "coming out," just as heterosexual faculty "come out" daily through such acts as wearing wedding rings. If no role models are available from within the school community, the school must work to bring in such individuals from beyond the campus. Inviting presenters from a local gay and lesbian speakers bureau, gay youth group, or college gay and lesbian student association can help fill the gap left by the absence of openly gay faculty. These measures, however, cannot substitute for having on-campus role models, and should be seen as interim arrangements until these can be provided.

Peer support and acceptance is the key to any student's feeling that he or she "belongs" in the school. "Gay-Straight Alliances" have been the key to creating such an atmosphere in many schools. These groups welcome membership from any student interested in understanding issues of homophobia and sexual identity, regardless of sexual orientation. They have been successfully established in all kinds of schools and in communities as diverse as Los Angeles, Chapel Hill, N.C., Lincoln, Nebraska, and Minneapolis. The diverse range of schools which now have "GSAs" indicates that, if there is a will, there is a way to establish one in any school.

School staff need to be equipped to serve all the students with whom they work, including gay and lesbian ones. Understanding the needs of gay and lesbian youth, and developing the skills to meet those needs, should be an expected of all teachers. Schools must provide the ongoing training necessary for the faculty to fulfill this expectation.

Teachers need to incorporate gay and lesbian issues throughout the curriculum--not just in classes such as sex education, but in traditional disciplines such as English, History, and Science. This can be done in three ways. First, incorporating new scholarship in fields such as gay history can now be done easily, due to the proliferation of such material in recent years. Second, teachers can address the impact of sexual identity on works by gay and lesbian people already included in our curriculum, such as the novels of Virginia Woolf, the music of Tchaikovsky, or the poetry of Walt Whitman. Finally, teachers can undo the "hidden heterosexism" of the curriculum, such as the exclusive use of opposite-sex couples in math word problems and foreign language exercises. The bulk of the school day is spent in class; as long as gay and lesbian issues are seen as "special" and outside the classroom, students will continue to see gay and lesbian people as marginal.

While being gay is not a "health issue" (any more than being heterosexual is), health education on sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases should sensitively address the particular issues of gay and lesbian people in this field. Counselors and other health staff should be particularly careful to make their sensitivity to gay issues clear, as the history of psychiatric "cures" for homosexuality has led to a climate of distrust between many gay people and the health care profession.

Often, the library is the first place students turn for accurate sexuality information. Too often, few or no works on gay and lesbian issues are found there. Librarians and media specialists need to be sure their holdings are up to date and reflect the diversity of our world. The existence of collections addressing gay and lesbian issues needs to be communicated to the community, through events such as book displays which include gay and lesbian titles.

"Extracurricular" activities often set the tone for the community. Programs such as assemblies and "film nights" should regularly include gay and lesbian content that reflects the diversity of our nation.

The constant assumption of heterosexuality renders gay and lesbian people, youth in particular, invisible. Such invisibility is devastating to the individual's sense of self. Both the school as an institution and its professionals as individuals must be inclusive in their language and attitudes. Inviting "spouses" instead of "friends," offering health care only to heterosexual families, and encouraging students to find opposite sex dates, are all inappropriate manifestations of heterosexism. By reminding themselves that gay and lesbian people are found on every staff, in every classroom, and on every team (which they are), faculty can "unlearn" heterosexism and become more inclusive in both word and deed.

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