1 BEYOND THAT S SO GAY No doubt you have been there. Its getting late in the lesson, you are thinking about the bell when out of nowhere, without warning it comes. This is so gay. Ok, so maybe it could be this ruler is gay, this subject is so gay, such and such is so gay, you are so gay, I am so gay, etc Increasingly, teachers are becoming more and more frustrated with the phenomenon of a student saying that s so gay! I can say with confidence that this is the number one homophobia-related issue identified by teachers that I have worked with. It seems the wonders of mass media have joined forces with our fear, hatred and ignorance in relation to homosexuality in order to create a new derogatory term for just about anything the all-pervasive gay. And why does it remain so prevalent in our schools if it is such a cause for concern? For one thing it s a sure fire way to have a teacher sweating and guessing. Teachers volunteer in workshops that they don t feel they have the skills, information or support to respond. If they do, there could be anarchy amongst the students, anarchy amongst their colleagues, a loss of employment, complaints from parents or perhaps the most unnamed of them all - a presumption about their own sexual orientation. To be gay or lesbian and a teacher seems to be incongruent in our modern, 21 st century educational settings despite the occasional exceptions to this rule. They don t mean it. They don t know what they are saying. There is a common belief amongst teachers that That s So Gay is harmless. This is clearly and unambiguously not the case. Young people in gay and lesbian youth groups across the country can readily attest to the damage caused by these seemingly harmless throwaway lines. This is backed by research into the levels of abuse and harassment of same sex attracted young people (SSAYP) across Australia (e.g. Hillier et al, 1998). Such unmarked homophobia maintains the homophobic status quo in our educational settings that tells all students (gay, straight or anywhere in between) that being anything other than 100% heterosexual is undesirable, abhorrent and/or dangerous. In the event that a teacher is aware that that s so gay is an issue, what then lies ahead? Exacerbating the homophobic status quo is a distinct lack of awareness around research and issues for the majority of teachers (though there are ongoing, if only minor, gains on this front) and educational authorities that fail to provide professional development, resources or even clear, unambiguous support for schools addressing such issues. Don t let the media releases fool you! Even harder to articulate is the lack of educators insight into their own homophobia and how it impacts on their everyday practice with their students and colleagues. Yet despite what is hard for us, for every excuse that a teacher has not to interrupt, a SSAYP has a reason for not being engaged, feeling supported or being safe in their educational environment.
2 What about a whole school approach? When teachers talk to me about a whole school approach to homophobia, at a practical level it typically (and unfortunately) involves more paper than practice. I often get disheartened at those three words, because I know that schools find it difficult to implement a whole school approach on most things! And if popular whole school approaches like bullying or curricula issues are difficult if at all - to implement, then how can you expect staff to instigate one around homophobia a topic that is still taboo in so many educational settings? Where teachers have been conned is through the perpetuated belief that a combination of policy and a few activities in sexual health will rectify all (assuming that sexual health is even addressed at that school!). In reality, all teachers have to make a difference, and have a responsibility to maintain the support and safety that is sadly lacking for SSAYP in educational settings across Australia. Its one thing to make teachers aware of current research and issues facing SSAYP, another to actually get them taking action. Thus it can appear unlikely that most teachers would even begin to reply to that s so gay when it is muttered, offered or screamed from students. So is it all dire? Is it better to toss this in the too-hard-basket? Previously only accessible to health teachers and those with a penchant for social justice, strategies for responding to, managing and progressing beyond that s so gay and other homophobic remarks are now something that all teachers can utilise. I have found that it takes teachers no time at all to pick up the skills to interrupt homophobic remarks, insults or jokes. Typically teachers find that it is a matter of transferring what they already do in other situations with students to a that s so gay scenario. After all, these are skilled educators of young people. Though more and more are teachers are taking action, sadly they are still in the minority (kind of like SSAYP really). So what are those teachers who recognise that they have a personal and professional (!) responsibility actually doing in their classrooms and schoolyards? Let s look at the most common responses:! Disciplinary approach Involves disciplining the student for their homophobia. This sends a message to the student that homophobia is unacceptable, but offers no opportunity to educate other than if you say it, don t say it around (insert teacher s name) (raised voice) How many times have I told you not to say that?! If I hear it again then.
3 Whilst this approach sends the message that homophobic language is unacceptable, it also acts to antagonise the situation or silence the student (and perhaps even those with similar thoughts, ideas and feelings). This could mean that nothing at all is changed. Often educators feel they have no other option for responding. Though better than nothing at all, I would suggest that there are more helpful responses to students in order to get them thinking about what they have said. Most importantly if an educator sees homophobic language as an educational opportunity, then it may provide a means to address deeper causes for homophobia. If I have learnt anything from years in classrooms, most students have very little to follow-up a homophobic remark and some open questioning can lead to some very enlightening, progressive discussions with them and their peers. Go on, give it a go!! Personal approach Involves reflecting on your own experience and relationships and communicating the impact of language on those around them. I find that offensive/unacceptable in this classroom. My brother (or sister, mother, friend, etc) is gay and comments like that hurt/offend him. Other people in this room could also have someone they care about who is gay/lesbian/etc! Humourous approach Involves making light of the use of the word gay in that context, and puts into question its appropriateness. This assumes some rapport with students and a history of good-natured interactions. Gee, you said your ruler was gay. I wonder if there are any other gay rulers in the room. I would hate for your gay ruler to feel isolated from other rulers. Does anyone else have a ruler that is gay too? Maybe we could get all the gay rulers together, all the straight ones over here, and! Correct language approach Involves alerting the student to their incorrect choice of language in conveying an idea, concept or opinion. Some English teachers love this approach. Last time I checked, I was sure that gay meant something other than negative. What do you really mean?! Minority approach Involves investigating why gays and lesbians and not other minorities - are use to communicate that something is not good, popular or otherwise. This questions why we don t allow some forms of discrimination, yet don t speak out against others. Why is it that you say That s gay? Why not that s so aboriginal, woman, disabled, muslim, etc? Would you be allowed to say these other words and not get pulled up? There was one worker in rural Victoria who asked student s why they didn t say That s so straight and sparked a new putdown without realising until much later!
4 ! Student(s) as experts approach Acknowledges that the teacher does not necessarily know what a student means. Students are asked what they actually mean, and a broader discussion potentially ensues. When you say that s so gay it seems like you mean it s not a good thing. Is that right? OK then, why is it that you choose gay and not another word? Do others use gay in the same way? When I think of gay I don t think it means something negative. Do you think that being gay is a negative thing? Tell me more! NAC approach (Safety In Our Schools booklet, ARCSHS) N ame it Name the problem ( you said that s so gay ) A greement Refer to an agreement ( we have a clear understanding in this class/school that there are no putdowns ) C onsequences Alert the student(s) to consequences of their behaviour ( as you know this means that ) This of course assumes a number of things, including: an agreement has been set-up, students are aware of any such agreement, etc. If you think about it, one size does not indeed fit all but looking at different homophobic types is another article in itself. One common misconception is that homophobia is one particular behaviour subset. This is an unhelpful barrier where educators feel that they only have to deal with overt, extreme cases of homophobia (e.g. its not like he is bashing them or swearing ). What we do know is that homophobia is as complex as any other aspect of human behaviour and thus potentially just as baffling to quantify and address. Thus to offer only one answer is problematic. It may require you to try a combination of strategies over a period of time. At the very least it is hoped that this will give you some ideas that might be helpful. No doubt many of you might be using similar responses, and hopefully even better ones. But wait, there s more In addition to a teacher utilising one or more of these strategies, there are some other essentials. What all of the strategies mentioned have in common is one thing: a message is being sent to all students that homophobia is unacceptable. This is simple but powerful, and is often the message that an implementation of a whole school approach fails to deliver to anybody but those attending a professional development day (i.e. not the students!). However not only is it vital to send a message that homophobia is unacceptable, its also a message that needs to be delivered:! Immediately not after class, not after school but immediately after a homophobic remark or joke has been heard;
5 ! Consistently that all staff members consistently respond for example, not just the female health teachers whilst the male maths and physical education teachers join in on the joke. A useful parallel for some might be school uniform. Every staff member knows the policy, has the language, the confidence and the support to respond to uniform issues. Thus there is immediacy and consistency. All students are clear or become quickly so as to the expectations the school has in relation to uniform. Can the same be said about homophobia? One outer metropolitan, co-ed, public school has been excited at the substantial decrease of homophobic jokes and insults in classrooms and the schoolyard following a commitment from its staff to all respond immediately and consistently. My challenge to them had been to crack down on homophobia as they would uniform breaches for four weeks. Interrupting homophobia has now become common place! There is nothing quite like an entire school of staff who feel equipped, confident and committed to responding to homophobia regardless of what subject they teach or what their personal background might suggest. Yet this also assumes that teachers are not harassing other staff members and/or making their own homophobic remarks/jokes both in and out of the staff and classrooms that in most educational settings leaves them increasingly vulnerable to legal action. There are also implications for parents and those professionals visiting the school. OK, before I go Perhaps the most important message I try to communicate to teachers across all the training I do is that they must act. In reality, it doesn t have to be perfect perfect rarely happens in classrooms or in the schoolyard. And there are always situations where things may very well not go to script. We can rely on young people to come up with creative comebacks and additions as they test the limits of this policing of something they had thought would go unchecked. But by at least trying students are getting something valuable that they rarely get now the message that the safety and well-being of all students is important enough for their teachers to interrupt common banter and jokes at the expense of over 9% of the student population. I don t think that I am alone in thinking that all students will benefit from such a message gay, straight or anywhere in-between. ***** For the last eight years Daniel Witthaus work has involved both the support of same sex attracted young people and anti-homophobia initiatives including the Pride & Prejudice program - within educational settings. This work - particularly in regional areas - has included working with staff and students at a number of levels within coeducational, single sex, religious, public and private schools.
6 Drawing on this experience and focusing on practical strategies, Daniel regularly provides training to young people, teachers and workers with young people around sexual diversity and homophobia. Daniel is also working at a national level with Outlink, a national network for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in rural and regional areas set up by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Daniel Witthaus was shortlisted for the 2005 Reebok International Human Rights Award. For more information on challenging homophobia in educational settings, or to contact Daniel Witthaus go to: