By Alex Temblador
It’s that time of year—back-to-school time! This week or soon, your children will see friends that they haven’t seen all summer, meet a new teacher, and start learning new subjects like how to read, multiplication, or their state’s history. Beyond learning educational subjects, children learn other things at school through socializing with their classmates. They are learning the words “gay” and “lesbian,” and in many instances, they aren’t learning what it really means.
Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco recently made the news for announcing that they will have a college preparatory class called, “LGBT Studies” that will teach students about LGBT history. Although it is something that should be celebrated and copied in all high schools across the nation, the sad fact remains that educating kids about the LGBT community in high school is far too late. Kids are learning the words, “gay” and “lesbian” in elementary school, and most of the time, they aren’t learning what the terms really mean.
The Human Rights Campaign recently created a film, What Do You Know? Six to Twelve Year-olds Talk about Gays and Lesbians (watch it below). In the film, children were asked what they know about the words “gay” and “lesbian,” and the results aren’t as positive as one would hope. Some of the children knew what being gay or lesbian meant. Still, it’s clear that they don’t have a full understanding of it.
One kid said, “It’s not an infection of some sort, but the person was born with it, I think.”
Beyond knowing what gay or lesbian means, all of the children in the video had heard the word “gay” used as an insult toward them or toward someone else. Many times it was how they had heard the word for the first time. When asked to explain how they’ve heard the word “gay” used in relation to other words, they explained that “gay” and “lesbian” were relatable to “stupid” and “moron.” They’d even heard other insults like “gay-self” and “faggot” used.
According to the CDC, LGBTQ youth are more likely to experience bullying and have high suicide rates. If our elementary students aren’t learning about what it means to be gay, and are insulting each other with the terms “gay” and “lesbian,” what will happen when they get older? Will they turn those tactics toward LGBT youth? Will they relate being gay to something that’s bad?
One girl explained what happened when her classmates found out that her sister had a girlfriend. She said that the students told her: “Do you think you’re going to be a lesbian? I hope not, because that’d be a bad shape to be in. And I feel sorry for you.”
Another girl with two dads explained that she challenges her classmates when they use “gay” as an insult:
“When I hear someone say ‘That’s so gay,’ I usually ask them, ‘And so what?’”
And if they say, ‘Well it’s just wrong.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, how is it wrong for people to love each other? I don’t understand that, can you explain it to me?’
And usually they’re like ‘Oh, is that all it is? Okay.’”
There were a few stories in this film of children changing their peers’ minds on using the word “gay” as an insult. However, we can assume that this doesn’t always work. We might also assume that kids don’t always ask their parents about what the words “gay” and “lesbian” mean or that parents don’t always think about discussing it with their children beforehand. When asked about whether teachers should discuss what being gay means, most of the kids agreed: They want teachers to talk about it.
A boy with two moms explained that, “Teacher’s don’t, like, do nothing. Like if I get bullied [about having two moms] they help me but not in the sense that they’re teaching the other kid not to do it.”
Another child said, “If a teacher hears a child saying, ‘That’s so gay,’ I think they should ask them if they know what that means and then educate them more.”
Even more brilliant was one boy’s response: “If you think [kids] don’t know, then teach them. That’s what school’s for. “
Sometimes children aren’t learning what being gay is in a positive manner from their teacher. One kid explained that his homeroom teacher had said that “gayness is really weird” and tells children to “not mess up their life” by being gay.
However, when some of the kids in the video explained that their teacher hosted an open circle conversation about what it means to be gay, kids stopped saying “that’s so gay,” proving that teachers discussing and educating their students about the word and what being gay means can be helpful.
As shown, teachers have the ability to explain what being “gay” means in ways that can stop bullying. However, when teachers don’t take on this responsibility, bullying or “gay bashing” can become extremely serious. One gay dad, Joshua Franklin, in Hawaii is suing the Department of Education for not protecting his sons from bullying by other students. After learning his father was gay, one student physically assaulted his older son. These kids called Franklin’s older son names like “gay” and “retarded,” and harassed the son daily. Franklin even witnessed his son being called a “fag” in front of a teacher and the teacher did nothing to stop the bullying. Even after moving schools, his son kept getting bullied “every single day” at his new school. Franklin’s younger son who tried to stand up to a bully at a Boys & Girls Club after school program for calling him “gay,” was choked by the boy he tried to stand up to and slammed to the ground.
If schools don’t have a system in place to encourage teachers to speak about what being gay means or if teachers don’t take it upon themselves to teach their students, then many children aren’t being educated about the LGBT community. As we’ve seen, some are being wrongly educated by their teachers and peers, learning that being gay is wrong or “weird,” and are even being physically assaulted. This is not acceptable. It creates a culture in which being gay and lesbian is associated with something that is wrong and that can have lasting effects on our society and our children.
So what can we do about it?
It is imperative that children learn about the LGBT community in positive manners, so here are some things that you as a parent or a citizen of your community can do to teach children, especially elementary age children, about what it means to be gay or lesbian:
- Share this video with your children. It could be an amazing way to get the conversation started and see if they are experiencing similar things that the children in the film experienced. From there, you can explain what it means to be gay and that being gay or lesbian isn’t something bad and shouldn’t be used as an insult. If you need a refresher on LGBT terms, check out the Human Rights Campaign’s “Defining LGBT Terms for Elementary Age Kids”
- Parents, ask your child’s teacher to discuss these terms in class with students, especially if your kid comes home and tells you that there have been instances of using LGBT terms as a means of bullying. Sometimes teachers need to know that parents will support class discussions about the LGBT community.
- If you’re a teacher or educator, ask your administration to have discussions about the LGBT community in class. Volunteer to spearhead the effort and see bullying in your school lessen and tolerance increase.
- If kids are bullying your children with the word “gay” or “lesbian,” or bullying them for your sexual orientation or someone that they know who is gay, take a stand. Have meetings with your child’s teacher, principal, and school board if you have to. Your child’s safety and those of other children in the class that may also be bullied with the words “gay” or “lesbian”, is a top priority and it must be stopped.
We have the ability to create a more tolerant and knowledgeable generation of children. We have the chance to teach them what it means to be lesbian or gay. We have the chance to make a change in the lives of future LGBT youth; we can prevent bullying toward the LGBT community by teaching all children that being gay isn’t a reason to bully someone and that the words “gay” or “lesbian” should not be used as insults.
Let’s make this back-to-school year the start of a new beginning for the future generations. Let’s teach our kids.
For more information on talking with your kids about LGBT-related topics and bullying, click here.
Photo Credit: Personal Creations