The Huffington Post recently featured an article and video focusing on bullying in schools. We have all heard a lot about this, especially in the last year or so with the string of publicized youth suicides and the recent conviction of Duhran Ravi for the death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers. In the video students discuss what it can be like for them to live in an environment where they feel little support or are not sure who to turn to. They also discuss how they would like a teacher to reach out to them and offer support.
While we may not all work with young people, it is very likely that we will work with LGBTQ people at some point in our careers. This means that there are many people that we are working with that may have had a history of bullying, silence, or a lack of support systems. As educators, in all kinds of environments, we may find ourselves in situations where we have to figure out what exactly we are responsible for, what we think we should do, and what the messages are that the students getting from the ways that we work with them.
So what could we do to go beyond our lesson plans to connect with the LGBTQ people that we are working with? Here are a few ideas:
1 – Understand that we are role models.
When we walk into a classroom or workshop many participants may see us as models for how to interact with sex and sexuality. This means that the information that we deliver as well as how we deliver it is important. There are many ways that we can send messages to people about what it ok and what is not. As part of the It Gets Better Project, Sarah Siverman posted a video about what this can mean on a national level. In a classroom, this can mean addressing issues of inclusivity and acceptance not only to talk about them, but to show that talking about these kinds of issues is important and deserves time.
2 – Know that we are walking into a culture with norms and history.
As was shown in the video from Cincinnati, we may be going into environments where norms and standards have been created, even if they have not been discussed. I think that this is important to recognize because we, as educators, often feel pressure to create a “safe space” in our classrooms. The reality is that this may not be possible. We may walk into a space that, before we got there, was hostile to students. There may be issues of bullying or harassment from students, other instructors, or administration. These issues will continue to be a part of the environment when we are there, and will continue to be when we leave. While this does not mean that we cannot make a difference (we can!), it means that we should be realistic about what we are capable of and work from there. For instance, maybe we cannot change that there is bullying, but we can be there for someone who needs to talk about it, or a model that says that it is not acceptable. This can help us move from the unrealistic pressure of creating a completely safe space, to a more realistic “safer space”.
3 – Consider the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
I was once a part of an LGBTQ panel for high school students and the question was asked “Do you think that people are born gay, or do they decide to be?” A lot of us were unsure and gave our personal answers, and then one panel participant said that while he was not sure about everyone, he did know that the idea of choosing to be gay would not be awful, because there are so many wonderful LGBTQ people that lead great lives. He continued that many people claim that everyone is born the way that they are because there is legitimacy to that, but that the underlying argument is that being gay is so hard and so awful that no one would ever choose it, and that does a disservice to the LGBTQ community. That completely changed the conversation because it was such a strong, passionate statement of love for the community that can sometimes be hard to come by in these conversations. But it made the difference between having a conversation about “tolerating” people because they had to be what they were to accepting that what people are can be absolutely lovely.
4 – Don’t feel the weight of all the world’s injustices on your shoulders!
We are not magicians, we are educators. We cannot create a perfect place with perfect understanding through one swoop of the curriculum! But we can realize that we can do our best and that we are working in many complicated systems. I think that one of the worst obstacles to good work is guilt. We are part of a large field making great changes and showing up for people that may not otherwise be heard. The last thing we are trying to do, or to model, is more guilty feelings in people’s lives. A lot of times just being there is making a huge difference.