To the Gay Students I have Taught
This is going to end up being an apology to the gay students I taught during the first half of my career. But first a bit of background.
I realize that the environment one grows up in very much influences one’s attitudes and understanding. I grew up during the 60’s and 70’s in a working class home. The word gay meant happy. Homo, fag and queer were words you often heard used at school and by my peers. If a guy was at all effeminate then he was treated with suspicion. I played hockey, lacrosse, football and, later, rugby. Throughout high school and university the homophobic attitudes prevailed.
And then there was the navy.
I had twenty years active service with the naval reserve and served on both regular force and reserve ships. Now there was a bastion of anti-gay rhetoric. As one Chief Petty Office said, “When I joined the navy being queer was illegal. Now it is permitted. Christ, I’m getting out before it’s mandatory.” It is interesting to note that one of funniest guys in my first training unit was often telling jokes that started like, “Did you hear the one about the two queers who walked into a bar …….?” Years later he came out. I often wondered what pain he must have been feeling growing up.
I guess it is no wonder that I grew up with the biases I did. For the record, I was never a gay-bashing homophobe, but I did laugh at the jokes and often retold the jokes. I didn’t feel comfortable in the company of those who were believed to be gay. I had some serious prejudices.
But then I had three separate experiences that completely changed my outlook.
Early in my career I found out that a colleague of mine was gay. We had worked together for a few years but I had no idea, I guess it just never came up in conversation. A group of us often met for coffee and we would enjoy some wonderful discussions and debates. This particular guy was insightful and humorous, and I really enjoyed his company.
When I found out he was gay I remember thinking, Does this change anything? Am I suddenly going to feel uncomfortable in his company now, even though that has never been the case before? I realized that nothing had changed, so why should my attitude towards him change?
A number of years later a former student of mine came out. As is often the case, he did so after he graduated. I believe I was among the first he informed. There was so much I wanted to know. We talked about why students were timid to come out while still in school and how difficult it was to open up to family and friends. We talked about overhearing the homophobic comments and slurs that one hears in a heterosexual dominated world. Actually, he did most of the talking – I listened. It caused me to look inward and reevaluate my own actions. It made me think about the three guys I grew up with who eventually committed suicide. I wondered if they were struggling with issues of sexual identity. I pondered upon how many of my childhood and university friends and teammates were gay and who heard me laugh when the jokes were told.
About this same time I attended a professional development session. The speaker was a teacher from another district and the main theme of his presentation was to be mindful of the language you use in the classroom; if you look at the world through heterosexual eyes you tend to use language and examples that excludes gay students.
A light went on. I suddenly realized that I was so guilty of that.
To the boys rugby team; “OK fellows, I realize that you would much rather be over there making out with the girls soccer team, but I need your attention here.”
“A double-displacement chemical reaction is like a square dance. When the caller says, ‘whoop de doo, do-si-do, change your partners, ‘round you go”, you don’t end up with the two men dancing with each other, so don’t put the two cations together. That would be weird.” I used that example for years.
My language changed at school and I would like to think I became a more sensitive and understanding teacher.
And then I thought about my own family. Who was I to assume my own children were heterosexual? They were still quite young but I also changed my language at home. To my children I would say, “Some day you will meet a nice man or woman and, hopefully, live happily ever after.” Years later my daughter thanked me for my open-mindedness. I recall when my son eventually said, “Dad, I’m straight. You can drop the gender-neutral language and assume I will be dating women.”
So here is my apology to the LGBTQ students I taught during the first half of my career. I had no idea. I am sorry I did not play a more proactive role in ensuring you were comfortable sitting in my classroom. I am sorry for the discrimination you had to experience while growing up and the probable anxiety, and possible depression, you had to endure.
I wish I knew then what I know now.
Note: Thanks to George and to Jay for your advice on this one. And thanks for your friendship over the years.
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