Saturday, February 17, 2007

Homophobia and defensive teaching

The other day, in the middle of class, one male student called another a "faggot." I gave him the evilest eye I have, and he seemed genuinely shocked and confused by my reaction.

On another day during advisory, my cooperating teacher split the class into two teams and had them do the trust-building game where you have to get every member of your team standing on a small platform at once. One team was an even mix of girls and guys, but the other team was almost all male. While the first team succeeded by grabbing onto each other and carrying each other on piggyback, the second team refused to do anything like that because it was "too gay." (They lost.) I asked my CT later why he didn't say anything at the time, and he said, rightly I now think, that it's an issue that requires a much bigger conversation.

So in light of all these incidents, I've found myself engaging recently in "defensive teaching" when it comes to this issue. In our current events class I intentionally excluded articles on gay sheep and John Amaechi. I just didn't want to, or know how to, respond to the homophobic comments which would certainly come up.

Yesterday, we had a big debate over whether to use this image when talking about the causes of the French Revolution:

One teacher felt that the kids would not be able to handle it; they'd be hooting and hollering so much that they'd miss the point of the image. Another felt that they'd certainly remember this image and therefore the concept.

I'm leaning toward not including it, just because I don't know how to handle their certain homophobia. But by not including it, I'm denying them something I believe has educational value, and also the opportunity to deal with this issue.

But is my CT right? Is it impossible to let students know that it is simply NOT OKAY to say some of the things they routinely say in class about homosexuality without having a major conversation? And in the meantime, should we just avoid it at all costs? What hope do I have of changing kids' minds when this is an acceptable Super Bowl ad?

Has anyone had any success with this?


Anonymous said...

When I was teaching I found that the problem wasn't really the gay issue, but anything had to do with sex would result in "pant hooting"

Before presenting something that I knew was going to result in that sort of a situation I'd make a statement along the lines of "I can see where this topic is going to distract you. Do not go there. Joke about this all you want after class privately but we have stay focussed on the real issue to make it through this lesson."

The mistake is in throwing something up on a screen, waiting for the disaster and THEN doing damage control. Another mistake is censoring any sort of otherwise legitimate material which requires a mature response. Kids don't learn self-control if they aren't ever exposed to material that doesn't require it.

Acknowledging that it is indeed odd/bizarre/looks like sex, BUT we are going to stay on topic anyway, "Is that clear?"

Andrew Pass Educational Services, LLC said...

I think that there are two ways to have "big conversations" with kids. One way is to have the "big conversation" all at one time. The other way is to make it a running theme throughout the year with lots of little conversations as they are appropriate.

I certainly don't think you want to ignore the issue, since that would mean passively accepting their behavior. If negative comments are accepted what will be accepted next?

Just some thoughts,

Andrew Pass

Leo Casey said...

At the beginning of every class, I would establish as one of my class rules that disparaging invective and insults based on race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation were inappropriate for the class. Bundling them together is the best way to approach that issue, I found.

That is not a substitute for class discussions on sexuality, including gay sexuality. It is not easy, and it does run the gauntlet of a lot of immature banter, but it is important to have. This is not just a matter of teaching tolerance; it is also central to the subject matter we teach in Social Studies, English and Science. To ignore the sexual dimension of history, for example, is to teach an impoverished history. To have a full appreciation of the phenomenon of lynching, one needs to understand how sexual stereotypes are embedded in racism. Similarly, to understand the social functioning of slavery, one needs to have an understanding of the sexual expolitation of enslaved African-Americans.

Regarding the cartoon you posed, I would not deny that it could be read by sexually anxious and unsure adolescents as gay. When your own sexual identity is insecure, you tend to read everything as a sexual threat. But in reality, the cartoon represents a window into a particular moment in the construction of gender roles. The notion that the aristocracy/Ancien Regime was effeminate rather than masculine [which may intersect with certain aspects of a gay/straight split, but is not synonymous being gay] was one expression of a reorganization of gender roles at the start of modernity. It is rather far ranging in cultural terms, and even includes forms of literary expression [flowerly and elaborate forms of expression versus economical writing]. It is not possible to understand small r republicanism, the revolutionary democratic political ideology of the French revolution, of Jeffersonian politics and the early working class movement, without examining a certain assertion of a modern form of masculinity.

julie said...

Thanks, Leo. We taught this lesson today with two of the classes and, while I definitely heard some offensive under-the-breath comments, I did not have to face my fear of dealing with a rowdy bunch of ninth graders hooting and hollering.

When I teach this lesson with my rowdier class tomorrow, I may bring up the point you made. My art historian friend Meredith also noted that the sexual innuendo in this image is probably not unintentional. However, I will make it clear in no uncertain terms that I expect them to speak and act with maturity.