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Gay and Lesbian Student Experiences in North Carolina: The Impact of Parents and Faculty

Durham

Image courtesy today.duke.edu

By Jesse Hollars

In “Social Work with Gay and Lesbian Adolescents,” Deana F. Morrow says, “Because of the difficulty in developing a healthy identity in a homophobic world, lesbian and gay adolescents are an at-risk population. They are an oppressed group discriminated against by universal social institutions such as the family, social culture, and educational setting[1]."

Student Experiences in North Carolina and the South

Bonnie Morris (Durham, NC): student, age 16 at Carolina Friends School in the early 1970s

Morris was a student at Carolina Friends School in its early years. At this time, feminism and anti-war messages were widely accepted and often integrated into the curriculum. She also remembers many faculty members who were openly gay, which helped her in her own path to coming out as a lesbian. She mentions one particular teacher, Aden Field, who performed his one-man play called “Coffee, Beer, Never Fear” to teach students about homosexuality and his own coming out process. He also performed what he called “Bee Poems” to teach the younger children about acceptance. Morris says, “And I – sixteen, in love with another girl, terrified of committing those feelings to paper even in the privacy of my patient journal pages – saw that in my school community, coming out was not a punitive process – not even a punitive moment” The accepting environment of her school led her to begin writing lesbian poetry, attend conferences for gay and lesbian identified people, and later return as a grad student to her high school and other universities to talk to students about coming out. However, her school was an unusually accepting and encouraging space, as she found later in life when coming out while lecturing elsewhere. She says, “On such days I wear two shirts, the better to blot the anxious sweat I do produce, for my undergraduates are not bee children, and many come to class prepared to sting[2].”

OutRight (Durham, NC): a gay youth group for students founded in the early 1990s

Although not affiliated with any particular school, OutRight held weekly meetings at a local church for students who struggled with issues about their sexuality. The founders of the OutRight were a very diverse group, including counselors, teachers, social workers, and church members. Not all of them were gay. The meetings consisted of presentations by gay and lesbian identified people about their lifestyles, relationships, and jobs. OutRight helps to break down the idea that being gay is a condition that can be fixed. It instead works to show students that “being gay is not bad or sick, but that they, too, can have whole, satisfying, and rich lives” OutRight was an attempt by community members to combat the heterosexism and homophobia that pervades our society, especially in the South[3].

Anonymous interview in February 2012 with a high school student (age 18) from Indian Trail, NC

During middle school and even as early as elementary school, Tray (last name withheld for anonymity) knew that he was different from other students. As a black male, he says that he faced bullying from many other students, but especially other black males. He says, “I guess it just seemed like the ‘tough’ thing to do. I was pretty feminine as a child…I was a dancer and I loved Beyonce. My friends liked the same things I did, but they were girls, so it was okay for them. But I didn’t see anything wrong with it until about the end of middle school.” He mentions verbal harassment in middle school that only got worse in high school with a few physical attacks. In “Growing Up Lesbian and Gay in the South,” Sears writes about this kind of abuse, saying that words like “homo,” “queer,” and “fag” are thrown around on the playground between children, but they only later become directed at a few specific students who usually do not fit into the gender norms of their society[4].

Olivia and Darla, growing up as lesbians in an unidentified region of the American South

Olivia was raised in an upper-middle-class family in the South. She was a good student and participated in many activities including piano lessons and various sports. She did not associate with girls during playtime, though. She would rather play rough games like football and basketball. Of her inclinations towards women, she says, “‘I had a habit of picking females out of the class that I wanted to teach how to make a basket or something. These females had absolutely no athletic ability’” (Sears, “The Impact of Growing Up Lesbian and Gay in the South”). Still, Olivia mostly contained her tomboyish ways and adhered to the gender roles of our society. Darla had a very different experience than Olivia while growing up as a lesbian in the South. She was somewhat of an outcast, and did poorly in school. She was constantly harassed because of very masculine behavior. Darla remembers looking at little girls from the time she was four years old, but says “I just didn’t belong. There was something different about me. I couldn’t pinpoint it. But everybody else was picking up on it.” Darla’s rejection of the traditional gender roles made it more difficult for her to fit into Southern society[5].


High School Couple

Image courtesy of mamapop.com

How Schools Treat Homosexuality

Heterosexism as a general norm for our society is the root of the issue of dealing with homosexuality in schools. Since heterosexism assumes that everyone is heterosexual and furthermore that everyone acts according to their sex which was determined by doctors at birth, many teachers and students alike are not well versed in how to make homosexual students feel comfortable and accepted. Many schools have come a long way in working with these students and making the notion of homosexuality seem less undesirable since the 1950s, when it was viewed as an abomination and a threat to traditional society.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmqNiFJyI28 

This is an example of the views about homosexuals that were promoted in the 1950s. This was a public service announcement shown in schools.

However, there is much progress left to be made. In Understanding Gay and Lesbian Youth, Campos gives some examples of heterosexism in action in schools, such as the fact that everyone is surprised if a homosexual couple attends the prom together (and some school districts even outlaw it) and professional development and staff meetings rarely discuss gay and lesbian youth issues. Teachers also often do not intervene when students call each other names that insult one’s gender or sexual preferences, or if they do intervene, they fail to explain why using such insults is wrong and harmful[6].

Safe Schools

Image courtesy of gsanetwork.org

How Teachers / Faculty Can Help

Teachers and faculty often play an important role in the coming out process of a young adult. Even though the gay liberation movement has made some progress in the general acceptance of homosexuals, the younger generation is still left in the dark, for the most part. Eve Sedgwick writes, “Revisionist analysts seem prepared to like some male homosexuals, but the healthy homosexual is one who a) is already grown up, and b) acts masculine[7].” Here are some ways that teachers and faculty can help:

Do not allow harmful language to go unnoticed. Instead, explain to students why heterosexism and homophobia are detrimental to the well-being of not only homosexual people, but society as a whole[6]. Maintain a positive, or at least neutral, attitude about homosexual students. Be consistent about the way in which you deal with discrimination and bullying within the classroom[6]. Make your classroom or office a safe space for gay and lesbian students. If you are comfortable, let students know that you want to help them, or let them know that you can direct them to the appropriate resources[6]. Make gay and lesbian history and/or general understanding a part of your curriculum whenever possible. Due to heterosexism, a lack of knowledge about gays and lesbians leads to discrimination. Include gay and lesbian health information in sex education classes[8]. Provide opportunities for students to interact with openly gay people in school activities, so that students can informally learn about the gay experience[8].

References

  1. Morrow, Deana F. "Social Work with Gay and Lesbian Adolescents." Social Work 38.6 (1993): 655-60. JSTOR. Web.
  2. Morris, Bonnie J. “Carolina Friends School: Where Coming Out Is Coming Home.” Feminist Teacher 10.1 (1996): 26-30. JSTOR. Web.
  3. Singerline, Hugh. “OutRight: Reflections of an Out-of-School Gay Youth Group.” The High School Journal 77.1/2 (1994): JSTOR. Web.
  4. Tray. Interview. 28 Feb. 2012.
  5. Sears, James T. “The Impact of Gender and Race on Growing Up Lesbian and Gay in the South.” NWSA Journal 1.3 (1989): 422-57. JSTOR. Web.
  6. Campos, David. Understanding Gay and Lesbian Youth: Lessons for Straight School Teachers, Counselors, and Administrators. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2005.
  7. Sedgwick, Eve K. "How to Bring Your Kids up Gay." Social Texts 29 (1991): 18-27. JSTOR. Duke University Press. Web.
  8. Unks, Gerald, ed. The Gay Teen: Educational Practice and Theory for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Adolescents. New York: Routledge, 1995.