All Promo Homo: discussing sexuality in school

“Faggot…Faggot. I really like that word.” Stacy says thoughtfully as the class leaves for lunch. I nearly drop my notebook.

“Why do you like that word?” I ask quickly.

“I don’t know… I heard it in a YouTube video and I just really liked the way it sounded.” She pushes her things into her desk and turns to me.

“Do you know what that word means?”

“No. I just really like the way it sounds. Fag—”

“It’s a very offensive term for gay people,” I interrupt. “Remember in the story we read today, when the main character was called it?” She nods. “Well, it is a very hurtful word. You shouldn’t say it.” We continue to talk for a moment about the word, and why it’s offensive. Stacy soon bounds off to lunch, and I am left alone in the classroom, dazed. This interaction makes it clear that I have been correct in thinking that the class will need to talk about queerness for one of the identity lessons. When outlining the unit, I had originally planned on discussing queer identity on the gender day, but as the curriculum developed, it became apparent that devoting only one lesson to both gender and sexuality would do neither justice.

Talking about sexual orientation in an elementary school proved much more complex than any other issue. Many states have laws banning “the promotion of homosexuality” in schools. These so called “No Promo Homo” laws have been variously interpreted as banning anything from explicit discussions of non-normative sexualities, to having books which feature gay characters in the classroom. While Massachusetts has no laws explicitly banning the topic of sexual orientation in schools, it does have one mandating that parents are notified prior to the implementation of a curriculum involving sexuality and given the option to exempt their child. While I initially think that the principal is being puritanical when he asks to approve a copy of my lesson plan, it turns out he is protecting Miller’s Hill from potential lawsuits.

“This all seems great,” He says one afternoon, handing the lesson plan back to me without reading it. “Do me a favor, would ya? Write this up in a letter and send it home to parents before you do the lesson. You should also give me a copy, okay?” He gives Naomi and I a breezy smile before sweeping out the door.

Naomi soon fills me in on another regulation I will be required to follow when broaching the topic of sexuality: I am not allowed to ask students to speak to their own sexuality, or any experiences relating to it. “I’m required by law to report anything – absolutely anything – students mention involving sexuality and themselves,” she tells me. This means the sexuality workshop will be a single day endeavor; no writing day will follow.

When I enter the class the following Monday, I am pleased to see that no parents have kept their child home today. “When I say ‘sexuality’ or ‘sexual orientation,’ what do I mean?” I ask the class by way of introducing the lesson.

Silence.

The usually loud, enthusiastic class is suddenly still, sheepish. I guess it’s not too surprising, given the topic. After I offer them a definition, I tell them that until about thirty-five years ago, doctors thought homosexuality was an illness. “Even though doctors no longer think this, stereotypes about gay people being somehow ill still exist.”   

I ask the class to sit for a moment and see if they can think of other stereotypes about gay people. “What do you think of when I you hear the word ‘gay?’” I add. The class still seems hesitant. Even the generally more vocal students like Faith, Jaden, and Alisha remain quiet.

“Why don’t we have them write it down?” Naomi whispers to me after a moment. “I think a lot of them are afraid to say what they’re thinking.”

We pass note cards around the circle of students on the carpet and restate the task. “And don’t worry, you won’t get in trouble for anything you write,” I assure them. “You don’t even have to put your name on it, we’re just trying to figure out what stereotypes are out there.”

Even though a small handful of students still require individual prompting, every single student is able to write down a stereotype for or association with gay people. Naomi and I collect them and begin writing them on the chart paper. There are many repeats, and most seemed to focus on queer folks’ appearance.

During the conversation about stereotypes, I find myself using the term queer without even realizing it. “Queer is an umbrella term for all gay people of all different genders and sexes,” I tell them. Many students offer only confused expressions. “It’s a way of referring to anybody who doesn’t identify as straight.” This seems to help. Several students still appear uncertain about the word, so we have a brief discussion on how queer is sometimes used as a slur by straight people and sometimes used positively by queers.

“Queer is also sometimes used as a synonym for bisexual. Increasingly, many people who would otherwise identify as bisexual identify as queer.” I add.

“But that’s no fair!” Alisha interjects, scrunching her face. “That doesn’t tell you much of anything!”

“Exactly. Why should you have a right to know the specifics of someone else’s sexuality? Why is it important?” But the class is fixated.

“Well, how would you know if someone is flirting with you?” Alexis demands. Naomi and I patiently address this and other similar questions before returning to the original point.

“In general, it’s just rude to ask what somebody else does in the bedroom, especially if you don’t know them.” Alexis looks dubious. “If someone wants to tell you their sexuality, they will, but you don’t automatically get to know it.” Naomi concludes.

As we go through their note cards one by one, we cover the terms gay, lesbian, bisexual, as well as queer. While I had initially planned on discussing LGBTQ terminology at the end of the lesson, the definitions emerge naturally from – and are indeed required by – the discussion of stereotypes. Moreover, I think that defining these terms in context is a much more powerful way for students to learn them than if they were left to the overlong terms section my lesson plan prescribes.

While discussing a note card reading, “Gays break gender rules,” the class makes an insightful discovery. “So what happens when people break gender roles – other than being accused of being gay?” I ask them. A few students offer variations of “they get teased,” and “other people get mad.” One student points out that people seem less upset when girls break gender norms than when guys do.

“Why do you think that is? Why would people be more upset if Marcus wears a dress than if Faith plays football?” The class is completely silent for a moment. Alexis eventually raises her hand.

“Well, maybe because boys are valued more by society, so it’s worse when they don’t act like they’re supposed to?” I have to struggle to keep my jaw from dangling. The point about society valuing males over females was made last week during the gender lesson, but for a student to remember this point and then apply it to today’s lesson is astounding.

I ask Alexis to repeat what she said so the entire class can hear it. We are nearing the lunch period, and though we barely got through half the lesson plan, I am glad that we took our time with this conversation. As the students put away their things for lunch, a typically quiet Hispanic boy named Hakim raises his hand. “What about people who change their gender, are they gay?” We haven’t made it to discussing anything related to transgender issues. “Well, that depends,” I tell him. “It’s complicated. Maybe we can talk more this afternoon.”

Following lunch, Naomi gives me ten minutes to talk about trans people and wrap up the lesson. “To answer your question, Hakim,” I say as students settle into their desks, “It would depend on the sex and genders that a transgender person is attracted to, and if that person identifies as gay.”

Most of the students only offer me blank stares. “I’m confused,” Alisha says.

“I know, it’s confusing. Mostly, it comes down to how people identify. Someone is gay if they identify as gay, but it’s usually not okay to tell someone else how to identify.” We talk for a few more minutes about the difference between transsexual and transgender people before Faith shares that she has recently heard about a trans person on the news. As Faith tries to recount the story, I correct her pronouns. “You mean she was on the news, not he, right?” She screws up her face.

“What? Yeah…she? No –he!” Side conversations erupt around the room.

“But he’s still a man!” Alisha cries over the din.

I attempt to quiet the class before telling them, “Well, she was born that way, but since she now identifies as a woman, it’s very rude to use male pronouns for her.” The class is still skeptical, but I am running out of time. Later, I realize that reiterating the difference between biological sex and a person’s gender identity would probably have helped students understand. However, in this hectic and pressurized moment, I say, “It’s about respect. Regardless of what you think about a person, the respectful thing to do is to refer to someone as the gender they choose.” Naomi is anxious to start the next lesson, and so I leave it at that, contenting myself with the knowledge that in the vast majority of sixth grade classrooms, the word “transgender” isn’t even uttered.

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