On January 2 1997, 14-year old Robbie Kirkland committed suicide after a four-year
struggle to accept and find peace with his homosexuality.
Robbie’s family loved, accepted, and supported him, but that wasn’t enough,
because every day Robbie had to go to school and face the rejection and anti-gay
harassment that take place in our middle schools: name calling, taunts, pushing and
tripping, and exclusion.
Over time, this treatment leaves children like Robbie feeling ashamed, insecure,
unworthy, alone, and ultimately vulnerable to self-destructive behaviors.
On April 6, 2009, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old boy, hanged himself
after enduring daily anti-gay bullying at school. His mother said Carl, who did not
identify himself as gay, was a slight boy who loved his schoolwork and had suffered
endless taunts since he started sixth grade in September, bombarded by his peers with
“girlie,” “gay,” “fag,” and worse.
But, as Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network
(GLSEN), was quoted on the network’s website (www.glsen.org) in April 2009, “As was the
case with Carl, you do not have to identify as gay to be attacked with anti-LGBT [lesbian,
gay, bisexual, transgender] language. From their earliest years on the school playground,
students learn to use anti-LGBT language as the ultimate weapon to degrade their peers.”
The State of Our Schools
Unfortunately, Robbie’s and Carl’s stories are not unique. Every day, students who
are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (as many are at this age), and
students who are in any way considered different, are taunted with name calling and
other harassment that leaves their souls wounded.
Young people are targeted for many reasons. In GLSEN’s
2005 survey report From Teasing to Torment: School Climate
in America, students reported that their peers were most
often bullied because of their appearance, but the next
top reason was because of actual or perceived sexual
orientation and gender expression.
Because of our society’s cultural discomfort with issues of
sexuality and gender, many educators ignore the bullying
behavior or don’t know how to intervene. By far the most
common form of this failure to intervene at the middle
level is when teachers, who would most often confront
instances of racist, ethnic, or sexist name calling, make little
to no effort to intervene when they hear anti-gay name
calling or jokes, including “That’s so gay.” (See the GLSEN
Research Brief, The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender Middle School Students: Findings from the 2007
National School Climate Survey.)
Some educators may feel uncomfortable addressing these
issues because of their own beliefs about homosexuality and
gender identity; they may believe that by saying something,
they compromise their own values. For others, fear may
keep them from intervening—fear of being ostracized by
colleagues or harassed by parents, fears for their job security
if they speak up, and fears about raising controversial issues.
For many, it is their own lack of knowledge about
homosexuality and gender identity (because of our society’s
dearth of knowledge in schools and in teacher preparation
programs) and therefore their uncertainty about how to
handle these issues that keep them from intervening.
However, teachers are the adults in our schools and
must confront their own issues and move beyond them to
protect the students in their care.
When educators don’t intervene, they give tacit assent
that saying these things is okay. They also give an unspoken
message to the LGBT or “different” youth that they are
not worth standing up for. Thus begins the erosion of
self-worth that so often leads young people to engage
in self-destructive behaviors, including alcohol and other
substance abuse, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts.
When this verbal harassment is not addressed at the
middle grades level, it most often escalates to physical
violence at the high school level.
The shame of ridicule and the fear of a verbal or physical
attack make school a frightening place. These students stop
coming to school. When they do come, they spend a great
deal of time and energy determining when and where to be
in the school—hallways, locker rooms, bathrooms—so they
can avoid harassment. There is little energy left to learn.
This climate often leads to despair and a sense of
worthlessness that has a negative impact on these
youngsters’ motivation and desire to achieve and, for some,
the motivation to live.
Break the Silence
Individual teachers must make the important effort to
break the silence and confront these issues in the school. We
must intervene whenever we witness harassment or hear
name calling such as “faggot” or “fatso” or “spic” or “retard”
or “That’s so gay.” However, we cannot just say, “Don’t say
that” or “That’s not nice” at the middle school level; it doesn’t
work as it did when children were in elementary school.
Young adolescents are at a crucial time in their cognitive
and moral development when they are questioning, testing,
and building their beliefs, attitudes, and values for their
lifetimes, so we must take the time to help them become
the kind of young people we want them to be by talking
about our differences and our uniquenesses and how we
are all part of our caring community.
Teachers must know how to create the kind of school
community in which a response to name calling such as, “We
don’t hurt each other this way in our caring community,” has
credibility and effect. Here are some suggestions:
That’s So Gay
The expression “That’s so gay” is one of the most often-
heard phrases in school, and students certainly recognize
it as derogatory—not even having anything to do with
homosexuality. Its use has become pervasive as a put-down
for anything not cool or not OK.
A student says, “This assignment is so gay.” To the casual
listener not sensitive to the words, the expression is heard
as a put-down and no big deal. But to students who are
questioning their sexual orientation or perhaps have a gay
parent, relative, or friend, this seemingly innocuous phrase
can be frightening and hurtful.
So, what we must do is strip the word “gay” of its negative
connotation and, at the same time, help our young people
be more careful and specific in their use of the English
language. Here’s an example:
You come upon Ashley who has just declared that an
assignment you gave is “so gay!” So you ask a question:
“What do you mean by that, Ashley?” Ashley will probably
respond that the assignment is stupid. You ask another
question: “What do you mean by that, Ashley?”
After some back and forth, Ashley will finally admit the
fact that she doesn’t understand the assignment or that it’s
too hard. At that point, you can say, “I see that you’re not sure
about what to do with this assignment. How can I help?”
You might be thinking that you don’t have time for this
back and forth or that this strategy would not make a
difference with your students.
First, you must make time if you wish to make a
difference in the language kids are using and in the climate
of your classroom. Second, it doesn’t take long to make
a difference in the whole class. It certainly worked in my
middle grades classroom. Within a week of my always
asking, “What do you mean by that?” students were self-
correcting and soon stopped using that phrase altogether.
Other teachers have shared stories of similar success.
No Name Calling
When students use epithets such as “faggot” or “fatso” or
“spic” or “retard,” they often are not considering that their
target is a person with feelings. Here’s a technique that’s
been successful in my classroom and in the classrooms of
other teachers with whom I’ve shared the strategy.
Let’s say you overhear Alison saying to a group of other
girls, “Sarah is so disgusting! She’s so fat her blubber hangs out
of her clothes! She should buy her clothes in a fat ladies’ store.”
You could say, “Don’t say that, Alison. That’s not nice to
say about anybody.” But what Alison probably would say
to herself is, “Oh, that’s right, don’t say those things within
Ms. Smith’s earshot.”
Or, you could try this: “Alison, I have a friend who has
struggled with her weight all her life. Her feelings are hurt when
unthinking people make unkind comments about her weight,
and it hurts me to see my friend hurt because I care about her.
Just like I wouldn’t want anyone to say anything unkind about
you because I care about you, I’m going to ask you not to say
that again. OK?” My students have always answered, “OK.”
Another example: In the hallway, you overhear Adam call
Jeremy a “faggot.” You say, “Adam, I have a friend who is gay
and who has had to deal with name calling all his life. He
has been hurt when unthinking people have made unkind
comments about him and not seen him for the wonderful
person he is. It hurts me to see my friend hurt because I
care about him. And, just like I wouldn’t want anyone to say
anything unkind about you because I care about you, I’m
going to ask you not to say that again. OK?”
Our students answer “OK,” because 1) what else are they going
to say at that moment? and 2) they are now pausing to think
about the fact that their teacher cares about them and other
people. We are simply saying, “All people deserve respect and
are respected in this classroom, including you!” This is one of the
most profound messages our students need to hear every day.
Conclusion and More to Come
When we overcome our own fears and uncertainty about
how to intervene in these kinds of situations so common in
our middle grades schools, we are giving clear signals to
all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity
or gender expression, that they are valuable and valued
members of our school community.
Published in Middle Ground magazine, October 2011. This article is one of three published on the topic of school safety.
Norma J. Bailey is a professor of middle level education in the Department of Teacher Education and
Professional Development at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant. She is a frequent presenter at the
AMLE Annual Conference. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org