As a closeted high school student in Pennsylvania during the late 1990s, I couldn’t stand hearing James, a classmate in my English class, suggest “because he’s a queer,” “because he’s a big homo,” or “because he likes other men” as the answer to open-ended questions about Jim’s motivations in “The Glass Menagerie.” But it wasn’t James that I was really angry at; on some level, I understood that he had poor impulse control, was bored, hadn’t done the reading, and was looking for some kind of attention. Instead, I was angry with my teacher, who would stand waiting for someone to offer a “real” answer without addressing James’s mocking use of sexual identity terms. Sometimes she would say “James,” in a flat and wearily annoyed tone. But she would still be looking around the room and waiting for someone else’s voice to move us forward. Not only did she fail to acknowledge the unsafe space James’s answers created for students who wanted to contribute real ideas, she also failed to address the homophobic language and tone of his jokes.
In New York City in 2011, slurs against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are considered hate speech and grounds for suspension. We’ve come a long way. Yet this rule does not ensure respect for sexual and gender diversity among my students. In a society where it’s acceptable to laugh at stereotypically gay behavior, my students continue to make the same kind of knee-jerk comments that my classmate James did — but I find my trying to turn these remarks into important lessons about diversity. But because these lessons are so subtle, I never know how to measure their impact, how to reflect on them, or how to do better next time.
Take the topic of small-group work, for instance. Just those words together are enough to turn the stomachs of my students into blocks of ice: Without very explicit instruction from their teacher, students will be afraid to enter into authentic academic discussion in small groups. So before we get to work, I open with a low-risk skit activity designed to help us label the exact behaviors we do and do not want to be a part of our group discussions. I choose low risk topics, such as restaurant and movie preferences, and pick two sets of volunteers: one to act out a “disrespectful conversation,” and the other to act out its counterpart.
For purposes of engagement, the disrespectful conversation has to go first. Students forget any concern that it’s uncool to name disrespectful behaviors in the sheer hilarity of watching students, at the instruction of their teacher, make fun of each others’ mothers, gesticulate as if they were going to slap each other, and interrupt each other loudly in their debates over Burger King versus McDonalds or which movies they think are worth seeing in the theater. Subsequent brainstorms easily elicit a perceptive list of these behaviors. When we exhaust that brainstorm, I motion to the other pair — Aaron and Ella — students waiting patiently on the other side of the room to act out a “respectful conversation.” And this is where what started as a lesson in respect must also become a lesson in sensitivity to diversity.
Immediately, Aaron sticks his rear end out and preens toward Ella, his palms spread across his thighs as if he were absorbing hot gossip at a sewing bee. He smiles wide and asks, in a high, lispy voice, whether his partner doesn’t think “Chrith Brown ith jutht tho dreamy?” Ella answers him rather soberly and they keep up what would be, on paper, a completely respectful dialogue. The class is not paying any attention to the content of their speech, however. They’re roaring with laughter at Aaron’s affected effeminate behavior.
“Okay, okay,” I say, hating the referee in my voice as I interrupt their creative flow. “Pause right there.” It takes Aaron a few moments to come out of character, he’s having so much fun. The class applauds and the two move toward their seats. I stop Aaron so that the entire class can see us.
“I need you guys to do that again,” I say.
“What?” he asked. “Why? We were being thoooo respectful!” More giggles.
“You definitely were,” I said. “But is it possible for a guy to be respectful and be straight?”
“Yes,” he says.
“Then let’s do that.”
There’s no student “aha” moment to close out this post. I’m not sure if Aaron will remember my subtle lesson the next time he wants to do his best impression, or if another student will harbor it in the cockles of her heart years from now when she is coming out. I wonder if I should have engaged the rest of the students besides Aaron, asking them why they had laughed so hard or why our perceptions of masculinity are so strict that a guy can’t demonstrate respect without putting his manhood on the line. I tend to heed the wisdom of “less is more” in these situations, especially because, in the past, when I have addressed a similar issue in an explicit way, my students have responded with even less tolerance. Sometimes you do something small and just pray that whoever needs to see it will see it. Teachable moments, like teaching, are difficult to plan for and even more difficult to accurately assess.
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