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A calling - teaching tolerance

Every year, I teach The Laramie Project to my freshmen. I teach it in conjunction with Elie Wiesel's Night - the main theme I try to establish is that bad things happen when perfectly good people do nothing. And when I introduce The Laramie Project, I like to start off by giving a crash course on gender and sexual orientation - what does it mean to be gay or straight (or anything in between)? What are some myths and misconceptions about the queer community? And - more to the point - how might you be furthering the ignorance, hatred, and intolerance without even knowing it, and how can you stop?

It never fails to amaze me how much kids DON'T know. At their age, even though I had no formal knowledge to speak of, it already bothered me when kids said "That's gay!" or when someone would say, "Isn't being a gay man the same as being a woman?" (and it was obviously in a pejorative way, as if to say that being a woman automatically made you lesser). When I was in middle school, and going through a stretch at the end of 8th grade where some of the more popular kids had decided that they hated me, I would hear kids run by me and yell "Dyke! Lesbian!", and rather than yelling back any denials (because I knew they weren't actually accusing me of being a lesbian - they were just using those words as insults), I yelled back, "Homophobe! What, do you hate gay people or something?!?!?" The fact that they thought being a lesbian was a bad thing, an actual insult, made me more angry than the fact that they were trying to insult me.

I don't know why, but even though I identify as straight, homophobia has always been a contention of mine, and fighting against it has always been my passion. I can't explain it - it bothers me more than racism and ableism, and just a tad more than sexism, but gender discrimination and homophobia are closely related in my mind anyway. (Well, all the -isms are, because at the very core, they are all about preventing other human beings from having an equal chance at happiness and opportunity in life.)

Anyway... so, even though some people (even teachers, even teachers at my own school) would disagree with my decision, I think it's really important to teach tolerance, of EVERYONE. I don't think that it's okay to teach kids not to use the n-word, but then NOT address their use of the word "fag," you know? That's like saying, "Well, you shouldn't hate other races, but it's okay if you hate gays." I'm not trying to change people's religious beliefs or personal values (though, secretly, I would like to, VERY MUCH). There's a difference between disapproval and hatred. Everyone has their personal prejudices and their things that they disapprove of - it doesn't mean it's okay to treat a person with disrespect or to take away their rights as human beings. For example, I disapprove of evangelicals who go door-to-door, but I'm not going to bully one or threaten to beat them up if they don't stay off my porch. (For the record: I don't have a porch, and my condo building has a security gate. I'm safe for now.) I disapprove of who they are and what they do, but I'm not going to say that they don't deserve to live or that they shouldn't have the same rights that I do. But I guess not everyone sees things my way. There are people who think that all people who are not straight should not have the right to marry, the right to hold hands in public, or even the right to live. And that's wrong. I'm sorry, but it just IS. (No, wait, I'm not sorry. It's just wrong, period, and I don't mind telling you so.)

So I'm trying to fight the good fight, starting with my students. They don't know much. A few weeks ago, as I was about to show the infamous "morning after" scene of Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet (where there is a pretty long shot of Romeo's naked butt), I told my kids, "If this makes you uncomfortable, you can look away." And one boy asked, "If you don't, will it make you gay?" And I was about thisclose to putting him on blast in front of the entire class (which I usually try to avoid doing, because teachers humiliating students does absolutely no good). But a part of me knew that he really had no idea and he wasn't just trying to be a smartass.

I'm just astounded by what kids these days don't know, and I think it's because no one will tell them. Sexuality is such a taboo topic - people don't even like to teach kids about sex and safety, let alone the complexities of something like sexual orientation and gender identity. It's a topic that is personal as well as political, and the funny thing is, the people who are the most vocal about it are the people who are the most strict, the most conservative. There are SO many people who have no problem saying sex is bad, people who have lots of sex are bad, people who have sex with their own gender are bad, people who don't identify as the sex they are born with are bad..... and they don't give a crap about who they're offending. But those of us who are here to preach equality and tolerance and understanding - we have to walk on eggshells? WE have to worry about offending people, when we just want everyone to get along? That's total crap. That makes me angry.

So I DO see it as my job to teach tolerance. If I don't, who will? I can't just pass it off as someone else's responsibility. As far as I know, other than in Facing History, no one really talks about this stuff. (And that class is an elective, so not everyone takes it, and it's for upperclassmen, and I think that teaching tolerance should start earlier.)

But I don't feel like what I'm doing is enough. I only reach two or three classes of freshmen per year... I know that's better than nothing, but I feel like it's not enough. I want to do more. I need to do more. I feel like my real calling is towards social justice issues, but I don't know how to get there. I would love to work as a Facing History educator/researcher (and I have in fact emailed the person I know who leads the local chapter) - maybe I should be showing other teachers how to address these issues in class.

I need a job where I can freely say, "No, that way of thinking is just WRONG" because that will actually be my job, rather than having to worry constantly about offending someone just because I'm trying to open their minds. I need a job where the will of the person who hates does not prevail over the will of the person who accepts.

Or maybe I just need to live and work in a place where everyone thinks like I do on the subject. Got any suggestions?


  1. If you don't mind, I'd like to repost this on my facebook. I think it's something people should really read.

  2. If everyone thinks the same, it gets comfortable and maybe harder to find others to reach out to, unless that's the job. That's what I'm thinking, at least. It'd be awesome to have workshops for teachers about these issues, then work it into curriculum and the general attitude of the class. A lot of the time we feel confused and helpless because of what we don't know, so we latch onto popular opinion without taking much time to think for ourselves. It'd be great to encourage self-driven discovery and learning. I admire your conviction and dedication to teaching tolerance, which I wish everyone had.


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