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How Schools Can Address Needs of Gays, Lesbians

March 27, 1994|MARY LAINE YARBER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Educational institutions are often described as ivory towers--places that operate independently of the events, trends, and other realities that surround them. More often than not, though, schools actually reflect what happens in society at large.

Consider the growing attention devoted to homosexuality. Not surprisingly, public schools nationwide are reviewing how well they address gay and lesbian students' needs.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, clubs and discussion groups for gay and lesbian students have been formed on some campuses. In my own school, we have begun a Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Student Union, reserved part of the general bulletin board for the organization's announcements, and welcomed speakers on gay and lesbian issues.

Such efforts are important. According to alarming statistics from the U.S. Department of Health, gay and lesbian youths are three times more likely to fall victim to suicide, attempted suicide, and substance abuse than their heterosexual peers. They are also more likely to drop out of school, to suffer social alienation and rejection by family members, and to be kicked out of their homes.

The root of the problem, as with all types of discrimination, is ignorance. To combat it on campus, a variety of handbooks and curriculum guides have been developed. The materials are typically authored by gay and lesbian organizations, health professionals, civil rights groups or educators.

Schoolwide, there are several frequently mentioned ways to help gay and lesbian students succeed and gain acceptance.

Educating and sensitizing staff and teachers is a good starting point. It is particularly important for school counselors and psychologists to know the facts--not the myths and stereotypes --about gays and lesbians, and to be able to talk and listen to such students.

Some local gay and lesbian organizations have speakers bureaus, and schools should make use of them for assemblies, debates and panel discussions to help inform students and staff about gay and lesbian issues. (Making such presentations available for parents in the evenings can help cure campus homophobia too.)

There are also strategies teachers can employ in their classrooms.

They can stop the use of anti-gay and lesbian slurs. They can discuss why such slurs are wrong, just as they should when students make ethnic or religious slurs.

Teachers can identify gay and lesbian contributions throughout the curriculum, including history, literature, art, science, government and math. In teaching about the Holocaust, the decimation of Jews is highlighted, but persecution of gays and lesbians is rarely mentioned.

Nor is it mentioned that a large number of writers were reputedly gay, lesbian or bisexual (Lord Byron, Hans Christian Anderson, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Willa Cather, Amy Lowell, Gertrude Stein, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin, among others).

It is also helpful to include class discussion of gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues along with other minority issues.

Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School.

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