SUPPORTING THE VICTIM: HOW TO MAKE IT BETTER SOONER RATHER THAN LATER
This is one of a continuing series. You may read Part One, “A ‘VICTIM’ IMPACT STATEMENT,” here. To read Part Two, “UNDERSTANDING THE MINDSET OF THE ‘VICTIM’,”click here. Subsequent posts will deal with the bullies and the bystanders.
If we really want to make growing up more tolerable for gay and lesbian teens, we have to start years before that. There are books about two mommies and two daddies that teachers still shy away from. I can take a reasonable guess at what they’re thinking: Why stir up a fuss and get a church-affiliated parent group going to the media saying that I am promoting the homosexual agenda? Realistically, these books are rarely ordered for school libraries let alone used as part of classroom instruction. Right or wrong, we’re not there yet.
Nonetheless, the foundation of acceptance can be laid in elementary school. There are many books on differences and atypical friendships. There is a picture book about a squirrel with OCD and a classic from 1934 about a bull that would rather sniff flowers than fight. Unusual friendships can be found in a wordless book about a fox that loves a chicken as a companion not a main course, a series about a cat that is best buds with a mouse, a story about a tractor’s love for a cow and yet another cow story about befriending a pig. There is a princess who seems to do things backwards. There is a big wolf that discovers he likes the companionship of a little wolf. A favorite of mine involves a straight guy—literally, he’s drawn with all straight lines—who struggles for acceptance in a town where everyone and everything consists of scribbles.
I could go on. Children’s authors and publishers love the themes of differences and accepting yourself for who you are. Teachers do read these books to classes and use them as wonderful discussion starters. All that needs to happen is these discussion starters need to be used as comfortable springboards for dealing with the “That’s so gay” comments that children blurt at young ages. Gay describes two teen boys or two teen girls who love each other. It also describes two men or two women who love each other. Keep it simple. Talk about how the putdown would offend these people. Kids get it. Each time a gay putdown is uttered, deal with it. Teachers establish the climate of a classroom and a playground. How we deal with one another in respectful ways should take priority over the area of a circle. Let’s put things in perspective: I’ve never had to use that math formula as an adult, but I deal with differences every day.
Starting in grade five, the gay putdowns increase, particularly in the change room after gym and on the sports field. Many who taunt learn to whisper their insults, but teachers need to continue to create an environment where putdowns can be reported and addressed. Some of the most impulsive boys never learn how to speak quietly. Their whispers would wake a hibernating bear. More teachers now address comments that are brought to them, but that is not enough. You don’t have to be an eavesdropper to pick up on inappropriate language and gay putdowns. Teachers and coaches need to consistently address what they hear, not just what is reported. Any leeway will only snowball into something bigger. How a teacher deals with what is heard makes all the difference. If talks lead to punishment, the person who reports is deemed a tattletale or a rat. If the issue is dealt with in a way to foster understanding rather than to impose punishment, then there is no resentment (or wrath) imposed on the person who reports the putdowns.
In British Columbia, teachers and other adults can cite the law to support their talks about homophobia. The B.C. Human Rights Code states that it is illegal to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation. Having legal protection against homophobia is vital. Sexual orientation must be expressly included in any laws designed to prevent discrimination. Express mention gives tentative teachers something very clear to rely upon. Laws bring validation but they also provide vital support. Parents cannot successfully accuse schools of “promoting the homosexual agenda” when laws clearly state that discrimination is not allowed.
To recap, there is literature to support meaningful discussions about accepting people with differences. Fictional accounts can be safe springboards for meaningful discussion. Many picture books contain messages that can be applied to a wide range of situations. As well, in many jurisdictions, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation is enshrined in legislation or through court rulings. The legal language provides clear support for creating an environment that disallows homophobia. More than anything, adults need to take the lead. They need to address putdowns in order to foster an atmosphere of acceptance where all children can thrive without fear of bullying. No more turning the other way. No more pretending not to hear or see. No more saying, “Just ignore it.” No more responses that are the equivalent to “Buck up.” Our young people deserve more from the adults entrusted with leading them and shaping them into respectful, responsible citizens.