Feature: Changes in Teaching influenced by Gay Students

With growing activism comes increased discussion, and discussion finds its way into the classroom which led to changes in schools. Educator Louie Crew brings us this quote: “Unless you are a sadist, you teach students to survive and thrive as who they are, not as who they are not” (Crew 1978). Through the 1970s and 1980s classroom discussion on homosexuality grew along with the amount of students and teachers coming out. This led to changes in teaching techniques, requirements, rights of teachers, and ultimately better treatment and more acceptance of homosexuality.

Education in the 1940’s through the 1960’s was mostly about experimentation and figuring out what worked best and how best to teach students. With experimentation came hesitance and relatively basic courses, many teachers were strict and did not stray from the curriculum. This experimentation made its way into the 1970’s as well, Joe Wagner, my Sociology professor was a high school in the 1970’s and shared with me his classroom experience. Classrooms in the 1970’s were exploring technological advances such as email, word processors, and digital cameras (Wagner). But the 1970’s also brought more gradual change in classroom ethic, this included a shift towards acceptance of their students who did not quite fit the norm.

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Since Stonewall, gay activism grew incredibly which led to many more people coming out and accepting their sexuality. But coming out was only the tip of the iceberg. Students felt their sexuality should not mean they could not get an equal education, though many faced this. Teachers would often ignore poor treatment of gay classmates including bullying and harassing. Being gay was still seen as wrong by most Americans, even into the 90’s. Acceptance of homosexuality didn’t surpass three quarters of Americans until the early 2000’s!

Many educators who had experience with openly gay students went on to talk to their committees and associations about how there needed to be a change in the system. These teachers had the power their students did not, and power is needed to spark change. These ideas were influenced often by gay students’ ideas earlier in their careers. These teachers witnessed the treatment and shame the gay students experienced every day in their classroom and sought to change it.

Louie Crew in her speech “The Faggot in the Woodpile” shares that by 1978 it was widely accepted that about 1 in 25 people in America were homosexual, this meant about 1 kid in every classroom and one teacher for every 25 classes. As for the gay students, they deserved equal teaching and no fear of aggression in their schools. She encouraged other teachers at the conference to imagine having a son who told you he was gay, would you not want the best for him anyway? Keeping with the times she said that ultimately she would question it and blame herself, but in the end he is still her son and she would do anything for him. Crew encouraged teachers to be informed and break the stigma of treating their gay students as lesser. She states that if you’re going to change what you love to be accepted you may as well be dead. She believed that if these teenagers could not be themselves there is no point in being at all. This was a very progressive idea for a time where being gay was still not majorly accepted, but ideas like hers lead to change and inspired more open minded people to speak up. Crew presented these ideas in front of a large conference of English teachers, she inspired many more people.

Joseph DeVito similarly spoke to the Annual Meeting of the Speech Community in 1979, he believed that the increase in openly gay students meant there was a desire for openly gay teachers as well. This was a bit radical for time when many teachers were being fired simply for saying they were gay outside the school environment. DeVito said that the first step was acknowledging that these teachers had rights and could not simply be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation. And secondly, representation matters; for gay students it is important that they see gay adults living a happy life and functioning with society. These teachers would be strong mentors and could provide a more comfortable environment for the now growing gay student population. His ideas, which soon went into action in some schools near his teaching location of Hunter College, included engaging students in discussions which positively depicted homosexuality, eliminating discriminatory speech, and punishing abusive criticism. When adopted in local middle school and high schools the gay students felt supported and equal.

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Many gay students felt it was their job to educate others, and increased classroom discussion time allowed for this. As schools became more accepting of this discussion, parents and religious groups lashed out. They were appalled by how the school administration was allowing for openly gay teachers to work there, but from prior cases openly gay teachers were protected and could not be terminated on these grounds. Nationally, you could not fire a teacher for being openly gay, but you could fire them for engaging in gay sexual activity or advocating for sexual activity to students. Many schools saw a grey area in between the two where it was not clear what was right and wrong for teachers to do.This greatly angered those who were strongly religious, such as Anita Bryant the adovcate for both Christianity and California oranges (who very deservingly got a pie to the face) who pushed for California to not allow anyone who identified as gay to be a public school teacher, which was thankfully denied.

She was not alone in this battle, many organizations such as the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family saw the growing acceptance of gay students and teachers as moral decay in America. In addition to their constant lobbying, many Christians believed that gay youth were destined to face mental health issues in their adulthood. Many gay liberation leaders agreed with this and said it was due to opinions like this one which belittled them and demanded additional help for gay teenagers in their fragile developing years.

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Many gay liberation opposition groups did not grow along with the gay liberation movement because they did not allow members under 21 for fear of being in trouble for allowing underage members. Since the organizations already consisted of primarily middle aged adults, as the years passed their ignorance perished along with them. These beliefs seem so primitive, but we still have these issues today. For reference, groups such as the Westboro Baptist Church still spread hate whenever they can. They are very similar to the groups in the 1970’s.

Schools began to in a way recognize the pain and mental health issues the intense bullying was bringing onto their gay students. Rather than handle the situation, they brought in additional help. Soon Social Workers were being trained to handle the issues gay students presented to them. They became counselors who worked specifically with the gay students, but often they just diverted the student to some organization that could better assist them.

These organizations soon made their way into higher education which was more accepting of changing their ways. In 1985 a workshop was developed to help residence hall advisors and other campus officials become more tolerant of gay students. The workshop had 3 goals:  1. Increase awareness of the issue at hand, 2. Develop an understanding of what being gay means, and 3. Assist staff in becoming more understanding. This was done in a 4 part program: 1.desensitization, 2. Reeducation, 3. Panel presentations and 4. Discussions in a group setting. This was seen to work at Cornell and the University of South Carolina.

Additionally, the Gay Student Organizations had more power in universities it seemed with each passing year. In many instances, the organization sued schools on terms of discrimination, such as the Gay Student Organization v. Bonner who was trying to prevent gay students from dancing with people of their sex at school dances at the University of New Hampshire. School officials attended the dances and would separate all people of the same sex who were seen dancing together. The Gay Student Organization saw this as discrimination and denying them their basic rights. At first nobody thought this still growing organization would beat school officials, but they won because the court decided the First Amendment protected them.  This inspired more gay rights groups on college campuses to try and get equal representation and treatment.

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In other areas such as Texas A&M Tech, the organization was still just trying to get recognition. Students at this college wanted limited recognition so students could still be protected and not have to publically share their sexual identities, but the college was having no part of this. The students made reference to earlier that year in 1977 when a few gay students were threatened at knife point when trying to put up posters to encourage gay or questioning students to come to the meetings. The school officials did not care, all clubs and organizations needed full recognition, but the students believed the school should make this very minor accommodation in order to protect their students, ultimately it led to a court case which the organization won. The Gay Student Organization v. Texas A&M Tech is a turning point for how gay rights groups were treated on college campuses. The result of this case led to many more with similar outcomes.

This was good and provided a light at the end of the tunnel effect for gay youth. They knew that colleges were typically more accepting, and if they were not accepting the students could do something about it. Many gay liberation leaders greatly encouraged the gay teenagers to persevere through and make it to college. For many gay teenagers, it was very hard to have their voice heard. School officials did not budge when these teenagers raised ideas, parents and the school board had a stronger voice. When these teenagers entered college they had more independence, which allowed for parents to not know exactly what they were doing and discourage it. The first Gay Student Organization began in 1967 at Columbia University, but did not really pick up speed until the mid-1970s when some colleges saw the organization flourishing in other schools.

By the late 1980s most colleges had some kind of gay-straight alliance which allowed both gay students and straight students who supported them, only about 27% of members identified as heterosexual. Additionally, gay teachers could not be fired on the basis of being homosexual, there needed to an actual reason. Gay teachers now in demand, they provided solid role models for gay students; and additionally, counselors were taught how to handle the specific needs of gay students.

These changes did not just happen, the gay students in both college and in high school with the assistance of teachers brought these to life. With a lot of effort, some law suits, and progressive speeches the school system changed. No longer could gay students simply be ignored and placed on the back burner, these students needed to be acknowledged and assisted. They made a lasting impact on the school system.

April 29: Alex Burdo

Crew, Louie. “The Faggot in the Woodpile: Teaching Gay Students..” Lecture, Annual Meeting of the College English Assn., Atlanta, GA

DeVito, Joseph. “Educational Responsibilities to the Gay and Lesbian Student.” Lecture, Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association, San Antonio, TX

D’augelli, Anthony R. “Lesbians and Gay Men on Campus: Visibility, Empowerment, and Educational Leadership.” Peabody Journal of Education: 124-42. Accessed April 26, 2015.

Nolte, Chester. “Gay Teachers: The March from Closet to Classroom.” American School Board Journal 7:28-32. Accessed April 11, 2015.

Nuehring, E. M., S. B. Fein, and M. Tyler. “The Gay College Student: Perspectives for Mental Health Professionals.” The Counseling Psychologist 4, no. 4 (1974): 64-73.

Rausch, Fred. “Gay Liberation and the Public Schools.” National Organization on Legal Problems of Education. Accessed April 27, 2015.

Reichard, David A. ““We Can’t Hide And They Are Wrong”: The Society For Homosexual Freedom And The Struggle For Recognition At Sacramento State College, 1969–1971.” Law and History Review 28, no. 3, 629-74. Accessed April 26, 2015.

Schneider, Margaret S., and Bob Tremble. “Training Service Providers To Work with Gay or Lesbian Adolescents: A Workshop.” Journal of Counseling & Development: 98-99. Accessed April 24, 2015.

Schneider-Vogel, Merri. “Gay Teachers in the Classroom: A Continuing Constitutional Debate.” Journal of Law and Education 15, no. 3 (2015): 285-318.

Smart, James. “The Invisible Minority: Training Residence Hall Staff to Respond to Gay Issues.” Lecture, Annual Meeting of the American College Personnel Association

Staneley, William. “The Right of Gay Student Organizations.” Journal of College and University Law 10, no. 3, 397-418. Accessed April 27, 2015.

Warren, C. A.b., and J. S. Delora. “Student Protest in the 1970s: The Gay Student Union and the Military.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 7, no. 1 (1978): 67-90.

“Gay Students Organization v. Bonner: Expressive Conduct and First Amendment Protection.” Maine Law Review 26, no. 2. Accessed April 26, 2015.