A Letter to Educators
On Jan. 2, 1997, my 14 year old gay son, Robbie Kirkland, committed suicide after a four year struggle to accept and find peace with his homosexuality. Our family loved, accepted, and supported him, but we could not protect him from the rejection and harassment he encountered at school. Robbie knew too well society's prejudice toward homosexuals. Since his death, I have spoken out in an effort to bring sensitivity, awareness, and tolerance for gay youth. Therefore, I am urging educators to reach out to gay students that continue to suffer in silence from the many acts of homophobia which permeate our schools.
From an early age, gay students--and heterosexual students who are perceived as gay-- are often teased and harassed by their peers and even by some teachers because they are perceived as different. As early as first grade, Robbie was teased and harassed because he was not athletic and had a slight lisp. Most of the teasing and physical attacks Robbie experienced occurred out of the teacher's view in hallways, playgrounds, bathrooms, locker rooms, buses, and unsupervised classrooms. Many of these acts of aggression are subtle, but persistent. Over time name calling, pushes, and general exclusion leave children feeling ashamed, insecure, and alone. Victims of harassment rarely disclose these acts to others. Robbie did tell us in the early grades. In response to this knowledge we took him to a counselor and even changed his school. Unfortunately, the teasing and harassment proceeded to escalate as Robbie got older, but he stopped telling us about it. By the time Robbie knew he was gay at age 10, he was already aware of the hatred associated with being gay. His schoolmates used the words such as faggot, queer, gay, and homo as the primary means for insulting and attacking one another.
I ask educators to reach out to gay students, as well as all students from a variety of diverse backgrounds, by being guardians, advocates, and allies for them. Educators need to notice when a student seems upset, uncomfortable, or scared. In these situations, educators should make an extra effort to speak privately with students and offer them support and trust. Even if they fail to confide the cause of their suffering, just knowing that someone cares and notices their suffering can be comforting and further sustain them. Beyond this, educators should refer suffering students to school counselors and advise their parents of the student's emotional state. Parents should take the educators concerns seriously and consider the resources available to help their children. Even if the child never confides their homosexuality to their parents or teachers, they might be able to do so in a therapy counseling setting. Educators must interrupt and address homophobic acts with students and faculty. In order to develop the tools necessary to defeat acts of homophobia, all educators should undergo gay sensitivity and awareness training. The goal of this type of training is to provide a safe learning atmosphere for all youth. This training would be beneficial to educators, who find themselves uncomfortable or unable to respond to homophobic acts. Additionally, such training programs should teach educators to respond if a student were to disclose their sexuality to them. Gay sensitivity and awareness must be included as part of all schools' curriculums. Schools should stress acceptance, tolerance, and respect for all, regardless of perceived or visible differences. Student diversity programs must begin in grade school to effectively combat prejudice.
Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender (glbt) youth must see themselves in the curriculum. Including glbt figures in such subjects as history and literature would give a message of hope to gay youth. Hope that they too can live a productive successful life despite being born gay in a homophobic world.
Gay Straight Student Alliances should exist in all schools. Such groups provide peer support and acceptance to gay students and help students understand issues of homophobia and sexual identity regardless of their sexual orientation. Students can learn how to effectively cope with and address acts of homophobia. Their existence sends a powerful message to closeted students, that theirs peers would still accept and support them, even if they knew that they were gay.
I truly believe that the elementary grades must have support groups for students who are teased and harassed and those who support them. These support groups would be a place of support and camaraderie and students could learn ways to deal with the cruelty of others. The very existence of such a group would send an antiharassment message to others. Robbie could have benefited from such a support group in the early grades, where he first encountered the cruelty of others.
Schools should have clear harassment policies for all of those marginalized in the schools, including gay and lesbian teachers who need to be protected. Harassment policies should include sexual orientation. Harassment policies should be familiar to both teachers and students and hopefully would serve as a deterrent against harassment. There should be antidiscrimination policies which would protect teachers from dismissal based on their sexual orientation. Such a policy would enable gay teachers to be out and proud. Their presence would send a message of hope to gay youth and would provide role models in a world with too few gay role models.
Schools must acknowledge and address the teasing and harassment that occurs out of the teacher's view. Character Education and Citizenship Programs could empower youth to speak up and help others who are targeted. Such prevention-based programs can create an environment of acceptance of diversity and compassion for others. A confidential hotline to report teasing and harassment would also be helpful.
It is too late for my beloved son, but not too late for other youth at risk of assaults, harassment, isolation, alienation, and suicide. Thank you for any effort that you can make on behalf of gay youth and marginalized students. You never know the eventual impact of your actions. You may save a life.
Leslie Powell Sadasivan