Breaking Silence

LGBT youth, bullying, and the culture of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in schools
Guest post
by Adina Lepp

If Jordan[1] was a student in your classroom, what would you do to make her feel safe?

At 15, her parents kicked her out of their home.

“It’s not like I had tattoos of rainbows across my forehead, but I’ve always been a tomboy, so I didn’t have a choice to come out.”

Although Jordan is a lesbian, she didn’t actually come out to her parents. It may look like she was kicked out for being gay, but in actuality, she was kicked out for looking gay. She just dressed how she felt comfortable—usually in baggy t-shirts, cargo shorts and Vans—and  as a result of how she looked, she was disciplined for being a lesbian.

I wondered—would Jordan still live with her parents if she looked more like a girl?

After getting kicked out, she slept wherever she could. Some nights she slept on couches at party houses. Some nights she slept in a field not far from her  parents’ house. Some nights she spent  walking around town and didn’t sleep at all.

When she came to school, she was harassed.

“The bathroom situation was always awkward. Not knowing if there was a gender neutral bathroom, or where it was, so I’d just hold it. I got tired of girls asking me if I was in the right bathroom. Their jock boyfriends were often waiting for me outside of the bathroom.”

“There was this kid named Austin who I went to middle school with. He was popular and came from money. Every day he was a dick to me. He would follow me around the school every day and call me dyke, bitch, whatever he wanted to. I hated him but he never got in trouble.”

The harassment that she was experiencing “substantially interfered with [her] educational benefits, opportunities or performance” as defined by The Oregon Safer Schools Act. The two teachers that she spoke to about Austin encouraged her to file a grievance report, but they didn’t follow up with her. After her conversations with her teachers, she didn’t file a grievance report. She didn’t feel like her teachers took her seriously, so she stopped telling her teachers about the harassment.

I wonder—would her teachers have responded differently to her if her harassment had involved physical harm?

The Oregon Safe School Act defines bullying as anything which has the effect of “physically harming a student or damaging a student’s property or knowing placing a student in reasonable fear of physical harm, or creating a hostile educational environment.”

Notice that while “hostile educational environment” is listed, its at the bottom of the list. What Jordan was experiencing is clearly identified as bullying. Yet I think that as a result of the way that the bill is written, and perhaps because of how teachers talk about bullying, physical violence is seen as a much bigger safety concern than emotional violence.

“By the end of freshman year, I was addicted to cocaine, binge drinking and pill popping. It all felt wrong. I was sick of not being a good enough girl and having people pick on me for it. I had a 0.0 GPA and was ready to drop out.”

Jordan wasn’t bullied for holding hands with another girl in the hallways. She wasn’t bullied for coming out as a lesbian to the school. She was bullied for looking gay.

I thought back to my own schooling. When I was in middle school, I wrestled on the primarily male team. I didn’t dress like a boy, but I wrestled. As a result of my participation in a predominately male sport, I was called ‘dyke’ in the hallways. I didn’t identify as gay yet. I didn’t pin rainbows to my backpack straps. I didn’t have any real awareness about my sexuality, and yet walking down the hallway in my wrestling warm-ups, other people saw me as gay.

Most women who wrestle on male-dominated sports aren’t gay. Most people aren’t gay. And yet, a female participating in a sport which is coded masculine looked gay to other people. When I was called ‘dyke’ in the hallways, I wasn’t actually accused of being gay. I was being disciplined for acting differently than was I was expected to act as a girl.

The threat of being perceived as gay kept other girls in my high school out of the wrestling room. Just like the threat of being seen as gay prevented boys from wearing dresses or makeup. But it isn’t just homophobia that keeps students dressing and acting in ways that are in line with cultural expectations of how one should act as a girl or a boy—it is also the social system which assigns masculine traits and activities to ‘boy’ and feminine traits and activities to ‘girl’ in a system of assumed heterosexuality. In order to successfully pass as a girl, you need to look straight. In other words, feminine. 

Jordan’s experience getting kicked out of her house for looking like a boy, and my experience getting harassed for wrestling aligns with the data from a national survey of over 3,400 students aged 13-18 on bullying and harassment. Two-thirds (65%) of teens report that they have been verbally or physically harassed or assaulted during the past year because of their perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, race/ethnicity, disability or religion.

The most common reason for harassment is not any one particular identity, but because of “perceived or actual appearance.” The reason most commonly cited for being harassed frequently is a student’s appearance. Four in ten (39%) teens report that students are frequently harassed for the way they look or their body size. The next most common reason for frequent harassment is sexual orientation. One-third (33%) of teens report that students are frequently harassed because they are or are perceived to be lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Notice again that students are just as likely to be harassed if they are perceived to be LGBT as if they actually are LGBT. The message for LGBT youth is: school is safer for you aren’t perceived as LGBT by other students.

At the University of Oregon Teach Out second annual Leadership Summit, Debra Chasnoff, documentary filmmaker of It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay issues in Schools, among other films which address bullying and gender identity in schools, outlined how schools can be safer for everyone:

“The curriculum must have positive representatives of LGBT people. Only 25% of schools surveyed had an LGBT inclusive curriculum.”

GLSEN’s 2009 National Climate Survey revealed that when educators include positive representations of LGBT people, history, and events in their curricula, students experiences school as a less hostile place.

Joy Koenig, Interim Vice Principal at Monroe Middle School agreed that its important to teach an LGBT inclusive curriculum, and she also stressed the importance of micropositives, or verbal and nonverbal celebrations of the LGBT community. An example of a micropositive would be the University of Oregon Education Department lanyard. It is rainbow stripped and says “UO PRIDE” on it. Another example would be to hang a poster highlighting LGBT contributions to history or literature in your classroom, or a “safe space” sticker on your classroom door. 

“Kids know the code. And kids who are questioning will look for that code. It gives them reassurance that its okay to be themselves,” Koenig said.

Barb MacWilliams, a teacher in Eugene 4 J school district decorates her classroom with safe space posters. She has a small rainbow sticker on her staff ID card. She teaches at a school which is  a self-declared Discrimination Free Zone (DFZ). This means that that along with anti-bullying education, there is school-wide identity specific anti-bullying education. This year one of their topics of focus is racism. It also means that when a student says something derogatory, students are instructed to interrupt it and respond with “DFZ.” I completed my student teaching at this school and noticed that DFZ posters were prominent, and I heard students say DFZ to each other often, but 6th graders often treated DFZ as a game.

MacWilliams jokingly refers to herself as the DFZ police:

“I try to interrupt ‘that’s so gay’ every single time I hear it. Their automatic response is always ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ So I ask them, ‘how many people do you think heard you say that? Do you know for sure that no one who heard you has gay sisters or brothers or parents?’ The biggest assumption that I come up against is that everyone is straight.”

That’s so gay is not just about gay people. MacWilliams noticed that ‘gay’ is used as a general put down, a synonym for dumb or stupid, but that it is also specifically targeted at boys that are acting “like a girl.” She also noticed that a student may call two boys who are standing close to each other ‘gay’, but that girls who hold hands are not often called gay.  MacWilliams said, “The gesture of girls holding hands is so overt that kids don’t make fun of it.” 

In the film It’s Still Elementary, shown at a UO Teach OUT workshop targeted at students in the teacher education program, Chasnoff said,

“When it is acceptable to use derogatory language in schools, how much are we letting homophobia operate as a tool to control all of us?”

In 2001, MacWilliams came out to one of her classes in a related lesson. As a result of her coming out, a group of parents lobbied TSPC to get her license revoked. In June of 2001 the same parents got a hold of the parent list of the incoming 6th grade class. The following September, 40 students dropped her class.

She hasn’t come out in the same public way since.

“My room is a safe space. Many students know that I’m gay. The kids don’t care, its the families that care. But families don’t care until its a gay person talking about gay people in the classroom.”

“The challenge is the prevailing belief that gay issues are adult issues and that they have no place in the classrooms,” Chasnoff said in her film It’s Still Elementary. 

To address the obstacles of faculty to come out in school, at the beginning of this year all of the administrators in Eugene 4J District stood up in a district-wide staff meeting and made a pledge to their LGBT faculty: “We support you. If you choose to be out in school will support you.”

As part of the Teach OUT conference, about 100 student leaders gathered with teachers and administrators at the Eugene School District’s Education Center to discuss ways to reduce harassment and bullying directed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.

This is the first time that the conference has branched out to the school district.

“Twenty years ago, when I started this work, you could not say gay and student in the same sentence. There’s a much higher level of awareness today but bullying and gender norms still get in the way of students succeeding,” Chasnoff said.

The anonymous student response cards following the event were overwhelmingly positive:

“I got perspective on things I never got perspective on before.”

“I liked it because it is not what we talk about in schools. Hopefully there will be a difference.”

Peter Tromba, principal at Monroe Middle School sees Gay Straight Alliances as key to making sure schools are safer spaces for all students. Tromba initiated the GSA at Monroe and has been the adviser or co-adviser to Monroe’s GSA for four years. Tromba stated, “Its absolutely clear from all the data that the presence of a GSA brings down incidents of bullying and harassment for all kids, particularly for kids who have a non-normative gender expression.” 

Tromba went on to say that when forming a GSA, it is important to have one gay faculty member and one straight faculty member heading the club.

There was no GSA at Jordan’s school while she was there. The GSA is a place for students to gather, as well as a place for students to identify staff members who are allies. “There was no GSA at my school. There was no teacher I could turn to to talk about issues,” Jordan said.

When Jordan came to school, she was often hung over and sleep deprived, so she slept in class.

“My teachers had no hope for me. I don’t blame them, but I feel like they should have asked why or at least said, “you have a choice. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

If Jordan were my student, I’d like to say that I would hold her after class and talk to her honestly and without judgment about my concern for her. But I can’t say with 100% certainty that I would actually follow through with her, and that if I did that I wouldn’t speak with judgment or frustration in my voice. With class sizes so impossibly large, teaching has become an extreme sport. Every day my mind swirls with a million things to remember to say and do, worksheets to run off, grades to input, missing assignments to find, piles of papers to grade. It is more difficult to remember to follow-up with invisible students with so much else going on.

Class sizes are a real problem, but they are also an excuse, and like all excuses cover up ugly truths. I may not check in with Jordan not because I don’t have time, but because I may see how much she needs support, and I may not know how to be a good ally for her.

The teachers that Jordan spoke to about her bullies may have thought that directing her to write a grievance report was the right thing to do. They may have been trained to respond as they did.

I wonder—how can staff be better trained to respond to students like Jordan?

At the end of freshman year of high school, Jordan was ready to drop out. But a faculty member at her middle school who had become her mentor told her that she needed to make a change, and she transferred to an alternative school.

At the new school “they had an open door policy. I talked to my teachers about anything. I knew they were mandatory reporters, so I gave them a lot of hypothetical situations. I had an out teacher for the first time and it was okay. Having a staff member be my go to gay person made a big difference. As my support grew, I didn’t need alcohol or drugs anymore.”

Jordan graduated from high school this year. She plans to become a firefighter and is attending classes at the community college. She doesn’t spend her nights high on cocaine anymore, sleeping, if it all in a field not far form her parents’ house. She doesn’t sleep through her classes. She saw a drug and alcohol counselor and quit drugs. Now she lives in a homeless youth housing facility.

Jordan is doing better, but she didn’t have to go through everything she went through.

If the teachers that she had talked to about Austin had taken her complaints seriously, Jordan wouldn’t have felt so invisible.

I wonder—what would it take for teachers to take incidents of verbal harassment seriously?

In the DFZ school, students have more awareness of the term “that’s so gay,” but they still use the phrase, just maybe not around Barb MacWilliams and other teachers who frequently interrupt usage.

What would it take for schools to be truly safe spaces for everyone—students, parents, faculty and staff?

MacWilliams says that the obstacles to improving her school’s anti-bully curriculum are “time and money. Money to pay for the curriculum. Time to plan and deliver to students and time within the student day. In the age of OAKS testing, we lose track of anything not academic. Its all academic. The climate at the school affects academics. Our students would probably do better on assessments if the school were a safer space.”


[1]    Jordan is not the student’s real name.

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