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The Power of Dialogue Across Difference

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During a unit on oppression and discrimination I was teaching last year, my students spent half a period quizzing me about homosexuality. Rather than just rattle off unconsidered answers, I asked them if they wanted me to arrange for a panel of gay speakers to come to our class. They were quite enthusiastic, and I proposed the idea to my principal.

In many parts of the San Francisco Bay area, homosexuality is accepted and even celebrated. But in the urban community of Hayward, Calif., where I taught 10th-grade world history, students and teachers regularly engaged in a steady stream of anti-gay ridicule. At a very ethnically diverse school, in which there were tremendous negative peer pressures against racism, homophobia seemed the accepted prejudice. Students regularly called each other "faggot'' in and out of classes, and teachers often did not feel as comfortable calling students out on these comments as they did condemning racism or sexism. Their acceptance created an atmosphere where most gay teachers and students chose not to "come out'' on campus. When a well-respected senior boy showed up at the prom with his male date, students gossiped uncontrollably for weeks, and rumors flew that he was being targeted for after-school bashing.

My goals as a teacher were to bring issues of oppression into the open. From the relationship between labor and management in the Industrial Revolution, to British colonialism in India, to the genocidal policies of the Nazi party, students in my classes came to see that the real "story'' in history is about power relationships. How we treat each other on a local or international scale is a reflection of our level of progress as a world community, both politically and morally. My goal was that students would begin to think deeply about their roles and responsibilities as members of a complex and diverse society.

I invited speakers from the Pacific Center in Berkeley (a gay/lesbian/bisexual support and outreach organization that regularly sends speakers to local schools) to my classroom, which I combined with a close colleague's class. In order to get permission for this, my principal had to get permission from the superintendent, and I had to send home a note explaining to parents what was happening and giving them the option of exempting their child. Not surprisingly, I'd had speakers from organizations like Amnesty International who needed little formal permission. As a result of a parent phone call to my principal about the presentation, he warned me first thing in the morning that if these speakers stepped "over the line,'' I should "intervene.'' Again, I wondered if he would have given the same admonition to me under any other circumstance. (Throughout the day, I was amused to see the principal, the vice principal, and the assistant principal in my classroom!)

The speakers opened by telling students who they were (their jobs, where they lived, and so on) and told them a little about their history of homosexuality (how and when they figured out they were gay, how they told parents and friends). They then almost immediately began to answer students' questions, some of which students wrote on pieces of papers which I handed to the speakers. The speakers were up-front and honest, and were not offended by any of the questions. By the end, students didn't need to write their questions down. The speakers had created such a comfortable climate that students were able to directly raise intensely personal issues. The issues they raised were, themselves, perhaps the most telling data on what students do and do not understand about homosexuality, lesbianism, and sexuality. Their quest to make sense of the issue refutes many of our assumptions about students' abilities and desires to be reflective about the world around them.

Many of the questions reflected students' attempts to grapple over homosexuality within their own minds. While they seemed anxious to understand the answer to the nature/nurture debate over the origins of homosexuality, their questions also reflected their nervousness about their own nascent sexualities: Were you a tomboy? Why don't you like the opposite sex? Are any people in your family the same as you? How old were you when you found out you were gay? Do you think you'll ever be straight? Have you had sex with the opposite sex? Do you think people who were straight at our age could turn out gay? Some questions reflected what students might have believed to be the reason a person was gay: Have you ever been raped? This question also might reflect student's overriding fears that gay people are themselves rapists (many boys said, "They can do what they want as long as they don't touch me'').

Students wanted to know how gays and lesbians act in everyday life, perhaps to see how different or similar they were to the general population, perhaps testing how similar or different they were to gay people: Do guys act like girls and what do girls act like? Do you have a boyfriend? Do you live in the same house? They also wanted to understand how homosexuals think about the possibilities of becoming parents: Do you ever plan to have children? How do you expect to have children if you are a lesbian? Wouldn't the child miss the qualities only a mother/father could give? These are questions any "Oprah'' audience might come up with, but these students were more than simply curious, they seemed absolutely obsessed with trying to reformulate the rigid boxes in their minds.

What I found most interesting was the fact that students had so many very direct questions about homosexual sex. What became clear to me during this presentation was just how uninformed students really are, and how they consider discussions of people's sexual practices completely open for public dialogue if they are different in nature than the norm. I imagined a panel of heterosexual speakers being asked the same questions. (I wondered, too, if students were any better informed in that area.) Questions that bordered on the ludicrous illuminated their utter ignorance, and some represent the possibility that students think homosexuals have a different biological makeup than do heterosexuals.

The last major category of questions related to levels of harassment and the speakers' reaction to being "out'' about their sexualities: Do you feel strange being affectionate in public? Have you ever been embarrassed to be gay? Have you ever been gay-bashed? Do you show that you are gay in public? Do you feel uncomfortable around people who don't know you're gay? What do you tell people when they make fun of you? Are you open about your sexuality with everyone? Do you think that if you were a movie star or a famous musician you would hide your sexuality? This line of questioning seemed to partially stem from discussions we'd had in class, but the questions reflect students' need to really understand what life is like in a gay community. Because that lifestyle is foreign, these students wanted to see if the speakers were really "outcasts'' in their society.

Speakers were quite honest with students about these issues. They shared funny anecdotes which the students could relate to. By the end of the presentation, students (and guest administrators) applauded the speakers, and several stayed afterward to talk further. At the end of the day, speakers, colleagues, and I were exhausted but thrilled. None of us had expected things to go so positively. In the office, the principal and vice principal actually shook my hand and thanked me.

The next day, students were asked to give written, anonymous evaluations of the speakers, which I then sent to the Pacific Center. Students were overwhelmingly positive about the speakers, even if some still expressed a distaste for homosexuality. They also expressed their understanding of how the issue might fit into overall conceptions of diversity:

"Gays and lesbians are human, the only difference between us is they have different views about life. They have different feelings and understandings, but they don't do anything wrong. Their presentations helped me to get rid of some misunderstandings of gays and lesbians.''

"I am glad you got the point across that being gay or lesbian doesn't mean you have a disease or you are a social outcast, but are a real person, you just prefer a different sex. ... Students need to be educated and know that being gay is not a social disease, it's just who you like, and being gay doesn't equal AIDS. Besides, those who are gay may need someone to talk to and with guest speakers, maybe teenagers who are gay can be open and talk about their problems.''

"I think it is important for high school students to hear about homophobia because it will make them more well-rounded or able to work with the many types of people in not only our society but the societies of the world.''

"I totally have a view of gays and lesbians now after this presentation because, at first I used to think that, how could someone be like that? That it is so disgusting, but now I look at it from a different perspective, that it's their own sexual preference.''

"I like that they were very open and they weren't embarrassed telling people that they were lesbian and gay. That they tried to answer the questions as well as they could.''

"If people understood gays and got along with them then the world would have less violence.''

In these very answers lies the essence of the transformative power of dialogue across difference. As educators, one of our greatest responsibilities is to learn how to communicate to students the importance of knowing who they are and what they believe. Students want to see us as role models who are able to say who we are, even if students do not agree. It takes courage for heterosexual teachers to be allies to our homosexual students and colleagues and to actually initiate a dialogue that uncovers the mysteries that so easily become damaging stereotypes. We abuse our privilege when we do not step in. In the social sciences, the classroom is a place to help students achieve a broad perspective on their society and develop skills to weave within it. It is our role to help students see the "other side'' of the predominant messages they receive from media outside of school, and create their own, well-reasoned critiques and ideas.

Beth Bernstein taught high school social science in Hayward, Calif., for three years. She is currently a doctoral student in the urban-superintendents program at the Harvard University graduate school of education.

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