Opinion Blog

Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Schools Practice NOH8?

By Peter DeWitt — December 26, 2012 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

“The very first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” All human beings - not some, not most, but all. No one gets to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

There have always been people in power, and those who are not, who want to decide who is entitled to human rights and who is not. Sometimes it’s through debate or calm discussion. Other times it’s through protest, hate speech and violence. Depending on where you live in the world, it matters which group you belong to. There are always special privileges to those who belong to the dominant group.

In a recent speech, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, “LGBT people suffer discrimination because of their sexual orientation and gender identity at work, at clinics and hospitals, and in schools - the very places that should protect them.” According to the U.N., “more than 76 countries criminalize homosexuality.” There are many people who are perfectly fine with the criminalization of that group.

The speech symbolized another step forward for the LGBT community, who is also seeing landmark cases go to the Supreme Court about Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If you have been paying attention for the past ten years, you have seen an increase in visibility of the LGBT community. When that happens, hate groups try to speak louder and try their best to send stronger messages.

As the LGBT community moves forward there are still areas where there has been very little progression at all. Unfortunately for many LGBT students, schools are not known for their supportive environments and these marginalized students have to wait to leave the school system before they feel that they can truly be who they are. It’s true that there are thousands of schools who promote inclusive environments for all students. Too often though, both in school and society, these students are met with harassment, bullying from peers and outside groups as well as family and peer pressure to change their sexual orientation.

According to the American Institutes for Research, “An estimated 2.7 million adolescents who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual live in the United States.” A 2011 Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study found that, “the majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns” (Kosciw).

In this day and age public schools should make sure that they allow all students a place at the table. Their gender, sexual orientation, religion or race should not prevent them from having a voice. Schools should work harder to ensure that all students are engaged in school and don’t feel threatened or at risk when they go there. There have been too many tragedies in our nation and we should do a better job at addressing those students who feel the most marginalized.

Students Should be Encouraged to Practice NOH8
Essentially when one group’s rights are at stake, everyone’s rights are at stake.” Adam Bouska

As students leave high school further and further behind after graduation, many find that they don’t have to be defined by who they were when they were there. Students find that they can break out of the constraints of doing the right thing or being with the right people. They don’t have to be defined by who is popular and who is not and they find their own circle of friends. Diversity has the potential to create learning experiences for everyone. We live in an exciting world.

In their NOH8 Campaign, celebrity photographer Adam Bouska and partner Jeff Parshley have created a movement that focuses on celebrating differences and creating safer spaces for LGBT students and adults. Adam and I recently had a conversation about how students and adults can learn from one another at the same time they respect their differences. His NOH8 Campaign brings exciting life to the conversation about diversity and equality.

Bouska says, “The NOH8 campaign really started as a silent photographic protest to the passage of Proposition 8 which was a ban on gay marriage. We started taking one picture at a time and it just grew and grew and really became a protest against all types of discrimination and hate. Everyone is different in their own way and we really need to take pride in that. The NOH8 campaign is meant to spark the conversation about differences and be a catalyst for change.”

(Adam Bouska)

As educators, we need campaigns like this! Campaigns that inspire conversation through the use of art or music. We, as educators, believe that all students deserve to come to school and feel safe but we know that not all of the adults who live in the communities that surround our school feel the same way. We also understand that discrimination and bigotry can begin at a very young age which is why we try to teach students about diversity and celebrate differences. Too often, however, that is only related to gender and race.

Unfortunately, LGBT differences have been too far off the spectrum for schools and they are often left out of the conversation. This creates a hidden curriculum of discrimination and schools can do a lot better where this is concerned. The NOH8 Campaign can help teach our schools about equality.

Bouska says, “

Schools have a responsibility to include non-discrimination policies, which also need to be addressed in their sports programs. I think they need to have Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA) which offers an outlet to students to get involved. GSA’s also provide a venue for students to watch over non-discrimination safeguards in school and sort of helps provide a checks and balances.

In addition, schools need to include curriculum which would cover LGBT history which is an important part of that. As we have seen in the past with the Women’s Right Movement or the Civil Rights’ Movement, the LGBT movement is the same in that we are a marginalized population. Having curriculum that includes the LGBT community will help portray a positive example for all students


Why is this important? Why does this need to happen in schools and not in the family dynamic? It actually needs to happen in both places. Schools should be a place to teach about social justice. Schools have community service requirements and character education programs so they can teach students about helping others. Schools need to prepare students for the real world which means they need to offer some exposure to diverse groups.

Bouska said, “

As individuals in society we all have a responsibility to make change and make a difference. For students particularly, we have to make it relatable to them. The NOH8 message is not just about LGBT youth; this is about something that affects everybody. Hate and discrimination have the potential to affect another group next year or years after that. Essentially when one group’s rights are at stake, everyone’s rights are at stake.

We need young people to understand how relatable it is to their own lives. The NOH8 campaign, although it began with Proposition 8, rides on the fact that we are all different and people in different communities need to come forward and expand our message by telling their own stories and that’s how students can be empowered to create change. They can share their own stories


In the End
Why are comments by the U.N. Secretary General important? If schools can’t listen to the leader of the United Nations there is a problem. Perhaps things are not as bad in the U.S. as they are in other countries, but we can all learn that there is a great deal of hate still in the world and our students can help change that. Perhaps if schools change it within their own buildings, than there is a better chance it would change from a global perspective as well.

Why should schools listen to a celebrity photographer? Our students are surrounded by pop culture and there are times when they listen to those active participants in pop culture more than they listen to their parents and teachers. Adam Bouska and his partner Jeff Parshley are spreading a very important message through art. It’s a message about equality and many schools still have a lot to learn in that area.

Connect with Peter on Twitter

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.