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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Media Stereotypes, LGBT Youth and a Documentary Worth Watching

By Peter DeWitt — October 10, 2011 4 min read
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“While in my childhood the values of social justice and equity were instilled, I received no messages suggesting gays and lesbians were deserving of just and equitable treatment” (Roper, 2005, p. 82).

On Thursday, a documentary created by a young woman named Morgan Wilcock won Best Documentary in the Project VoiceScape competition. Ms. Wilcock took an opportunity to create a documentary for (and about) LGBT youth because she wanted to speak up about the homophobia she sees in society. The documentary, which is linked below is entitled This Gay and Age. If educators want to know how a segment of their student population feels, they should take 20 minutes to watch this documentary.

The Influence of Media
What television shows do you watch when you sit home to relax in the evening? Do you watch sports or perhaps a Lifetime movie? We all find shows that we can identify with, or programs that give us something to strive for in life. They provide us with a way to escape our lives and be swept into the lives of others, whether it is for an hour or a few hours. If we’re lucky enough we can find a few characters and shows that draw our attention.

Television has changed over the years from shows in black and white on stations that ended after the nightly news to a multiple-sized flat-screened television 24/7 industry. Most stations keep running shows all night long, and if we can’t find our favorites on television, we can certainly get connected to them through YouTube and other internet sites. Adults and children can make an instant connection to anything they want, which can be both positive and negative.

The positive aspect is that children are more exposed to a diverse world if they choose to search for it. However, the negative side is that if the characters they see in movies, newspapers and television shows only play to stereotypes, the viewers are being sent the wrong message. Viewers are at risk to being exposed to situations that may not be true, all for a laugh that lasts a few minutes but the side effects could last for years.

Media Stereotypes
Characters in television shows and movies play to the stereotypes we have about those groups they represent. We all have stereotypes that come to mind when we think of different groups. However, our LGBT population has been fighting negative stereotypes for decades. Everyone needs a good laugh now and then just as long as it is not always at the expense of one particular group. Unfortunately, LGBT characters are still being shown in one kind of light, and it is no longer good enough to just have a presence on television. They need some equality.

More movies and television shows are offering gay characters, like Glee and Modern Family. However, this increase in the number of gay main and supporting characters, whom are not necessarily played by gay actors, is a fairly new phenomenon. “Prior to Ellen Morgan’s (along with her real-life counterpart, Ellen Degeneres) much publicized coming out in 1997, and the following year’s Will Truman of NBC’s Will and Grace, no major network television program had a lesbian or gay lead character” (Gross, 2001, p.14).

Hopefully, most of the gay characters we now see on television provide a positive role model to the viewers, because if they do not, the mere exposure is not enough. Negative stereotypes can be harmful for the LGBT community because they can perpetuate the ideas that heterosexual viewers may already have of gay people. Viewers who lack exposure to gay characters need to see how “normal” members of the LGBT community really are, and they need to see these characters being accepted by people from a variety of backgrounds, not just open-minded left wing citizens.

Television and movies provide us with people we want to emulate. It gives us a glimpse into the lives of others, whether it’s reality television, a drama or comedy. As kids grow up they see characters they strive to be in the future. Media can have a large impact on the growth and development of adolescents (Slater, et al.).

When our LGBT students watch television and movies, we want them to see characters they would be proud of, not tragic figures who are surrounded by negative circumstances. They deserve to see normal every day characters that happen to be gay. Exposure to these characters can bring an understanding and self-awareness, which will help them as they grow.

Speaking Up and Speaking Out
As adults, we often worry that our young men and women do not stand up for anything. We go to teacher rallies and other events and look around for our young people. However, if we want them to stand up, we must allow them to speak up in our classrooms and schools. We must allow students to have a voice, even if it is in opposition to what we are teaching. Our job as educators is to teach them how to speak up properly.

“This Gay & Age,” by Morgan Wilcock, was provided courtesy of Project VoiceScape/POV. Project VoiceScape is a project of Adobe Youth Voices, Adobe Foundation’s global signature philanthropy program; POV, public television’s award-winning showcase for independent nonfiction films; and PBS.

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Gross, L. (2001). Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. Roper, Larry D. (2005). The Role of Senior Student Affaris Officers in Supporting LGBT Students: Exploring the Landscape of One's Life, New Directions for Student Services no. 111, pp. 81-88. Slater, Michael; Hayes, Andrew, The Influence of Youth MTV/VH1 Viewership on increasing Rates of Cigarette Use and Association with Smoking Peers: A Parallel Process Model, International Communication Association, 2009 Annual Meeting, p1-33, 34p.

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.