Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Give back to HGSE and support the next generation of passionate educators and innovative leaders.

Current Issue

Fall 2010

Long Way to Go

More than two decades after the first gay-straight alliance was started at school, has much changed for students when it comes to gay rights?


Illustration with sharksIllustrations by Sandra Dionisi

When I was asked to write about the state of the schools for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth today, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I'm a former teacher and student myself, who struggled through high school east of Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid-1970s, and then taught deaf high school students in Columbus in the 1980s. In 1985-86, when I finally came out (to myself), and began to date other men, I was terrified of being discovered -- and rejected -- by my fellow teachers, some of whom were my friends. I left teaching after that year, moved to Boston, and went back to graduate school. In the 1990s, I briefly taught in two suburban districts south and west of Boston. In one of those schools, I came out to the staff during my first week. In the other, I remained fully closeted, afraid of clashing with my conservative Christian colleagues.

My teaching career ended before Ellen's historic kiss on primetime TV, before Will and Grace, before same-sex marriage, and the rise of gay-straight alliances. How, I wondered now, have things changed?

As I explored the topic, talking to teachers, former teachers, and other educators from Massachusetts to Illinois to California, I learned that simple answers are elusive; it was like trying to photograph a speeding train. Yes, things are changing and in some cases getting better, as society becomes more tolerant, they said. For example, I recently learned that my public high school back in Beachwood, Ohio, has a gaystraight alliance (GSA), and according to a former classmate who is now a teacher's aide at the school, "kids are just more accepting today," noting that her teenage daughter has several "out" gay friends. And in the states that have same-sex marriage, teachers can "come out" to their students in developmentally appropriate ways by mentioning their partners, as one of my friends did in a second-grade class that was working on writing their life stories.

And yet, most, if not all, public schools remain fundamentally unsafe for LGBT students. The most progressive schools, many of which are located in Massachusetts, are marked by administrators, teachers, and staff who are trying to "do the right thing" and to support their gay and lesbian students. But in many other schools, in New England and throughout the nation, the atmosphere for gay youth may not be much different, or much better, than it was for boys and girls like me back in the 1970s.

I started my interviews close to home, in a city known as the epicenter of liberalism, with Ed Byrne, the current diversity programs coordinator at Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School, just around the corner from Harvard. Sitting in Byrne's office, I noticed the school's mission statement on the wall, which read in part, "We maintain a nurturing, safe environment for every student."

Byrne, who is in his late 20s and grew up in the Boston area, has been active in providing support for LGBT youth since college. Before arriving in Cambridge, he helped establish approximately 50 gay-straight alliances in communities all around Massachusetts, along with a few in neighboring states. According to Byrne, and several other activists, many administrators are initially resistant to establishing GSAs, even though the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has encouraged them ever since 1993, when the department (then called the State Board of Education) recommended the establishment of GSAs across the state as one means of providing a supportive environment for LGBT students. (That same year, Massachusetts Governor William Weld passed a bill that made the state the first in the country to outlaw discrimination against gay and lesbian students in public schools.)

And so, even in liberal-leaning schools and towns, coming out in high school can be difficult. Even in progressive Cambridge, homophobia is evident. While saying "fag" is considered uncool among most students, "that's so gay" (meaning lame or stupid) is a common expression.

Byrne believes some gay and lesbian students don't want to "tempt fate" by being too visible at the high school. What happens, he wonders, when students are beyond the reach of supportive teachers and administrators. "What happens on Facebook? Texting?" he says. He and other educators are concerned about students whom "we're not reaching, some of whom are openly gay."

I also interviewed Arthur Lipkin, Ed.M.'76, chair of the Massachusetts Commission of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth, and a former teacher at Rindge. Lipkin, who came out in the early 1980s after teaching for almost 15 years, stresses the range of experiences a student can have within the same school or district. "Even at schools where some [students and teachers] are out and setting good examples, you could be living in the 1950s," he says. He and Byrne emphasize the additional challenges faced by LGBT students of color who often deal with issues of racism and who may not feel safe enough or ready to come out until there is a "critical mass of kids of color" in their schools.

In his role as chair of the Massachusetts Commission, Lipkin visits schools around the state. Currently, about two-thirds of Massachusetts high schools have GSAs, but that alone is not enough to create a sense of safety and inclusion for gay youth. According to two major surveys, the Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey and GLSEN's (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) National School Climate Survey, LGBT students are much more likely to experience verbal and physical harassment, and attempt suicide, than their straight peers. (The rate of "suicidality" is almost five times higher for gay, lesbian, and bisexual students than for their straight counterparts.) GLSEN's 2007 survey shows that 91 percent of gay students have heard "gay" used in a negative way, and 59 percent of LGBT middle-schoolers have experienced physical harassment; 43 percent of LGBT high school students have also been harassed.

Clearly, teachers and school staff need more training to address the harassment, yet funding is often an issue. In Massachusetts, for example, the Safe Schools Program has been cut significantly. Currently, there is no state money set aside for student programming or for teacher training on dealing with homophobia and antigay harassment.

As a result, educators both within and beyond Massachusetts explained that while teachers usually want to do the right thing, they are often unsure of what to do. When they hear homophobic epithets, they often ignore the behavior, for example. If this much work needs to be done in Massachusetts, what, I wondered, was the situation like in other parts of the nation?

illustration sharks and boatI continued my search at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Cambridge, with Virginia Cornelius, Ed.M.'96, a high school teacher in Oxford, Miss. Cornelius, who grew up in New York City. After 10 years of teaching at her high school, she finds her students very polite, with strong respect for authority. Therefore, she would be unlikely to hear anti-gay epithets, particularly when her students know she is "liberal."

But even putting politeness aside, Cornelius says things are changing in Mississippi. Though the school does not have a GSA or provide any formal support to gay and lesbian students, Cornelius feels that students know whom they can talk to; she cited the drama teacher and the Spanish teacher as other allies at the school. Some boys and girls in her school are out to a few people; she knows of students who are out to their mothers but not to their fathers. In addition, several former students have come out as gay or lesbian at Ole Miss, the University of Mississippi, which is also located in Oxford. One visited Cornelius and gave her an "ally" sticker to post on her bulletin board, explaining that her classroom is a safe space for LGBT kids. (No one has asked her to take the sticker down.)

After hearing from educators in Massachusetts, Mississippi, and my old classmate in Ohio, I took a brief snapshot of other states, including Maine, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York.

Betsy Parsons, C.A.S.'82, is cochair of the GLSEN chapter in Southern Maine and cocoordinator of the state's GSAs. Parsons has taught for most of the past 30 years at two Portland-area high schools, and has seen both progress and the need for more education and support for LGBT students.

"We have a long way to go," she explains. "This is an equal opportunity issue -- an entire population whose education is being jeopardized. [We need to] see it as a social justice issue rather than addressing the problems after they happen. We can get to the root of the problem by providing fairer access to a public education."

For Parsons, the turning point came after she had returned to teaching in the mid-'90s, after several years of graduate study at Harvard. One of her former students, a young woman who had recently graduated from college, returned and told Parsons she was a lesbian. As a ninth-grader, she had contemplated suicide and saw no future for herself.

"She told me she felt like the only lesbian in the whole world," says Parsons. When Parsons asked what she could have done to ease the girl's struggle, the young woman listed some helpful steps Parsons had taken and then said, "You could have been fully out." That "moment of truth" led Parsons to become one of the first "out" teachers in the state, and to establish only the second GSA in Maine at her high school. (Nationally, the number of GSAs has increased dramatically, from only a handful in 1990 to about 4,000 today.)

Parsons cites three key factors in creating safe schools for all youth: supportive faculty and staff, which includes both "out" LGBT teachers and straight allies; the establishment of GSAs, which allow students to educate their peers in creative ways; and having policies which promote inclusion and nondiscrimination, such as Maine's gay rights law -- which took 28 years to pass, finally becoming law in 2005.

Unfortunately, not all students attend schools where this kind of safe culture is created. According to GLSEN's national survey, 50 percent of gay middleschoolers had missed at least a day of school in the past month due to safety concerns.

In Maine, Parsons explains, "I'm still looking at the two-thirds of Maine schools that don't have a GSA. Where are those kids looking for a sense of safety in school? ... There's a danger of people getting too complacent, but we still have a lot of kids in dire trouble."

CJ Pascoe, a professor at Colorado State University, spent more than a year observing boys in a high school in California's Central Valley, a conservative district some of the locals describe as "right out of Iowa." In her book, Dude, You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, Pascoe describes the way boys "police" expressions of masculinity. One way of ensuring membership in the club of "normal boys" was to harass others for behavior that was seen as feminine, such as being emotional, smiling too much, caring about clothing, dancing (for white boys), or being incompetent. Though California has a broad law protecting LGBT students, teasing, use of the word "fag," and other epithets were the norm rather than the exception at River High School (a pseudonym). Within the school, teachers usually ignored these behaviors, resulting in a hostile environment for gay and lesbian students. Initially, Pascoe had not planned to focus on homophobia, but the rigid gender norms, and the narrow range of acceptable behavior (especially for boys) at the school, were everywhere. Among those boys, "fag" was the worst thing one could be called; one boy told the author, "It's like you're nothing."

The harassment at River High reflected another theme related by teachers around the country -- that gender roles and sexuality are tied together, and students who are viewed as outside the norm of traditional notions of gender are targeted for harassment. One of the four "out" boys at the school sometimes wore skirts and was one of the star dancers (and the only boy) on the jazz dance team. He was teased mercilessly and eventually dropped out of school. Pascoe reports that the three other boys, who were physically more imposing and typically masculine in their behavior, generally avoided antigay harassment.

As my research continued, I felt like I had unearthed one of those Russian matryoshka dolls, lost in a world of adolescent sexuality, gender roles, and societal norms -- one issue wrapped in another and another. Still, committed teachers are making progress. Colby Berger, Ed.M.'01, was a high school English teacher near Philadelphia in the late 1990s. After being fully "out" in college, Berger found herself briefly back in the closet, working in a school where students routinely used words like "fag" and the omnipresent "that's so gay." As a firstyear teacher, she challenged her students to think about what they were saying and promoted a respectful environment even while she avoided lecturing them on the topic. Meanwhile, a group of students wanted to start a GSA, but the administration claimed there were no gay students in the school.

Berger helped the students track all the homophobic and transphobic epithets they heard over the course of a week, and gave that list to school administrators. Eventually, a GSA was established; today, the school principal says that he would not operate a school without a gay-straight alliance.

In her second year at the school, Berger came out. As she explains, "I was out to a handful of kids [before] but then I came out in a more public way. I knew I was leaving to go to graduate school. I also knew there were 38 states where I could be fired with no protection [for being gay]." (Note: Today there are 20 states that provide protection for gays and lesbians; 12 provide protection based on gender expression.)

Like Parsons, she points out both the importance of being "out" -- and the risks that step entails for gay and lesbian educators who love their profession, and who are still not protected by antidiscrimination laws in most states. (It is relatively easy for administrators to dismiss nontenured teachers, without overtly citing their sexual orientation). Since graduating from the Ed School in 2001, Berger has held a number of social service positions working with LGBT teens. Like other educators I interviewed, she stresses the importance of training staff (not only teachers) to create a supportive environment for all families, from the first point of contact with a receptionist to the lunchroom monitors to teachers and administrators.

Another advocate, Sojn Boothroyd, Ed.M.'10, has worked as an arts educator in schools in the Northwest and Midwest. In Chicago, Boothroyd found that schools varied widely in terms of creating supportive environments for LGBT youth.

"One school could be totally different than another in terms of homophobia," she says. "One school had hate-free zone signs up, a strong GSA, and lots of out youth. You walked in and knew this was a school that supported their queer youth, and at the next school there was nothing like that and no youth were out. [The latter was] an all-boys school, and teachers used homophobic slurs. That plays into the [attitudes] of the leadership of the school and their stance."

Ultimately, creating a truly welcoming space for LGBT students may depend on reaching youth before high school, during the primary and middle school years, as Sobrique "Sorby" Grant did. A student at the Harvard Kennedy School who spoke at a recent Ed School discussion about homophobia in schools, Grant was heavily involved with LGBT activism during her undergraduate years. In the early 2000s, she joined the Teach For America program and hoped to work with a GSA in a New York City high school. To her surprise, she ended up teaching fourth-graders in the Bronx. She describes her school as "not particularly progressive," but within her classroom, she made a concerted effort to touch on gay and lesbian topics in a developmentally appropriate way. Students read a book called And Tango Makes Three about two male penguins who find an abandoned egg and eventually coparent the resulting penguin chick, which promoted discussion in her classroom about all types of families. Grant says it became clear that her students "got it" -- that they understood what it meant to respect everyone -- after a subsequent experience in gym class.

One day her students returned to the classroom from gym class, strangely quiet. They explained that one of their classmates had been taunted by the gym teacher for running too slow. The teacher asked the boy if he was gay and said he was acting "like a sissy." The next day, the children confronted the gym teacher and told him that he treated their classmate unfairly and hurt his feelings. The teacher apologized, and Grant's students learned a valuable lesson.

After her work in the New York City public schools, Grant worked with homeless LGBT teens in the city. Many had dropped out of school because of the relentless bullying they had experienced, and most had been kicked out by their parents, often because of their sexual orientation. Grant sums up the atmosphere in New York: "Children are only as progressive as their parents and teachers ... and a lot of teachers have inherent homophobia, and that transfers to students."

Today, in our rapidly changing era of same-sex marriage; the (promised) end of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy; and visible gay politicians, actors, and athletes, more gay and lesbian teachers are opening up about their lives, and teachers, both straight and gay, are bringing LGBT people into the mainstream. But many teachers and administrators remain hesitant to address gay, lesbian, and transgender issues, since they are loath to discuss sexuality in any form, afraid of the backlash from conservative parents and community members.

Thinking back to the boy I was 35 years ago, afraid of my own sexuality, with no one to talk to in my suburban Ohio high school, I'm encouraged by the progress that has been made, and chastened by the work that remains to be done. At this point in 2010, we remain far from the ultimate goal of all teachers of goodwill: to create schools that are truly safe and welcoming for everyone, including LGBT students.

-- Judah Leblang writes a column for Bay Windows, Boston's gay newspaper, and recently published his first book, Finding My Place: One Man's Journey from Cleveland to Boston and Beyond. This is his first piece in Ed. magazine.