What Anti-Gay Hate Should Be Telling Us in Oklahoma

William Smith

Public school teacher Debra Taylor's resignation over teaching "The Laramie Project" to Oklahoma high schoolers is but one instance of a hostile environment for LGBT youth across the country.

Last week, we learned that Debra Taylor, a teacher from the small town
of Grandfield, Oklahoma, was forced to resign because
she attempted to teach her high school students about hate, tolerance, and
community standards using the play The
Laramie Project
.  The play tells the story of Mathew Shepard, a
young gay man from Wyoming
who was murdered for no other reason but his sexual orientation.  The school
superintendent, Ed Turlington, behaving like a petty tyrant over his domain, directed
Taylor to stop
the production.  Taylor
did so, but attempted to bring closure with her students which, in turn,
Turlington saw as grounds for charges of insubordination and suspended her.  It
became increasingly clear to Taylor that her
firing was imminent and such an action would have meant she could never teach
again in Oklahoma’s
schools.  With those options before her and with her passion for teaching
driving her decision, Taylor
resigned. 

Taylor’s
struggle to advance the most basic of American values – justice and
equality – underscores just how inhospitable our country’s schools
are for an entire cadre of young people – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender,
and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.  After all, if a teacher isn’t allowed to
explain and defend the rights each student has regardless of sexual orientation,
as well as the responsibilities that come with those rights, what lesson are
the students really learning? 

The precarious day-to-day existence in schools for LGBTQ students is
not entirely a mystery.  Thankfully, last year the Gay, Lesbian and Straight
Education Network (GLSEN) released its fifth National
School Climate Survey
.  The report is based on responses collected from LGBTQ
students across the country in 2007.  The results paint a picture of a
community of young people in crisis.

Three main issues emerge in GLSEN’s report: increased
absenteeism, lowered educational aspirations and academic achievement, and an
overall hostile school climate for LGBTQ youth.  On this latter point, for example,
nearly three-fourths of students heard homophobic remarks often or frequently at
school; nine in 10 LGBTQ students surveyed reported they were called names or
threatened because of their sexual orientation; nearly half had been pushed or
shoved; and of these incidents, almost a quarter involved punching, kicking, or
injury with a weapon.  This hostile environment results in nearly a third of LGBTQ
students surveyed missing a class or an entire school day because of feeling
unsafe.

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GLSEN also found that this climate of fear, intimidation, and hate has
long term repercussions on young people; nearly twice as many LGBTQ young
people report that they do not plan to further their education past high school
– or even finish high school – than was reported by a broad
national sample of all students.

So, what can be done? GLSEN recommends three concrete steps.  First, schools should welcome clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA)s, which have
been shown to reduce the marginalization of students in schools where
they exist.  And, I do not hesitate to add: EVERY school should have a
GSA.  These clubs promote understanding and inclusivity which, of
course, means that extreme right wing voices engaged in a cultural war
against the rest of us are constantly assailing these GSAs.  

Second, comprehensive safe-school laws and policies can prevent the
bullying and systemic discrimination that LGBTQ young people experience daily. 
These take the form of anti-bullying policies that are inclusive of sexual
orientation and gender expression. The wide spread institution of comprehensive
sexuality education fits squarely into this an endeavor as does the elimination
of failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs which by their very nature
ignore the needs of LGBTQ students.

And, finally – and this returns us to the case of Debra Taylor
– GLSEN’s report shows just how important supportive educators are
in the lives of LGBTQ students.  They can help create a safe environment for LGBTQ
youth and their friends, which, in turn, helps alleviate all of the negative
indicators we’ve just mentioned.

Of course, the bigoted views of those who seek to inject injustice into
our society through their own righteous myopia know this all too well.  And
that is why, in this small town in Oklahoma,
a brave teacher finds herself out of a job.  But, it is more than that; at the
very core of this, we must speak the truth, and the truth is that while there
is significant space between calling someone a faggot, firing a teacher because
of intolerance, and brutally murdering someone because of their sexual
orientation, all of these things spring from the same dark corner of
mankind’s worst potentialities

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