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Excerpted from Chapter 4: Mediating Conflicts Involving Homophobia and Sexual Orientation Harassment in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen
Why Sexual Orientation Harassment is of Special Concern
Homophobia is one form of prejudice, a subject which was discussed in Chapter 1. And the dynamics of Marcos' story resemble the conflicts involving harassment explored in Chapter 2. But four aspects of sexual orientation and the harassment related to it warrant the special attention of mediators.
- Sexual orientation can be invisible. While students easily observe who is African-American among them, they usually cannot see who is gay. Unlike skin color, gender and other physical qualities, sexual orientation is an invisible characteristic. Many corollaries follow from this fact, some of which can be problematic for those interested in eradicating this form of prejudice.
- People who are gay and lesbian often have the ability to hide their sexual orientation from even their closest friends and family members.
- Few students have the experience of working with a teacher whom they know is gay, despite odds that most students have actually had such a teacher. This is true of all the people in students' lives: They cannot identify the gay police officers, neighbors, shop owners, relatives, entertainment figures, etc.
- Many students, teachers, administrators, and parents assume that there are no gay or lesbian students in their schools.
- Both gay and straight students can be the target of vicious harassment on the basis of a presumed homosexual orientation.
- Prejudice against gays and lesbians is the norm. Homophobia is one of the most widely held forms of prejudice in North America today. The majority of public institutions, including many religious denominations, explicitly or implicitly discriminate against people who are gay and lesbian. And sadly, attitudes among educators are often not very different:
- 80% of prospective teachers and nearly two-thirds of guidance counselors expressed negative feelings towards homosexuality and about lesbian and gay men in a study conducted by the South Carolina Guidance Counselors Association.
- More than half of the students involved in 12 Massachusetts gay-straight alliances reported hearing teachers use homophobic language at school.
Irrational and extremely hurtful myths about homosexuals (that they prey on young people for sex; that their presence encourages young people to "turn gay"; that they actively "recruit" students to their "lifestyle") are prevalent. Even non-homophobic educators, fearing for their jobs, can feel compelled to act in a way that panders to the prejudice in their communities. As a result, it is only in exceptional schools that gay and lesbian educators feel comfortable being "out" with their colleagues, much less with students.
- Prejudice against gays and lesbians is rampantly applied. Because homophobia is widespread, and because gay people can be invisible, few other prejudices are so freely acted upon in schools. Homophobic comments ("You dyke!" "That is gay!" "Are you queer?") are extremely common among students, in most cases running second only to "you're stupid" as the most used put-down. Students and adults are openly malicious towards gay people in schools without experiencing the routine public humiliation that would follow declarations of most other forms of prejudice. It is no accident that 86% of students report that they would be "very upset" if called gay or lesbian, and males identify being called "gay" as the most disturbing form of harassment.
- There is little support at home. Hostility towards gays and lesbians does not end at the school yard: it exists at home as well. This sets it apart from most other forms of prejudice and harassment in schools. If a student is harassed for being a Jehovah's Witness or Asian or tall or speaking with a lisp, that student can usually count on finding support from his or her parents. The most significant cultural characteristics may even be shared by members of victims' families and wider community. But most gay and lesbian students cannot take comfort in the arms of loving parents or guardians. Half of all lesbian and gay youths interviewed in a 1987 study reported that their parents rejected them for being gay, and one quarter were actually forced to leave home because of conflicts with their families. And so the harassment at school is compounded by a lack of understanding and possible harassment at home.