"Fag" in my classroom

By Lisa Pupo

Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2005 11:00 PM ET

“You
can’t help what color you are, but if you choose to
be a fag, I have the right to hate on you,”
said “Bryan,” a student in my high school
senior integrated class, a blended humanities course
combining literature with psychology and sociology. I
was stunned. So were the 37 other students in the
classroom. What should I have done? I wanted to fly
across the room and jack the kid up against a wall. But no
matter how abhorrent the slur, my job as a teacher was
to educate.

My integrated
class at a suburban Philadelphia high school always
culminates in June with a series of student-led discussions
on newsworthy sociological topics. The activity
functions as a reward for work done well throughout
the year, and it’s a popular way to wrap up an
academically challenging class. With my approval, one group
selected same-sex marriage as their topic. As a
veteran teacher, I know how to prepare a class for
difficult discussions, and this was to be no
free-for-all. The groups had to provide evidence from
unbiased sources, summarize relevant history, present
pro and con sides, administer open-ended questions,
incorporate an article, and provide closure. They were
also schooled to maintain their neutrality and help the rest
of the students stay on task and “disagree in
agreeable ways.” It was the perfect lesson
plan.

And then Bryan
spoke up. The messages Bryan had received regarding
homosexuality had to stem from somewhere, and education
could eradicate or at least moderate them. Right?

I can’t
help but think of a line from season 5 of Queer as
Folk.
As the characters struggled with Proposition
14, a fictitious state measure designed to repeal
same-sex domestic-partnership rights, one of the
couples considered a move to Canada. Said Melanie to
Lindsay: “There are plenty of straight people
who don’t hate us. But the ones who do no
longer have to do it behind our backs. They can do it in the
White House, in the churches, on television, in the
streets. Is that the kind of place we want to live? Is
that the kind of place we want to raise our kids?”
Maybe the classroom could have been added to
Melanie’s list.

But back in my
class the students rose to the occasion. After
Bryan’s assertion and my admonishment to
remember the discussion rules, others spoke out. One
girl explained how her provincial views about
homosexuality were challenged when her best friend came out.
Another student shared her story: Her gay father and
his partner were an important part of her life. There
were compassionate tears from several who acknowledged
that gay and lesbian friends and family struggled with
challenges straight folks never had to face. And of his
volition, Bryan wrote a letter of apology one day
later.

The new school
year has started. And as politicians and special interest
groups battle against the gay rights movement, I’m
proud to say that in room 156 at my school, optimism
and compassion govern. My students will continue
discussing controversial topics, including gay issues. And
GLBTQ: The Survival Guide for Queer and Questioning
Teens
has joined other reference books in my
lending library.