Homophobia is alive and well in small-town North Carolina, and it breaks my heart. Just last week, a teacher at West Alexander Middle School in Alexander County, N.C., was suspended for three days for showing students the rap video “Same Love” by Macklemore, which promotes equal rights and shows two guys kissing.
I grew up in a place like Alexander County — McLeansville, N.C.. population 1,021 to be exact — so it made me laugh when Alexander County School Board attorney Joel Harbinson said the issue hinged on whether the video was curriculum-based, educationally related, and age-appropriate for prepubescent 13-year-olds. Here’s why I chuckled — and why it makes me angry as hell.
Any tool used in the classroom that promotes respectful dialogue, shines a light on equal rights, or celebrates our differences is educationally related. I wonder if the folks of the Alexander County School District have ever heard of character development. For example, students could have discussed the consequences of bullying, using the video as a backdrop. Go beyond the gay. Talk about differences, respect, and dignity. Teachers like the one in Alexander County should be applauded for bringing reality to Small Town, USA. Not to push an agenda, not to promote homosexuality, but to expose students to the changing landscape of America. If West Alexander Middle School and the district truly believe in their mission statement of creating a community of life-long learners, then suspending a teacher for trying do just that is contradictory. Learning is more than academics — it’s about the whole child, it’s about character, it’s about respect.
When I was 13, I was ashamed of being gay. I felt isolated. I felt worthless. I felt empty. It’s naive to think that not one of West Alexander Middle School’s hundreds of students is gay. What message does this suspension send to those students questioning their sexuality or to the bullies of the school?
The message is clear. It says being gay is wrong. It says gay is less than you. It says gay has no worth. It was laughable that the district’s attorney questioned the age-appropriateness of the video for 13-year-olds. I wonder how many of these same 13-year-olds know what “twerking” is and how do it. The Alexander County School District should not hide behind legal jargon to mask its own fears nor kowtow to parents who may disagree with what the teacher did. Middle school is the very time when parents, students, and teachers need to discuss sex, intimacy and relationships. Regardless of students’ sexual orientation, it’s never too early to teach self-respect, love, or the value of companionship. This video was a great opportunity to teach all these life skills.
It takes courage and strength to stand up for what’s right. Kudos to the teacher at West Alexander Middle School for believing in a 13-year-old’s capacity to understand what’s going on in the world around them. Small Town, USA, is one of the last strongholds of bigotry. It’s going to take many more teachers, students, administrators, and communities to change how gay people are treated so that “same love” isn’t disrespected, shunned, or made fun of.
BRIAN COCKMAN is cocreator of the international art enterprise Faces of Diversity and president of Rooster Communications, a boutique public relations agency based in Charlotte, N.C. He can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter at @bcockman.