If education is supposed to be the great equalizer, we need to stop barring marginalized populations from having a place at the table.
Public schools have long had a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Policy when it comes to LGBT students. Clearly, there have always been gay students but many would never come out during their formative years because they either didn't know they were gay or they were afraid of what might happen to them in a school setting. After the 90's and an explosion of very public coming out stories by Melissa Etheridge and Ellen Degeneres, more young people began to come out hoping that they would find a more supportive school environment than was apparent in the past.
Unfortunately for many LGBT students, schools are not known for their supportive environments. In a 2011 Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) study, they found that, "the majority of LGBT students are faced with many obstacles in school affecting their academic performance and personal well-being. Results indicated that 8 out of 10 LGBT students (81.9%) experienced harassment at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation, three fifths (63.5%) felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and nearly a third (29.8%) skipped a day of school in the past month because of safety concerns" (Kosciw).
Many schools lack a Gay-Straight Alliance, do not offer books with gay characters, and the only time the word gay is used is during a derogatory statement. This is odd because in the real world, that schools say they are preparing students for, members of the LGBT community surround us. Whether students turn on television, cruise the internet or read newspapers, there are an overabundance of LGBT stories. Yet, schools ignore this issue because it makes them uncomfortable.
The Supreme Court
LGBT issues continue to be in the spotlight and schools should be addressing these news stories. Presently, the Supreme Court will be listening to two cases, one involving the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that struck down Proposition 8, and another challenging the Defense of Marriage Act. Any social studies class in the country should be addressing these two cases. Schools can no longer expect LGBT students to leave who they are at the front doors.
LGBT students, just like any students of diversity should all be able to walk into school and see literature that emulates who they are which will give them something to look forward to. All students should be introduced to role models that can help them negotiate their way through life. Schools should be places of social justice where students can debate these issues in a safe environment. They should not be places that continue to have "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies.
In a recent New York Times article, Marjorie Connelly says "A strong majority of younger Americans now support same-sex marriage. In a Gallup Poll conducted last month, 73 percent of people between 18 and 29 years old said they favored it, while only 39 percent of people older than 65 did. Respondents appear increasingly inclined to say they are personally opposed to same-sex marriage, rather than say it should be illegal."
If young Americans truly support gay marriage, than schools must do a better job of addressing the needs of this marginalized population by listening to their beliefs. As a school administrator I feel that all students, gay or straight, should be able to come to school and feel safe. Parents send their children to school to learn, they expect them to be safe. They don't say to themselves, "Well, I have a gay son so it's ok that he's going to get called derogatory names throughout the day or fear to walk down the hallway alone because another student with insecurities or anger issues may abuse them."
I feel that students of racial, academic or economic diversity as well as students who are in the LGBT community should be allowed to enter the same halls and receive a great education. Diversity, of any kind, should be encouraged but it many schools it is not. And in many of those schools LGBT students are abused by their peers in some way.
In the End
Gay marriage is in the national spotlight once again and it provides an opportunity for schools to address the issue of how LGBT students are treated in schools. It begins with helping ensure their safety through safeguarding LGBT students in school board policies and student codes of conduct. In addition, it happens when schools address the needs of LGBT students through curriculum and after-school clubs like Gay-Straight Alliances.
If education is supposed to be the great equalizer, we need to stop barring marginalized populations from having a place at the table. The gay marriage debates should tell the public school system that they have to stop ignoring a population that seems to have a voice everywhere else, and if schools want to mirror the real world they should help students gain a better understanding of all the populations that live in it.
Peter DeWitt, Ed.D is an elementary school principal in upstate, N.Y. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week and is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press).