As some of you may know I'm in involved with our Dutch LGBT organisation, COC. I'm a member of their education group (in Dutch: voorlichtingsgroep). This is what we do: a team of 2 members of our group goes to a high school (by invitation only of course) and we become substitute teachers for a day. We teach a class about gay rights, or rather we don't teach so much as we use our expertise to let the kids teach themselves about gay rights. Teenagers are usually quite bright, if you encourage them to think things through, they can usually come up with the answers themselves.
Here's what a normal session looks like.
We start by telling them a bit about the history of the gay rights movement in the Netherlands, for instance how the lobby of the COC was instrumental in making the Netherlands the first country in the world where same-sex couples could legally marry. Then we let the kids ask us whatever they want about homosexuality and gay rights; we have them write their questions down on notes we collect later so it's more or less anonymous. Some of the questions will be outrageous - as you can imagine anal sex features quite a bit - but rather more questions will be really insightful or interesting.
Most of the questions we get asked have to do with what we gays call our coming-out (i.e. telling the people in your life you're gay). They want to know what made us realise we were gay and how old we were when this happened, how we told our parents and how they reacted. Because they're teenagers and peer pressure reigns supreme they most of all want to know what our friends said and did when we told them we were gay.
One of us (or both if there's enough time) tells the class his or her coming-out story. However rowdy the class may be, and some classes have an attention span of about 30 seconds I kid you not, the kids always quiet down for this. You can hear a pin drop when we tell them what it was like for us to be young and realise we were different. It's like a real-life soap and they love it!
After our coming out story we discuss with them as many of their questions as we can. There usually will be some questions about stereotypes and gender roles, gay parenting, gay and lesbian sex, discrimination, Gay Pride week etc.
We ask them at least three questions as well:
- We ask them if they know how many children in their school might statistically be gay. They never get this right and are usually astounded by the implications of the answer.
- We always enquire if coming out would be problematic in their school and their particular class.
- And we discuss why using the word 'gay' as a friendly insult really isn't such a great idea.
Longer really is better here because it's not easy for teenagers to discuss these matters, this is all embarrassing stuff for them. After 45 minutes or so the nervous giggles are usually over and done with so it's a pity to have to stop right at that point.
Most of the hostile kids aren't homophobic at heart - although I did meet a few nasty little so and so's over the years - they simply don't know any better. Whenever I teach a class I ask them right at the start to put up their hand for me if they actually know someone who is LGBT. And I'm always careful to explain to them exactly what I'm talking about when I use the word 'know'. I don't mean 'know' as in read about, seen in a movie, seen on TV, or worst of all seen on a reality show (don't get me started on the portrayal of LGBT people on reality shows!). I mean 'know' as in: a family member, a neighbour, a friend or acquaintance of mine is LGBT.
Not surprisingly things are far more difficult when the children don't know any LGBT persons and just spout stuff like: "But everyone knows", or: "Everyone says". In that case there isn't all that much you can realistically hope to achieve in an hour. However, I know from experience that seeing two living, breathing gay people up close for an hour will most likely shatter a few of their misconceptions and that's just great.
Sometimes you go home with an ache in your heart, because you just know the poor kids who are different in any way are looking at several more hellish years before they're free from the school you just left. I just say a quick prayer for them and let go and let God. Or at least I try to let it go, sometimes things are so bad it haunts me for a while.
And then there are the days you go home with a smile on your face and a song in your heart because these were nice kids who will turn out fine with a little bit of prodding and guidance. And you know it will get better. It will take time and it will take a lot of effort, but it will get better.