Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Jose Vilson 15 Comments

Time Inc’s “Gay Teens” Cover

“That’s so gay.”“What a fuckin’ homo!”

“No, no, that’s it. You’re gay and that’s it.”

“Que maldito maricon del diablo (What a damn faggot from hell)!”

Snapshots of the realities of working in sexually conservative neighborhoods, where the parents of these 1st generation US citizens learn their sexual intolerance from their parents and neighbors who also grew up hating gays and lesbians, no matter what their experience. The phobias the kids have against even the perception of same sex relationships actually exacerbates the pressures of puberty than it does relieve it. The idea that somehow one person’s sexuality has any negative repercussions on another person’s marriage or life for that matter is simply ridiculous.

But that’s what our kids live with. Nowadays, though, the idea of fluid sexuality has come into the fore, and it’s definitely caught my eye with all the emo and rainbow-colored paraphernalia my kids wear and the songs they listen to, and that’s all understandable. I don’t walk around my school with dark-colored glasses, as much of the classroom culture I cultivate comes from understanding the kids’ interests and lives as people, not just math grade on the state test or OSIS (ID) number. Last Friday brought this position to light even more.

2 of my recent alum came to visit me on Friday for my birthday, and greeted me with hugs. It was cute, really. I was excited to know that they still cared enough about me to make that type of visit. Now, the taller of the two, who I’ll call J, said, “So guess what, Mr. V?” Now, normally, I expect something like “chicken butt“, typical kiddie business. Let’s just say this time, not so much.

“Me, S, and some of your other students are bi. And JD, well, he’s actually bi, too. You remember that time when he came up to you last year and said, ‘I got something to tell you’ and he said that I was gay? Well it’s that he really wanted to say that he was bi, but he didn’t know how you would react so he didn’t say anything.”

I replied that I knew, and it was plainly obvious from some of his body language during that conversation.

“Well, I knew all of that, and I’m happy that you all have enough trust in me that you almost revealed yourselves to me; that takes courage. And when you see him, tell him he can talk to me anytime.”

I couldn’t imagine all the harassment he had gone through when he made that announcement to his most intimate friends. I wish he would have approached me, because of the father-son relationship I believe we fostered over the 2 years I taught him. He was someone who provided lots of leadership through his years, and was a role model for the better part of the 2 years I knew him. Even when he slipped in his grades, he was still a gentleman and a good kid overall. He’s in high school now, so he’s probably found a cluster of people just like him or at least more mature people he can talk to. Same with my other former students who I knew were struggling with or discovering their sexualities.

Yet, there are classrooms where we let students who don’t know any better to speak coarsely about others even when we know they’re speaking more out of insecurity than hatred. They veer off the yellow brick road into territory they don’t know and no one teaches them about. The question then becomes, how do we as educators try our best to recognize each person’s person for lack of a better way of saying it? Middle school, more than any other stage of education, is the most inconstant time in their young lives. The lack of personal stability mixed with the quick awakening to the world’s ways makes finding one’s place in the world hardest, and I along with every other teacher from grades 5-9 can either help develop and nurture or hinder and injure their development as people. By allowing words like gay, faggot, maricon, and for that matter nigger, spic, chink, bitch, slut, we approve of these hindrances.

And the next time JD sees me, he knows who he can count on whenever there’s an issue. Despite his faults, his sexuality is not one of them.

jose, who’s growing rapidly everyday …

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 15

  1. Damian

    Hit a raw nerve with this one…

    Where to begin? First off, I can’t stress enough the importance of what you did for these young men – non-judgmental adults can be in rare supply for gay/bi/questioning teens & pre-teens, so every ally is good; even better if that ally comes in the form of a role model like a teacher, clergy, etc. Good for you for being there for these kids when a lot of adults in their lives quite possibly aren’t.

    This is my 8th year co-teaching a Multicultural Studies class at my high school, and my students spend 2-3 weeks studying, researching, & discussing GLBT history & contemporary issues. It never ceases to amaze me how many kids feel that “fag” or the pejorative use of “gay” is completely mainstream & acceptable; I’m even finding this among gay youth. What’s more, even the most progressive of the bunch will usually deny to their dying breath any analogy between “fag” and “dyke” and the racial epithets you mentioned above. Part of me hopes that’s just them thinking too concrete and literally, but another part of me despairs for their logic…

    Final point – I know it’s not the main thrust of your post, but I had to address the same-sex marriage issue – this is another topic that, in my experience, even the most gay-friendly straight kids tend to falter a bit on. I have to stop myself from probing too deeply in class discussion for fear that I’ll come off as forcing my opinion, but I have to know – outside of a religious framework – why that is. That, to me, seems like one of those “rubber hits the road” issues that separates the true allies from the summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.

  2. e

    you were right, i did enjoy this.

    i agree with the person above (watch it end up below) that it’s important for young people to have an accepting adult in their life. i really enjoy being that for the few young people that i know.

    of course i know you and so that interaction is totally not surprising. and that makes me happy.

    e

    p.s. go bi people go! :)

  3. LuzMaria

    The fact that your former students were willing to come back to see you, especially the day of your birthday and feel comfortable to share with you, says a lot about you as an educator and human being. It is very hard for our students to sometimes share their thoughts, questions, experiences, and sexuality with adults. There is a fear of judgment, rejection, labeling, lack of compassion and understanding.

    Absolutely wonderful Mr. V. This is a topic that does not get addressed during our PDs to provide us with tools necessary to support our young people.

  4. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Damian, your comment was well needed. It made me think of the following:

    How do we address our LGBT communities within our schools? Because as much as its about their sexuality, it’s also a health / lifestyle choice, and unfortunately, much of what the underground school culture is about is ostracization, isolation, and denigration for the benefit of the less confident. Will 2-3 weeks cover enough to make them think differently? I’m sure you’ve come to the same answer as I did. I like that you cover it, but why can’t more schools do it? And have people who can help deal with some of the situations we come across more effectively? I’m by no means a dolt when it comes to these issues, but if I didn’t reach out, they’d never know I was supportive of them. Same sex marriage is something I’ll get into at some point.

    e, i gotta make you proud.

    luz, it won’t unless people like you and I address it. then again, they might be too busy beating us over the head with more data, meaningless procedure, and posturing. What do I know, though?

  5. Damian

    I think the answer to your primary question is “pervasively”. Administrators need to equate homophobic remarks & actions with racist/sexist/etc. ones and treat them accordingly. Teachers need to address the issue with their students and not turn a deaf ear to it. School communities need to support and promote GSAs in the buildings. The issues need to be brought out into the open, not swept under the rug – and they have to be done across settings, not just within a “gay unit” context. It’s so easy to pretend the problems don’t exist if we just don’t talk about them.

    The course I teach is an elective, so in a lot of ways, I’m preaching to the choir. I also teach 11th-12th graders – I’d like to see middle schoolers discuss these issues in class, and I think if you frame it as a civil/human rights issue, rather than a “gay” issue, they may be more receptive. GLSEN has quite a few resources for teachers looking to address GLBT issues in the classroom.

    Looking forward to a post on same-sex marriage.

  6. Taylor

    I once had a gay student tell me that he was bullied daily in his science class and that when he told the teacher she told him that he was bringing it on himself by his dress and behavior. I wanted to go to admin with this, and he didn’t want to let me. He did agree to let me do that, and when I did I don’t think anything was done. If the AP’s reaction/facial expression is any indication, I’m afraid he may have received more of the same. It makes me mad. Next time I think I’ll just listen and be sympathetic unless I’m sure admin will take it seriously. (like, in a different school.)

    I have a picture of this student up on my file cabinet next to my desk, and many other student comment on it w/ a snarky attitude. That’s the Bible belt for ya.

  7. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Damian, we’re on the same track then. Because as much as we don’t want to push our views on other people, we want to give people a different world view so they can base their opinions on more than one or two texts, or some word-of-mouth. Middle schoolers do need it under the human rights umbrella, mainly because they’re just now trying to figure out what sexuality really is, and not the bastardized version sold to them on the screen.

    Taylor, that’s a disheartening story, but it’s symbolic of what’s really going on in our schools. We need to do better and be more supportive. Thank goodness teachers like you are there for your kids.

  8. Anonymous

    I agree with everything above; I am a gay high school student, in the bible belt, and have not yet come out to even friends and family. I am not so much afraid that they will abandon me, but I am afraid that they will never be able to think of me in the same way. I really appreciate you doing this for these teens.

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  11. Marcos

    Wow everybody saying a lot of things about to be or not to be…hey we just need help our youth to aceppt to chose each other and becouse to judge the others is not to better way to do. I have three handsome kids, Julio 24 years old, Roger 17 years old and Keyla 20 years old, I love them, they are my kids and I love them but one day my oldest son Julio came unto me and said: Daddy, I need to tell you something:
    I met a guy, his name is Leonardo and he?s my boyfriend, I am gay and I love him, and he loves me.What do you think? I just hug him and I said that?s okay.
    It was difficult for me like a father…but doesn?t matter if my son like other man, he just need love. I love my children being gay or not. Marcos

  12. D

    The effect parents/peers/other adults have on this matter in schools, at home, or in society in general is extreme. In this age of time, it has been more “acceptable”, if I may call it that, to announce your sexual identity. Whether or not time has anything to do with it, I personally believe there has and always will be gay men, women, and children; but through media and other talk, more people have come to realize it enough to experience and talk more about the subject. Therefore, in this day, more people are “coming out” and being gay is a more common factor in society. But, on the other side, more and more people are realizing that more people are “becoming” gay, and they’re trying to get the point across that it’s not acceptable. The bible says many things, in it’s many, many versions. If I’m not mistaken, gay people’s rights have been taken from them, just the same as any woman’s rights where, or any African-American in the mid 20th century. Women were looked down upon, and people took a stance about it; African-American’s were looked down upon as slaves, not even a person, and a stance was taken, bringing the United States of American to a better a higher, more mature nation. With today’s amount of Gay teens coming out to the world, only time will tell how long it will take for action to be taken to support them, just as we all did for women and colored people.

    I am bisexual. I am 19 years old. Unfortunately, I lived in a small, conservative town, and had no one to look up to. That’s why I moved to the big city, because I knew there would be more people like me, making my life easier, and not so complicated. Thank you for taking a stand, and making other kids’ lives better, and for making the world just a little bit better. :]

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