Picture this: You’re changing in the locker room. Another student, who is gay, walks into the room. What do you do?
That’s how the script began in an unusual class at High School in the Community.
By the time it ended, the script would prompt some real-life revelations.
The class was part of an all-day “social justice teach-in” held recently at the magnet school—which this year has adopted law and social justice as its theme while it undergoes a broader experimental transformation. The day gave students a chance to learn from outside practitioners and from not-for-profit groups; and it gave teachers a chance to share causes they’re passionate about that might not come up in the classroom.
Tom James, a first-year teacher at HSC, hosted a workshop on LGBTQ (lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning) issues. The session in James’ math classroom proved to be revealing not just about the issues, but about the real lives of the people in the room.
James set the stage by asking kids to define some vocabulary: “homophobia” (fear of gays) and “coming out of the closet” (revealing one’s identity as a gay person, or even as a drug addict).
OK, class, what about “dyke”?
“That’s me!” called out one young woman wearing baggy camouflaged pants and a baseball cap. “I dress like a boy, act like a boy, I just don’t have balls.”
The student’s announcement opened the door for an honest discussion of feelings and phobias.
“Dyke” is considered a “pejorative, derogatory, or bad” word for lesbian, James clarified, though some lesbians have reclaimed the word as their own.
James ran through a series of scenarios designed to teach kids how to act as strong allies, defending LGBTQ people from harassment or discrimination.
James played a homophobic character talking about a hypothetical administrator who had caused a scheduling snafu.
“That’s so gay,” he said. James used the word over and over until he eventually coaxed his students into articulating why he shouldn’t talk that way.
“‘Gay’ doesn’t mean stupid,” one student finally blurted out. “People take offense to it.”
James’ character insisted on using the word, forcing the student to stand up to him.
“You should stop,” the student declared. “The words you say have effects on other people.”
One male student brought a real-life scenario into the mix: In his previous school, kids had to change in the locker room for swim class, he said. One of the boys was gay. In order to avoid that boy “checking me out,” the HSC student said he used to change in the bathroom stall.
James turned the scenario into a role play, debated with words as students sat around the table. He cross-examined the student on why he felt that the gay student was checking him out.
One student called the reaction a double standard: Why doesn’t it bother you when a girl checks you out, but when it’s a guy, you hide?
The student who had come out to her peers as a “dyke” piped up.
“Just because we’re in there, we’re not looking at you,” she said. “We have to change, too.”
The student was unconvinced. He said he simply felt uncomfortable with the gay student there.
James raised the question from another perspective: Did you ever consider how that gay student is feeling? That the student may be even more nervous and paranoid than the other students, James contended.
Despite James’ best efforts, he failed through the role-play to convince the student to change his views.
“What Do You Mean ‘Come Out Of The Closet’?”
At the end of the discussion, James took another tack, a personal one.
James, a 23-year-old math teacher who just graduated from Yale in May, said he’d been in the locker-room scenario before.
“This hit home,” he said.
Then he made a rather nonchalant announcement.
Back in high school, he said, he was captain of the wrestling team. Locker-room dynamics were a big concern, he said, “when I made the decision to come out of the closet” during junior year.
The student who had expressed discomfort in the locker room sounded confused.
“What do you mean “come out of the closet”? he asked.
James referred to the earlier vocab lesson: “Reveal to others that I was gay.”
Shortly after, the bell rang, bringing the session to a rather abrupt end.
The Godfather Speaks
The revelations continued in James’ next workshop.
James dived right into a role-play where he disparaged someone by calling the person “gay.”
This time, James didn’t have to coax a condemnation from the crowd. He immediately got an earful from first-year student Matthew Santiago.
“If you didn’t have hate for gay people, you wouldn’t use those words,” said Matthew. James remained stubborn, and the two got into a heated back-and-forth.
Debriefing after the role-play, Matthew confessed he was getting worked up by James’s intolerant rant.
“I was kind of offended by it,” he explained, “because I know gay people myself.” He said his godfather, who was present at his baptism, is gay.
Another student, Kumal Troutman, mentioned that he has a gay cousin who dresses in drag when he hits the nightclubs. He said he accepts his cousin for who he is.
Tyshawn Lowery, a senior, added that he has a good friend who is transgender.
Their revelations emerged as no big deal—signifying, James later reflected, that perhaps times have changed in the eight years since he entered high school. Or in the very least, liberal New Haven was proving to be a more LGBT-friendly climate than his Louisville, Kentucky high school.
The three young men didn’t let James get away with homophobic diatribes when James launched into a locker-room role-play. This time, James played the student afraid to change near the gay kid, “Tony.”
“What makes you sure he’s checking you out?” said Tyshawn.
“Put yourself in Tony’s shoes,” he advised. Tony “bleeds the same blood. He breathes the same air.”
When James refused to accept Tony, Tyshawn shut him down.
“You really have problems,” Tyshawn said.
James again took the opportunity to share his personal story.
“This hits home for me pretty hard,” he told his students. After starting wrestling in 6th grade, “I ended up coming out as gay my junior year.”
He noted that Kentucky is a pretty anti-gay state. “I was really paranoid” in the locker room, he recalled, especially because there have been cases of anti-gay violence among young men.
His announcement met a small dose of surprise from one kid who had had his head down on the desk.
“What?” the student asked quietly to the student next to him. “Teacher gay?”
Without a script or a make-believe scenario, Matthew stuck with the part of strong ally.
“You can be gay, you can be whoever you want,” Matthew said. “I’m not going to judge you.”
His steadfast acceptance set the tone for another confession.
“I’m bi,” piped up a young woman who had kept quiet during the discussion. “It’s not that we’re different. We’re still human,” she said.
“You go girl!” called out a friend.
The bell rang, social justice lesson concluded.
Previous Independent stories on High School in the Community:
• Nikita Makes It Home
• 15 Seniors Head To College Early
• No More “B And A Smile”
• Students Protest: “Give Us Homework!”
• Meadow Street Clamps Down On Turnaround
• School Votes For Hats; District Brass Balks
• Students Invoke Free Speech In Great Hat Debate
• Guv: End Social Promotion
• History Class Hits The Streets
• “Misfit Josh” & Alex Get A 2nd Chance
• Guess Who’s Assigning The Homework Now
• On Day 1, HSC Students Enter A New World
• Frank Reports Detail Experiment’s Ups & Downs
• School Ditches Factory “Assembly Line”
• State “Invites” HSC To Commissioner’s Network
• Teachers Union Will Run New “Turnaround”