In over thirty years of university level teaching, I have heard from many non-straight students about their experiences during their high school years. For some, it was a happy time; for others it was a period of perceived agony. Of course, my students had all managed to succeed well enough in high school to be admitted to a highly selective, private university. I wonder about those who didn’t handle their experiences as well.
For some gay and lesbian students, home is not an environment conducive to an academic focus. We know, for example, that approximately a third of such students are physically abused by family members (parents and/or siblings) because of their sexual orientation. We know that some of those students (and some who have not been physically abused) must actually leave their family’s home. Some move in with supportive friends, while others become homeless.
There is not a great deal that we, as educators, can do to change the family dynamics, although it might be worth an effort to do so. What we must do, however, is work to improve the chances for the academic success of all our students. This may be particularly challenging in the case of our non-straight students.
While there are many things we can do to assist our gay students to succeed, here are a few that can make a big difference rather quickly:
- Use examples that are inclusive. Instead of speaking of the future husbands and wives of the students, speak of life partners.
- Don’t say things like, “Boys, if there is a girl that you want to impress…”Instead say, “Boys, if there is someone…”
- If you see (or even just hear of) a student who is being harassed or bullied, don’t merely discipline the bullies. You should also invite the victim for a private conversation at a later time. It is possible that you are the only adult who will listen to the problems the student is facing.
- Become known as a teacher to whom students can turn for conversation, so that you may channel some of their energy toward learning.
You can do these things regardless of your personal views toward minority sexual orientations. Your job is to educate all of your students, and a key to success in that pursuit is an environment that is conducive to learning. As you face your students in the next class, remember that chances are extremely high that not all of them are heterosexual. While you may not consider their sexual orientation pertinent to their education, those minority students definitely believe that it is, whether or not they tell you so.