Source: Tom McIntyre (1992). Beyond Behavior, volume 3, number 2, pages 6-12.

 The "Invisible Culture" in Our Schools:
 Gay and Lesbian Youth

Abstract - Homosexual youth are enrolled in all secondary schools.  Because of the reactions of others, they are at great risk for developing emotional or behavioral disorders.  Issues and possible solutions are addressed.

     Homosexual youth belong to a group whose membership is not defined by race, religion, national origin, socio-economic status or other background characteristic used to delineate other cultural groups.  The identifier for this group is one's sexual orientation.  In many people's minds, this is not a basis for recognizing a group of people as a "culture".  However, that view is being challenged (Uribe, 1989) as changing times bring the recognition and/or provision of more civil rights and employment benefits to homosexual individuals and couples, and laws and policies designed to prevent discrimination against them.  With regard to education, at least one school system, New York City, has defined homosexual youth as being "culturally diverse" learners.  Many other districts have adopted policies to protect the rights of these students who reportedly face greater discrimination in schools then any other minority group (DeStefano, 1988; Tracy, 1990).

     It is often more than just sexual practices that identify one as belonging to this group.  Sometimes these individuals display other behaviors, body language and voice characteristics that identify them to others as being homosexual.  These behaviors often spark negative emotional reactions in heterosexuals.  For example, Alter (1990, p. 27) writes, "`Acting gay' often involves more than sexual behavior itself.  Much of the dislike for homosexuals centers not on who they are or what they do in private, but on so- called affectations - `swishiness' in men, the `butch' look for women - not directly related to the more private sex act.  Heterosexuals tend to argue that gays can downplay these characteristics and `pass' more easily in the straight world than blacks can in a white world.  This may be true, but it's also irrelevant.  For many gays those traits aren't affectations but part of their identities; attacking the swishiness is the same as attacking them."

     Certainly some individuals will modify the degree to which they demonstrate these behaviors depending on the situation or environment in which they find themselves.  However, it is important to remember that while many homosexual teens display these behaviors, many do not.  Conversely, many heterosexual or bi- sexual (ie. being sexual with members of both sexes) students display behaviors often associated with the homosexual culture.  In other words, gay teen-agers run the gamut from inconspicuous youngsters in high school who are isolated and frightened by their developing sexual orientation, to alienated runaways who openly sell themselves as prostitutes, having finally found acceptance of their sexual orientation (Gross, 1987; Whitlock, 1989).  While gay and lesbian teenagers tend to be an invisible population (Fine, 1988; Whitlock, 1989), they exist in all secondary schools (Whitlock, 1989).  Educators who insist that "we don't have any of those kids here" are simply unaware of their presence.

     "Gay and lesbian young people may not always be known to us, but they sit in every classroom, are members of every religious faith and denomination.  Any adult who works with young people undoubtedly works with young lesbians and gays." (Whitlock, 1989, p. ix)

     In the 1940's, sexuality researcher Alfred Kinsey estimated that eight percent of men and four percent of women were homosexual.  More recently, social scientists estimate that approximately ten percent of the adult population is homosexual with hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian youth enrolled in the schools (Martin, 1989b; Whitlock, 1989).  However, an accurate appraisal of the numbers of homosexual youth is difficult given the dearth of demographic data (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date).  Additionally, some students may, as of yet, be unaware or unsure of their sexual preference.

     Consider also that although the general public is more aware of homosexuality than in the past, and in many ways more accepting (even if benignly so) of it (Newsweek, 1990), many gay and lesbian adolescents hide their homosexual orientation due to fear of ridicule or bias related attack (Fine, 1988; Whitlock, 1989).  In school settings, these youth (and those believed by others to be homosexual) are frequently treated in a condescending manner by educators.  Many educators do not perceive mistreatment of gay and lesbian youth as wrong.  Harassment is often viewed not as violence, but as a "natural" response to homosexuals (Whitlock, 1989).  Indeed, many homosexual youth feel that the most serious homophobia emanates from teachers (Farrell, 1990).  Unfortunately, official ignoring of school-based harassment of gay and lesbian youth is a common policy (Whitlock, 1989).

     It is also common for homosexual youth to be verbally and physically threatened or attacked by other students (Alter, 1990; Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Whitlock, 1989).  Thirty to forty percent of these youth have suffered violence due to their sexual orientation (Hetrick & Martin 1987; Martin, 1988).  However, it is often the homosexual youth who is referred for disciplinary action or programs for emotional or behavioral disorders.  This is because educators don't believe their contention that the great number of fights in which they are engaged occur while defending themselves against attacks by non-tolerant heterosexual peers (Whitlock, 1989).

     Tracy (1990, p. 86) reports that "For many gay and lesbian teens, the approach of September brings no thoughts of seeing old friends or making new ones.  For those who are out of the closet in school, or even considered by others to be gay or lesbian, returning to school can mean verbal abuse and even physical violence.  According to recent studies, gay and lesbian youth are more widely discriminated against than African-American or Latino youth, and since a great part of an adolescent's time is spent at school or in school-related activities, one can readily conclude that a great deal of the abuse comes from students and teachers."  If they do not fight back, they may become truant or drop out of school in order to avoid in-school attacks (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987).

     "In front of an entire class, a New York City gym teacher told a gay male adolescent that since he wanted to "act like a girl" he could stay in the girls' section. Afterward, his classmates verbally and physically harassed him until he dropped out of school." (Martin, 1988, p. C-1)

     "Sean A. had been enrolled in a private school in another state.  A slight, very pretty, `effeminate' boy, he was physically harassed repeatedly by his classmates.  After a particularly ugly incident, the principal of the school expelled Sean, explaining that since he was the only one getting beaten up, it must be his fault." (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date, p. 2)

     Heterosexual individuals are often unaware or unaccepting of the conclusion by the American Psychiatric Association (1973) that homosexuality is not a disorder, but rather a lifestyle.  However, a century of Freudian theory has convinced many that homosexuals are mentally ill and possessors of a malformed psyche (Weinberg, 1972).  While a homosexual orientation is not, in and of itself, reflective of an emotional disorder (Ramafedi, 1987; Rigg, 1982), rejection by others places gay and lesbian youth at higher risk than their heterosexual peers for psychological problems (Friends of Project 10, 1989; Hunter & Schaecher, 1987).  Indeed, the primary psychological task for homosexual adolescents is adjustment to a socially stigmatized role (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).  This role threatens to breed self negativism and self hatred, and the majority of these youth will experience lowered self esteem which is most pronounced in the area of sexual identity (Martin 1988b).

     Much of this lowered self concept and its manifestations may be due to lack of a feeling of group identity (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).  Unlike children from other minority groups whose significant others communicate to them what it is like to be a member of that group (eg. African-American, Asian, Hispanic) and support that identity, a child who will later become homosexual typically has not received information on what it means to be gay or lesbian (Hetrick & Martin 1987; Martin, 1988b).  Their attraction to individuals of the same sex violates their previous understanding of morality and sexuality (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987), often causing emotional distress.  One study revealed that nineteen percent of homosexual teenagers self-reported some form of significant emotional problem, usually involving depression or anxiety (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).

     Most gay and lesbian teens pass through a turbulent and isolated period that brings the risk of developing maladaptive behaviors and feelings of alienation, anxiety, depression, self- hatred and demoralization (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).  These youth are at greater risk of substance abuse and suicide (Bell & Weinberg, 1981; Flax, 1990; Ramafedi, 1987; Ray & Johnson, 1983).  In fact, over 1/3 of gay and bisexual teens have attempted suicide (Roesler & Deisher, 1972; Ramafedi, 1987) and up to 1/3 of all suicides are committed by homosexual youth (Flax, 1990; Whitlock, 1988).  Interestingly, whether homosexuals are considered to be a "cultural group" may determine whether they can or should receive services under the proposed new definitions for "emotional or behavioral disorder" (McIntyre, unpublished manuscript).

     "From junior high till high school I was always labeled a `fag.'  I've been picked on and nearly battered by kids who grew up educated the wrong way.
     I thanked God for letting me graduate from junior high.  My first year in high school, I tried to put the name-calling behind me.  I wanted a new start.
     I attempted to be `Mr. Macho' so that I could fool people and be accepted as `normal.'  It was bullshit.  People were asking if I was gay after the first two months, and in almost all of my classes, it was the topic of discussion.  Admittedly, it wasn't as bad as it was in junior high, but it lowered my self-esteem.  I couldn't fool anyone (well, maybe one or two) so I tried even harder to disguise myself.  And that brought on an identity crisis - I was trying to get rid of my natural feelings and change the true person I am.
     When I started dressing differently and wearing my hair in a pony tail, my mom started saying, "Te pareses a un pato!" which means, "You look like a faggot!" (Even my own mother jumped on the bandwagon.)
     Turmoil, confusion, all the natural symptoms of a closeted person, were written all over my face.  But I couldn't risk coming out.  I just wasn't psychologically prepared for that yet." (Diaz, 1990, p. 41)

    "Daniel kept his homosexuality from his mother and the family counselor, but his sexual confusion and years of taunting had taken their toll. `The family counselor told me to take him out of there and move to the Bay Area,' says Heather, `or I would wind up with a dead son.'  Daniel never considered suicide, but he believes he might have if he had stayed in Tracy...he still attends a group- therapy session in San Francisco where gay teens complain of being harassed for their sexuality...Adolescence is never easy, but growing up gay has always been trying." (Newsweek, 1990)

Educational Implications
     For young homosexuals, schools can be a lonely and frequently frightening place (Friends of Project 10, 1989).  Here they experience unique stresses that the school system must recognize and address (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987).  One educational program for these youth found that isolation and violence were the main concerns of entering youth (Martin, 1988b).  If not resolved, this social, cognitive, and social isolation may extend into adulthood, bringing with it anxiety, depressive symptoms, alienation, self- hatred, and demoralization (Hetrick & Martin, 1987, p. 25).

     "There is nothing more isolating and segregating than the feeling that you are the only one in the world, than being afraid to go out in the school yard for fear of what will happen to you, than not being able to tell your parents why you are afraid to go to school, than being afraid to go the bathroom in school for fear of what the other boys will do to you in there." (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date, p. 5)

     "But really, it's the pressure that we have in school, you know that they don't like gays...and we're gays!  And we're proud to be gay."...
     "That's the pressure we have.  Everybody looks at us and "Oh you're a faggot, a faggot."  and that bothers me; I feel like killing one of 'em.  But I'm used to it.  But before we were used to it there were problems, problems." (Farrell, 1990, p. 40-41)

     According to Norton (1976, p. 376), "the loneliest person in the country is the gay in the typical high school of today."  To counter this isolation that typically results from fear of discovery and a perceived need to hide (Hetrick & Martin, 1987; Whitlock, 1989), many schools designate an educator as a "point person" to initially contact, befriend, and direct to services, students who are or think they might be homosexual.  This may be even more important in rural areas where youngsters have less access to a gay or lesbian community than their urban peers (Whitlock, 1989).

     While the above strategy is admirable, educational provisions for homosexual youth need to take a multiple focus.  Services might include crisis intervention and group, individual and family counseling.  Because issues in psychological and social development are different for the homosexual student (Hetrick & Martin, 1987), counseling and support groups geared to their needs are necessary (Tartagni, 1978).  However, despite a resolution by the National Education Association (1988) recommending that every school district provide counseling for students who are struggling with their sexual/gender orientation, typically their behavioral and emotional needs are not addressed (Uribe, 1989; Whitlock, 1989).  Referral and placement for emergency shelter, education (including sex and health issues), vocational guidance, and outreach to students not presently attending school may also be indicated.  Overall, however, the primary emphasis of any program should be to alleviate aversion to school, spur academic achievement, and promote a positive self identity (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date; Tracy, 1990).

     As with any group, cultural awareness is important in promoting positive self esteem among its members (Martin, 1988b) and acceptance by others.  However, information about homosexuality has traditionally been absent from health, science, and literature classes (Flax, 1990).  Subject matter of this nature is still taboo in most schools and communities (Tartagni, 1978).  This means that most youth are unaware of the lifestyle, history and contributions of homosexuals.  The lack of access to accurate information regarding homosexuality contributes to the aforementioned cognitive isolation for gay and lesbian students (Hetrick & Martin, 1987).

     "Their Gay peers are invisible.  They get bad ideas about themselves in libraries that have old books.  They cannot even approach known Gay adults in Gay organizations.  The legal risks for the Gay adult who reaches out to help a Gay child are extreme; caring can easily be interpreted as impairing the morals or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, if not distorted hysterically as outright child molestation.  Some of these invisible developing Gay children are quite literally depending on you for their lives." (Clark, 1977, p. 151)

     Although there are increasing numbers of teens who are sexually active, school personnel continue to be afraid to deal with homosexuality and consequently these troubled students must learn to cope with their feelings.  The isolation is especially severe for young people who think they may be homosexual or lesbian." (Tartagni, 1978, p. 27)

     Bringing issues regarding homosexuality to the classroom is fraught with hazards.  Many parents threaten to withdraw their children if homosexuals are mentioned in the school curriculum (Fennelly, 1990).  Likewise, many professionals hold personal, cultural or religious beliefs that are anti-homosexuality (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Tartagni, 1978).  One former high school principal (Hurwitz, 1988, p. 213-215) expresses this viewpoint by stating "So aggressive have gays become in forcing schools to accept their aberrant sexual behavior that many of them are now teachers in communities where they are protected against alleged discrimination on grounds of `sexual orientation.'  By including homosexuals among the protected minorities, legislators have been protecting civil wrongs, not civil rights...Gays' boldness is boundless.  They have invited teachers to join gay teachers' organizations through advertising in such publications as the New York Teachers Bulletin of the teachers' union.  They are emboldened to flaunt their perversity by the New York City Board of Education and other boards that have stated homosexuality is no bar to teaching license...I believe further that persons who engage in homosexual practices should be barred from teaching...students who know their teacher is a homosexual conclude that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, for their teacher is one.  This is another type of cancer that our sick schools cannot abide."

     Although increasing in number, at present, few school systems have policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This constrains lesbian and gay professionals who fear of losing their positions if they advocate for homosexual adolescents (Whitlock, 1989).  This means that gay and lesbian youth may pass through adolescence without ever having been exposed to positive role models of their sexual orientation.  This interaction may be an especially strong need for gays and lesbians from racial minority groups (Baron, 1991; Sneed, 1990; Wenzhong & Grove, 1991) that promote strong gender roles and expectations.  Within these cultures, the homosexual orientation is more likely to be viewed as contemptible.

     Heterosexual educators also face pressures.  Like their lesbian or gay colleagues, they may fear that nondiscriminatory treatment of homosexual youth and discussion of issues related to this group, might expose them to charges of advocating and promoting homosexuality (Clark, 1977; Tartagni, 1978).  They may be erroneously accused of being homosexual themselves (Tartagni, 1978).  Hunter and Schaecher (1987, p. 112) state that "In light of campaigns to restrict or prohibit the discussion of homosexuality in schools and efforts to remove homosexual teachers from the classroom, a worker has to be courageous to take a positive stance."  Indeed, one survey found that 61% of guidance counselors and teachers were afraid that they would endanger their jobs if they addressed the needs of gay and lesbian youth (Robinson & Martin, 1984).  One would expect this figure to be higher among non-tenured personnel who are less likely to "rock the boat" for fear of dismissal.  Changes which allow for greater tolerance and discussion are needed for the benefit of a large segment of the school age population.  Tracy (1990, p. 85) agrees, stating that "If those in positions of authority acknowledge and validate their presence, then abuse from other students may well be tolerated to a lesser degree."

     "How do you tell the class that they have to accept everybody?  If we bring it out and it gets back to the home I get called down to District Eight.  I thought I was doing the right thing and I'm out of a job." (New York Native, 1985)

     "Sometimes, those of us who defend homosexuals in such instances catch hate-flak.  Our motives are interpreted as self- seeking; it is thought that anybody who empathizes with the cause of homosexuals is also homosexual." (Tartagni, 1978, p. 27)

     Despite the difficulties mentioned above, many school systems across the nation have considered and/or implemented a number of approaches to address these issues (Flax, 1990).  For the general school population, these include awareness activities, inclusion of information on homosexuals in the curriculum, and enforced disciplinary procedures for those who violate the rights of gay/lesbian students.  For educational personnel, some schools have provided sensitivity training, inservice education, consultation services and informational packets.

     A more controversial strategy involves hiring or identifying homosexual educators to serve as role models, much as is done for youth from racial minorities.  New York City has gone one step further, incorporating the Harvey Milk School designed exclusively for homosexual youth who are unable, for whatever reason, to thrive in the regular high school setting.  Schools based on this model would provide support services, a curriculum (similar to Los Angeles' World of Difference curriculum) which acknowledges authors and historical figures who were gay or lesbian, and make use of movies with homosexual characters or themes designed to stimulate discussion regarding pertinent issues (Martin, 1988b).  With regard to materials, general high schools might also assure that their libraries have adequate and appropriate readings that address homosexuality (Whitlock, 1989).  The actual services and practices to be undertaken should be based upon a needs survey distributed to teachers, students, administrators and support personnel throughout the school district (Martin, 1988b).  This data can then be used to guide the district in devising curriculum and training for students and educators.

     "I hate that in 12 years of public education I was never taught about queer people.  I hate that I grew up thinking I was the only queer in the world, and I hate even more that most queer kids grew up the same way." (Outweek, 1990, p. 6)

     "...16-year-old Olivia...lives at home with her mother and several siblings by a different father.  When she came to us, her home life was unhappy, partially because of the family's reaction to her homosexuality.  She was so lonely that she was talking of quitting school.  She now receives individual and group counseling, participates in a (singing) group, and takes part in the cultural and recreational activities sponsored by the Institute.  Her family is receiving counseling.  Olivia no longer talks of leaving school and is planning to enter college soon." (Hetrick-Martin Institute, no date)

Parent-Teacher Contacts
     As with any parents, the guardians of homosexual youth are concerned with the academic performance of their children.  In discussions with parents, the issue of their child's sexual preference may or may not arise.  If it does, the role of the educator requires diplomacy, for while many parents are accepting and supportive of the emerging lifestyle of their children, many others may be unaware of their progeny's sexual orientation (Whitlock, 1989).

     If they are aware, negative reactions and responses may present themselves due to society's general belief that homosexuality is a result of parental practices (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Weinberg, 1972).  While empirical evidence for this view is non-existent (Bell, Weinberg & Hammersmith, 1981), it still persists (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987).  This viewpoint places the family's equilibrium at risk (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987) and can cause many parents to react with denial, anger, guilt, demands for their child to enter therapy, and at the extreme, physical and emotional abuse (Hunter & Schaecher, 1987; Whitlock, 1989).

     While about half of anti-gay violence is at the hands of peers, the other half emanates from  students' families (Hetrick & Martin Institute, no date).  This is not surprising given the large number of fathers who say that the worst thing that could happen to their sons is for them to become homosexual (Epstein, 1970).  Many homosexual youths choose to leave home rather than face continual rejection there.  Although other reasons may have contributed to running away, it is estimated that one half of New York City's homeless youth population is gay or lesbian (Tracy, 1990).

     "A high school student was beaten by his parents and thrown out of his home after they discovered gay literature and information flyers in his bedroom.  The boy suffered a broken arm as a result of his parents' attack." (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Report on Anti-Gay Violence, 1990)

     "Gay kids do not know how or where to find validating information.  They rarely feel they can turn to family because they fear rejection." (Clark, 1977, p. 151)

     According to Tartagni (1978, p. 31), "It is often very painful for parents, and they sometimes deal with the truth by punishing their children.  One way to help clients come out to their parents is to help the parents cope."  If parents express concern regarding their child's sexual preference, culturally stereotypic behavior, or manifestations of feelings of rejection (eg. suicide attempts, drug usage, prostitution, running away) recommendations for services may be in order.  They are most likely in need of information and counseling for their emotional health in addition to that of their child.  Indeed, Hunter and Schaecher (1987, p. 186) believe that "family recognition and acceptance are central to an adolescent's healthy maturation process, and are directly related to the development of a positive self-image."

     Gay and lesbian youth have needs beyond those of the average adolescent.  While most homosexual students eventually lead happy and productive adult lives (Hetrick & Martin, 1987), schools can assist gay and lesbian youth in reaching this positive outcome by modifying programs and practices to address their need for a non- threatening academic environment.  At present, these needs are usually not met.  Often times they are not even recognized.

  Whitlock (1989) identifies some of the stressors faced by these students.  She writes "Lesbian and gay youngsters face painful choices and risks.  How are they to choose between honesty and possible loss of friendship or parental love?  How can they fulfill their spiritual longings if they fear that their religious communities will respond with condemnation?  How are they to experience such normal adolescent rituals as dating, dancing or holding hands with someone special?  Even just spending time with others who are `like me' poses tremendous risks in predominantly heterosexual settings." (p. 12)

      Educator's beliefs and values will be tested and assessed in the near future.  Many need to be enlightened so that they can better relate to, counsel and provide programming for these pupils. Despite the fact that services for these youth are more controversial than those provided for other minority youth, and society is generally not supportive of them (Tartagni, 1978), educators will need to remind themselves that the education of all youth, the building of a positive self concept, and the promotion of respect and tolerance for others remain important goals in every school.  As with all youth, homosexual teens need to be seen in their wholeness, not reduced to stigmatizing labels.  Educators who are openly and clearly not homophobic, and can address issues of homosexuality without condemnation or embarrassment, are needed in our schools.


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