By Kaitlyn Kelley
Words are a very powerful tool, especially in a school setting where derogatory words can hurt the most. As kids struggle with self-confidence issues already, we really should reconsider our choice of language toward others. Words and phrases like “that’s gay” shouldn’t be allowed at any school, as they are derogatory and don’t make people in the LGBTQ community feel safe and respected. No matter what their background is, everyone should feel safe at school.
When asked, teachers and students at Summit Public School: Tahoma had strong opinions about the treatment of LGBTQ students at school. A snapshot of their thoughts and answers are included below.
- What are your thoughts on how society treats the LGBTQ community?
Tahoma junior Oniris Ramos and co-leader of the LGBTQ Club said, “The LGBTQ community is very sexualized in society; a lot of media portrays us as very sexually hyperactive people – very like fashionable or butch; lesbians don’t like to wear skirts or gay men can help women fashion problems.”
Tahoma history teacher Eileen Kim responded, “Well, I think there are two different societies: I think the societies on the coasts, the East Coast and the West Coast, are a lot more liberal, understanding and accepting. To be LGBTQ is viewed as more normal, not weird or wrong. But I definitely think there are parts of the country in those societies where it’s a lot different.”
Tahoma science teacher Alexis Lorenz had this to say: “I think it’s moving forward, but it’s most definitely not as inclusive as it should be. Currently, [gay] marriage is still frowned upon, and that’s ridiculous; it’s not like current marriage systems are working anyway, with an over 50 percent divorce rate in heterosexual couples. Society is also starting to realize the fluidity of gender; it’s not as binary as we believed it to be. I believe that that’s something that’s going to be difficult moving forward for people who struggle to understand that and be tolerant to that.”
2. Do you feel this school is accepting to the LGBTQ community? Why or why not?
Tahoma Teacher Resident Kevin Franey replied, “I do – I think Tahoma, compared to our larger society, is a very accepting place of people of all backgrounds. We’ve definitely found a pretty good space here for the LGBTQ community. But again, that’s still not to say it’s perfect.”
Ms. Lorenz said, “As teachers, we do our very best to be as inclusive and understand[ing] as possible, but when you work with human beings people make mistakes. I know as a faculty we discuss it often to make sure we are being as understanding and helpful as we can be while keeping all our students thoughts, concerns and feelings in mind.”
3. Have you ever heard someone use discriminatory words to another student? If so what did they say and how did you feel?
Mr. Franey said, “I definitely have heard students use slurs in reference to other students; I’ve heard students call other students ‘gay’ – I’ve heard the word ‘fag’ before. I don’t think I’ve ever heard, like the student involved in this identify as LGBTQ, so I’ve never seen an instance where it was specifically targeted to a student for that reason – but it doesn’t make it any more OK. I know it definitely has hurt students that it was targeted at, and I was not pleased to hear it. I’ll pull aside the student and have a conversation about why it’s an inappropriate word to use at least in that context in that way and make a plan for how we can move forward without using slurs like that.”
Tahoma freshman Vainey Gonzaga answered, “At my old school the guys would usually tell each other ‘you’re hella gay dude’ or ‘that’s hecka gay’ to each other; I didn’t like it, but I wouldn’t say anything because they were both kidding around, so they both didn’t care – but, I mean, if I was a part of that community I wouldn’t like it if they said it that much because it’s like shaming them, even though the term ‘gay’ shouldn’t be used with a negative connotation.”
Ramos said, “No, not really – I haven’t heard anything; I’ve heard things you would normally hear at a normal high school like ‘that’s so gay’ and things like that, but nothing hateful, not at this school – a lot of students have friends that are LGBTQ; they wouldn’t say that because they are friends with those people.”
4. In your opinion is calling something “gay” disrespectful or should it not be taken seriously?
Ramos said, “I mean the way people use it, to me, it’s distrustful because it’s used as an insult; if you don’t like something you say ‘that’s gay’ with a bad connotation and it’s not; it should not be used with a bad connotation because being gay is not a bad thing.”
Tahoma English teacher Merica McNeil said, “I think it’s definitely disrespectful, and people often do it thinking they’re joking, but it’s just perpetuating a negative stereotype by using ‘gay’ as a way to insult someone. I think it’s not appropriate and needs to be dealt with, and I try my best to deal with it.”
5. Do you think there should be action taken against these students who use derogatory terms? If so, what do you think should be done? If no, why?
Dr. McNeil said, “I think that the main thing is creating a respectful, safe and supportive environment, and I want everyone to feel that way in school and outside, but I can only control in my classroom. I don’t think it’s acceptable; and, if I hear that, I say something about it. I think it’s important to have students reflect on it; I might pull a student aside and talk to them to ask them questions to reflect on it because that can help the learn and ask questions like ‘How do you think that makes them feel?’ and ‘Is that respectful?’ so they can learn that that’s not okay.”
Ganzaga said, “I definitely do agree that there should be consequences to those who are saying those words or phrases; they should get a warning first time, but if they’re really offending someone it should be taken to the office. The first time should be a warning because maybe they didn’t mean it in that way, but if it becomes a problem it should lead to parent and principal meeting or suspension. If a student is feeling very emotionally offended by the terms that the other student is saying, then maybe other matters should be taken if they’re intentionally trying to hurt someone.”
6. Why do you think students use “gay” as an insult or negative descriptive term? Do you think it’s out of ignorance or homophobia?
Ms. Kim said, “Again that depends – as an adult we would have to be a little bit of digging, and that begins with having that conversation. In my existence, it’s important to approach the person in question not from a place of judgement because then they’ll get really defensive and their walls will come up and they won’t be able to listen.”
Ms. Lorenz said, “For most students it’s a little bit of both. I would say they don’t understand the power of their language. Just like you see with the language directed toward women, the language directed towards the LGBTQ community has a very similar effect as it affects how they feel about themselves, and the people who do use it towards women and LGBT community have a bit of a phobia or fear involved in using that language and the best thing is to have a conversation with them.”
7. If it’s out of ignorance, how should these students be informed that it’s offensive? If you think it’s homophobia, how can we educate them that it’s not acceptable?
Dr. McNeil said, “Addressing it and talking about it helps; however, it affects everyone in the class, and so I think we could bring it up in class. That’s a really good question – it’s something I’ve been thinking about actually; like, for example, using gender pronouns and how to deal with that. I attended at class when I was in Arizona about how to have some of these discussions, and it’s really complicated; you can talk to the student or the class, and it’s something as a teacher I want to talk with other teachers about so we can address every class about it so everyone feels safe, supported and respected.”
Ramos said, “If it’s ignorance, they should just be sat down and talked to. If it’s homophobia, same thing – but with homophobia it stems from things like religion, so there’s not much we can really change with homophobia; we just gotta help them understand.”
8. Do you think this school is more accepting of the LGBTQ community than others in the area? Why or why not?
Ramos said, “Yes, I do feel like they’re more accepting. When I decided to come to Tahoma (because it was my choice I could either go to Oak Grove or here I chose to go here) because there was no P.E. but I didn’t know there was such a large LGBT community when I got here, I felt very welcomed. I felt like I was able to come out to people a lot easier than I was before at a nonpublic school or non-charter or even non-Summit school. Some schools they say they accept it, but you can tell there’s a lot of negative connotation around it, so yeah.”
Ms. Kim said, “I don’t know if I can answer that question; I don’t really know what other schools might be like. I have a couple of friends that work at other schools, but those schools are so big I think it’s hard to attribute a judgement to what it’s like at such a big school. So I don’t feel comfortable being able to answer that question.”
9. Have you ever used “gay” negatively in the past, and when did you learn the impact that it has?
Gonzaga said, “I always heard those kids, like I said before, say ‘that’s so gay’ – but we had a teacher that heard them and got really mad and said ‘stop it; be quiet; don’t use that term,’ and they were so confused; and she said that she had said that when she was younger in high school; and everyone went silent; and she explained that she had a good friend that was gay and committed suicide; and this one time they made comments saying ‘that’s so gay,’ and he told them to stop and came out to them; and then a month later he committed suicide.”
Ms. Kim said, “Yeah, I think I did when I was in high school, which was a long time ago -from 1999- 2003 – so early 2000s being gay started being more of an issue, more visible, but people we’re still unsure. I had a friend that I played basketball with and was really good friends with – she came out as gay and immediately people in the school were either on her side and other people in the school were either really hateful or would say ‘you need to come to my church for this conversion therapy.’ Honestly, knowing these people, they were coming from a good place but very misinformed, and I think I said something was gay out of habit in her presence, and I immediately said “I’m so sorry” and ever since then I haven’t said it.”
10. Has society impacted the way we think of these terms?
Ms. Kim said, “I can still remember when Ellen had her show and came out on her show and that was a big deal, and I can still remember it started popping up a lot in T.V. and movies, and it was super controversial back then. Think that was when society started to thaw a little bit on the idea and people’s minds started to be more open.”
Ramos said, “Society had impacted the way we think of those terms; some people think gay is very negative; some people don’t even want to classify themselves as gay because they’re afraid they get hurt because a lot of people who identify as get hurt or murdered or things like that, and we have to educate people that it’s not a horrible thing to be gay.”
With that final quote from Ramos, if you are wondering, the LGBTQ Club meets every Tuesday at lunch in PF10. The club is open to any and everyone! You don’t have to identify as gay, you just have to be supportive. If talking about these issues is something you’re interested in, don’t hesitate to show up!