Jump to content
The Education Forum

Homosexuality in the Classroom


John Simkin
 Share

Recommended Posts

This week’s TES includes an article about Schools Out, the association for gay and lesbian teachers. Apparently, Tim Collins, the Tory education spokesman, has raised questions about Schools Out promoting a website aimed at schools which highlights the contribution made to history, literature and art by figures widely considered to have been homosexual or bisexual. The Daily Mail and the People have both published articles criticising Schools Out.

In February, schools will be encouraged to use material that suggest the lives and work of William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Florence Nightingale could spark debates on sexuality.

Tim Collins says: “It is more valuable to convey the achievements of historical figures than their sexual orientation. Less political correctness in every part of our lives would be most welcome.” I disagree with Collins. I believe it is sometimes important to include details of a historical character’s sexual orientation. As John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: “We should not assume history is entirely heterosexual.”

This is an interesting point. For example, biographers have claimed that George Washington, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale and Eleanor Roosevelt were all gay or bi-sexual. Should this be mentioned in classroom lessons? Does it help us understand them better? Does it provide a more positive image of homosexuality? We spend a great deal of time studying the persecution of people because of their religious or political opinions. Should we not do the same for those who have suffered persecution because of their sexuality? How much time do we spend on Hitler’s persecution of homosexuals?

You might be interested in looking at this thread.

http://educationforum.ipbhost.com/index.php?showtopic=2668

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Tim Collins says: “It is more valuable to convey the achievements of historical figures than their sexual orientation. Less political correctness in every part of our lives would be most welcome.” I disagree with Collins. I believe it is sometimes important to include details of a historical character’s sexual orientation. As John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: “We should not assume history is entirely heterosexual.”

Strangely enough, I'd been thinking about this just recently, having read something about it...

What brought it especially to mind was the recent resignation of a newly-hired history teacher here. He arrived in September and left in November. Now this sometimes happens in international schools -- living abroad sounds like a great adventure, but once you arrive and realize that everyone won't understand you if you just speak English clearly and loudly, the whole thing loses its lustre for some. However, the reason he gave for leaving was amazing -- he told all his friends that he couldn't work at our school any more because of the disproportionate number of homosexuals (not the word he used) on the staff...

As you can imagine, his leaving was not greatly lamented by the rest of us, even though we do have to cover his classes for the rest of the year...

But it did make me think. You see, I'd never really thought about the sexual inclination of my colleagues. I hadn't put them into little boxes labeled "gay", "straight" or "lesbian". I just thought of them as more or less trustworthy, more or less hardworking, more or less tolerant, better or worse teachers. Why should I care how my colleagues arrange their personal lives? I'm only really affected by their professional activities.

I wonder if this could be extended to cover "historical figures". Should I be concerned about George Washington's sexual inclinations unless they can be shown to have relevance to his "public" activities? I can see that Jefferson's reported activities with the female black slaves on his plantation might have some historical relevance, but would Florence Nightingale's pastimes after she extinguished her lamp have any significance at all?

I don't know the answer. Just some musings brought on by the co-incidence of John's post with my thoughts about the departure of my nasty red-neck colleague...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Åke Green, a Pentacostalist pastor from the island of Öland in Sweden, gave a sermon in 2003 where he likened homosexuality to a cancerous growth on society, saying that it led to sex with animals and paedophilia (in other words, standard fare for Christian fundamentalists of all persuasions). He made sure that the sermon was taped and sent transcripts to the major newspapers … and settled back to wait to be prosecuted.

Sweden passed a new law a couple of years ago which included homosexuals as one of the groups about whom you are not allowed by law to make sweeping negative statements. The prosecution of Åke Green has been one of the first under the new law, and was encouraged by HomO (the Ombudsman for homosexuals). Green was found guilty in the Magistrates' Court and his case is awaiting judgement from the Appeals Court.

Needless to say, if Green had said 'Judaism' and 'Jews' instead of homosexuality and homosexuals, very few people would have been surprised at a prosecution for inciting hatred. A quick look at a fundamentalist web site (try this one: http://www.godhatessweden.com/) inclines me to think that a fundamentalist Christian well *could* have made that substitution (perhaps adding 'drinking the blood of Christian children').

So … my own feeling is that until the existence of homosexuality and homosexuals is totally uncontroversial, the homosexuality of historical figures is something worth mentioning, simply because the attitudes and behaviour of people for whom they are controversial affects and affected the lives of these historical figures, even by default.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Strangely enough, I'd been thinking about this just recently, having read something about it...

What brought it especially to mind was the recent resignation of a newly-hired history teacher here. He arrived in September and left in November. Now this sometimes happens in international schools -- living abroad sounds like a great adventure, but once you arrive and realize that everyone won't understand you if you just speak English clearly and loudly, the whole thing loses its lustre for some. However, the reason he gave for leaving was amazing -- he told all his friends that he couldn't work at our school any more because of the disproportionate number of homosexuals (not the word he used) on the staff...

As you can imagine, his leaving was not greatly lamented by the rest of us, even though we do have to cover his classes for the rest of the year...

But it did make me think. You see, I'd never really thought about the sexual inclination of my colleagues. I hadn't put them into little boxes labeled "gay", "straight" or "lesbian". I just thought of them as more or less trustworthy, more or less hardworking, more or less tolerant, better or worse teachers. Why should I care how my colleagues arrange their personal lives? I'm only really affected by their professional activities.

The worse thing that a student can say to another student is to accuse them of being gay. This is one of the reasons that so many suffer from a deep prejudice against homosexuals. There is a very good Swedish movie about this subject (Show Me Love, directed by Lukas Moodysson).

Many years ago I was telling a sixth-form sociology student off for not doing his homework. All of a sudden he jumped up and accused me of being gay and ran out of the classroom. Several members of the class explained to me what had happened. A few weeks before that we had been studying deviance. Apparently I had upset this boy by my approach to the subject. He thought I had appeared overly sympathetic to the discrimination suffered by homosexuals. He concluded that I must be gay.

What amazed me about this incident was the emotional state he got into when he accused me of being gay. I suspect he came close to physically attacking me. I am sure that if he had been drinking he would have done. I was therefore given an insight the psychology of those who get into “gay bashing”.

Psychologists have claimed that young men who are uncertain of their own sexuality are particularly hostile to people they perceive as being homosexuals. That must include a lot of the boys that we teach. By promoting a positive image of homosexuals in the classroom is bound to create hostility from this group. However, I believe as a teacher, we have a duty to do this.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Even in these supposedly liberated times, unless you are gay yourself, I think it is hard to guess how MASSIVE it is for students, especially gay students, to hear teachers express non-judgemental attitudes to queers. Most gay kids feel like they are isolated on an island surrounded by sharks, and a hint that not everyone is homophobic is VERY important to them.

They tend to soak up every anti-gay sentiment they hear and believe that this abuse will be unleashed on their heads if they dare to acknowledge their sexuality.

I agree with Dave R too - in general terms everyone assumes ppl are straight. The contribution queers have made to our society has tended to be a hidden history, and that matters to us all. It is important to acknowledge that some of the people we revere were not 100% straight and it did not limit them.

Yes, I am a lesbian, and yes my students know, and yes it is relevant to make it explicit ..... hands up the married teacher here who never mentioned their spouse (or kids) in the classroom?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Psychologists have claimed that young men who are uncertain of their own sexuality are particularly hostile to people they perceive as being homosexuals. That must include a lot of the boys that we teach.

And girls too. We find in an all girls environment just as much hostility to lesbianism from the girls fuelled by just as much uncertainty.

Now that the infamous Clause 28 is dead and gone teachers should surely be taking the lead in promoting sexual tolerance in the classroom and staffroom thereby making schools a more bearable place for one in five of our colleagues and pupils.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

teachers should surely be taking the lead in promoting sexual tolerance in the classroom and staffroom thereby making schools a more bearable place for one in five of our colleagues and pupils.

But, to return to the original issue raised by John, does that mean we should be emphasizing the sexual preferences of historical figures? If those figures themselves saw their sexuality as relevant -- like, for example, Oscar Wilde -- or if their sex lives seems to have had a significant influence on their public activities -- like Edward II and his succession of lovers -- then I can see that, as historians, we should address the issue, but if not...

I'm not sure I'm happy about bending the subject just to serve a laudible political, social or eduational aim. If I were teaching a lesson on tolerance, on individual rights, or on discrimination, it might be relevant to mention that there have been historical figures who have become "cultural icons" whose sexuality would have been considered scandalous in their own time. I might even suggest some of them as role models. On the other hand, if I were teaching a class on changes on health provision and the raising of the prestige and social acceptability of nursing as a suitable profession for middle class women, I don't think it would be relevant to talk about Florence Nightingale's sexual orientation...

Link to comment
Share on other sites

How topical things sometimes become! My eldest daughter came home from school yesterday with a task to perform in the Swedish lesson today. She had to talk about a male and a female role model, and the list she had included Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Florence Nightingale. She's chosen Florence Nightingale and Nelson Mandela, and spent some time yesterday evening researching them on the net.

So … if Florence Nightingale is a role model, do you mention the stories of her lesbianism or not? Is the information about her 'role-modelness' simply historical information which shouldn't be 'adulterated' with information about her lesbianism? The problem is that there isn't any neutral information.

This morning, on the way to school, she told me that as a result of Florence Nightingale's efforts in Crimea, mortality among soldiers decreased from 15% to 2%. Good, I said, so you could have more wars, because you had more soldiers (I'm trying to get her to see the other side of things!).

Similarly, Nelson Mandela was a bogeyman for Conservatives all over the world right up to the day he became a folk hero. "Why are we making trouble for the [white] South Africans? How would we like it if they came to Sweden and stirred up the Lapps?" (A famous quote from a right-wing Swedish industrialist and bankroller of the Swedish Conservative Party).

I would love sexual orientation not to be an issue … but it is, and it affects most aspects of life, so this needs to be reflected in school.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I thought I'd add a bit of background on this topic from Sweden. As I've mentioned in other posts, Sweden isn't a paradise on earth - it's just another small, European country trying to make its way in the world. If the situation for male and female homosexuals was perfect here, you wouldn't even need the HomO that I mentioned in an earlier post.

However, the creation of HomO and the inclusion of homosexuals as a distinct group which is entitled to protection from persecution followed along very Swedish lines. The way Sweden has faced up to one problem after another in the last 70 or so years (since the election of the Social Democratic government in 1932) has been to illuminate the situation and try to look at it calmly, logically and factually. When problems have then been identified, public education has always been the first course of action chosen.

It took a long time for homosexuals to be seen as a distinct group (the Swedish word is 'folkgrupp' and the offence is 'hets mot folkgrupp', or incitement to hatred against a particular or distinct group). However, when they finally were, an ombudsman was created and a set of measures was established to encourage the group of homosexuals, which is closely based on all the other ombudsmen in Sweden.

'Ombud' is a standard, mainstream word in Swedish. When you send someone else to pick up your parcel from the post office, that person is your 'ombud'. Amongst the official ombudsmen in Sweden are the Barn Ombudsman (children's ombudsman) and the Justitie Ombudsman, who you turn to any time you feel that an official body has done something they shouldn't. All of the ombudsmen are independent of the state, and they have varying powers and degrees of success. In each case, though, they have generally been successful in bringing the problems to light, even though it might take time to put them right.

In schools in Sweden, if you're 14 and a boy, the worst thing you want to be called is 'bög' or 'bögdjävul' (queer), and the worst thing a girl wants to be called is 'hora' (whore). In other words, people who are uncertain of their own sexuality are still trying to shoehorn others into very narrow moulds for their sexual behaviour. However, I don't think there's a school in Sweden without a code of conduct about this, but, of course, different schools are successful to different degrees in stamping this name-calling out, and encouraging pupils to take a more mature view of human sexuality.

Of the top of my head, I can think of about a dozen public figures who are openly gay - and there are, of course, lots more. Jonas Gardell and Mark Levengood spring to mind. Jonas is a stand-up comedian, who's had a great hit with his one-man show about the pain of growing up gay. Mark is a broadcaster, who's perhaps best known for hosting children's programmes (can you imagine an openly gay man getting that job in the USA?). The point is that they are broadcasters and performers first and gays a long way afterwards in the public mind.

Another well-known person who's known to be gay is the Chairperson of the youth wing of the Swedish Christian Democratic party (the only openly religiously-based party in Sweden, which is still heavily-influenced by non-conformist churches like the Pentecostal Church). He has ensured that anti-homosexual rhetoric hasn't become an acceptable weapon for political parties here.

They're still subject to all sorts of criticism (Mark was beaten up by a couple of Nazis last year … but his attackers were quickly arrested and prosecuted). However, I'm certain that the fact that schools have taken the heat out of the issue of homosexuality is the reason why it's much less of an issue in society at large than in many other countries. The gay couples in the public eye regularly feature in the gossip magazines, with the same kind of "at home with …" and speculation about partners, break-ups, etc as famous heterosexual couples get.

Edited by David Richardson
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in



Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...