“You’ll Never Walk Alone” — Unless You’re Gay

I applaud all of those who write for the various school publications. It is not easy putting pen to paper, especially when you know that you are writing for a tough and demanding audience. I want to make special mention of the recently published essay, “You’ll Never Walk Alone – Unless You Are Gay” in the recent “Blue and White.”

If you missed it, it starts with this:

‘ToK is gay!’ At least according to a student in one of my classes last week. What bothered me was not so much the homophobic sentiment but rather my teacher’s half-hearted, somewhat obligatory response – a proverbial slap on the wrist – and that he seemed more bothered by the negative feeling toward ToK. (I will come back to this in a minute.)

I was sitting in Laidlaw Hall last Wednesday morning at 8:30, waiting for the CAS department to begin its presentation on ManageBac, when I heard the word ‘fag’ for the first time that day. And then I heard it and its close relatives several more times over the next ten minutes from my fellow students. I was vaguely aware that we missed our sleep-in over this, and perhaps my colleagues had not gotten their Venti no-chai chai lattes, but, come on, homophobia is not the way to defeat a caffeine headache.

However, even if missing one’s morning trip to Starbucks is an excuse to be ignorant and generally offensive, it is certainly not the only time that students behave that way. It is like that in the iDiv hallway, where bruised apples are ‘gay’. It is like that in the locker room, where a pair of shorts that actually fall above the knees or perhaps some slightly ill-hued socks are ‘fruity’, and students have even taken to questioning the sexual orientation of malfunctioning photocopiers.”

A couple of reflections on this essay:

First, not only does our student write well, but he also writes with courage. The issue he chose to focus on does not lend itself to simple answers. It is easy enough for anyone to stand up and say that you should not use any language that marginalizes anyone for race, ethnicity, orientation, gender or religion. Everyone has been saying something along these lines for a long, long time, but that doesn’t seem to have had much impact on the language used, especially by students during their first year or two of high school.

So how do we change things? At a faculty meeting at another school many years ago, I asked my colleagues for some advice. “If I am walking down the hall and I hear someone use a homophobic comment, what should I do? What is ‘best practice’ for this? “I got three different responses:

One group suggested that it’s better to simply ignore this kind of transgression. “If you make a big deal out of this or over-react in any way, you actually make things worse.” A second group took a diametrically different response. These folks recommended a stern response involving discipline. Both of these approaches are rational, I guess, and fairly traditional.

But someone offered a third approach. “Here’s what I do. I stop and pull the boy aside, and he and I have a conversation. And somewhere in that conversation, I let him know that I am personally bothered by what he said. I tell him that there are people I care about who are gay, and that that kind of language dehumanizes them. I don’t discipline him. I just try to tell him that that stuff hurts.”

That last approach appeals to me personally, and over the years, I have found it to be surprisingly effective. It’s not based on lording power over someone; it’s about making things personal. It’s about relationships.

I would urge all of us to consider this approach. Don’t ignore and don’t try to punish. Try to connect in a meaningful way and communicate what’s important as clearly and as simply as possible. If we all did this, just imagine how this might change our school?

A recent study on anxiety among university students reveals that what makes students most anxious during their college years does not involve papers, tests, or exams. Research suggests that students are most nervous 3 times a day, when they are coming out of the cafeteria line. That is when they face the question: “Will there be room for me?”

That is a question we all face at UCC. We’d all agree that anything about anyone — whether it’s about weight, gender, orientation, skin colour, complexion or class –anything along those lines –just divides us. If that sort of behaviour is allowed to stand, we will all eventually end up on the other side of the line; we will each become isolated. It’s just a matter of time.

But a good school, as our student author reminds us, shouldn’t marginalize anyone. None of us, for any reason, should ever be forced to walk alone.


8 thoughts on ““You’ll Never Walk Alone” — Unless You’re Gay

  1. The process of building images of the full range of masculinity is a mosaic, taking a myriad of little encounters daily to large events such as a guest speaker such as the Leaf’s coach who lost his gay son in a car accident and speaks about the hockey attitude to gay and his regrets. Exposure to different types of roles models is important. An openly gay teacher without the preaching about “OMG I am gay” would have an impact too.
    UCC is doing a great deal already though so credit must be given. For a young man to write about being gay is the most powerful of all. Well done, UCC.

  2. A few years ago ,not many, a few guys in my class decided to call me gay, faggot etc. Not one of my friends dared to stand up to these “cool” guys, and when I told a teacher that I trusted, he said that I should learn to take it like a man and toughen up. This was in one of the several boys’ schools in the city. At the time, I presented an image of someone who was very academic, very intellectually oriented. Apparently, this is not considered masculine among most boys. I needed to toughen up, according to the teacher. He must also have thought me not masculine enough.
    In the coed school I now attend, no one has thought to call me gay or faggot. If I chose to call myself gay, that would be okay. The problem with coming out as gay is that I am heterosexual. The words gay and faggot had very little to do with my perceived sexuality but were tossed out as the greatest insult anyone could dream up. Not a very creative bunch. I spend a lot of time on image control now,being careful to present as someone who does not care “too much” about school but still pulls off good marks since I will need those to gain acceptance at the university of my choice.
    There have been studies of “masculinity” but I do not think more are needed. That would be like dealing with the use of the n word with more studies on the essence of being black. It is not acceptable to do many things at school. For so long we have lived in world that has accepted the bullying of others in school. Teachers turn away, or think it builds character to have been bullied. I don’t think that punishment is the answer. Neither is ignoring the problem. As someone else pointed out we need to create school cultures that make it clear “that is not done here”.

  3. We have addressed this before, for example when UCC brought in Joe Ehrmann who addressed the myths of manhood in our assembly, followed by advising group discussions. After your assembly address Monday, this was given to all advisor gropus:

    “In Monday’s assembly, Dr. Power referred to and quoted from the article “You’ll Never Walk Alone. Unless You’re Gay” written in the latest issue of The Blue and White (http://tbaw.ca/). Knowing that homophobic language is wrong, why does it seem to prevail and be thrown around so frequently, almost casually, at the school? How can it be stopped?”

    Unfortunately, the reality is that this will be a perpetual — as are so many other issues that boys (all children, really) wrestle with growing up relating to self-image and respect for others and their differences from us — that we must address en masse (as when the GSA brought old boy Tommy Smythe and his colleagues in last year around the “It Gets Better” campaign to address the boys (and faculty) in assembly), in small groups (such as advising discussions) and individually (the conversations Jim is talking about, as well as the formal disciplinary responses, such as the one I am in the middle of addressing with two boys in a Facebook exchange involving intolerant language.)

    I worry about the moral outrage that takes place when a student makes a mistake. As soon as a kid steps out of line, there is a rant about how the system is completely broken, that there’s no accountability for student behaviour, that the inmates are running the asylum. Implicit in this condemnation is that we all should have known better, should have seen it coming, should have been able to stop it before it ever happened.

    We have cops all over the city. We all know they give out tickets for illegal left-hand turns. That doesn’t stop people, at intersections with clear signage about the illegality of those turns, from making those turns everyday. My point is, when someone makes that turn, no rational person would say that the entire police force and justice system need to be dissolved, or new traffic legislation needs to be written, or the police need retraining, because, if someone made the left turn, then obviously there is a fundamental problem with the institution.

    As with so many other things in life, the greatest impact on our behaviour results from those experiences that are most personal to us. And those personal moments arise more often than not from the encounters we have with other individuals, the ‘relationships’ piece that we always talk about. So each one of us (administrators, faculty, coaches, club supervisors, staff, students, parents) has to be prepared to engage any person who acts or speaks unjustly and not simply expect the ‘system’ to have somehow preemptively ‘fixed’ every one so that he will never offend.

    We all turn left sometimes…

  4. At the start of my university experience, during that first night on campus, a bunch of first years were together telling jokes.

    We were all a bit ill at ease. (Some of the jokes were a little off colour.) Then one boy started to tell a gay joke, and before he could finish, a guy in 3rd year, who just happened to be there, cut him off. “We don’t do that here.”

    It got immediately quiet and it was a little awkward.

    But that one guy left his mark. It’s been almost 2 months since, and nobody says anything homophobic here. It’s just not on.

  5. Have the school read and/or invite Gus Lee to speak on Moral Courage. He lived the life where masculinity was defined by physical courage—and yet has transcended that to the point where masculinity can and should be defined by the much more difficult achievement of moral courage. For thousands of years, men conditioned their bodies (or their natural patterns of chasing game and fighting enemies) to become exemplars of physical courage; the Spartans added self-discipline to the regimen. Now we seek, struggling to find the right conditioning, to develop moral courage. So excise from the menu for boys stupid acts of physical courage (extreme sports, high speed driving, jumping off bridges, getting into fights) and substitute moral acts of courage: ask them to intervene with their peers to stop sexist and homophobic attacks, physical and verbal.

  6. This is where I think one needs the input of social scientists who spend their time thinking about these matters. I’m just a guy looking at this stuff and trying to sort it out.

    My two cents worth: I think that boys of this age (the range of the Upper School, and perhaps more particularly the younger ones) feel a need (a social and adolescent imperative) to establish masculinity, because that’s where they understand power and a stable identity to reside. And boys gravitate to particular instances of masculinity: the ones that they see and to that extent know. Popular culture is perhaps even more deluged with cartoon representations of masculinity than ever before, so boys’ gravitation to particular kinds of models is hardly a shocker.

    There’s a piece in today’s Globe by Lawrence Martin (A15), asking if Canada, courtesy of the Conservative government is moving away from a Ken Dryden vision of the world (Dryden was the Montreal Canadien’s astonishingly gifted goaltender during one of those periods when the Canadiens owned the Cup, and later a thoughtful and well-spoken MP) to a Don Cherry model; I don’t need to gloss the latter. And while the writer of this piece addresses Canadian political culture (and culture in general), I think a version of the Dryden / Cherry model applies here. What do boys see as models of the masculine?

    So we begin at the beginning: what is maculinity? Must we default to cliches of the masculine when thinking about the subject?

  7. An opinion: the problem with the described strategy (your preference among the three described) is that the model is predicated on cherry-picking the offenders, and it relies on Faculty (for example) being privy to the offending comments.

    But if this matter is systemic, that strategy won’t necessarily change an attitude–or it would take a large number of interventions, consistently undertaken, over a long period of time.

    I wonder if some kind of conversation or conversations regarding conceptions of masculinity, the predisposition to target members of a perceived minority, an effort to align oneself with what is deemed to be a somehow superior (or ‘stronger’) group–if such thinking / discussion might sink in a little more readily, or go a little farther. (Not preaching: that doesn’t work).

    Racist and sexist language diminished radically in some contexts over a relatively short period of time, and one large factor, I think (and I’m not a social scientist, but a guy just pondering the matter), was that the thinking changed. (Not everywhere or for everyone, obviously; but for a great number of people).

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