SEED Staff Member Judy Logan, a middle school teacher of English and social studies in San Francisco and the author of Teaching Stories, here shares the story of being an ally to LGBT students in her school. She writes about the initially negative response to her putting up a pink triangle to indicate she was someone students could turn to about LGBT matters, and how she then worked constructively with other faculty and students to create a more welcoming environment.
When I began what was to be my last three years of teaching, I noticed there was not a designated adult in my school who would answer questions and distribute information about gays and lesbians. In the San Francisco Unified School District there was a policy that every middle school and high school would have a designated adult to whom students, parents, or community members could go for information. That adult would be given special training, materials, and a sign with a pink triangle. This identified this person in each school as a safe person to speak to. I believed this to be an excellent policy, so I volunteered to fill that position in my new school, which had a staff of only three middle school teachers, since it was a small K-8 school.
The violence and the ugliness of these hateful expressions shocked me. Most of these students had been in the school since pre-school. The school prided itself on working hard to teach tolerance and promote diversity. Students knew that statements that were racist or sexist or classist were unacceptable. But they thought this was okay.
I went to the orientation meeting, got my packet of materials, and put the pink triangle sign over my desk. I taped 8" by 11" posters on my door, explaining the policy and my position in English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Cantonese. During our morning class meeting, I explained the significance of the triangle and the posters. I never witnessed this happening, but somehow that day those posters were filled with hate messages about me personally and gays and lesbians in general. Not just one or two graffiti, but many ugly statements, in many different hands. The violence and the ugliness of these hateful expressions shocked me. Most of these students had been in the school since pre-school. The school prided itself on working hard to teach tolerance and promote diversity. Students knew that statements that were racist or sexist or classist were unacceptable. But they thought this was okay. When we had a class meeting about it, they blamed me for bringing it up. Nobody else in the school had ever included sexual orientation as part of diversity, they said. Homosexuality was wrong and I should have known better.
I made a plan to address these attitudes. I knew I had some gay students in this class, and I wanted them to be safe. I knew to respect the religious convictions of some of the students and their families, but I also knew I needed to teach them about respecting others. The first thing I did was speak at the next faculty meeting. This was a small K-8 school, and our faculty meetings were conducted every week. As an alternate public school, we did not have a principal, but elected a teacher every three years to fill the role of school administrator. We made decisions by consensus. When I explained what had happened in my class and showed the posters to the staff, they told me to have a class meeting about it. I said I had already had a class meeting, and the students believed I had a personal problem and that I was wrong to ask them to respect gays and lesbians. "What do you want us to do?" the faculty asked.
"I’d like each of you to put a pink triangle sign over your desk, and I’d like each of you to have a class meeting about what happened, and I’d like it to be clear that this is a school and district policy and not just some quirk of mine." And they did. It felt like that fairy tale when the woodcutter discovers gold under a tree in the forest and ties a yellow ribbon around the tree so he will recognize it when he returns with his shovel and wheelbarrow. But when he comes back the leprechauns have tied yellow ribbons on all the trees! Only in this story it was pink triangles.
The next thing I did was to arrange for speakers to talk to the class. A young woman from COLAGE, the national organization for people with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer parents, came to talk about growing up with gay parents. Someone from CUAV (Community United Against Violence) spoke to us about the need for safety in the gay community. And whenever I spoke about racism, sexism, classism, ableness or other forms of hierarchical power, I included heterosexism.
But it wasn’t until the end of the year, when I was teaching a class on adolescence, that I realized there had been a shift. Groups of students were visiting various community organizations to gather information on a booklet we were preparing for class use. We wanted to collect community resources so students would know how to get help on a variety of topics pertinent to adolescence (everything from food banks to suicide prevention). One group visited LYRIC, a support group for gay and lesbian youth. Their report back to the class was spirited and upbeat. They told their classmates how cool it was for these young people to have a safe place to go after school. How they needed to find each other to form community. And guess what! They were planning their OWN PROM! This was all presented as if it were a very good idea. Not only that, members of LYRIC were building and decorating a float for the upcoming Gay Pride Day Parade. And they needed help. The visiting group had already volunteered to assist them and they asked for hands to show who else from the class would volunteer. Almost half my class signed up to help with this project. And they were enthusiastic.