HRC Blog

Tupelo, Teaching Tolerance, and My Ongoing Journey Out of Homophobia

This post is from Welcoming Schools’ Southern Regional Consultant, Rhonda Thomason.

“Privilege is choosing what we do not see” -Dorothy Soelles

These words speak to my ongoing journey out of homophobia—a journey that began nearly a decade ago in Mississippi.

Such journeys start when one is open to and appreciative of people having the courage and taking the time to share their stories and resources. It is the rich sharing that has the power to move us beyond ignorance and systemic bias—the unconscious groundwater of majority privilege—toward action and change.

When one is a part of a majority group that experiences privilege, there is much that remains invisible. As educators, this impacts our ability to relate to our students’ lives and establish the connections essential to helping our students belong and thrive.

It was at an anti-racism meeting during the early nineties where faith groups were organizing to rebuild churches — whose congregants were mostly people of color — burned in a string of arsons, that a mom from Tupelo, MS told me about her son’s crushing “coming out” experience.

She asked me to look at the destructive influence of homophobic bias as a social justice issue—and followed up by mailing me faith-based articles reflecting the loving faith vision of John Shelby Spong. It was my first lens into the systemic homophobia that had previously been invisible to me.

I left the meeting in Mississippi and returned to Montgomery, AL with an expanded focus— and began gently and relentlessly advocating for visibility, safety, inclusion, equality, and yes, happiness for underserved students and families.

But the bias beast keeps rearing its head. Every year for the past decade, Teaching Tolerance has sponsored Mix It Up At Lunch Day to encourage students to move beyond their cliques and connect with someone new over lunch; to learn about worlds previously invisible to them.

But this year the program also generated a very different message, and it too came from Tupelo.

The Tupelo-based American Family Association, a far-right advocacy group, has pushed back claiming Mix It Up At Lunch would spread the “homosexual agenda.”

The contrasting messages from Tupelo bring me full-circle.

Since I met that mom from Tupelo, I’ve retired from the classroom and worked at Teaching Tolerance where I saw the true mission of Teaching Tolerance and Mix It Up At Lunch from the inside. I also learned that what I had taken as southern bias was entrenched across the nation.

It was at Teaching Tolerance that I became part of the National Safe Schools Roundtable and discovered Welcoming Schools—the most effective resource I’ve discovered to support systemic change and cleanse the groundwater of bias and misunderstanding.

A shared mission for both Teaching Tolerance and Welcoming Schools is to improve intergroup relations and student achievement by encouraging students and educators to make a welcoming space for those who feel ostracized and “less than” – for any reason.

At their core, Teaching Tolerance and Welcoming Schools are advocates for children and families. No student or family should feel unwanted or invisible.

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