Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager
Erin Smith is an elementary school science teacher in a small southern city. She is also gay. And more than once she’s heard a student tell another that something is “so gay.” It’s never a compliment.
While Smith is out to many of her coworkers, she is hesitant to be out to her students because there are no school or district level employment protections for LGBT people in her school, school district, or state.
When she hears her students say things like “that’s so gay,” she struggles to separate her role as a teacher from her identity.
“I try not to come across too flustered [when students make homophobic comments],” she says. “But it’s a more complicated situation for me because I’m gay, and I don’t feel safe being completely out in my school.”
Erin usually responds to such comments with "that's not appropriate" and will often follow by explaining, "we don't say ‘that's retarded,’ so we don't say ‘that's gay.’ If you're saying ‘that's gay’ as a replacement for ‘that's stupid’ – kids need to realize they are cutting down an entire population of people.”
Erin’s situation highlights the need for educators to have access to resources to help them handle situations like when students say “That’s so gay” or engage in homophobic name-calling. “I think all educators should prepare themselves for tricky situations,” she says.
In conjunction with the start of the school year, the HRC Foundation’s Welcoming Schools program is releasing a new version of one of its most popular resources – giving educators simple and straightforward suggestions for how to respond to students.
What Do You Say to ‘That’s So Gay’? offers suggestions ranging from quick responses that teachers can use to stop students from using the phrase, to ideas for more in-depth discussions of what “gay” means and why saying “that’s so gay” is hurtful.
While this resource can help educators in a variety of settings, it is particularly useful for teachers whose schools do not provide professional development and support to address bias against LGBT people.
For South Carolina teacher Betsy Hooks, conversations with students about “that’s so gay” can be further complicated by community dynamics. “I teach in a tiny rural town where everyone knows everyone. Most of my students all have a limited mindset when it comes to anything outside the realm of their daily life.”
But even in this context, Betsy and her colleagues can find ways to address all kinds of hurtful teasing and bullying. While some teachers in Betsy’s situation might be tempted to simply ignore or excuse such comments, the What Do You Say to ‘That’s So Gay’? resource encourages teachers to take action, even if it means just saying something like, “That's not something that should be said in this classroom,” or, “Remember, we don’t use put-downs of any kind in this school.”