Alex Blaze

When Students Harass Gay Teachers

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 31, 2011 8:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: la, robert collins, school, teachers, union

An out middle school teacher in the LA area and his union brought up the harassment he's experiencing and the school's indifference at a board meeting last week:

gay-serving-education.jpgAlthough Collins and the union are making specific demands of the district, the nature of his complaint centers every bit as much on a general feeling that his superiors don't take him seriously.

In the early years, he said, administrators were genuinely puzzled by his complaints, saying "boys will be boys," or that they themselves used to play games like "smear the queer." Now, he said, even though the school has adopted some programs in response to his complaints, he believes school officials treat him like a nuisance, or even an enemy.

"My principal (Debra Johnson), she'll talk over me, roll her eyes at me, or just stare at me," he said. "Sometimes she just stops talking completely."

Collins went even further in his comments to the Lennox school board, describing her response to his complaints as "hostile."

At least he's in a school district that didn't just fire him for coming out or filing complaints, probably because they have a strong union there and a high turnover rate for teachers.

I understand this problem, though. When you're in a position of authority over students where your ability to do your job depends on having their respect, the fact that they are the ones harassing you raises the stakes all that much higher. As Collins describes the problem, it's not his students, but other students in the hallway who know he's gay but don't know him at all, who insult him at the school.

But there's reticence to challenging these issues, especially at the middle school level. There's the idea that the students are too young to know about homosexuality, that it's just childish banter, and that bringing up the issue will cause problems when it comes to the more conservative parents.

On the other hand all that points to the fact that it should be easier to intervene at that point, that the kids who are just learning to call other people gay at a time in their lives where gender and sexual policing are at their highest are the ones who need to be told the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. The fact that there's an openly gay teacher at the school should help with that, since if this is the harassment he's receiving, kids at that school are probably getting it worse.

Lennox Middle School history teacher Robert Collins is openly gay and says he is fed up with years of anti-gay slurs.

Usually, he says, it happens as he's walking past a group of boys, only to hear a voice in the pack calling him a "fag," or worse. On at least one occasion, he says, the incident felt to him like a physical threat.

Teaching straight children how to interact with their LGBT peers and LGBT children that they're just fine as they are isn't some sort of bizarre, new indoctrination that schools have never participated in before - it's a basic part of teaching young people how to behave in a modern democracy.

If talking about gays seems overly sexual, it's only because Disney, et al, have successfully de-sexualized heterosexuality and made it about flowers and singing and marriage, but never about intercourse. Queer teachers should be able to be just as honest about their lives as straight teachers, and when children start harassing teachers, much less their powerless classmates, a school should intervene and address that problem as early as is necessary.

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Another problem is that letting kids get away with harassing him is teaching them that it's okay to be disrespectful toward teachers.

If I were he, and I heard some kid call me a fag behind my back, I would charge over to the group of kids and take them all to the office, forcing them to stay there until one of them fessed up. I would use my power to make them regret it.

This guy's an authority figure, and he doesn't need to take shit from little brats. Frankly, this is the kind of situation where the Amy Chua approach has merit.

Agreed, but what happens if he hauls the kids to the office and principal lets them off the hook? What message did that send? Surely not one of authority for the teacher...

I don't think he has to take them to the principal, necessarily. He can first talk to them one-on-one and threaten to write them up or something.

But if the principal and school board aren't doing anything and are allowing the kids to get away with that behavior, then it's time to sue.

Paige Listerud | January 31, 2011 11:52 AM

Unfortunately, I have to agree with AJD. In middle school, I saw whole classrooms fall apart because the teacher would not enforce discipline upon a few students habitually disrupting the class. It that case, it was because the teacher was an absolute nerd fresh out of graduate school with no experience in leading a class and a huge case of stage fright. Once the bullies smell fear, they don't let up. They keep pressing and testing whoever they find weak until they've totally dominated the situation. Unfortunately, that domination can lead to violence.

Students who are not part of Collins' classes but who harass him on school grounds or in the hallways are still responsible for their behavior on school property. Detention and other appropriate reprimands can be used to quell something that threatens to become physical violence unless Collins nips it in the bud now. The good news is that if Collins can target the ringleaders, the rest of the pack will fall.

Collins has been teaching for decades, so I don't think that it's a problem of inexperience, and acknowledging that no one here is there to see what actually goes on....

I can understand, actually, how hard it is to keep discipline when you don't think the administration is on your side. It's easy to think that you can just march them down to the office, but what if the principal takes their side, looks at you like you're crazy, and then chastises you in front of the students? I don't know about this principal, but it happened once to me when I caught two young people making out (heterosexually) in the bathroom and was told that to be "cool" by a higher-up (not my direct boss, but someone who I had assumed would know what they were doing).

If you don't have the support of the other adults in your environment, it's hard to get things done. It's what I like about public vs. private child-care and education - in the public sector everyone's responsibilities are clearly defined from the start. Collins and the union would like the school board to address homophobia from the start in its rules so that it's not one teacher against an entire school.

Paige Listerud | February 1, 2011 12:35 PM

Seriously? You were at a school where a teacher or administrator told you it was "cool" for hets to make out in the bathroom? Like, there was no outrage (like you find with transpeople using bathrooms) over having a person of an inappropriate sex in the wrong bathroom? No reprimand, nada? Nobody telling them to get a room?

Now that is heteroprivilege.

Yeah, I was so pissed about that. And I thought I was being cool because I didn't take anyone down to the director and just let them off with a stern warning and then stood by the bathroom (it was a chaperoned dance).

But, hey, that's heteroprivilege. Certain male people in positions of authority see a boy getting it on with a girl and think of themselves in their adolescence. If it were two boys they'd be registered as sex offenders by now, I'm sure.

Tony Soprano | February 6, 2011 2:19 AM

> as he's walking past a group of boys ... hear a voice in the pack calling him ...

That teacher needs eyes in the back of his head!
He should be wired for video and sound.

Any internet search will turn-up sources of eye-glass cameras (as used by journlists) that can observe forwards AND backwards, and high-sensitivity mics and audio recorders.

The teacher is a party to these 'conversations'. He can record them without telling the other 'parties'. If the school system won't do anything, the recordings will be his proof for his employment attorney.

I AM NOT AN ATTORNEY AT LAW, AND THE PRECEDING IS NOT TO BE CONSTRUED AS (GIVING) LEGAL ADVICE.