July 18, 2008

Teen Breakthrough, Part 1: "I'm Not Racist Against Gays"

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In my workaday world in the NYC public school system, this year's big news was the growing acceptance of and sympathy for gay guys. And because male homosexuality has been, in my experience, so deeply stigmatized among youth, I think this is a tremendous breakthrough. I still don't hear many guys in high school saying flat out, "I am gay," but there's definitely less attempt to deny or repudiate or hide attributes that might brand a young man as gay.

Little things like young men casually mentioning, "My uncle is gay," or an African-American senior who is into fashion design, tends toward the flaming in his manner and shows no romantic interest in girls being elected a class officer. Or a young man saying to a female classmate who called him "fa--ot" in an argument: "Well, I don't appreciate that because you must not think too much of gay people, and my brother is gay. " In the past, the likely response would have been to hurl back an insult, and the main concern would have been to assert his own straightness in front of the peer audience. But now, he takes the offensive and critiques heterosexism!

Another example that impressed me occurred in the context of a school art project for which students chose the theme of taboos. There was a fair amount of art about gay/lesbian relationships, but one of the most intriguing paintings showed what looked like a man in his twenties and a man in his sixties embracing, The young Latino artist, who as far as I know is straight, definitely wanted to provoke reactions and sought out feedback. It really blew me away that he was challenging two stigmas by portraying, in a compassionate way, both gay male sexuality, and the need of older people to express their sexuality (which is often is often a big yuck factor for teens!).

At the same time, teens, like all of us, have contradictory consciousness and they still come up with some disturbing anti-gay practices. One glaring example is the custom of saying "That's gay" when they think something is stupid or silly. I often will challenge this by asking, "How would you like it if when I thought something was stupid, I said 'That's so Dominican' or 'That's so Black'?" Many students will reply, "It's just a saying," "It doesn't mean anything" and vehemently assure me that they get along with gay classmates or friends or relatives, etc.

One young man listened thoughtfully and replied, "No, Miss, I'm not racist against gay people." I really dig this phrasing, because it reflects the reality of racism as the primary form of oppression and put-down that he is experiences and sees in the world. And I'm encouraged that many teens are becoming less racist against gay people.

[Next up, Part 2: Resistance Bisexuality]

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