Thursday, November 17, 2005

Heads in the Sand

Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, Florida, has become one of the more gay-friendly areas of the country. But if you’re a student in Broward County Schools, you wouldn’t even know that there was such a thing as homosexuality.

Broward County public school children are taught the names of their private body parts in first grade. In second grade, they learn that AIDS kills. By high school graduation, they have read about birth control.

But homosexuality appears nowhere in the curriculum. Unless a student asks, it simply does not exist.


Broward administrators say they do not want educators mired in the struggle between a parent’s right to shape a child’s social values and a school’s responsibility to produce students knowledgeable enough to deal with the outside world.

“You can’t teach everything and there are some things that we are not in the best place to teach,” Superintendent Frank Till said. “We have to stop pretending that we can be all things to all people.”

Relative tolerance of the gay community has helped make Broward County home to an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 homosexuals, said Paul Hyman, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Homosexuality has become a part of the social fabric, even prime-time television fare.

On the school grounds, however, some teachers and students say the district should remain silent on homosexuality because acknowledging gay relationships tacitly endorses them. Others say issues of same-sex relations reflect social and religious values that should be taught only at home.

What a steaming pile of crap. Same-sex relations don’t just “reflect social and religious values.” They reflect civil rights, black-letter law, and the reality of the fact that people of the same gender that fall in love do it not because of social concerns or religious conviction; they do it because they’re human. And keeping quiet about it won’t make it go away.

“Silence can create more damage than actually saying something,” said Loren Mara, a straight senior and president of the Gay Straight Alliance at Flanagan High in Pembroke Pines. “I think that school [curriculum] ignoring it … sends a message to the gay or lesbian youth and belittles them, like it’s not real or it’s a stage that will eventually change.”

Schools need to reflect the social realities of the 21st century, argues Joshua Delsman, a gay junior at McFatter Technical School in Davie.

“If students don’t get educated on what exactly homosexuality is, what issues there are, then students go about creating their own conceptions based on those misconceptions that they hear. ” he said.

Like it or not, school is the place where most kids learn how to fit into the fabric of our society. It’s where they learn what’s acceptable and what isn’t; it’s where they learn how to express themselves and find out where they fit in, and the sooner they learn that not everybody is straight, the better off they are. One of the greatest handicaps gays and lesbians have is that they don’t get the chance to learn how to interact on their terms. The expectations of straight society don’t allow them to grow up and interact with the people they feel comfortable with. Dating skills, social activities, even the rituals of the prom or the Homecoming dance are denied them unless they conform to a world that is alien to their instincts. No wonder the psychologists used to say that gays and lesbians had “arrested development;” they never got the chance to develop like everyone else. To this day I wonder what life would have been like had I been allowed to take the date I really wanted to go with to the prom when I was seventeen.

It all comes down to one thing: sex. Straight people can’t look beyond the ignorant stereotype that the only thing gay people are interested in is sex. Since they don’t (or at least they say they don’t) like the idea of people doing what they consider to be something “unnatural,” they think that anything to do with being gay has to be about sex. That simplistic view is both unfair and dangerous. First, kids know they’re gay long before they know what sex is or have the ability to engage in it. I knew I liked boys when I was eight, and trust me, I was not an early bloomer. The danger is that if you are taught that being gay is “dirty,” you grow up thinking that you should be ashamed of who you are and that your instincts are wrong. You supress them, and in doing so you force your feelings to come out in ways that may express themselves in ways that may truly be contrary to acceptable social behavior.

Keeping homosexuality out of the school curriculum may seem like the safe course, but all it does is reinforce the old idea that conformity is best and that individuality is okay only as long as we all do it together. In a way I feel more sorry for the straight kids of Broward County than I do for the gay kids; they’re being denied the chance to learn about their friends, neighbors, perhaps even their own family, and that’s what school is for in the first place.