We’ve all heard it before. Perhaps some of us have even said it when we were younger. Maybe some of our friends and family still say it. Allow me to take you back to 1999. You’re fourteen years old and your mom just told you that you can’t hang out with your friends tomorrow night to watch the Real World: Hawaii because you have to take your little brother to his CYO soccer game (Catholic Youth Organization for those unfamiliar with the Irish Catholic vernacular). You call your best friend to let him know to which he says “Ugh, dude, that’s so gay.”
Granted, for you, that scenario might not have happened exactly like that, but the result was the same. The word “gay” was clearly synonymous with “stupid.” Now that you’re in your late twenties or early thirties, most likely you’ll reply with some other pejorative that isn’t insensitive. For most millennials, “gay” as a pejorative adjective has gone the way of “retarded” and other tactless vocabulary for a variety of reasons. However, without fail, some of us still know someone who uses it. We cringe when we hear it. We think it’s only going to get better. The next generation is more tolerant and eventually homophobia will be a non-issue. Then we hear it in our classroom from a student and the glass shatters.
In recent years, bullying—particularly towards LGBT youth—has been brought to the forefront in behavioral issues in K-12 education. A simple Internet search for “that’s so gay” and “classroom” yields dozens of resources for teachers and schools. The Human Rights Campaign even has a project dedicated to introducing LGBT tolerance in the classroom called Welcoming Schools (http://www.welcomingschools.org/resources/). However, these resources typically deal with either primary or secondary education. How, then, do we as college instructors respond to “That’s so gay” in class? Our students are adults so shouldn’t they know better? We know all too well that our younger students don’t always act like adults so it should be no surprise that we come across these situations. However, given that they are younger adults, it becomes an opportunity for learning and growth while at the same time holding them to the expectations that they’ll find in the professional world once they graduate.
First and foremost, I should note that handling this situation depends on factors like your teaching style, your rapport with your students, or even the severity of the comment. In my experience, I have come across three different instances of insensitive remarks in class by students. I list them in order from benign to more severe and will comment on each one and how I tried to remedy each problem:
“Tony Romo is a homo.”
In my Spanish class at a larger public university, my students were working on a whole-class, brainstorming activity involving sports vocabulary. I asked students to name their favorite American football teams and athletes. Someone mentioned the Dallas Cowboys (Note: For those of you unfamiliar with Philadelphia, being a Dallas Cowboys fan is quite the mortal sin). One female student from the nearby suburbs decided to express her distaste for Mr. Romo’s football prowess—or lack thereof in her opinion—by blurting out “Tony Romo is a homo!” Of course most of the class laughed, myself—a lifelong Washington Redskins fan—included. However, I quickly needed to handle the situation because the reality was that someone could have been offended. The student’s intentions didn’t seem hateful towards gays and lesbians. She just did not like Tony Romo. In this case I decided to tell the class “Although Miss [last name] makes a valid point that Mr. Romo is overrated, calling someone a ‘homo’ is certainly not the appropriate way to do it.” I followed up with a quick email to the student after class letting her know that she wasn’t in trouble, but to watch what she said next time. She agreed and there wasn’t an issue.
“Ew! And why would you be calling a boy?”
Recently, in one of my intermediate Spanish courses at a smaller private university, we were working on a whole class activity on informal commands. I gave a scenario in which the girl in the drawing was told by her mother not to call a boy. A male student was confused and asked for clarification. A female student responded to the male student’s comprehension check shouting “Ew! And why would you be calling a boy anyways?” This situation struck me as much more severe than the previous one given that the student’s comment was (1) directed at another student and (2) demonstrated disgust on behalf of the female student. A further complication was the environment in which the comment was made. At public universities, the argument can be made that homophobic comments are unfounded because homosexuality is not abnormal. However, at a private university with a religious affiliation, the argument has to be made from another angle. In this case, the Catholic university in question had a very strong commitment to social justice and treating others with respect. I addressed the whole class reminding them of the university’s policy on treating others with respect and dignity. I also explained that comments that in any way might demine another member of the university community were unacceptable and would not be tolerated in my class. I followed up with a brief email to the student quoting the university’s student handbook and asking her to refrain from making insensitive comments in class. She did not respond, but there were no other comments made in class for the remainder of the semester.
“Es maricón.” (He’s a faggot.)
In another beginning Spanish class, I asked students to describe celebrities pictured in a PowerPoint on the projector. Most students responded with “Ryan Gosling is hot” or “Penélope Cruz has brown hair.” I solicited an answer to the whole class about one of the celebrities. One student, without raising his hand, shouted out “Es maricón” which roughly translates to “[he] is a faggot.” I found this situation tricky for a couple reasons. On the one hand, the class may not have understood what the student had said. No harm, no foul? On the other hand, maybe others in the class did in fact understand. Nonetheless, his using a slur like that was unacceptable and needed to be addressed. Immediately I looked the student in the eye, switched from Spanish to English, and said “Unacceptable. We do not use language like that in this class.” I then addressed the whole class explaining that hurtful comments about any group—race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, etc.—were unacceptable in my class and would not be taken lightly. Again, there were no other related problems in the class.
The three scenarios differ in their severity, but they all have a common goal: maintaining the idea of classroom as learning community. To help sustain this environment, I have come up with a few suggestions for handling insensitive comments in class that have been useful in the past:
Add a paragraph to your syllabus about respect for others. If you teach a coordinated course that does not allow you to modify the syllabus, try mentioning this policy on the first day of class. Your policy doesn’t have to be specifically tailored to protecting LGBT students. Some teaching at religiously affiliated schools might be worried that such a policy could get them in trouble with their administration. In fact, I would suggest wording your policy in a way that promotes community while letting students know that any language or actions used to make others feel uncomfortable will not be tolerated.
Be firm, but stay calm
Don’t seem overly angry with a student if he or she makes an insensitive comment. This only exacerbates the situation if you have a combative or litigious student. Instead, reiterate your class policy on dignity, respect, and community. Ask that students be mindful of it when speaking in class.
Immediately after class, send the student a short email. Don’t wait too long. Most students have smart phones and are constantly connected. Chances are they’ll see the email immediately. Remind him or her of your class policy or perhaps even a general university one. Ask that he or she not do it again and briefly explain what actions might be taken if the behavior continues. Keep it short and sweet.
In the end there is hope. My relationships with the three students from the scenarios improved. I continued to see each of them on campus in later semesters and they still greet me when we come across each other. It is my belief that the vast majority of students come to college because they want to learn. They are mindful of the fact that much of what they learn isn’t from material in their courses. In the end, your class probably won’t resent you for calling someone out and the student will be a better person for it. Of my three examples, they were either slip-of-the-tongue or an example of “old habits die hard.” Eventually this old habit will die, especially if PSAs aimed at stopping “that’s so gay” continue to be as funny as this one:
Have you had students make similar comments in class? Share your thoughts and what worked for you.
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