Teaching Gay Students

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Change Magazine 9.5 (1977): 8-9.

© 1988 by Change Magazine ; © 2004 by Louie Crew

    Gay students are ubiquitous yet no attention has been given to their special needs or to the skills required of those who would teach them.  As a gay person, I have a special interest in redressing this widespread professional neglect.  I believe that gay students should be taught the way other students should be taught.   That is, unless the teacher is some kind of sadist, one teaches students to survive and to thrive as who they are, not as who they are not, and to thrive in this culture rather than in some other.  It follows that to be minimally competent to teach gay students, one must know the gay experience in the adult world.

    I am not suggesting that we should all go to study gay bars or gay churches or the like, although such visitations could be extremely instructive for sensitive observers.  Certainly books are a very limited substitute for studying foreign experience, particularly taboo experience, because the taboos that affect the experience typically affect the presentations of that experience  in books, on television, and in the movies.  Gay writers are regularly rewarded either for masking their experience as nongay or for telling it as gay but in terms that reassure nongays in their condemnation of the gay experience.  The media distort typically by ignoring gay experience altogether, as do most teachers, talking always as if everyone shared the  nongay orientation.  Notions to the contrary notwithstanding, gays are not like nongay readers, at least not in several important respects, many of which are not specifically genital.  Any teaching that denies or ignores our differences fails by that ignorance to educate us, to lead us out into a full awareness of our own potentials for thriving as we are.

    Instead of urging teachers to come into the gay world, I am urging acknowledgment of the gay experience in the world we share and asking that these gay dimensions be treated seriously, lovingly.  Much that we already teach offers opportunities for such acknowledgment.  For example, in teaching The Scarlet Letter, no one has failed to discuss in detail the taboo of heterosexual adultery at the heart of the book.  Certainly anyone sensitive to the gay experience of taboo recognizes some strong parallels in the health and guiltlessness that decloseted and vulnerable Hester experiences, in contrast to the psychic destruction and sense of sin that closeted Arthur experiences, both in response to the same erotic act.  Already some gays have turned their scarlet Qs from Queer  into Queen as an ameliorative linguistic thrust; and any sensitive lexicographer, of whom there seem to be precious few, must now record that in the experience of increasing numbers of us, gay no longer means "dissolute," "giddy," or any of the other negative associations of the word we have selected as our name for ourselves.

    Yet how many teachers will admit gay insight openly into classroom discussions of such books as The Scarlet Letter, much less allow gay students the prerogative of using their own language?  How many teachers create a climate of academic inquiry where one would even want to share insight?  When was the last time one heard Eureka! in the academy?  I have the feeling that libraries would fall tumbling down if anyone were to make an audibly joyful discovery in them anymore.

    The kinds of gay discovery I am discussing will not bring looseness into academic discussions. I do not urge (even if maybe I should) that teachers use any more explicit detail than they already employ for heterosexual reality.  I do not normally take it that a nongay has performed a sex act in class when citing his or her role as mother or father.  When I refer to my life partner of the same sex, I am making a standard reference with no specifically genital or political detail.  If one sees genitals or hears politics, those are not my problems.  I cannot take responsibility for having named unspeakable orgies that go on in nongay heads.  My spouse and I and all of our gay colleagues and students need to be especially strong to survive such distortions.

    No one should pity gay students or go especially easy on them.  In loving ways strong teachers, nongay and gay alike, should seize the already heightened sensitivity of most gay students and show them creative, non-neurotic ways to channel talents and energies, while at the same time joining the battle against the ignorance that makes gays, especially younger gays, such ready prey to nongay predators.  I would hope that nongay adults would soon grow to realize that gays often experience the greatest persecution at home by insensitive parents or by parents who have wrongly indicted themselves for having "caused" such anomalies.

    Lacking "gay family," gay students often need the structures of the educational institutions more than others.  Very much needed are ways in which young gays can meet other gays, particularly gay professionals and other adults who demonstrate what otherwise they have never been allowed to see:  that gay people can and do thrive, even in the open and even facing some rather incredible forms of persecution.  I would hope too that teachers would be more in touch with gay history and gay literature and able to talk more comfortably about them in all standard courses, where they really belong if those courses are to be complete and honest.

    The most meaningful letter of the scores that I have received about the special issue of College English on "The Homosexual Imagination" (November 1974,) which I coedited with Rictor Norton [see our introduction, "The Homophobic Imagination"], was from the mother of a gay teenager, thanking us for giving her more ammunition to help her help her son in his battle for survival.  Would that all gay youngsters were so fortunate as to have such understanding and support!

    Recently a very troubled gay first-year student sat next to me and whispered:  "Girl, let me tell you what awful happened to me last week."

    "Sure, dear," I comforted.

    "I was on the line for a fraternity and missed one meeting.  When I came the next day they said, `We had to work; don't you think you should have to work too?' `Sure,' I said; `You ran a mile; I'll even run two miles.' `No,' they said; `you're going to perform fellatio on all 13 of us."

    "You didn't let them get away with it!" I interrupted.

    "But they wouldn't let me in their fraternity," he moaned.

    "But they weren't going to let you in the fraternity anyway, don't you see.  And that's not a fraternity worthy of you.   They don't know the meaning of fraternity," I said.

    "Oh, they would have let me in if I had done it," he replied, "only they would have had something on me and would have used me more.  It's just not a sissy's world; now I am in nobody's group."

    No amount of protest to remove that fraternity from our college -- a protest that this student does not want, as it would make him even more vulnerable -- will remove this brilliant young man's problem.  His parents refuse to see that he's gay and he knows that they are horrified that he even might be.  Many gay students perceive him to be weaker than they can risk in an associate.  His college, his church, and his town provide only the most sordid conditions in which he can meet others who share his biological urges and where he can try to build complete, as opposed to merely biological, relationships.  Efforts even to get a room for a group of gay students to use in meeting to discuss such problems have been thwarted with great shows of administrative power at the College and at a nearby church, which offers its facilities to most other secular groups requesting use of them.

    Clearly this young man needs to learn that there are persons, gay persons, who can reciprocate his affection in full relationship, and he deserves the same institutional supports provided for nongays passing through the crucial period of growing up and learning to reach out to others.  Some require dances.  Some use church occasions, or picnics, or hayrides.  Some require marriage counseling (or in gay terms, lover counseling).  Surely all are well served by a fair and complete range of presentation of their experience in literature, the moves, and on television.  When was the time that we have even seen something so innocuous in the media as a goodbye kiss by a same-sex couple when one of them is leaving for work?  Believe me, such small moments of affection ad support happen all the time, and no one needs to be shielded from this kind of reality.

    Equally disturbing, if not more so, are the perverted notions of human relation held by the 13 self-styled nongays who brutalized the young man on this occasion.  I am wondering what sort of sharing they would be able to bring even to a heterosexual relationship.  I suspect that they are beyond redemption.  Perhaps the one positive result of this experience for the gay student, and it was slim pickings indeed, was that he could sit down with a gay professor whom he respects, who had known some of the same rejection, and say, "Hey, girl. . ." and spill out his heart.  Clearly he is going to need more internal strength and support to compensate for the lack of structure elsewhere if he is to thrive as who he is.  I would like to think that all gays are stronger than all nongays precisely because we face more rigorous challenges that require independence.  But I fear that more are crushed than are proved strong by the harsh realities gays face in their persecution by nongays.

    I hope that most people now know that many gay colleagues have faced just such severe intimidation and have later become, in diverse ways, strong, mature, and productive adults.  If one does not know such gays in one's midst, it is only because that midst has not been made a safe place in which gays can share the fact of these victories.  If most people now know that the gay community is far more diverse than most stereotypes admit, nevertheless every time I write or speak I have in my audience some for whom the occasion is their first experience knowingly confronting a gay person or a gay point of view.  I tremble lest anyone assume that I could or would want to represent all gay people or all gay experience.  We gay people reflect this fear of someone else's speaking for us more strongly than do nongays:  "Lord, I hope people won't think he's describing me!   Why I would never allow another gay male to call me Girl..." thinks the closeted gay male chairperson reading this article right now.  And of course I am not.

    In the past gays have learned to survive mainly by pretense and by subterfuge, at a sacrifice must too grave and unjust, not only to ourselves but to our families and the culture we might more richly have served.  Today we ask to be allowed, even taught, to thrive as the large and important minority that we are.  The biggest problems that we gays face are the fears nongay people have of us.  The fact that as a colleague I can say this to nongays gives me hope that at last we may begin mutually to discover solutions.


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