Then the opportunity presented itself. As part of a three week unit on “Healthy Students, Healthy Schools,” a friend who works at a local group for students dealing with sexual orientation and I developed a one-day lesson plan on tolerance. The timing felt right. I knew I was legally protected by the anti-discrimination policies of the state of Wisconsin, the school district, and my teacher education program. And I also had the encouragement of an amazing cooperating teacher.
So, based on activities suggested in the resource Tackling Gay Issues in Schools, my friend and I led the students through an assortment of activities. I remember standing in front of a sheet of paper tacked to the wall with a line drawn down the middle. On one side, students had described a gay man as, among other things, wearing earrings, having a “certain look,” and having a preference for brightly-colored shirts. There was much debate on whether or not gay high school boys usually joined the drill team. On the other side of the sheet, students defined a lesbian as “looking like a man,” having hairy legs, and not wearing make-up. That morning before school, I had put my finger on this line in our lesson plan - right there, between listing the stereotypes and actually calling them such - as the place where I would tell my students the truth.
“Really?” I said, turning to motion over the words, “This is what gay and lesbian people look like?” The students nodded emphatically, and I took a deep breath. “Because I'm gay, and I don't look like this.” I turned to the sheet, and, as planned, contradicted each factor one by one. “I like to wear make-up. I usually shave my legs. I definitely don't want to be a boy. ...” I told them how it felt to be standing in the hall and hear someone say “That's so gay.” I told them that they could never know who around them might be gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
I watched the students giggle, whisper, and shake their heads. And, then, amazingly, some of them shared, too. “My auntie's a lesbian, so I hate it when kids make fun of gay people,” one said. Another said, “My dad was gay. He died of AIDS.” A third remarked, “I thought so - was that your girlfriend at the dance?”
The following day, students in fifth-hour Language Arts wanted to talk and rapidly fired questions at me: “How did you know you were a lesbian?” “What did your parents say?” And, most amazingly, “Why didn't you tell us before?” I remember that moment, my legs shaking underneath the table, as each of the students verbally fell over each other to share about talking to their families the night before. “My mom said that you were very brave to tell us,” said one. “My dad said that we can't be prejudged against anyone,” one student said. After the bell rang and the students rose to leave, Lori and I walked towards each other and hugged. Everything had changed.