Posted by: Inside-Out Peace | September 29, 2009

Words Matter

This post is dedicated to T., who suffered extreme emotional abuse at his schools.  May we all live to see the day when no more kids are allowed to be damaged mentally, emotionally, or physically by their peers (or anyone else).


MiddleSchoolThis post is a response to the following quotation, from the article Coming Out in Middle School by Benoit Denizet-Lewis (NYT, September 23, 2009):

A middle-school counselor in Maine summed up the view of many educators I spoke to when she conceded that her school was “totally unprepared” for openly gay students. “We always knew middle school was a time when kids struggle with their identity,” she told me, “but it was easy to let anti-gay language slide because it’s so imbedded [sic] in middle-school culture and because we didn’t have students who were out to us or their classmates. Now we do, so we’re playing catch up to try to keep them safe.”

It really bothers me that someone who has responsibility for the safety of children could allow herself to be this passive about it.  What makes it especially irritating is that she prefaced what she said by commenting on what a difficult period of time middle school is in the lives of many young people.  Knowing this, she should have felt it was more incumbent upon her, not less, to be proactive in making the school a place where students at least feel safe.

I am also very bothered by her reasoning that derogatory language, toward any group, only matters if there is actually somone of that group present.    Having no students who were “out” is – it should be obvious – not the same thing as having no students who are gay.   

Even if there was not one gay student in the school – whether “out”, or not – all the students should be taught that words matter.  When a student speaks in a way that dehumanizes an entire group of people, silence is not an acceptable response; silence is tacit approval.  It doesn’t matter what the characteristic is that identifies the group.  This is true for race, ethnicity, gender, nationality, religion, political affiliation, or anything else you can think of that defines a group in any way. 

If we are serious about making a priority of education, the most basic prerequisite to learning is that students feel safe in their school.  Until dehumanizing language is eliminated from schools, there will be students who don’t feel safe, and therefore will not learn to their full potential.  We don’t have that potential to waste, with our economic, political, and climatic conditions the way they are. 

Eliminating dehumanizing language is not impossible.  There are already rules and systems in place regarding speech that is prohibited for students to use in schools, e.g. profanity.  As one student quoted in the article points out, he would definitely not be allowed to say, “That’s so black”, so why is “That’s so gay” overlooked?  Stopping this kind of language will only require that teachers and administration apply the same consequences that are already in use against those other types of speech.  If anti-gay speech is as embedded in her school as the quoted counselor perceives it to be, that makes it all the more important to act quickly to curtail it, not something to just give up on.   Habits are hard to break, and there will have to be a focused effort for a time.  Once a new status quo is established, however, it should require much less effort to maintain it.

The overall message students must receive is that the dehumanization of groups is not acceptable, period.  This message is not conveyed when schools make exceptions, prohibiting dehumanizing speech for some groups, but allowing it for others.  Doing that is, in fact, a further form of dehumanization of the groups for whom it is permitted, because it says that they are worth less than the groups for whom it is prohibited.  It is time to raise the bar on our standards.GSA

On a positive note, the article also describes an extracurricular club called the Gay-Straight Alliance which is in a rapidly increasing number of schools across the country, and works to promote a tolerant atmosphere in the school.  The GSA clubs are just one of the many great efforts of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).  I’ve added a link to their website to my sidebar, under Education.



  1. Words do have tremendous power, negatively as we so often experience. But we have to remember that OUR words — spoken up on issues such as these — have just as much power. It may take a long time, but with discussions such as these, I have to believe that our world is changing, and in a good way (or more precisely, that we’re making changes to our world). It’s not going to be easy… nothing worthwhile ever is… but is worth the struggle. Thank you for speaking up for all those who may not have the strength to on their own.

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