Flashback to elementary school. We are reading a literary work from a time period in which the primary use of the word “gay” was as a synonym for “happy”. When the teacher reads the word aloud, everyone giggles. I chime in as well, although I have no idea what “gay” even means. I just figure it’s a curse word.
Flashback to middle school. I’m browsing YouTube or I’m walking the school hallways, and it seems as though I’m constantly reading or hearing someone utilizing “gay” as some sort of insult. Gay means weak. Gay means stupid. Gay means bad.
Clearly, something isn’t right here. Something isn’t right when hordes of people are using a word that describes someone who is attracted to the same sex as a word to describe someone who is weak, stupid, bad. Something isn’t right when the majority of students in both the U.S. and Canada report hearing “that’s so gay” every day at school, and when the majority of LGBT students in both nations report being verbally harassed or feeling unsafe at school due to their identities. Something isn’t right when LGBT people are more likely to be victims of violence, commit suicide, develop cardiovascular disease, suffer from mental illness, abuse substances, have trouble establishing long-term relationships, and have a shorter life expectancy than heterosexual people. Something isn’t right when the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history was driven by homophobia. The list goes on.
So what is the issue? Where does this homophobia come from?
To a large extent, it starts with our children — i.e., it starts with the fact that so many kids are completely denied any education regarding sexual orientation.
In human beings, the most significant periods of learning occur during childhood, which is why it is so important to begin teaching tolerance and love at a young age. But how are children supposed to learn such concepts when LGBT-inclusive sex education is extremely minimal? According to the Huffington Post, only twelve states require sex education curriculum to cover sexual orientation, and three of those states actually require sex ed teachers to offer only discriminatory statements about LGBT people, such as that homosexuality is unacceptable or criminal; in total, only nine states provide positive education concerning LGBT issues. So not only are many students subject to a curriculum devoid of LGBT discourse, some are literally taught homophobia in the classroom. It is no coincidence that as this is occurring, students are roaming the halls using words like “gay” to describe other people or things they dislike, and LGBT students feel unsafe.
But school isn’t the only environment that may be planting the seeds of prejudice within our younger generations. Equally as significant as the learning that occurs at school is that which occurs at home, and when families refuse to talk about sexual orientation with their children, how can we expect those children to grow up perceiving LGBT people as anything other than abnormal or weird?
When we treat the topic like this, when we avoid it, we are enforcing homophobia, whether or not we intend to. When we regard sexual orientation as taboo in our dialogue with children, we are conditioning them to associate LGBT individuals with abnormality. When we change the subject because it makes us uncomfortable, when we cover their eyes in the presence of even mild PDA between same sex couples, when we refer to LGBT people as the others and ascribe an entire community of people to some foreign, isolated phenomenon (forgetting that the very children we are speaking to might actually belong to that community themselves), we are provoking homophobic ideologies within these kids. We are catalyzing ignorance.
So to parents, siblings, teachers, and anyone else in a position to influence and inspire young minds, all I ask of you is this: Be honest and kind in your conversations with children about any and all types of people, including LGBT people. If you are afraid that you will “turn them gay”, you won’t. All you will do is teach them to treat others as they would like to be treated. All you will do is teach them to bear open minds and open hearts so that one day, a word like “gay” might become as neutral and matter-of-fact an adjective as any other natural human trait.