What if the people you should turn to for help against bullies, ARE the bullies? That's the dilemma facing the young man in the featured article from Newsweek magazine. This brings me to Chapter 5 of my own book-in-process, Golden Nuggets: Ten (or so) things to remember in creating a positive learning environment for children, it is entitled, "Children are people first, children second and students third."
In our efforts to guide children in their development, parents, teachers and caregivers often forget that the target of their efforts is a person unto themselves and should be approached as if they are speaking to another adult - not in the same language, but with the same caution and tact used to re-direct a person who can tell them no. Instead, parents and teachers often use force (physical and non-physical), cajoling or manipulation to get obedience.
I have personally heard parents call their children dumb, stupid and "bad;" I have heard teachers compare children to one another and their behavior (for example, "why can't you act more like _______?", putting names on the chalkboard or keeping kids in for recess as punishment); these approaches are inappropriate for one simple reason - one wouldn't use those strategies in dealing with another adult, probably because it wouldn't be very effective. For example, as a college professor, if I did say to a male student that his appreciation for Einstein was related to his "affection for older men" I would expect to be bounced out the door on my rear end! Whether or not the student is gay, which according to this student he is not, it is an inappropriate comment just as I wouldnt embarrass a female student by saying she has an affection for older men. A joke stops becoming a joke when it is hurtful; and, by definition, when a person with power (teacher) makes comments or jokes like this to someone without or with less power (student), it becomes bullying.
In addition, right or wrong, if that same male teacher made a similar comment to an ordinary joe at Hooters, he would probably eat a fist or at least get into a chestbumping match to prove their masculinity. If the female teacher made that same comment to that same joe, I am sure it would be followed by a retort that alluded to the targets ability to "show her he is a man." In other words, these teachers wouldnt make jokes like these or use these words to a stranger or even to probably MOST of the people in their lives - but it came very easily to them in the classroom setting. Why is that? Because the teachers COULD say those things without retort by the student? I would be too shocked to reply on the spot. Because they THOUGHT they were being funny? Maybe they should re-evaluate their areas of humor - in this current social environment, being gay has negative consequences - so being wrongly "outed" leaves the person relatively defenseless because he isnt gay so he shouldnt have to dispel the rumor and even if he was, its no ones business so shouldnt have to respond to them.
Gay students, especially male students, represent one of the largest groups of people tormented in high schools. Middle school can be difficult also, as can college but the diversity in college may prevent it from happening on a grand scale but one can imagine it happening among certain "cliques" in college. A male's sexuality can still be an issue in workplaces, just think "dont ask dont tell" policies; but these relationships are different than that of teacher & student.
Teachers can make or break a child's day with a simple cross word or with a smile, hug or handshake. So many teachers I know, and my own study (available via a link on this site, by request or Amazon.com) bore this out, view their classrooms as a haven from the violence, despair and challenges of life. Teachers are given, and proudly accept, the responsibility of creating a safe, open, accepting environment for all of our children and when that trust is broken - it can be irreparably damaged. This young man had to change schools, stall his academic pursuits and may possibly feel apprehensive about opening up in a classroom discussion for fear of a negative response. That undermines an effective learning environment and definitely has long lasting ill effects on his own learning process.
I encourage all teachers, parents and caregivers to evaluate their own biases and preconceived notions so they can provide a warm, accepting positive learning environment for their children. Short of analyzing and reflecting upon one's own feelings about, for example, homosexuality, I encourage teachers, parents and caregivers to accept the differences in our children's personalities and realize they are not small copies of you - they develop their own likes and dislikes and should be treated with the same level of respect with which you would like to be treated.