Controversy in Classrooms

Tackling Hot-Button Issues With Students

Scott Summers Inquiry Project March 22, 2013

Combatting Homophobia in School

Context and Question

I became interested in this topic because too many students think that “gay” is an acceptable word to describe something they dislike or disagree with. When I was a student, I was just as guilty as the kids in my classroom. I used to describe assignments as “gay” and I used the word “faggot.” As I got older I started to realize that these loaded words marginalized people I considered friends, students, and colleagues. As an educator, I feel it is my responsibility to make my students more aware of the power of language and how if affects those who surround them. My central question, therefore, was: how can I make students more informed and what strategies can I employ to combat homophobic bullying?


Of LGBT students surveyed in the United States:

  • 86.2% reported verbal assault at school
  • 44.1% reported physical harassment at school
  • 25.1% reported physical assault at school
  • 80% said their teacher never, or rarely interrupted homophobic remarks

Common ways schools deal with LGBT issues:

  1. Avoidance: The easiest way to deal with an issue is to ignore it. Schools nationwide do not even consider homophobia an issue in school
  2. Condemnation: LGBT individuals are seen as sinful or immoral in both public and private schools
  3. Marginalization: Considering LGBT issues as unimportant and letting them fall to the wayside
  4. Separation: Disconnecting homophobia as a form of discrimination from related issues such as sexism or racism
  5. Compartmentalization: A range of resources are not utilized to develop understanding. Homophobia and LGBT issues are left to one discipline that often has limited resources
  6. A-historical versus historical approach: Focusing on LGBT issues in the present day and neglecting the long history of human rights violations across the globe
  7. Local versus Global: Viewing the issue as either local or global, but not both
  8. Whole-school approach: Utilization of after school activities, research, Gay-Straight Alliances, anti-bullying campaigns, guest speakers, and school rules to protect LGBT students and create a culture of acceptance, not tolerance. These strategies require resources, but may have a profound impact


Ideally, combatting homophobic bullying should become part of the culture on the school and district level. Teaching acceptance should begin at a young age and should be one facet of an education setting that celebrates diversity and challenges inequality.

Here are some strategies for addressing LGBT issues:

  • Survey students to gauge their attitudes, knowledge, and misconceptions using non-threatening questions (e.g. In your opinion, is there a social group which experiences more discrimination than other social groups?). These questions can serve as a springboard for discussion, especially for those teachers who are reluctant to begin the conversation themselves.
  • Assign a book with a character who identifies as LGBT and gauge reactions.
  • Discuss current events and social issues, highlighting equal rights and progress made by the LGBT community.
  • Become aware of previous attempts in school (whether successful or not) to address LGBT issues. Approach other teachers at school with ideas to further successful programs or improve unsuccessful ones.
  • Take a cross-discipline approach, working with other teachers to analyze human rights documents and discuss human rights violations both historic and present day.
  • Have students practice debating, first with non-controversial issues, then move to controversial issues once the format is understood. Questions should be framed in a way that would not promote intolerance. For example, a sample question could be "Do you agree with this statement that the best way to tackle homophobia is to have a zero-tolerance policy on insulting language?" The goal is to have students generate solutions rather than continue to ignore the problem.
  • Allow students to research and present findings on laws, organizations, and media regarding LGBT issues. This research may empower students to make more informed decisions about what they believe and how they should behave.


Van Driel, Barry, and Michelle Kahn. "Homophobia." Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom: Key Issues and Debates. Ed. Paula Cowan and Henry Maitles. London: Continuum, 2012. 176-87. Print.