Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1996 Issue »

    Gay and Lesbian Youth Making History in Massachusetts; Sexual Orientation; and Hate, Homophobia, and Schools

    Gay and Lesbian Youth Making History in Massachusetts
    by the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.
    1994. 30 minutes. Free (donation requested). (617) 727-3600 ext. 312.

    Sexual Orientation: Issues Facing Gay and Lesbian Youth
    by Wisconsin Public Television's Cooperative Educational Service Agency.
    1992. 60 minutes. $195.00 (purchase); $50.00 (rental). (800) 633-7445.

    Hate, Homophobia, and Schools
    by Wisconsin Public Television's Cooperative Educational Service Agency.
    1995. 60 minutes. $195.00 (purchase; includes teacher's guide); $50.00 (rental).
    (800) 633-7445.

    Much ado is made of the power of video to sap the viewer's cognitive capacities. Pedagogical arguments notwithstanding, the medium has an unparalleled ability to personalize the impersonal, to attach emotion to otherwise meaningless information. For example, statistics reflecting the proportion of the homeless population who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender children are sobering, but do not challenge one's values or push one's thinking. Numbers fail to capture the stories of those who stand behind them. But the image of seventeen-year-old Troix Bettencourt weeping intermittently as he describes how his mother threw him out of her house, his friends failed to take him in, and the Massachusetts Department of Social Services rejected him, raises a host of chilling questions about the existing support for non-heterosexual youth in a manner no written description can convey.

    Video's storytelling ability is much in evidence throughout these three programs, Gay and Lesbian Youth Making History in Massachusetts, Sexual Orientation: Issues Facing Gay and Lesbian Youth, and Hate, Homophobia, and Schools. Each piece, in its own way, gives both a face and a voice to the complex, often divisive issues of homophobia, heterosexism, gay rights, human rights, and adolescents' rights. The first, Gay and Lesbian Youth Making History in Massachusetts, is a story about political process, complete with a happy ending. Produced by the Massachusetts Governor's Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, Making History chronicles "the exciting events of 1992 to 1993," as explained by the young woman narrator, that led to Massachusetts becoming the first state in the nation to prohibit discrimination of students based on their sexual orientation.

    The events of the twenty-month period leading to the bill's signing unfold in the video chronologically, from Governor William Weld signing the February 1992 Executive Order that established the Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth to a December 1993 NBC news segment discussing the act's passage. The thirty-minute video weaves together coverage of official events, testimonies from gay and lesbian youth during public hearings, and local and national media attention. Brief, narrated portions displaying still photographs provide needed background information to the various milestones. Throughout the disparate segments, the video continually refers to Massachusetts' pioneering action and to the active involvement of gay and lesbian youth.

    According to the video, gay and lesbian youth in Massachusetts had much to gain from the act's passage, which might explain their enthusiastic embracing of a legislative process that has dissuaded less stalwart hearts. Testimonies of gay and lesbian youth, delivered during the swearing-in ceremony of the gay and lesbian task force commission and in a series of public hearings, vividly describe their need to be respectfully recognized. "Sexuality should be about love. It shouldn't inspire hatred," a sixteen-year-old lesbian states emphatically. As a teenage boy explains succinctly, gay and lesbian youth wage both external and internal battles that can defeat them: "Not only does society shout out to me that I'm evil, but an inner voice whispers it to me as well." At times, the reactions of the adults to whom gay and lesbian students reach out are less than supportive. One young man relates in a voice that conveys his amazement, "[My guidance counselor told me,] `you're too young to know you're gay. Couldn't you act a little less gay [to avoid fights with other students]?'" The fact that the young people provided their comments in various political forums adds to the admiration due to them. Despite obvious discomfort wearing neckties and being surrounded by a sea of navy blue suits (with the occasional red dress), the young people speak with the passion and honesty that create a foundation for change.

    The testimonies of gay and lesbian youth were integral to the successful passage of the Massachusetts act, yet without a keen ear, the magnitude of the importance of youth participation in overcoming the initial lack of support preceding the legislation would be easily overlooked in the video. It is only in Governor Weld's comments at his Executive Order signing that viewers learn that the state legislature had refused to support a Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, which forced him to create such a commission by executive decree. Speakers in the video rightfully applaud the youths' visibility, but it requires some deduction to realize that without such youth support, the so-called gay rights bill might have remained in committee, as it had for the previous two years.

    Despite the insights it reveals into the political process, Making History is troubling in three ways, two minor, and one more disturbing. First, the uneven production value of the video is distracting. The various clips include what appears to be typical statehouse coverage, complete with faulty audio and faded video, as well as professionally edited material from a major commercial network. The short, narrated portions provide essential material and some continuity, but there is an overall lack of cohesion among the segments. Second, it is unclear to whom the video is targeted, which segues into the more problematic aspect of the video — that it is meant to be a stand-alone production. That is, except for the official report from the Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, hardly material one would wish to assign to students of any age, there are no supplemental written materials. The single-page announcement accompanying the video states that it can be shown at school assemblies, meetings, and community events, but no background information is related, no suggestions for follow-up activities are provided, no telephone numbers for community support services are listed. Making History adequately documents what has happened in Massachusetts for gay and lesbian youth, but does little to support viewers or stimulate ideas about what still needs to be accomplished.

    Two other videos, Sexual Orientation: Issues Facing Gay and Lesbian Youth and Hate, Homophobia, and Schools, produced by Wisconsin Public Television's Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA), both tackle the issue of gay and lesbian youth through formats that differ from that of Making History. The Issues video, which is part of Wisconsin Public Television's prime-time Teen Connection series, is an hour-long roundtable discussion à la Donahue talk show (which initially aired live), and is hosted by a local television personality. Included in this program are Julie, an adult lesbian; Jed, a teenage gay who has left public schooling; Georgia, Jed's mother; and Michael, the director of a gay youth organization. The program consists of fifteen-minute segments that focus on one of four topics: labelling, homophobia, coming out, and parental roles. As a point of departure for the in-studio discussion, clips are shown from an earlier CESA production, Sexual Orientation: Reading Between the Labels. The background segments feature interviews with gay and lesbian young people, their families, and youth workers. Following the videotaped clips, the action returns to the in-studio round table, with each panelist relating his or her personal experiences with each of the four topics. The host then accepts telephone calls from members of the viewing audience until the next clip is shown.

    Each of Issue's components is well-organized, but it is the interchange among participants as they respond to callers' questions that is particularly engaging, perhaps because their comments seem less scripted. For example, one caller asks how gay and lesbian teenagers learn how to date, because same-sex dating is not part of most people's socialization. In the exchange that follows, Jed states that every kind of dating comes naturally, and that same-sex dating is "something you basically know." Michael, meanwhile, weighs in with his concern for the lack of socialization opportunities for gay and lesbian teens in public schools. Julie chooses to emphasize that respect is at the foundation of any caring relationship — gay, lesbian, straight, or whatever. The host and panelists respond especially well towards the end of the video, when an unsympathetic caller questions the value of the television program's promoting "sick practices like homosexuality." The host cordially thanks the caller for his opinion, because, as he points out, it illustrates for viewers the blatant prejudice against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals that penetrates U.S. society.

    In addition to the roundtable participants' experiences and the background video, Issues includes information about sources of support for young people and their families. Throughout the video, the host introduces the names and addresses of support organizations (most in Wisconsin), titles of relevant books and articles, and a list of famous gays and lesbians. Unfortunately, similar to the Making History video, no written materials accompany this production.

    Like the Issues video, Hate, Homophobia, and Schools combines live in-studio segments with previously taped material in an hour-length production, but without viewer telephone calls and in a much less coherent manner. The in-studio segments feature two hosts who facilitate discussion among the sixty or so multiracial, mostly teenage audience members who, for unspecified reasons, were invited to participate. The in-studio segments seem to drag, in part because the hosts remain seated in front of the audience and do not address (and rarely make eye contact with) each other as they direct the conversation flow. Interrupting the studio portion of the program are excerpts from interviews with lesbian teenagers; with Mel White, a former speechwriter for leaders of the religious right; with Newbery-award-winning writer Marion Dane Bauer; and with Steve Hartley, principal of Shabazz City School in Madison, Wisconsin. Unlike the Issues video, Hate, Homophobia, and the Schools does not appear to be organized around particular topics. Instead, the production is reminiscent of a free-flowing conversation, which might work well in classroom settings but is too loosely structured for video.

    Given the lack of synergy among the program elements, it would be tempting to turn off the video thirty minutes into the production, but in doing so, one would miss the electric ten-minute conclusion that revolves around sexual identity and Christianity. In the final segment, the young people and the pastor of a local church air their opinions that although "true Christians" show love and accept each other, homosexuality is a sin and gays and lesbians need to be "rehabilitated." Consider the following statements:

    White male pastor: I want many of you to know that not all pastors, not all youth clergy will condemn you. We will love and accept you, and I strongly implore you to seek out those who will help you most when you're struggling with those problems and trying to figure out all that. . . . We do consider [homosexuality] to be a sin, but that doesn't mean we condemn the person who's coming to us. . . . We accept what they are. We don't accept their actions.

    White young man: I would love to say to you today that no matter what you're like God will accept you, no matter what you do, whether you're gay or lesbian, that God's going to love you 100 percent, and that because of His love that's going to guarantee [your way] into heaven. But as a man of integrity . . . I must tell you the truth that that's not the way God sees it.

    White young woman: God's word won't come back void, and if it's put before you and you don't accept it, it's off our backs and the consequences are yours.

    Gay and lesbian youth and others in the audience respond with eloquence and self-confidence:

    White young woman to the pastor: That is not acceptance. I think saying that you're a safe haven for gay and lesbian and bisexual youth is deceptive.

    White mother of gay son: I know my son. . . . He didn't make the choice (to be gay). God created him this way. This is the way he is.

    White young woman: When God made us, He also made our feelings. He made us who we are. If we're gay then He made us gay, because He doesn't just make a shell and stop there and we are something that crawls inside. No, He made us the way we are and we shouldn't be afraid of what we are, or ashamed of what we are.

    Although the topic itself is volatile, the actual exchanges seem too polite and overly coached, contradicting the expanse separating the beliefs of the various young people in the studio audience. Each statement is prefaced by an intricate series of caveats and acknowledgements that those with opposing viewpoints should be admired for their strong beliefs, but . . . The lack of fireworks notwithstanding, the video's final ten-minute segment is easily its best. Seldom do young people have a forum to address issues of religion and gay and lesbian lifestyles, and their steadfastness is more up front and accessible than the rhetoric often coloring adults' discussions.

    The true strength of Hate, Homophobia, and Schools, one that redeems this less-than-dynamic video, is the accompanying teacher's guide, a resource available with neither of the other two videos. The slim, paperback volume contains background information on the gay and lesbian rights movement; addresses to write to for additional resources; titles of books, magazines, articles, films, and videos categorized by students' ages; and activities for classroom use. In short, the guide is just the information educators need.

    Each of these videos contributes positively to ongoing discussions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth, and the fact that they were financed in the first place demonstrates increased concern for the challenges these young people face. Nonetheless, all three videos can be taken to task on two accounts. First, although the videos actively strive to present the perspectives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people of a number of races, transgender teens are curiously absent. Transgender young people are not mentioned in either the Making History or Sexual Orientation videos, and although the teacher's guide for Hate, Homophobia, and Schools introduces the term in several places, transgender youth do not explicitly appear in the video itself. Second, through the endless stream of suicide statistics, tales of coming out gone awry, and plights of homeless gay and lesbian youth, the three videos present a stilted portrayal of these young people's lives. Where is the joy of new love, the excitement of growing through a caring relationship, the self-assurance that comes with self-acceptance? Just as the information conveyed in the videos articulates the increased recognition given to gay, lesbian, and bisexual (and transgender) youth, the information the videos do not include reveals which issues remain too sensitive and uncomfortable, and therefore unresolved.

    Given that each of the productions suffers on some count, what could be offered as the "ideal" video on the topic of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth? I am not advocating for a particular approach, nor do I believe that certain information necessarily results in a worthwhile production. To me, the photo-album-like style of the Making History video, the roundtable discussion of Issues, and the public forum found in Hate, Homophobia, and the Schools all work to some extent, and people can convincingly argue about the merit of interviews versus drama stories versus any combination to convey stories. In my opinion, two broader questions, centering on the intent of the video, eclipse the importance of other, more creative and fact-based issues.

    The first question that creators of any video need to pose is: Who is the video for? For any video to succeed, it needs to identify clearly a primary target audience, in the same manner that the producers of Issues and Hate, Homophobia, and Schools decided to concentrate on adolescents and their teachers, and organized the content accordingly. Certainly, the material in these two video productions can inform the thinking of many people other than adolescents and teachers, but the point is that a single video cannot adequately serve the needs of too wide an audience. No credible teacher would consider assigning the same history textbook to third graders, juniors in high school, and college undergraduates, but for some reason, video is expected to transcend age boundaries. It does not, and the result of such misconceptions can be an amorphous production like Making History.

    The second question for anyone who fashions a video for potential use in schools (and in other formal and informal education settings) is: What will happen after the VCR is unplugged? A video for young people questioning their sexual identity (and for the adults attempting to support them) should not be just a video, but should include a print component as well. For many adults, conversations about children's sexuality are difficult, and the discussion becomes even more charged when it involves homosexuality. Background information, factual material, suggestions for activities, books on related topics, and names and telephone numbers of organizations create a foundation for adults to lead and participate in open discussions. For younger people who may be too shy to speak up in a group, such supplemental materials provide a nonthreatening and reassuring resource. The kind of print materials found with Hate, Homophobia, and the Schools, for example, can be used by both adult and young viewers.

    For educators who are interested in fostering open discussions among students and adults, however, each of these videos complements traditional forms of curricula in providing vivid, sympathetic, and admiring portrayals of the young people who appear. The videos' effectiveness is not due to any specific format or content, but to the medium's inherent capacity to contextualize the challenges these young people face.

    PAULA M. SZULC
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    Summer 1996 Issue

    Abstracts

    Introduction
    By Vitka Eisen and Irene Hall
    Youth Voices
    Stone Butch Celebration
    A Transgender-Inspired Revolution in Academia
    By Wendy Ormiston
    Negotiating Legacies
    Audre Lorde, W. E. B. DuBois, Marlon Riggs, and Me
    By Townsand Price-Spratlen
    A Gay-Themed Lesson in an Ethnic Literature Curriculum
    Tenth Graders' Responses to "Dear Anita"
    By Steven Z. Athanases
    What Difference Does It Make? The Story of a Lesbian Teacher
    By Carla Washburne Rensenbrink
    Toward a Most Thorough Understanding of the World
    Sexual Orientation and Early Childhood Education
    By Virginia Casper, Harriet K. Cuffaro, Steven Schultz, Jonathan G. Silin, and Elaine Wickens
    Race and Sexual Orientation
    The (Im)possibility of These Intersections in Educational Policy
    By Kathryn Snider
    How We Find Ourselves
    Identity Development and Two Spirit People
    By Alex Wilson
    Manly Men and Womanly Women
    Deviance, Gender Role Polarization, and the Shift in Women's School Employment, 1900-1976
    By Jackie M. Blount
    Researching Dissident Subjectivities
    Queering the Grounds of Theory and Practice
    By Kenn Gardner Honeychurch
    Cornel West on Heterosexism and Transformation
    An Interview
    HER Board

    Book Notes

    Open Lives, Safe Schools
    Edited by Donovan R. Walling

    Uncommon Heroes
    Edited by Phillip Sherman and Samuel Bernstein

    Free Your Mind
    By Ellen Bass and Kate Kaufman.

    Becoming Visible
    Edited by Kevin Jennings

    Death By Denial
    By Gary Remafedi

    Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?
    By Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott.

    One Teacher in Ten
    By Kevin Jennings

    The Gay Teen
    Edited by Gerald Unks

    Tilting the Tower
    Edited by Linda Garber

    School's Out
    by Dan Woog

    The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader
    Edited by Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin

    Joining the Tribe
    By Linnea Due

    How Would You Feel If Your Dad Was Gay?
    By Ann Heron and Meredith Maran; illustrated by Kris Kovick.

    Helping Gay and Lesbian Youth
    Edited by Teresa DeCrescenzo

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.