School is In: No Name-Calling in the Library

By Elizabeth Gartley

This week (January 18 to 22) is GLSEN’s No Name-Calling Week, a nationwide effort to celebrate kindness in schools and combat bullying. In GLSEN’s 2013 National School Climate Survey, the organization found that just over 70 percent of LGBT students surveyed had heard “gay” used in a negative way and two-thirds of students had heard other homophobic remarks (such as “dyke” or “faggot”). Ninety percent of student surveyed reported that they felt distressed because of this language.

The schools where I have worked have run the gamut. Despite my best efforts, in one high school I heard “fag” on a near daily basis in the library, and in one case, the common phrase “That’s so gay,” apparently didn’t quite capture a particular student’s disgust (and homophobia), and so the phrase became, “That’s so gay, that’s as gay as AIDS.” In contrast, last fall during Banned Books Week at the middle school where I work, some students looking over the banned books display wondered aloud, “Why would anyone ban Drama?” (the graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier). One student whispered, “In some places they don’t allow gay people.” The students were scandalized by such a thought, and I have to say that I haven’t heard the seemingly ubiquitous “That’s so gay,” even once during my time at this school. Even still, I know there is homophobic and gender-based bullying and teasing occurring.

Even as someone committed to supporting LGBTQ students and combating homophobia in schools, I have often struggled to know how to respond when I hear these kinds of remarks. In the case of the student saying “That’s as gay as AIDS,” I was so upset that I knew any response on my part would have been too emotional to be effective, so I could only remove myself from the situation. But I felt even worse having done nothing, as though I had betrayed my LGBTQ students (who were regulars in the library).

As I’ve continued to read about LGBTQ education, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. A 2013 study found that LGBT teachers were less likely to intervene when they witnessed homophobic bullying out of fear of the repercussions of being perceived as LGBT. Others have struggled with how to respond effectively, when their immediate reaction is to simply police language. In a blog post for Teaching Tolerance, Ginger Aaron-Brush wrote that when she heard students using the phrase “That’s so gay,” she responded,

We don’t use those kind of words.” She reflected that “I taught my students that the word gay was vulgar and that it had no place in dialogue or conversation. Although I had hoped not to bring any attention to this word, I was doing just the opposite. I was bringing negative attention to the word gay and unintentionally promoting it as a word to use when one wanted to hurt another person’s feelings.

So what can we do instead? Aaron-Brush suggested asking questions like “Why would you choose that word?” or “Tell me why you think being gay is an insult” or “How do you think that would sound to a gay person?”

Unfortunately, homophobic and gender-based taunts begin early, but there are ways that school librarians can help combat homophobic language and bullying before it begins. The first step is having and promoting books for children in the library that feature LGBTQ characters and challenge gender stereotypes. Although including LGBTQ books can be intimidating for school librarians for fear of challenges, as those challenges seem to increase, so too, does the support and resources in favor of more inclusive libraries. For example, the Human Rights Campaign recently published I Am Jazz: A Guide for Parents, Educators, and Community Advocates.

School libraries can also help combat homophobic bullying by consciously becoming a Safe Space (libraries often become a de facto “safe space” for many students, so why not be proactive?). The school library can also provide space and resources for the GSA (at one school where I worked, the previous librarian refused to purchase nonfiction LGBTQ resources when the GSA requested them).

And of course, school libraries can host events and readings for No Name-Calling Week. The event was actually inspired by a young adult novel, according to the GLSEN website:

No Name-Calling Week was inspired by the popular young adult novel entitled The Misfits by popular author James Howe. The book tells the story of four best friends trying to survive the seventh grade in the face of all too frequent taunts based on their weight, height, intelligence, and sexual orientation/gender expression. The friends create a new political party during student council elections and run on a platform aimed at wiping out name-calling of all kinds. The No-Name Party in the end, wins the support of the school’s principal for their cause and their idea for a “No Name-Calling Day” at school.

The website also has a variety of activities and lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school which tackle name-calling and bullying of all kinds, including “I Was Just Kidding” which has student distinguish between good-natured teasing and bullying, activities to have students reflect on their own experiences with name-calling, and using literature to end name-calling.


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