Prom time is upon us, and an increasing number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are showing the courage to attend their school dances with a same-sex date. In a number of communities, lesbian and gay youth are finding less resistance when they’re out at school dances. Ali, a high school senior from suburban Philadelphia, explains that there are more lesbian and gay couple than during previous years: “Other students treat them like they’re a regular couple. No one says anything to them. People look but they’re not going over there and saying anything. They’ll stare at them, but they’ll walk away.”
For many, being out at school dances can be challenging as they fear discrimination, harassment, and bullying by their peers. Sadly, in some communities, they have to be worried about harassment and discrimination by adults as well. In Sullivan, Indiana, a group that consists of students and at least one teacher is proposing a “traditional prom.” Making the anti-gay prom all the more painful, there is a teacher on their side supporting this discriminatory program.
The movement for the anti-gay prom is in response to same-sex couples planning to participate in Sullivan, Indiana’s prom this year. The principal has said that the school will not discriminate. The principal is following the basic rights of students that have been well documented since Aaron Fricke in 1980.
While there appears to be a backlash against those planning this anti-gay prom, the reality is that their plan puts increasing pressure on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students to remain in the closet. We know that bullying incidents increase in places with the lowest teacher-student ratio. Research demonstrates that students commonly point to areas such as stairwells and cafeterias (http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=7740). While school dances are infrequent, their very nature is a more limited adult supervision than we would find in the classrooms.
Indeed, according to the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2011 National School Climate survey, 20 percent of LGBT students report discriminatory policies at school dances and other functions. In fact, Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN, explains how damaging the anti-gay prom is for children, particularly in this case in which a teacher is involved: “Prom is a universal rite of passage, and undermining that tradition in the name of prejudice sends a soul-crushing message to LGBT students in that community. Having a teacher play such an active role, and make such awful comments, ups the ante – teachers are meant to be a source of support and role models, and having teachers support is perhaps the most important ingredient for LGBT students’ success and well being.”
As a longtime educator who teaches both high school students and teachers in graduate school, I know that it is critical that we create a school climate that recognizes the dignity of all of our students. Indeed, what makes our public schools so great is that they provide a place in our society in which we all come together. We teach them together. They graduate together. They should also celebrate together.