Sunday, October 12, 2008

GLSEN's New PSAs a Mixed Blessing

Let me begin with congratulations on a social marketing campaign that will totally get people talking and thinking all over the country. GLSEN, the Ad Council and ArnoldNYC should be entirely proud of that. And their teachers' guide, downloadable free from, is awesome.

That said, I hope that teacher trainers all over the country will ask teachers NOT to take the ads literally and NOT to try their strategy at home ... insulting young people to get them to stop insulting others. It's like hitting kids to get them to stop hitting. While it may be funny in the context of an ad and when you aren't the youth in question, it's neither effective nor ethical in the real world. The ads are meant to get people talking, NOT to model good ways to intervene when people say, "That's so gay!" to mean something is stupid or boring.

I use a strategy a teacher once taught me. I use my own name, Beth, as an analogy and ask the offender how they think I would feel if I heard people call disgusting things "so Beth" 99 times a day. Using my name or my own identity is way preferable to using that of the student. Attacking a student, even in a sarcastic way, only reinforces the idea that meanness is funny. It doesn't build empathy.

Another strategy is so simple that my niece used it successfully when she was about 9 years old to shut down a harassing situation. Two girls were surveying their class on the playgound about which of two classmates they liked better. Sarah said, "That's so mean!" One of the offenders tried to blame the other and Sarah just repeated, "I don't care; it's still so mean." After about the 3rd time she called their survey mean, they gave it up altogether.

Anyway, I hope teachers -- and students for that matter -- will find some alternative to the "That's so Emma and Julia" of the ads. Maybe it sounds saccharine, but life is too short to run around hurting one another, especially in the name of prejudice reduction.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Say What? The "Think Before You Speak" Campaign

GLSEN, together with The Ad Council, has created the campaign.

Think Before You Speak

This multimedia public service advertising campaign - which includes the videos above and below - and several others - is designed to address the use of anti-LGBT language among teens. The campaign aims to raise awareness among straight teens about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBT bias and behavior in America’s schools.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens experience homophobic remarks and harassment throughout the school day, creating an atmosphere where they feel disrespected, unwanted and unsafe. Homophobic remarks such as “that’s so gay” are the most commonly heard; these slurs are often unintentional and a common part of teens’ vernacular. Most do not recognize the consequences, but the casual use of this language often carries over into more overt harassment.

This campaign aims to raise awareness about the prevalence and consequences of anti-LGBT bias and behavior in America’s schools. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce and prevent the use of homophobic language in an effort to create a more positive environment for LGBT teens. The campaign also aims to reach adults, including school personnel and parents; their support of this message is crucial to the success of efforts to change behavior.
"SAY WHAT?" on the website is where you can click on a floating word to see what it actually means, or actually doesn't mean. (See the left column on the website.)

Think Before You Speak - Cashier

GLSEN has also created an Educator's Guide to assist middle and high school educators in presenting the various components of this campaign to students, framing and discussing the ads in class, and extending student learning about the negative consequences of homophobic language and anti-LGBT bias.

Parents are also encouraged to Say Something Original and pledge to support safe schools efforts, and speak to your children’s teachers about using the Educator's Guide to the Campaign.

In an October 7, 2008 article in The New York Times, author Stewart Elliott wrote:
FOR the first time since the Advertising Council was founded in 1942, the organization — which directs and coordinates public service campaigns on behalf of Madison Avenue and the media industry — is introducing ads meant to tackle a social issue of concern to gays and lesbians.

The campaign, which is scheduled to be announced by the council in Washington on Wednesday, will seek to discourage bullying and harassment of teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Read the article: Advertising: A Push to Curb the Casual Use of Ugly Phrases

Find out more about this campaign:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Transitioning on the Job: Part Three

Transitioning has shattered my understanding of how people are perceiving me. In my everyday life, I feel less and less certain about what sexual and gender identities other people are mapping onto me. In the past few weeks, I’ve been read as a straight, cisgendered man at gay male bars, and as a gay man by straight women whom I thought were hitting on me. I had my first experience of having to come out as a transsexual to a gay man who asked me out. These are all firsts for me. The cumulative effect of these seemingly minor, quotidian exchanges has felt utterly overwhelming at times.

Shifts in my physical appearance (and therefore in the way other people interact with me) have been disorienting at work, too. While modeling how to draft a personal essay the other day, the fact arose that my two best friends when I was in eighth grade were named Talia and Joanna. The moment I mentioned their names in my draft, a wave of giggles swept through the classroom. I turned around, surprised and unsure of the reason for the amusement. One flabbergasted student blurted out “GIRLS?” and I replied “yes, they were my friends.” In the brief flurry of whispers that ensued, I overheard comments like “he hung out with girls?!” I hadn’t anticipated that reaction. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it would seem strange that I spent time with girls as a kid. Upon reflection, though, I realize that most of my students immerse themselves in same-sex social groups. The impression I got from students’ reactions was that there was something “off” about an eighth grade boy whose best friends were girls. Perhaps, I realized, they’re suspecting that I might be a gay, cissexual man? I can’t tell.

Yesterday, one student came up to me with a book in hand to point out that “almost all of your books say ‘Ms. Krywanczyk’ in them.” She didn’t say it in an accusatory or “what’s going on here?” way. Her tone was earnest, and she clearly figured she’d inform me of something that she assumed I would want to know. My nervousness came through in my response: “Thanks for letting me know, you can change it if you want.” She walked away from my desk seeming a little confused and curious. Moments like this have illuminated my tendency to project my own “passing anxieties” onto my students. I had assumed that the “Ms. Krywanczyk” written in my classroom books would “give away” my trans-ness to students. However, a friend pointed out to me that students very well may see “Ms. Krywanczyk” not as an indicator that I was designated female at birth, but as a hint that I may have a wife. Sure enough, a few students have approached me to ask me if I’m married. (I’ve said a simple “no.”) But I haven’t fielded a single gender-related question, or had to address an inappropriate pronoun.

Frankly, I’m shocked that this hasn’t come up in my classroom yet. Maybe my sixth graders simply haven’t heard anything about the fact that I used to be Ms. K? That seems highly unlikely, though. Maybe seventh and eighth graders in the school have heard about my transition, and have kept relatively quiet about it? I’m skeptical of that, too. Some seventh and eighth graders who knew me last year have clearly “gotten the memo” about my transition, because they have begun referring to me as Mr. K. (Or perhaps some of them have just put two and two together.) But some of my former students who are currently seventh graders in the school still shout “Hi Ms. K!” when they see me in the hallways. It is possible, then, that my sixth graders have heard about my past as Ms. K – and they simply “get it.”

I would love to wire-tap students to be privy to the ways this kind of information is communicated, discussed, and spread. I’m absolutely dying to know, as very few people – students or adults – are discussing any of this with me. In the past three days, two coworker friends of mine have shared conversations that other teachers at our school have started with them about me and transgender issues. In both cases, other teachers approached coworkers whom they knew were friends of mine to ask extensive questions about my transition. While the thought of having friends put on the spot to speak for me and my identity makes me uncomfortable, I’m relieved that all of the burden of fielding these inquiries isn’t falling on me.

In response to questioning, though, I find myself oscillating between a personal impulse to engage in conversation with adults about my transition and a political obligation to establish that just because someone is transgender doesn’t make it okay to be invasive. I always feel like I should tell curious inquirers that they need to find some trans literature and educate themselves rather than depending on trans people to spoon-feed them information. No individual is obligated to educate the trans-ignorant world at large; and it would certainly be problematic for me to self-authorize to “represent” transgender people. However, at the same time I’m inclined to speak for my own personal experience and transition. And in terms of effective “Trans 101” teaching tools, nothing compares to “real life” interaction with trans people.

In both my professional and non-professional lives, I’ve been struggling to navigate boundaries when adults ask deeply personal questions about my body, my sexuality, my sex life, etc. It’s extremely important that I have cissexual supporters in my school - like these two coworker friends - whom I trust to address questions appropriately, to advocate for me, and to therefore alleviate some of the pressures to “educate” that might otherwise fall completely on me. I dislike the term “ally” for many reasons, but my awesome and trans-aware colleagues are contributing to my hopefulness about teaching this year.