The Invisible Minority: Preparing Teachers to Meet the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Youth

By Mathison, Carla | Journal of Teacher Education, March-April 1998 | Go to article overview

The Invisible Minority: Preparing Teachers to Meet the Needs of Gay and Lesbian Youth


Mathison, Carla, Journal of Teacher Education


Multicultural education is the educational strategy in which the student's cultural background is viewed as positive and essential in developing class' room instruction and a desirable school environment. It is designed to support and extend the concepts of culture, cultural pluralism, and equality into the formal school setting (Gollnick & Chinn, 1986, p. 3).

Gay men and lesbians are not identified by their sex, ethnicity, religion, geographic location, socioeconomic or ability level but by their orientation to their own gender that includes, but is not limited to, sexual intimacy. The cultural roots of gay men and lesbians are in ancient civilizations throughout the world. I use the word culture as Woolfolk (1995) defined it: The knowledge, values, attitudes, and traditions that guide the behavior of a group of people and allow them to solve the problems of living in their environment (p. 157).

The contributions of gay men and lesbians--from politicians and athletes to economists, mathematicians, and educators--have been critical to society. Aristotle, Socrates, Michelangelo, Leonardo DaVinci, and others laid the foundation for much of the framing of the modern world. More recently, authors James Baldwin, Willa Gather, Langston Hughes, Yosana Akiko, and Rita Mae Brown, and musicians from Tschaikovsky to the blues singer Bessie Smith, the pop artist Elton John, conductor Leonard Bernstein, and composers Benjamin Britten and Oscar Hammerstein have produced artful portrayals of the universal themes of joy and sorrow. The Aboriginal people considered homosexuals to be mystics and referred to gays and lesbians as two' spirited, having both male and female spirits. Before Europeans came to North America, many Indian cultures gave those who came to be known as berdaches a special and honored place in the society. Yet, in recent history, gay and lesbian people have been ignored or persecuted for a variety of complex and tragic reasons.

Ignorance and its accompanying persecution shatter the identities of gay and lesbian youth in educational institutions and society. Gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual youth (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1989). School authorities may punish a White student for calling a Black student nigger by detention or expulsion, but students calling others faggot, queer, momma's boy, dyke, lesbo often receive no punishment. Tolerance of these cultural slurs indicates to both hetero- and homosexual students that gay and lesbian students are open, deserving game for teasing, harassment, and, in many cases, physical abuse.

Questions related to teacher educators' responsibility to prepare future teachers to teach gay and lesbian students include What teacher behaviors most alienate gay and lesbian students? What negative messages does the school/classroom social environment communicate? What messages does the curriculum send? Even the most recent publications related to multicultural education leave these questions and the complex issues they raise largely unaddressed.

Part of the Multi in Multiculturalism

Recent textbooks on multicultural education give gay and lesbian culture little if any attention. Among six texts on multicultural education (Banks & Banks, 1993; Cushner, McClelland, & Safford, 1992; Davidman & Davidman, 1994; Grossman, 1995; Nieto, 1996; Sleeter & Grant, 1994), only Sleeter and Grant discuss gay and lesbian issues in any detail. Grossman devotes only 5 of her 595 pages to this population. Even less is in the other texts. Thus, a population of approximately 5-10% of all students has a very small amount of attention in the larger arena of multicultural education.

Gay and lesbian culture, unlike cultures identified easily by ethnicity, skin color, or ancestral origin, has more subtle defining characteristics seldom visible through the traditional lenses used to identify the surface characteristics of a culture: foods, holidays, dress, crafts. …

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