If you work with teens, you probably hear comments laced with judgment about sexual orientation and gender pretty often.
“No homo, bro.”
“This is gay.”
“Don’t be a pussy.”
We know that as facilitators, it’s our responsibility to deal with comments like these to ensure a safe learning environment. But—that’s way easier said than done. Uncertainty about whether or not to respond and what exactly to say may cause us to freeze up. While this is normal, step one of dealing with offensive comments is:
Commit to responding!
When we freeze up then ignore or laugh off inappropriate comments, we end up validating them. The most important thing is making a promise to yourself that whenever you overhear a comment like the ones above, you will respond. It doesn’t have to be the most eloquent response, but saying something is better than saying nothing. This can be especially hard if we’ve just met a group of students and have limited time with them, but ultimately it will work in our favor: students’ respect for a facilitator increases when they hear them establishing safety and inclusivity.
Finding the right words
To figure out the best response to offensive comments, I always ask myself these two questions:
- What is the intent?
- What is the context?
What is the intent?
Often, teens throw around the term “that’s gay” out of habit. In cases like this, I try to keep my response simple. If I overhear “that’s gay” I may say something like “How about you choose a different word for that” or “That’s not what that word means” or even “I think you meant to say ‘[offer them alternate]’?”
On occasion, there is actual intent to offend or hurt. I address these comments much more directly, like any other situation of name-calling or offensive language. In response to something like “man don’t be a pussy,” I may raise my eyebrows and say “You may not mean to be but that comment is sexist—not to mention inappropriate—and you need to use a different word.”
Judging the intent is important because it allows you to choose the right tone, and either casually call attention to the language, or shut it down more sternly. Picking your favorite phrase for each situation and practicing it a few times can help you have confidence to respond in the moment.
What is the context?
Thinking about the context means asking yourself: given the time/topic/etc, do I need to simply address this and quickly move on, or is this a teachable moment? If it’s the latter, I almost always respond with an open-ended question. Good options include “What do you mean by that?” or “Have you thought about what comments like that imply?” Using a curious rather than accusative tone encourages students to engage rather than shut down.
A few months ago at a body image and media workshop I was running, students were engaged in a great conversation about advertisements and the pressures they put on people. Responding to an ad of a man in tight boxers, one student yelled out “Real men don’t wear tighty-whities!” The class laughed, and I smiled—the intent was not necessarily hurtful, and the context was perfect for a discussion. I asked: “So… what do you all think is the message behind phrases like ‘real men’ do or don’t do certain things?” We started breaking down gender expectations, stereotypes about sexual orientation, and how our language and jokes to one another can be just as limiting and hurtful as the advertisements we had been analyzing. This leads us to:
Think of comments as opportunities
With the “real men” comment, the context was perfect to discuss it rather than just shut it down. It ended up deepening our conversation and being a real opportunity. Even overhearing things like “that’s gay” or “no homo” can be an opportunity, either to discuss the message behind it, or at the least to demonstrate to students that you care about creating a safe and inclusive space by calling it out.
Commit to responding by promising yourself that you won’t ignore comments about sexual orientation or gender, and keep in mind intent and context as you strategize your go-to responses—it will help turn an uncomfortable moment into an opportunity for you and for students!
Rachel Marro works at Response with the Outreach team, doing educational workshops all over the Chicagoland area on topics including LGBTQ issues, healthy relationships, comprehensive sex education, bullying prevention, and many more. She also runs a summer program at Response for LGBTQ youth and allies called Alliance, and a parent support and education program called Parent & Family Connection for families whose children have come out as LGBTQ.
Response reaches 14,000 youth each year through counseling services, our Center for Sexual Health, and other outreach programs. More info can be found at www.responsecenter.org