You, Mr. Paszek*, were angry. “If you have ever called Dominic* a fairy,” you snapped with your arms crossed, “get up right now and stand at the front of the class.”
I’d heard the fairy slur many times. Dominic was a musician. I’m sure you would have remembered him. He was slim and talented and softly spoken. When he sang, he sounded like a choirboy. For a few years at our all-boys-school on the northeastern edge of London, Dominic was one of my closest friends.
Dominic sat at his desk and looked at the floor, all eyes on him. You, our teacher, watched us as the classroom filled with the sound of scraping chairs as some of the boys started to stand.
I once called Dominic a fairy, too. I don’t know why. Dominic was my good friend, but that didn’t stop me from participating in teasing him. Blame high school culture, blame the ever-present homophobia, blame kids saying stupid things without thinking, but bullying is bullying.
And I found myself pushing back my chair and walking to the front of the room to join the majority of my classmates. Only a handful of students remained seated. You, Mr. Paszek, a young mathematics teacher who was new to our school, must have been astounded to watch most of your students standing, the backs of our school uniforms to the chalkboard, looking at Dominic with our collective embarrassment and regret.
That was 1992. I was almost 14 years old.
Today, I think you’d be proud to know, alongside classes on the Holocaust and genocide, I teach about rape culture and sexual health, college hazing and addiction, poverty and homelessness. And I teach about homophobic and transphobic bullying and their affects on depression and suicide amongst young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT).
I teach about the It Gets Better Project, a virtual support community for LGBT youth. The project’s message to its audience is clear: Don’t despair; You can survive the bullying; Your adult life is going to be great; You are amazing.
A week or so ago, I came across a video clip posted to Facebook that changed the way I think about fighting homophobia.
In 2008, in Oxnard, California, 15-year-old Lawrence King asked 14-year-old Brandon McInerney to be his Valentine. Two days later, in front of their classmates in the school computer lab, Brandon took out a gun and shot Lawrence in the head. Lawrence died in hospital and, in 2011, Brandon pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while the hate crime charges against him were dropped.
The recently released HBO documentary Valentine Road deals with the events surrounding the shooting. In one scene, Shirley Brown, a former teacher of murdered student Lawrence King, explains, “I knew his inclination. He had discussed it with me. When he asked me what to do about the situation, my response to him was Nothing, what to do about this situation is nothing,and to keep it private, and to dwell upon it.” Lawrence, it seems, had little support in coming out as gay.
Ms. Brown continues, “I relate to Brandon [the murderer] because I could see my own self being in that very same position. I don’t know if I would have taken a gun, but a good, swift kick in the butt might work really well.” In other words, Brown believed that it was Lawrence’s gay “behavior,” rather than Brandon’s prejudice, that led to Brandon’s violent response. According to his teacher, Lawrence King—the boy who asked another boy to be his Valentine—brought his murder upon himself.
And so, it seems, in schools around the world, the young bullies might not be the heart of the problem. Teachers and administrators, not to mention parents, need to see that their words and actions—and inactions—have immeasurable repercussions. They are the adults. They set the example.
You, Mr. Paszek, looked at us with deep disappointment and sadness as we stood at the front of your classroom in silence. We all returned to our seats knowing that calling Dominic a fairy was wrong.
Two or three years later, you—the young, funny, talented, energetic Mr. Paszek—died. A rumor about you—quietly confirmed by other teachers—spread through the school: “Mr. Paszek was gay; he died of AIDS.”
My high school’s response to your death was minimal. I can barely remember the announcement. There were no big speeches about you from our headmaster. There were no memorial ceremonies for you. There were no plaques for you. No flowers for you. No candles. No silent ovations. Only rumors and inadequate explanations leading to a continual silence. Almost denial.
This was mid-1990s Britain and, under Prime Minister Thatcher’s Conservative government and the 1988 passage of Section 28, all British schools were prohibited from “promoting”—i.e., “talking about”—homosexuality.
And there I was, a gay teenager learning about reproduction and teenage pregnancy with no way of talking to my teachers about my sexuality and my specific questions about safe gay sex and my fears about HIV and AIDS. The British law wasn’t struck down until 2003. I was 25.
Today across the U.S., conservative lawmakers continue to block anti-bullying legislation that would protect LGBT school students from harassment. And in many states across the country, schools continue to fire teachers for being gay or lesbian or transgender while continuing to employ, tolerate, and even promote teachers like Shirley Brown who blame homophobic violence, and even murder, on LGBT youth themselves.
At the time, Mr. Paszek, I was too young and too naive to realize the significance of your presence. When you died, our school did not honor you. Yet, as my teacher, you instilled in me values that I still hold today. You stood up for Dominic and against homophobia and, by doing so, you asked us—your students—to stand up, too.
*Note: The names of Mr. Paszek and Dominic have been changed to protect privacy.
Copyright 2013. Danny M. Cohen. All Rights Reserved.