Try saying that in a United States classroom. You would be in the VP’s office and on lockdown until further notice. And as that being my sensitivity to the word “hate” paired with “gay,” you can imagine my reaction during my first week up on the stage at OLOG.
At Loveland, the staff and students made a commitment to stop all kinds of bullying: physical, verbal, cyber, etc. Any sort of language that was not PC or was derogatory in any way, regardless of your beliefs, was just not tolerated. They even have a catchy little slogan called “My Choice, My Voice.” After several suicides in the area over the course of two years, bullying had become a tangible issue for the students and staff. Even during my eight weeks there, I had to confront a student about the way he talked about the gay community. After all, Loveland is a pretty conservative area and I would say at least 75 percent is Christian—not that all Christians can’t speak civilly about the LGBT community, some of them just choose not to.
I did not expect to encounter this here in Belize. That was naive of me considering Belize was founded on Christian principles (it’s in their Constitution, apparently). To add to that naivety: my students had to inform me that you can’t be gay in Belize. Like, you just can’t. You’ll be put in jail. I guess being raised in the U.S. gave me the assumption that you can be gay, but some people are going to hate on you, and that’s that. The marriage issue is the problem. But for Belize, marriage isn’t considered. Not even close.
So obviously, what do I do to learn more about this and the students’ orientation on the issue? I make ’em write an essay about it.
I make them write about it, but here’s the catch: they have to balance support on both sides. So, even if they do not agree with gay rights, they have to at least understand the other side.
Again, my ignorance flared again when the students said, “can we write about UNIBAM?”
“Can you write about uni-bomb? The uni-bomber? what?” Then Ms. Lopez explained it to me. UNIBAM stands for “United Belize Advocacy Group” and it lobbies for gay rights in Belize. People who engage in homosexual activities can be sentenced up to ten years in jail, and UNIBAM is lobbying to change that because it is unconstitutional.
None of the students would publicly speak up for this when it was brought up. Most of them were pretty outspoken about how UNIBAM is in the wrong, though—I’m not surprised, as it’s a Catholic school. However, when I assigned a debate for them one day, the topic of gay rights came up. The class exploded; one student said “We hate gays, Miss.” This was my first day of teaching them. I quickly realized that this was totally impossible to discuss in a civil manner. I figured that since they were fourth formers, they could handle it. Two of the girls in the class said, “Miss, I don’t think this class is mature enough to discuss this issue.” They were right. A week later, one of the girls who said that came up to me. She looked a little awkward and apprehensive, and said, “Miss, how do you feel about gays?”
“Well, I have a lot of gay friends. And I love them. And I think that they have rights and should not be punished for being who they are, because no one just chooses to be that way on purpose. No one chooses to face that much discrimination.”
“Cool. Me too.”
I’m still in shock about how these kids aren’t trained in being sensitive to issues like this or sensitive in being able to discuss them. All the same, there are a few who get it. The essays were OK; I can’t make shifts like that happen overnight. I hope that I at least made them think. That’s all I’m asking for.