When Compassion Meets Homophobia

Woman trying to stop two homophobic encounters

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

When I began teaching middle school three years ago, I made it a point to be out. I’ve been through the chaos and struggle of figuring out my bisexual identity and being confident in it. What’s more, I knew that there would be students who would benefit from seeing an out LGBTQ+ adult in their personal lives. 

For the first two years, I envisioned encountering homophobic students and faculty, but was mostly fortunate. Any anxiety around my queerness was barely noticeable. Then, the world after COVID lockdown opened up.

My students had obvious effects from a year and a half of virtual learning, most obviously in their behavior. As the year went on, a few began to stand out—including two kids I’ll nickname Dave and Paul. 

I noticed that as I was making connections with queer students, Dave and Paul tried to provoke me with homophobic questions and comments. This was on top of both typical and atypical behavior issues that clued me to the fact that Dave and Paul were going through things outside of school.

Despite their behavior and views, I chose compassion.

I encouraged their good behavior and rewarded them for their effort. Over time, their motivation in my class grew and I got to the point of having somewhat of a good relationship with each of them. For these reasons, I was not worried about how they would react to Pride month. 

Towards the end of May, I had the class begin a presentation project. Almost immediately after students began working on their slides, I heard Dave and Paul going back and forth about an obviously trolling project. My first thought was that they probably contained middle school jokes that I may have to call home about. I had had to redirect their behavior recently a little more, but nothing had been particularly severe.

A day later, I noticed that the conversation between Dave and Paul was getting a little too disruptive. They were obviously not focused and were disrupting other students. So I walked over to Dave and asked him to hand over his school-issued computer. 

I went to my desk and opened up the slides. The first few were what I had expected. I had joked in class that Sailor Moon was the best anime series, and playfully debated the topic with various students, including Dave and Paul. 

Their slides derided the show and used derogatory language to describe Sailor Moon fans. I was about to roll my eyes and move on with a phone call until a I saw particular slur: fag.

I was angered but kept going so I could give a full report. Then I saw my name.

The slides had photos of me taken in class. Written over the images were insults about my body, calling me a b**ch, and finally, calling me that dreaded, piercing word.

A deep, all-consuming pain settled into my body. I had the boys taken out of my room immediately and fortunately had already taken the afternoon off, so I went home. 

I learned that Dave and Paul would be back in my room the next day and my pain doubled down on anger that I could not see a way out of. I took the next morning off. I refused to go in with this fresh trauma and act as if I could just teach these students again.

Eventually, I was able to have Paul stay out of my classroom for the rest of the week and only saw Dave sparingly. I spoke with Dave and he claimed to have written the slides out of anger. I wondered if I had slighted a child who wanted and needed attention. I did not forgive the slides in my head, but I wondered if this would have happened if I had more time to understand what Dave needed. 

Then Paul came back. I asked him if he understood why he needed to apologize. I asked him if he understood the consequences of his actions. I asked him if he cared about what happened to him. To the last question, he was silent, as if unsure. Again, I felt compassion. 

That was until he started disrupting class again. I wrote a lunch detention and dreaded having to spend time alone with him. 

The next morning, I told him he would be spending lunch with me, and he was…relieved. He told Dave and Dave asked if he could also have lunch detention with me that day. I was confused. Hadn’t they just called me everything but a racial slur? 

I was still processing their hate speech directed at me, and they wanted to spend 30 uninterrupted, one-on-one time with me. The joy of feeling like I might be a student’s safe space collided with my pain. I was highly skeptical of their motivations, but also intrigued by their reactions. What was happening?

At noon, Paul came for his detention and I was ready with a sponge to have him clean the desks. He mentioned how bad the lunch food was, and instead, we started a friendly conversation. I took the chance to ask something that had been bothering me all year, but particularly since June had just started.

What was the obsession with being gay? I had heard him mention trying to not “do anything gay” during Pride. He calmly explained that it was because of his religion, that he believed being gay would have him sent to hell. 

I replied that I would never want to discount his beliefs, but that he didn’t need to be disrespectful to other people. If he wasn’t gay, he wouldn’t “turn” gay. No one was mocking his homophobic beliefs, so there was no reason he had to mock anyone’s identity. He nodded and agreed, and that was it.

We were silent for a beat, and then he asked about Minecraft. He eventually invited me into his game so that he could teach me how to play. How had I gone from hoping this child would get himself kicked out of my room again to trying to play Minecraft together? 

Of all the things that I had envisioned when I decided to be out as a teacher, forgiveness was not one. I cannot say that I forgive these students. But I have seen them at their highs and at their lows. I have loved them and I have hated them. Ultimately, I still have to teach them.

What I can say, though, is that me, Dave, and Paul all need more. More time to heal, to understand each other. While I am a teacher, I am also a human who cannot simply forget targeted attacks at a part of my identity that I had to fight for. They, on the other hand, are children who are still figuring out who they are. Unfortunately, the time we needed to truly see each other was rare and is quickly coming to an end. 

I hope the best of our times together eventually wins over the bad. I hope that they heal as I am trying to.

If you are seeking support for issues with coming out, relationships, bullying, self-harm, and more, contact the LGBT National Hotline at 1-888-843-4564 for one-to-one peer support.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

By Taylor Lewis
Taylor is a Maryland-based freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she explores her experiences as a queer Black educator to illuminate the nuances of mental health, critical pedagogy, and marginalization in education.