HOMOPHOBIA: What is it? What can we do about it?

This two-part lesson for grades 5-8 is aimed at increasing students' understanding of homophobia. The first part focuses on personal experiences of our differences; the second part focuses on what students can do to make their classroom and school safe for everyone.

This fall, six gay teens committed suicide after being harassed or bullied. Among them was Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University, who killed himself after his roommate and another student streamed online a secret webcam of Clementi kissing a man in his dormitory room.

Below is a two-part lesson for students in grades 5-8 (ages 11-15) that is aimed at increasing students' understanding of homophobia. The first part focuses on personal viewpoints on and experiences of our differences; the second part focuses on what students can do to make their classroom and school safe for everyone. 


Group Guidelines 

Tell the class: We are going to discuss some important and sensitive issues today, so we're going to develop some group guidelines so that everyone feels comfortable and safe. If the class has already developed such guideline, go over them again and add any if necessary. Discuss the following and why they are important.
  • Confidentiality: Whatever is discussed here stays here.
  • Right to pass: You have the right to pass if you don't feel comfortable sharing.
  • No name calling or finger-pointing.
  • Agree to disagree: We may have differences and we should feel free to discuss them without having hard feelings towards each other.
  • When talking about groups of people, use the word some and not all.
  • Speak from your own point of view: Use I-statements and don't present other people's viewpoints as your own.
  • Ask: Are there any other guidelines we should add?

Being Different

Share with the class an anecdote about a time when you felt different when you were a teenager. Describe what happened and how it made you feel.
Give students index cards and ask them to answer the following questions:
What is one way in which you are "different"?
How do you feel about it?
Give students 5 minutes to write down their responses, and another 5 minutes to share ways they are different with the person sitting next to them. Then ask for volunteers to share ways they are different and chart their responses.
Ask the students to share their feelings about being different. What does it feel like to be different? Write some of those responses on the board. Ask for reflections on what students shared.

Looking at Isms

Ask students to define the following terms briefly. If they don't know, give them the definitions below.
Racism: The systematic mistreatment of people based on their race. Like the other "isms," racism can manifest itself on either an individual or institutional level.
Sexism: The systematic mistreatment of people based on their gender.
Ageism: The systematic mistreatment of people based on their age.
Ask: What do each of these isms have in common? What are some examples of racism, sexism, and ageism you've seen in your life?
Ask students to call out examples, separate them on the board into two categories: individual and institutional, like this:
Individual Institutional
The teacher assumes I can't write well because English isn't my first language. There is no basketball team for girls in this school.
Other kids don't want to hang out with me because because I'm Muslim.
I get followed around the department store because I'm black.
Explain what you are doing. Point out the differences between individual and institutional discrimination. Explain that individual discrimination is between individual people. Give an example such as a boy thinking a girl can't play basketball. Explain that institutional discrimination is when the prejudice has the backing of an institution like a school, a workplace, a store, a police department, etc. For instance: The school has a policy that allows boys but not girls to play on a school basketball team.
Tell the students: We're now going to discuss another form of prejudice and discrimination that involves homosexuality — that is, gay or lesbian people.

Defining Terms

Make sure everyone knows what the words gay, lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and heterosexual/straight mean. Make sure you give an opportunity for the students to ask any questions they want to about this. They are defined as follows:
Homosexuality: sexual desire or behavior directed toward a person or people of one's own gender
Gay: a homosexual person, especially a male
Lesbian: a female homosexual
Bisexual: a person who is sexually responsive to both people of both genders.
Heterosexual/Straight: sexual feeling or behavior directed toward a person or people of the opposite gender.

Fishbowl Discussion

Tell the students you will use an activity called "fishbowl" to help them explore these issues in more depth. Begin the conversation by asking 5-7 students to make a circle with their chairs in the middle of the room, or around a table if that works better. Ask everyone else to sit around the circle in their chairs to create a larger circle around the smaller circle. Only people in the smaller circle (the fishbowl) can speak, but students in the outside circle students will have opportunities to go inside the circle.
Begin by asking a question and inviting students in the fishbowl to speak to it in a "go-round" with each student responding without being interrupted. Next, designate a specific amount of time for clarifying questions and further comments from the fishbowl group. After 15 minutes or so, invite students from the larger circle to participate in the fishbowl conversation by tapping a fishbowl student on the shoulder and moving into that student's seat. Remind the students about the group guidelines discussed at the beginning of the lesson. If a student fails to follow a guideline, give another reminder.
Use the following questions and/or create some of your own:
  • If you found out that a good friend of yours was gay or lesbian, what would you do and feel? 
  • Have you ever witnessed someone who is gay or lesbian being teased or made fun of? How do you think they felt?
  • If you found out that an adult in your life (parent, teacher, friend of family, family member) was gay or lesbian, how would you feel? 
  • What do you do when you hear your peers making fun of someone they think is gay, lesbian, or bisexual?
  • Do you know someone who is gay? If so, how do you feel about the fact that they are gay?
  • How comfortable are you around gays/lesbians? Why do you think you feel that way?
Is there something that has influenced the way you feel about gay/lesbian/bisexual people? What?
After the fishbowl, reconvene the full class for a discussion. Ask: How did it feel to be in the fishbowl? How did it feel to be outside the fishbowl and just listening? How was it to share your thoughts and feelings about this topic? Did you learn anything new? How do you feel?


Do a go-round: Ask students to share one thing they learned or one feeling they had during today's session.


Review what we discussed in our last session. Ask: Did any thoughts or feelings come up after our discussion last time? Ask students to share anything they have been thinking about or feeling since the last session.


Ask if anyone has ever heard the word "homophobia." Ask what it means. If no one has an accurate definition, define it for them: Homophobia is a prejudice against (fear or dislike of) homosexual people and homosexuality. Ask the students if they can think of any examples of homophobia.
Ask if anyone has ever witnessed homophobic behavior. What does it look like? What does it sound like? How does it feel?
As you did in the previous lesson, begin two lists on the board, one labeled "individual" and the other "institutional." Record students' responses in the appropriate category.
First ask students: What are some examples of homophobia you have seen in school? What kinds of things do people do or say when they tease or bully someone about being gay? How and where does this happen? (In the cafeteria or playground? Online?)
Ask students: How do you think this would feel to the person who is being teased? How do you think it would feel to anyone who was gay, had gay family members or friends, or who might be questioning whether they are gay or not? Help students make the connection between those feelings and the feelings students discussed in the last session about other forms of discrimination.
Next, ask students to give some examples of how what we hear in the media (or in society in general) might contribute to homophobia. Where does homophobia come from?

How can we make our classroom for everyone?

Ask students: What can each of us to do to make sure that our classroom is safe for everyone, including gay, lesbian, or bisexual students—or students who are questioning if they may be gay? Brainstorm a list of ideas and chart them.
What can we do if we see someone being teased or bullied because they are gay—or for any reason? 

How can we make our school for everyone?

Ask students if they can think of ways we can help make our school safe for everyone, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning students.
If some students seem to be wrestling with their attitudes about homophobia, you may want to conclude the lesson here, and consider ways the class can continue its examination of homophobia in the future that will enable all student to increase their understanding of this issue.
However, if students seem ready to act on this issue, ask them if they would be interested in developing a class-wide project to help make the school safe for everyone, including gay and lesbian students. Invite ideas from the class and chart them.
If there seems to be a consensus on one good idea, adopt it. If there are lots of ideas and no consensus, have students vote to decide on the top idea. Then help students begin organizing their project by soliciting their responses to these questions:
1. What is the idea? 
2. What problem is it going to address? 
3. Is it realistic? 
4. What are 3-5 tasks that need to be done to make it happen?
5. Who needs to be consulted (principal/administrator, teacher, other students)? 
6. How do we get other students to buy into the idea? 
7. What materials do we need?
Students' responses will form the basis of an action plan. Support students to insure that they actually implement their plan.


Go round: Ask students to share one thing they learned or one feeling they had during today's session.
How did this activity work in your class? Please share your stories and other feedback with us! Email: info@morningsidecenter.org.