She explained to her students that the homophobic slurs they used have been weaponized against gay people.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 8, 2022
A former teacher explained how coming out to her students changed the culture at her school when her students started to make a conscious effort not to use homophobic slurs. BJ Colangelo was teaching theater education with an emphasis on social-emotional learning in the state of Ohio at the time. She is now a journalist and has been writing about film and TV for more than 12 years. Colangelo recalled her time in school and how her coming out as gay changed the students' views toward the LGBTQ+ community. "My students apologized for their usage in the past, and they all promised to try and be better about the language they used," she told Upworthy. "There were even moments where a student would come visit me during my lunch hour to apologize to me for calling a student the f-slur in a different class, just in case word got back to me. It genuinely changed the culture of the school, because the kids would catch themselves about to spew hatred, pause, and by the time they came up with a new reason to roast their classmate, the moment had passed and they just moved on."
Since Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the "Don't Say Gay" bill, conservative state lawmakers across the country have been trying to introduce their own version of the bill. Florida state's bill prohibits “classroom instruction ... on sexual orientation or gender identity” in “kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” The Louisiana version seeks to ban educators and school employees from discussing their own sexual orientation or gender identity with any student through twelfth grade, reported The Hill. “There’s no need for any child to ever know the private life of their educator,” said Republican representative Dodie Horton, the bill’s chief sponsor, reported KSLA-TV. “It’s not prejudiced to one group or another. It just doesn’t discuss it at all.”
Coming out to my students changed the culture of the school. They stopped calling each other "fags" and apologized if they slipped up. Many of them didn't know a gay person IRL and their desire to not use hate speech that impacted me inspired them to stop using it altogether. https://t.co/B5VfTslQt4— BJ Colangelo (@bjcolangelo) April 7, 2022
Colangelo responded to the Louisiana version of the bill and explained how her class and school became more inclusive after she came out as gay. "Coming out to my students changed the culture of the school," wrote Colangelo, before adding that her students made a clear distinction that homophobic slurs weren't okay. "They stopped calling each other 'f*gs' and apologized if they slipped up. Many of them didn't know a gay person IRL and their desire to not use hate speech that impacted me inspired them to stop using it altogether."
She spoke to Upworthy and said using slurs and profanity was pretty common for the students. "It was very clear to me from the beginning that when my students used the 'f-slur' they used it in a way they knew was negative and implied 'gay,' but did not understand the loaded history of the word or the fact it was a slur," she said. "After I came out to my students, one of my very brave seventh graders asked me if when I told them not to use hurtful language in my classroom, it was because it personally hurt my feelings when they called each other 'gay' or 'fruity' or 'f*gs.' I told them that it hurt my feelings no matter what words they were using if they were trying to cause harm to their fellow classmates, but that yes, it did hurt my personal feelings when they used anti-gay language," she added.
She stressed that she still cared about them and didn't think less of them for using the words in the past. "I knew they didn't know the truth, but now that everything was out in the open, I really hoped that they'd be more mindful of how they communicate because those words have been weaponized against people like me for a very long time," she said, before telling them that their desire to watch their language shouldn't be motivated by their teacher being gay, but rather knowing that those words hurt so many more people than they could realize. "I reminded them that we don't always know the truth about the person sitting next to us or the people that they know and care about, and there was always a chance that those words were causing one of their fellow students harm too, they just might not be ready to be open about it. So as a good reminder, we should try to always speak with kindness."
"Using the words was habitual at this point, so I never reprimanded or punished them if they slipped up, but I honestly never had to. They would catch themselves and apologize, or someone else in the class would hold them accountable and course correct," she said. While they made a conscious effort to not use homophobic slurs, they also started to recognize other forms of learned discrimination that they might have been holding in their hearts without realizing it. "I didn't have to teach them that, they figured it out on their own. Kids are a lot more receptive than most adults would like to give them credit for being," she said.
Colangelo said that it was the very thing that scared people pushing anti-LGBTQ bills. "They want to maintain the status quo, and they are terrified of progress," she said. Colangelo pointed to her own students and how they responded to her coming out as gay. "My kids definitely had some backward ideas about what it meant to be gay, but when they realized their weird (and corny, their words, not mine) theater teacher with green hair who sings songs and does silly voices when reading plays happened to be gay, it changed their perspective completely."
BJ Colangelo writes about film, television, queerness, gender, fatness, musical theater and professional wrestling. She also co-hosts a podcast—"This Ends at Prom"—with her wife Harmony. You can follow her on Twitter.