There are certain things that are off limits in discussions about children and special education. As the Gay Pride movement has become more visible in the last decade with movement to legalize gay marriage, parents of gay children organizing support groups, and more and more homosexuals coming out of the closet, there is still very little written about students who are gay and their experiences in public school and in special education. This is a hot button issue, depending on where you live, your religion, your culture, and whether or not you have had the opportunity to know and be friends with men and women who are gay. It is one of those topics that take a great deal of interpersonal comfort to discuss openly and honestly. And, I believe, it is a topic that needs to be opened concerning certain children having special needs. Over the last 30 years I have had a handful of cases involving boys and girls who were gay. Without understanding their sexual orientation and their interests- in fashion, music, and dance in addition to football, or auto mechanics and construction in place of dolls and make-up, it was impossible to understand their social and emotional needs within the context of school and learning how to live in the world. For me, there is no difference between gay and straight kids. They are all children, some having special needs. Their sexuality as they mature merely becomes part of their current levels of functioning. There can be no student population we treat differently than another. That includes students who are gay.
On August 5, 2009 the American Psychological Association declared that mental health professionals should not tell gay clients they can become straight through therapy or other treatments. It repudiated “reparative” therapy that believes gay men and lesbians can change (Psychological Group Says Gay Clients Can’t Change, The New York Times, 8/6/09), some efforts leading to depression or suicide. Therapists were urged to consider multiple options, which could include celibacy and switching churches. This report breaks new ground in its detailed explanation as to how therapists should deal with gay clients, in the hope to calm the debate between religious conservatives and mental health professionals.
How does this relate to public schools? Think about it. When a student masturbates in public, the teachers and students go crazy. Child study teams become paralyzed over a basic biological function, or when a little boy happens to touch a little girl’s breast or crotch. Some schools have had 5 year olds arrested for sexual assault. Given this, how do they react when two boys or two girls walk down the hall, holding hands or kissing behind the door? Or when these kids are bullied by the straight kids, and sometimes beaten or sodomized? New York City created a special high school for gay students because of the abuse they suffered in their home schools, and their need to find and make friends within a common culture. How do these issues factor into psychological and psychiatric evaluations for students referred for evaluations? Into what you say and how you say it to the parents? An 85 year old teacher friend and I discussed this a few weeks ago. We both agreed that we knew many of the kids who would later identify themselves as gay within 5 minutes after they walked into our classrooms. But we never shared those views with our colleagues or with parents, unless asked. I have not taught in other than the northeast in 46 years, and have not read about how schools in other regions of the country view this subject. As a news junky, that in itself is a marker of the problem.
Two cases come to mind. In the mid-80s a mother came in abut her 16 year old son, who was classified as Emotionally Disturbed. He was a tall, thin, blonde boy from a small New Jersey town, socially withdrawn, and extremely unhappy. He wanted to design and sew women’s clothes and was constantly sketching in a little spiral notebook he kept in his back jeans pocket. He had exhausted paper dolls and asked his mother to cut up some sheets or other cloth so that he could actually make a garment to wear. She refused and continued to scold and make fun of him because of doing girlie things. In school he wanted to take Home Economics because it offered a sewing class. The guidance person refused to put him here because he would be the only boy and the other boys would make fun of him. He never got the class. He was caught a few times at home wearing his mother’s clothes, but he liked to drape sheets and blankets on himself and others in order to understand how cloth could be used to make beautiful gowns similar to those from Greek times. He also had issues with impulse control. So one day he took the family drapes down, laid them on the floor and cut out his first dress. That was when his mother called me because she was sure he was crazy, violent, and that the school should put him in residential placement. That was my first experience with a gay student after P.L. 94-142 was passed.
In 2003, a 17 year old lesbian girl had been admitted to Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital in New York because of her mood swings, attempted suicide, drug use, and threatening and uncontrolled behavior. She had periodically run away from home and was a lesbian hooker on the streets in Manhattan. Her mother and father, both policemen, would find her, bring her home, and try to keep vigil by locking her in the house until this last escapade. She, too, was classified as Emotionally Disturbed. When in school, where she was the only lesbian, she would try and seduce girls in heterosexual relationships, wooing them with poetry and original music. She was “butch”, with a boy’s military haircut, a very muscular body, no makeup, and sometimes threatened the boys to fight it out for the girl- winner take all. She wore baggy shirts and baggy jeans and looked and sounded like a pretty boy with a scary demeanor. Her school was asked to provide bedside instruction during the hospitalization. When it was time for discharge, the child study team planned on returning her to the same school. Her parents demanded that her lesbian status finally be recognized and understood, because they would rather have her gay than dead. The school was adamant that this was a medical problem and had no bearing on her special needs. It took 7 months of trial to get her placed residentially. My problem was that even then, nobody integrated her sexuality with the entirety of her person. After a few months, she signed herself out at age 18.
It would be nice if our gay children could also live in the world as happy children. Given the new position of the APA, that may be coming at some point in their young futures.