Inclusion of GLBT Youth in Outdoor Education

I gave a speech on the Inclusion of GLBT people into Outdoor Education the other day and I thought I’d share. We’re celebrating GLBT Awareness Week on our campus now and I got to participate in a panel discussion and a lecture of GLBT History (I talked about Walt Whitman, Adrienne Rich, and a few others). Anyway, here’s the presentation I gave on Wednesday.

What do you want people to know about? What do you expect people want to know about you? What is and isn’t appropriate to say about yourself to a stranger? And what should be kept silent?

Homophobia is defined as an irrational fear and hatred of homosexuality and homosexuals. Because it is hard to decipher who is homophobic, many in the gay community choose to hide in silence rather than be subjected to his fear and hatred. But what does this silence do?

In the article, “Outdoor Education and the Reinforcement of Heterosexuality,” Annie Dignan of the University of Otago says:

“It is imperative that outdoor educators understand the silencing effect that their attitudes, demonstrated through their language and behavior, has on all participants of their groups. This behavior can include the assumption of heterosexuality and the implied validation of the heterosexual desire. I would suggest that most (if not all) outdoor programmes actively reinforce heterosexuality as the norm and homosexuality therefore as deviant. This situation forces homosexuals to remain silent for reasons of emotional and physical safety. The message this gives is that there is only one ‘right’ form of sexual desire and alternatives should be abhorred, silenced or at best tolerated and certainly not flaunted.”

Why are people silent? Is it out of fear? If so, what is there to be afraid of? The idea of fitting in often leads to conforming to certain social norms. I’m sure most kids experienced what it’s like to not fit in. What happens? Getting picked on is not pleasant. And when you don’t have the right lunch box, you might end up spending recess hiding in the library. But id doesn’t end in elementary school. Fitting in is something ingrained in our minds at a very early age. So why do some people “choose” to be deviant? Isn’t it easier and safer to be silent?

Homophobia works because of silence and a lack of understanding that not everyone is the same. Silence feeds homophobia. Fear of the unknown dates as far back as the first conscious thought. But what is homophobia really? A phobia is an irrational fear, something that is beyond the control of a person. But, according to Dignan, this insinuates that it is not the responsibility of the person to change it. This is where the term heteronormality comes in.

Heteronormality is just as it sounds. It is the reinforcement of the heterosexual norm. What has caused this conformity? Why do people want to be the same? Well, our western cultural history has made a big impact on how we view the outdoors. Our outdoor “legends” have included Paul Bunyan, Pacos Bill, Davy Crockett, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and a whole slew of straight, white males. Does that mean that those who don’t fit into that stereotype shouldn’t participate in the environment? Sometimes it certainly feels like it.

Recent research “notes verbal and physical harassment as being the reality for a large number of school students (and staff) labeled as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Do we think for a moment that this unjust treatment would stop when they are taken into the outdoors?”

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of development in the needs of GLBT people within Outdoor Education. This is surprising, considering the large amount of attention that the community has been getting in public awareness. The political debates have been raging about equal rights in marriage, adoption, and civil unions. But the context has yet to focus on Outdoor Education. Why is this?

Yet again we are led to silence. It is hard for anyone to change perceptions if no one speaks up. There is a very inspiring article called “Sharing Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Life Experiences Face to Face” by Mary McClintock. She has some great insight on why she is an activist and why she peaks out about who she is.

“I choose to speak on panels for a number of reasons. Speaking up is a self-empowering act in a world that continually tells me I should hide and be ashamed of who I am. I speak about my experience of being a lesbian in a homophobic world because it is one way that I can break the silence about our lives.”

I have been fortunate enough to have been given the chance to sit on a couple of panel discussions. Panel discussions are one way to have your voice heard. Being a part of a speakers’ bureau is another way. Either way, sharing experiences is important to spreading awareness. They say knowledge is power. Fear is commonly caused by ignorance; when we don’t know or understand something it makes us afraid and angry. In her article, McClintock mentions an experience she had after a panel discussion in a college classroom. Two students, a sixty-year-old woman and a twenty-year-old man, came up to her and thanked her for coming to speak. What they had learned during that time had changed their perception of gays and lesbians and made them question what they had previously heard about that community.

Like McClintock, I have had a similar experience. I became friends with a man about two years ago who had had very little experience with the GLBT community. After many a conversation with him, he admitted to me that simply by knowing me, I had helped him overcome his own internal homophobia. His is now as much of an activist as I am about equal rights. Does anyone else feel they have been influential in changing someone’s mind? Do you feel you’ve made an impact in someone’s life?

We’ve touched on it some, but why is speaking up and coming out important? Why should we not remain silent? Well, for one, it spreads awareness and teaches people about differences, which fights ignorance and anger and can help everyone understand each other. Another huge reason, though, is that GLBT youth need role models.

Every child needs a role model, whether it is a family member, a teacher, or a friend. Unfortunately, not many GLBT youth will come out for fear of what the reaction will be of their peers and the adults in their lives. This is why being active in the community is important. In a 1994 report by Hetrick Martin Institute, it was found that “Gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.” Not only is this because of physical and verbal abuse by others, but it is also because of the internalized homophobia that they suffer from. It is taught from an early age that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is bad, or, in some cases, sinful. Many youth grow up to adulthood attempting to pass as a straight person, creating a very small amount of “out” role models for the next generation to rely on. In an article by Arnold H. Grossman called “Lessons from Greg Louganis,” the author points out the reason for role models:

“All youth can benefit from role models who are heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. Non-gay role models are easily observable and offer realistic goals and behaviors for heterosexual youth; however, the same is not true for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth. These youth need adults who publicly identify their sexual identities, and who demonstrate what it means to live as homosexual or bisexual persons. It is of these adults that youth can ask questions, talk about their feelings, find resources they need, and seek help in times of distress.”

I didn’t come out until I reached college because I suddenly found that I was not alone. Not only were there friends who supported me but there were also professors that I was able to identify with and find relief in. I had role models who I could open up to and for the first time I felt completely accepted for who I am. I want to be able to do that for other people too.

So what can we do to open up Outdoor Education for more people? How can programs become more inclusive to the GLBT community? When you first introduce yourself to strangers, whether in a leadership-status on a camping trip or as a student in an outdoor education classroom, the automatic assumption is that you’re straight – unless you’re wearing a Pride Conference t-shirt and have a rainbow ribbon pinned to your backpack. How can you comfortably introduce yourself without scaring off too many people before they get to know you?

Well one idea is that you just say it and get it over with and if they want to get to know you, great! If they don’t, it’s their lose. Or you could not say anything at first, let everyone feel you out, get to know the other parts of your personality, before you casually slip in that you’re an activist, or you have a girlfriend, or some other subtle hint. The answer to this is really subjective; you introduce yourself however you have comfortable. Maybe it takes awhile for people to catch on, or maybe it takes awhile for you to let them know. It’s hard to say for sure when not everyone has the same amount of security in their sexuality or the same amount of straightforwardness in their personality.

But what about in the Outdoor Education context? I know that there are some programs that say right on their brochures or applications that they welcome everyone equally. And there are some programs that are exclusive to the GLBT community (the Colorado Outward Bound Program for GLBT youth, Camp Trans, and the EcoQueers in Canada are a few that come to mind). But what are the problems with these? Sure some programs welcome all equally but that doesn’t mean the other participants will. And while having exclusive programs for the GLBT is helpful, it’s also separating the homosexuals from the heterosexuals, which doesn’t do a great deal for either side in equality.

So what does help? Grossman has a few ideas for us. One, “learn the facts about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people so as to be able to dispel myths and stereotypes about them.” Another way is to challenge those who attempt to discriminate in any way about GLBT people. Don’t just ignore put-downs and prejudice; fight it actively by talking about it out in the open. Grossman also says that creating a safe space or environment where acceptance and support is openly encouraged is highly important. Be consistent when displaying positive behavior and be an accepting role model, even if you’re just an ally. Have resources on hand to help with any questions. Creating programs that deal directly with GLBT issues is also a big step in the right direction. These programs are open to not just gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people, but to all people. Grossman also says that in Outdoor Education:

“Recreation activities that focus on youth participation and empowerment, peer and leisure counseling, and cooperative games and hobbies can be effective in helping gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth and their heterosexual counterparts to learn about living in a diverse society and accepting differences.”

By not actively defying the heterosexual norm laid down by our predecessors, we cannot hope to change the idea of the outdoors being ruled by the rugged male lumberjack. Homophobia and heteronormativity need to be broken down by the voices of those who believe that this assumption is wrong. Silence is not golden in any way. Activists are needed as prominent and positive role models for GLBT youth, and there need to be more programs that address the issues of sexuality in Outdoor Education. Ignorance is the fuel for oppression. If we don’t get out there and start talking and start increasing the awareness of our differences, than that fear and hatred and anger will continue to grow.

I am going to end on a quote by an activist that goes by the name Wes: “If silence is death ignorance is the weapon, and education is our only hope.”

Yes, long. I know. Deal, it’s an important issue. Any questions? Comments? Feel free to discuss.