Words Matter: Policing Homophobic Language in Classrooms

By Casey Petty


In the two readings, “Activist Work as Entry-Year Teachers: What We’ve Learned” by Schey and Uppstrom, and “‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse” by Pascoe, we see an example of how first year teachers can make a difference in their classrooms for students, and an example of the type of difference teachers ought to work towards. For instance, Schey and Uppstrom detail one specific goal for first year teachers; that is, “to create spaces for teens to feel safe and understood” (“Activist Work,” p. 89). Moreover, such spaces are necessary due to the lack of classrooms that engage in “thoughtful or safe dialogue” (p. 89). Efforts by teachers to do this work are important, because students deserve to know which classrooms are supportive “in order to protect themselves and secure help when necessary” (p. 91).

Easier said than done; however, Schey and Uppstrom offer a concrete solution to teachers – to manage language used in the classroom. The philosophy being teachers need to pick their battles; we can’t control everything that occurs in the school, but we can certainly control what is said in our own classrooms. More than that, the kinds of language used in the classroom is worth fighting for. Schey and Uppstrom argue that “Language in and of itself is an important space where prejudices can be either performed and entrenched further or challenged and undermined” (p. 95).

Which brings us to our other article, “‘Dude, You’re a Fag,’” a perfect example of the types of language we should ban from our classrooms. The use of words like fag, or gay, or any other kind of homophobic language serves no educational purpose in the classroom; albeit a social policing of constructed norms that students afflict on one another. Pascoe argues such language “functions as a regulatory mechanism of gender for contemporary American adolescent boys” (Pascoe, p. 330). In this case, the word “fag” denigrates the masculinity of the boy called it, which is “‘the lowest thing you can call someone,’” (p. 335) and is “deserving of derisive laughter” (p. 339).

As a first year teacher (or a teacher of any amount of experience), I find Schey and Uppstrom’s advice particularly salient in terms of the types of concrete actions we can take towards making a difference in our classrooms – classrooms that are welcoming and inclusive of all who step through the door. Also, I find Pascoe’s article persuasive for the reasons such homophobic language ought to be policed in our classrooms for a multitude of reasons, but primarily, the negative insinuations that “fag” projects on the LGBTQ community, as well as, women in general.