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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Coming out of closet in classroom

LGBT education center volunteer aims to make high school students proud of their identity, feel that they're not alone in this world. On upcoming Good Deeds Day, you can change reality of life in Israel too
By - Nivi Naor

Several months ago, I read a report in one of the local newspapers about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) teachers who have chosen to stay in the closet. One of the people interviewed was Israel Zinger, the former principal of my high school in Ramat Gan.
"The truth is that no one spoke about it at the time. I don't recall any issues of homosexuality being raised," Zinger said. "The students would occasionally make fun of a teacher who wasn't married, but nothing more. I can assume that like other things, in the past people were less open about it."

Zinger's short sentence took me 20 years back, to the high school period and the students making fun. We were almost 500 students in the same grade level, and the homosexuality issue was really never raised, apart from on breaks and football games, and naturally always in a negative context of "look at the way you kick, you homo."

We were all straight, simply because no one ever bothered telling us that there were other options. Looking 20 years back, I can say that I wasn't the only one in that age level whose lack of knowledge left her in the closet for many years. Too many.
Seven years ago, after I had already come out, I accepted my identity and learned to take pride in it. I joined the Hoshen organization so that today's high school students wouldn't think, like I did, that they were alone in the world.
The Hoshen organization, the education center of the LGBT community in Israel, is an organization of volunteers which holds hundreds of meetings with high school students throughout the year with the aim of introducing them to the life of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people and presenting them as real people.

During each meeting, the students hear the life story of two volunteers – a man and a woman, and are given a one-time opportunity to ask all the questions which usually have no room in the educational system.
About 150 volunteers take part in Hoshen's activities across the country – from the Golan Heights in the north to Eilat in the south, and undergo a difficult training course before facing the students.
Students more open about sexual identity than teachers
Reaching these students is not easy. Although Hoshen's activity is supported by the Education Ministry's psychological service, the organization's activities are yet to be held in most high schools. The educational staff which must decided whether to offer this activity to the students, is almost always fearful of the students' response.

These feelings, it should be said, are never justified. "They were amazing," say many teachers after observing our activity. "They listened to you all the time and didn't disrupt you. You should know that this is usually a very difficult class."
It seems that even students in "difficult classes" are more attentive to the sexual identity issue, which the educational system is mostly afraid of dealing with.
There is no doubt that today's high school students are very different from me and my classmates in the 1990s. Nearly half of them know LGBTs in their immediate vicinity, and almost every one of them has heard about LGBTs in the media.
And yet, the questions we are asked during the activity prove that the unknown is greater than what is known and that the students are affected by the same prejudice which made Zinger assume that an unmarried teacher must be a lesbian in the closet. Perhaps they hear these opinions from their parents, perhaps from their teachers, but in any event – they're there.
Every time I enter the classroom I wonder how many of these opinions can be changed in an hour and a half, but occasionally I receive proof that we in Hoshen help people take the first move in the 100,000-move journey of the gay community.
"Did you give a lecture in my school several years ago?" a waitress at a restaurant asks me. "You must know that that lecture opened my mind in many directions and made me think about many things in a different way."
I smile, thank her, and understand that if this pleasant girl remembers the 90 minutes she spent with me after three years, they must have meant a lot to her.
A Border Guard officer in one of the squadrons securing the Tel Aviv Pride Parade told me at the start of a meeting that he had already listened to our activity in the past but would be happy to hear more, because "there's always something new to learn". I had to agree with him.
And they learn. In every classroom I enter you can see on one student's face the realization that there are men who are not attracted to women, or a look in the eyes of a girl who has just solved the mystery of how two women can have a relationship.
And of course, I see the students who until that moment felt alone in the world, and only now realize that even their classmates are open to accept those who are different. A feeling that I, unfortunately, couldn't have had when I was in high school.
I can only hope that our volunteering in Hoshen will help build a new generation which will address the issue a bit differently and will no longer need Hoshen's volunteers in order not to feel lonely.

'Be the change you want to see'

If you had a chance to influence the reality of life in Israel and make it better – what would you choose? Now skip the "if". You chance is already here!

Good Deeds Day, initiated by the Ruach Tova association, will be held this Tuesday, April 5, for the fifth time in a row. Some 100,000 people are going to volunteer on the same day, fulfilling the change they want to make in the Israeli reality. You're invited to join in.
• Want to volunteer? Click here
• Want to volunteer as a group? Click here


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