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Fall 00
Curriculum Transformation
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Teaching Challenges: Sexual Orientation in the College Classroom
Shelley Bannister, Acting Associate Dean, College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Criminal Justice and Women's Studies, Northeastern Illinois University

What would compel a professor to take on the topic of sexual orientation in a college classroom? Presenting courses that address issues of race, gender, and class are standard in my Criminal Justice department. One can skip over sexual orientation, though, can't one? After all, it's a hidden difference in many cases, and the level of discomfort among students when the topic is raised is palpable.

Nevertheless, I regularly teach about sexual orientation in a required upper-division course for Criminal Justice majors. The purpose of the course is to prepare students for the real world issues they will encounter in their final semester internships and in their careers. This learning goal, however, requires an examination of issues of racism, ethnocentricism, sexism, and classism.

To ensure that students graduate with some sense of how to deal with gay men and lesbians, I assign a book, Eight Bullets: One Woman's Story of Surviving Anti-Gay Violence, by Claudia Brenner with Hannah Ashley, that recounts the 1988 true-crime story of the murder of Rebecca Wright, and the attempted murder of her lover, Claudia Brenner. The two were shot by a homophobic man while they were hiking the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.

The first-person account raises issues relevant to a criminal justice course: the experience of a crime victim, a police investigation, and a trial proceeding. The author describes her fears of a homophobic justice system, and her concerns that she won't be believed or respected by the personnel in that system. The text includes statistics about hate crimes and the justice system's responses to them, which provide support for the reasonableness of her fears.

After our discussion of the text, I ask the students, "Why do you think I assigned this book?" Their responses vary from the superficial, "Well, it's about a crime, and we're criminal justice majors," to the pleased, "It's wonderful, and sad, that you have raised our consciousness about hate crimes directed against lesbians." But too many students respond, "Why did you assign us to read about this disgusting [and/or] immoral, illegal, unimportant relationship?" Some students are clearly very uncomfortable with this topic and are surprised to find it covered in a Criminal Justice course.

The overall benefit of assigning the book is clear even if the discussions it elicits aren't always as deep as I'd like them to be. Students read a sympathetic account of a hate crime as told by the victim. The students like the victim, Ms. Brenner, and they feel sad about the death of her lover. The two women are good people who did not deserve to be shot, even though they were lesbians. This is confusing to many students and contradicts their previously held beliefs about lesbians as immoral or perverted people. The other benefit of the book is that it describes how the law enforcement officers, rather than being disgusted by Ms. Brenner's sexual orientation, respect her and apologize for their profession's reputation of hostility. The students often express surprise that the police are as accepting as they are. However the discussion goes, I remind the students that as criminal justice practitioners, they will come into contact with many kinds of people. These will include lesbians, gay men, transsexuals, bisexuals, and other people whom they might consider "different." Some students have told me that they don't ever want a client or victimized person to be afraid of them as they work in law enforcement or another related field. Others comment to each other that they hope they never have to deal with one of "those types."

One course is rarely sufficient to change students' attitudes. The students report, however, that the experience of reading the book in public, and the responses of co-workers, family members, or friends to the book's title, provides them with a small idea of how extensive anti-gay sentiments are. The use of this text and the classroom discussion begin to open students' minds to the differences and similarities that we share as people and to the continued existence of discrimination and prejudice.

It is also important for students to encounter issues of diversity in the courses that are required of them for their majors. While many colleges have diversity requirements, it is essential that what students learn in these courses is reinforced and given texture and relevance in their other courses. Whatever their chosen careers, students will encounter issues of diversity. We do them a disservice if we don't prepare them for the realities of the workplaces they will be entering after college.

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Some students are clearly very uncomfortable with this topic and are surprised to find it covered in a Criminal Justice course.

Communication tips
This kind of innovative course material can help convey the ways that diversity education expands the horizons of students, builds understanding among different types of people, and prepares students for unexpected challenges they may face in their jobs.

Consider getting in touch with a graduate whose consciousness was raised by this course work, and asking her or him to write an op/ed for a local newspaper, an article for your alumni magazine, or a piece to be posted on the web. Have the graduate stress how the reading assignment and subsequent discussions helped ready him/her for the diversity encountered after college at work.

Also, be opportunistic. If a hate crime occurs in your city or become national news once again, ask students in your class who appreciate the assignment to talk publicly about how the class helped them understand the causes and consequences of this kind of violence.