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"Recognize the Heterosexual" Education About Homosexuality in Dutch Secondary Schools

Teacher: All of you will get the highest possible grade for this class if you can complete just one assignment.\
Class: (Interested mumbles
Teacher: The only thing you have to do is to fall in love with a person that I choose for you…
Class: (Interested mumbles)
Teacher: …but it can be any person…
Emma: But it will be a boy, right?
Teacher: As I said, it can be any person that I choose for you.
Emma: But I can’t fall in love with a girl!
Teacher: Oh, so the person has to have a penis for you to be able to like this person?
Emma (shocked): No, it’s not about that, Miss, it’s about the person, about the  personality...
Teacher: But is it important that there is something dangling between the legs of this person?
Emma: No!It’s about liking a person and feeling a click…
Teacher: So who you fall in love with does not really depend on what the person has between his or her legs…?
(This dialogue mirrors a real conversation described by Nicky de Heer, a high school teacher.)

Introduction

Famous for cheese, tulips, prostitutes and coffee shops, Amsterdam was once known as the Gay Capital of Europe.  The Netherlands was the first country in the world to open civil marriage to gay couples.  It was also the first country to pass a law allowing gay people to adopt foreign-born children.  Despite these progressive legal measures, The Netherlands is currently experiencing a wave of negative sentiment towards homosexuals, especially among teenagers.  According to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, eight percent of young people say they would consider ending a friendship if that friend turns out to be a homosexual.  Similarly, many homosexual students and teachers report feeling unsafe, and many newspapers note a sharp increase in attacks against gay people.  

Since homosexuality has been progressively taken into greater and greater account in Dutch legislation, one would expect the subject of homosexuality and respect for differences to be an important part of the education that Dutch children receive in secondary school.  Surprisingly, this is not the case.  In fact, the lack of education about homosexuality may be contributing to the growing anti-gay sentiment among Dutch youth.  

Facts and Fallacies about Dutch Law 

Many misconceptions about the requirements for education about homosexuality exist in the Dutch community.  Dennis Boutkan, chairman of the COC in Amsterdam, says that schools in The Netherlands are obliged to cover the subject of homosexuality in their curriculum. However, he acknowledges that they have the freedom to use their own methods.  "Schools can decide to teach about it with their own staff or to hire external teachers or guest professionals," he explains.  "It is, however, very difficult to know whether a school really teaches about it or not."  Nevertheless, government officials have recently assured the COC in Amsterdam that improving schools' attitudes towards homosexuality is a priority among Amsterdam's political leaders. 

Other government officials contradict Boutkan and maintain that schools are not required to teach about homosexuality, undercutting efforts to promote tolerance of diversity among youth.  The Inspection of Education (Inspectie voor het Onderwijs) annually audits the quality of education in Dutch schools.  According to Harm van Gerven, the spokesperson for the Inspection of Education, schools are obliged to follow certain prescriptions, namely teaching students to respect 'widely accepted' norms and values, promoting responsible citizenship and social integration, and guaranteeing a safe educational environment.  "Promoting a safe environment does of course mean that schools have to protect youngsters with a homosexual preference and denounce homophobia among students," Van Gerven noted.  "But there is no law that requires schools to educate students about homosexuality specifically." 

Peter Dankmeijer, a gay-emancipation scholar and director of Empowerment Lifestyle Services, agrees that creating a safe environment for students is a legal obligation for schools.  He says that schools are required to prevent harassment based on a student's, or a teacher's, sexual orientation. However, he emphasized that the schools are not obliged to teach that discrimination of homosexuals is wrong or that students should respect others regardless of their sexual orientation.  

Additionally, certain municipalities in The Netherlands receive funding by the government to give attention to the topic of homosexuality and to promote acceptance of homosexuals.  These municipalities can choose for themselves how exactly they will spend that money.  For a couple of years, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Nijmegen received this type of funding.  Recently, 13 municipalities were added to the funding program, and they signed a contract stating that they will spend a portion of the funds on homosexuality education in schools.  To guide their efforts, Dankmeijer's organization created a ten-point guide for effective gay-emancipation policy in the field of education.
Nevertheless, according to Dankmeijer, teachers still find the topic of homosexuality hard to discuss in the classroom because they fear that it will provoke fierce reactions from students, especially from adolescents born to immigrant families.  

Recognize the Heterosexual

Meeting homosexuals and hearing their personal stories is one way schools can introduce the topic of homosexuality to their students.  The COC in Amsterdam organizes classroom presentations about homosexuality to help schools incorporate the subject into their curriculum.  The presentations, which are led by lesbians, gays, bisexuals or transgenders, give students the chance to meet these people in person and confront their stereotypes about them. 
 
At the beginning of each school year, Krzysztof Dobrowolski-Onclin, the COC's education chair, sends letters to every school in Amsterdam describing the presentation and offering to visit the school.  He also calls teachers he has met in past years to schedule dates for the organization to visit their classrooms once again.  Through hard work and persistence, Dobrowolski-Onclin increased the number of educational presentations from 35 in the 2002-2003 academic year to 280 in the 2007-2008 academic year.  However, the presentations still did not reach all of the students in Amsterdam.  Some schools did not allow it in any of their classrooms, while others only offered it to some of their students.

The COC's presentation contains a flexible array of activities that can be adjusted to student audiences between the ages of 12 and 22.  The organization hopes the teachers prepare their students by talking about homosexuality prior to its visit, but there is no way of guaranteeing this.  Often the group will walk into a classroom, and the students will not be expecting visitors.  Two or three volunteers moderate each presentation.  The presenters arrange the chairs in a circle and sit in between the students.  They start off by introducing themselves, telling the students their names, ages, marital statuses and hometowns.  

Following an explanation of the COC's history, the presenters lay down the basic rules: they ask the students to turn off their cell phones, remove their iPod ear pieces, take off their hats, treat each other politely and, most importantly, ask and say anything.  The final rule is emphasized, because the organization wants the students to feel comfortable and relaxed so that they can voice all their concerns about homosexuality.  In addition, presenters often put a poster on the blackboard that says 'Recognize the heterosexual.'  The poster contains sixteen pictures of different people: black, white, young, old, male and female.  Students are asked to identify the heterosexual person among the diverse crowd, which of course cannot be done.  In this way, the poster demonstrates that certain stereotypes about homosexuals, such as the stereotype that they look physically different, are not in line with reality.

The first activity in the COC lesson is designed to engage every student.  Students are asked to say their name and the first thought that comes to mind when they hear the word gay.  A presenter lists the associations on the blackboard, and each student must think of an original idea.  The game encourages the students to identify and evaluate their opinions about homosexuality.  It also gives the presenters a chance to get to know the class.  At some point in the presentation, often in response to a question, the presenters share their personal stories about how they discovered they were gay, how they told their parents, and how their friends reacted.  During the seven to eight minutes of each story, the students are silently listening.  

Depending on the age and level of the student group, the rest of the presentation varies.  For instance, if students are constantly interrupting with questions about sex, the presenters ask the students to shout out different methods of sex, which are then written on the blackboard.  The methods are separated into three lists: things that can be done between two women, between two men, and between a man and a woman.  Eventually, students realize that the way sex is performed does not vary that much.  This game often works to answer the students' questions about sex so that the class can move on to discuss other non-sexual aspects of homosexuality, such as marriage and adoption.  
At the end of the lesson, the volunteers write their email addresses on the blackboard and encourage students to contact them with any further questions.  Sometimes students email them to disclose their own homosexual feelings.  However, for the majority of the students, the COC simply hopes to show them that homosexuals are normal people whose homosexuality forms only a part of their larger, more complex identity.  The volunteers leave feeling content in knowing that for at least an hour the students openly thought and talked about homosexuality.  

“When will the gay people come?”

When it’s presenters are allowed in the classroom, the COC's educational presentation about homosexuals can positively influence student attitudes.  Nicky de Heer is a civic and social studies teacher at the Marcanti College, where almost all the students come from an immigrant family.  Despite her school's initial opinion that the topic of homosexuality could not be breached because students would react inappropriately, she regularly incorporates the subject into her course.  She wants to help her students discover their own identities by exposing them to different people, some of whom the students may subconsciously fear solely because they are different.  

At the start of the course, de Heer tells her students that homosexuals will be making a presentation in class later in the year.  She anticipates the students' stereotypes and voices them to such an extreme that the students speak up to defend homosexuals and to point out the errors in the stereotypes.  She also offers to give all the students the highest possible grade for the class if they can complete only one assignment: to fall in love with any person she chooses for them.  A few bold students at first consider attempting this feat, but they soon conclude that it is not possible to consciously choose a person with whom they can fall in love.  Through this exercise, they realize that falling in love is more about matching personalities and emotional connections than about the sex of the other person.

All throughout September, October and November, de Heer prepares her classes with similar exercises.  By December, the students get impatient and start to ask, “When will the homosexuals visit?”  When the COC group finally arrives in March, the students are ready and eager to talk to them.  De Heer ensures that all the students will come to class that day by giving them a grade for attending the presentation.  She also establishes two principles to guarantee that the students will respect the presenters.  First, she tells the students that the presenters are their guests, and second, she tells them that if they disrespect the presenters, they will be disrespecting her.  With these behavioral boundaries in place, the presentation proceeds smoothly.

Although she realizes that she cannot force the students to accept homosexuality, de Heer is confident that every student has thought seriously about the topic and has concluded that there is no need to be aggressively against it.  Since de Heer's students have met and talked to gay people, they are less likely to be scared of the difference that homosexuals represent.  Consequently, the students are probably not going to become gay bashers that perpetuate violence against homosexuals, because they know that homosexuals are not a threat from which they need to protect themselves.  Most importantly, they have a deeper understanding of their own identity, so they realize that their identity does not depend on defining others' differences as wrong.

“There are no homosexuals here"

Certain schools do not respond to the COC's initiative, while others directly turn down the organization's offer.  According to Dennis Boutkan, the chairman of the COC in Amsterdam, school administrators often refuse to host the organization’s presentation, claiming that homosexuality is already covered in their regular curriculum or that homosexuality does not exist in their school.  

Many schools that do not welcome the COC's presentation are religious schools.  One such school is an orthodox Jewish school where male and female students are separated from the age of seven years old – in the Orthodox sect of Judaism, all physical contact between males and females, including handshakes, is prohibited until marriage.  The rabbi in charge of the school's curriculum said that the students know the school does not agree with same sex relationships, so homosexual feelings do not develop.  Consequently, the school does not teach about or discuss homosexuality in the classroom.  "It is just not happening here," the rabbi said.  According to his statements, any student who falls in love with someone and has a relationship with that person is asked to end it.  If the relationship is not ended, the student is expelled from school, because all relationships outside of marriage are prohibited.  This policy stems from the religious belief that a primary purpose of a romantic relationship is procreation and that any such relationship that does not produce children is illegitimate.  The rabbi added that the school respects alternative choices made by its non-Jewish teachers, as long as the teachers do not talk about their relationships with the students.  

Under Dutch law, this school's intolerant attitude towards homosexuality is permissible.  The school respects homosexuality in the general Dutch population, but it denies the existence of homosexuality among its own students.  Its implicit stance on homosexuality is that it is a learned behavior that can be untaught.  Although its policy is not formally illegal, it does blatantly contradict the basic values of nondiscrimination and equal treatment that define Dutch society. 

Promising Steps?

Other religious schools have publicly acknowledged the possible existence of homosexuality among their students.  On June 30, 2008, the Association for Reformed School Education (Vereniging voor Gereformeerd Schoolonderwijs) presented a memorandum to Ronald Plasterk, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, in which they accepted a 'homosexual orientation' as a valid characteristic of certain people.  The Reformed Schools rely on biblical principles to create their curriculum.  They believe that sexuality is a gift from God that can only be fully realized in a marriage between a man and a woman.  However, the biblical principle of charity motivates the Reformed Schools to be more open to homosexuality.  Tino Wallaart, the assistant to Minister Plasterk, describes the memorandum as revolutionary.  "Homosexuality is not seen as something that can be cured, for instance by praying, but as something that can just occur, which is a big step forward for these groups," Wallaart says.  

Not all observers are equally enthusiastic about the memorandum.  Wouter Neerings, chairman of the COC Netherlands, says that the memorandum is a step forward but that more progress is needed.  For instance, he criticizes the memorandum's statement that firing homosexual teachers on the grounds of their sexual orientation is a self-evident right, especially because such discrimination is prohibited by Dutch law.  Wallaart agrees that this statement is a crucial limitation of the memorandum.  

“How often do you have anal sex?” 

Even when it is allowed into schools, the COC's presentation is not always maximally effective.  A lone hour of interaction with gay people may not be enough to significantly alter the viewpoints of some students, especially if school curriculums offer students few to no other opportunities to discuss sexuality.  Emily Trip, a sociology bachelor's student writing her thesis about the COC's lessons, was shocked by the chaos that she observed during the presentations.  Students ask inappropriate questions and provoke each other, hoping to disrupt the class.  For instance, the students ask, "How many times a week do you have anal sex?" and "How often do you have sex with animals?"  Often the presenters do not know how to respond to these disruptions.  "The disorderly classroom environment is not a safe place where students can speak openly about their profound concerns regarding homosexuality," Trip said.  She doubts that even the lecturers' goal of humanizing homosexuals and homosexuality can be effectively achieved in such an unruly atmosphere.  

According to Trip, the COC's presentation contributes to the classroom chaos, because it lacks an organized structure.  For instance, the presenters sometimes fail to cover important issues, such as marriage, children and gender roles.  In addition, the meanings of the games are often unclear, because the presenters spend little time explaining the purpose of each game.  Lastly, the presentation does not end with a summary discussion, so the students are left with little sense of an overall conclusion.  

Recommended Changes

In order for the COC’s presentations to be more effective, specific adjustments can be made.  Two subtle balances need to be achieved: one between open questions and controlled respect and another between the personal and the general.  A final suggested improvement targets the overall coherence of the presentation.  

To pursue a middle road between control and disorder, several strategies could be used.  Students can be asked to write down their questions, so the presenters can screen out inappropriate questions.  Another tactic would be to ask the students at the beginning not to ask any questions about the presenters’ private sex lives, because it is too personal and not relevant to the larger topic. To best minimize disruptive behavior in the students, the COC should ask for the teacher's help.  Following de Heer's example, the COC can ask teachers to tell their students that the COC presenters are their guests and that if the students disrespect the presenters, they are disrespecting the teacher.  

Achieving a minimum level of order and respect in the classroom will facilitate the COC's efforts to balance the personal and the general.  The personal stories are an important highlight of the presentation, but the entire presentation should not be about the individual experiences of the presenters.  When inappropriate questions about the presenters' personal sex lives are screened out, more time can be devoted to broader issues that affect all homosexuals.  Important topics, such as marriage, children, discrimination, and anti-gay violence, could be identified as essential discussion topics to be brought up in every presentation.  These discussions can be incorporated into some of the games.  Most importantly, the presentation should conclude with a summary discussion of what it means to be homosexual in the larger predominantly heterosexual society.  

Finally, the impact of the presentation can be deepened with the help of the teachers.  The COC should arrange preparation and follow-up materials to engage the class before and after the group's visit.  Of course, the organization would not be able to require that the teachers utilized these materials, but the availability of such materials would encourage the teachers to talk about homosexuality before and after the presentation.  Repeated exposure to the topic would help the COC's lesson to have a more permanent impact on the students' opinions of homosexuals.  

Overall, the COC's mission to combat stereotypes about homosexuality would be greatly strengthened with the support of government officials.  Formal legal changes may be necessary to change the current reality.  However, requiring discussion about homosexuality to be included in school curricula is not be a desired reform, because it risks producing counter-productive results if teachers who think negatively about homosexuality are forced to teach the subject to their students.  Instead, requiring identity lessons to be taught in all schools would be a beneficial policy.  These lessons would include the theme of “Difference,” encouraging students to not feel threatened by people who are different from themselves.  Finally, the government should consider decreasing funding for schools that have been evaluated by an established set of criteria to be intolerant of homosexuals, such as the orthodox Jewish school mentioned above.

Conclusion

Education is the key to ensuring that future generations of Dutch citizens continue to practice the principles of nondiscrimination, equal treatment and respect.  With the recent rise in anti-gay violence and religious fundamentalism, the need for effective education that confronts anti-liberal stereotypes is ever more urgent.  Neglecting to include homosexuality in school curricula will intensify students' suspicions about homosexuals by allowing their ignorance to remain unchallenged.  In some particularly vulnerable students, such as those raised in anti-gay religious or cultural traditions, this ignorance could evolve into full-fledged homophobia.  Conversely, if schools have the courage and wisdom to include discussions on homosexuality as part of the regular curricula, students will have the opportunity to confront stereotypes about gays. With open lessons about homosexuality, students might learn that their identity does not depend on defining others' differences as wrong.  Thus, meeting homosexuals in the safe, open environment of the COC’s presentations represents one crucial step forward in the direction of accepting and respecting difference.

References

Interviews:

Peter Dankmeijer. Director of Empowerment Lifestyle Services, Dutch Expertise Center on LGBT Education Issues. (June 30, 2008).  
Krzysztof Dobrowolski-Onclin. Education chair of COC Amsterdam. (June 25, 2008). 
Harm van Gerven. Spokesperson for Inspection of Education. (June 26, 2008). 
Nicky de Heer. Civic and social studies teacher at Marcanti College. (June 27, 2008).  
Rabbi anonymous. Principal of an orthodox Jewish school for elementary and secondary education. (June 26, 2008). 
Emily Trip. Sociology bachelor's student writing thesis on COC presentation. (June 27, 2008).
Tino Wallaart. Assistant to Minister Ronald Plasterk of Education, Culture and Science. (June 30, 2008).  

Email Correspondence: 

Dennis Boutkan. Chair of COC Amsterdam. (June 27, 2008). 

 Articles and Reports

Conway, Isabel. Dutch police don bondage gear to stop gay-bashing. The Irish Times. 3 Sept. 2007, p 10. 
Gay and Lesbian Education in Dutch Schools. Reproductive Health Matters. May 1995: 3(5), p 130-131.  
Keuzenkamp, S.,  Bos, D., Duyvendak, J.W. and  Hekma, G. Gewoon Doen. Acceptatie van homoseksualiteit in Nederland. Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau-publication, 8 Sept. 2008.
Kuyper, L., I. Vanwesenbeeck & P. Dankmeijer (2007). Nameting Adelmund pilots. Utrecht: Rutgers Nisso Groep. 
Lewis, J. and Knijn, T. Sex Education Materials in The Netherlands and in England and Wales: a comparison of content, use and teaching practice. Oxford Review of Education. Mar. 2003: 29(1), p 113-132.   
OCW (2007b). Gewoon homo zijn. Lesbisch en homo-emancipatiebeleid 2008-2011. Den Haag: Ministerie van Onderwijs, Cultuur en Wetenschap (OCW). 
Van Der Meer, T. Gay Bashing: A Rite of Passage? Culture, Health & Sexuality. Mar. - Apr. 2003: 5(2), p 153-165. 
Visienota (Homo)seksualiteit. Vereniging voor Gereformeerd Schoolonderwijs. 30 June 2008.
Visienota stap vooruit, maar er is meer nodig. COC Netherlands. 30 June 2008.

Websites

http://www.gayandschool.nl, Gay and School. (June 29, 2008).
http://www.minocw.nl/documenten/47301b.pdf, Appendix 2:  Present policies on security and results. (June 29, 2008).  
http://www.lgbt-education.info/en/news/local_news/news?id=175, Dutch Gay School Coalition presents benchmark for local safer school policy. (June 27, 2008).
http://www.empower-ls.com/, Empowerment Lifestyle Services. (June 30, 2008). 
http://www.coc.nl/dopage.pl?thema=any&pagina=algemeen&algemeen_id=274, COC Netherlands. (July 1, 2008).
http://www.vgs.nl/, Vereniging voor Gereformeerd Schoolonderwijs. (30 June 2008).
http://www.herkendehetero.nl/, Herken de hetero. (June 26, 2008).

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