When a student asked Leland Schipper about the shirt he was wearing, a gray t-shirt with a rainbow Iowa design on it, it opened up an opportunity to teach the class a valuable lesson.
Upon seeing the shirt, one student said to Leland:
"Mr. Schipper, I thought you were straight."
When he confirmed that he was, the student was confused why he would be wearing a rainbow shirt. What if someone thought he was gay?
Schipper's response is pure gold, and an excellent example of good allyship:
"They might...so what?"
A straight man being thought to be gay wasn't a bad thing—not something to be immediately or violently denied. He made the point that what others think of your sexuality is ultimately unimportant.
Leland went on to discuss his thoughts on the link between homophobia and unhealthy masculinity.
"I'm convinced the root of unhealthy masculinity is homophobia, and that becomes entrenched in middle and early high school years."
"Homophobia only ends if straight allies model to young kids, boys in particular, that being called gay isn't an inherently negative thing and doesn't require a defensive response."
"It's difficult to do, but if we take the homophobia out of schools, we not only improve the lives of LGTBQ+ youth, but all kids who fear being labeled as gay by their peers."
You can read Schipper's whole post below:
Schipper has focused on homophobia and toxic masculinity in his lessons in the past, too.
He wrote about one such lesson on Facebook (content warning: linked post contains a picture that includes anti-LGBT slurs in a teaching context).
"I am running another seminar this week addressing masculinity with a group of twenty 15-year-old young men. Yesterday we created this man box which represents what they think society expects men to be."
"These are their uncensored ideas, and the words around the outside are the words they hear their peers most frequently use if a male is 'stepping outside the man box' (i.e. showing emotions, asking for help, getting good grades, not wanting to have sex)."
"It becomes immediately clear through talking to boys and young men, the single most powerful thing that keeps boys inside the man box is homophobia."
The kids Schipper works with realize that a lot of their drive to avoid being seen showing emotion or doing other things considered un-manly is the desire to avoid being called gay.
They just don't always know what to do about it.
"They are all keenly aware that the fear of being labeled gay is one of the biggest road blocks preventing them from feeling comfortable stepping outside of the man box."
The boys in Schipper's lesson were ready to make a change.
"able to be deeply empathetic and reflective on how they accidentally perpetuate homophobia through their words and actions."
"We discussed how homophobia effects their openly gay peers, their questioning peers, and even straight males who feel pressure to prescribe to the strict rules of the man box."
Most importantly, after talking about the problem, the students were ready to commit to change.
"We ended with an agreement that they would all take a tiny step towards being LGBTQ+ Allies by focusing 100% on not using a single one of the man-box hate words for the rest of the day."
Change isn't easy, and mistakes will be made, but the boys' desire to be better was real.
"In my last block, one of the kids who had committed earlier that morning slipped up. He called another kid gay for not giving him his pencil back."
"He immediately made eye contact with me and said, 'It's hard Mr. Schipper, I know I said it, I'm sorry.' All I said was, 'At least you heard it, so now try again tomorrow.'"
The best part of this encounter was the student going on to explain the interaction to his classmates. He told them why his comment was wrong, about Schipper's lesson and why he was trying to be better.
The response to Leland's posts was overwhelmingly positive.
Dana Emmons Hutchins/Facebook
Many appreciated his efforts to make the world a better place.
David Thayne Martin/Facebook
Jessica Emerson Bingham/Facebook
This is all anyone can do—try to be better.
Mistakes will happen, but it is through efforts like this to de-stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community that everyone benefits.
Find your own rainbow state flag t-shirt here, and wear it proudly!