Sunday, March 8, 2015

Teaching Juvenile Delinquents about Gay People

Wrestling Tournament
Tujunga, California,  July 1992

After I got back from Nashville in 1992, I found a job as a youth counselor at Camp Routh, a juvenile probation camp (alternative to prison).

It was in Tujunga, CA, up by the Angeles National Forest, about 20 miles from West Hollywood.  There were about 50 juvenile boys, aged 15 to 18, living in cabins like summer camp). No violent offenders; mostly property crimes and drugs.  They took regular high school classes, played sports, and had individual and group counseling sessions. 

My job:
1. Leading recreational activities, including movie nights and a field trip to the L.A. County Museum of Art, and, since I had a background in wrestling, a wrestling tournament.

2. Taking kids out for movies or pizza as rewards for good behavior.

3. Since I had a background in human resources, teaching resume writing and job interviewing.

4. Plus "life skills," like how to open a checking account, how to sign a lease on an apartment -- and sex education!

Classroom at the Juvenile Camp
Imagine my embarrassment in being assigned to teach "where babies come from" to a class of 15-18 year old juvenile delinquents, most of whom had been sexually active for years!

And my consternation when I discovered that the curriculum was entirely heterosexist!

Physiological changes during puberty -- "discovery of girls" -- heterosexual dating and romance -- the mechanics of sexual intercourse -- pregnancy -- birth control -- sexually-transmitted diseases.

It was easy to change "discovery of girls" to "increased interest in sex" and drop the pronouns in the "dating and romance" chapter, but when we got to "the mechanics of sexual intercourse" with only men and women, I had to do something.

I never saw Denman shirtless
The director, a former bodybuilder named Denman, was rather conservative, always talking about faith-based counseling programs, so I didn't have much hope.

Sure enough, when I asked if I could include a unit on gay people, he stared at me as if I had said something dirty.  "Why would they need to know about that?  They're not gay."

"How do you know they're all heterosexual?" I asked.  "10% of the population is gay, so that means about five of them."

"No way!  They're just kids!"

Right, gayness is an adult "lifestyle choice."  I'd heard that one before.  "Well -- even if they're not gay, they're going to encounter gay people in their lives, and they should have some background."

He grinned.  " mean like what to do if a homosexual tries to seduce you!  You're right, Davis -- that could be a useful skill for these kids. Lord knows they get a lot of that in juvie.  Go ahead and add it to your class!"

Of course, that's not what I added to my class.  During 3 class sessions, when Denman wasn't around, I taught "Gay 101."  It took 3 days because whenever anyone passed by close enough to hear, I switched to something about "how you know if a girl is into you."  But eventually we covered:
1. People can be gay, heterosexual, or bisexual.
2. It's not a choice or a preference.
3. You can be gay or straight and not sexually active.
4. Gay people don't all have AIDS.
5. All gay men aren't feminine, and all lesbians aren't masculine.
6. It's not illegal to be gay.
7. Lots of religions teach that being gay is ok
8. Gays don't go around trying to seduce kids.
9. Some kids are gay.
10. Homophobic harassment is bad.

They were surprisingly attentive, for a class of rowdy underachievers with no pictures or film strips.  Most of them had never heard anything about gay people before, except that they were bad, and this all came as a revelation.  Some of them had gay siblings, or gay friends; one had a gay Dad.  But no one in the class came out.

Chazz Chest
A few days after Gay 101 ended, a boy named Chazz approached me after class.  He was older, probably 17 or 18,  a little on the small side -- not a wrestler -- stunningly handsome, but very reserved around authority figures.  He never talked or volunteered in class, although his homework assignments were fine.  Sometimes saw him laughing and roughhousing with his friends.

"Can you help me get a day pass?" he asked.

"Why, are you in disciplinary?" Denman was good at granting day passes for birthdays, religious holidays, a parent in the hospital, even a brother home on leave from the army.  Except if you were being confined for a disciplinary infraction.

"No, I'm good."

"Then just go and tell Denman what you need it for."

"Well, that's the thing," Chazz said.  "He wouldn't understand."

"He gave Noriega a day pass to go to his little brother's sixth grade graduation.  I'm sure he'll understand your situation."

"Well, see. . . "  Chazz reddened.  "It's my friend's birthday."

I was a little surprised.  In juvie, family was everything, your one safe haven, your bolster against the bad things of the world (they ignored the fact that many of the kids had horrible, abusive parents). Friends were always suspect, bad influences who would lead you astray.  It was not unusual for the kids to be told "stay away from this person" as part of their probation.

"I admit, that's an unusual situation, but I'm sure if you explain the situation, I'm sure you can get an exception."

"Well, see...the thing is, he's not really my friend.  He's, my lover."

Next: Sneaking Chazz into his boyfriend's bedroom.

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