Two-thirds of Israelis believe that discussions on sexual preference should take place at school, according to a Haaretz survey last month, but educators and gay-community leaders say this simply isn’t happening.
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Reality is better reflected by a 2012 survey by the group Israel Gay Youth. In that study, only 13 percent of gay teens felt comfortable talking about the subject of sexual identity with their teachers. Also, 65 percent said they suffered homophobic comments in the hallways, with 17 percent saying their teachers did nothing about it.
Israel Gay Youth is the only LGBT organization regularly budgeted by the Education Ministry.
A major problem, according to LGBT groups, is that the school system is not formally required to address the topic of sexual preference. While some study units on the issue are taught as part of the life-skills curricula, teachers don’t have to use them.
“At the moment, school principals have absolute autonomy on whether the units will be taught,” says Mandy Michaeli, Israel Gay Youth’s co-executive director. “The moment there’s no order from the Education Ministry, it’s a judgment call — and the judgment of most teachers is not to discuss it in the schools. We hear every week about more and more teenage boys and girls who suffer verbal and physical violence in school.”
According to Ran Lebel, also co-executive director, “I look at my training as a teacher, and if I weren’t gay, I wouldn’t know how to deal with a student who came out to me. The teachers are speechless when that happens. It needs to become part of teacher training.”
Hila Segal, the Education Ministry official in charge of sex education, says only some schools approach the issue properly.
“Our policy on this matter is clear: We don’t allow rejection or homophobic comments by staff members,” she says. “Every year, as International Day Against Homophobia approaches, our director general issues a circular requiring schools to discuss the topic.”
Segal’s department receives letters from schools that need help with sexual-identity issues. For example, department officials have advised a teenage transgender boy. The school staff was unsure whether to let him sleep among the boys at the annual school trip, and whether to let him use the boys’ bathroom at school.
Not a week goes by when a school doesn’t ask for help with the LGBT topic, Segal Says. There’s a difference between what happens in the center of the country and what happens in the outskirts, because students in the center have access to professionals who are experts on the topic, she adds.
“Students keep seeking help and say ‘I think I’m gay,’ and the counselor or teacher tells them to wait before they decide to announce it. This response by the system makes it look like they don’t want to deal with it,” Segal says.
“Besides the need to listen to the child and ask him what he needs, I think it’s legitimate, especially when the child is young, to say, ‘Take your time; it’s for you to decide what’s good for you, and we’re here with you.’ Children are ambivalent, and I don’t want a counselor or teacher to put definitions in their mouths.”
Another group that works with the Education Ministry but receives no budget is Hoshen, the name an acronym for the Hebrew words for education and change. Its volunteers give workshops at schools, where they tell about their lives in the LGBT community and their process of self-discovery and coming out.
Hoshen and the Education Ministry developed curricula on the topic and distributed it to all the schools. Hoshen has more than 150 activists, who have visited some 80 schools throughout the country. But this isn’t seen as enough.
“We only provide a one-time activity that lasts an hour and a half,” says Hoshen’s chief executive, Irit Zvieli-Efrat. “Even if we had 1,000 volunteers in branches all over the country, the Education Ministry would play a deciding role.”
Zvieli-Efrat also mentions another issue: gay and lesbian teachers and how comfortable they feel coming out to their students and discussing the topic with them.
She says there are 100 teachers in an average-sized high school, making around 10 of them gay or lesbian. “But not many teachers have come out,” she says. “It makes me wonder what sort of atmosphere exists there that doesn’t let teachers come out.”