When performing teaching artist Karen Anzoategui was faced with a student who admitted to being homophobic, their response was not what anyone expected.
Ed note: We’re accustomed to a typical story when we hear about a homophobic student in a classroom: teacher reports to counselor or administrator, they report to the next person up the ladder, the student’s parent or guardian is called, and depending on what caused the report, punishment of some sort may be meted out. Our hope is that the homophobic student will rethink their attitude or behavior, and if an incident of bullying set these wheels in motion, that it will stop.
But what happens when, during part of a classroom discussion in a room full of students with violent histories and nowhere else to go, where the little bit of respect their teacher has earned has been hard-won, a kid asks, “I’m homophobic. Is it wrong to be homophobic?”
Karen Anzoategui is a solo performer, writer, artivist, and actor. They teach performance based on gender representation to continuation high school students.
Karen’s goal is to help students begin to heal from traumas in their lives through writing and performing their own stories. So what happened the day that one of the students started acting out anti-gay violence, allegedly in the context of a movie discussion, and another asked about being homophobic? In the teacher’s words:
My name is Karen Anzoategui and I’m from Huntington Park, California, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m a solo performer, writer, artivist, and actor. And I teach performance to continuation high school students, performance based on gender representation. For a lot of these students I was the only person in their life that looked this way and identified the way that I do, so that alone I had to build trust and openness to actually work with me.
While I was teaching gender representation, a lot of stuff does come up like, “Hey, does that mean you’re gay? Does that mean you’re lesbian?”
It’s like, we could also differentiate between gender and sexuality so that really blew their minds and they couldn’t really believe there was a difference between gender and sexuality. A lot of the students were Christian, black, and Latino, and one Latina, so we had 10 males and one female in the class. They were very violent, just how it is kind of how we express ourselves sometimes and then where we grow up, that is just how it is. So it was very triggering for me. And in one instant in the class, one of the students basically started sharing something they related somewhat, a movie called “The Mission”. The character in the movie, Benjamin Bratt, I believe is the actor, so the student starts telling the story, “He goes into the son’s room and he goes and he finds a picture of his son kissing a dude, the son’s boyfriend.”
And then immediately we have another student who’s probably the oldest student in the class and he’s also been very, very aggressive and violent and that kind of thing in the class, kind of like trying to poke at me to see how far he can go, see if he can break me. And in that moment, he just started to re-enact and actually simulate the violence that would happen. Something came over me because usually I would have to, I would basically shut down. I would immediately cry and have to leave the room. But what happened was that I was able to become more lucid somehow and I don’t know what took over me, and I said, “Okay, what is this example that the student is demonstrating for us here?”
And immediately another student said, “Homophobia. Yes.”
And another student, “I’m homophobic. Is it wrong to be homophobic?”
And he asked in such an honest and endearing way that it opened me up and I had that opportunity where time slowed down and I could have said all of these things, but I said, “It depends on what world you would like to live in. If you want to come from a face of fear that goes towards the killing and violence of LGBTQ people, and if you want to live in a world that has love, it feels good, so it just depends.”
And another student brought up, “Well in the bible it says that gay people are wrong” and on about Leviticus 20:13 and I basically stated, “Where does it actually say in the Bible that you need to hate and destroy LGBTQ people?”
And as we moved in the class, I really did feel that this conversation blew them away because they thought I was going to walk out, they thought I was going to scream, they thought I was going to smack them or something, like “No.” But actually I showed them love and compassion and that was a big thing for me and I feel like after that they were really more able to tell their own stories, to be able to write, act it out, some very triggering things in their lives that have traumatized them and by being able to have this ability, this channel through performance to be able to perform your own stories, it actually starts a healing process, also for the audience, and I think that’s really what started to happen for them.
I’m glad that I’m able to be able to help them find their voices because that’s what really changes themselves and the world around them.
Originally published at ImFromDriftwood.com. I’m From Driftwood envisions a world where every lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer person feels understood and accepted, and every straight person is an ally.
Additionally, Karen plays openly queer and proud high school student, Daysi Cantu, on the Hulu original, Emmy nominated series “East Los High”: http://www.hulu.com/east-los-high