At an Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board meeting on April 4, a conversation regarding climate and culture grew into a discussion about homophobia and toxic masculinity in the elementary and middle schools. 

Board President Elizabeth “Biz” Lindsay-Ryan said despite the district’s LGBTQ+ education, homophobic and misogynistic comments are frequent, particularly in “nonstructured school spaces,” like on the bus, in the hallways or during lunch. 

“We’re having a severe disconnect between what we’re doing around LGBT education and what kids are actually experiencing,” Lindsay-Ryan said. 

A parent of three middle schoolers, Lindsay-Ryan said her children are noting a culture of toxic masculinity on a daily basis. Aggression and homophobia are perpetuated by toxic masculinity, a term that described the pressure boys feel to behave “manly.”

One of her children told her if they had to counter every homophobic or misogynistic comment made, they would never stop talking, she said.

Although students seem to understand the LGBTQ+ curriculum taught in schools, they use language and expressions that harm LGBTQ+ students, said Lindsay-Ryan. To give an example, she said students are using slang expressions like “that’s so gay” as an insult.

This culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia leads to aggressive behavior, and creates an increased need for mental health services, said Lindsay-Ryan.  

Board members had previously discussed an increase in physically aggressive behavior, including fights, at the middle schools, as well as a need to better support students emotionally. It’s all related, said Lindsay-Ryan.

In addition to threatening the LGBTQ+ community, toxic masculinity shapes all male behavior, even that of cisgender and heterosexual students, who are expected to act manly, she said. 

Anna Marie Candelario, Director Of Special Services at District 65, said administrators have been great at bringing these issues to either her or Elijah Palmer, the district’s Dean of Climate and Culture, who are then able to provide those students with the appropriate mental health resources.

In response, Lindsay-Ryan said she is concerned with the prevalence of problematic comments, and that many students aren’t reporting them.

Years ago, she worked with the Northwestern Division of Student Affairs collecting hate crime data, she said. They found that there is very little data for the LGBTQ+ community because students didn’t report their experiences, under the assumption that it’s just a part of being in that community.

Because LGBTQ+ students are less likely to report homophobic insults and actions to administrators, educators are less aware of what they’re experiencing and less able to support them, said Lindsay-Ryan.

The district has taken actions to address homophobia and toxic masculinity, but the current culture still exists, especially in peer-to-peer actions, said Lindsay-Ryan.

“We are doing some interventions that should be resulting in more traction,” she said. 

Palmer, the district’s Dean of Climate and Culture, who also attended the meeting, added that a district training scheduled for next week may help address some of these issues.

The International Institute of Restorative Practices will train two individuals, including an administrator, at each school on April 13 and 14. The training will be in-person, with more than 40 educators and administrators present. 

Restorative practice is an approach that strengthens relationships and builds a healthier community. Palmer explained that this approach can be used reactively, but it can also be used proactively, attempting to prevent a toxic culture in the first place.

Lindsay-Ryan added that the district must explicitly address the harm caused by toxic masculinity, particularly in peer-to-peer relationships.

According to a recent email from Superintendent Devon Horton, the district will engage in its annual LGBTQ+ unit of study this month. All students pre-K through eighth grade will learn about identities, gender expression, allyship, family structures, stereotypes and LGBTQ+ history.

Next year, the district will weave its LGBTQ+ education into the curriculum, rather than teach it as a separate unit.

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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