Tolerance Conversion Therapy

I first stumbled upon the Global Alliance for LGBT Education (GALE) during the Fulbright application process. After moving to The Netherlands, I immediately set up a meeting with Peter, the Director of GALE. Before our meeting I completed extensive research on all of his academic work, and the materials that GALE provides. Peter’s early research covered gay and lesbian teachers in the classroom and motivations behind their decisions to come out or remain “in the closet”. His research related very closely to my own experience, and many of the female teaches cited my exact reasoning for not being open about my sexuality while I was in Mississippi, “teaching is about the content, and only the content”.

I'm straight, I swear!

The flaw in this argument, is that hiding a part of yourself is taxing, and your job as a teacher is to ensure that students not only know about the parts of the cell, but are open-minded respectful citizens. Also, let’s be serious... appreciating diverse perspectives is more useful than knowing that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. On the other hand, staying in the closet for many individuals is not a choice, but a survival mechanism. His work made me think of Ed Brockenbrough and his studies of queer men of color and personal choices to stay in the closet.

Peter’s other early papers were pointed directly at academic researchers, and discussed the importance of making research actionable (Dankmeijer & Kuyper, 2006). Dankmeijer noted that research draws the same conclusion: that increasing visibility of gay and lesbian narratives is key to fostering support for LGBTQ+ students. However, without researchers connecting with activists and individuals in education reform, actual change will move at a glacial pace. As a researcher working on a project that has two parts: both an academic paper, and professional development module for teachers, this piece resonated deeply. How do you make academic research live and really make an impact?

Looking for the connection between academic research and the classroom...

In 2011, GALE created an extensive toolkit that combines research and recommendations. The GALE toolkit provides a list of tips on how to construct SMART lesson objectives (specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and trackable). There are four categories that these aims fall under: stop negative behavior against LGBT people, promote social support for LGBT people, strengthen resistance and empowerment, and reduce social distance. An example of a specific lesson objective under strength resistance and empowerment is: Teachers have skills to discuss LGBT issues and combat negative behaviors. In GALE teacher trainings, educators have the opportunity to talk about LGBT issues and role-play scenarios where they address negative behaviors stemming from homophobia.

In addition to the teacher trainings, GALE collated a list of what constitutes an effective diversity policy in schools. The following characteristics lead to policies that make LGBTQ+ students feel safer:

Rules on how to behave at the beginning of school

Gender balance

Mutual social support among teaching staff and students

Open attitude towards each other on social themes

Explicit info about gender, diversity and discrimination

Procedure for handling complaints

School counselor

Efforts to combat discrimination are welcome

Talking about the characteristics that make schools better places for all students brought me back to my blog on Contested Privates, and how the reception of homosexuality varies across different religious groups. It also made me think of the shifting focus to the perceived cultural clashes between the ‘tolerant’ native Dutch, and immigrant groups.

I brought up my interest in looking at the inclusive education outreach in school that have populations with religious views. Peter explained that the perception of immigrant populations rejecting homosexuality has some truth, but can be a product of Islamophobia, and the growing focus on cultural differences between native Dutch and immigrants. Peter noted that vocational track students reject homosexuality at higher rates than allochthonous Dutch (citizens with non-native backgrounds). The main contributing factor being the lack of higher education. I asked him how GALE works with vocational students to increase their tolerance, and his answer was so biologically based it felt almost visceral.

Peter’s analysis of the inherent rejection of difference was by far the most salient part of our conversation. He talked about how discrimination and tolerance are based on the key tenet of controlling your emotions. When you are confronted with something different than what you are uncomfortable with your first instinct is a fight-or-flight response. This generates an emotional freeze, where you are trapped, trying to figure out your next move. You can proceed with a fight, trying to battle against the object of your discomfort; or, you can fly, and avoid the confrontation. If you do not learn the management of your fight-or-flight response, you can also choose to live in your nuclear bubble, surrounding yourself with the familiar. However, training yourself to recognize a fight-or-flight response, and open dialogue to consider alternative perspectives, ultimately leads to a greater understanding of the diversity of existence.

Peter shared a story about how he was once doing a theatrical performance about acceptance of homosexuality in a school that had a predominantly Muslim population. After the performance was over a young boy stood up and shouted, “My brother studies the Qu’ran, and he said that all homosexuals should be thrown off skyscrapers.” After his declaration, about 15 other boys stood up and started to applaud in approval. Peter said that his heart stopped, but he recognized the familiar fight-or flight response. His initial reaction was to do a combination of fight-or-flight, and to simultaneously punch the student while running away. However, he took pause, and said the following, “I can see that you are standing up and speaking loudly.” He remained silent, giving the boy a chance to think.

A few of the boys friends sat down. “Yea, the boy replied, this matters to me.” “I can see that, well if you would like we can talk about it, or we can each talk to people independently about it”. Instead of engaging in the ‘fight’, and having a back-and-forth with the student about why throwing gays off buildings is not an appropriate response, or validating the boy with a ‘flight’ response of a more traditional pedagogical side-step, with a “well, you are certainly entitled to your own opinion, but are their others?”, Peter calmly addressed the situation and opened it up for dialogue.

Peter discussed that when given the opportunity to hold a one-day training with teachers the first thing he addresses is recognizing the fight-or-flight response and how to react. The GALE toolkit provides an extensive list of Frequently Asked Questions from both teachers and students. In teacher trainings, because all teachers like practical advice, they role play how to address trickier questions that students ask. It is also discussed that responses should not just include factual information, but should also cause students to question the underlying heteronormative assumptions as a whole. Questions can often be comments masked in question form as a ‘fight’ response to discomfort. For example, if a student asked “Are people born gay, or do they become gay?”. Explaining that there is research supporting both the nature and nurture sides of homosexuality is not enough, but the response should also include a statement that makes the student question the very nature of their question—“are people born straight?” or “why does it matter?”

Peter shared, "I teach teachers that such questions are often loaded with (negative) emotions and that explaining the fact usually does not work at all. You need to discuss the underlying emotion first by asking for it. When the subtext is dispelled, than the informative or cognitive part becomes almost irrelevant. The core change is that students become open and curious. If they are that, they can look it up for themselves, but which serious and open person is really interested in whether being gay/lesbian/bisexual is genetic or not? The question is loaded and without the load it becomes an irrelevant issue."

Leiden, a city about 25 miles southwest of Amsterdam implemented a program that was later adopted by GALE called the “Leiden Method”. Leiden has a large population of vocational students, many of whom were not receptive to the “coming out story, then Q & A” method presented by the national COC school outreach programs. The local Leiden COC developed the program based on creating a common definition of response. They recognized differences in where students were coming from, and addressed them in the program they were using in schools.

The revised program by GALE, started with an exercise to give students the opportunity to define what “respect” means to them. For many male students, they discussed competing for gang leadership and having more power; female students discussed the notion of being the ‘Top Bitch’ in charge. From there the concept is introduced that respect could also mean respecting differences between people. The facilitator then initiates a dialogue to ask if students agree that respecting difference is important.

In the second stage of the lesson, students create identity towers were they list aspects of their identity that they are proud of and want to be the most visible at the top of the pyramid, and then write things that they might not want people to see towards the bottom. The identity towers are hung anonymously on the walls and students do a gallery walk. The instructor writes “gay” towards the bottom of the identity tower.

When students react to the identity category “gay”, the facilitator brings back the conversation to respect. Using the power of cognitive dissonance, students recognize that they can not choose to respect difference, while rejecting an identity category. Peter said that by-and-large, students will admit that they were wrong in their initial reaction. The lesson ends with the class collaborating to make a list of what happens with we see bullying, and guidelines about how to react.

We then discussed Peter’s philosophy behind the construction of the trainings. The toolkit outlines that common 5-step programs take participants through the following process:

Warming up- diagnostic exercise

Convincing the issues are worthwhile

Exploring strategies and concrete interventions

Exploring intentions for hand-on action by participants and facing challenges

This outline structure will be paramount when considering how to design a professional development model for teachers in the US that draws attention to the need for inclusive education, and builds teacher skills so that they will be able to hit the objective set at the beginning of the training: Teachers have skills to discuss LGBT issues and combat negative behaviors. As I continue my research, I will actively work to heed to Peter's recommendations and make it both applicable and useful in the reform movement to build more inclusive schools.


Dankmeijer, P. (editor) (2011). "GALE Toolkit Working with Schools 1.0. Tools for school consultants, principals, teachers, students and parents to integrate adequate attention of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender topics in curriculum and school policies." Amsterdam: GALE The Global Alliance for LGBT Education. Downloaded from

Dankmeijer, P. & Kuyper, L, (2006). Setting the Agenda for LGBT Research, 3:2-3. 95-101, DOI: 10.1300/J367v03n02_09

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed (30th anniversary ed.). New York: Continuum. Freire, Paulo.

Read Moore