The power of words: a reflection on homophobia at Horace Mann

Allison DeRose

As a bisexual female, I have never been apologetic about my identity. I have always been loud and confidently myself. Unfortunately, I found being myself could get me into trouble at Horace Mann.

I will never forget the day a male student in my grade approached me in the library. “Have you ever gone down on a girl?” Those were the first words he spoke to me. Speechless, I glanced up at him. I am always ready with a joke or a light-hearted comeback, but he managed to leave me at a loss for words. I looked at this classmate in disbelief. He spoke again, “Have you ever made out with [female queer friend]?”

I did not respond immediately and he asked his question again. Once he realized I was not going to give him the answers he wanted, he laughed and walked away. It was funny for him. I felt disgusted, unsafe, and uncomfortable. 

I was terrified to tell anyone about the encounter. I assumed he would get away with it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have teachers to confide in; I had plenty. However, many of the faculty members saw him as a “good kid.” I thought the school would probably make me sit in an office, forcing an apology out of him. And after that? He and his friends would probably shoot me dirty looks in the hallways. They would probably call me a homophobic slur over a text group chat. I was scared of what would happen to me. How would the rest of the school see me? When I told another classmate what happened, he looked at me and simply stated, “That’s just the way [boy’s name] is. Getting him in trouble his senior year could really negatively impact his college acceptances.” 

I never felt comfortable around either of them again. 

Although I acknowledge that the culture of Horace Mann is slowly changing and improving, too often during my time at Horace Mann, I felt that the voices of female-identifying persons, LGBTQ+ individuals, and people of color were suppressed. This culture was inescapable for me. In looking back at this moment, I regret putting his reputation before my own comfort. I regret never speaking up or reaching out to a faculty member. If I had heard of more people speaking up about behaviors like this, I would’ve felt more comfortable speaking out about my own experiences.

In college, I have found ways to avoid this discriminatory treatment as much as possible. It is easier to stay away from those who make you uncomfortable in a university of 7,000 undergraduate students. At Horace Mann, I interacted with everyone in my grade. I felt pressure to be polite to all my classmates, even the ones that treated me as lesser. This is not to say I haven’t experienced discriminatory treatment outside of Horace Mann or in college. My relationship with my freshman roommate degraded pretty quickly after I put a pride sticker on the wall in our room. I came back one night to hear her tell her parents on the phone that she “no longer felt safe in her own dorm room.” 

My negative experiences at Horace Mann did not ruin the education I received or negate my enjoyment of my time at the school. I will always be grateful for my amazing teachers. I will always appreciate the lasting friendships I formed. But I will never forget the disgusting comments I endured. Those moments from my high school experience illuminate the many levels of failure on the part of the Horace Mann community. They demonstrate the lack of acceptance within the community to educate students about sexual harassment. The school allowed a culture to persist in which I believed speaking out would present with more harm than good.

I think the main sentiment within the Horace Mann community tends to be one of tolerance rather than acceptance and mutual respect, specifically in regards to the LGBTQ+ community. Though people will ‘tolerate’ or ‘put up with’ LGBTQ+ students, I never felt that I was treated as an equal. The comments I received about my sexuality and my relationships were not of the same nature as those of ‘common high school culture.’

It is not a culture unique to Horace Mann, but it is one that needs to change.