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The Human Rights Watch-based proposal to cover lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in classrooms in Japan is way overdue. For too long, these students have faced verbal abuse, physical harassment and far worse because of homophobia.

By implementing new educational guidelines and providing teachers with training, the proposal has the potential to alter an environment that has been linked to dropouts and teenage suicide. Even when LGBT students are not driven to such extremes, their lives can still be a daily hell.

New York City has taken a different approach in its attempt to provide a welcoming setting. In September 2003, it opened Harvey Milk High School, the nation’s first public school for LGBT students. Named for the assassinated gay San Francisco official, the school was immediately hit with a lawsuit charging that it was a waste of city money and illegal under the state’s sexual-bias laws.

Opponents also argued that segregating such students is the wrong way to address the issue. Instead, the focus should be on assuring that they can attend regular public schools without living in fear of bullying and other harassment. There’s much truth to that argument. Providing a short-term safe haven for students with no other place to turn is one thing, but establishing a separate, segregated school sends a clear signal that sexual orientation is different from other forms of discrimination.

It’s not. That’s why Japan is on a more defensible track. Rather than establish its own version of Harvey Milk High School, it is intent on properly fighting homophobia where it occurs — in regular schools. But changing attitudes on this emotionally charged issue is never easy even in a democratic society that prides itself on tolerance.

What may make Japan’s goal particularly difficult to achieve, however, is its heavy emphasis on maintaining harmony. That probably explains the education ministry’s refusal to comment on the proposal by the Human Rights Watch. It knows that few teachers have learned about dealing with sexuality during their training. A survey of nearly 6,000 teachers from kindergarten through high school found that less than 14 percent had actually discussed sexuality in their classes. Anything with the potential to cause disruption by students or ill ease by teachers always has to be treated with great care.

Yet, the education ministry’s concern is overblown. In “Preschool in Three Cultures,” educational anthropologists Joe Tobin, David Wu and Dana Davidson explained that Japanese preschool teachers are comfortable with classes of 20 students and tolerate noise that most American teachers would find unacceptable. If so, harmony is a relative term.

For example, the best teachers from Japan often express extreme discomfort when they are hired by public schools in the United States because of the great emphasis that teachers there place on helping students express their feelings. They also report experiencing culture shock when students refuse to be the kind of passive learners they had in Japan.

LGBT students have the right to a quality education. Whether it is best achieved in a traditional or separate school is the issue. But if diversification remains a valid objective, then Japan has a clear leg up on the U.S.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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