While we can see the academic identities our students craft and have had crafted for them in our classrooms, we must remember their student selves are not their whole selves anymore than our teacher, administrator, counselor selves are our whole selves.
There are other facets of our students’ identities we must acknowledge even if we cannot know them. One such facet on which schools have historically fallen down is that of sexual orientation of its students and their families.
The schools we need are spaces welcoming of students of all sexual identities.
Acceptable in schools (though arguably still painfully underexamined) are discussions of race, socioeconomic status, and learning differences.
To illustrate the point, consider the last time you heard or participated in a conversatino around race in a school. Perhaps it was within history class, maybe it was a discussion in an English course, or it could have been a variable studied in statistics.
Silenced are conversations drawing on anything other than an opposite-sexed normalizing of sexual identities of students.
In her book Dude, You’re a Fag, C.J. Pascoe examines how schools work to re-enforce heteronormative thinking and the othering of queer youth.
Describing the implicit curriculum, Pascoe describes the classroom of one teacher she studied, Ms. Macallister, as a “shrine to heterosexuality,” and explained Macallister’s use of language rooted in the assumption that all of her students could relate to examples of opposite-sex coupling and ignored relevant examples which might speak to LGBTQ students or their families.
“She instead reinforced, with the help of the students, a narrative of heterosexuality that depends on a similar age of the two partners, involves the state sanction of that relationship, and encourages procreation as central to such a relationship,” Pascoe writes.
Ironic, too, is the fact that many educators would likely claim to be accepting of students of all sexual orientations, even taking on the moniker of ally to signify that their classrooms are safe spaces. The numbers, though, tell a story that perhaps the enacted beliefs in schools are not living up to those espoused by these open-minded teachers. According to the 2011 GLSEN School Climate Survey, “56.9% of students reported hearing homophobic remarks from their teachers or other school staff, and 56.9% of students reported hearing negative remarks about gender expression from teachers or other school staff.” While it’s possible that none of these utterances was made by teachers who considered themselves allies of LGBTQ students, it’s highly unlikely.
Creating a safe space for LGBTQ students means more than a sticker on the door and a showing of a selection of “It Gets Better” youtube videos. It means thinking about the language we use in our classrooms, monitoring and discussing the language students use with one another, and considering the messages sent by the artifacts we use in our teaching.
Many teachers may point to the conservative views of local communities or discomfort or awkwardness around making explicit an effort to shift a normalized belief. The answer to these teachers must be, “Be the adult in the room.”
We must remember that we are often the most powerful force for keeping our students safe in the classroom, that each time we let hurtful or careless language or acts go by un-examined or un-challenged, we indicate tacit agreement. The message of that agreement does not serve our students, no matter their sexual orientation, it speaks and shouts that it is acceptable to other those in our community and suggests some people are worth respecting and others aren’t because we do not care to understand who they are.
For those not ready to walk into the classroom and have a frank and open discussion of sexuality, some need for time and reflection is understandable. The key, though, and the immediate step that must be taken if you are not ready to start tomorrow is to stop doing and saying things that lead any students to feel as though they are less than. That, we can all do today.