BY JEN GILBERT
Associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, Toronto
When lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues emerge in schools, it is often as controversy. Battles over sex education, worries about young children reading picture books about same-sex families, outrage at boys taking boys to the prom, lawsuits over gay-straight alliances, and concerns about transgender students finding appropriate bathrooms: all these examples suggest that LGBT sexuality and schooling don’t mix.
It is only under the blandest of covers that LGBT sexuality is smuggled into schools. Anti-bullying programs have made space for LGBT students but only on the condition that the gay student be identified as a problem that needs to be fixed. Depression, suicide, academic failure, bullying and harassment—if we follow the logic of anti-bullying campaigns, this is the experience of being LGBT in school. This construction of the lonely, suicidal gay teen props up educational programming, curricula, and legislation across the country.
There are many reasons to be critical of this formulation, even as we insist that LGBT students, teachers, and families deserve protection from harassment and bullying in schools. At the very least, we need to recognize that everyone in school, gay and straight, has a relationship to LGBT sexuality—gay issues are not the exclusive concern of gay students. Teachers, staff, parents, and students have lesbian and gay relatives, watch TV shows with LGBT characters, have opinions about the movement for marriage equality, struggle with their sense of boy-ness and girl-ness, and experience their desires as less fixed than the categories gay and straight might allow. This is the terrain of LGBT sexuality in schools and it is larger and more complex than anti-bullying campaigns imagine.
For those of us who do identify as LGBT, educational equality means something more than freedom from harassment. We deserve to see our lives represented in the curriculum, we need to be able to fall in love with our best friend and realize it was a terrible mistake, we need access to stories about our future selves that include the promise of love and acceptance—in short, we deserve the right to an ordinary life—full of love, loss, disappointment, crushes, friendships, and dreams of ordinary futures.
I began thinking about this right to an ordinary life in Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education. At the end of that book, I offer five ways we might expand our thinking about LGBT sexuality in schools. In the book, I name the list ‘a reluctant manifesto.’ I call it “reluctant” because I don’t normally like to prescribe actions. But, in this case, I felt like there were some small gestures of welcome that had the potential to create enormous change. Here, then, is a summary of the ‘reluctant manifesto’:
1. There is no magic bullet to cure schools of homophobia and transphobia; no one program, no matter how comprehensive, is enough.
2. And yet, everything counts—policies, programs, warm gestures, well-chosen readings, an unexpected smile, impromptu discussions, and formal professional development all have the potential to create positive change.
3. We need to hear the words lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender spoken out loud, in many different contexts. We need chances to practice saying lesbian and gay with each other, so that the terms themselves don’t feel like slurs.
4. LGBT issues need to be seen as larger than the problem of bullying. We need to talk about LGBT issues when we talk about families, falling in love, seeing movies, having friends, and surviving the trials of ordinary life.
5. Our efforts to protect and support LGBT youth and families need to happen in concert with improving the working and learning conditions of LGBT teachers.
When I read this list, it all seems so modest. But spending time in schools, most recently as part of a storytelling project called “Beyond Bullying: Shifting the Discourse of LGBTQ Youth and Sexuality in U.S. Schools,” I recognize how far we still have to go. When schools cordon off LGBT issues in sex education and debates over mental health, LGBT students might be safe from the most extreme kinds of harassment, but our imaginations suffer. We all need to work to create the conditions in schools for conversations about LGBT sexuality, love, family, friendship, communities, and cultures in ways that go ‘beyond bullying.’
“Sexuality in School is an excellent contribution to youth studies and sexuality studies, and provides a fine link between queer theory and educational studies, as well. Jen Gilbert’s use of psychoanalytic theory gives us challenging ways to grapple with and revel in the difficulties of education, the subjects of sexuality, and the uncertainties of youth and age. Her work shows that these difficulties pervade teaching and can invite educators to try to understand the challenges of desire, hospitality, and possibility. By combining her fine theoretical analysis of controversies (a term she problematizes nicely) and her intricate discussion of the relationships of desire that structure learning, Gilbert gives us a way to explore education in general, but also to more fully understand the particularities of youth and sexuality.
—Cris Mayo, author of LGBTQ Youth & Education: Policies & Practices