Greg Knotts: Greg Knotts is assistant professor of education at California State University, Northridge.
From Here to Diversity: The Social Impact of Lesbian and Gay Issues in Education in Australia and New Zealand was co-published as the “Journal of Gay and Lesbian Social Service,” Volume 14, Number 2. It is a collection of various authors whose focus is discussing gay and lesbian identity, social construction, and the high school environment. The collection asserts that education as a system reinforces and supports discrimination of many kinds — especially that of gay and lesbian youth. The contributions discuss the often overt and covert discriminatory practices found in schools. Education is a system responsible for silencing gay and lesbian voices, gay and lesbian identities, and socially constructing myths, misinformation, and pathologizing gay and lesbian youth as the ‘other.’The collection seeks to discuss the link between the social construction of gender, sexual identity, and homophobia in high schools. A thorough reading of all the articles suggests the idea, however, that schools have the potential to be a catalyst for change; especially in regard to social definitions of gender and sexual identities.
Town’s study asserts that New Zealand’s schools serve as social spaces that support and reinforce the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality and identities of normality and abnormality. The paper specifically investigates representations of masculinity and sexuality in schools by doing in-depth interviews with ten young gay men and focus interviews with seven others. These young men report that systemic violence against gay youth is present in school. Gay youth are often forced to create diversionary tactics away from their perceived levels of masculinity by playing sports, joining their tormentors in tormenting others, and to reject any display of emotions that might be perceived as feminine.
The gay youth report that primary school is a site where young boys learn how they should become heterosexual men, and the high school environment typically reinforces this socially constructed norm. All of the participants in the study identified as gay (to themselves) somewhere between ten and fourteen years old, so all levels of schooling impacted them and this social construction of what it meant to be masculine.
The youth in the study call for more role models and more inclusive ways to address sexuality within the curriculum. They have a need to talk about their sexuality and call for some kind of explicit support network at the school site. Including topics in reading and writing, the participants say, is one way to ‘legitimize’ their feelings and find ways to bring voice to their otherwise silent experiences at school.
Quinlivan focuses her study on the possibility of identifying gay and lesbian youth as their own ‘at risk’ population who should be included in programmatic funding and policy. Citing agreed upon findings of gay and lesbian youth being more likely to decline in their academic performance, experience school failure, drop out, have a lack of school involvement, and attempt suicide, Quinlivan asserts that gay and lesbian youth might be included with other ‘at risk’ populations. This identification, she asserts, would add a legal responsibility to maintain a quality education for gay and lesbian youth. This new framework for consideration of gay and lesbian students would provide a new lens to ensure an equitable treatment for this population while at school.
Problematising gay and lesbian youth as ‘at risk,’ however, creates its own set of discourse challenges, Quinlivan asserts. Unintentionally framing gay and lesbian youth as the problem, rather than the heteronormative school environment, and the pervasive social construction of gender and sexual identities, would not be assisting gay and lesbian youth as an ‘at risk’ label might intend. Including these youth as part of the ‘deficit model’ that the ‘at risk’ label often carries would do nothing to challenge the underlying normative constructions within the school setting; it might help students in the short term, but create longer term difficulties that were not intended. Quinlivan leaves us with the assertion that the situation is complex and deserves more study and discourse.
Savage contributes a personal narrative of the struggles of being a lesbian mother in the school environment. There is a focus on relationships with teachers and the need to prioritize children’s happiness and learning outcomes. She reiterates that the school is a homophobic environment, not only for the children within the system, but also for the parents of those children. Nelson has a unique approach and creates an alignment with using queer theory in teaching and strategies born of Teaching English as a Second Language. Sexual identities, Nelson asserts, are negotiated daily through social interactions, much the same way an English language learner is negotiating the acquisition of a new language.
Robinson and Ferfolja focus their study on teacher training and the pervasive heterosexism and homophobia found in those programs. “Dealing with gay and lesbian issues in schools is a contentious issue reflecting the dominant socio-cultural, moral, and religious discourses that prevail around sexuality in society” (p. 56). There is great resistance, Robinson and Ferfolja find, on the part of pre-service teachers in teacher training programs to include gay and lesbian issues at school. They frame homophobia and heterosexism as social justice issues that are often met with resistance in these types of programs.
They assert that once these teachers are in classrooms, although the school setting is supposed to be value neutral, these teachers are clearly not free of values. This gets communicated through their philosophies, pedagogies, and both the overt and covert curriculum. Teachers, Robinson and Ferfolja report, find that gay and lesbian issues are thought to apply to only a small percentage of students, so to address the issues surrounding sexuality are perceived to be ‘overdone’ in comparison to other social justice issues. Too much time, teachers report, is being spent on issues that they feel do not apply to very many students.
Teachers who address gay and lesbian issues are often perceived to be gay themselves. For many, this ‘guilt by association’ is enough to dissuade them from allowing discourse in their classrooms. So deeply rooted is the homophobia, that even if they are drawn to address issues of social justice, teachers will often turn a blind eye when it comes to gay and lesbian issues. This socially constructed heteronormativity continues, often without question, in schools where these topics are not explicitly included (or legislated) in the curriculum. Robinson and Ferfolja conclude that teachers must be left to critically reflect upon and examine their own subjective positions concerning sexuality.
Irwin discusses the experiences of gay, lesbian, and transgender people working in education. The difference between being out or closeted figured centrally to the experiences of the participants. Harassment—either directly experienced, or indirectly participated in—is a big part of being gay in education. The lack of legal protections and the varying degree of support offered by teacher unions is a big reason for many educators to choose a path of openness or remaining silent.
Hopwood and Connors use the Heterosexual Attitudes to Homosexuals (H.A.T.H.) and Fear of AIDS/HIV questionnaires to determine attitudes among faculty members at two rural Australian universities. Like many such studies, males are found to be more homophobic than females. The level of religiosity of the participants also figures prominently in their attitude toward homosexuality. Affirming Allport’s contact hypothesis, the study finds that direct contact through collegial relationships, friendships, or social contact also affects attitudes toward homosexuality.
Jones and Sullivan discuss the role of education in overcoming homophobia. Citing Harbeck, Uribe, and Herek, they assert that focused educational programs can best combat the homophobia pervasive in schools. Attitude change is possible, Jones and Sullivan assert, with the use of an explicit, effective educational tool aimed at decreasing negative attitudes toward homosexuality. Accurate information and directly addressing commonly held myths must be part of this curriculum. This can be addressed at all levels of education from faculty to students.
The situation of gay and lesbian issues in Australia’s and New Zealand’s schools may first appear to be bleak. Many of the contributions included here seem to affirm the commonly held research stating the negative experiences of gay and lesbian youth. School is a hotbed for socially constructed heteronormativity and homophobia these studies seem to say. However, the possibility for change is also present. Teachers are talking about gay and lesbian issues. Students are talking about gay and lesbian issues. Much of the talk is negative, these studies report, but they are talking nonetheless.Both Jones and Sullivan as well as Robinson and Ferfolja assert that this talk must turn to action. The schools can handle it; with new policy and legislation; students want it. They are calling for more role models, more curricular inclusions, and more support networks. And teachers can be trained to do it. Concrete training and education programs with accurate information and myth debunking, just might turn the tide for schools in Australia and New Zealand.
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