Happy Pride weekend everyone! This is a time to celebrate the struggle for sexual and gender equality for all people. However, as this post at ColorLines points out, “for too many queer and transgender folks, the heightened visibility that comes along with Pride can also attract unwanted attention.” Most schools are not in session right now, but for folks like me who are teaching summer classes, it might be a good idea to take a few minutes this weekend to think about how we will address issues of gender and sexuality in the classroom on Monday morning, and how we will deal with any homophobic bullying if it comes up.
Some of our LGBTQ students may be participating in the Pride parades, and other students may be curious, questioning, supportive, critical, or hostile after seeing the parades on TV or on the streets. This is a possible teachable moment, a chance to build solidarity and awareness in the classroom, as long as we prepare ourselves to facilitate respectful and meaningful discussions. This post will attempt to help with that, and will also share some suggestions for how to approach these issues year round.
Let’s start with some context
As Colorlines reports,
“Across the country, recent hate crimes against members of the queer community have made national headlines. In New York City, the murder of 33-year-old Mark Carson in the iconic West Village neighborhood prompted some of the largest rallies for LGBT rights that the city’s seen in years.”
Unfortunately, this kind of oppression is rampant in US. schools:
“According to recent gay bullying statistics, gay and lesbian teens are two to three times as more likely to commit teen suicide than other youths. About 30 percent of all completed suicides have been related to sexual identity crisis. Students who also fall into the gay, bisexual, lesbian or transgendered identity groups report being five times as more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe after being bullied due to their sexual orientation. About 28 percent out of those groups feel forced to drop out of school altogether. Although more and more schools are working to crack down on problems with bullying, teens are still continuing to bully each other due to sexual orientation and other factors.”
As teachers, how can we confront this bullying and build solidarity with our LGBTQ students? The federal Department of Education announced this week that it is proposing that schools collect data about anti-gay bullying, in the hope that this will encourage teachers to intervene more directly to stop it. Some teachers might grumble that this is just one more top-down imposition pushing us to do the impossible with dwindling resources. But we should be confronting bullying anyway – out of care for our students, not because of the feds. And if we don’t have the resources to do this, we should organize ourselves to demand access to them.
When our students say “that’s so gay”
This document by the San Francisco Unified School District contains some useful suggestions for how we can respond when we hear students say things like “that’s so gay”, referring to something they don’t like. This is not a matter of policing students’ language; it is a matter of power. Once, one of my students described a particular rapper he didn’t like as a “faggot” and I challenged him on it. Instead he said, “okay, then… he’s a homosexual.” This doesn’t make it any better -the underlying assumption is still there: homosexuality is synonymous with weakness and gay folks are considered a group that is easy to dominate or ostracize.
In other words, what matters are the power dynamics behind the language. Teachers need to be perceptive to see how students use words in social context, and to challenge them at this level; this is much more useful than verbally scanning for certain slurs and banning them from the classroom without discussion. The root problem is that many students see LGBTQ identity as something negative, and LGBTQ people as legitimate targets of harassment and bullying. So they can casually refer to music, books, tests, or people they don’t like as “gay” without really thinking about it. This is what needs to be challenged. If the teacher remains silent, this sends the message that the school as an institution is validating the dominance of straight students over LGBTQ students. Our silence is not neutral; it screams our casual, flippant endorsement of social relations that make the classroom less accessible to LGBTQ students. It contributes to a culture of silence where LGBTQ students might be less likely to come to us for support if they are facing bullying. For all of these reasons, we should speak up.
Of course, this is a process over time; we can’t just harshly call out our students and then walk away. We need to build respectful relationships with our students so that they will actually care when we explain why we think they should change their behavior. A big part of that means listening to what they say and taking their ideas seriously on a daily basis; that way, if we challenge their language they won’t perceive it as us just shutting them down or imposing our politics on them, which happens all too often in schools. Also, LGBTQ students are not passive in these situations; they are not voiceless victims who we need to save. If we have all built an overall classroom culture based on respectful discussion, then students will hopefully have the confidence to speak up and call out homophobic language or behavior themselves. This can be more meaningful than the us as teachers lecturing about it, and if students speak up we should affirm that. However, if noone does, we have a responsibility to intervene and should not hold back out of fear of imposing our views on the class.
“It gets better”?
Mainstream, middle class gay rights approaches to school bullying often emphasize the message of the “It Gets Better” videos; these videos aim to tell youth that they can go on to overcome this bullying and can achieve respected middle class lifestyles as they get older. This message was taken up by the Seattle Police, an institution that spends far more time sending students to juvie based on racial profiling than it does defending any of them from anti-gay attacks. (The SPD’s stance was parodied in this video after a case of police brutality at last year’s Seattle pride.)
In any case, the “it gets better” message overlooks the particularly devastating effects of bullying on transgender folks, from higher suicide rates to long-term unemployment. It also overlooks the fact that a middle class, respectable lesbian or gay lifestyle is increasingly unattainable for most working class LGBTQ youth. The ongoing economic crisis is driving up the youth unemployment rate and is hitting non-white youth the hardest.
This will not change through positive thinking, it will only change through struggle against the system. As my friends wrote during last year’s pride: “it doesn’t get better, we rebel to make it better.” The “it gets better videos” make it seem like students can simply ignore the bullying in order to focus on getting the academic skills they need from school in order to go onto college and a rewarding career. But given the socioeconomic reality most of our students are facing, they need more than pre-professional academic skills. They need classrooms where they can learn how to organize, struggle, and fight for themselves and each other.
As teachers, we can start by learning and teaching the history of struggles such as the Stonewall Riots which kicked off the LGBTQ liberation movement. This was not a court case conducted by lawyers or a parade organized by well-funded nonprofits with middle class leadership. It was an uprising started by working class queer folks, including transgender folks and people of color, fighting against police brutality.
Pride is Not a White Flag
This is the title of an article that several friends of mine wrote during the racially charged debate about California’s Proposition 8 several years ago. Back then, Black and LGBTQ communities were getting pitted against each other in the legal battle for gay marriage.
This highlights how there are a number of complicated issues of race, class and sexuality that may come up in the classroom, especially in cities where gentrification processes involve middle class white gay and lesbian folks moving into working class non-white communities, driving up rents and displacing folks living there. An article about Seattle history recently documented how this happened in Capitol Hill and the Central district. These dynamics, plus the domination of LGBTQ mainstream politics by white middle class voices may encourage some youth of color to see LGBTQ identity as a “white thing”. This can silence and invisibilize LGBTQ students of color.
To address this, we can share literature and perspectives by LGBTQ authors and artists of color such as folks involved with Voices Rising. We can also teach forgotten histories, such as the fact that the Black Panther Party expressed solidarity with the emerging gay liberation movement in the wake of Stonewall; both movements were confronting police violence, which is unfortunately something my students are quite familiar with. This can be a starting point for building possible solidarity today.
I’ve heard some liberal teachers attempt to build solidarity between anti-racist and LGBTQ struggles by comparing the movement for marriage equality to the civil rights movement. Some even say “gay is the new Black.” This is problematic for a number of reasons. 100,000 people are expected at Seattle pride on Sunday to celebrate the supreme court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act this week, and Washington state’s legalization of gay marriage this fall. However, as Black Girl Dangerous points out, the same week the supreme court struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a historic victory of the civil rights movement designed to prevent disenfranchisement of Black folks in the South. The narrative of “gay is the new Black” falsely assumes that the struggle for Black liberation is something in the past, already achieved, and now we can move on. If that were the case, then Trayvon Martin would still be alive and Black students wouldn’t be three times more likely to be expelled from Seattle Public Schools than white students. Alternatively, some gay marriage advocates say we need to wait until marriage equality is achieved before we address the specific forms of racial violence and oppression that non-white LGBTQ folks face. This kind of strategy creates a false unity that actually throws non-white LGBTQ folks under the bus.
Perceptive students who have watched the news the past week will likely pick up on these contradictions and will want to talk about them. While we should aim to build solidarity among all people against all forms of oppression, we can’t do this through simplistic calls for unity that silence uncomfortable questions about gender and race. We need to start by reading up on these issues and understanding the complexities ourselves, so we don’t miss the openings created by our students’ critical questions.
The anti-DOMA ruling may be a victory for the marriage equality movement. But the very premise of this movement leaves out many LGBTQ folks who are not trying to assimilate into a mainstream lifestyle based on the nuclear family. As Jomo wrote in Queer Liberation is Class Struggle, the capitalist system has historically required this family unit as an institution which can reproduce a new generation of workers who the system can exploit. The schools then train this new generation to conform to a life of wage labor, as Selma James argued in this classic piece Sex, Race, and Class.
A whole range of people who don’t fit this nuclear family model are penalized by this system, including students who are being raised by single parents, grandparents, older siblings, and/or non-blood kin such as aunties, uncles, etc. They may be judged by teachers or school administrators, or by politicians who set education priorities. There are possibilities of building solidarity between students in these kind of non-traditional families and LGBTQ folks who are trying to build chosen families in ways that don’t fit either the traditional heterosexual model or the “new normal” being slowly constructed through the marriage equality movement.
Teachers can start by asking students who they consider to be their families, and engaging with these folks as students’ chosen support networks, without judging the students or their folks if these arrangements do not conform to preconceived norms.
These are all some things to think about in class Mon morning after Pride, but hopefully we will not stop there. Confronting homophobia in schools is a year round process. While we should confront overtly homophobic language and bullying, we should not stop there. Ultimately, we should be engaging students in discussions about the underlying political, economic, and social issues involved in struggles over gender and sexuality, and how these relate to struggles over race and class. Finally, all of our actions as teachers should be aimed at carving out space where LGBTQ students can organize themselves and can struggle for their own liberation. LGBTQ youth are not passive victims. From Stonewall to today, they have made history. Organizations from GSAs to Queer Youth Space are continuing the struggle now, and teachers should act in support and solidarity.