LGBTQ Students: More Than Victims of Bullying

For October, Anti-bullying Month, we are engaging several key sociologists who research gender and sexuality in education in conversations on LGBTQ bullying. This is the second of these posts.

Jessica Fields,Ph.D. is a Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality and studies sexuality education in middle schools, high schools, jails, and universities.

E: Every October, anti-bullying month, we see articles, posts, and memes on bullying reminding us to be nice and to tolerate others who are different. As a researcher who studies LGBTQ bullying, what are your thoughts on these calls for tolerance as a response to bullying?

J. I study LGBTQ bullying less as a thing that happens than as a thing we talk about. I'm one of four researchers working on The Beyond Bullying Project, in which we go inside US high schools and collect students' and teachers' stories about LGBTQ sexuality. As a team, we are interested in the ways teachers and students talk about LGBTQ bullying and concerned about how that talk may get in the way of other conversations teachers and students might have about LGBTQ sexuality. The Beyond Bullying team suspects many schools, parents, adults, young people, straight people, and LGBTQ people have grown comfortable thinking about LGBTQ sexuality as a site of victimization and suffering. Educators and advocates have had some success convincing schools to institute anti-bullying campaigns because, as you describe, there's a general agreement that we should "be nice and tolerate others." It's been more difficult to convince schools to commit to a sexuality education curriculum, library book purchases, history lessons, and social studies classes that address LGBTQ lives as an ordinary part of the world. While anti-bullying efforts are crucial to movements against violence, we want also to be able to talk about LGBTQ sexuality as a valued part of our everyday world.

E. Yes! We see conversations about LGBTQ youth increasing in schools, but most all those conversations are focused on increasing "safety" and reducing that victimization. Our current language in the United States paints the situation as very black and white--schools are either safe or unsafe. Schools put their energy behind "safety" by increasing monitoring of student behaviors, adding rules, remediating students who are seen to lack empathy or social skills. But we rarely see the kind of inclusion you are talking about--including LGBTQ people in curriculum, library books--that demonstrates a valuing of LGBTQ people.

J. I appreciate your pointing to this idea of safe vs. unsafe schools--it's troubling in many ways. First, schools are too complicated, filled with too many different sorts of people experiencing teaching and learning in too many different ways, to be described as either safe or unsafe. Schools are sometimes safe, sometimes unsafe, and sometimes both at the same time. What makes a school safe for some may make it unsafe for others. School dances, intercollegiate sports, pep rallies, sex education, campus police--all of these things may make some students and teachers feel quite safe and others feel quite uncomfortable, vulnerable, or even threatened.

I'd also want to trouble the notion that schools are safe or unsafe because of students' behavior. We absolutely need to recognize students as agents in the school, helping to make the school culture, and sometimes enacting the everyday violence that compromises the safety of LGBTQ people in schools. But don't we also want to turn our attention to the behavior of the adults--those with much more institutional power and with significant influence over what's possible in school?

E: All really important points. When we talk about "safe," we don't talk about "safe for whom." When school personnel aim for a safe school for "everyone," they generally mean a school where no one is targeted with physical violence or with direct verbal assaults within adult earshot. These, of course, are critically important, but is that all that leads a student to experience the school as "safe?" Safety is, in some of the ways we use the term in association with school climate, brushing up against sentiments more akin to "belonging." And who belongs and who does not requires us to really look at schools as institutions, the norms that underlie school structure, tradition, curriculum, and how those norms communicate expectations to students for "who" you need to be to belong in school. As you said, some things that are experienced as very "safe" for some students may not feel that way to all students.

J: You know, the conversation about "safety" rests on a fear of the unsafe: every time we talk about safety, we invoke danger and keep students and teachers focused on the possibility of danger. This persistent focus on danger makes it difficult to talk about the other experiences of school. The stories we've collected in The Beyond Bullying Project call on us to pay more attention to the ways LGBTQ sexuality already circulates in schools. We hear in these stories about LGBTQ sexuality as a part of students' and teachers' everyday lives as family members, friends, neighbors, congregants, voters, people with desires and curiosities. Exploring LGBTQ sexuality can mean exploring possibilities and imagining lives beyond the options usually laid out for us. That sort of imaginative thinking sits right at the heart of meaningful teaching, learning, growing into adulthood, and belonging to a diverse community.

E: And this focus on "safety" also fails to address the ways schools privilege heterosexuality and binary gender. Moving away from focusing on LGBTQ as an area of risk to be managed and toward representation in schools of LGBTQ sexualities as part of teachers', students', parents' everyday lives, may well do more to reduce the targeting of LGBTQ students than an anti-bullying initiative. We need to begin to talk about LGBTQ people in schools as whole, valued, contributing members of school communities.

Thanks, Jessica, for this exchange. I look forward to hearing more from the Beyond Bullying Project.