LGBTQ Students, Schools and Pride: Not There Yet

As we celebrate Pride month, it is important to think about how the strides we have made for LGBTQ civil rights vary not only across the country, but across various areas of U.S. life and culture. In the field of education, we have indeed made some progress but we have so much further to go.

I am teaching summer school this term -- a graduate course on research methods. In our class conversations about the cultural context of research, I asked the students how history shapes what research questions we can and cannot ask. There are some students in my class this summer studying LGBTQ issues for their class research project. Thirty years ago, the question "How do we make schools more supportive for LG[BTQ] students" is not a question that would have occurred to many to ask. And it was clearly not a research question a graduate student -- or faculty member for that matter-could ask without serious professional consequence. Even when I wrote my doctoral dissertation in a College of Education 11 years ago, I was warned by senior faculty that I was sabotaging my career to write on LGBTQ issues in education. It was suggested that I write on some other diversity topic related to schools, and then do LGBTQ work once I had a secure job. (I did it anyway.)

Conversations about sexual and gender identity are still highly contested terrain in the field of education, and LGBTQ remains the one area of inclusion still largely unaddressed in all areas of public K-12 education: We rarely see it addressed in state Departments of Education, university Colleges of Education, school districts, or in schools. There remains a "prevailing belief that sexual orientation... is not an appropriate focus for education" and that these are taboo conversations.

The inclusion of LGBTQ topics in university preparation programs for school professionals is largely dependent upon national, state, and specific accreditation agency expectations. NCATE's (National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the body that accredits preparation programs) standards for diversity are painfully vague and include no mention of the needs of LGBTQ students. Most state standards for diversity do little more than what is required by the accreditation agencies, often merely suggesting "sensitivity" to issues of diversity and cultural difference and avoiding any naming of what those differences might be. Ambiguous definitions of "diversity" and the absence of a clear body of skill and knowledge required for demonstrating competency in creating supportive learning environments for all students allows educator preparation programs to marginalize this content, ignoring any areas -- such as LGBTQ issues -- that might be "uncomfortable." Since these governing bodies do not explicitly name sexual orientation, gender identity, nor LGBTQ content area topics as necessary elements for a comprehensive preparation of future educators, the visibility of LGBTQ issues in teacher education curriculum is dependent upon the values, expertise, and efforts of individual Education professors in individual Colleges of Education and whether or not they want to address it. They usually don't.

While LGBTQ people comprise a significant minority within the U.S. population, cutting across ethnic, racial, cultural, ability, and language groups, most public university teacher preparation programs offer no education on the LGBTQ student experience and if they do, they rank it as their lowest priority in diversity curricula. In programs that do provide instruction on LGBTQ issues, the content is most often relegated to elective courses that relatively few students will actually take. Textbooks utilized in courses aimed at teaching prospective teachers about diversity tend to exclude LGBTQ content or reinforce "negative or stereotypical representations." When they are addressed, LGBTQ identities are often framed as pathologies and included in textbook sections on suicide, depression, or sexually transmitted disease. LGBTQ lives and relationships are measured against the "norm" or standard of heterosexual relationships in these texts, and LGBTQ people are presented as predominantly white and monolithic. LGBTQ students are portrayed as "hapless" victims and described as "outcasts" in need of protection -- not as valuable members of the school community with much to offer.

"Forms of discrimination are not weighted equally," and the weight given to preparing teachers to create affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth continues to be barely measurable. Public schools are structured on unexamined heteronormativity -- often demonstrating overt homophobia -- and with Schools of Education largely unwilling to address LGBTQ topics in their pre-service programs, it is not surprising that research has repeatedly noted that "negative attitudes toward LGBT people are prevalent among pre-service and licensed teachers." With most state Departments of Education refusing to require that LGBTQ topics be given specific attention in teacher preparation, and accreditation agencies ignoring the importance of diversity, with LGBTQ topics in university teacher preparation receiving less attention than other areas of diversity, or ignored all together, and with few opportunities provided to practicing teachers to consider how their negative attitudes impact all their students, we can only imagine that these patterns of silencing the needs of LGBTQ students in K-12 public schools will continue.

Increasingly, however, there is an acceptable way to talk openly about LGBTQ students -- a way that gets around the "taboo" -- but it is not about inclusion, affirmation of difference, or applauding the benefits that students with diverse sexualities and genders bring to the school community. Like the few teacher preparation text books that cover LGBTQ issues, these conversations -- happening in schools (and in the larger culture) -- almost universally focus on LGBTQ students as "victims"; the correlation between victimization and negative psychological, social, and educational outcomes; and the responsibility of schools to protect these vulnerable students from their aggressive, anti-social peers -- from the "bullies." LGBTQ youth are perpetually painted as victims, bullies as the "bad kids" with poor social skills, and schools as negligent due to their ineffective methods for intervention. Teachers and school leaders tasked with trying to address LGBTQ bullying and figure out what to "do" are usually doing so having had no prior education about these issues, or very limited education that also used the "victim" frame.

So, the questions schools and researchers are now openly asking about LGBTQ students are: What puts LGBTQ students "at-risk" and how do we reduce those risks? These conversations indicate that the attention being paid to LGBTQ students by researchers and educators is not about how fabulous they are or about making gender and sexual diversity a valued part of school culture, but about identifying interventions that will alleviate negative psychosocial and academic consequences of harassment -- which is very important, but continues to paint LGBTQ kids as deficient. In order to improve school climate and reduce harassment, schools seek to increase the visibility of LGBTQ students through recognition events like World AIDS Day, Day of Silence, Transgender Day of Remembrance, reading of the play Laramie Project, or student fundraising for AIDS causes. While these events may indeed help to increase the awareness and empathy of some students, these specific forms of recognition continue to associate being LGBTQ with victimization, harassment for gender and sexual non-conformity, disease, death, murder.

So, while we are now talking about LGBTQ kids in some school contexts, it is by "default" (because kids are being harassed and harmed and are victims) and not by design (as in: not because we think LGBTQ kids are important and valuable). It is in a way that continues to see them as a "problem" to be solved. Teaching and representing LGBTQ people in positive and affirming ways in Education remains a taboo.

Is this progress? Yes!! Recognition that LGBTQ kids a.) exist b.) are harmed in hostile school climates and c.) that we need to DO something about this is indeed progress. But, it is progress with two primary costs. First, placing the problem of LGBTQ student harassment in schools on "bullies" does not account for institutional school biases that privilege heterosexuality and gender conformity and marginalize those who don't conform. Second, only talking about LGBTQ students as "victims" and a "problem" to address continues their demeaned and marginalized status within the school. Overt acts of violence against LGBTQ youth (or those who are believed to be by their peers) are only the surface-level, visible effects of heteronormative school cultures that value students who meet gendered ideals and create social benefits for peer-to-peer policing of non-normative sexualities and gender expressions. We must address harassment in more effective and consistent ways and create safer environments for LGBTQ students. But we simultaneously must work to address the value system that allows LGBTQ kids to be targeted for harassment decade after decade.

Without Stonewall, 1969 -- and the LGBT rights movement since -- our ability to ask questions about supporting LGBTQ students in school would be very different. But as Pride month concludes and I prepare to head down to NYC for the big parade this weekend, I am reflecting on the pride I want to see in schools and the questions that still need to be asked: How would schools approach the inclusion of LGBTQ students in school life and curriculum if they were PROUD to have them as members of the school community? If state Departments of Education demonstrated a commitment to diversity through specifying that LGBTQ issues be adequately addressed in teacher preparation programs, could we begin to change educator's negative attitudes toward LGBTQ students? If we could begin to change educator's attitudes about LGBTQ students, how could we change the conversations that are being had about them? Could our K-12 educational institutions begin to have pride in the (already present) gender and sexual diversity of their students? Could they begin to see promise in actively teaching students to not be limited in their pursuits of math or science or athletics or dance or theatre or literature based on narrow ideas about what is appropriate study for "boys" and "girls"? Could they see LGBTQ students as beautiful, gender creative, talented, agentic, valuable, capable and amazing people? Not as "victims" in need of protection or "problems" to be solved? What would it look like for LGBTQ kids if their schools demonstrated pride in them? What would it look like if LGBTQ students felt proud and affirmed to be LGBTQ students in their schools? What could "Gay Pride" potentially mean in a school context and for the success of LGBTQ students?

That we are asking ANY questions about the well-being of LGBTQ students and what it means to support them in schools demonstrates how far we have come. But we still have so very far to go. Some day, I hope we will be asking questions about how schools can show their affirmation and appreciation of all that LGBTQ students bring to the school environment, and how lucky every school is to have such amazing and strong non-conforming students... and what pride they have in all that LGBTQ students contribute.