AERA Talks LGBTQ Issues in Education: Making Schools Safer Spaces for LGBTQ Youth

LGBTQEarlier this summer, I had the pleasure of presenting my work on activist-apprentice pedagogy as part of a panel on feminist community engagement at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago. So when AERA sponsored a briefing on Capitol Hill regarding LGBTQ issues in education in July, I tuned into the live-streamed event.

The briefing featured opening and closing remarks by George Wimberly, who summed up the present state of educational research regarding LGBTQ issues, and two presentations by Lindsey Wilkinson and Dorothy L. Espelage, who gave overviews of achievement among LGBTQ students and bullying of LGBTQ youth in K-12 schools, respectively. The speakers were followed by a Q & A. You can watch the webcast here, where you can also access PDFs on topics such as recommendations for LGBTQ research in education and bullying of LGBTQ students.

As the new school year enters full swing, I want to share here my own major take-aways from that briefing:

Gay-Straight Alliances have a positive impact on school environments. The presence of Gay-Straight Alliance student organizations or clubs create space where LGBTQ students can fee safe, can experience a sense of community, and can address issues of concern to them. In addition, these clubs provide space for LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ students to build relationships. Moreover, when principals, teachers, and staff promote and support such organizations, they send a clear message about respect and inclusivity to all students: LGBTQ students are more likely to feel they belong in schools where their staff support gay-straight alliances or LGBTQ student clubs, and other students receive the message that these students are supported and accepted by those in positions of authority. This translates to a safer environment, creating a sense that those who harass or otherwise harm members of the community will be held accountable by school staff.

Social-emotional learning works. According to CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL is based on developing five inter-related core competencies:

Source: CASEL, 2015

Source: CASEL, 2015

In its simplest form, SEL asks students to identify how they are feeling and why they behave the way they do. Self-reflexivity is essential for anyone who wants to create change both within and beyond him or herself. To read more about each of these competencies, or to access a CASEL Guide, see here.

Use homophobic slurs and bullying among youth lead to greater sexual harassment in high school and teen dating violence later on. This kind of bullying affects not only members of the LGBTQ community, but heterosexual and cis-gender youth as well. Young men often use homophobic slurs to police and challenge each others’ masculinity – but proving one’s masculinity requires a boy under scrutiny to refute and deny the feminine, or anything that might be read as “queer.” Such routine rejection translates to misogyny, an internalization of the hatred of not only the feminine within the self, but a disgust of young women and woman-identified individuals. It is LGBTQ youth and young women and girls who suffer the most when we let such policing of gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality go unchecked. It is imperative that our students understand that when we use such language, the language uses us to reinforce homophobia and misogyny, even when that is not their intention.

Aggression problems in the school environment make bystander intervention less effective. Bystander intervention has been touted as an effective way to help students recognize and stop acts of violence before situations escalate, particularly when it comes to sexual assault. But research reveals that unless students feel that their principals, teachers, and staff are directly addressing aggressive behavior in their school, they aren’t likely to intervene in a situation, even if they have had bystander intervention and have the skills to do so. Basically, students need to know that those in positions of authority will be on their side if they act and will also take responsibility for changing the climate of the school community.

Placing the harasser and victim in a room to engage in mediation is contraindicated. While in theory the idea of a mediated confrontation between victim and aggressor might seem to ease tensions, in practice it tends to make victimization worse. We should never place a victim of harassment or violence in the position of acting as “teachable moment” – that is, of educating their aggressor. Such a confrontation can be re-traumatizing and can fuel future attacks.

Lesbian girls and young women suffer greater disadvantages in terms of education than their gay male peers. This is true regarding achievement, feelings of safety in schools, and rates of college enrollment. This should come as no surprise to anyone who is thinking intersectionally. Lesbian women may experience harassment and violence not only as members of the LGBTQ community, but also as part of the daily experience of being female. Practices like “corrective rape” cannot be divorced from the larger culture that normalizes rape which all women learn to negotiate at an early age. And while young men and boys who identify as (or who are even suspected of being) gay experience bullying, harassment, and even violence, at the end of the day, their male privilege will still work for them in terms of their education and future earnings. Misogyny and sexism can exist even within LGBTQ communities, and very often, our histories and representatives of that community are still largely male, which contributes to the continued invisibility of lesbian, queer, and trans women.

So what gaps remain in our educational research of LGBTQ youth? One gap consistently noted is that we lack both quantitative and qualitative data on students who identify as queer or transgender. Almost certainly, we need more research on how intersecting forms of oppression – like race or ethnicity, citizenship, and socioeconomic status – intersect with sexuality and sexual identity in order to create unique challenges for LGBTQ students. Homelessness and its sister issue food insecurity will also undoubtedly affect many of our LGBTQ students, especially our older students – and these issues will undoubtedly impact their access and achievement as well.

Education Theft and the Policing Image of the Welfare Queen

In 2011, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a young, Black mother of two daughters living in Akron, OH, was jailed and convicted of a felony for sending her daughters to a well-to-do private school in her father’s better neighborhood. The court’s decision ultimately jeopardized her job as a teacher’s aid and her future career as an educator. Watch ABC’s news coverage of the story:

However, this isn’t an isolated incident; it may be the beginning of a new trend. Last year, another woman, Tanya McDowell of Bridgeport, CT, was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “education theft.”

The Feminist Wire asks: “…when does American Dream seeking, innovation, motherly ‘instinct,’ and creative problem solving get celebrated and when does it get criminalized? Which mother’s children deserve the best, and which mothers are demonized for asserting their children’s worth?”

To begin to answer this question, we first need to determine what these two women have in common. Let’s go back to Adair:

“…systems of power produce and patrol poverty through the reproduction of both social and bodily markers” (233).

In other words, Adair, like the French Philosopher Michel Foucault whom she cites, understands that the body of a citizen becomes “written on,” or like a text that we all read meanings onto; and some bodies, like those of the poor and of minorites become texts we read, in particular, as warning signs. This, Foucault asserts, is how such systems of power discipline the rest of us to behave or think in certain ways. Consider, in particular, the image of the welfare queen (see Adair, p. 234 and p.240).

Here’s Adair analyzing how our culture “reads” the body of the welfare queen:

The welfare queen’s body is portrayed as “the embodiment of dependency, disorder, disarray, and otherness. Her broken and scarred body becomes proof of her inner pathology and chaos, suggesting the need for further punishment and discipline. In contemporary narratives welfare women are imagined to be dangerous because they refuse to sacrifice their desires and fail to participate in legally sanctioned heterosexual relationships; theirs is read, as a result, as a selfish, ‘unnatural,’ and immature sexuality” (240).