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.


Stonewall, Transphobia, and Moving from Gay Liberation to Gay Pride

In 1969, a series of violent demonstrations – called riots in the media – broke out in Greenwich Village, NY at the Stonewall Inn, a bar that many members of the gay community frequented. The Stonewall Riots occurred between members of the gay community and police, who raided the establishment.

In the interview below, actress and Trans* activist Laverne Cox talks about the lesser-known history of the Stonewall Riots, the shift from gay liberation to gay pride, and the transphobia that still plagues the LGBTQ movement in America:

Homosexuals on the Prowl?

This PSA (public service announcement) was produced in the 1950s, in cooperation with both the local police and school district. Notice that it’s directed toward young men, specifically boys. Female homosexuality is invisible here.

How do we still use the “threat” of male homosexuality – what C.J. Pascoe calls “the specter of the faggot” – as a form of social control to “police” masculinity? How do the stereotypes of male homosexuality in the PSA reflect the assumptions revealed in the list of “flipped” questions handed out in class?

In what ways does this differ from the ways we police femininity and/or female homosexuality, discussed in Rich’s article “Compulsory Heterosexuality”?

Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality”: Constructing Heteronormativity

In her groundbreaking article for the feminist journal Signs in 1980, feminist poet and scholar Adrienne Rich argued that we need to see and understand heterosexuality, marriage, and motherhood as political institutions and not simply as a “natural” life path that women are “innately oriented” to desire – that is, we are not born desiring these things, but rather learn to desire them. Judith Lorber would say that we learn that certain desires are connected to “doing gender,” or performing femininity or masculinity. In other words, we need to understand how the dominant social order has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

So not just gender and sex, but also human sexuality is reinforced through socialization and the ways we are taught to “police” each other’s behaviors and desires.

In American culture, heteronormativity is the dominant narrative – that is, heterosexuality is considered “normal” and images of heterosexual life dominate our advertising and popular culture. Just look at the cover of every “rom-com” ever produced:

rom coms

Since the 1990s, popular culture has embraced some images of homosexuality, but because even people who are gay live in a patriarchal society, for decades, pop culture was still largely dominated by images and stories of gay men. Shows like “Will & Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and more recently “RuPaul’s Drag Race” all feature gay men.

Of course, we might also consider the ways in which these particular stereotypes of gay men have so frequently served and supported heteronormativity. For example, the cast of “Queer Eye” allows for straight men to engage in fashion and appearance without their own heterosexual masculinity being called into question. Or the images of gay men we so often see in fashion or in drag culture seem to instruct women to better perform femininity, sometimes by highlighting its extremes.

queer eye

But where, we might ask, are all the lesbian women? Though they’re becoming slightly more common, gay female celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres still tend to be exceptions. (Check out “Leaps and Strides: The History of Gay Characters on TV.”)

While shows like Orange is the New Black were revolutionary in their focus on women and women’s relationships (heterosexual, homosexual, and intimacies in between), some feminists have mixed feelings about the show, including Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist, recently hired by Purdue), questioning whether the characters succeed in challenging certain stereotypes of both lesbian relationships as well as women of color. For starters, the whole idea that prison fosters homosexual behavior.



Ok, so calling an independent woman today a lesbian for being too “pushy” or sure of herself doesn’t have quite the same impact it did in 1970 when women involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement frequently had this insult hurled at them. (This is a perfect example of binary thinking: if a woman will not perform femininity, she must by default want to be the opposite, i.e., masculine. There’s no continuum on which one might identify oneself here – there is only a pair of opposites.)

So how have our attitudes toward women perceived as lesbian changed?

Let’s consider for a moment the whole barsexual trend. A “barsexual” is slang for a woman who kisses or otherwise engages in sexual behavior with female friends (often at bars) in order to attract the attention of the men they are actually romantically or sexually interested in.

Watch this clip from the Tyra Banks’ Show, where a woman in the audience who is lesbian confronts two heterosexual female guests on the show who engage in barsexual behavior:


  • How does such behavior help or hurt women – particularly young women like those on the show – interested in supporting solidarity with their sisters (lesbian or otherwise)?

Nineteenth Century “Female Husbands”

Anne Fausto-Sterling begins her story with a 19th-century debate over an historical figure’s sex and gender, further complicated by the fact that men and women did not yet have equal voting rights – hence the need to accurately assess the man’s…er, woman’s?…sex at the time.

There is a historical evidence of individuals dressing and conducting themselves as a different gender.  NPR recently spoke with Prof. Sarah Nicolazzo of University of California-San Diego about stories of “female husbands.”

Women assuming masculine gender expression sometimes even married, taking wives and adopting children. While some of these women were no doubt sexually attracted to women, others were not. Women had many reasons for assuming a masculine gender expression, including greater access to certain civil and legal rights denied their sex, like voting, serving in the military, and obtaining a job and an income.

A 19th-century illustration of a "female husband," a woman who dressed and assumed the role of a man, sometimes taking and supporting a wife and family.

A 19th-century illustration of a “female husband,” a woman who dressed and assumed the role of a man, sometimes taking and supporting a wife and family.

The lesson here?

“History can be complex. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and wrote the 2005 book Marriage, A History, explains that it was fairly simple to pull off a “self marriage” before the 1860s. ‘Marriages were supposed to be registered, but authorities seldom checked,’ she says. ‘The idea was that if you acted like man and wife, you were assumed to be married.’

“Lots of evidence exists, she says, ‘contrary to the idea that small communities are always judgmental, that your behavior as a neighbor was often more important to other community members than your behavior in your own home. So people often turned a blind eye to behaviors or dress that in later years might occasion more suspicion and hostility.'”

In other words, if you fulfilled a recognized “role” in society, people might have tended to stay out of your private life, a form of tolerance very different from today’s obsession with the private details of gay and transgender individuals’ lives. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the government sought to set down a more stringent legal definition of marriage.


The fictional story of one such woman who worked and lived as a man is the 2011 film Albert Nobbs, now streaming on Netflix. Nobbs is played by Glenn Close. Watch the trailer below:


So What Can I Do? Becoming an LGBTQ Ally

This list, recently published by Everyday Feminism online magazine, provides those who want to disrupt heterosexual privilege and become allies for the LGBTQ community – specifically trans- individuals – a series of small ways they can change the conversation for the better in their everyday lives.

Want to do more? Sign up to attend one of the Safe Zone Workshops at Purdue’s LGBTQ Center. There are several each semester.

Trans Ally To Do List


Extra Credit: “Two Spirits: Exploring the Crossroads of Gender”

Here’s a wonderful extra credit opportunity for those of you interested in learning even more about sexuality and sexual identity in other cultures (the following is taken from the event’s Facebook page). Again, anyone who would like to receive extra credit for attending events like this one should write a one-page, double-spaced response to the event detailing what was discussed and what you learned (two or three sentences of summary will suffice, as I’m more interested to read about your own engagement with the ideas presented).


“Two Spirits: Exploring the Crossroads of Gender ”
6:00 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 26th
Krannert Auditorium

“Join Dr. Wesley Thomas, Chair/Professor in the School of Diné Studies, Education & Leadership at Navajo Technical College for an enlightening and engaging conversation exploring Two Spirit identity, history, and contemporary issues.

“Within the more than 200 languages spoken in Native American communities throughout North America, concepts and definitions related to gender and sexuality vary and can be difficult to distill into English language. ‘Two Spirit’ has come to represent anyone who identifies as being connected to Native American traditions that do not simply divide people into male and female but that instead recognize people of integrated genders and diverse sexualities.”

Sponsored by the Native American Education and Cultural Center, the LGBTQ Center’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and The Eiteljorg Museum.

Purdue Becomes More Inclusive of LGBTQ Community

Left to right: Aiden Powell, a graduate student and part of Purdue's trans* community, Lowell Kane, and Gail Walenga, Director of Purdue's student Health Center.

Left to right: Aiden Powell, a graduate student and part of Purdue’s trans* community, Lowell Kane, and Gail Walenga, Director of Purdue’s student Health Center.

The Exponent ran a front page article in its Friday edition on Purdue’s new inclusion of hormone therapy in its health care benefits. PGSG pased the bill that approved the change that will certainly affect Purdue’s trans* community. This change puts Purdue in a rather elite position among other U.S. universities.

Lowell Kane, the Director of Purdue’s LGBTQ Center, stated “I’m very excited that Purdue is being elevated amongst our peer institutions as not only having an inclusive nondiscrimination policy – a claim that only 6 percent of universities in the nation can make – but also taking the next step of putting policy into practice with the coverage of hormone therapy – which only approximately two dozen campuses nationwide can say.”

Read the whole article from The Exponent here.