By Chelsea Hahn, The College of New Jersey
Caroline Clark and Mollie Blackburn, the authors of “Reading LGBT-Themed Literature with Young People,” state, “For some, teaching LGBT-themed texts seems impossible. They cannot imagine how teachers, especially novice ones, can do this work.” In the new Trump administration, this thought has crossed my mind more than I’d like. We’ve seen worry that LGBT rights, such as gay marriage, achieved under Obama will be repealed under Trump. We’ve already seen controversy over transgender people using the bathrooms in schools – now having to use the bathroom of their biological sex, not the gender with which they identify. Luckily, we’ve seen many schools ignore this switch and support their transgender students, and we have role models like Laverne Cox to remind us, “It’s important when we have conversations with and about transgender people that we do not reduce [them] to body parts. [They] are more than the sum of [their] parts.” And like Cox, I agree that this isn’t really about bathrooms. This is about visibility. This is why I encourage educators, particularly new educators, to teach LGBT-themed texts in the classroom and talk about LGBT history because this increases visibility, which leads to more positive outcomes for the students and the community.
I know, I know. Telling you to teach about the LGBT community and its history and experiences of people in it is easier said than done, especially in schools with more conservative administration or Board of Education. But, think about it, heterosexism and homophobia are forms of oppression that have become institutionalized and normalized. If educators actually bring up the topics and issues, they can start to dismantle these oppressions. Yes, risky business, but as long as you aren’t pushing your beliefs onto students and rather talking about these topics, issues, and histories in a general, analytical and critical way, it’s legal. (Much like teaching the Bible as literature rather than religious text) School is the place where sexual and gender identities are being developed, but it is also the place where there is insufficient sexual education. Educators have to challenge the unwritten curriculum because that can make an impact in preventing suicides and bullying and understanding LGBT intimacy, as LGBT people will be acknowledged, empowered, and normalized. It helps students that may identify or may be allies as it reduces invisibility of LGBT students, their family, and the community and gives everyone a common and appropriate language.
“If individuals never explore their homophobia and the ways it affects students, the likelihood of interrupting the ideological heterosexism in schools is weak.”
Incorporating LGBT topics and texts into the classroom means collaboration is key: Collaboration between the educator and students, colleagues, and parents/guardians. Perhaps the hardest to see collaboration with in that list is the parents and caregivers. Educators often fear the criticism and objections from parents and guardians, but it is important to see the power in cooperation. It may help to inform them about the National Association for Multicultural Education’s (NAME) policy, which states that gay culture and themes has been a part of the education agenda since 1992. The reasoning for this inclusion in the NAME policy is to combat homophobia and heterosexism. Also, parents worry that talking about LGBT novels and themes will mean talking about sex or promoting homosexuality. While LGBT culture is not just about sex (believe it or not), parents and teachers can and should play a key role in educating their children about sexuality because not talking about sex and sexuality doesn’t make it magically disappear. For some parents and guardians, having these professional conversations might be enough, but for others, they may want to witness how this plays out in the classroom; allowing parents to volunteer in the class could be a way to alleviate worries.
Working together with colleagues is vital when moving towards the incorporation of LGBT texts and topics because often, educators do not have resources or feel a lack of support, which makes them shy away from the inclusion all together. Much like an educator would for multicultural literature, creating a checklist of criteria and stocking a classroom library with the help of colleagues is a good place to start. Educators should talk critically about the works together to develop a concrete rationale of how these texts can be used in class or as ancillary readings. This all requires educators to challenge their attitudes on LGBT issues and move out of their comfort zone. Stephanie Logan, Terri Lasswell, Yolanda Hood, and Dwight Watson, write, “If individuals never explore their homophobia and the ways it affects students, the likelihood of interrupting the ideological heterosexism in schools is weak.”
Working with students is obviously a must when it comes to discussing LGBT literature, history, texts, and issues, and it should begin early on in school because at a young age, students are beginning to develop identities and concepts of fairness and justice. During these young ages, students are most open to talk about differences and accepting others. Being part of a democratic society means being open about to talk about cultures and possible prejudices in an accurate and professional way, so using LGBT-themed works aids in that goal as students move towards thinking more critically through reading, writing, and discussion. Mostly, it comes down to fostering a supportive, democratic, and accountable community in the classroom.
Working together and incorporating LGBT texts and information is only the tip of the iceberg. (We all know that iceberg graphic, right? There’s so much more under the surface to uncover, and there’s waaaay more to students and communities and topics than we can understand in a short span of time.) Well, there’s a lot to unpack in the iceberg of teaching about LGBT topics, but it also helps to know what to avoid when approaching this topic and what we actually should and can do. Here’s a quick “Do and Don’t” checklist:
- Use LGBT-themed texts that work with your criteria checklist
- Have a book discussion group that meets throughout the school year to talk about LGBT-themed texts. This should include teachers and students. It could be something you could do in your school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA)
- Encourage allies or potential allies to consider joining the GSA, while making clear that decision is completely their choice
- Post inclusive pictures and graphics in your classroom
- Include LGBT novels, history, and topics in any unit of study to show commonalities and empower readers
- Do not assume all your students are heterosexual or homophobic
- Do not position LGBT-themed texts in units about fear or survival
- Do not use LGBT novels only to provoke empathy
- Do not leave homophobic ideas unchallenged
Transgender History by Susan Stryker
Stonewall Uprising by David Carter
Films: Screaming Queens; Milk; But I’m a Cheerleader; We Were Here; TransGeneration; Stonewall Uprising