I’m a former high school teacher. I taught in an “inner city,” or my favorite ambiguously racist moniker “urban,” school in the deep south. I’m talking about deep. The very bottom of the United States. Even in a mostly Black school, participating in countless and horrid systems of inequality is always expected of teachers; i.e. using orange vests as hall passes instead, teachers cursing out students, rumored (though likely true) coerced adult-student sexual relations — you know, the usual.
Discipline is a tenet of the education system that can’t be avoided for obvious reasons. Corporal punishment has been outlawed for (hopefully) obvious reasons. However, standards such as detention and parent phone calls are constantly enacted. This is reasonable, yes. Yet, as most teachers will tell you, it’s often certain groups of kids who get a pass when it comes to punishment from the administration and discipline teams. At my former school, it was boys. The boys got away with a figurative slap on the wrist for nearly every misbehavior, no matter how major the offense. The girls were punished harshly. Unfairly, at times. It was illogical how some of their punishments were constructed. Once a student of mine left class to go to the bathroom briefly and came back outside of the designated class minutes for bathroom use. From what I understand about this student, it was an actual emergency. Instead of something like a simple verbal warning, the Dean (what most schools here call a person whose designated job is to stand in the hallway and correct misbehaviors as well as student flow of traffic) howled at her and gave her a Saturday detention. All for having an emergency situation.
Excessive much? Most of femme student interactions with the disciplinary staff go this way. In the words of the Deans, they’ll give too much “attitude” and the deans will be forced to respond negatively, and excessively at that.
This phenomenon is surprising, but at the same time it’s not. In the culture of the deep south, tradition dictates certain modes of general behavior for each gender, as do most cultures. Men, as most of us know, are considered the heads of households: the providers and protectors. Women, on the other hand, are mannered and maidenly. This is true most places, but the South tends to be excessive in its execution. The discordant ratio of behavior to punishment Deans dole out is based in this chivalric order. Because women are considered to be the “Angel in the House”1 and the purer, sweeter beings out of men and women — especially for young girls — any action outside of that is considered disrespectful. Therefore, a girl who may rightfully speak up “too loudly” goes against traditional social standards, and is threatening to the natural implied (read: not so implied) hierarchy of man.
Black southern culture also contributes additionally to the threat of a young girl with too much to say. We teach Black women to be fiercely independent. Most parents have a discussion with their young girls that entails not only the importance of being independent, but making their voice known and relying on themselves to get places in life. (Think Scandal, Season 3, end of Episode 12) As much as we force feed this information down the throats of Black femmes their entire lives, we’re surprised when they regurgitate it. Black femmes become independent and fiercely autonomous beings, and then are punished for becoming what we’ve taught them to be.
And don’t ever think about becoming masculine. It’s the ultimate disruption of this order. Especially when it involves sexuality. We’re taught to be autonomous, however autonomy should be limited when it comes to everything other than needing a man. When you’re a loud Black lesbian, not only are you aggressively betraying your social role as a quiet and well-mannered woman, you’re also completely independent of needing a man in your life. You don’t need them for sex or pleasure or love, and you’ve completely abandoned the most womanly of duties: procreation. And masculine-presenting lesbians have not only done all of this, but very outwardly abandoned the feminine to embrace (in traditional eyes this reads: steal) masculinity. A woman’s masc presentation and behavior, in the construct of chivalry, are the ultimate disrespect. The hierarchy of men is not applicable to lesbians — women who purposefully agitate the social order.
Now, if the Dean positions are largely dominated by men, guess who the most punished group in school is. In my time teaching, I had never seen anything quite like the obscene treatment of young queer black girls. And I’m ashamed to say that I was part of it. Initially, I was naively unaware. In my first year teaching, I was at odds with a group of girls in my third period. It seemed like they did everything I said not to. And I found out it wasn’t only my class, they acted like this in most of their classes. In many teachers’ opinions, they couldn’t be dealt with unless the discipline they received was extremely harsh. I found that most of them responded well to teachers with a mother’s aura. Most white teachers couldn’t give this to them, but even as a Black woman I also couldn’t — I was only 22 years old and knew nothing of the trials of Black motherhood, nor did I look or sound it. I did everything I could to discipline them: assigned seats, gave them detentions, called parents, wrote discipline forms, assigned Saturday school, and got them suspended — a few times. I even yelled at them once, which was much out of my character. After a number of times passing by their disruptive conversations in the back of the class, I focused in on a conversation that made me realize why their group was so hard to break-up.
“How you a stud with a perm?” The girls laughed raucously in the back of the class, loud enough for everyone to hear and get distracted.
Shocked, I snapped out of it long enough to tell them to be quiet, but I started to realize what most of their conversations had likely centered around. After that, I listened to their talks a little more each day. Their vocab revolved around lesbian culture. It was language only queer people would recognize, and I after listening to a few more conversations, it became easier to discern that school was the only place these girls were allowed to be out. Sure, some of them looked more masculine, but most households in a Southern community like ours would try to pass it off as being a tomboy. However, parents know it’s something larger, yet they choose denial instead of acknowledgement.
School is the only place where many queer kids get the acknowledgement and freedom they deserve. Yet, many of them are passed off as “problem children” with no room for growth or correction. And they know this. Many of the Deans in our own school come down the hardest on these Black queer kids, specifically the girls — especially when dealing any form of PDA and more masculine modification of the uniform. I’ve heard them say disgusting and shameful things about these kids in passing outside of the workspace. And it’s not only restricted to the kids, it encompasses the queer faculty as well. For some faculty, they won’t discipline the kids those teachers refer to them, as a punishment for their audacity to be outwardly queer. They believe that any form of homosexuality is a joke, especially when it comes to women.
This is the reality for Black queer girls in education. And it is ongoing. Though I’m not a teacher anymore, I’m left with the knowledge of this phenomenon. And as a queer person, I aim to fix it. When children aren’t seen, they cannot take part in the education system because they are not comfortable. The lack of vulnerability leaves creates an environment where you’re not allowed to fail; this is essential in a functional classroom. But how can you fail when you’re worried about looking weak? Educating educators is essential to creating inclusive learning environments that promote actual growth and learning. And those types of environments have been stolen from Black and queer people for so long that they reinforce the disparities we receive to this day. The American education system must uphold its promise to provide an education to all, and a large part of that is spreading awareness that it isn’t doing the very thing its meant to do, especially for Black queer femmes. 🌋
*An important note to add: These observations are simply based on my viewing of queer cis femmes in public schools. Imagine the trans experience.
1. “The Angel in the House.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex. Accessed February 28, 2020.
https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/the angel in the house. 2. Scandal, “It’s Handled”. YouTube, n.d. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgpq2Rqjg4c.