We Don’t Need No Education (That Doesn’t Recognize Queer Identities)

Anyone who’s had any recent experience with the American education system knows that most of the time, it’s not an inherently queer-friendly place. From the locker room at gym to the video about where babies come from in health class, it’s a straight straight world out there. Despite our best efforts to make the educational sphere a more inclusive place for young queers — from anti-bullying initiatives to the FAIR Act in California — it remains an aggressively heteronormative space for kids who are very sensitive to the idea that there might be something bad, wrong, or unnatural about them. As major a victory as the FAIR Act was, with its assurance that kids would soon be able to learn about queer role models and historical figures in their public schools, even that may not be the slam dunk that activists had hoped for — California budget cuts mean that the next curriculum revision and textbook purchase have been pushed back to 2015, and individual school districts are being told to interpret the law as best they can without any new funding, and in spite of the fact that their funding overall has decreased by roughly 20% in the last few years.

As long as the majority of students in any academic setting are straight, are heteronormativity and cisnormativity in the classroom inevitable? Not everyone thinks so; Susan Stryker, the director of the LGBT Studies Institute at the University of Arizona, has some thoughts on how queer theory can make academia better when she spoke with the Toronto publication Xtra. 

Xtra: Can, or should, queer/trans studies occupy space in the academy the same way that traditional humanities and social science disciplines do?

Susan Stryker: Because there’s homophobia in the world, sometimes it can be difficult to negotiate the academic environment when you’re out and queer, the same way it can be hard to negotiate any workplace, or public space in general. It’s not always a cakewalk. But there is a real recognition that understanding sexuality and sexual diversity is an important part of how you train students to be engaged, thoughtful, participatory members of society. There is not a lot of intellectual debate about whether or not it’s valuable to study LGBT and queer issues in the academy. Even among people who don’t quite get it, it’s recognized as being a legitimate set of questions that has some important things to say to everybody.

Stryker talks about how she comes out in every one of the classes she teaches, because the experience of living as a trans person informs how she approaches her discipline as well as the rest of her life. Or as she says, “You learn, through how you live your body in the world, how power operates and how institutions reproduce oppressive forms of normativity.” And while that may not seem necessarily radical for a professor of trans studies, there’s also teachers like David Weston of the UK, who talks about how he decided to come out despite teaching a classroom of young boys just like the ones he associates with anti-gay slurs when he was growing up:

I quietly replied “it’s a he actually, I’m getting married to a man”. A wave a silence swept the classroom, followed by a barrage of curious questions. “How come you’re gay sir, you don’t sound camp?” and “But you don’t sound at all like [an openly gay student in the year]” or “Is it legal to marry a man then?” We spent a few minutes calmly discussing it and then carried on with the lesson without any problems – I even managed a proper plenary! I was truly relieved, and somewhat surprised that there had been not even the slightest hint of a critical or negative reaction. In fact one student, a very imposing Asian boy, said to me at the end of the lesson “seriously sir, that was big – pretty sick… respect for being honest.”

Of course, for many teachers, the reaction to their sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t nearly as positive — maybe more often than not, school isn’t a place teachers feel it’s even possible to be out, because of their coworkers just as much as their students. But for those that can, the difference it makes seems to be huge — Weston says that not only has he never gotten any negative feedback, but he’s gotten letters from students thanking them for making them feel more comfortable. When academic spaces aren’t interested in becoming more queer-friendly on their own, his story is testament to the fact that teachers can make a difference with their own lives.

And not just to gay students — while it’s clear that Weston’s queer students value him as a role model, Stryker’s points hold true for all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity: understanding sexuality and caring about sexual diversity is part of how you train students to be engaged members of society, and everyone learns through how you live in your body in the world how power and oppression operate. Systems of power and oppression operate through normative bodies and identities as well — but unless you’re aware of how normative they are, it’s very easy to ignore that. When teachers and educators teach from their own experience, they give their students the opportunity to learn more about themselves, and the positions of privilege or marginalization they occupy in the world. Which, when we’re talking about education, is a pretty valuable thing. Maybe someday the people who control our educational system will even learn the same things.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. I’m really glad that the integration of queer history and themes is finally making its way into the educational dialogue. I went to a high school where any mention of queer issues was pretty taboo (The Picture of Dorian Gray was banned from our AP English reading list because it had “gay overtones”). But I do remember having one teacher correct one of my classmates for some very homophobic remarks he made in front of the whole class. I still really respect that teacher.

  2. I really hope that more educators put some degree of emphasis on gay history/social impact. I would have greatly appreciated this in my own educational experience, and I would love to see young people afforded the chance to examine these monumental issues in the future. Sadly, it would seem that the (mostly closeted) homosexual professors I encountered in school were rather difficult to relate to. Perhaps pressure from the institution/colleagues had a dampening effect on the wealth of knowledge and experience these people otherwise would’ve shared with us. Some even seemed to be forcing themselves to promote a heteronormative agenda, which was rather uncomfortable. I think learning about gay rights is as important as learning about the other civil rights battles discussed in the classroom and ignoring them is a disservice to students everywhere.

  3. Rachel, you consistently produce the best quality pieces this place has to offer, time and time again.

    Thank you.

  4. “When teachers and educators teach from their own experience, they give their students the opportunity to learn more about themselves, and the positions of privilege or marginalization they occupy in the world.”

    just this. This means so much.

  5. You learn, through how you live your body in the world, how power operates and how institutions reproduce oppressive forms of normativity.

    this. this is everything.

  6. This is well-timed. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been thinking hard recently about my stance on being out in the classroom (I’m not). I’ve been thinking about my 8th grade social studies teacher, who we all KNEW was gay, but he never confirmed/denied/said anything (nor was there any queer history being taught). I guess I’ve been using him as my role model. But, really, I’ve also been thinking about how it might have changed my own experiences as a queer middle school student to have had an openly gay teacher. I mean, he was the first gay adult I knew (and I only know he really is gay in retrospect, having met him and his partner while doing some work on their house five years later). Considering where I live, chances are I would be the first openly queer adult my students have ever met. Can I really expect them to grow up to be tolerant members of a diverse society if I’m not willing to personally show them some of that diversity? Hmm.

  7. This is something I think about often. I currently work in a high school as an AmeriCorps tutor and will someday soon be a teacher. I never know how to deal with situations where my students ask “do you have a boyfriend?” Currently, I just say no and re-direct them back to their homework. It always feels like I’m hiding an important part of who I am from my students though. It makes me sad schools are not safe places for even adults to come out. How we can expect queer students to get an education when even the queer faculty can’t talk about who they?

    • I teach 11th grade and I get this question everyday. I usually do one of 3 things: 1. ignore the question, 2. tell them a celebrity 3. say “school is about you, not me” and redirect them to their homework.

  8. My first ever sex education class (which was in a Steiner school) was given to the entire class by a queer youth spokesperson. It was really great apart from the fact that he SAID “I’m gay, its OK to be gay.” but afterwards proceeded to get on with our heterosexual education.
    It was rather disappointing. At the time I was seriously confused by this, as if gay people existed but their sexuality was irrelevant?

    So I wonder what would happen if these ideals were suddenly enforced, and the floor became open to suggestion.
    What would really happen? I get the feeling we wouldn’t have much to figure out which way was up. Simply because identity isn’t really something that can be learned, given, taken or is even constant.

    Being PC with queerness probably wouldn’t work. And as long as state schools have to be PC they won’t like being very queer.

  9. I remember writing a personal essay in 4th year of secondary school (I would have been 15) about coming to terms with my sexuality. It was terrifying because I was writing it in class and I was only out to a few of my friends at the time. When I submitted it I added a note at the bottom asking my teacher not to mention the subject to anyone, especially not my parents. There was a parent-teacher night coming up and this particular English teacher generally talked to my parents about what I was working on. To say I was sweating buckets would be an understatement. I got the essay back next class saying that she would keep it in strictest confidence and that it was an exceptionally fine piece of personal writing. That teacher was already my favourite teacher but right there and then she became a complete heroine who would later go on to gift me a life size cardboard cut out of Gandalf.

    The fact that I was able to write that essay and submit it over ten years ago makes me feel extremely lucky to have had the educational experience I did. When I was out during my last year of school I didn’t experience any negativity beyond being the occasional subject of the rumor-mill. I went on to be the girl who gave presentations on queer aspects of the book/film we were studying in class and while I felt that several of the lecturers/professors didn’t really seem equipped to engage with some of what I discussed I was never out rightly challenged or negatively criticised for my approach. Which is pretty rad.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this…other than maybe rubbing my positive educational experiences in people’s face. In which case, sorry! Also differences between UK/US systems etc…

    • I did the same thing in an essay for English as well my junior year of high school. I came out that same year. Hooray for positive high school experiences.

  10. As much as I 100 percent support the idea of the FAIR Act, and want to use those ideas in my classroom (I live in another state), I honestly do not know how to fit it in. I have a giant list of topics covered on the AP and state exams, and I feel like I’m always cramming to fit it all in. I have no idea how I would have time to add anything extra. I feel like my classroom is a safe place for kids, but I want to do more. Any autostraddle teachers with some advice?

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