||Volume 22, Number 2, October 2009
Queer education around the world
By James Chamberlain
In contemporary times, it is sometimes difficult to believe that homosexuality remains illegal in 77 countries and that people can be imprisoned for 10 years or more simply because they love someone of the same gender. Five countries in Africa (including parts of Nigeria and Somalia) as well as Iran enforce the death penalty for anyone accused of homosexuality. Imagine being fired, imprisoned or worse for being “out” at school or for advocating for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) students and citizens!
In August, I attended the Outrights conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and heard first hand of the challenges and successes from educators around the world.
Research from Belgium, Canada, England, Finland, Sweden, and the USA show that:
- LGBT students and those perceived to be so are at much greater risk for verbal and physical harassment while at school.
- Students who do not conform to rigid notions of masculinity and femininity are often targets.
- Students at the secondary and post secondary levels often do not report incidents of homophobic or transphobic harassment (even those they witness) because they believe school officials will do little or nothing to intervene.
- The main problem in dealing with LGBT issues in schools is continued silence and inaction on the part of teachers, principals, and other school board officials.
- LGBT youth are at much greater risk than their heterosexual peers for suicide and substance abuse.
- More LGBT students are coming out at younger ages (within secondary school) with few, if any, supports in place for them.
What do teachers say?
Teachers and researchers all spoke of the fact that homophobia was one problem, but so was heteronormativity. That is the assumption and belief that heterosexuality is and should be the norm in society. Gender role stereotyping was discussed at length and many teachers spoke of students needing to fit a narrowly defined mould in order to “fit in” and avoid being targets for abuse. All agreed that their colleagues should be teaching about the negative impacts of gender role stereotyping from elementary school onwards and that teachers should examine their own practices (implicit and explicit messages and actions towards students) which may reinforce heteronormativity.
Many jurisdictions have produced resources for teachers to use to examine these issues and challenge homophobia and transphobia in the classroom and school environment.
- "Pride and Prejudice” is an resource package that was successfully piloted in an all-boys Catholic school before teachers began using it extensively in one region of Australia.
- “Challenging Homophobia in Schools” is a handbook produced by Gay and Lesbian Educators of BC (www.galebc.org) used in schools in BC.
- The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (www.glsen. org) also produces many resources for teachers to use in the United States.
- The Norwegian Ministry of Education is currently in the process of developing a grade by grade handbook on how to include LGBT issues in classrooms.
- In Brazil, LGBT issues are part of the school curriculum there and teachers are supported to teach them.
- The National Education Association (www.nea.org) in the USA provides free workshops to teachers on LGBT issues as do some teacher unions in Canada.
- Many schools in the USA and Canada support gay straight alliance (GSA) clubs for students in secondary schools where students can find safety and support.
Global concerns and challenges
In Lithuania, a law was passed in July 2009 that prohibits the discussion of homosexuality in schools and banned it from any public information that could be seen or referenced by children.
In Poland, despite the training of 500 teachers in 2004 as part of their Campaign Against Homophobia, the official line is that there should be no discussion of homosexuality in schools. There are no openly LGBT teachers in Poland, for fear that their teaching contracts will not be renewed. According to educators there, gay male teachers would be accused of being pedophiles if they came out.
In some countries like Peru, Columbia, and Chile work has begun to document the lives of LGBT people. One of their goals is to put a face to LGBT issues through the power of storytelling by documenting LGBT people’s lives and realities. In Namibia, the Rainbow Project worked with print media to train reporters on the reality of LGBT people’s lives so that media stories about LGBT people are more accurate. In Indonesia, LGBT people are being interviewed to collect and tell success stories and document violations of human rights. All of these projects are being supported by The Global Alliance for LGBT Education (www.lgbt-education.info).
All countries spoke of the need for more openly LGBT educators to serve as positive roles for students. Many described the challenges of being out at school in unsupportive environments. We need to do a better job at changing the “hearts and minds” of colleagues, parents, and educational leaders on the need for LGBT inclusive education.
Examining our privilege and practice
In many countries, educators have a fair degree of privilege in comparison to the rest of society. We have job security, good pay and benefits, and can be “out” in the classroom without fear of losing our jobs. Along with these privileges also comes a responsibility to question the status quo and work to change schools and the education system at large to be inclusive of all students.
Dealing with homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity are relatively new topics in the history of education. Therefore, this is a prime time to reflect on your classroom practice and ask yourself:
- How am I improving education to make it more inclusive of LGBT people’s realities?
- What am I doing to make my school safer for LGBT students and those perceived to be so?
- How is my classroom supportive of LGBT students and children from same gender families?
Reflecting on your privilege and practice informs how you can be a change maker.
Next steps for change
Educators in many countries want to see training programs with mandatory courses on LGBT issues prior to teacher certification. To that end, some are working toward having mandatory requirements for LGBT issues in the curriculum. This would make it obligatory that all teachers deal with LGBT topics.
Many agreed progress has been made within teacher unions in terms of changing policies, developing Pro-D opportunities, writing lesson plans, and starting GSA clubs in schools. At the same time, we were reminded that we cannot impose our local programs on other parts of the world. There is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy for dealing with LGBT issues in schools.
We clearly need to share resources, ideas, knowledge, classroom practices, and expertise. Our classrooms need to become more inclusive as we challenge homophobia, heteronormativity, transphobia, and sexism. Ideally, we should work with teachers around the world to think and act locally and globally on LGBT issues.
Attitudes toward homosexuality have recently changed for the better, thanks in part to the work of progressive educators. While there is still much to do, we can be optimistic that schools are becoming safer and more inclusive places for LGBT students and same gender families.
At the same time, the people in 77 countries of the world who have no voice, rights, or ability to advocate for themselves are depending on us to be their advocates. We enjoy the freedom to do this work without fear of imprisonment or death. Let’s use this privilege wisely and not squander it. Now is a perfect time for you to educate yourself on LGBT issues and act. Remember that any action, no matter how small, is a step towards LGBT equality and acceptance.
James Chamberlain is an assistant director, BCTF Professional and Social Issues Division.