Silencing (Homo)Sexualities in School ... A Very Bad Idea

1As a former teacher and current researcher, I have personally heard as well as read about many different reasons why homosexuality, bisexuality, and, more generally, sexuality other than heterosexuality should not be discussed in the classroom. There is the argument that sexuality is the domain of the parent, not the teacher, and about the numerous religions that do not condone homo/bisexuality. I have read about teachers’ sense of discomfort with discussing sexuality and sexual orientation. Most frequently, I have come up against the argument that students are not certain of their sexual orientation until adulthood, that teaching about the range of sexualities might confuse ‘impressionable’ adolescents and that there are ‘no gay students in my class’ so such education is unnecessary.

2Contrary to this last point, research with same-sex attracted (SSA) adolescents has shown that they are first aware of their attractions to members of the same sex as early as 10 years of age (D’Augelli, Pilkington, and Hershberger) and begin to feel concrete about their sexual orientation between the ages of 14 and 16 years old (Rosario, et al.). As far as numbers of young people who are attracted to members of the same sex, recent research using random samples of secondary-school aged students has placed percentages between 2.5% (Garofalo, et al.) and 6.3% (Smith, Lindsay, and Rosenthal). However, as Savin-Williams points out, ‘the vast majority of youths who will eventually identify themselves as lesbian, bisexual or gay seldom embrace this socially ostracized label during adolescence…’, leading to speculation that reported percentages of SSA young people are actually conservative estimates rather than true figures (Savin-Williams 262). To date, no research has shown that adolescents have become homosexual because they were exposed to homosexuality as a topic within the school curriculum. In fact, it is quite the opposite, with many SSA students coming to terms with their homo/bisexuality despite it being pathologised within the curriculum and punishable by sanctioned victimisation within the school environment.

3The fact that heterosexuality is ‘policed’ and reinforced with the school context is not surprising. In his History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Foucault writes about sexuality as a locus of social control and points out that throughout history individual’s sexual thoughts, beliefs, and, ultimately, actions have been impacted by socially constructed sexual norms. Educational sociologists have taken this idea into the classroom, viewing heterosexuality as a part of the ‘hidden curriculum’, the social norms that students learn without them being part of the formal lesson (Plummer). In this sense, heterosexuality becomes part of students’ unspoken and assumed identity in the classroom and, because of socially sanctioned homophobia/heterosexism, being heterosexual becomes a form of cultural and social capital.

4In line with some teachers’ reluctance to discuss homo/bisexuality in the classroom are their attitudes toward homosexuality. A number of studies have highlighted the homophobic attitudes of pre-service teachers, primary and secondary school teachers, and counsellor trainees as well as their reluctance and discomfort with discussing homo/bisexuality in the classroom (Sears; Warwick, Aggleton, and Douglas; Barrett and McWhirter; Cahill and Adams). These negative attitudes can manifest themselves in a variety of ways detrimental to SSA students, from simply avoiding homosexual topics or issues to discussing these issues or topics in a negative manner.

5Recent research with same-sex attracted secondary school students spoke to this trend. When asked about ways in which homosexuality was discussed in the classroom, three main points were consistently raised:

  1. sexuality which is not heterosexuality is presented in a reduced form (i.e., male homosexuality);
  2. homosexuality is pathologised as either a mental illness or a precursor to infection; and,
  3. teachers exhibited prejudice against non-heterosexual sexualities that would not be tolerated in the instance of a racial or gender issue (Ellis and High, 221-2).

6Research in this area has also investigated the attitudes of secondary school students toward homosexuality, with results showing high levels of homophobia and strict gender role beliefs (Van de Ven; Price; Smith; Hillier; Thurlow); however, recent research has shown some improvement in students’ attitudes (Smith, et al.).

7Knowing what we know about the ways in which homosexuality is presented within the school setting (or in many cases simply not presented), coupled with the attitudes of the school community members toward homosexuality and gender roles, as reflective of societal norms, it is not surprising these sentiments manifest themselves in the form of victimisation for SSA students and students who are perceived to be SSA. While the ‘hidden curriculum’ reinforces heterosexuality as a covert form of victimisation, overt forms of victimisation of SSA students occur with alarming regularity. Research has highlighted stories of SSA students’ experiences of verbal and physical abuse, property damage, and social isolation within the school setting with a common theme being a lack of intervention on the part of the adult school staff (Jordan, Vaughan, and Woodworth; Flowers and Buston; Kosciw and Cullen).

8A good deal of research has positioned SSA young people as ‘at-risk’, using data which places heterosexual-identifying adolescents as a ‘control group’ and citing elevated drug and alcohol use, suicide attempts/ideation, and risky sexual practices among the population of SSA young people. This type of research problematises the SSA young people themselves, rather than the environments which they are subject to and the harassment they may be experiencing therein. A far smaller body of research has examined correlates of victimisation for SSA students, the results being exactly what one would expect. At-school victimisation of SSA students has been positively correlated with general risk outcomes such as negative mental health effects (D’Augelli, Pilkington and Hershberger; Rivers), drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide attempts (Bontempo and D’Augelli). Smaller still is the body of research that examines school-related outcomes for SSA students. Victimisation of these students has been positively correlated with their frequency of missed school days as a result of personal safety fears (Bontempo and D’Augelli) as well as their reported academic outcomes and educational aspirations (Kosciw).

9In light of the body of literature on how SSA students experience the school environment, a logical path seems to emerge. Societal norms surrounding sexuality contribute to adult school staff members’ attitudes toward homosexuality. These norms, coupled with the palpable attitudes of staff, effect the overall tenor of the school environment toward homosexuality which, in turn, contributes to students’ attitudes toward homosexuality. The sentiments of students and staff undoubtedly have a significant impact on how or if sexuality is discussed within the classroom, victimisation of SSA students, and whether or not this victimisation is punished or ignored by staff members. Consequently, victimisation of SSA students has been found to be correlated with both general risk outcomes as well as decreased academic outcomes.

10Clearly there is cause for concern. If SSA students are more likely to report decreased school outcomes and higher risk behaviours the more they report being victimised within the school setting, then the solution seems rather obvious – protect SSA students from incidences of at-school victimisation. Without doing so, schools are allowing an inequitable school experience for SSA students and students who are perceived to be SSA as well as breaching their classroom duty of care. That said, adolescents cannot be told simply to stop ‘teasing gay kids’. Instead, a school culture must be created wherein homophobia is not tolerated, and heterosexism is recognised as such and the power it has over individual’s thoughts and actions is brought to light. Towards that end, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender topics, issues, and historical/prominent figures must be discussed in the classroom and the historical discrimination of SSA persons should be taught in the same way that racial/ethnic histories of discrimination are part of the curriculum. Through education, homophobia can begin to be viewed in the same way as racism and religious discrimination are viewed – as ignorant and entirely unacceptable.

11Perhaps this sounds like some gay utopian dream, but I believe that at a future date society will progress to this level and that education is fundamental to the process. By silencing sexualities, educators are marginalising and disenfranching a definite population of their SSA students, not to mention the effects this has on students who have SSA family members or friends. Teachers are uncomfortable discussing homosexuality in the classroom? I am uncomfortable with SSA students missing school because they are afraid, leaving school early because they do not feel that they belong, and reporting decreased marks and lowered aspirations for tertiary education. Silencing (homo)sexualities is a bad idea, not only for SSA persons but for any society which has illusions of being civilised, modernised, or unified.