This blog post is a lightly edited transcript of a talk I gave at Bucknell University on efforts to restrict teaching about sexuality and gender. I was invited as part of a panel that included speakers with differing views on this and similar efforts to restrict teaching about race. I thank the organizers and my fellow panelists for helping me to develop my thinking in this area.
The talk-turned-blog post centers K-12 while posing questions that are relevant for university teaching and learning as well. K-12 students are, after all, our future university students, and what happens in their classrooms matters for ours.
As with my prior post, I welcome your experiences and thoughts. Links are at the end of the post.
LGBTQ people and curricula: What is at stake and for whom?
The question in the title is close to me on many levels: it is personal, political, and professional. I read the curricular debates in the news as a queer woman who is married to a trans masculine partner. I read them as someone with younger family members who are lesbian, trans, and non-binary, two of whom live in states that have passed/are advancing bills that restrict LGBTQ education. I read them as a professor of LGBTQ studies. I read them as a mentor of trans students applying to graduate schools in an ever-shrinking number of states where they can safely live.
The question I have posed is not one that can be answered in a single talk (or a single blog post). Instead, I will offer several different perspectives from which to work toward an answer.
I have organized my comments around four sets of stakeholders: (1) people with known LGBTQ loved ones in the present, (2) people with known LGBTQ loved ones in the future, (3) people with no known connection to the community, (4) and LGBTQ people themselves/ourselves. You may see yourself in one or more of these groups. Whatever your standpoint, I am interested in what these curricular debates mean for you.
My generation – sometimes called Xennials, or older millennials – did not have public school curricula inclusive of LGBTQ people in either of the two countries I lived in growing up, China or the United States. This was true of generations before us as well. So, we already know what a curriculum without LGBTQ people looks like. And that means we have some evidence about how withholding LGBTQ content will impact students and their families. It is on this evidence that the remainder of the talk/post will draw.
People with known LGBTQ loved ones in the present
What do I mean by “people with known LGBTQ loved ones in the present”?
Here I’m talking about students who have a known LGBTQ person in their family or friend group, or in another important role in their lives. There are many students for whom this is true at every age of instruction. I will focus tonight on siblings, as this is a population very affected and so rarely recognized when we talk about schools.
This is, in a way, the topic I have studied the longest. For my first original research study in graduate school, I interviewed people who grew up with a lesbian, gay, or bisexual sibling. Later I built on that research, expanding to multiple members of the family and including people with trans and nonbinary siblings as well. And I spent a lot of time in the literature, learning what other scholars have found about gender, sexuality, and siblings.
None of the siblings in my research had an LGBTQ-inclusive education. All reported that they heard anti-gay remarks regularly, including at school; some had witnessed bullying of their siblings, fought physically with bullies, or had people who stopped being friends with them after learning about their LGB sibling. They used phrases like “absolutely isolated” to describe how they felt in these environments.
As soon as they could, people began to remove themselves from places where their siblings were not welcome. One woman chose not to attend a faith-based college for this reason, although she might have otherwise. Many people left or considered leaving their places of worship. After witnessing mistreatment of his gay brother by the church, one young man described asking himself: “Do I choose the faith, or do I choose my brother? And,” he said, “it was a pretty easy choice to choose my brother. So I’ve had basically a falling out with the Catholic Church ever since.”
As a big sister of five, my heart connects immediately with this quote. I too would choose my brothers and sister, easily and always.
But the quote also raises a question. Why should someone have to give up their faith to be in solidarity with their sibling? Why can’t they have both?
I think in many cases, the adults mentoring and teaching these young people believe they will figure out a way to remain in a faith community that understands their sibling as disordered, or as less moral and further from god. And some will. But the truth is, many people won’t. They may spend years or a lifetime alienated from beliefs or from communities that otherwise might have served them, because the shame and stigma attached to their sibling has consequences for them too.
There are other populations for whom this is also true. Children with trans or gay parents are another group whose belonging and safety are shaped by laws and policies surrounding the kinds of families and relationships that can be discussed at school.
Some children are at risk of losing parental involvement at school altogether, which we know is such a crucial part of children’s education and wellbeing. In West Virginia, for example, Senate Bill 252 prohibits “any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances or display to any minor” within 2500 feet of a school, essentially banning trans and gender nonconforming parents from school involvement.
The cost, should the bill become law, will be borne not only by the trans parent or caregiver, but also by the child whose family has been labeled a danger.
And certainly there are other family members and friends who these laws and policies will touch – ripple effects of efforts to stop the normalization of LGBTQ+ people and cultures. Like all people, we are connected to others, or in biblical terms, a part of the body; “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor… If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” (I have cited from the book I grew up with; readers with other holy books – or nonreligious beloved texts – may find similar messages there, in terms that resonate with them. In my LGBTQ+ Religious Experience course, the theme of interconnectedness comes up in nearly every tradition we study together. It is surely relevant to the political landscape now.)
People with known LGBTQ+ loved ones in the future
Students who have no known LGBTQ loved ones now may very well have them in the future. I’m thinking, for example, of people who grow up and have kids of their own, and those kids are gay or transgender. How will those future parents be affected by having lost out on the opportunity to learn about the community their child is a part of?
The research with parents, in the US and globally, is clear on this point: It is more difficult and painful for parents who have no prior knowledge of sexualities and genders that fall outside the norm. Such parents experience more confusion, isolation, self-doubt, and other negative emotions and are less certain about where to turn for help. Knowing about LGBTQ communities in advance can help parents to feel less alone when a child comes out.
It can also help them to imagine a life for their child that is not a purely negative life. In my research with parents in Taiwan, many moms and dads were shook when a child came out in part because they feared their child would live a sad and lonely life – not the kind of life they wanted for someone they loved so much. Education genuinely helped. Parents saw models of LGBTQ people having different kinds of jobs, having close friends, having partners and even children of their own.
Not all parents became totally accepting. But their dread diminished, and they were better able to stay in relationship with their child.
We have research, too, showing that parents of intersex children are less likely to make choices they regret when they have information about and interaction with the intersex community and intersex adults. Learning about the natural diversity of sex, beyond the binary, should not happen at the moment of a child’s birth, when an intersex trait is discovered. Placing people in such situations is a failure of education to prepare them for their real lives.
People with no known connection to the LGBTQ+ community
What about people who have no known connection to the LGBTQ+ community in the present or the future? How is this even relevant to them?
What I want to offer here, for us to consider, is that withholding education about a group makes us more vulnerable to misinformation and to the manipulation of our thoughts and emotions.
For years, our society has encouraged visceral, emotional reactions like disgust and violence towards LGBTQ people, and nowadays especially toward trans people. Describing us as predators who are dangerous to children is an example of a message that can generate those types of reactions. Think of the people who are shooting up Bud Light cans on Tiktok, right? That’s a visceral reaction – an anger and sense of betrayal felt in the body. Unchecked, these reactions can begin to show up in the ways that we treat others in school, in the workplace, in peer groups, and elsewhere.
None of the parents I know – whether more progressive or more conservative – want their children to bully others or show disgust toward them. For many, this would directly contradict core values and tenants of their faiths. However, if we offer no counternarrative about trans and gay people, these cultural messages can still seep in to our bodies and psyches. And we can find ourselves not closer to our values, but further from them as a result of the warped picture we have received of our classmates, colleagues, and neighbors whose genders and sexualities differ from ours.
I will also add, here, that I think many people simply don’t have the understanding of our community to know what these bills will mean for us. There are lots of examples; I’ll give one.
House Bill 2711 in Arizona requires all school employees and independent contractors to report information they get related to a student’s gender or sexual identity to parents within 48 hours. I can imagine that to many people, this makes sense – it allows parents to better know and maybe even better support their child.
What they probably don’t know is that we have a body of research showing that “outing” a person before they are ready is harmful for the whole family. Outing increases the risk of violence. It increases the risk of such severe conflict that the young person may be forced to leave home. But even in more resilient families, it can do damage that takes years to heal. The truth is, the vast majority of people come out to their families very slowly, gradually, and carefully – not because of shame or secrecy, but because they want to preserve their family relationships.
I don’t fault people for not knowing this. How could they be expected to know, if they have not had the opportunity to learn? Spaces for education and dialogue are crucial. Without these spaces, we will not be able to get people the information they need to make choices that reflect the values they sincerely hold.
LGBTQ people themselves/ourselves
What about LGBTQ people themselves/ourselves? What is at stake for us? Or put another way: why is it so important to be a part of the curriculum – to see oneself in the past, present, and future?
I teach many courses in LGBTQ studies, and students of all sexualities and genders take those classes. Straight and cis students often come in with no knowledge of LGBTQ+ history, and that is a gap in their education they are eager to fill.
But what really gets me, is that so many LGBTQ students come in with no knowledge of their own history.
This is another sort of problem. It’s not just an intellectual problem. It is a form of alienation.
Scholars use the term “familial isolation” to describe the unique situation of growing up with a stigmatized identity, without having adults or role models who share that identity. This term has been used in the disability literature, to describe the experience of disabled people whose family members do not share their disability. It has also been used to describe LGBTQ people who grow up with only heterosexuals as role models, family members, and mentors.
LGBTQ elders have a lot of wisdom to offer – but that wisdom is often not available to our young people. This creates a vacuum of knowledge about how to navigate the world as someone who is gay or transgender. In the past, and in some places today, people in this situation have described feeling profoundly alone, unable to imagine possibilities for their own lives.
For others, the result is an over reliance on peers for information and support. Peers can be a great resource. But peers are still kids. Kids don’t know everything and shouldn’t have to.
How do you make a decision about when it is safe to wear that dress?
What do you do if someone outs you to a family member before you are ready?
Kids can ask kids – but that’s asking a lot of them. That’s putting the whole burden of community care on their developing shoulders. Unfortunately, by removing adults in general and LGBTQ adults in particular as sources of knowledge about LGBTQ life, the over reliance on peers is going to continue.
I want to emphasize again that peers have a lot of value. Sometimes kids can see things even more clearly than adults can. And certainly not all adults are wise. But our LGBTQ kids need and deserve adults who can answer their specific questions and listen to their unique concerns.
Last week, we had a graduation event where I handed out certificates to people who had completed the LGBTQ studies program. In my remarks, I said, “it is an act of respect to learn about a people.” It is in this spirit that I share my deeper hope: that the public conversation will gradually shift, from whether we have the right not to learn about LGBTQ people, to questioning why this would be a right that we desire.
This will require collective reflection about what we value, and whether those values are really served by the kinds of bills and laws we are seeing in state legislatures today.
Reflecting on conversations I have had, it seems to me that one shift we need to make is from “issues” to “people” – we are not LGBTQ “issues,” we are LGBTQ people. We are not asking for LGBTQ “issues” to be addressed in the curriculum; we are asking for LGBTQ people to be present, in the same ways that non-LGBTQ people and families already are. Talking about LGBTQ people and families is not sex ed. Of course, a comprehensive sex ed program would include us. However, the restrictions we are discussing are not about sex ed but the curriculum as a whole.
These are more than semantics. I think they are areas where people are genuinely confused as to what LGBTQ inclusion entails. To address this confusion, we need to learn about and respond to people’s actual concerns, and not just to what those concerns represent to us. While condemning a bill as transphobic and hateful may resonate with people who share this understanding, it does not resonate with nor is it persuasive to people who experience their concerns neither as phobia nor hate, but as a genuine desire to protect children from what they believe are real harms. We must figure out a way to reach each other. Reaching is a kind of love, a refusal to give up. Trans and other LGBQ+ kids (and adults) living in states where these bills are passing into law are worth this effort and more. May our love for them be the power we need to stay the course. The stakes for all of us are too high to do anything less.
On LGBTQ family of origin relationships:
Bertone, Chiara and Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli. 2015. Queerying Families of Origin. Routledge.
Brainer, Amy. 2019. Queer Kinship and Family Change in Taiwan. Rutgers University Press.
Brainer, Amy. 2015. “Growing up with a lesbian, gay, or bisexual sibling.” Pp. 164-181 in Families as They Really Are (2nd ed.), edited by B. Risman & V. Rutter. W.W. Norton & Co.
On parents of intersex children:
Davis, Georgiann. 2015. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis. NYU Press.
On familial isolation influencing both LGBTQ and disability communities:
Sherry, Mark. 2004. “Overlaps and contradictions between queer theory and disability studies.” Disability and Society 19(7): 769-783.
Not cited in this blog, but building on it – curricular debates about sexuality and gender in other countries:
Francis, Dennis A., Jón Ingvar Kjaran, and Jukka Lehtonen, eds. 2020. Queer Social Movements and Outreach Work in Schools. Springer. Includes chapters on Austria; Brazil; Canada; Chile; Denmark, Finland, and Iceland; Iran; South Africa; Spain; Taiwan; and (in a single chapter) Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The biblical citation is from Corinthians; read the entire passage here.
Feature image CC0 Public Domain, retrieved from pxhere.com