While eliminating violent acts is imperative, reducing the concept of a hostile school environment to the acts of individual (troubled) students who can be rehabilitated merely contains and manages the violence, rather than addressing its causes. When the absence of reported bullying functions as the indicator of a safe or inclusive school for LGBTQ students and families, we fail to account for the social processes at work in sustaining the patterns of homophobic bullying and the — subtle, often unintentional — ways schools help to sustain these patterns decade after decade, beginning in the early years of schooling.
We want to challenge the taken-for-granted conceptualization of LGBTQ youths’ school experiences and argue for a broader understanding that encompasses cultural systems of power — specifically along lines of gender and sexuality — that persistently privilege specific groups of youth while marginalizing others. In other words, we need to examine how U.S. culture assumes heterosexuality and traditional gender expressions to be “normal” and “right” and how such values permeate the policies, procedures, and curricula in K-12 schools, making non-traditional gender expressions and sexualities “not normal” and “wrong/bad” or “less than” and thus potential targets.
Shifting the definition of “the problem” in this way demands a different framing of peer-to-peer aggression than that which underlies the dominant bullying discourse. It requires recognition of how patterns of targeting serve the purpose of enforcing strict cultural expectations around gender and sexuality — and how these cultural expectations are being taught and reinforced by the schools themselves. Further, this shift calls for an examination of how aggression functions in youths’ pursuit of social status in elementary, middle and high school.
Because victim blaming isn’t just for rape/sexual assault victims/survivors…
With many things that end up touching on education, I just want to add the usual, “We who have been there have known this (and wished for this) for years, where has the rest of the world been?”
And I don’t say that just as a teacher, but as a student whose heroes were sometimes the teachers who made the very basic but very conscious decision of defending our right to exist.
If you work with young people and have ever been in an environment that was poison to anyone LGBTQ, that works against them, that tells them they are the other, let me reassure you — including them, publicly treating them the same as their peers, acknowledging and speaking up against bullying that can be as basic as name-calling or violence or as subtle as veiled commentary through classroom conversations — these things that seem like they don’t do enough may mean everything.
You don’t need to be a movie hero who rallies loudly and fields death threats and has to fear for their life walking to their car to change the school environment. A few friends and I were talking about this — about the expectations set for people as to what radical change looks like. Radical change is listening to the people you’re trying to help when they tell you what’s wrong, and working with them to act first on that. Radical change is sometimes feeling like you’re standing alone because not everyone can risk the consequences of standing up with you, because people are afraid, because people are tired of fighting every day against the little things. Radical change is sometimes slow, sometimes thankless, sometimes exhausting and sometimes looks and feels at first glance like you haven’t achieved anything.
But it’s also a couple of years from now when you tell someone about the little things that happened before and they’re horrified, because it seems so different from where you are now, and how could that have happened here? It’s the graduating student who makes it through when you were worried they might not, and the incoming students who may not even be able to fully appreciate how meaningful that is. It’s the teacher that feels less like they’re living a double life.
And again, I say this not only as a teacher, but as a student who has been there. Look at the little things in the big picture. And if you cannot find them, ask someone who knows them so intimately that they would be all too happy to have help in changing them.