Dear Straight Teachers,
As your soon-to-be colleague who is gay, I’ve got some thoughts that I’d like you to you need to read. It’s important to note from the beginning that I cannot speak to the experiences of those who identify as other gender and sexual minorities. Here, I’m offering you my own perspective as a teacher who grew up as a gay, cis-gendered male student in a very straight education system.
You likely fall into one of these two groups of straight teachers:
- The ones thinking, Why are you telling me all this, Will? I’m friends with you / I’m kind to gay people / I go to pride every year / Gay people are awesome!; or
- The ones thinking, I don’t agree with homosexuality!
Well, to those I say:
- Great! I’m sure you are a wonderful person! But read on anyway, I promise I’ve got stuff to share.
- Okay, think of it like this: If someone prescribes to a particular religion, they (by default) don’t prescribe to the beliefs of another religion. Despite different beliefs, individuals belonging to different religions can be civil and respectful toward each other. I’m not trying to get you to “agree” with homosexuality here, I’m trying to enlighten you on the experiences of some of your students, whether you “agree” with their sexuality or not.
For both groups, the fact is that you have gay students in your classes. I am writing this to you this because we work in an education system that is built around heteronormativity, a reflection of the society in which we live. As a member of the education system, you are either actively fighting that heteronormative structure or you are supporting it, and (from what I have seen) there are many who fall into the latter category, even if that isn’t their intention.
Of course, I recognize how incredibly fortunate I am to live in the time and place that I do, as I have many more legal and social rights afforded to me than other gay-identifying individuals before my time and in many other parts of the world. That being said, the fact that I could not even look at myself in the mirror growing up and say the words “I am gay” out loud when I absolutely knew it to be true, the fact that I felt so ashamed of myself for years because of my orientation, says that there is still a problem.
I know what “heteronormativity” means, but do you really think it’s so engrained in everything? Are you making this a bigger deal than it is?
Knowing the meaning of the word is great, but the harder part is recognizing heteronormativity yourself. For me, it’s easy to see because, well, I’m gay. Heteronormativity (though I didn’t know the word at the time) was all I could see in my mid-late teens among my family, friends, in public, and in media (and when there were mentions of homosexuality, it was very much a “different” thing). Trust me, if you think there’s a lot of talk about gay people, I can promise you that there is way more talk about straight people. Y’all are everywhere.
Take a look at this Ikea ad:
Notice the gay couple? You probably did. I had to look up the ad online to make sure I saw what I thought. I was so excited: A gay couple! In an ad! For something that wasn’t “gay”! Why did I react this way? Because all my life, I’ve only seen straight people in ads. That’s heteronormativity! Not showing gay people in ads isn’t purposely sending an anti-gay message, but it’s pretending that we don’t exist. I must tell you, it’s not the nicest the feeling when it seems as though all of society is pretending you don’t exist.
One of my roommates in first year undergrad, Monis, had this brilliant moment a couple of weeks after I came out to him. I had my iPod playing through speakers and he had this light-bulb moment look on his face. He glanced at my iPod and asked, “Hey! Doesn’t it bother you that whenever a guy sings, it’s always about a girl?” I replied, “Yes!” I was so happy to see a straight friend noticing the heteronormativity in popular music, where even many openly gay singers today avoid the use of male pronouns when singing about their love interest and avoid romantic interaction with other men in their music videos. Of course, this is beginning to change with singers like Steve Grand, who has a music video where he dances around with and sings to another man, but this seems to still be a rarity in today’s music.
Okay, so what about our education system? How is that heteronormative?
Ever asked a male student if he has a girlfriend, or a female student if she has a boyfriend?
Ever ask a student what their mother and father do? Ever think about the possibility of that student having two mothers or two fathers?
Ever complimented a male student by telling him that he’s going to “have the ladies lining up” or “get all the girls”?
Ever hear a student use the word “f*g”? Ever do anything about it?
Ever mention to your students that the author whose novel you’re reading is/was gay and talk about how that influenced their life? (Because notmentioning it is exactly what I mean when I say “supporting the heteronormative structure”.)
Ever mention that you found another person of the same sex attractive? Did you qualify it like this: “I may be straight, but _____ is one attractive man”? Yeah, don’t do that. (“I may not be Middle Eastern, but these are excellent falafels.” That is how ridiculous you sound.)
The point of this isn’t to guilt you, it’s to help broaden your perspective to better understand your students who are gay, because (again) you all have them in your classes.
You don’t need to speculate “who’s gay” with other teachers, you need to ensure that your language isn’t heteronormative. The gay students will notice. Some may have amazing role models or wonderfully open parents, but others won’t. And you may never know which students you’ve helped by simply changing your language (because not all the gay kids are “flamboyant” and not all “flamboyant” kids are gay), but so what? The point isn’t to keep a tally of how many students’ lives you’ve touched.
There is so much to be aware of with queer issues. How am I supposed to know it all?
It’s okay to mess up, whether that means not pulling a student aside when a student uses the word “f*g” or using the word yourself. But here’s what I want you to do: call yourself out on it! And eventually your habits will change. I don’t expect anyone to stop being heteronormative overnight, but I do expect teachers to always be educating themselves to ensure that their speech, their behaviour, and their curricula (both formal and hidden) are not sending harmful (i.e., heteronormative) messages to students who are gay and perhaps already struggling emotionally with their sexuality.
I used to think heteronormativity was okay because it was a seemingly logical assumption; most people are straight! After time I realized, though, that it was this assumption that kept me in the closet, that kept me staring at myself in the mirror unable to say “I am gay”, for so long. My sexuality shouldn’t make me feel like I’m breaking a rule, but that’s exactly what it did. I felt so ashamed of it. I’m not looking for your sympathy — I’m looking for your action, because without it, you are part of the system that’s keeping some of your students in the closet and ashamed of who they are.
Why should we put so much focus on gay students?
I took a “Positive Psychology” course in third year undergrad and I’ll always remember reading the explanation of the field of positive psychology:
The applied psychology of yesteryear was mostly about mental illness…Positive psychology, on the other hand, offers a balance to this previous weakness-oriented approach by suggesting that we also must explore people’s strengths along with their weaknesses. In advocating this focus on strengths, however, in no way do we mean to lessen the importance of pain associated with human suffering. (1)
In the same way, in advocating queer issues in education, we aren’t trying to lessen the importance of straight people, but to balance the straightness at school with some gayness.
To conclude, I’m going to ask you a question I’m sure you’ve heard multiple times: Why did you decide to become a teacher? I can’t think of an answer to that that would have any group of students feeling ashamed of their true selves.
Your answer to that question is why you need to combat heteronormativity in the education system. Broaden your perspective, modify your language, and make life a bit better for some of the students in your classes.
- from Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths (2nd ed) by C. R. Snyder, S. J. Lopez, and J. T. Pedrotti.
This article was originally posted at: http://coffeeandteaching.wordpress.com/2014/06/01/an-open-letter-to-straight-teachers/.