A Queer Cultural Display

Multicultural day filled the gym of our elementary school with colorful flags and knick-knacks from more than a dozen different cultures. As I walked my students through the displays, I couldn’t help but quietly reflect on my own culture. What would I put in a display representing my queer heritage?

When thinking about the cultures we grow up in, queer culture often goes unconsidered, yet I’ve found my queer family has shaped my life in unique ways. Despite the movement to ‘mainstream’ queer couples and families, we retain a culture all our own. I hope my display might help walk you through this culture I take so much pride in.

(fyi: this isn’t the ACTUAL display described)

Right off the bat, you’ll probably notice the bright, rainbow backdrop of my cultural display. Although I did not attend pride events as a child (my mothers were closeted, and remain private, due to the pressures of their jobs), I have included pictures of the pride events I attended in college. Beneath those are the four rainbow ribbons I kept from High School. I got one each year when I participated in the Day of Silence, protesting the bullying and silencing of queer students. Beside that is a copy of the note I wrote to a teacher in middle school, talking about homophobic comments I was hearing from my peers.

Queer rights and acceptance have always been important to me — it’s my family, after all. It would be incredibly difficult to grow up in a queer family right now and not get involved in some way, seeking equal treatment and acceptance for our community. Social Justice is a queer cultural value. This is seen most immediately through the fight for our own rights and visibility, but it extends further to the compassion for, and activism with, other marginalized groups in our local communities and nation.

For me, I engage in social justice work in the classroom. As a teacher, it is my duty to teach to the pluralities of our society, and it is my job to make sure every student in my room is represented in our class. I also seek to inspire curiosity and empathy in my students and encourage them to learn about and listen to the stories of people who are different from them. We explore geography and languages around the world; we learn about the civil rights work of multiple communities in the United States, and we make connections to current events. I don’t believe we can teach history without connecting it to the present. We ask, how does this affect our lives? Is racism over? Are there things people protest today? We discuss words like pity and accessibility and look at how our own school has been made so that everyone can access and use it equally. When students bring hurtful words and phrases into the classroom, we stop and discuss it. Social justice work occurs on so many different levels, but this passion I hold for exploring the world with students is something that arises directly from my own childhood growing up in the queer community. The queer community’s own fight for rights and our experiences of discrimination has formed a community-wide value for social justice.

When you’re done exploring that portion of the display, you’ll find several photos of my family are pasted on the other side. Family is highly valued in queer culture, though it’s important to note that in my culture, family is something you choose. These families of choice may or may not include people who are blood related. In these images, you see my great grandmother, my grandma and grandfather, my mothers and sister, as well as my two closest friends. A good example of how chosen family is distinct from the idea of blood family is that there has never been any hierarchy between my two mothers. One is blood related and one is not, but both are my mothers. Blood does not dictate who is in your family; people are not obligated to love their blood relatives. Respect and love are formed by relationships that are accepting, caring, and kind. Within the queer community too many of us have had to form chosen families because blood-families abandoned or rejected us. Yet, even as acceptance increases and more blood families prove to be caring and accepting, the tradition of honoring our chosen families as our true families remains.

Beneath the section on family, you’ll note the ‘wilder’ images of the bunch. There I am painting on a beard, and that is a photo we took after my friend sheared off their long locks. There are a few photos from drag shows and pride events, but when we’re dying her hair neon-blue that was just a normal Thursday night! Non-conformity is an important element within the queer community. Despite my own long hair and conservative ‘teacher’ dress style, I’ve grown up seeing the importance of non-conformity in society. The queer community is ‘non-conforming’ from the get-go. My family was never the norm, and it remains — in many ways — unaccepted. It’s important that people choose to rebel, and to reject the status quo. There need to be people who challenge tradition and norms, who reject the answer ‘that’s just how it is’ or ‘it has to be this way’. Society needs non-conformity in order to reflect and grow. Not all conformity is bad, but blindly conforming is dangerous. It is the non-conformists amongst us who make society open their eyes, think more deeply, and notice injustices and inequalities of our everyday lives. It is the non-conformists who lead movements to improve or overthrow problematic institutions and norms. Part of queer culture is a love and value of non-conformity.

A second aspect of this non-conformity is the need to be true to yourself. Thus, I’ve added a few more personal items over here. I thought that picture of this pink ‘Coming Out’ door would be an apt segue. After all, what is a better representation of self-acceptance than the act of Coming Out? The queer community values being genuine and accepting yourself. There is a large emphasis on honesty — being open and unashamed of who you are. This is part of my culture, this unapologetic embrace of the individual. And, this part of my culture has made my job difficult sometimes.

I work in a rather conservative field. In the classroom, the students come before the teacher, and young students are viewed by society as something innocent that needs to be protected from the ‘harsher’ truths of the world. I hope to help change this — I work in between two realities. One, same-sex marriage is legal and anti-discrimination policies protect queer people in the workplace. But two, teachers are sometimes encouraged to send home permission slips before talking about queer families, and teachers are asked to ‘tread carefully’ when addressing homophobic language in class. It is difficult to work in the ‘between’ spaces. I work towards a day where queer families are truly accepted and visible in elementary schools, where all students and all staff can be honest about themselves and live unashamedly. We’re not there yet, but it is important to engage in the slow, hard task of getting there.

There is, of course, more to explore if you want to keep learning about the queer community. I’ve left a few leaflets and cards at the side of the display. A single table can’t contain a whole community, but I think I’ve captured some of our core values well enough. Queer culture values social justice, chosen families, non-conformity, and self-acceptance. If you take anything away from this, I hope you can see that queer families are indeed normal in the ways the media shows them — eating breakfast together, getting ready for school, taking care of children. But queer families are also unique in several ways because we are a part of the queer community and thus we have grown up culturally queer. We share certain values which come directly from the unique perspective of our community.