LGBT In Education A Thick Layered Onion That Will Make You Cry If You Start Cutting Through It

[RS] Скоро је било за очекивати да ћу баш негде у овом периоду допринети овде са кратком дискусијом о проблемима везаним за образовање и ЛГБТ популацију. Прошле недеље, 17. маја, смо пропратили ИДАХОТ, и као и обично сви велики играчи су пружили подршку својом посвећеношћу. Порука УНФЕ да сексуална ориjентација и родни идентитет нису ништа ново је управо та коју ја лично осећам и практикујем већ годинама. Међутим, дилеме и невоље кроз које ЛГБТ особе свакодневно пролазе у школству су далеко од прихватљивих. Осећање неприпадања у хетеронормативном образовном систему, које неретко бива праћено психичким и физичким злостављањем је део искуства како ЛГБТ ђака и студената/ица, тако и ЛГБТ учитеља/ица, наставника/ица и професора/ица. Овај проблем захтева систематичан приступ и посвећеност свих нас, а први корак не мора нужно бити драстичан – довољно је да се у следећој посети школи запитамо где су и како се осећају млади ЛГБТ људи и њихови ЛГБТ наставници/ице, да ли се плаше да се родно изразе или да ли крију своју сексуалну ориентацију, односно шта поменута школа чини да потпомогне у развоју боље и инкузивније сутрашњице.

It was almost to be expected that I write a discussion piece on the topic of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues in education just about now. Last week the world observed IDAHOT (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia) on 17th May and, as usual, all the big players responded with commitment and all the small ones accepted these pledges with joy and determination. For instance, the European Commission’s Berlaymont building lit up in rainbow colours with a supportive official message against discriminatory practice in Member States (#EU4LGBTI). Similarly, official statements came from the WorldBank, and the one from UNWomen was pointing out severity of multi-faceted discrimination lesbians face in many places around the world. UNFE presented a great infogram “Sexual orientation and gender identity are nothing new” along with a plethora of additional readings on their main page. The European Parliament had a Plenary Session which included discussing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, while EU Council raised a rainbow flag in support to IDAHOT. Unsurprisingly, among others I also highlight a tweet from UNESCO that shared its publication Out in the open: Education sector responses to violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity/expression, one of those that has been now included to my longish list of pass-time interest-related readings.

European Commission #Berlaymont lit up to support #LGBTIequality / Source: European Commission official Twitter handle (@EU_Commission)

 Yet, even though LGBT topics are nothing new today, I have a sad sense of the unfortunate reality surrounding the educational science and practice which at large and on average portrays a rather heteronormative picture. And, truth be told, from a perspective of an educationalist with an active radar for positive (and negative) notions of non-heteronormativity, the LGBT issues in education remain a marginal topic even despite the fact of how harmful it may be not to deal with them.

 NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: I refer here to LGBT issues as a common term, even though it is important to state that gay, lesbian and bisexual issues are different from those of transgender and intersex population. However, conventional education system is no less ignorant to issues of either the LGB or transgender community. I also refer to the LGBT as a greater community that includes people that identify as queer or that are intersex, as well as those who are asexual, thus those feeling under pressure from sexual and gender norms imposed by the society at large. Finally, this discussion piece does not want to convey the idea that the LGBT community has no norms whatsoever; it does and they are not always agreeable for everyone! The debate here is rather focused on being aware of these norms and having a wide perspective when it comes to educating all children and providing safe school working environments to all educational staff, regardless of their gender expression or sexual orientation.

The Gingerbread Person: an illustrative simple way to explain the complexities of the LGBT community (N.B. there is an upgraded available Gingerbread person v3 which is more comprehensive) / Source and credits: Sam Killermann

We can argue for a discussion, is it really important to determinate anyone’s sexuality or sexual preference within any sector, including education? I’d be the first to say – no, it should be no one’s business who is fancying whom, and this goes for all the following complementary feelings and activities regardless whether they are sexual or not. But, it also does seem wrong to keep silent about the suffering non-heterosexuals and transgender students, parents and educational staff, have to live through just because of who they fancy.

The topic of LGBT in education is such a thick layered onion that it really makes me cry every time I start cutting through it. Just for the sake of clarity, when we talk about LGBT in education we can talk about several of its aspects, such as 1) bullying of LGBT youth and the lack of support, 2) lack of LGBT content in curricula in most of schools around the globe, and 3) invisibility of LGBT staff in education.

To start with the first, bullying based on sexual orientation and gender expression in schools across the globe has already reached critical levels already some few several years ago. Actually, it seems that school have become a perfect setting for it. The number of suicides of those who don’t fit the hetero-profile and are severely harassed for this has soared globally and according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suicide attempts by LGB youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to happen in comparison to straight youth population. This obviously causes an outrage among activists, as well as fear and confusion among those who are currently in the “system” (“system” might connote a prison and I am sure that for some LGBTs this is how national education feels). Rare are the countries that have actively enacted measures to mediate education-related LGBT problems and have active policies that protect and support the LGBT school population. Grass-root organisations are those that have taken serious effective steps to prevent and cure the bruising experiences young LGBTs face in schools, with such examples as the It Gets Better Project which encourages young people to brave through the everyday bullying and discrimination.

The National school climate survey / Source: GLSEN

Moving further to the next point, the lack of LGBT content in school curricula in the 21st century is as obvious as it is disappointing. This actually brings at least two notions along, the first being the exact non-existence of this topic in classrooms and curricular material, and the second reflecting the teachers’ inability or unpreparedness to work with, deal or teach the topic. Needless to say, there is also a dozen of myths that come with the fears of introducing the topic of LGBT into the school curricula, such as that this topic falls under sexual education ONLY and that by introducing it young people might get encouraged to “become” gay, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, gender-fluid or might choose to lead a sexually “deviant” life. Of course, it is true that sexual education (in countries where it is allowed and taught) quite heavily lacks the component of LGBT sexual health, but I do not need to stress how ridiculous it is to avoid LGBT topics just for the fear of encouraging same-sex curiosities or different gender expressions. Yet, it is also true that being a member of the LGBT community is more than just having a sexual preference or a different gender identity and this is rarely introduced in heteronormative character of schools.

Being a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person includes more than just understanding and learning about sexuality, and having role models in textbooks, as well as in school surrounding, is equally as important.

Thus, the incompetence of teachers and school staff to handle the topic is another hurting wound in this conversation. This comes either for the fact that initial teacher education and continuous professional development programmes are ignorant of this topic or that teachers themselves fear of potential incontrollable debates, have no support and are scared of parents’ negative reactions. Yet again, rare are the teachers that actively propose a healthy debate in the classroom that relates to LGBT issues.

This smoothly leads into the third aching layer of the fat problem-onion: LGBT teachers and other LGBT school staff. In most of the countries around the globe they are as rare as a nun in a bikini. But before you stop reading this and try to browse the web, let me save you the frustration. Typing “lesbian teacher” or “gay teacher” into your search engine, also in any of your own languages (I’ve tried in English, Portuguese, Hungarian, Serbian and Polish), will land you with [surprise-surprise] a handful of porn references. As implicative and untasteful as this might be with regards to the world we live in, being an LGBT teacher seems to be a scary idea altogether. Even though scarce, there are statements of teachers who identify as LGBT, and their stories are full of agony and dilemma, many of which should never bother a grown person – like, should I tell the truth about who I am or who is my special other, should I avoid it or should I lie. In her book Lesbian Teacher: an invisible presence, Madiha Didi Khayatt expresses that

In a publicly funded educational system, not only are teachers expected to transmit dominant ideologies, but, as representatives of the state, they are assumed to embody the dominant values of the society which hires them. The notion of lesbian teachers inevitably contradicts mainstream assumptions about female teachers-women whose image stereotypically corresponds with and implicitly conveys traditional female ‘virtues’ of purity, dedication, and nurturance.

The book conveys the issues of leading a double life as a non-heterosexual teacher, as well as having a constant nauseating feeling of being “outed” and facing the consequences. It is the same story with a different twist for gay men in teaching positions because often they are also accused of paedophilia, implying that if a man loves teaching and loves other men inevitably there is something broken inside. Transgender teachers are obviously not excluded from the agonies of personal and professional judgement that come along in a school setting, as this teacher explains. And since these problems do not resonate in the lives of straight colleagues whose life-styles are instantly perceived as “normal”, it is also from this perspective that schools promote heteronormativity. Of course, it is again needless to say that school in this respect merely reflects the unsettling and unhealthy practices and norms of the society at large.

Indeed efforts are made to bring the message through; for instance, Education International has published an official statement The rights of lesbian and gay teacher and educational personnel which is highly appreciated but still does not change the devastating realities of teachers being harassed and bullied by students, or threatened by parents and their employers. This reality is true for school principals as well, who in case of being non-heterosexual might find themselves in a position of discomfort to say the least.

Tackling LGBT-phobia in schools and making the learning environments less heteronormative and more accepting of diversity demands a set of careful solutions that take time and efforts, as it is with any issue that comes with our social and cultural baggage. There are practices that are offered through research and advocacy that may help moderate a better future. For instance, Edutopia offers six starting points that schools can embrace in order to promote a different school climate, while offers a virtual space for LGBT educators to overcome their fears and troubles and stand tall in front of a crumbling unhealthy system. GLSEN has a long record of working with schools, and so does LGBT Youth Scotland. Of course, this is not enough and more efforts need to be undertaken by non-LGBT educators too; with this respect it is good to know that there is a Global Alliance for LGBT Education (GALE) with the aim to promote inclusion and create learning communities of educators that thrive for making schooling a better experience for everyone.

School poster / Source: 4thWaveNow

And these initiatives are important, as education should serve to create the society of tomorrow. Therefore, next time you approach a school, stop for a while and think: where are the LGBT teachers and students and are they free to be who they are and have the liberty to love who they want. Or are they living undercover, in fear and agony? And what is this school then doing in terms of creating a better and more inclusive society of tomorrow?

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Helena Kovacs

Helena is a MSC Early Stage Researcher at ELTE in Budapest (Hungary). Her research project covers teacher learning in innovative learning environments as she attempts to understand how education can serve social change and development. Next to education, Helena’s professional interests also include European affairs, nation-building and identity, and gender. Prior to joining the Marie Curie family, Helena was a consultant at the Technopolis group in Brighton (UK), where she experienced working in a dynamic setting that deals with commercial evidence-based research, mainly within large European Commission evaluations. Before that, Helena had the chance to see the other side of the coin, as a trainee at the Commission’s DG Education and Culture. In addition, she has years of experience in facilitating non-formal educational trainings in the field of youth across the Balkans. Helena obtained her master degree through Erasmus Mundus Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management programme, in Copenhagen (Denmark) and Bilbao (Spain), and she holds a Bachelor in Community Youth Work.

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