As an educator, I try my best to keep up with my professional reading: I treasure my subscription to NCTE’s English Journal (which I’m reminded is coming up for renewal in August along with my NCTE membership), and I attempt to read through each issue as I receive them. I’ve been mostly successful; I think a previous issue got lost in the mix, and I’m in the midst of reading the current issue on real-world teaching (a topic I’m very much in favor of). I also like to respond to articles that I particularly like or issues that I think need to be brought into the professional conversation, and that I haven’t done so great a job about.
I recently finished an issue of EJ (Vol. 98, No. 4) that was on an interesting subject for me: sexual orientation and gender variance. (‘Sexual orientation’ is probably a fairly self-explanatory term, but ‘gender variance’ may not be; the latter is essentially the variance in gender expression from the ‘norm,’ which could range from simple deviations from normal gender expression such as girls who are “tomboys” or boys who “act girly” or “effeminate” all the way to transexuality. The issue of ‘intersexuality’ also comes up, which is related to these two ideas.) I have been thinking about many of the articles that have been included in the issue, trying to think about them as I consider my curriculum as a first-year teacher.
Mostly, I’ve been thinking, “Are you nuts?!”
By and large, I am in favor of bringing the issues of sexual orientation and gender variance to light, and I am firmly committed to cultivating a classroom environment where students who might struggle with those issues can feel safe. There are little things that I can do to help model these sorts of ideas, the most obvious being the exclusion of certain terms or usages from the classroom (e.g. “queer,” “fag/faggot,” and even “That’s gay” as an euphemism for “That’s stupid”) but also trying to use familial terms that are more inclusive (some related to marriage, such as “partner” for spouse/husband/wife or “significant other” for boyfriend/girlfriend, but this could be extended to other “non-traditional” familial arrangements, using “guardian” for parent). I think that homophobia definitely needs to be combatted at this level, just as things like racism, sexism, and xenophobia need to be combatted in order to set an example for students.
What amazes me is when I read about teachers who are able to deal with LGBTQ* issues directly, especially through literature. I think that I could get away with dealing with issues like gay marriage (especially since this is such a hot-button issue, with states legalizing gay marriage seemingly left and right), but I think it would be incredibly difficult to teach LGBTQ literature, especially knowing that I’ll be teaching small classes at a small rural school where there might be enough objectors who request alternate reading (which I imagine I’d be obligated to provide – English teachers, am I right here?) that even attempting to include literature about individuals dealing with issues of sexuality and gender expression might well be a waste of time and preparation. On the other hand, I don’t know this to be true, and I’d hate to avoid presenting students with issues that are relevant and which very might well affect some of them directly (and all of them indirectly).
When thinking about this, I also have to admit that part of me has been a little apprehensive of going down this road because of possible repercussions to me from students – even despite being a happily married man (for almost six years now), I have this nagging fear that I might experience personal attacks related (e.g. “I bet he’s in the closet,” “He’s such a fag lover”). I fully recognize that this is entirely irrational, but still it bothers me, even though I desperately wish that it didn’t.
I don’t know how I’ll deal with this as I plan my curriculum (although I do think that I’ll be looking into buying enough LGBTQ books for a small section in my personal classroom library – perhaps some Alex Sanchez books, Luna, Boy Meets Boy), but I do know that I’ll have to face this. An environment like the one I’m afraid I’ll be stepping into (although I don’t have any positive evidence of this from having visited the school) is one where students need to be exposed to other viewpoints, and I shouldn’t be afraid of that. I must find in myself the sort of bravery that exemplifies the best in people – what I want to be showing students anyway through my example – and keep that in mind even where I might be stepping into dangerous waters. While I don’t think I’ll be doing things like introducing my students to queer theory as a first-year teacher (Sieben and Wallowitz), I hope that I can find some way to incorporate LGBTQ issues into my students’ lives so that they understand them as real issues that relate to actual people, just as I would deal with any other pertinent topics.
*This term generally stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transitioning, and Questioning, although the label is intended to be even more inclusive than simply these five notions related to sexual orientiation and gender variance.