How queer texts combat homophobia in schools

1 March 2019
Schools teach academic skills - but they are also sites of learning about tolerance and hate. Embedding queer texts in the English curriculum could lessen gender-based bullying and affect real social change, write Sydney experts.
Illustration of books on a shelf that are different colours of the rainbow. Image: Pixabay.

Recently, the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE)—the peak professional body for Australian English teachers—published a special issue of the journal English in Australia entitled “Love in English.” It addressed the continued marginalisation of some genders and sexualities within the classroom. The editors reflected that, even after the legal advent of marriage equality, “some kinds of love and ways of talking about love are more dominant than others.”

One article in the special issue analysed sample text lists provided by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). The article found only two of the 21 fiction texts portrayed non-heterosexual protagonists, named characters, experiences, or relationships. Before you go imagining radical queer literature stealthily making its way into the secondary classroom, the texts in question were Twelfth Night and The Great Gatsby.

More than a debate of literary merits

An extensive amount of educational research has demonstrated that schools are enjoyable and productive places for some students, but not others. As much as we would like to think otherwise, it’s clear from this body of work that schools do not serve all members of the population equally well. Compounding this issue is the fact that, in addition to teaching academic skills, schools themselves are sites of learning about social, cultural, political and economic positions, rights and possibilities. Schools can either double-down on social inequalities or they can institute attitude change.

Schools are lagging behind the current conversations about gender and sexuality that are going on in the wake of marriage equality. Many policymakers and politicians are reluctant to address issues involving youth at all, let alone sexually and gender-diverse youth.

The AATE’s focus on love, like the marriage-equality debate, depressurises things a little, but it’s clear that the test of classroom tolerance is no longer sexual orientation but gender diversity. This is a narrative regularly occurring in some corners of the media – one need only look at this week’s coverage of the AATE issue in The Australian, the Daily Telegraph and Sky News to realise that the debate is about much more than just the merits of the literary canon.

The situation in schools today

Consider the situation of the many Australian school students who consider themselves sexually or gender diverse. A 2015 Australian research study of over 700 LGBTIQ+ young people indicated that:

  • 94% had heard homophobic language at school, with 58% of these young people hearing this kind of language daily.
  • 45% of participants had also witnessed school-based physical harassment of classmates who were perceived as being sexually and/or gender diverse.

These findings are consistent with other research that indicates that homophobic violence is increasing in Australian schools. The 1998 ‘Writing Themselves In’ report indicated that 69% of sexually or gender diverse young people reported homophobic violence. In 2004 this figure rose to 74%, and by 2010 it was 80%. Don’t let anyone tell you that these kids have it easy at school.

Reading as a ‘survival art’

Being provided with a safe learning environment is not the only thing that queer young people are being denied; they are also being denied the opportunity to learn about the histories and experience of people like themselves.

As colleagues at Sydney and Western Sydney University have noted, “Discrimination can be perpetuated by what is present—and what is noticeably absent—in the curriculum.” As a result of these processes of exclusion, queer kids become very adept at reading between the lines. This kind of reading, it turns out, is a survival art, alchemising shame and damage into love and self-respect.

Queer inclusions in curricula have the potential to make a meaningful difference to schooling environments, especially to understanding and confronting inequalities. This is as it should be, since the entire national English curriculum identifies as its core purpose teaching young Australians to contribute to “a democratic, equitable and just society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse.”

Why school texts require greater diversity

The literary texts that students spend time on in school allow opportunities to explore different lives and life chances. Even when the texts are canonic, they can still be alternative, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has influentially argued.

Think about the queer subtexts of Euripides. Think Virgil. Think Plato and Socrates. How about Marlowe, Spenser, Milton or Shakespeare? Or Dickens, Dickinson, James, Melville, Proust, Wilde, Woolf?

One of the most powerful things about literature is its capacity to undo itself. The canon is always a cannon. Taught well, literature encourages new ways of apprehending difference. Even taught badly, literature allows students to safely explore their beliefs and test the commonsense truths that are conveyed all around them in non-literary forms that pride themselves on transparency.

One reason to ensure that the recommended reading for secondary students includes texts with transparently queer characters is that it allows them to push back against the overwhelming social proposition that queer young people are inherently “at risk.” That’s what frightens parents: we know that from our own teenage comings out.

It’s time to include young people

There is clear and overwhelming evidence that the wellbeing, mental health and educational achievement of LGBTIQ+ young people is often poorer than their cisgender and heterosexual peers. But it’s important to acknowledge the resilience, strength and joy of queer students too. Queer kids and the people who love them need to know they can survive and thrive while we wait for the ideal of an inclusive Australia to arrive.

We all need help with this and books are a good place to start. Simply setting texts that present diversity, however, doesn’t mean teachers will support their messages, that students won’t resist and reject them, or that the books won’t perpetuate negative attitudes towards queer people. Diversity can no more be guaranteed than love. Not even the love of books.

Perhaps a more useful way to approach this issue would be to ask students themselves what they want to read. At the University of Sydney, we are actively working with young people and other marginalised communities to understand what they’re interested in and what research they think would benefit them.

Rather than continuing to make decisions on behalf of youth, we are determined to open more channels for them to tell us about their wants and needs in education, and more broadly. Young people are often a topic of discussion. It’s time for them to be included in discussions, and discussion around the school curriculum should not be an exception.

Professor Annamarie Jagose is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and an internationally known scholar in feminist studies, lesbian/gay studies and queer theory. Associate Professor Lee Wallace teaches in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies and is currently completing a book on gay marriage comedies. Dr Victoria Rawlings is an expert on gender, sexuality and education in the School of Education and Social Work.

A shorter version of this article appeared on The Conversation as ‘Pages and prejudice: how queer texts could fight homophobia in Australian schools’.

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