While many schools have addressed LGBTQ sexuality and gender by focusing on bullying prevention, one team of professors wanted to recognize the more neglected narratives: the ordinary ways LGBTQ conversations circulate inside schools. In order to unearth these discussions, Jen Gilbert of York University in Toronto, Nancy Lesko of Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Jessica Fields and Laura Mamo of San Francisco State University began to ask school communities to share stories about LGBTQ sexuality and gender. This collection of stories would eventually become The Beyond Bullying Project.
In 2014, the research team worked with the Bay Area Video Coalition to set up a simple audio-video recording booth in three schools—in San Francisco, New York, and Minneapolis—where students and staff could talk about anything related to LGBTQ sexuality or gender. Depending on the level of consent participants gave over the two-week project, the team compiled the stories for research or shared them on beyondbullyingproject.com. The project continues to expand; it is now in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Mexico. The researchers plan to adapt their website as an educator resource.
Education Week‘s Emily Lytle recently spoke with Gilbert on how the project is redefining LBGTQ issues as something more than just “a problem that education is tasked with solving.”
Why do you think it’s a challenge to discuss LGBTQ sexuality and gender in schools? What advice do you have for K-12 educators when it comes to bringing these conversations inside the classroom?
Gilbert: I think that there always is this sense of danger and risk when [a discussion about] sexuality comes close to children. It does take some courage for teachers to talk about LGBTQ issues with young people because they worry that they’re introducing something; that they’re corrupting children and youth with these topics. When really, what was so remarkable about this project is that all these young people and all these teachers already have these very personal, intimate relationships with LGBTQ issues. And not because they themselves are necessarily gay or lesbian or trans.
All these young people and all these teachers already have these very personal, intimate relationships with LGBTQ issues."
In fact, the thing that was so remarkable was that all these young people had gay uncles or lesbian cousins, and they were really engaged in the political debates that were circulating around schools. None of them needed to be introduced to these issues—they were leading the way. And how the school thought about its role in preventing bullying was really behind what young people were already doing and thinking about.
The question is: Is public education going to be a place where we talk about these issues that are so important in the lives of young people? Are we going to be a significant player in these conversations and debates, or are we going to cede that territory to media, pop culture, religion, and so on? I really think it’s important for education to play a role in this conversation.
We want to protect young people from bullying; we want to ensure that every student feels safe when they go to school. But, it’s also important for educators and teachers to remember that sexuality and gender are a part of all our lives in the most ordinary, intimate ways. Talking about lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans issues in schools means talking about friendship, family, disappointment, or political views. You can talk about what it means to support a friend through a difficult time, or what it means to have a conflict between what your family wants for you and what you want for yourself.
You chose schools that were already providing a space for LGBTQ conversations. How might you approach schools differently if they were not in a major city or were not as open to these conversations?
We do young people in rural areas a disservice when we imagine that they are somehow behind their urban counterparts. These days young people have access to the internet; they live these rich lives online. They know about all of this, no matter where they live. The first thing is for teachers to recognize the sophistication of the young people in their classrooms.
Also, we tend to put these LGBTQ issues in curricular pockets. We cordon them off in these safer spots—sex education, for instance—and while it’s important to talk about these issues when we talk about sexual education, it’s also important for it to be a part of ordinary conversation, to be not such a big deal. It’s important to have the idea of LGBTQ people, communities, and culture come up in English class, everyday conversations, discussions of films, or what people are talking about in the cafeteria.
You captured student stories in these booths, as well as teachers’. Why do you believe that teachers were an important part of the project?
It was important for us to include teachers because we were thinking about the school as a community. It’s not only what young people think; they’re also living alongside teachers, librarians, community workers, and principals. The principals, the community workers and the teacher’s aides all told stories. We had this sense that the school is sort of an organic whole, and all these players are contributing to these narratives that are circulating just slightly below the surface around LGBTQ issues.
And as it turned out, some teachers were themselves gay or lesbian and were or were not out at school. Some came out in the booth, but they weren’t out to their students. One teacher had been out for a really long time and talked about what it meant to be living through these changes around the perceptions of LGBTQ teachers. Other teachers had gay brothers. All these adults had really complicated relationships to LGBTQ sexuality and gender that needed room to be expressed, as well.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as Q&A With Jen Gilbert: How to Tell a Different LGBTQ Story