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Beyond 'Gay Day' Approaches to LGBTQ Inclusion in Schools

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As schools have become more diverse in recent decades, the field of education has looked for ways to prepare educators to work with diverse student populations and to bring recognition of socially marginalized identities into school life and curriculum. This area of practice is often called "multicultural education." With the visibility of LGBTQ students and families increasing in schools, many of the "multicultural" strategies previously applied to the inclusion of race, ethnicity and language differences are being extended to LGBTQ identities. Recognizing the need to include LGBTQ identities in school approaches to diversity and inclusion is an important step forward in making schools more welcoming places, but some of the patterns in these efforts are troubling despite their good intentions.

First, it is important to note that teachers and other school professionals are often not prepared in their programs of study to understand the needs of marginalized student identities in any significant way. In some states teachers receive education on meeting the needs of diverse learners during their pre-certification course work, but many states do not require teachers and other school professionals to take any courses with diversity content. Teachers may receive instruction during their in-service professional development time, but requirements for such training also vary from state to state. The majority of multicultural courses that are offered in the U.S. -- whether required or elective -- provide fairly standard approaches to creating school spaces that support diversity. Research on these courses has revealed that they often address difference superficially and do not necessarily build future teachers' capacity to recognize and address educational inequities. In other words, multicultural teacher education curricula often do not provide tools for understanding and analyzing the dominant cultural norms and practices at their schools and how these might marginalize some students. Furthermore, most of these courses do not address LGBTQ identities at all.

The likelihood of LGBTQ identities being included in multicultural education courses varies by region of the country, accreditation requirements and the expertise and beliefs of the university education faculty teaching pre-service teachers. However, there is a limited number of textbooks utilized in courses aimed at teaching prospective teachers about diversity. Research on these textbooks found that many exclude LGBTQ content completely or reinforce negative or stereotypical representations of LGBTQ people. LGBTQ identities were often framed as pathologies -- included in text sections on suicide, depression or sexually transmitted disease. LGBQ lives and relationships were measured against heterosexual relationships, transgender identities were often not addressed at all in these texts, and LGBTQ people were presented as predominantly white and monolithic. LGBTQ students were often portrayed as victims and described as social outsiders in need of protection rather than as students with much to contribute to the school community given a supportive environment.

This association between LGBTQ identities and health and safety "risk" can often be seen in the ways schools choose to recognize LGBTQ people. Schools often mark their dedication to diversity through one-time school events that heighten the visibility and recognition of marginalized identity groups. These events are typically organized around themes like "appreciation," "celebration" or "tolerance" and may be associated with a specific cultural tradition such as celebrating Cinco de Mayo or the Chinese New Year. While "celebration" approaches to multicultural education are tokenizing to many groups represented in school life through these single days of awareness, LGBTQ youth are further marked by the sorts of events chosen for commemoration. It is not moments in the gay civil rights movement, the achievements of LGBTQ individuals or contributions to history that are celebrated in most schools. Typically, one-day visibility events designed to raise awareness that LGBTQ students are part of the school community include World AIDS Day, the Transgender Day of Remembrance and the Day of Silence. These events highlight the multiple impacts that stigma, marginalization, harassment, disease, death and murder have had on LGBTQ communities. In our research school professionals have reported additional strategies such as a reading of the play The Laramie Project, or involvement in "anything related to AIDS" as ways to proclaim their school's support for LGBTQ students. If the experiences of LGBTQ people are formally addressed in the school curriculum, the approach tends to be similar: brief recognition associated with danger. For example, the murder of LGBTQ people during the Holocaust might be discussed in a World War II history lesson, or the impact of the AIDS epidemic on gay men might be mentioned in health class when discussing sexually transmitted diseases.

Yes, that schools are able to engage in these recognition events at all demonstrates great strides forward, and undoubtedly the presence of these events and recognitions in school spaces helps LGBTQ students and families feel less invisible. Many school professionals and students have taken personal risks to introduce these events to their schools and to get their school communities to acknowledge the harassment routinely experienced by LGBTQ people. It has, in many, many schools, been a great struggle to establish these events and have them accepted as an annual part of school life, and there are still schools in many areas of the country where these sorts of events remain taboo. We should all be grateful to the students and educators who have made these efforts and continue to make them. But it is also important to consider what is being communicated through these events, and what stereotypes may be reinforced. This pairing of LGBTQ identities and experiences with school harassment and invisibility, infection, disease, death and murder continue to mark LGBTQ people as deviant, dangerous or weird and as victims, and they offer implicit warnings to queer and questioning students that these horrors could potentially befall them, as well. So while LGBTQ people are finally being recognized in schools, it is often only in negative ways that equate LGBTQ identity with significant danger.

LGBTQ multicultural events are often seen as useful strategies for teaching kids about the dangers of using discriminatory language in the school environment. However, events such as this -- though potentially evoking sympathetic response -- do not offer education about the social norms that mark and marginalize gender nonconformity and non-hetero sexualities. They ask students to have empathy for victims of violence and to stop their harassing behavior -- which is absolutely necessary -- but they do not help students understand the discrimination against LGBTQ people or ask them to question why they think it is OK to target LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming peers for harassment. Strategies to stop harassment are essential, but it is important to note that heteronormative policies and practices of the school that privilege straight students and students with traditional genders are not being brought into awareness or called into question. Setting aside one day events where people can show support and then return to ignoring the marginalization of LGBTQ students fails to produce long-term change and may potentially result in a further entrenchment of the idea that being LGBTQ is a "bad" or dangerous thing.

So, while it may be true that these "celebration" events are indicators of improved school climate, they are not indicative of a change in school culture, and they continue to mark LGBTQ students as "victims" who are "at risk" rather than as valuable members of the school community. We need to go further. At QuERI we routinely participate in these events both in area public schools and at our university, and we have coordinated our regional Day of Silence activities for years. We do believe in the value of these events for both raising awareness and "making the case" for more focused efforts in supporting LGBTQ students. And many of these events also offer opportunities for students' collective action, which can be an affirming experience for youth. But we strongly believe that schools need to also make a consistent effort to increase visibility of LGBTQ identities through positive representations: artistic and literary talent, professional and scholarly achievements, contributions to history and political successes. Adding such representations to the school community's worldview is a necessary component for challenging the pervasive stigmatization of LGBTQ identities and moving toward inclusive school cultures. The bullying and harassment (and worse) of LGBTQ people in schools and on America's streets is a contemporary issue that calls for immediate, forceful, committed and sustained action to stop it. But recognizing the harassment and aiming to stop it is not all that "inclusion" and "diversity" should mean in schools. Not only should all children have access to a safe and comfortable learning environment, but they should feel that they are valued, respected members of the school community -- not victims to be saved -- and they should be able to see themselves positively reflected in the curriculum and school social life. Let's move beyond only acknowledging LGBTQ identities during one-day visibility events and toward schools that embrace the contributions of LGBTQ people to the world, and of LGBTQ students and families to school communities.

This piece is partially based on our 2012 research study "Safety, celebration and risk: Educator responses to LGBTQ professional development," published in Teaching Education.