Shattering Cultural Norms: Where Do We Begin?

I remember the first time it was whispered in my ear as I sat in math class in the 9th grade. My friend leaned over and said, “Chris is a fag, did you hear?” Yes, I had noticed Chris’s distinctive “feminine” swagger and how he would throw his hands up in a flamboyant way every time he spoke. Not to mention his very “girly” voice that just screamed I’m gay. Nevertheless, I was still shocked when someone actually uttered the words to me. Chris was gay. High school in the 90’s was not so different than it is today (not counting social media, texting, internet… get the idea). Regarding gender roles and expectations, girls still worried about their hair and makeup, what cute outfit they would wear to attract the boys and such. Boys played sports and rough-housed with their friends, and were in endless pursuit of the hottest girls in school. If anyone deviated from this template, they were labeled “gay”, “dyke”, or just plain weird. Not much has changed.

Unfortunately, LGBT students do not have it any easier today. It makes one wonder if there is any hope for ameliorating the homophobic atmosphere that permeates every inch of our public schools. A homophobia that is endorsed by teachers, administrators, and students alike. In Dude You’re A Fag, C.J. Pascoe outlines various institutional changes within America’s public schools that can break down gender norms and allow for more fluidity within student identities. According to Pascoe, curricular changes, resources for parents and teachers, and films that address LGBT issues are all ways to begin a transformation in the attitudes of students and faculty regarding the gay and lesbian community. These are all great recommendations that should be a part of every public school curriculum across the country. However, the amount of red tape to overcome in these politically charged public school systems makes this ideal a very difficult one to bring to fruition.

Public schools are a public enterprise funded through state legislatures. They are locally controlled through an elected school board which appoints a superintendent to act as the chief executive of the district. This act alone puts these elected officials at the mercy of their constituents. When politics is at play it always enjoys the upper-hand. What does this all mean? If programs are brought into a school district (e.g. gay and lesbian literature) that are unpopular with parents and if these parents vocalize their disapproval enough to create political pressure, the program/s will be pulled.  Many parents see these programs as promoting homosexuality and the exposure of LGBT lifestyles completely subverts values deeply held by many parents. This is enough to create an unwanted political storm within the schools.

Homophobia is not created in schools. These attitudes are already deeply embedded in students and they bring these prejudices and derogatory rhetoric with them in the classroom. In the same way, educators and administrators bring deeply held ideological beliefs about homosexuals and simply enforce them at the administrative level. These attitudes arise from the home environment which arises from cultural norms that communicate anti-gay sentiments.

According to forensic psychologist, Karen Franklin, a very powerful motivator for anti-gay sentiment is religious and moral ideology and disgust for homosexual individuals. She states that the cultural message of gays being second-class citizens and undeserving of respect is ubiquitous in our nation. Even in seemingly progressive areas of the country, such as the San Francisco Bay Area, one can still find 1 out of 10 college students who admit to participating in threats or assaults against homosexuals.

With all of our gains in Civil Rights, homosexuals are still one group that the United States openly discriminates against by creating laws that, for example, allow business owners to terminate gay employees at will. There are still twenty-nine states that endorse such policies, with the majority of these states located in the South and Mid-West (where you can find the most religiously-affiliated individuals). This law is one reason why many gay teachers are fearful of being discovered, which stifles their engagement in progressive LGBT programs in their schools. In fact, two reasons why LGBT curriculums are not seen in many public schools are: unsupportive administrators and parent push-back. This is why Pascoe’s recommendation of bringing gay activists into schools as special speakers would be difficult to implement. Parents do not want their values trampled on and administrators do not want to create controversy in their schools.

So where do we begin? How do we create a revolution about what it means to be male or female and how do we normalize gay, lesbian, and transgender identities? There may not be an easy, clear-cut approach. Perhaps one answer is to reform religious ideologies that condemn homosexuals and endorse rigid gender roles. As the older generations (those who hold to these divisive beliefs) pass on and newer generations replace them, we may begin to see a normalizing of gender and sexual identities that have historically transgressed cultural mores. Perhaps by taking baby steps in all the institutions found in society (e.g. the home, schools, places of worship, workplace, etc.) to progressively accept all expressions of gender and sexuality, we will eventually realize a true transformation, a cultural transformation. Then we will no longer hear the whispers in the classroom and the derogatory and inflammatory rhetoric of the “gay” and “fag” will finally be silenced.

Further Reading:

Gaell, Jocelyn-Blackman. “How are LGBT Affected by Discrimination and What Can Schools do to Help.” The York      Review 5.1 (2008).

Greytak, Emily A. and Joseph G. Kosciw. “Predictors of U.S. Teachers’ Intervention in Anti-lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Bullying and Harassment.” Teaching Education 25.4 (2014): 410-426.

Kosciw, J.G., Palmer, N.A., Kull, R.M. “Reflecting Resiliency: Openness About Sexual Orientation and/or Gender Identity and its Relationship to Well-Being and Educational Outcomes for LGBT Students.” American Journal of Community Psychology 55.1 (2015): 167-178.



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