Last week, I had a conversation with a middle school student who attends a relatively wealthy public school in New England. She related a story to me about a teacher at her school whom she characterizes as "funny" because of the easygoing and sarcastic tone he takes with his students. A few weeks earlier, a boy in this student's class had made fun of her notebook because she had sketched dresses all over the cover. The teacher had responded to the boy by teasing him "Well, I bet you'd look really good in that dress, Adam." Though her teacher resorted to a transphobic joke that reinforced stereotypical gender norms, the student with whom I was speaking considered it not a non-offensive, well-intentioned effort on the part of the teacher to defend one of his students from harassment.
My immediate response is to think: For every teacher who assumes that no middle-school-aged "boy" would want to wear a dress, there is a student sitting silently in the corner of the room who gets the message that what she/he wants is ridiculous. This scenario works itself out in many ways in classrooms. My conversation with this student connected to my recent thought processes about assumptions teachers often make about students, and the many limitations of our perspectives as educators.
Last week I breezed through a young adult novel called Keeping You a Secret, which, in combination with my week spent around people who do not yet know about my transition, reminded me of how exhausting and devastating it can be to withhold information about one's identity on a daily basis. Keeping You a Secret is a compelling description of the coming-out process of a high school lesbian that captures how emotionally and psychologically taxing it can be to stay silent about an aspect of oneself. The book avoids being a purely "tragic queer" novel while still tackling the many issues encountered by young, queer people who often rely very heavily on the support offered by their families and people in their schools.
Gender- and sexuality-proscriptive interactions among teachers and students, such as the one that the middle school student told me about last week, happen all the time in public schools. I imagine most teachers often don't even realize the weight our words can carry in these conversations. As an educator, I'm learning that it is crucial to keep in mind that I don't really know what's going on in students' minds or lives. It is my professional obligation to try to avoid making assumptions about what students may or may not be going through, because it is very possible that nobody knows except for they themselves. Anything I say and do as an educator could affect my students, whether I realize it or not – so, no matter what my intentions are as a social-justice-minded or radical educator, it is my responsibility to continually examine my own assumptions and internal biases to ensure that I am not unknowingly taking them out on any of my students.
Along this line of thought, I've recently started to re-evaluate some of my own negative assumptions about straight male sexualities and the ways my personal biases could potentially have the effect of "closing down" conversation and discussion in my classroom. This reflection process was sparked by an incident last week when I saw several teachers at my school separate two eighth grade students, a boy and a girl, who were kissing during our semi-annual trip to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The act unsettled me with its undertone of sexual policing, and I found the "white teachers, Black students" racial dynamic of the interaction deeply problematic.
This prompted me to think about my positioning in my classroom, as a white Yale graduate teaching mostly students of color in a Title I school. If I exude discomfort with or disdain for straight male sexualities, even without intending to, what effects could that have on dialogue in my classroom? For a specific example, what effects could that have on discourse about oppression and the many stereotypes and stigmas confronted by straight men of color?
While many LGBT people and LGBT youth face challenges that many straight individuals do not (which is a questionable generalization), the last thing I want to do as an aspiring social justice educator is shut down avenues of conversation and intellectual thought about the challenges and pressures my students – straight or gay, male or female or trans - face. I'm only just beginning to understand that to open dialogue in a radical way and encourage critical thought in my classroom, I must constantly reassess the limits of my own perspectives about sexuality, gender, and the many facets of my students' identities.