Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

What We Know From 20 Years of LGBTQ Research in Education

Does research actually inform policy and practice?

This blog post is adapted from a talk I gave on April 30, 2013 at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Francisco. The asterisks refer to cues to advance the presentation in the accompanying Prezi which can be viewed here.

 My goal in this post is to summarize trends in educational research on LGBTQ issues in education in order to understand how research has impacted policy shifts, and make recommendations of where research and policy needs to focus next and is going to be situated around my own journey as a teacher, scholar, and activist. We need to understand these historical trends in order to find ways to help research inform policy and practice. This story is my story, but it is also the story of so many other queer or otherwise marginalized educators.

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My story starts in 1993 [*]. Not just because it fits neatly into a 20 year retrospective, but also because it was my first year teaching. I was working at a private high school in rural New York and had recently come out to myself and my family as something other than heterosexual. I was still working through the language of what to call myself – and as a queer theorist, I still am doing that work – but I knew I was in love with a woman and that new knowledge radically changed me and the way I saw the world. [*] That 1st year connected me with teacher-activists in Boston and San Francisco. I attended my first GLISTN conference (when it was called the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teachers’ Network), and published an article in ‘Speak out’, a newsletter published in San Francisco but distributed nationally by and for gay and lesbian teachers. The editor asked me if I was sure I wanted to publish my name next to my article. I was naïve, and I was sure. That article lost me that first job…

This isn’t to say that 1993 was year 0 on the LGBTQ educational researchers’ calendar, but it was a big year. To put this in context, it is important to look at what had been published in the scholarly literature prior to this date. Based on Janna Jackson’s (now Kellinger) literature review of LGBT research she presented at AERA in 2001, I noticed that most literature prior to 1993 had been published as book chapters in edited collections (Jackson, 2001). There was no empirical research, and limited peer-reviewed scholarship related to this topic – specifically in educational journals. What Jackson found was 3 articles [*]: In 1987, there was Olson’s article on gay and lesbian teachers, in 1988 Grayson’s article on “Equity issues related to homosexuality in education” appeared in the Peabody Journal of Education, and in 1989 Eric Rofes’ study with gay and lesbian youth was published in Harvard Ed Review. The 1990’s started off with James Sears’ 1991 study on teachers’ attitudes towards ‘homosexual’ students. These articles were unique and were the first to break the silence in educational research on gay and lesbian issues in K-12 schools. Jackson (2001) also notes that 1988 was also when the NEA added “sexual orientation” to their code of ethics and in 1989 the U.S. Health and Human Services issued a report documenting that 1/3 of teen suicides were being completed by gay and lesbian youth.

[*] Now if we get back to 1993. As I said, it was a big year for the world of LGBT research that included the following reports and publications:

  • [*] MA Governor’s commission published the first report on gay and lesbian youth in schools based on testimony presented by youth in public hearings,
  • [*] the AAUW’s 1st study on sexual harassment– which included a question asking students if they had ever been called gay or lesbian. It was the first national study to document the prevalence of this form of homophobic harassment.
  • [*] Bryson & DeCastell’s article in the Canadian Journal of Education on queer pedagogy and how it shaped their teaching of a university course, which as far as I can tell, introduced the concept into the literature.
  • Finally, there was Teljohan & Price’s qualitative study of ‘homosexual adolescents’.

Stonewall 25 flyer - pink triangle with laurel leaves around it.
After I lost that first teaching job in 1994, I found myself newly aware of the world; I became politicized and needed an outlet for my disillusionment and anger. I found myself in New York City in the middle of celebrations for Stonewall 25. [*] It had been 25 years since that famous riot, widely regarded as a turning point in the modern history of the GLBT people in the United States, yet I had just been fired for writing an article in a newsletter about how to support a student who had come out to me and was experiencing harassment at school. There had been improvements in 25 years, no doubt, but in my limited middle class white girl’s view of the world, the homophobia I was experiencing was intense, painful, and unlike anything I had ever known. I became a Lesbian Avenger. [*]

[*] In the years that followed, various activist and advocacy organizations began addressing the violence and hostility that many gay and lesbian youth experienced in schools. In 1995, the Washington Safe Schools Coalition published a report based on interviews with over 90 youth that documented the severe, persistent, and dangerous environments many gay and lesbian youth experienced at school. Then in 1999, GLSEN published their first school climate survey based on a large-scale national survey. This was followed by “Hatred in the Hallways” a report by the Human Rights Watch 2001 based on qualitative interviews with youth around the country. The work by these community organizations paved the way for activists and university researchers to be able to do the work that followed – by establishing the prevalence and consistency of the hostile environments and negative impacts, it gave teachers, researchers, and policy makers essential data they needed to reframe the debate from gays as predatory pedophiles linked only to the AIDS epidemic to including students who are being deprived of their rights including: basic safety, and access to education in order to move forward with new lines of inquiry and advocacy. For example, one new line of inquiry initiated by the California Safe Schools Coalition 2004 study was to begin asking about the issue of gender non-conformity and how that was related to homophobia. This survey also asked about the prevalence teacher interventions in various forms of bullying [*] and demonstrated that sexual orientation, gender presentation, and body size were the most commonly occurring forms of harassment that had the lowest rates of teacher intervention (Meyer, 2007).

[*] Paralleling this growth in community-based research, there was a growth in theoretical publications in the scholarly literature, including [*] Deborah Britzman’s article on Queer Pedagogy, and Didi Khayatt’s article on teachers’ coming out in the classroom. Of note in the empirical studies is the AAUW data from 1993, which was published in an AERJ article in 1996 by Lee et al. However, it is important to note that this article omitted all references to homophobia and the use of gay and lesbian slurs as a form of sexual harassment from that data. George Smith’s 1998 article on the ‘Ideology of the Fag’ also provided an important theoretical and empirical contribution to the field.

 [*] It was during this time that I left NYC street activism and started my master’s in Social Foundations of Education at C.U. Boulder. Although the faculty there were quite supportive, there was minimal knowledge of this field available to guide my work. So I did a theoretical thesis that applied Ken Howe’s concept of democratic education and ‘equal educational opportunities worth wanting’ towards sexual minority youth. It was based primarily in personal narratives, book chapters, research reports, and media coverage of recent legal controversies emerging in the schools-- particularly the GSA battle in Utah during the mid-90’s. After getting my Master’s, I went back to teaching for a few more years, and this is when a lot started to change with respect to glbt issues in schools. I attribute this to some key legal decisions related to homophobic bullying.

Bullied film flyer - target with a person standing on the bull's eye
Bullied Film - 1997 Nabozny Case
[*] In 1997, Jamie Nabozny won his case against his Wisconsin school district for the horrific homophobic harassment he experienced there. He won a $900,000 settlement, and helped establish a legal precedent that recognized gays and lesbians as included under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. This was also the year of Ellen’s coming out. The following year, 1998 we learned about the widely publicized murder and hate crime of gay university student, Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. Two years later, the Wagner v. Fayetteville case established Title IX as another source of federal protection by stating that homophobic harassment was considered a form of sexual harassment and therefore included under Title IX’s provisions.

[to be continued next week in Part 2]

References

Jackson, J. (2001). Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are: A Synthesis of Queer Research in Education (pp. 35-35).

Meyer, E. J. (2007, April 9-13). Bullying and harassment in secondary schools: A critical analysis of the gaps, overlaps, and implications from a decade of research. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

Meyer, E. J. (2013, April 30). 20 years of LGBTQ education research and policy: From poverties of knowledge to poverties of courage. Paper presented at the The Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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