Åse Røthing, a researcher at Høgskolen i Østfold, kick-started the first day of the HEF confirmation leader's course with a talk on how sexuality is discussed in the classroom and how to develop appropriate resources for teaching about sexuality. According to Åse, educators haven’t got as far as we should have in treating all forms of sexuality equally, But, it is, at least, progress that non-heterosexuality is being discussed at all, given that it was not so long ago that sex between a man and woman for the purposes of making a baby was about the only thing being discussed and taught classrooms and textbooks.
The central theme of Røthing’s talk was highlighting just how pervasive hetero-privilege and heteronormativity continue to be, and how often, despite educators’ best intentions, students with non-heterosexual identities can be excluded, marginalised or discriminated against in the classroom.
I have a personal example demonstrating exactly what Røthing was talking about. Just last week, whilst teaching in a room with maybe a dozen male students; they were Engineers, which is typically male dominated; the few female students were coincidentally absent that day), I used the phrase: ‘I know you might have better things to do with your girlfriends or wives, but…” I caught myself at the time, but, for better or worse, didn’t then correct myself by saying ‘I should have said partners, sorry’. I think it was probably to avoid drawing attention to what I’d said and ‘making it worse’. It’s exactly these kinds of throw-away comments that help breed heteronormativity in the classroom and wider society, and I’m doing to do my hardest to catch myself before it happens again.
Heteronormativity is present in more subtle ways than just pronouns like ‘we’ and ‘they’, ‘us’ and ‘them’, or ‘girlfriends’ instead of ‘partners’. Røthing used two examples from textbooks to illustrate its often unintentional but continued presence. The first example had two variants demonstrating the same problem with isolating minority groups, and ran along the lines of ‘What do you think it is like to be a young woman wearing a hijab/to be gay?’ It looks like a well-intentioned exercise with the purpose of facilitating self-reflective and empathetic thinking. However, what’s implicit is the assumption that none of the students completing the exercise are either a young woman wearing a hijab, or gay, and that their circumstance requires special attention. For those students, the question also becomes something more like ‘what it is like to be yourself’/’what do you think people imagine it is like to be you’, which is very different from what was intended.
The second example was a question prompting students to discuss various sexual health issues. The list included contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases, but also homosexuality. There are two important assumptions made here: first that homosexuality is something that should be considered a sexual health ‘issue’ and the other is that contraception, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases are not things also need to be thought about by homosexual (read: non-heterosexual) people in the same way. Røthing gave examples of how school textbooks continue to treat sex as physiology, puberty and reproductive sex between a man and a woman, with separate chapters then devoted to sexual orientation. Penis-in-a-vagina reproductive sex is one thing and everything else is to be treated differently, ignoring the massive physical and psychological/emotional overlap.
Røthing explained that, textbooks aside, through her research with schools she has often found that talking about homosexuality can often be left to those teachers who self-identify as homosexual. But why is this? People who are not astronauts are still very capable of talking about space, but, with sexuality, Røthing has found that, where possible, teachers often pass on the responsibility to others. The feeling is that, particularly with sexuality, it’s better that teachers who have ‘experience’ talk about it.
, in the UK at least, that the experience gay teachers might have to pass on may not be as positive as it should be.
For the sake of avoiding confusion, Røthing’s talk concentrated largely on homosexuality, but she was careful to emphasise that her points stood for all types of non-heterosexuality, and that it was important to bear in mind that sexuality is not a simple hetero/homo dichotomy, reinforced by ‘us’ and ‘them’ talk. Human sexuality is a broad and continuous spectrum along which we all lie, encompassing many different sexual behaviours and identities. (As an aside, this really interesting blog post recently discussed the types and functions of labels for sexual orientation, which have now moved beyond just LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trangender) towards something like QUILTBAG (Queer, Questioning, Unidentified, Intersex, Lesbian, Transgender, Bisexual, Asexual, Allied, Gay and Genderqueer)).
Parsing the continuum of sexual behaviour can be very difficult and it isn’t long before all the individual labels become meaningless. But in a practical sense, what is the appropriate language to use that doesn’t exclude, marginalise or discriminate against students? Røthing was clear about the type of language to avoid, but I missed concrete advice on what the appropriate inclusive language should be. ‘Gender & sexuality minority’ (GSM) might work. Perhaps it’s just better to ask the individuals themselves what they prefer.
Røthing also made the important distinction between homophobia and homo-negativity. Homo-negativity is the more subtle outcome of a hetero-privileged society that can mean that whilst people have no problem with others being gay, they are aware of the negative attitudes shown towards those that are and will seek to avoid them. This can take the form of avoiding being friends with someone who is gay or talking freely about their own same-sex experiences or feelings. (A statistic quoted by Røthing was that of the 11% of the study population that reported same-sex sexual activity, more than 50% self-identified as heterosexual. I didn’t get down the reference but I will try and track it down.)
The use of ‘gay’ as a pejorative term in the classroom is an example of how hetero-negativity is perpetuated in an environment where homophobia, the active fear or hate of gay people, may be limited. When the subject was opened up to the floor, most of the people in the audience had heard the word ‘gay’ being used as an insult, and someone made the very interesting comment that whilst swearing and insults used to have largely religious associations, they have become increasingly about identity, and particularly sex (not just ‘gay’, but also things like ‘slut’). In Britain, ‘gay’ has, for some, become a synonym for something being ‘rubbish’; British radio presenter Chris Moyles was famously reprimanded for describing a ringtone as ‘gay’ on air. He may not have said it with any homophobic intention, but there is little doubt that it perpetuates the idea that being gay is a bad thing.
There are a frightening number of countries where homosexuality still illegal or punishable by death. Even in progressive, liberal democracies like Britain, backwards evangelists have just the past week said that for Christians, ‘teaching homosexuality is like justifying slavery'.
In Norway, the discussion has moved beyond whether homosexuality should be discussed at all in the classroom, to how best to make the material and discourse as inclusive as possible. I’ve heard the term ‘PC gone mad’ when discussing this issue, but it’s for a large part in the classroom that students learn to be themselves and how they should be around others, and that environment should be as inclusive as possible.
Røthing’s talk has made me really made me think about issues that, to be honest, had for the most part passed me by; probably because, as a heterosexual, I’m on the right side of the hetero-privileged fence. It was an important talk that has made me more aware of the ingrained prejudice around me. I will be even more concerted in my efforts to stop myself from inadvertently being part of this prejudice and fight it when I see it in others, both inside and outiside the classroom.