Historically, issues of sexual orientation and identity have been some of the most contentious areas in U.S. educational policy. Since the mid-1960s, conservatives have been concerned that public schools have either directly or indirectly promoted what they would label “a homosexual lifestyle.” By contrast, it is not until the mid-1990s that queer activists (or individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, intersexual, and/or queer) became consistently and directly involved in political debates shaping policies for public schools.
Queer educators and students who work, learn, live, and play within the walls of U.S. public schools reside at the intersection of a host of contradictory and paradoxical laws and policies. This sheer complexity in law and policy means that there is quite a bit of variation in what individual queer school-workers and students experience within their own public school. Much of the political concern regarding queers, sexual orientation, and public educational policy involves the areas of personnel; curriculum, student identity, and behavior; and extracurricular activities.
In the areas of personnel, local school boards have been given wide latitude in regulating public school employees’ behavior and identity through the mechanism of the “morality clause,” which typically has been interpreted as the behavior that a majority of the school board members deem as moral. Under these broad and ill-defined morality clauses, school boards have forbidden a range of seemingly innocuous activities, including dancing, smoking, drinking alcoholic beverages, and working in establishments that serve alcohol. Female teachers have been subject to far closer scrutiny and have been barred from riding in automobiles with men who are not their relatives, required to live in “teacherages,” and barred from marrying if they wished to remain employed by the district.
For queer educators, mere suspicion of a nonheterosexual identity could mean dismissal as well as licensure revocation. Beginning in the 1950s, as part of a larger U.S. witch hunt for suspected homosexuals in almost every area of public employment, school districts and some states began to aggressively ferret out the suspected queers in their midst. At the time, the justifications for these purges were threefold. Queer sexual behavior was a felony in all fifty states. Consequently, queer educators, by definition, were statutory felons, and felons could not hold licensure or work with public school children. Furthermore, homosexuality and bisexuality were considered mental illnesses by a majority of the medical establishment, and most states at that time barred school districts from employing individuals who had a history of mental illness. The third and final justification was that queer identity violated traditional Biblical norms (usually framed as “traditional values”) regarding sexual relationships. Quite simply, queers were religious heretics.
Consequently, homosexuals who either hid their identities or who were open were seen as a corrosive influence upon the tender morals of public school children. A particular irony was that single females, who had long dominated the teaching profession because of their economic utility (they did not have to be paid very much because of limited employment opportunities), were increasingly demonized as potential lesbians throughout the 1950s by public commentators.
Although the witch hunts for suspected homosexuals wound down throughout the 1960s, beginning in the 1970s, an increasingly vocal and visible lesbian and gay rights movement worked to declassify homosexuality and bisexuality as mental illnesses, as well as end the legal restrictions on consensual queer sex. Their efforts were marked by partial successes: Although queer identity was depathologized by the medical establishment, states were generally slow in repealing laws barring consensual same-sex sexual behavior. By the late 1970s, religious conservatives, particularly conservative Protestants, began mobilizing, partially in opposition to the gay liberation movements, but also in opposition to the African American civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement.
For queer public school workers, the 1970s saw a redoubling of state-level efforts to ban queers from working in public schools. In particular, conservative Protestant activists worked to pass statewide referenda barring queers from being employed by public school districts regardless of local policy. Although they failed in California in trying to pass what was known as the Briggs Amendment, conservative Protestant activists were successful in Oklahoma in passing a state-level ban on queer school-workers. However, this law was later invalidated in 1985 by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nevertheless, public school-workers could still be fired for being perceived as queer no matter what their actual orientation. Public school workers had little recourse because sexual orientation was not protected under most state equal rights laws and/or equal protection clauses at that time. Generally, if queer school-workers sued their districts for improper dismissal, in either state or federal court, they lost the case.
This situation changed little until the 1990s, when queer rights activists and their allies redoubled their efforts to enact statewide civil rights laws that covered sexual orientation, and in some instances, gender identity. Additionally, most states either legislatively repealed or judicially invalidated bans on same-sex consensual sexual activity, which, in combination with licensing requirements, had effectively banned queer educators from working in public schools. By 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the remaining bans on consensual same-sex sexual activity, thus clearing the last legal impediment from openly queer educators working in public schools.
Nevertheless, many contemporary queer public school workers—perhaps the majority—elect to hide their identities while working in public schools. Although some states provide safeguards either under state law or educational regulations (including tenure protections), there are no specific protections regarding sexual orientation and gender identity at the federal level. Additionally, some states have passed “no promo homo” laws, which ban the promotion of homosexuality in public schools. Although these laws should fail federal constitutional muster (particularly in light of the Lawrence decision), at present, they serve as an effective means to enforcing the closet in some states.
“No promo homo” laws have also influenced curriculum development because these laws ban public schools from mentioning homosexuality and bisexuality in any positive manner. Some states, like South Carolina, go even further, requiring that only negative mentions be presented (e.g., these forms of sexual activities spread disease and/or are illegal) even if these mentions are factually incorrect (queer consensual sexual behavior was decriminalized in Lawrence). Such restrictions on information cut across curriculum areas, including social studies, English (particularly literature), music, art, and sexuality education. Furthermore, with the advent of a federally funded “abstinence-only” sexuality curriculum in 1996, many public school districts have been using materials that advocate celibacy until heterosexual marriage—which neatly avoids any mention of queer sexuality and/or relationships, because at present, queers are unable to marry in forty-nine out of fifty states.
In many locales, U.S. public school curricula have been scrubbed clean of any possible queer taint. This policy stance is particularly problematic on a number of levels. First, all public school students receive distorted and impoverished understandings of history, literature, the arts, and human sexuality, which is true whenever a social group is carefully expunged from public school curricula. Additionally, queer students receive messages that they had best hide or cover their identities, because such identities are so stigmatized that they are literally unmentionable in most situations. Finally, all students learn that stigmatization and silencing of queer people is supposedly natural.
Although developments in curricula regarding queer students have been largely disappointing, many states and local districts have sought to better serve their queer students under various antibullying, ant harassment, and at-risk policies. In the early 1990s, data emerged that indicated that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students suffered very high rates of physical violence, verbal name-calling, and long-term harassment. Furthermore, queer students were more likely to be subject to abuse in their own homes at the hands of their parents and/or guardians than their nonqueer peers. Consequently, queer students suffered much higher rates of substance abuse, depression, social isolation, academic underachievement, and, most disturbingly, suicide.
But what was more important than data in prompting public schools to begin to address the needs of queer public school students was successful litigation against a school district for failing to address school-based homophobic bullying. In 1995, Jamie Nabozny sued his Ashland, Wisconsin, school district in federal court under Title IX. Beginning in seventh grade, Nabozny had been routinely and continually harassed, beaten, and called “fag” and “faggot.” He was spat on, punched, urinated on, and even subjected to a mock rape where twenty students looked on. All of this harassment and bullying happened on school grounds, and almost all of this abuse was at the hands of fellow students.
When Nabozny’s parents tried to intervene with school administrators after the mock rape, they were informed that if Jamie was going to act like a “queer,” they should expect this type of harassment. Furthermore, in many instances, teachers and administrators witnessed Nabozny’s abuse and failed to intervene. In fact, one teacher called Nabozny a “fag.” By tenth grade, Nabozny was so savagely beaten and kicked in one attack that he needed extensive abdominal surgery to repair the damage. In eleventh grade, Nabonzy dropped out of school after school administrators recommended that he should attend school somewhere else.
Nabozny’s subsequent successful lawsuit in federal court was the first such case in the United States. Furthermore, he was awarded $900,000 in damages, a striking verdict against a public school district. The court ruled that his rights under Title IX to be free of gender-based violence had been violated by the school district. The Ashland district had had antibullying policies on the books and enforced them if the victims of harassment were girls—but not boys. The 1996 decision in the Nabozny case sent a loud message that public schools could be liable for serious financial damages if they failed to protect the queer students within their walls—at least along the lines of gender.
The Nabozny decision opened the door for public schools to attempt to meet the needs of their queer students, but only in a limited fashion. Policies crafted under a protective rationale (antibullying, etc.), assume that queer students are at risk for a host of adverse outcomes. Although that assumption is congruent with the current data, it is only a quick leap in logic to assume that all queer students are intrinsically at risk and intrinsically pathological, which plays to current homophobic notions of queer inferiority, or there is something “wrong” with a given individual if he or she is queer. Nevertheless, antibullying and antiharassment policies that address sexual orientation and gender identity are a hopeful policy step. These policies do begin to address the pervasively homophobic culture found in most U.S. public schools.
Even though queer identity has finally been decriminalized across the United States, it is still highly stigmatized in most places. At the federal level, there are no specific protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, although Title IX may offer some limited protection regarding gender for gender nonconforming males thanks to the successful Nabozny litigation.
At present, eight states ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and another ten list sexual orientation only as a protected category. That leaves thirty-two states without protected status for queer individuals. This means, for example, that queer public school workers can be legally fired merely for being queer—particularly if they do not have tenure protections. A few states have included sexual orientation under their public school codes (Pennsylvania, for example), but these are half measures at best and do not carry the same policy “bite” as statewide bans on discrimination regarding sexual orientation and gender identity.
Additionally, about half of all states have “no promo homo” laws that ban the positive mention of queer identity, history, and culture in public schools.
Such policies effectively stigmatize queer school-workers and students by imposing official silences in some instances and official slurs in others. These silences and slurs are reinforced by districts that offer “abstinence-only” sexuality curricula, because the assumption behind the policy is that everyone is nonqueer . . . or had better be.
The most promising policy development has been the rise of gay–straight alliances (GSAs) in U.S. public schools during the 1990s. Although these are highly controversial in some locales, they do provide queer students and sympathetic allies a measure of federally sanctioned safe space. Like other school-based clubs, they are protected by the federal Equal Access Act of 1984, which, ironically, was passed to protect student initiated Bible and Christian clubs.
GSAs have been highly controversial since their inception, largely because they are federally protected, queer-positive student clubs and therefore are a bit of an “end run” around state-level “no promo homo” laws. School districts that have tried to ban the clubs outright have run into a legal buzz saw, repeatedly losing in federal court. For a brief time, the Salt Lake City public school district tried to ban all student-related noncurricular activities, but that eliminated football—a politically problematic stance. Furthermore, in the case of Salt Lake City, Utah, the students who were lobbying for the GSA eventually restructured the organization into a curricular-related club, which made it impossible to ban.
Some states have responded to the GSAs by requiring students to get parental permission to join any extracurricular organization. These laws technically do not target GSAs, but it is clear that, given the high degree of parental disapproval and/or violence relating to queer children, requiring parental permission might well be an effective means to limit the popular student appeal of GSAs.
- Blount, J. M. (2005). Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender and school work in the twentieth century. Albany: State University of New York Press.
- Eskridge, W. N., Jr. (1999). Gaylaw: Challenging the apartheid of the closet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harbeck, K. M. (1997). Gay and lesbian educators: Personal freedoms, public constraints. Malden, MA: Amethyst.
- Kosciw, J. G., & Diaz, E. M. (2006). The 2005 National School Climate Survey: The experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth in our nation’s schools. New York: Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
- Lugg, C. A. (2003). Sissies, faggots, lezzies, and dykes: Gender, sexual orientation and a new politics of education? Educational Administration Quarterly, 39(1), 95–134.
- Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network: http://www.glsen.org
- Human Rights Campaign: http://www.hrc.org
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