Overcoming Resistance to Learning About Sexual Identity
Teachers interested in addressing the full range of diversity issues and in preparing students to live and work effectively in a diverse world need to consider the role of sexuality in their diversity curricula. Many teachers who address issues of race and gender may feel uneasy about raising issues of sexuality either because of their own fears or because they fear students' reactions. Many who do incorporate these issues into their diversity classes frame their discussions around the issue of homophobia.
Homophobia as a framing intellectual device seems inappropriate to me in the current climate. Homophobia describes the fear of homosexuality and the resulting denigration of gay and lesbian people. But most of us and many students do not really engage in homophobia so much as we and our students are heterosexist.
Benign neglect is the actual practice in most classrooms. We tend not to castigate gays and lesbians openly in the academy--we ignore them. If we truly want students to confront issues of identity and discrimination in all their complexity, we should not ignore an important element of identity that conditions other factors like racism and sexism.
To address both heterosexism and homophobia within curriculum transformation, we must begin with clear understandings about the ways these terms are used. Homophobia refers to the actual fear and active resistance to individuals who are presumed to be homosexual and to the idea of homosexuality. On the other hand, heterosexism is the practice of assuming that everyone defines themselves as heterosexual--that heterosexuality is the norm, the natural, the only kind of sexuality.
I began discussing these issues in my classrooms in 1991. In fact, they were simply essential to teaching my literature courses. One of the major authors I use in my Mexican-American literature class is an out lesbian whose work directly addresses issues of homophobia and heterosexism. My experiences teaching Gloria Anzaldua's work have revealed to me that students are especially resistant to exploring sexual identity issues. Frequently they are even more resistant to learning about sexual identity issues than they are to addressing issues of race or gender.
This resistance is understandable given the heterosexist world we occupy. In fact, I usually introduce the subject of homosexuality by helping students to see that they live in a heterosexist world. I encourage them to identify a variety of societal norms including heterosexuality. This initially seems nonthreatening to my students. After all, it is only an intellectual exercise to list society's norms--white, male, able-bodied, straight. Even this approach, however, can elicit real resistance.
One of my brightest students, commenting on what a wonderful writer Anzaldua was, added, "too bad she's a lesbian." I was stunned by this comment at first. My students are rarely this obvious in their homophobia. I felt that I had to challenge her statement and so I remarked that Anzaldua, herself, does not seem to see being lesbian as a bad thing. The student responded that her own religious beliefs would never allow her to see homosexuality in any other light.
I decided that I needed to turn this into a "teachable moment" for the whole class. I focused on how Anzaldua attempts to challenge all forms of authority, including religious authority. I pointed out ways that literature is replete with examples of challenges to societal assumptions. I pointed out that what a society considered "bad" or "good" is the central focus of many authors' work.
I do not believe that I was very successful with this student, but she was at least willing to continue reading and didn't simply ignore the text because of the author's identification as a lesbian. Dismissal is the most consistent form of resistance students have to learning about homophobia and heterosexism. Students do not openly challenge or expose their own homophobia--they simply refuse to engage.
Sometimes, it seems that they are incapable of addressing these issues with the same maturity that they bring to other classroom subjects. I think that their emotionally immature responses result from the lack of adult dialogue about sexuality among students. This ability to openly and maturely discuss sexuality certainly has profound implications beyond students' abilities to learn about the diversity of their world. Problems of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases as well as those of sexual violence must be exacerbated as a result of this avoidance of discussion.
In the classroom, I try to deal with these issues on as intellectual a plane as possible. I think this helps students to work up to more mature discussions. I frame the terms for students, define the parameters of the dialogue, and identify very specifically the issues related to heterosexism and homophobia we are going to address.
By constructing classes around heterosexism and not homophobia, by clearly identifying intellectual frameworks, and finally, by connecting these issues with other forms of identity and other sources of discrimination and prejudice, the classroom can become a place where students begin to overcome their fears and misunderstandings about sexual identity.
Finally, by addressing these issues in these ways, one can prevent issues of sexual identity from becoming barriers to discussions of other important issues like racism and sexism. Students begin to see the complexity and interrelatedness of all these issues.
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