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Part 2: Supporting LGBTQ Youth by Working Against Heteronormativity

In a previous blog post, I described the devastating effects homophobia can have on LGBTQ youth and how we can fight those forces. But I also wrote about the harmful effects of heteronormativity—the subtler expectation that people are straight, and that certain gendered ways of being are normal, ideal. Here, I’d like to write more about how we can work against heteronormativity in ways that might help young people.

Heteronormative expectations don’t come from hatred, or meanness. When I was engaged to my wife, Leah, I would mention my “fiancé,” and people would often ask what his name was. They weren’t anti-gay. They didn’t hate us. They had just been imbued, the way we all have, to expect heterosexuality.

I am as guilty of this as anyone. One moment from my own teaching still makes me cringe: I was teaching poetry, and we were discussing a poem that a young man in the class had written about the death of another young man. The rest of the class and I all read the poem as being about a very close friend. A few months later when I learned that this student was gay, I thought back to this poem, and to what we had assumed. The poem may well have been about a friendship—but not even I thought to wonder if it was about anything else. What might this student have felt, sitting in my classroom?

So one thing I think we can do is to commit ourselves—not to never making these sorts of assumptions, because we will—but to constantly working to recognize and reflect on them, and to try to read the world through a different set of lenses.

We can also think about how our language might reflect heteronormativity. When we are talking with groups of young people, can we talk about “parents” instead of “moms and dads”? How often do we describe friendships between little boys and little girls—at the preschool level—in terms of heterosexual relationships: “Johnny has a little girlfriend”? What expectations does that statement set up? We can think about how we talk with and about children: do we describe a little boy as “all boy”? Do we open conversations with little girls by focusing on their clothing? I often catch myself doing this: I am so likely to say to a little girl, “What a pretty dress!” or “I love your headband!” I don’t do that with little boys. All of these practices send children—whether they are LGBTQ, gender-creative, or not—subtle messages about who boys and girls are supposed to be.

We can also give young people consistent representations of LGBTQ and gender-creative people and families. In the Adolescent Literature course that I teach, students choose from a series of books featuring gay, lesbian, and transgender characters. Each semester I ask students if they ever read a book featuring an LGBTQ character in school. I have never had a student say yes. This spring, a panel of students from our university’s Pride Alliance also spoke to the class, and they agreed: they had never read these books either. But several felt sure they would have come out earlier, and had an easier time coming out, if they had seen themselves represented in literature and curricula at school.

I can relate with them. When I was a graduate student, I had been reading about gender and sexuality for several years—but I’d found most of my readings online or in the education section of the library. One day I was walking through my university’s library, just looking at the call numbers, running my fingers over the books’ spines. At some point, my eyes shifted from call numbers to titles—and, as they sunk in, I stepped back and took in the whole section. For the first time in my life, I was in a huge section of books, all focused on LGBTQ people. I was in my thirties; I’d been out for a decade. Still, it was an amazing moment: here I am. I took out some random book on same-sex love between women in the Middle Ages. It’s me! In the Middle Ages!

Students need to see themselves in history, and in literature, and in their health classes. They need to see themselves in children’s books; there are wonderful young adult and children’s books featuring LGBTQ and gender-creative people and families. Some focus nicely on “issues” like coming out or bullying, but those shouldn’t be the only stories told. The picture book Donovan’s Big Day, for example, features a character who just happens to be gay; Boy Meets Boy offers a nice counter-story for adolescents.

When I taught preschool, I remember our administrators saying we needed to get some of these books for one classroom, because a child in that room had two dads. That was important—but these works belong in all classrooms, and in all homes. They are important for the kids who will grow up to be lesbian, gay, or bisexual; for the kids who maybe already identify as transgender, or who will grow up to; for the kids whose parents are LGBTQ; for the little boy who wants to play with Barbies and the little girl who likes the dinosaurs; and for the kids who might grow up to bully any of their classmates for any of these reasons.

I teach future teachers, and I am heartened by the eagerness with which they want to carry out this work. It’s important to them. But they are nervous, understandably so. They wonder how to lead conversations in their classrooms—but they are more afraid of the repercussions they’ll face from parents or administrators. Often the voices of those who are against something are louder than those who are for something. And so I think it’s all of our jobs to make it clear to schools and to teachers that we want them to include this diversity in their curricula, that we feel it’s important—and that we will support them when they do.

And finally, I think we can help young people of all ages think critically about the gendered messages they see all around them. In graduate school, a wonderful mentor told me how she let her daughters play with Barbies—because she knew they’d want them more if she forbade them—but how she talked with them about the dolls’ bodies. “Do I look like that? Do you know anyone who looks like that? Wouldn’t it be silly, really, if we did?”

Barbie is an easy target, but children encounter gendered messages everywhere. G-rated family films have three times as many male characters as female characters—a number that hasn’t changed since the end of World War II. Three quarters of speaking parts in children’s media are male, as are eighty-three percent of film and television narrators. And it nearly goes without saying (but should not) that almost all families represented in children’s shows are heterosexual, that almost all love is represented as heterosexual, and that the notion of transgender identity is not addressed in any kind of serious fashion—despite the fact that children often identify as transgender by the time they get to preschool.

I think young children are absolutely capable of observing and talking about these dynamics. Research on young children’s racial beliefs shows us that, despite their parents’ beliefs, children glean surprisingly clear racist messages from the society in which they live. That research also shows that vague talk about “equality” makes little difference to young children: what matters is direct talk. Some people don’t like people whose skin color looks different from ours, but we don’t believe that. What do you think? Such discussions can be frightening, but the research shows that they make a difference. I suspect the same is true when it comes to gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Young children see these messages already. They get them from television, advertisements, toys, other people in their lives. In age-appropriate ways, we can help them think critically about and begin to challenge those messages.

For example, my nephews watch Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and they love the show’s “hotdog dance.” In the dance, Minnie and Daisy dance daintily, hands and feet close to their bodies. Mickey, Goofy, and Donald spread out their arms and legs, taking up all the space around them. I am not a parent, but I have taught preschool. We made piñatas for every child’s birthday, and I watched how the boys and girls—at four—swung the broom handle we gave them: most of the girls, carefully; most of the boys, with gusto. They see these differences. I think they can talk about them. And it can be fun. “Everybody dance like Minnie and Daisy. Now everybody dance like Mickey, Goofy, and Donald. Do boys and girls have to dance that way? Now everybody dance the way you want to!”

Judith Butler asks us to take on work against homophobia and heteronormativity in ways that “maximize the possibilities for a livable life.” She wants us to open up possibility: to help every youth imagine a future they can live, and to help make the present livable. I wish we could have done that for Jamey Rodemeyer. I wish someone could have done that for my 16-year-old self—and I am so grateful for the possibilities that my parents helped me to see later.

I think that can be our guiding principal, our guiding question, as we take on all of this work: as we become more aware of our expectations, our language, our behaviors, and of the stories that we tell, and as we help young people develop this awareness too: How do we open up possibility?

blog by: Heather McEntarfer

Heather Killelea McEntarfer is an Assistant Professor of English at the State University of New York at Fredonia. She lives in Dunkirk, NY. McEntarfer is an active member of WILLA and a past executive board member.

feature image Carolyn Saxby

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