Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics

3 thoughts on “Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

  1. Great post! I agree that it’s not a good idea to indulge moral debates in the classroom (unless directly related to the material, which seems unlikely in sociology). My solution is to strongly encourage them to come to office hours to talk about it. Then we can unpack their issues one-on-one, prepare them for uncomfortable material, and make a plan for them to continue participating, while still maintaining the ground rules of discussion. That way you can still take an empathetic approach to diverse student backgrounds but maintain a safe space for LGBT students in the classroom. That’s my plan anyway, I haven’t yet had any students offer moral objections during class. I also offer lots of data during class on the diversity within LGBT people, which seems to be effective in challenging students’ homophobia (to reiterate your point).

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  2. when talking about gender possibilities and sexualities i make it absolutely clear we’re engaging in an analytical exercise and there’s no room for your opinion. (i give this general statement at the beginning of the term and repeat it at points.) and i do get the “god doesn’t blah blah… homosexuals” “god/nature… only two genders”. but i shut it down and tell them their opinions are neither here nor there. i get really close to calling them out on their bigotry without actually doing that. but it’s clear to the class that bigoted asshattery won’t be tolerated. i think emphasizing from the get-go that we’re here to do analysis and you can save your opinions makes handling sensitive topics like this easier.

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  3. Pingback: Navigating Difficult Dialogue In The Classroom | Conditionally Accepted

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