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date: 23 January 2020

Gender and Sexual Diversity in Teacher Education

Summary and Keywords

Generations of education scholars have positioned issues that affect LGBTQ youth as critical to conversations about equity, diversity, democracy, and social justice in schools. Those voices, for generations, have been relegated to the periphery of those conversations at best and have been silenced at worst. Relatedly, university-based teacher education programs have been remiss in their attention to issues of gender and sexual diversity, systematically sending teachers into the field largely unprepared to create contexts that are safe for LGBTQ youth and to affirm gender and sexual diversity. With growing attention to issues that affect LGBTQ youth, both in educational research and practice as well as in the larger sociopolitical discourse, teachers are on the front lines. They are charged with navigating the complexities of students’ identities, the contexts in which they teach, local politics, and their own deeply held beliefs—and they are often, unsurprisingly, doing so with little or no support. That support needs to start much earlier.

Teacher education programs—and teacher educators—are implicated as central in changing the discourse around what counts as (non)negotiable in learning to teach. By supporting preservice teachers’ learning around gender and sexual diversity, their processes toward that end, and their engagement in queer practices, teacher educators and teacher education programs can work toward paying down the debt owed to teachers in the field and to LGBTQ students and families who have long suffered the consequences of silence.

Keywords: teacher education, LGBTQ, gender and sexual diversity, queer pedagogy, preservice teachers

Introduction

In 2015, the American Educational Research Association (AERA) released a report on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) issues in education in an effort to “give voice to the research, to expand our understanding of LGBTQ issues, and to foster scientific and scholarly inquiry that draws upon solid theoretical models and methods” (Wimberly, 2015, p. 3). Framing the basis for this new report of a not-so-new research agenda, AERA pointed to “recent legal, social, and policy shifts in support of LGBTQ people [that] are causing educators and education researchers to address LGBTQ issues with a new sense of legitimacy and urgency” (Wimberly, 2015). In the report’s introduction, for example, Wimberly cites “the enhanced social status of LGBTQ people and the increased visibility of LGBTQ issues across societal and cultural domains” as well as “changes in family structures and dynamics” as factors that “have led to an increased relevance and awareness of LGBTQ issues in schools or educational contexts” (p. 1). While it may be true that more youth and families are coming out and calling on their communities for positive recognition, we contest the notion that the legitimacy and urgency of LGBTQ issues in education is new. In fact, education researchers, including many who contributed their “extant knowledge” (Wimberly, 2015, p. 16) to AERA’s report, have documented the relevance of LGBTQ issues in education contexts for over three decades (Kavanagh, 2016) and have argued for the value of including gender and sexual diversity in policies, practices, and systems that aim toward equitable education (Quinn & Meiners, 2011). Perhaps a more accurate and honest assessment of the state of LGBTQ issues in education involves admitting that the conversation has always been urgent, but in many contexts, including educational research, it has been shoved to the periphery at best and silenced at worst. As we will develop, silence is a recurring theme in this field of study. In this article, we focus specifically on that theme as it relates to teacher education, but we call attention to a broader question that AERA’s stance raises: Researchers in this field have long been speaking, but who has been listening?

This question raises an important tension as we turn toward how teacher education and educational research have attended to gender and sexual diversity. Discourse matters; that is, being included (or not) in what counts as important, nonnegotiable, legitimate, and urgent in the discourses of research on teaching and teacher education matters. Gender and sexual diversity’s marginal inclusion has shaped not only the trajectory of knowledge building of issues affecting LGBTQ youth in PK-12 schools, but also the pathways by which that knowledge has been disseminated to broader educational communities. Undoubtedly, that marginal inclusion also has been consequential to if, when, and how university-based teacher educators have “give[n] voice” to gender and sexual diversity in their support of preservice teachers (PSTs). Further complicating matters, scholars have been discouraged outright from conducting research on sexual orientation and gender identity. Sarah-Jane Dodd (2009), for example, cautioned that the “highly charged and highly personal” nature of LGBTQ-focused research “makes it vulnerable to bias and predetermined results” (p. 483). Citing a recommendation from the literature that researchers with strong personal beliefs in support or opposition of LGBTQ individuals should refrain from engaging in research on the topic, Dodd argued that the degree of bias may be difficult to protect against. Queer-identified scholars also have been warned of being “too close to the issues,” that presenting a research agenda centered on gay and lesbian issues would potentially affect their marketability, and that this agenda might best be saved until post-tenure (Donelson & Rogers, 2004, p. 132). We highlight these instances of gatekeeping because it is within the context of these institutional barriers that the field of research on LGBTQ issues in teacher education has developed. Thus, as we endeavor to explore the driving questions, puzzles, and dilemmas of research in this field and argue for future directions that mind the complexity and messiness of enacting queer interventions in teacher preparation, it is also crucial to consider how the field has been positioned in the broader context of educational research.

In this article, a critical perspective is provided on LGBTQ-focused research in teacher education. Given the decades of research that have shaped the field thus far, this article certainly is not the first to take on that task. To note a couple of examples, in Kissen (2002), 28 scholars took a complex look at the “landscape” of teacher education with respect to “lesbian and gay awareness” (p. 11). Contributors explored how lesbian and gay (LG) issues have been positioned in “the multicultural enterprise” (p. 103) and shared experiences of teachers, teacher educators, and school administrators’ “struggles in trying to integrate LGBT awareness in teaching and teacher education” (p. 159). As a more recent example, Quinn and Meiners (2011) provided a summary of research on teacher education programs’ efforts to include LGBTQ people and topics. Theirs included a rich historical account of teacher accreditation practices, a topic not addressed in this article. Because this article is not framed as an exhaustive review of the literature, readings of this article’s perspective are encouraged alongside available others. The approach here involves focusing on some key problems, questions, and puzzles that have driven the field. Specifically, the following are addressed: What are key questions and puzzles that have driven research in this field? What can we learn from the insights, tensions, and dilemmas yielded by that research? In other words, guided by the wisdom of existing scholarship, what are generative directions for future research that the field might pursue? Readers will notice that those questions organize this discussion.

To begin, the discussion is grounded in theoretical perspectives on heteronormativity and the ways in which that violent construct is institutionalized in school spaces. From there, the discussion turns to three categories of research in this field: the nature of inclusion and exclusion in teacher education programs, course syllabi, and texts; PSTs’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs related to LGBTQ people and topics; and the nature and impact of LGBTQ-inclusive instructional interventions. Reflecting on the insights generated along these dimensions of inquiry, greater attention is called for toward the complexity and messiness involved in learning to disrupt heteronormativity, homophobia, and transphobia in education. Looking beyond the nature of teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, it is argued that future directions center PSTs’ processes of engagement, including resistance to and questions about what learning and unlearning (Britzman, 1998) does to students in education programs (Luhmann, 1998).

Heteronormativity

An important theoretical construct to understand in relation to how scholars have approached research in this field is heteronormativity. Michael Warner (1993) conceptualized heteronormativity as a cultural system of belief that “thinks of itself as the elemental form of human association, as the very model of inter-gender relations, as the indivisible basis of all community, and as the means of reproduction without which society wouldn’t exist” (p. xxi). Put another way, heteronormativity is a powerful discursive framework that organizes commonsense understandings of what counts as “normal” with respect to gender, sexuality, relationships, families, and a whole host of other things. It is always and everywhere. On the one hand, through its presumption of heterosexuality and binary gender as the norm, heteronormativity privileges certain individuals (i.e., heterosexual, cisgender people) and arrangements (e.g., traditional family structures and romantic relationships); on the other, it positions antinormative sexualities and gender configurations as deviant. In this way, heteronormativity promotes homophobic and transphobic attitudes and behaviors, including anti-LGBTQ bullying and gendered harassment (Meyer, 2008). Researchers have written extensively about the heteronormative, heterosexist, homophobic context of schooling, including, for example, the ways in which heteronormativity is institutionalized in education spaces through language and discourse practices, policies, and everyday actions of administrators, teachers, and students (Blackburn & Smith, 2010; DePalma & Atkinson, 2010; Meyer, 2007; Wickens & Sandlin, 2010) and the violent consequences of unsafe school environments for LGBTQ youth (Human Rights Watch, 2001; GLSEN & Harris Interactive, 2012; Kosciw, Greytak, Giga, Villenas, & Danischewski, 2016). Disproportionately higher rates of violence committed against students who identify or are perceived to identify as LGBTQ is a persistent problem plaguing schools in a variety of national contexts and also one of the driving forces of research in this field. Reporting those trends is beyond the scope of this article, but interested readers are directed to data reported by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Network’s (GLSEN) National School Climate Survey, a report published every two years that indexes national trends on how LGBTQ youth experience school. Over the years, those data have provided the field crucial touchstones for contextualizing the nature and impact of school climate and culture on LGBTQ youth in the United States.1

Heteronormativity is therefore a prominent theoretical lens that frames many problems, questions, and puzzles pursued by LGBTQ-focused educational research. One problem linked to heteronormativity that orients much of that research concerns a discourse of silence surrounding LGBTQ identities and experiences in PK-12 and teacher education. Given research that suggests teachers can play important roles in making LGBTQ youth feel safer and more connected at school (Greytak, Kosciw, & Boesen, 2013), calls to break the silence in teacher preparation have grown louder in the past decade. In 2007, for example, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a resolution on strengthening teacher knowledge of LGBT issues. In spite of a trend during the previous decade that saw more inclusion of diversity issues in teacher education programs, NCTE’s position statement emphasized that LGBT issues were generally omitted or given very little attention. Describing effective teacher preparation programs as those that support teachers to make sense of and realize their professional obligations, which, the authors note, include preparing students for citizenship in a diverse society, NCTE resolved a commitment to providing leadership for the inclusion of LGBT issues in all teacher preparation programs. A decade since that resolution, the sound of silence continues to surround LGBTQ topics in teacher education. As Gorski, Davis, and Reiter (2013) put it, “[Scholars] overwhelmingly agree that silence persists in teacher education programs when it comes to LGBTQ concerns (Bower & Klecka, 2009; Clark, 2010; De-Jean, 2010; Hermann-Wilmarth & Bills, 2010; Jennings, 2007; Szalacha, 2004; Vavrus, 2009)” (p. 229). A driving question in the field concerns what happens when teacher education coursework breaks the silence by broaching topics of gender and sexual diversity. In other words, what does inclusion look like? How do PSTs respond? What kinds of resistance should teacher educators be prepared for?

What Are the “Problems,” Questions, and Puzzles That Have Driven the Research?

Turning toward questions and puzzles that drive this field, this discussion is organized around three categories that comprise a bulk of related research. The first category are investigations of the nature of LGBTQ inclusion and exclusion in teacher education coursework. Then studies of PSTs’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs related to LGBTQ people are examined and gender and sexual diversity in the classroom are addressed. Last, research on LGBTQ-focused instructional interventions in teacher education is reviewed. Important to note is that while these studies fall under the LGBTQ umbrella, many focus solely on sexual diversity, homophobia, and heterosexism. In a review of LGBTQ research in higher education, Renn (2010) takes care to separate LGB and T to mark the ways that “research on sexual orientation and gender identity examines substantively different concepts” (p. 135). She notes that alliances built by LGBT people for the purposes of political, social, and intellectual projects have led to the conflated understanding of gender and sexuality. This article aligns with Renn’s perspective. Research on LGBTQ issues in education has made valuable contributions toward destigmatizing lesbian, gay, bisexual sexualities, and transgender and nonbinary gender identities. However, as Renn asks, how might this research also be constructing LGBTQ people as a monolithic community? Gender and sexuality identity categories, and the people who identify with them, “vary crucially” (Alexander, 1999, p. 288) and, therefore, require different consideration.

What Is the Nature of LGBTQ Inclusion in Teacher Education Coursework?

To understand how gender and sexual diversity have been taken up systematically, or not, in teacher education programs across the United States, scholars have looked to teacher educators, course syllabi, and salient texts. In 2007, Jennings gathered data from 142 public university, elementary, and secondary teacher licensure programs (by surveying faculty directors, coordinators, and department chairs) in an effort to understand the degree to which programs attended to issues of diversity, broadly speaking. He found similar patterns across elementary and secondary programs in which the most emphasis was on race and ethnicity, followed by attention to special needs, language diversity, and social class. Gender and sexual orientation were the least emphasized, with 11.6% of secondary and 8.6% of elementary programs reporting that they ignored sexual orientation altogether. Questioning the “safety” of addressing sexual orientation compared to addressing race, Jennings wondered about sexual orientation’s “controversial ties to heterosexism, traditional gender roles, and oftentimes the religious beliefs of both faculty and students” (p. 1265). He also wondered about the dominant discourse in the field and specifically in multicultural education. Importantly, he pointed to Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education (Banks & Banks, 1995), which was meant to provide a significant review of multicultural education research. Jennings reported that “neither ‘sexual orientation’ nor ‘homosexuality’ even earned a mention in the book’s subject index covering a text of nearly 900 pages” (p. 1265). In the revised and expanded volume (Banks & Banks, 2004) (1200 pages), neither sexual orientation nor homosexuality received substantive attention.

In a related study, Macgillivray and Jennings (2008) analyzed the most widely used foundations of education textbooks for LGBT content. Asserting that these textbooks often exclude LGBT content or reinforce harmful stereotypes, they were interested in whether gender and sexual diversity were included, how they were included, and the potential consequences of inclusion. They situate their curiosity in what they call “the systematic neglect of the needs of LGBT youth and families within teacher preparation coursework [that] is rooted in heteronormative assumptions that present heterosexuality as the only legitimate sexual orientation” (p. 171). For example, they report that in the United States, 44.4% of elementary and 40% of secondary teacher preparation programs fail to include topics of sexual orientation programwide (Jennings & Sherwin, 2008; Sherwin & Jennings, 2006). Their findings suggest that while all of the textbooks analyzed (N = 8) included LGBT topics, coverage was inconsistent insofar as content and depth were concerned. Furthermore, inclusion was at times problematic. For example, they found that the “student-as-victim” narrative was used, presumably to build support for inclusion as well as knowledge about the lived experiences of LGBTQ students in schools. They warned, however, that this narrative “has the effect of essentializing and pathologizing LGBT identities (Talburt, 2005; Rasmussen, 2005a, 2005b; Rofes, 2005a, 2005b), rendering them as hapless victims with no self-determination or agency (Blackburn, 2005)” (p. 182). Jennings and Macgillivray (2011) found similar trends when they analyzed multicultural textbooks (N = 12), as did Gorski, Davis, and Reiter (2013), who, perhaps based on the contested nature of the inclusion of gender and sexual diversity in the multicultural education movement, were also interested in multicultural education courses. They performed a content analysis of 41 syllabi from multicultural education courses taught in the United States, looking for inclusion or exclusion of LGBTQ concerns. They also collected survey data from 80 multicultural education instructors in order to “uncover both the likelihood that, and the nature by which, they incorporated LGBTQ concerns into their courses” (p. 224). They found that LGBTQ concerns were often invisible and that when those concerns were included, they were undertheorized, not done so in context, and instead served to mask heteronormativity; this finding has persisted for over a decade (Letts, 2002). When teacher educators treat some groups or issues of equity as worthy of attention and others as not, Jennings (2007) points to this “obvious danger”: PSTs’ attitudes, beliefs, and practices will likely follow suit (p. 1259).

What Is the Nature of Teachers’ Knowledge, Attitudes, and Beliefs about LGBTQ People and Teaching LGBTQ Content?

Over time, studies have been interested in the relationship among PSTs’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and perceived and anticipated behaviors as they relate to LGBTQ-inclusive practices and students who identify as LGBT. Perhaps this interest came from a study by James Sears, first published in 1991. Sears was interested in prospective teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about homosexuality and how those personal beliefs interacted with their “professional attitudes,” which Sears defined as teachers’ willingness to take a proactive stance toward supporting LGB youth (e.g., by encouraging classroom discussions of sexuality and integrating sexual diversity into the curriculum). By analyzing survey and questionnaire data from 258 PSTs, Sears found that 80% of participants held negative views about lesbian and gay people. While many respondents maintained that they could keep their personal beliefs and professional behaviors separate and that they should be proactive as professionals in the field, Sears found that few were willing to take a proactive stance in supporting the unique needs of LGB students. He attributed this discrepancy to PSTs’ prejudicial attitudes, lack of knowledge, and fear. Over a decade later, Mudrey and Medina-Adams (2006) emulated Sears’s study with 200 PSTs. In particular, they were interested in knowledge gains, attitude differences, and perceptions of homosexuality. What they found, in their words, “was rather shocking” in that they obtained similar results. While PSTs in their study were more knowledgeable about homosexuality, “their personal attitudes and feelings were not reflective of this knowledge” (p. 86).

Since Sears’s study, many researchers have echoed that PSTs tend to lack knowledge and preparation around topics and issues related to sexual diversity and that they struggle with negative attitudes about gays and lesbians (Blackburn & Donelson, 2004; Butler, 1994; Jennings & Sherwin, 2008; Riggs, Rosenthal, & Smith-Bonahue, 2010; Robinson & Ferfolja, 2001; Shelton & Barnes, 2016; Szalacha, 2004). Researchers have also learned that PSTs’ attitudes and motivation to support LGBTQ students can change as they learn more about issues that affect LGBTQ students in schools.

What Is the Nature and Impact of LGBTQ-Focused Interventions in Teacher Education?

One interpretation of Sears’s (1991) findings is that the more knowledgeable teachers are about sexual diversity, the less likely they are to hold negative attitudes and beliefs about LGB people. Given that respondents overwhelmingly reported having little to no exposure to homosexuality in their high school experiences or beyond, Sears’s study points to an important implication for teacher education—that is, in the service of increasing knowledge and combating homophobia, teacher education becomes an obvious site for exposure to LGBTQ topics to begin. Less obvious, however, is what counts as “effective” exposure. Keep in mind that Sears also cautioned that gaining access to adequate and accurate knowledge may lessen prospective teachers’ negative attitudes, but it neither “eliminate[s] them” (p. 55) nor guarantees that teachers will assume proactive stances. In other words, interventions that focus solely on cognitive gain (e.g., increased knowledge and awareness of LGBTQ people and issues) are unlikely to disrupt the deeply embedded nature of homophobic personal beliefs and attitudes or motivate teachers to take LGBTQ-affirming action. This was also reflected in the findings reported by Mudrey and Medina-Adams (2006).

Indeed, questions regarding what antiheterosexist, antihomophobic, and antitransphobic educational interventions should include, how they should unfold, and how sustained their impacts might be remain unsettled. Previously, that uncertainty could be attributed to a dearth of research on interventions in PST learning (Szalacha, 2004). Sears, for example, put it this way: “Since there are relatively few studies on the effectiveness of particular educational interventions, it is difficult to specify [the critical elements of homophobia education] with precision” (1997, p. 24). Drawing on insights from his previous research, Sears (1997) called for interventions that target thought, feeling, and action while also attending carefully to the unique contexts and sociocultural backgrounds of their learners. As research on interventions in teacher education has proliferated in the 2000s, studies are increasingly reporting positive effects of LGBTQ-inclusive coursework on PSTs’ knowledge and attitudes about LGBTQ people and their sense of responsibility to address gender and sexual diversity in the classroom (e.g., Clark, 2010; Richardson, 2008; Schmidt et al., 2012; Swartz, 2003; Taylor, 2002). What follows are a few examples of diverse approaches to instructional interventions that teacher educators have enacted.

Athanases and Larrabee (2003) conducted one of the first studies of PSTs’ responses to instruction regarding lesbian and gay issues in schools. In a course focused on the relationship between cultural diversity and education, students read articles that addressed topics such as the challenges that LG youth face, the lived experiences of LG adults, and the challenges of being virtually outed as a teacher; watched a video about key LG figures in U.S. history, including civil rights leader Bayard Rustin; and listened to an out, gay middle school teacher who visited the class as a guest speaker. The authors found that when afforded a safe discussion space and insiders’ perspectives, through readings by LG authors and exposure to LG-identified people, most students began to wear the mantle of advocacy for LG youth by semester’s end. A small number of other students, however, met the LG content with resistance because of religious convictions. Athanases and Larrabee therefore caution that instructors seeking to teach similar content must be prepared when students express “extreme resistance” (p. 256). Resistance is an important recurring theme in the literature (e.g., Allen & Hermann-Wilmarth, 2004; Hermann-Wilmarth, 2007; McConaghy, 2004; Robinson & Ferfolja, 2001, 2002; Staley & Leonardi, 2016; Thein, 2013; White, Oswalt, Wyatt, & Peterson, 2010) (see “Why Do Students Resist?”).

In the context of four different elementary and secondary teacher education courses, Elsbree and Wong (2007) explored the possibilities of using The Laramie Project, a play based on interviews held with community members of Laramie, Wyoming after the antigay murder of Matthew Shepard, to disrupt PSTs’ homophobic attitudes and support students to develop pedagogical strategies for organizing safe schools and classrooms. In the courses under study, The Laramie Project was part of a broader focus on sexual diversity that included the following activities: reading about LGBTQ identity, watching It’s Elementary: Talking about Gay Issues in Schools (Chasnoff & Cohen, 1996), attending a live performance of The Laramie Project, and engaging in class discussions of how homophobia impacts schooling and teachers’ responsibilities to engage in antihomophobia work. Pre- and postsurveys assessed the play’s impact on students’ knowledge, comfort, and personal and professional attitudes about LGBTQ issues. Results indicated positive shifts in knowledge and a moderate impact on attitudes, though the authors note that “impact” does not necessarily mean that positive change occurred. In fact, one third of respondents reported that the intervention did not change their personal beliefs and attitudes about LGBTQ topics. Nearly half of the students, however, reported that the intervention did change their professional attitudes and supported them to see their educational responsibilities to support LGBTQ youth. The authors conclude that affective interventions (e.g., attending a live performance of The Laramie Project) might be more effective in disrupting homophobia than taking a solely cognitive approach (e.g., reading and discussing LGBTQ topics in class), though they underscore the importance of both types of interventions in preparing teachers to create safe, affirming classrooms.

Taking a different approach, Sykes and Goldstein (2004) explored the pedagogical possibilities of performed ethnography, that is, the process of turning ethnographic data and texts (e.g., interview transcripts) into scripts that are performed in front of audiences, as an antihomophobia educational tool for PST preparation. The central text, Wearing the Secret Out, was a 25-minute video-recorded theatrical performance informed by life history interviews that Sykes conducted with physical education teachers who identified as lesbian, gay, and queer. The performance addressed issues such as coming out, struggle, identity, homophobic violence, and same-sex desire. In addition to watching the performance, students read a complete interview transcript with one of the teachers featured in the video and worked collaboratively to create and perform their own original compositions that drew on select excerpts from the transcripts. Sykes and Goldstein report how performed ethnography enabled students to explore their fears of engaging in antihomophobia work and their desires to protect students from homophobic harassment from a “safe(r) distance” (p. 54), because those homophobic and antihomophobic discourses were raised by characters in the play rather than by students themselves.

As queer scholars and teacher educators in this field, the authors are indebted to the legacy of scholarship that broke the silence around sexual diversity in teacher education. The work of Sears, Athanases, Larrabee, and many others was groundbreaking, and that word is used deliberately; that is, the authors recognize the risk and labor involved in breaking the silence around gender and sexual diversity in educational research, which has long been an inhospitable context. What’s more, that research clearly demonstrated that including LGBTQ content across teacher preparation coursework is a crucial first step toward strengthening teachers’ knowledge of gender and sexual diversity. And here, significant distinctions are underscored between gender and sexuality that were underemphasized in the reviewed literature. Encouragingly, that situation seems to be changing. Studies focused explicitly on the school experiences of transgender and gender-expansive youth are on the rise (e.g., Greytak, Kosciw, & Diaz, 2009; McGuire, Anderson, Toomey, & Russell, 2010; Singh, 2013), as are inquiries that aim to support pre- and in-service educators in learning about and affirming transgender identities in PK-12 contexts (e.g., Greytak, Kosciw, & Boesen, 2013; Case & Meier, 2014; McWilliams, 2015; Meyer & Pullen Sansfacon, 2014; Ryan, Patraw, & Bednar, 2013). Regarding future directions for research, more thoughtful, critical attention is suggested toward gender identity and the unique issues that transgender, gender-expansive, and nonbinary youth and educators experience.

Before exploring where future directions might lead, it is noted that as scholars the authors have learned more about the affordances and constraints of opportunities of exposure to LGBTQ topics in coursework and many are challenging inclusion as an effective approach; that is, scholars are calling on ways in which inclusion often fails to challenge heterosexuality as a normative construction and are calling for pedagogies and interventions that “mov[e] beyond inclusion” (Blackburn & Smith, 2010). Blackburn and Clark (2011), Martino (2009), Schieble (2012), Macgillivray and Jennings (2008), and others caution that inclusion can have unintended consequences, for example, reinforcing heterosexism and homophobia and providing a “sentimental education” (Britzman, 1995) that erases differences by insisting that “gay and lesbian people are just like straight people” (Blackburn, Clark, & Nemeth, p. 2). Drawing on queer theoretical perspectives, these scholars argue for “queering” (Letts, 2002) teacher education, that is, for enacting “queer interventions” that “unmask heteronormativity” (Martino, 2009, p. 386) and support students to develop critical habits of mind for deconstructing binaries and questioning how heterosexuality and binary gender become normalized in everyday practice. Enacting queer interventions that disrupt novice teachers’ notions of what counts as normal and also implicate them in systems of oppression is vulnerable, emotional work that involves “resistance and risk” (Allen & Hermann-Wilmarth, 2004) and requires unique approaches.

What Can We Learn From the Insights, Tensions, and Dilemmas of That Research?

Some key questions have been discussed that have driven the field in the service of asking: What can we learn from the insights, puzzles, and tensions that animate the scholarly conversation as it has unfolded in the past three decades? One conclusion to be drawn is that given the deeply embedded nature of heteronormativity in the discourses, pedagogies, and everyday practices of school, the work of preparing teachers to consistently affirm gender, sexual, and family diversity is neither easy nor straightforward. It involves transgressing a discourse of silence that still hangs heavy in many schools of education as well as working to strengthen teachers’ knowledge through thoughtful, deliberate integration of LGBTQ content and queer approaches across teacher education coursework. As research has resoundingly declared, these are complex endeavors that can be challenging to negotiate. Robinson and Ferfolja (2001, 2002), for example, write powerfully about their difficult experiences including LG content and supporting PSTs to develop critical understandings of the systemic and structural nature of social inequities. The authors note that while students demonstrate varying degrees of resistance to social justice issues raised in their courses, sexuality and LG content “always incur the greatest resistance, due to the controversy and cultural taboos surrounding non-heterosexual or minority sexualities. This is reflected in some PSTs’ attitudes, interests and willingness to participate in various topic areas” (2001, p. 124). They point to students’ tendencies to separate issues of gender and sexuality from the “mechanics” of teaching and to see them not as priorities for teacher education, but as negotiable topics that do not belong in the content classroom. Robinson and Ferfolja describe this opposition as a form of resistance that poses pedagogical, professional, and personal concerns for the teacher educator.

These challenges and resistances resonate with the current authors’ experiences as teacher educators oriented toward queer-affirming practices. Because heteronormativity so often goes unchallenged in PK-12 schools, the authors have themselves struggled with the task of disrupting PSTs’ well-formed notions of what counts as normal and appropriate with respect to gender and sexuality and what counts as important and (non)negotiable in learning to teach. They also have experienced the ways in which teacher educators’ assumptions, beliefs, and practices related to the way we “do” equity and diversity in teacher preparation are shaped by heteronormativity, homophobia, transphobia, and silence. They have felt pangs of frustration from well-meaning colleagues’ repeated invitations to visit their courses during LGBTQ week and lead the discussion rather than taking on the challenge themselves. And they have been heartened by the willingness of other colleagues to puzzle their way through gender and sexual diversity as new instructional terrain. In these ways, the wisdom of their inquiries, practice, and lived experiences working with thousands of pre- and in-service teachers and teacher educators prompts them to get curious about the challenges, resistances, and emotional labor involved in disrupting and deconstructing dominant discourses that perpetuate myths, stereotypes, and oppression. Those challenges are now addressed in the next section and framed as productive sites for queer interventions and scholarly inquiry. The authors foreground the important relationship between emotion and resistance in the learning process and call on queer pedagogy as a source of inspiration and possibility.

Queer Pedagogy as Possibility

From the literature already reviewed, two points are clear: teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and actions sit in a complex relationship, and changing PSTs’ personal beliefs and motivating them toward action can be elusive goals. While building teachers’ knowledge and awareness of gender and sexuality as issues can support some positive changes, research cautions that instructional interventions cannot predict whether and how teachers will take future action in classrooms and schools. This begs the question, why? And what might resistance have to do with it? In the service of digging into those questions, the voices of queer and poststructural theorists are raised who encourage educators and researchers to ask: What does learning, and unlearning (Britzman, 1998), do to students (Luhmann, 1998)? And what can we learn about supporting PSTs to enact affirming and disrupting practices by digging into their processes of learning? Queer perspectives are elevated as a generative tool for doing that work of excavation.

Why Do Students Resist?

With respect to the why, Kevin Kumashiro’s (2000, 2001) writing on the role of emotional crisis in anti-oppressive education, or teaching in ways that challenge multiple forms of oppression, is a useful place to start. Kumashiro (2000) cautions against assuming that “consciousness-raising” or building knowledge around particular issues of equity will lead to action or personal transformation. From this perspective, PSTs could theoretically learn about how heteronormativity, homophobia, and transphobia are institutionalized in schools and be introduced to the negative consequences for LGBTQ youth, and still, as professionals in the field, they could choose not to take action that affirms gender and sexual diversity. Calling on Britzman’s (1998) argument that all learning involves unlearning, Kumashiro (2001) explains it this way:

I argue that learning about oppression and unlearning one’s worldview can be upsetting and paralyzing to students…. Though paradoxical and in some ways traumatic, this condition should be expected: by teaching students that the very ways in which we think and do things can be oppressive, teachers should expect their students to get upset. (p. 44, emphasis in original)

This perspective emphasizes that education that works against oppression must disrupt what students already know and have previously taken for granted as normal. In this way, unlearning can lead to “a state of ‘crisis’ or paralysis (such as feeling emotionally upset)” (Kumashiro, 2001, p. 38). Kumashiro argues that educators must take seriously the roles of emotional crisis and resistance in students’ processes of engaging in anti-oppressive education, because if left unattended, crisis can exacerbate resistance and preclude the possibility of change. In order to move toward a desire to take action, then, educators must support students to work through crisis. Kumashiro encourages educators to be curious about students’ resistances and to make space for the emotional upset that attends anti-oppressive education.

To put this perspective into context, an example of a queer intervention is given which was enacted by the authors as part of a study conducted in a semester-long secondary literacy methods course in which Staley and Leonardi acted as lead instructors (Staley & Leonardi, 2016). Across course meetings, readings, and activities, they integrated topics of gender and sexual diversity, including heteronormativity and queer-inclusive literacy practices. Initially, they were interested in how students would respond, but were struck by the ways that the curriculum put several students into crisis. Using Kumashiro’s framework to make sense of the emotional overtones of students’ responses, they learned that foregrounding gender and sexual diversity invited complex emotional responses as students both resisted and engaged with the process of unlearning previously taken-for-granted assumptions. For example, learning that school is not a safe place for all students and that teachers have been complicit in making schooling unsafe for LGBTQ youth incited strong emotional responses. Also upsetting to students was not knowing how to address LGBTQ topics and issues in spite of their motivation to do so. Analysis suggested that discomfort shaped students’ responses to the curriculum in important ways. Some students were willing to move toward discomfort (called a move to “lean in”) (Chödrön, 2009). Others resisted discomfort altogether. Reflecting on the findings, Staley and Leonardi wondered what might have happened if they had anticipated a crisis of learning and invited students to connect with and critically attend to their emotional responses. What if the students had been invited to lean in to discomfort along the way? How might that have supported students through moments of crisis and resistance?

In the service of digging a little deeper into the why, the authors also looked to queer pedagogy as a productive tool for examining the complex relationship between emotion, resistance, and the self. Playing with what queer pedagogy might mean, and what it might mean to queer pedagogy, Luhmann (1998) wonders, “What if queer pedagogy puts into crisis what is known and how we come to know?” (p. 147). She argues for a pedagogy that moves from “what should be learned and how to teach this knowledge” to “how we come to know and how knowledge is produced in the interaction between teacher/text and student” (p. 147). Luhmann encourages educators to ask: “What does being taught, what does knowledge do to students?” This question orients educators toward an important shift away from a focus on what is being taught and by which methods and toward “an inquiry into the conditions for understanding, or refusing, knowledge (Felman, 1987; Lusted, 1986)” (p. 148). In other words, queer pedagogy is less concerned with the text or topic that anchors a lesson than with the process through which students engage and resist that text and the conditions that make those interactions possible. Central to Luhmann’s argument is consideration of what students can bear to know and what they might refuse when they refuse certain identifications (e.g., the oppressor). She says, “What is at stake in this pedagogy is the deeply social or dialogical situation of subject formation, the processes of how we make ourselves through and against others” (pp. 153–154).

When Does Change Become Possible?

The question of when is connected to Kumashiro’s caution that knowledge building promotes change in the individual. Kumashiro (2000) doesn’t leave us to just sit in the warning, however; he suggests that anti-oppressive education must involve self-reflexivity, which he defines as “a change of the individual” (p. 45). Engaging Britzman’s (1998) thinking, he says that “efforts to challenge oppression need to involve changing the self, rethinking who one is by seeing the Other as an ‘equal’ but on different terms” (p. 81). Consciousness-raising, knowledge-building, and self-reflection are part of the process puzzle, but, Kumashiro argues, via Felman (1995), that “teaching and learning really take place only through entering and working through crisis, since it is this process that moves a student to a different intellectual/emotional/political space” (p. 44, emphasis in original). Attending to crisis and supporting students to reflect on how they are implicated in systems of oppression is as crucial as attending to self-reflexivity and facilitating students’ critical reflections on how that knowledge bears on their sense of self. As Kumashiro contends, it is only when students are willing to “think differently” about their sense of self and “significantly chang[e] how they see themselves and who they are” (p. 45) that taking anti-oppressive action becomes possible. Therefore, in order to navigate the challenges of enacting queer interventions in teacher education, pedagogies need to be used that pay close attention to the “conditions of learning” (Luhmann, 1998) that our interventions create and to how those conditions expand and foreclose opportunities for students to enter into crisis and engage in self-reflexive work.

So, what might it look like to bring this perspective to bear in practice? What if, as researchers and teacher educators, we drill down and place a lens of curiosity not so much on the what of students’ attitudes, resistance, advocacy (e.g., what is the nature of students’ knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs?), but on the why? Why do students resist? And, in their resistance and moments of crisis, when do they get curious? When do they “lean in” to discomfort? What’s my role in facilitating that introspective curiosity? Assuming that such an inquiry stance requires that we get curious about the conditions of learning, we should ask, as Luhmann (1998) does: What is this learning doing to students? What kinds of identifications are at stake in this process? What structures these identifications? How do identifications become possible? What prevents them, and ultimately, makes learning (im)possible? What will this information, knowledge, and conversation do to students’ senses of self? What will the knowledge ask students to reconsider about themselves and the subject(s) studied? How will students insert themselves in this discussion? What positions might they refuse? Which ones might they find desirable?

In practice, this looks like not centering questions such as: Do you think it’s appropriate to affirm queer identities in PK-12 curriculum? Rather, the questions are: What comes up for you as you consider your role in affirming LGBTQ identities in your curriculum? What is it that you are responding to? Where are your “no’s” (e.g., resistances, defenses) and “yes’s” (e.g., openness, willingness to engage)? How do you know? What do you feel? Where do those feelings come from? Where are you, personally, in this conversation? How do you see, identify, or recognize yourself? How does this conversation affect, disrupt, or support your ideas of what counts as normal? Different? Appropriate? Do you notice binaries and oppositions coming up (e.g., us/them; good/bad; oppressed/oppressor; normal/abnormal; tolerant/tolerated)? How might an inquiry into these questions bolster or add layers to Mudrey and Medina-Adams’ (2006) findings (perhaps the why of what they found) that PSTs were more knowledgeable, but that their attitudes and feelings were not reflective of this knowledge?

Conclusion

With respect to gender and sexual diversity, there is no doubt a relationship between on-the-ground practices of teacher educators and the long-standing fight for relevancy in the discourses of educational research and practice, broadly speaking. For this reason, this article echoes Quinn and Meiners (2011) in saying, “rather than simply proposing more ‘on-the-ground’ research of local attitudes and prejudices, we again remind readers to study up by focusing on structures, systems, and power” (p. 145). As the literature review suggests, there are many PSTs who never get the opportunity to engage with gender and sexual diversity because of programmatic and institutional silences. Gender and sexual diversity are often left out of course syllabi and texts, even those specifically focused on diversity and multicultural education. And much of what PSTs encounter in terms of diversity, as Jennings (2007) noted, “are reflections of the values and beliefs held by teacher education faculty” (p. 1266). Therefore, it is essential to continue to confront the reality that in many programs, conversations about LGBTQ people still don’t exist. In addition to studying up and challenging those institutional structures, teacher educators and researchers are encouraged to drill down—that is, to consider how students are interacting with their learning as well as the kinds of spaces being creating for them to navigate learning as a messy, emotional, and personal process. No doubt, this requires that we, as teacher educators and researchers, lean in to the vulnerability of learning ourselves.

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Notes:

(1.) Visit www.GLSEN.org to read the most recent report, published in 2016.