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date: 24 November 2020

Queer Studies in Educationfree

  • Jennifer C. IngreyJennifer C. IngreyWestern University


A survey of key contributors and theoretical tensions in the applications of queer studies in education is purposefully partial namely because of the impartiality embedded in the nature of ‘queer’, a verb whose action unsettles, dismantles and interrogates systems of normalization, beginning with heteronormativity and heterosexism. Queer theory emerged in the 1990s before influencing education, including both elementary and secondary schooling; however, queer is complex in that it involves the signifier or signified term: it is both the integration of queer content in curriculum as well as the practice of queering educational practices (i.e., curriculum, pedagogy and practice). The queering of pedagogy involves the queering of the educational subject, both teachers and students. In such a survey of queer in education, the ontological groundings for queer are important to consider given the paradoxical nature of queer to unpack and unsettle whilst maintaining its hold on an identity category in order to do its unsettling work. Indeed, the consequent recognition of the subjecthood of queer in educational contexts is a significant note in this attention to queer’s application in education. Queer also moves beyond not only an inclusion of queer content, but also exceeds queer sexualities to cohere and contrast with trans-infused approaches. Queer theory considers that the future of queer may well exceed beyond sexuality and gender altogether to become a practice of unsettling or critique more generally. Its continuity in education studies as well as its potentially impending expiration are concerns of scholars in the field.


A comprehensive survey of queer studies from its emergence to its current applications would be next to impossible in many ways, but even less so a productive pursuit; even a more precise look at queer studies in education on its own might simply reproduce many volumes, articles, and the surveys of others who provide diverse views, draw on various tenets, consider multiple implications, and harness contrasting theoretical underpinnings. What is productive is to attempt to survey the highlights of how queer studies have contributed to the field of education, however vast a project that may be, not only to generate a picture of its pedagogical and curricular realizations but also to chart these theoretical tensions to ponder the futurity of queer at all. Much like Butler (1990) drawing the outline of feminism to move into that which feminism could not address (i.e., the dismantling of gender terms that serve as the basis of feminism but construct the promise of queer theory) and thus finding queer theory, queer theory may have to encounter its own outline, the border that marks that which cannot be queer and must then be taken up by some other theoretical orientation. Or queer may be able to bend and reshape itself to accommodate the multitude of tensions that stick to its many diverse ponderings and applications because, as most eloquently articulated in Jagose’s (1996, p. 1) primer on queer theory, the “definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics” (p. 1). Whichever is the case (and according to poststructuralists and postmodernists alike, there will be many cases not always in line with each other), the malleability of queer may have its own limits, but they may not be yet reached. In other words, one may question that even if queer studies cannot continue to serve in its pursuit to dismantle heteronormative and heterosexist institutions and cultures of education, has it necessarily been exhausted?

What then is queer? And from where did it arise? How did it enter education, in what ways, and how may it exit? Does the future of queer see its inevitable death? Or can it re-create itself in inventive ways that will continue to serve the populations of LGBTQ youth and adults to represent their lived experiences, their subjugated knowledges, to reverse the normalization of heterosexuality in education policy, curriculum, and practice, and to continue to work toward empowering activists and actors to make institutional change? Indeed, does queer have to stop there? In what ways can queering move itself away from a focus on bodies, sexualities, and genders and critique other injustices or techniques of oppression in education?

This article aims to signal the developments of queer studies in education from outside education to within its field including pedagogical and curricular and policy implications. And yet I aim to chart these movements not necessarily in a linear way, as this in itself would be antithetical not only to the actual rhizomatic development of queer studies (see Hall, Jagose, Bebell, & Potter, 2013) but also to its theoretical character as partial, multi-faceted, and divergent. Indeed, this charting has elements of chronology until it does not: the flow from one contributor leads to another, even if at times it is a turning backward in temporal reality to revisit key ideas or see new ideas via different contributors. While it is impossible to be comprehensive, it is possible to highlight the key contributions, key developments to the field, to perform the function of a guide to the reader of queer studies in education.

Ontological Questioning/Theoretical Tensions of Queer

As with many writings on queer theory, its very nature of being is often defined, or attempted to be, with a more complex picture arising than what a reader may wish, especially if said reader is a novice to queer theory or is looking for the simplest version possible. Jagose (1996) cites the early 1990s in gay and lesbian studies as the inception of queer theory due to its increasing deployment in academic circles. Spargo (1999) names the late 1980s as that period of crystallization of this notion of queer theory, where queer departs from the limitations of lesbian and gay studies to become mobilized “as a verb that unsettles assumptions about sexed and sexual being and doing” (p. 40). Another key theoretical underpinning to queer theory, according to Spargo, is the influence of Foucault’s (1990) History of Sex that framed sexuality as a social construction: “sexuality is the set of effects produced in bodies, behaviours, and social relations by a certain deployment deriving from a complex political technology” (p. 127). Foucault’s work has been queered via the work of Spargo (1999), Judith Butler (1990), and others. Halperin (2003) credits Teresa de Lauretis for coining “queer theory” in a California conference in 1990 where, because of its shock value (i.e., regarding the origins of the word “queer” as defamatory), that intentionally and “scandalously offensive” (Halperin, 2003, p. 340) usage defined queer as something that means to unsettle and disrupt as well as to highlight the “incoherencies in the allegedly stable relations between chromosomal sex, gender and sexual desire” (Jagose, 1996, p. 3). Indeed, De Lauretis (2011) explains this inception of the term as the framing “of a project at once critical and political, aimed at resisting the cultural and sexual homogenization in academic ‘gay and lesbian studies’ ” where she had hoped “to confront our respective sexual histories and deconstruct our own constructed silences around sexuality and its interrelations with gender and race” (p. 257). It was her intention in that early 1990 conference to unleash homosexuality from its marginalized past, its placement as subordinate to a perceived fixed, dominant heterosexuality, that which received legitimacy (De Lauretis, 1991, p. iii). Halperin (2003) thought this was de Lauretis’s attempt to “make theory queer . . . and to queer theory” (Halperin, 2003, p. 340), where the former term critiqued theory for its heteronormativity and heterosexism, and the latter reframed theory’s purpose in examining sexuality and desire.

As Halperin (2003) traces the trajectory of queer theory from these early unorganized days to its eventual (and quick) acceptance, or canonization (as he terms it), into the academy, despite its fuzziness or ability to truly be known, he notes the paradox of a theory whose existence depends on the critique of normal to become itself so widely normalized and, in fact, so adopted by non-queer actors and academics. It is here that the separation of queer as the signified and a signifier becomes apparent. In the first instance, queer as the signified, how one “makes theory queer” (Halperin, 2003), or what the queer is in queer theory, historically (and probably presently) seemed easier and more palatable by heterosexist institutions and academies than the alternative. That alternative is the second instance, that is, the act of queering theory, Halperin’s “to queer theory,” or, the verb-ing of queer, a much more difficult and contentious pursuit. Queer as container (the signifier) or the contained (the signified) is a very important distinction because, if one is without the other, the inclusion of non-normative gender and sexuality and sex is not a requirement of queer theory. Halperin’s (2003) argument is that queer was and can be taken up to mean something ultimately not queer at all but a placeholder for “liberal” (p. 341), critical studies, and just something “progressive”; put another way, “queer theory proper is often abstracted from the quotidian realities of lesbian and gay male life” (p. 343). Perhaps this is what De Lauretis (2011) laments when she recalls that earlier motivation in 1990 to pair the academic and the political pursuits within this thing called queer theory, a promise she thinks can actually no longer be realized because, in a long and rather dense psychoanalysis of Edelman’s text, No Future, she explains the incompatibility of the two where theory is “literary or speculative” and politics is “empirically or fact-based” (p. 258) and thus leads to her conclusion that “queer theory does not map out a program of political action” unless and until “a kind of translation” (p. 259) happens.

What this means for queer theory’s applications, especially in the field of education, is that some practitioners and scholars take up queer as either signifier or signified or both; in other words, how queer is the act of unsettling and disrupting the normalization of sexuality and gender, how queer can mean merely the act of critique of basically anything even that outside of sexuality or gender expression/identity, or how queer can be an additive piece of content in terms of LGBTQ knowledge. Another way to think of this scaffold is to reference Kumashiro’s (2002) framework of antioppressive education whereby the first two phases mark education as for or about the Other (I see these as overlaying upon the phases of queer as signified), and the latter two phases claim education as an operation that is critical of privileging and othering as well as education that changes students and society (where I see these as the doing or the queering of education beyond the merely tokenistic or additive moves). Nonetheless, it is still important to chart how queer theory has inserted and woven itself through educational practices, policies, and theories.

In concurrence with the notion that queer is at once complex and undefinable, the editors of the Routledge Queer Studies Reader, Hall et al. (2013), claim an almost paradoxical definition that simultaneously maintains this necessary incoherence. Indeed, by harnessing queer studies via a definition that describes its very inability to be harnessed, they capture the variations and tensions with the practice of queer: “queer studies is the institutionalization of a new—or at least newly visible—paradigm for thinking about sexuality that emerged simultaneously across academic and activist contexts in the early 1990s, constituting a broad and unmethodical critique of normative models of sex, gender and sexuality” (Hall et al., 2013, p. xvi). For Butler (2013), known as a founding figure of queer theory, queer is also about a destabilization of the fixedness of normative gender, sex, and sexuality, and it works because of its defamatory past, in its “shaming interpellation” (p. 19). Through the performativity of gender that produces a queer subject, what also forms through that interpellation of queer is the necessary solidarity for community and political progress. That is, queer, at once a marginalized and marginalizing epithet, has been reclaimed to seek out and disrupt that process of marginalization.

Queering Education

William Pinar’s (1998) edited volume on queer studies in education marks that transition period where education theorists, curriculum specialists, and practitioners begin to take up queer studies in their various applications, not that even these applications agree with each other. And Pinar would not cite his work as the inception of queer studies in schooling; rather, in the lengthy introduction, he begins by providing a brief history beginning with the ancient Greeks, skips to the 1970s where curriculum advanced queer theorizing, and then cites Britzman’s (1998) queer pedagogy and Bryson and De Castell’s (1993) work that “signaled a heightened visibility for scholarship focusing on gay/lesbian/queer concerns” (Pinar, 1998, p. 2). Despite this emphasis on the inclusion of gay and lesbian content in an attempt to “correct the repression of queers in the curriculum” (p. 3), these early queer scholars, including Pinar, were also concerned to critique the heterosexist nature of education, thereby arguing that education should “come to” realize the need to deploy queer pedagogy and curriculum, or ways of queering that “displaces and decentres” (p. 3) heteronormalization. In addition, queer became a term that, if not completely inclusive, opened more possibilities of identification than the terms lesbian and gay, terms that remained productive but limited in their application and certainly disparate in their political aims.

With caution, Pinar calls for “queer” as “a very provisional term of perhaps a momentary coalition . . . [that] may serve important intellectual as well as political and pedagogical purposes” (1998, p. 4). But the history and contemporaneity of queers is not always in line with solidarity: homosexual people or people who do homosexual acts (which are not the same thing) have warred with how to define themselves falling to, on the one hand, assimilationism—that which is perceived to be like heterosexuality except with a different sex act—or, on the other hand, separatism—that which sees the repudiation of the heterosexualized other to create an entirely new identity category or at least to trouble current identity categories. Somewhere in the middle is the desire to retain alliances across the diverse subject positions of lesbian, gay, queer identities. What results in these decisions is either an inevitable essentialism (of the two, the more historical position)—which leads to the potential for political mobilization—or the abandonment of essentialism in favor of a more nuanced understanding of queer identity but one that threatens a collective identification (a more contemporary dilemma, according to Pinar). And the complexity of homosexual or queer identity construction is doubly difficult when, as Pinar (1998) asks: What are the implications for our students when we are “reconfiguring ourselves?” (p. 8); in other words, how do educators and educational practitioners who are identifying as lesbian, gay, queer, etc., move away from essentialism because it simplifies identity and limits subjectivity, and yet also grasp the relationality of identities via a postmodernist/poststructuralist lens? In Derridean terms, one is defined by its relation to an other, thus establishing the effects of power via this hierarchy; indeed, the one, the dominant, depends upon the repudiation and subordination of the other to fortify its own boundaries. What queer theory does is a destabilizing of said relations.

Pinar cites Seidman’s work that asks for a change in queer identificatory work; where Seidman (1993, p. 137) insists on the queer self to consider its positionality within cultural and social institutions and practices and thus move away from a poststructuralist preoccupation with self, Pinar (1998) sees a different trend, especially as evidenced in his volume: the queer self requires more attention, a closer turning back in on oneself to understand its own restructuring (p. 10) but in order to refuse erasure. Pinar returns to the ancient Greeks to review the pederasty of early pedagogy, a sort of crude banking method of teaching (p. 11), that reads the dominant position of the teacher as essentially male (and phallic), and the subordinated position of the student as female (although he is a boy, he is just the literal and figurative receptacle of knowledge). In this scenario, pedagogy is heterosexualized even though it is a same-sex relation: it marks “a supreme indifference to sexual difference” (p. 11) that reproduces effects even in modern pedagogy, according to Bredbeck (1995; cited in Pinar, 1998, p. 12). It is the aim of the edited volume, according to Pinar, that this erasure of difference be denied so that queer theory can “challenge the reproduction of sameness, of indifference, of patriarchy” (p. 13) and allow for educational spaces through curriculum and pedagogy to acknowledge queer’s suffering, failures, as well as positionality (p. 43) so that queer educators and practitioners can “try to find ways to decenter, destabilize, and deconstruct . . . the heterosexist normalizations that so essentialize many of the students we teach” (p. 44).

To take Pinar up, and indeed, located in his volume, Susanne Luhmann (1998) investigates the queering of pedagogy or the querying of queer pedagogy, two among many of the considerations vital to the unpacking of what queer pedagogy actually does. While it was Halperin’s (2003) intent to review the competing ideas of queer pedagogy as either content or form, Luhmann (1998) settles on a definition that rejects those common assumptions that queer is either the container (i.e., the structure and mode of teaching) or the contained (i.e., the stuff in said teaching), or whether it is something that one teaches to queer students. It is none of these things, according to Luhmann, but a way to be “critical of mainstream education as a site for the reproduction of unequal power relations . . . [specifically] the practices of normalization at stake in the study of sexuality” (p. 142). Teaching about lesbian and gay content is not only simplistic, it has also been used as a means to address homophobia as if the discourse of safety is the only place for queers in the mainstream classroom content. Luhmann’s concern is that, again, this additive and pathologizing acknowledgment of lesbian and gay folk does nothing to restructure the heteronormalizing structure of schooling or to address the heterosexist privilege of educators and educational leaders, etc. Furthermore, it reproduces the cycle of normalizing heterosexuality. What queer pedagogy is meant to do is to deconstruct these binaries of heterosexuality and homosexuality that depend on each other, indeed, where the former depends upon the repudiation of the latter “by refusing stable identities and by producing new identifications that lie outside binary models of gender and sexuality” (p. 151).

Asking how queer is meant to unsettle that hetero-privileging process, Luhmann cites the strange and perverse performativities of “queer sexual practices and identities that seek to transgress and subvert heteronormative sex/gender dichotomies” (1998, p. 145) because they mark the boundaries of normal and threaten their stability all the while invoking a challenge to the stabilization of not only sexuality but also gender. Furthermore, while Luhmann insists queer asks the subject to consider its own subject-making through these processes of sexual and gender normalization and to consider the rupture of said system, she also worries that the result will leave said subject feeling lost or hopeless. If queer pedagogy is meant to destabilize and unsettle, can it always be successful in this constant refusal, she wonders. Indeed, might queer revert to totalizing tendencies, and thus put “into crisis what is known and how we come to know?” (p. 147). The question really falls upon the student in this case as one whose resistance to learning may be as a result of a personal crisis, of reaching one’s own boundaries of what is capable of knowing and now facing the realm of what one cannot bear to know (p. 150). Queer pedagogy acknowledges this confrontation and makes room for it, framing learning as “a process of risking the self” (p. 151), all the while positioning the self in the structure of normalization and privileging. Citing Rosello’s (1994; cited in Luhmann, 1998) pedagogy for language instruction as a metaphor for queer theory, Luhmann concludes that while learning is a “highly social process,” so too is the making of the self, and thus both must occur in dialogue that interrogates what is legitimate knowledge and what becomes knowledge that is unreachable or de-legitimated. Queer pedagogy is “an inquiry into the conditions that make learning possible or prevent learning” (p. 153).

In the same volume, Rodriguez (1998) examines the political potential of queer youth to act as a site for political and pedagogical resistance in the making of their own subject positions as democratic. In this pursuit, Rodriguez also makes the claim, following Giroux (cited in Rodriguez, 1998), that teacher preparation programs in their refusal to incorporate theory miss out on the possibilities that theory offers, namely “the necessity of recognizing the importance to them of another group’s struggles” (p. 181). Citing examples of youth who resisted the heterosexist school policies and/or climate, Rodriguez’s chapter positions youth, and queer youth at that, as an untapped category of political mobilization to challenge mainstream educational cultures that normalize heterosexuality.

Queering Schools

Letts and Sears (1999) contribute an edited volume that focuses on the application of queer to the field of elementary education. Sears’s (1999) opening chapter examines teaching queerly, or teaching as a way to “refuse to participate in the great sexual sorting machine called schooling” (p. 5). Here he reclaims “queer” from its role as epithet in many a sexual outsider’s painful past to transform it to a critical teaching approach that disrupts heteronormative classrooms and prioritizes no child over another based on alignment with the sexual norm. Indeed, teaching queerly is an ethical practice that encompasses “honesty, civility, authenticity, integrity, fairness, and respect” (p. 4). In this pursuit, he offers five propositions for teaching queerly: teachers must dismantle sexual and gender binaries; rather than attempting to discover causation of homosexuality, educators should better spend their energies interrupting homophobia and heterosexism; confronting homophobia requires difficult self-examination given its embeddedness in a heteronormative culture; children’s innocence is a cultural and social construction, thus to teach queerly is to adjust one’s gaze to consider the child’s perspective and provide knowledge that is supportive and productive for their authentic learning; and refusing to erase queer families in curriculum also recognizes their legitimacy and right to inclusion in queer curriculum.

The essays in the volume account for queerness in terms of the identity of the educator as a form of inclusion in the way of curriculum about queer people but also do so to interrupt the heteronormativity of the elementary classroom and to make a case for the “risky teaching” (Bickmore, 1999) of this approach as a rejection of censorship. They also consider the intersections of queer sexualities with race, ethnicity, and gender through, for one, the construction of black males’ transgressive sexualities (Earl Davis, 1999) as severely policed; such an analysis offers insight into “the complex interaction of these identities” (p. 51) and the little-known terrain of black boys navigating sexuality in middle school culture. Kumashiro’s (1999) essay names the intersections of queer, male, and Asian identities via his own fraught schooling experiences. Here he works through various reading lenses that acknowledge cultural differences between certain Asian and American cultures to correct the misreading of queer Asian masculine identities who suffer oppression at multiple levels. Curricular attention is also paid in Martino’s (1999) essay on reading practices that disrupt heteronormative thinking via specific texts and scaffolded strategies within the English classroom. While a good start is the inclusion of queer texts, Martino is encouraged that educators find it possible to move toward a critical perspective that dismantles normalized sexual categories and thus also turns away from mere tolerance. In the afterword, Leck (1999) asks the reader to consider how this volume moves us to “new opportunities for dialogue that can dramatically, dynamically, and subtly open vital new possibilities for more reflective and just practices of schooling” (p. 260).

Talburt and Steinberg’s (2000) edited volume marks a mid-point in the short history of queer studies in education. In the introduction, Talburt (2000) is concerned with not only the futurity of queer but also its then current status as it must continue to grapple with its paradoxical situation, a situation that does not seem easily remedied even nearly two decades later. While queer dismantles and unsettles, by its very nature, it also requires a stable dominant other to dismantle and thus invokes identity as fixed, resulting in a sort of “haunting of queer by identity” (p. 4), according to Talburt. This paradox is a concern to Halperin (2003) also. And yet, Talburt (2000) queers even this tension arguing its productivity because, while queer depends on a concretized notion of identity in order to do its work of queering, it then “engages the identity discourses that structure the terms of educational policy and practice while at the same time pushing beyond them” (p. 5). Queer cannot follow the postmodernist path of deconstruction to the point of unintelligibility. Its gains are secured only in its ability to be intelligible to an educational context, in Talburt’s estimation.

Queering Pedagogy

Bryson and DeCastell (1993) note that queer theory, or indeed, even gay and lesbian studies, initially refrained from addressing the field of education; and thus their articulation and (failed?) attempt to implement queer pedagogy as “im/perfect”-ion is an important contribution to the field of queer studies in education. How even queer pedagogy is understood aligns again with the problems of defining queer theory along the same signifier/signified lines as discussed with Halperin’s (2003) work. According to Bryson and DeCastell (1993):

Queer pedagogy could refer here to [1] education as carried out by lesbian and gay educators, to [2] curricula and environments designed for gay and lesbian students, to [3] education for everyone about queers, or . . . to [4] the deliberate production of queer relations and the production of subjectivities as deviant performance—. . . as agitation . . . to intervene in the production of so-called normalcy in schooled subjects. (p. 12)

In the first instance (i.e., queer pedagogy as delivered by queer educators), Bryson and DeCastell (1993) express the tensions involved in practicing a queer pedagogy as educators who are lesbian with lesbian and heterosexual students in a particular lesbian studies course, which is embedded in a heterosexist and heteronormative academic system. In the second instance (i.e., where queer pedagogy may mean the curriculum for gay and lesbian students), not only do they cite the dangers to the self as professors in terms of risking professional security and/or tenure and promotion, they also consider the psychological harm to be conjured as a lesbian “object” while speaking as the self (for professors and students both), a self whose story is inevitably heard by the dominant heterosexual (and often white) other whose privilege and entitlement prevents the possibility of the lesbian as “subject” to ever be realized. Regarding an application of the third instance (i.e., where queer pedagogy may mean the education for everyone about queers), Bryson and De Castell (1993) worry about the inevitable essentializing of the lesbian “object” into an identity that appears fixed, stable and coherent, indeed, as belonging to “the lesbian experience.”

While Petersen (2000) makes a claim for essentialism as strategic, a tactic employed by post–second-wave feminists to mobilize the ranks of women for political gain under the guise of the “women’s experience,” this is not a position Bryson and De Castell (1993) would accept for queer studies again because of the risk to the lesbian subject. Rather, they found their straight-identifying students tended to consume lesbianism as content (i.e., queer as signified) rather than as a form (i.e., queer as signifier) that could allow a reflexivity or returning of the gaze to the self to notice “the constructedness of their own identities” (p. 4), a pedagogical move they called “an ethic of consumption” (p. 4), which addresses the final instance of their definition of queer pedagogy (i.e., a purposeful agitation or disruption of what is normalized). Their heterosexual students’ reluctance to play with form, invest in and divest of their own experiences in course assignments, and their obvious discomfort in class discussions led Bryson and De Castell (1993) to their own reluctance: “every ounce of our emotional, intellectual, and social energies were consumed by the problem of accommodating the white heterosexual women’s discomfort . . . despite our repeated insistence that this was not something we wanted to do” (p. 5). And thus they conclude that despite their aims to do a queer pedagogy, a “radical form of praxis implemented deliberately to interfere with, to intervene in, the production of ‘normalcy’ in schooled subjects” (p. 1), they were equipped only “to entrench essentialist boundaries which continue both to define and divide us” (p. 8); in other words, queer pedagogy in all of its possibilities (from queer as signified to signifier) remained an impossibility in their given context, time, and place and the heterosexist and heteronormalizing academe.

Probably most influential in the field of queer pedagogy is the work of Deborah Britzman (1995, 1998); indeed, Luhmann (1998) draws much from Britzman’s (1995) article, “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight.” Here, Britzman also cites the history of queer as epithet or strange and refuses to continue this marginalization; she also rejects queer as tokenistic or merely celebratory. Rather, queer can allow for a rethinking of the heterosexist curriculum and beyond, “a way to rethink the very grounds of knowledge and pedagogy in education” (p. 151). And in such a critical unpacking, queer also interrogates the “constitution of bodies of knowledge and knowledge of bodies” (p. 151); in other words, queer acknowledges the process by which certain forms of knowledge are created and legitimated via and within normalizing discourses (i.e., bodies of knowledge) that render straightness or heterosexuality (or other forms of privilege) to be dominant and, in so doing, cause straight and non-queer bodies (i.e., knowledge of bodies) to be normalized. And in this articulation, Britzman is looking to a future for queer pedagogy beyond the queer body. Nonetheless, the subject of queer, as in the person who is queer, is not to be reproduced as the victimized, traumatized other, or, as Luhmann (1998) may help us to understand, one to be included only in discourses of safety or, by extension, anti-bullying/anti-homophobia campaigns. Britzman (1995) calls for queer as something grander, an “ethical project” (p. 152) that refuses to produce difference as the abject, that refuses to maintain the polarities of heterosexuality as normal and homosexuality as marginalized.

The proposal of how to actually do this queer pedagogy is much of what Halperin’s (2003) history highlighted: Britzman (1995) positions queer as both signified and signifier, or even somewhere in the middle: “something queer happens to the signified—to history and bodies—and something queer happens to the signifier—to language and to representation” (p. 153); but what is of utmost importance is that Britzman’s queer is the doing, or the verb-ing, the action of a critical dismantling of such systems of normalization and not a reference to an actor, or one who is queer. What queer leads the subject—or the learner, again as Luhmann (1998) interprets—to is a confrontation with what one cannot bear to know, indeed, “what hegemonic discourses of normalcy [as would be familiar to the straight subject] cannot bear to know” (p. 154). In this way, queer pedagogy is not a way to teach to or about queer, but a process that disrupts and is also productive of knowledge. The ontological conundrum of queer is one that worries both Luhmann (1998) and Britzman (1995)—maybe less so the latter, but still something to be acknowledged: How does the signifier queer (and not the signified) retain its power to critique and unsettle, to interrogate relations and produce new ones, if its very nature is not to be fixed, its “meanings that [which] refuse to be held” (p. 155)? Britzman seems not to dwell on such concerns, but rather lets them fuel the techniques or strategies of queer pedagogy that this paper introduces.

As a note, the irony of outlining techniques via a theoretical orientation that refuses stability or prescription as a mark of indoctrination, to claim the least, is not lost on Britzman; again, she merely acknowledges it and moves on. These techniques are as follows: “the study of limits, the study of ignorance, and the study of reading practices” (1995, p. 155). Where the first two draw upon Foucault’s (1980) regimes of truth that produce legitimate knowledge and Butler’s (1990) theories of subjectification, or the making of the queer subject, the third pedagogical route is most productive because it looks most like a pedagogical practice. What is of note in the first two areas is all that is rejected in traditional attempts to address queer issues in education: the mere inclusion of queer content, the special event that celebrates a queer culture, safer sex campaigns that pit homosexuality as contagion, and the reading of queer literature. These scenarios reproduce the normalized heterosexual position that is entitled to knowledge about queers for their own protection and education. Thus, the third route, queer reading practices, contains the path to this disruption: “reading for alterity” (p. 163) marks how one is meant to face the limits of legitimate knowledge, to face one’s own ignorance, or that which has been framed as subjugated knowledge, or that which is not worth knowing according to dominant discourses. The self confronts the self via reading to consider how the self gets interpreted as legitimate (or not) through reading; the self also forms a relationship with the text to consider what gets taken up as knowledge; and the self must consider how one reads to confront the limits of one’s knowledge. In essence, Britzman’s (1998) queer pedagogy is a way to “stop reading straight” (p. 164), to recognize that every reading is mitigated by discourses of power, privilege, and normalization that mark the reader as either normal and legitimate or deviant and abject. Indeed, “reading practices might well read all categories as unstable, all experiences as constructed, all reality as having to be imagined, all knowledge as provoking uncertainties, misrecognitions, ignorance, and silences” (p. 164).

Queering Subjects

Rasmussen (2006) provides a key contribution in the form of her book that focuses on the site of secondary schooling through which she thinks about implications for research on queer youth in schools. She is very concerned about the persisting construction of queer youth as victims (see also Luhmann, 1998; Rofes, 2004); while Rasmussen does not dispute the reality of higher rates of self-harm, suicide, disengagement from school and drop-out rates for LGBTQI youth, it is the repetition of these data as either introduction to research or as a focus for entire studies on this population that “gradually become a part of the canon in research related to sexualities and secondary schooling” (Rasmussen, 2006, p. 2). Furthermore, much research on queer youth presents a paradox in that to assert or celebrate a queer identity is to do so without resorting to essentialism; it is Rasmussen’s aim to avoid such pitfalls while attempting to “keep open the way for alternative approaches to researching [queer youth] . . . away from a focus on abjection and survival . . . [as a] movement away from the wound” (p. 2).

Drawing on Butler (1997), Rasmussen (2006) notes that queer theory deconstructs binary categories of sexuality and gender that are aligned to create a fiction of heteronormativity and thus also disrupts the common practice of how educational research constructs these categories as unproblematic and fixed. Rasmussen’s (2006) aim is to consider the possibilities for queer youth in schools to construct new relations of power. Her text focuses on three main areas: she identifies key discourses in education research; she interrogates how these discourses inform understanding of LGBTQI youth in schools; and she considers how queer theoretical frameworks offer new possibilities for researching LGBTQI youth in schools. While her data focus on personal experiences in Australia and the United States, as well as online media and grey material and academic journals, her focus is not to present a comparative analysis nor to presume the applicability of her research remain limited to a regional context. In addition, she interviewed 17 participants with whom she was already familiar and who were working with teachers and students who identified as LGBTQI to ask about their understandings of gendered and sexual identities and the connections to their working context.

Via her discussion of a media story from Australia featuring a youth protesting his school’s homophobic treatment, Rasmussen (2006) makes the case of the repetition of how media construct queer youth as object “through the storying of homophobia” (p. 15). This “process of objectification” (p. 18) denies youth any agency and fails to acknowledge the richness and complexity of stories about how youth come out, face peers, and become subjects in schools. Curriculum support documents that address anti-homophobia strategies also fail to construct identities as relational, perpetuating the binary hierarchical structure of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

In a move toward queering methodology geared toward studying sexualities and schooling, Rasmussen (2006) deploys a biomythography approach that allows for a close examination of one’s own positionality as researcher/academic to align with “a queer theorist’s determination to destabilize unified understandings of identity” (p. 38); in this way, Rasmussen takes up the call from Britzman (1998)—who, in turn, draws upon Butler’s (1990) theory of subjectivation—to examine one’s own “grounds of their own possibility, their own intelligibility, and the work of their own identifications and critiques that may exceed identity as essence, explanation, causality, or transcendence” (Britzman, 1998, p. 81). Because Britzman is concerned to articulate a queer pedagogy that departs from a mere address of, for, or, about the queer other, this self reflexivity of the educator and/or researcher is where Rasmussen asks researchers to confront the self in relation to others to discover, according to Britzman (1998), “whether, in the process of coming to know, one invests in the rethinking of the self as an effect of, and condition for, encountering the other as an equal” (p. 81). For Rasmussen (2006), this confrontation involves “a consideration of how some researchers and research projects come to be constructed as risky or inappropriate in educational contexts while others are valorized” (p. 43), and therefore, a way to depart from essentializing queer versus straight identities in education research. Ultimately, Rasmussen’s approach to methodology is to problematize the politics of inclusion, that which: sympathizes with the queer other; is concerned for the queer other’s safety; and then also negates the necessity to turn any critique upon the self as well as the systems of normalization that draw strict and fixed boundaries around sex and gender identities.

As one form of methodological analysis, Rasmussen outlines three theoretical devices, discourse, tropes, and catachresis that have informed her study. The latter builds upon Butler’s (1993) work to explain terms that stand in for phenomenon not yet named and, consequently, may do so inadequately. For example, “lesbian, gay, transsexual, drag king, boy-dyke fag, and sissy-fag might be understood as catachreses . . . [because they] create a signifier for an individual performance or experience that previously had no descriptor” (p. 55). Calling attention to such a naming practice not only allows for the discovery of the constructedness (and therefore artificiality) of identity categories but also points to what Butler (1990) argues is how meaning always exceeds language; in other words, language and discourse do not precede action but are constructed within. The implications of such thinking help in the critical pursuit of deconstructing sexual and gender binaries and, in Rasmussen’s (2006) study, also contribute to a new way of doing queer research on sexualities in secondary schools that move away from a pathologization that marks the queer other as an “object of pathos” (p. 2) to consider how queer methodologies and epistemologies “can foster ethical ways of becoming subjects” (p. 223).

In line with Rasmussen’s rejection of the queer as object, Eric Rofes (2004) dismantles the narrative of violence and suffering queer youth through the model “martyr-target-victim” (p. 41). Through reflection of his own teaching experiences, Rofes finds this narrative model was not only the application from outsiders but also how queer youth positioned themselves. He was concerned in his teaching to depart from the traditional knowledge about queer youth that focuses on their at-risk lives full of suicidal ideations and drives to self-harm to move to narratives of survival, resistance, and affirmation. Along with Rasmussen (2006), he was also concerned to avoid reiterating discourses of anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia, where Haskell and Burtch (2010) provide one example in their guide to educators that includes anti-bullying strategies. While a well-intended approach, it is also highly reductionist to teaching about queers because it forecloses the agency of queer youth and fails to recognize them beyond their position of marginality. In one particular undergraduate course, Rofes (2004) developed an assignment to address youth agency, asking students to reflect upon a single instance where they had played an active role in their own gendered and sexual development. While the aim was to empower and uplift, Rofes’s students recalled painful pasts, framing themselves as victims. They expressed later that they had thought the assignment unfair, that it had pitted gay as a choice, as if they had a role in their own suffering; in essence, they felt it was blaming the victim. Rofes discusses the limited position these students thought available to them as gendered and sexualized subjects, as if suffering and misery were the only legitimate narratives available to them, leading to his call for more research that sees queer youth as resilient and celebrated.

DePalma’s (2011) paper draws from a larger empirical study that “sought strategies for interrupting the operation of heteronormativity and gender conformity in primary schools and classrooms” (p. 3) in the United Kingdom via the No Outsiders research team, critical friends, and a participatory action research approach. This paper focuses on the research contributions of a gender specialist, Jay Stewart, to incorporate attention to trans issues and gender nonconformity in teachers’ approaches to challenging gender and sexual norms in elementary schools. Here DePalma (2011) queers gender norms as well as sexuality for several reasons. They are both embedded in Butler’s heterosexual matrix that operates to harness stable and coherent notions of dominant sexual and gendered identity while repudiating the marginalized Other. Gender and sexuality are also often conflated in everyday practice: if one perceives a gender transgression, a sexual transgression is assumed to follow. And yet DePalma is careful to note the tensions between the application of queering to transgender issues. She proposes a necessary sort of “irreconcilability” (2011, p. 3) between the two that simultaneously queers trans while recognizing the claimed un-queerness of transsexuals who desire to pass; here, queering trans is only in a critically conceptual way that allows one to rethink systems of gender normalization.

Queering here is about troubling, or the action (i.e., thus, queer is again the verb) of unsettling sexual and gender categories “or simply refusing to believe in these categories” (p. 1). While she deploys the terms “queering” and “transing” as a subheading to her analysis of children’s reading practices of gender and sexuality, she does not expand on the distinction between the terms except to align with Stryker’s (2006) stance on the productive possibilities of trans experiences inviting us “to unlearn what we think we know about what sex, gender, and sexuality are and how they correlate” (DePalma, 2011, p. 3). Martino and Cumming-Potvin (2016) make an explicit case for the coherence and complementarity of their application of queer theory and transgender studies in their study about LGBTQ texts in primary school language arts classrooms. While they outline queer as the interrogation of the systems of gender and sexual normalization and trans-informed approaches—approaches that are already fraught and conflicted between the gender defender and the gender outlaw (p. 4)—as a form of gender democratization, the authors defend the use of both theoretical strategies (i.e., queer politics and gender democratization) as something that can “co-exist and provide useful analytic points of departure for investigating the pedagogical significance of addressing one’s embodied relationship to and identification with particular norms as a life-long project of continuous negotiation and work on fashioning the gendered self” (p. 5). In addition, Martino’s (2012) earlier work develops the transgender imaginary as a productive site that incorporates a queering of masculinities and thus combines, while acknowledging the tensions, queer and trans-informed critical approaches.

Deploying another form of imaginary, Atkinson and DePalma (2008) look through an implicit queer lens to propose a homonormative imaginary, a move that realizes the purpose of queer theory to interrogate, dismantle, and then replace current systems of gender and sexual normalization. Most creatively, their carnivalesque analytic approach asks the reader to consider inversions to typical news stories or classroom scenarios as a “momentary reversal of convention” (p. 31); their aim here is not only to amuse (although that is a pleasant side effect) but also to inspire teachers to imagine the possibility of a queer future, one that recognizes the history of heteronormativity in schools while accounting for new iterations of gendered and sexualized subjects.

Future of Queer

Much as queer emerged from fuzziness, queer looks to the future in the same way. Its continuing productivity or its impending expiration are opposing grounds that scholars take up to imagine a future with or without queer in education studies. Rasmussen and Gowlett’s (2014) special issue invited contributions that resulted overall in “conflicting ideas that circulate in relation to queer ideas in education research . . . [that] give an indication of continuing contestations and tensions that adhere to queer concepts in education research” (p. 332). Referencing Britzman’s (1995) call to queer pedagogy beyond the realm of queer content and queer bodies, Rasmussen and Gowlett (2014) trouble the boundaries of queer theory that keep it tethered to gender and sexuality issues and ask why it cannot expand to do, as Connell and Pearse (2015) imagine is possible (as well as Britzman, 1998), critical work of other social privileges and inequities. In an earlier paper, Talburt and Rasmussen (2010) frame the after-queer as a way to consider the future of queer in education studies in this very pursuit of the expansion of its borders of application; they also position queer education studies as a unique field to draw in other disciplines who wish to learn from education’s “empirical and theoretical engagement with youth in and out of institutions” (p. 2). Queer educational research has the potential to inform not only queer bodies but also how youth negotiate their relationship to and within societal structures, “institutions, social imaginaries, everyday public pedagogies, and popular culture” (p. 2).

In an introduction to a special issue, Eng, Halberstam, and Munoz (2005) argue that their contributing essays articulate a queer studies that does have the relevance and fortitude to address other areas beyond gender and sexuality, including “empire, globalization, neoliberalism, sovereignty, and terrorism . . . [as well as] immigration, citizenship, prisons, welfare, mourning, and human rights” (p. 2). These areas that have remained untouched by queering require some attention as to how and why this is so. Renn (2010) fixes a queered gaze onto the field of higher education. In a meta-analysis, Renn (2010) examines the decidedly unqueer environment of higher education; despite the proliferation of queer studies in academia, the institution of academia itself has preserved its nonqueer status from tenure systems, ranking practices, evaluation procedures, and graduate education structure: “in short, colleges and universities have evolved to tolerate the generation of queer theory from within but have stalwartly resisted the queering of higher education itself” (p. 132). Other papers consider the expansion of queer beyond sexuality and gender. Rasmussen and Allen (2014) expand the boundaries of queer theory’s application in education to “consider questions of race, poverty, and precarity” (p. 434) arguing much of queer theory historically erases race in its ethnocentricity—a hypocritical move, I argue, given its close care to avoid such erasure of sexualized and gendered difference. Gowlett (2014) uses queer/queer(y)ing methodology, a deliberate play on the interrogative capabilities of queer, to move beyond queer topics—specifically to analyze subject selection for one senior student who is concerned to disrupt or interrogate the rigid boundaries of intelligibility in this administrative school practice. Rasmussen, Gowlett, and Connell (2014) clarify also that queer theory’s seeming apolitical nature is indeed highly political: simply because it aims to unsettle without a replacement by a new authoritative order, they argue that queer receives the reputation of neutrality. It is indeed the opposite: because queer draws attention to the neutrality that is inscribed in the iterative processes of gender and sexual normalization, it is thus highly political, uncomfortable, and devoid of neutrality. Despite its multiple and contested interpretations and applications, Rasmussen et al. (2014) conclude that what is clear is the “rich tapestry of conceptual ideas” (p. 334) surrounding queer; what is certain is queer theory’s uncertainty, but also, they conclude, its continuing place in education studies.

As a temporary final word (at least to this article), a volume on queer concepts in education (Rodriguez, Martino, Ingrey, & Brockenbrough, 2016) provides an overview of the multiple and contested applications of queer theory in educational practice from pedagogy to curriculum to policy while simultaneously considering its futurity. It returns to an examination of the very ontological premise of queer, asking, as many scholars continue to do, what queer actually is, what it fails to do, and where it should go, including the relevance for an intersectional and international context. Fashioned as an encyclopedic survey of critical concepts, it refuses to order, classify, or prioritize the contributors’ essays; rather, it provides a mapping of the field, invoking the method of cruising (Munoz, 2009) to preserve queer’s fluidity, instability, and indecision, all the while highlighting the richness of its current and future insights in education research.

Concluding Queer

In this short review of key contributions of queer studies to education, I have charted a sort of chronology but also disrupted such a linear narrative in favor of the nature of queer as itself “neither linear nor complete but contextual and partial” (Talburt, 2000, p. 4). And indeed, partial it is. While locating appropriate markers to hit has been tricky—from the inception of queer theory in the late 1980s through to its immersion into elementary and secondary education, through its twisting path between representation and inclusion versus affirmation and critique, to its as-yet-undetermined next steps in education that either threaten or promise a robust future of queer—I, quite appropriately, feel this picture is incomplete. But because queer refuses harnessing, totality, and fixedness, I am just going to leave it at that.


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