Voices in Education

How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up
The tragic deaths of Lawrence King (age 13), Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover (age 11), and Jaheem Herrera (age 11)—all victims of school-based homophobia—serve as stark reminders that American schools remain unsafe for many young people who perform gender in a way that may not match dominant social norms. While many educators recognize that the presence of homophobia in schools is dangerous for students’ social and emotional well-being, only recently have they begun to explore the intersecting constraints of gender and sexuality on young people. Straightlaced, the latest in a series of documentaries by Debra Chasnoff (Choosing Children, 1984; It’s Elementary, 1996; That’s a Family, 2000; Let’s Get Real, 2004; It’s Still Elementary, 2008), examines this complex issue from multiple angles. By privileging youth perspectives and voices, Chasnoff provides a poignant conversation-starter for adults and youth alike.

Straightlaced shares the stories of more than fifty U.S. high school students who speak frankly and powerfully about their experiences with gender, sexuality, and homophobia. By forgoing narration, the documentary allows youth voices to take center stage. The speakers highlight several aspects of school-based struggles with gender and sexuality, including social expectations, relationships with peers and teachers, and questions about identity.

The movie begins by focusing on issues of gender. While most of the youth interviewed do identify as male or female, several speak explicitly about feeling that their gender identity doesn’t fit clearly into a box. For example, Verde shares, “I’m not just female. You know, my body may be, and other people may think that’s how I identify . . . [but] it doesn’t match.” As if speaking back to Verde, Sky adds, “My experience is that there’s not two genders; there’s really a spectrum. There’s everything from boy and girl, to transgender to, uh, tomboys. And part of growing up is finding out where you fit on that spectrum.” Even those who do identify as male or female speak openly about feeling confined by social norms that push them to think, act, and react in certain ways.

The second part of the movie addresses the intersection of gender and sexuality as youth explore their feelings about sexuality, generally, and homophobia, specifically. Briseida talks about her struggle to regain a “sense of self” after coming out as a lesbian: “You know how people say that you’re hiding in the closet?” she notes. “It’s not a closet . . . it’s sort of like a prison.” Not all of the youth in the video who experience harassment identify as gay. A young man, who does not seem to identify as gay, poignantly notes that “having your sexuality questioned is a very powerful tool in controlling someone . . . it’s so easy to control somebody by questioning something that they don’t know, by making fun of something they can’t help.” Fortunately, despite these painful accounts, there seems to be an overwhelming belief that support from friends and teachers can make a difference. Rey, who identifies as transgender and transitioned during high school, notes, “I’m definitely thankful for my friends. They’re my support system. They’ve stuck with me through the whole way.” Throughout, the youths’ honesty suggests an underlying trust in their audience and a sincere desire to be heard.

Perhaps most striking for educators are the moments when youth disclose explicit experiences with, or advice for, school-based adults. Lance, who eventually filed a lawsuit to protect other students from the antigay harassment he experienced, reflects, “I had a group of teachers on campus that I was comfortable talking with. They would listen and they were sympathetic, but none of them stepped up as an advocate for me . . . none of them stepped up to make sure I was gonna be safe.” Similarly, Hamadah reflects on a moment when even a teacher made fun of him, saying, “Oh man, you have to [go through] all that work just to get a girl? . . . You have no game!” Sadly, multiple youth in the movie share experiences in which adults misunderstand, target, or fail to protect them from stereotypes and constricting gender norms. While the youth explicitly encourage each other to act from the heart, they implicitly appeal to adults to create schools where bullying and harassment are not tolerated and where real dialogue can occur.

Straightlaced is a compelling film that offers a unique lens into the lives of adolescents across America. While there are repetitive moments—and one might wish that the producers had spent more time with fewer students, delving deeper into the complexities of their social, emotional, and intellectual experiences—the film serves as a powerful introduction to adolescents’ struggles with gender and sexuality. It is a call for incorporating youth voices into a consistent and committed dialogue about gender, sexuality, and safety in schools.

by Debra Chasnoff (director, producer) and Sue Chen (producer)
Groundspark Productions, in conjunction with the Respect for All Project, 2009. Documentary film. 67 minutes. $50.00.

About the Author: Gretchen Brion-Meisels is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who studies student support processes in public school settings. She currently serves as a manuscripts editor for the Harvard Educational Review. This review will appear in the Spring 2010 issue of the Harvard Educational Review.