Voices in Education

LGBTQ Sexuality and Gender Beyond Bullying
As lead researchers on The Beyond Bullying Project, we went with teams of graduate student researchers into US high schools to collect stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer sexuality and gender. We knew that most often schools frame queer or trans experience or identities through concerns about bullying and violence. We also suspected that, perhaps unwittingly, this framing turns being queer or trans into a problem that the school must address. The Beyond Bullying team wondered, What could LGBTQ sexuality and gender mean beyond the focus on bullying? We wanted to know what other stories circulated through the school.

Working with the Bay Area Video Coalition, we constructed a private, storytelling booth in high schools, and then, for two weeks, invited students, teachers, and staff to enter the booth and tell a story about LGBTQ sexuality and gender. Our pitch to would-be storytellers was open-ended—tell a story about yourself, a friend, your family, political and social events, anything; the story does not even need to be true. We situated the booth in a conspicuous location on each campus: in one school it stood in an outdoor courtyard beside bustling basketball courts and a campus garden; in another, the booth was inside an auditorium that also served as a place of prayer for Muslim students and a detention holding room during hall sweeps; and in a third, we squeezed the booth onto a landing in a busy stairwell. In each location, student advisors helped us decorate the booth with rainbow paper, lights, boas, and chalk drawings. Everywhere, it screamed gay.  

The team recognized that approaching a big, gay booth might be a social risk for some students and teachers so we offered them alibis to account for their interest. On our table outside the booth, staffed with friendly researchers and research assistants, we placed bowls of granola bars or chocolates, flyers announcing pizza lunches and other events, and iTunes gift cards and an iPod touch that we would raffle off at the end of our two weeks at the school. For every story a student told, they received a raffle ticket for the iPod or gift cards. Together, these incentives provided enough cover to allow storytellers to enter the booth without inviting too many questions about their interest.

Though many students found it easy enough to begin spending their free time with us—eating lunch, helping with presentations, and enjoying the freedom to miss classes—not everyone approached the booth. Its rainbowed presence shifted the geography of the school. In one school, many boys traveling to and from gym classes took a wide berth as they passed the booth on the way to the sports field, careful not to look too interested. Other students seemed to deliberately alter their path through the school so as to avoid meeting our invitations to step inside. As much as we heard stories inside the booth, we also noticed silences: if the booth represented a call to conversation, some were not willing to participate. To ensure these interactions with the booth became part of the data we’d eventually analyze, teams of researchers wrote fieldnotes and conducted interviews in order to trace how students and teachers engaged and refused to engage with the booth and The Beyond Bullying Project.

Once in the booth, with the door closed and only a camera or microphone as interlocutor, participants shared stories of love and loss, friendship and betrayal, family disappointments, and political outrage. With no researchers or teachers asking questions, participants spoke with surprising candor about the ways sexuality and gender shaped their lives. The Beyond Bullying Project website features some of these stories. A gender fluid, pansexual student describes how they told their dad that they were questioning their gender. A ninth-grade student who identified as bisexual for a while but then faced negative feedback on Facebook is still trying to figure out who she is.

In the article in this issue of Harvard Educational Review, we take a closer look at students’ stories of friendship, desire, and school life, and argue that inviting young people to talk about something as risky as LGBTQ sexuality and gender implicitly endorses other similarly risky conversations. We heard stories of breakups, divorcing parents, deaths, harassment, and strivings for a more just school. When we make room for conversations about LGBTQ sexuality and gender that extend beyond an often myopic concern with bullying, these are some of the concerns we welcome.  

The booth, sitting in the crowded corridors of the school, festooned with rainbows, came to embody this welcome. The Beyond Bullying booth signaled the school’s endorsement of the project: each school made physical, curricular, and emotional space for storytelling, student and teacher privacy, and queerness. One school had their shop class build the booth while another announced our project on their school blog, and each let us make presentations across many classes. Having spent time in those schools and having made presentations about The Beyond Bullying Project across North America, Australia, and New Zealand, we are struck now by how rare it is for schools and researchers to offer students and teachers a space—in this case, a booth—to share stories about the most intimate and meaningful aspects of their lives. The booth did not become a curriculum or program or intervention. Instead, it stood as a reminder that LGBTQ gender and sexuality matter in student and teachers’ lives— as friends, partners, family members, and citizens. The stories we collected archive these matters in ways that far exceed our current focus on bullying.

Want to learn more about The Beyond Bullying Project? Watch this short video of the project: https://youtu.be/R0UHOUtCJoY. Or, check out our website and follow us on Facebook.

About the Author: Jen Gilbert is associate professor of education at York University in Toronto. She is author of Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Jessica Fields is professor of sociology and sexuality studies at San Francisco State University. She is author of Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality (Rutgers University Press, 2008) and is now writing Problems We Pose: Feeling Differently About Qualitative Research, to be published with University of Minnesota Press.

Laura Mamo is professor of health education and associate director of the Health Equity Institute at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Queering Reproduction: Achieving Pregnancy in the Age of Technoscience (Duke University Press, 2007) and coeditor of Biomedicalization: Technoscience, Health, and Illness in the U.S. (Duke University Press, 2010).

Nancy Lesko is Maxine Greene Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her many publications include Act Your Age: A Cultural Construction of Adolescence (2nd ed, Routledge, 2012), and she is editor, with Susan Talburt, of Keywords in Youth Studies (Routledge, 2011).