Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 1998 Issue »

    Correspondence

    The Editorial Board welcomes comments on articles, reviews, and letters that have appeared in the Harvard Educational Review. Letters from readers will be published, in full or in part, at the Editors' discretion. Authors of the articles under discussion are invited to respond.

    McCaskell Responds to Snider

    To the Editors:

    I am writing to respond to the misleading and poorly researched paper that appeared in Harvard Educational Review (Summer 1996), "Race and Sexual Orientation: The (Im)possibility of These Intersections in Education Policy," by Kathryn Snider.

    Snider begins by asking several questions: Can the Triangle Program reach students who are not White? Does the program privilege separate aspects of students' identities by insisting that sexual orientation come before race? Why have proponents pursued a strategy of marginalizing these students by placing them in a separate program, rather than working toward rupturing the dominant educational and cultural structure?

    To answer the first two questions, Snider would be required to speak to teachers, students, social workers, and community volunteers involved in this program. She would also have to look closely at the curriculum offered, resources, courses of study, etc. Unfortunately, Snider spoke to no one connected to the program. Had she done so, she would have found that the Triangle Program has, during its brief year and a half existence, always attracted a large number of students who are not White. These students are not people who have abandoned aspects of their identity other than their sexual orientation. She would have also found that the flexible courses of study available in the program regularly focus on the writing and contributions of people of color. In fact, the Triangle Program is probably more inclusive of the contributions of people of color than most mainstream schools.

    To produce a defamatory and misleading article on a school program without doing such basic research is the height of irresponsibility.

    As to the supposed policy of "marginalizing" students, perhaps if Snider had done a little research into the Board of Education's equity policies, she would have been able to really evaluate what is being done to "rupture" the dominant educational structure.

    Since the early eighties, the Toronto Board of Education has spoken explicitly of anti-racist and anti-sexist education and has struggled with the institutional transformations in curriculum, hiring, promotion, and harassment policies required of such an approach. This struggle, of course, is far from over. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and classist education systems are not transformed overnight. But, to suggest that the Board has failed to move beyond the tokenistic and superficial multiculturalism of the early seventies shows complete ignorance of the crucial struggles of people of color and other minority communities in education in this city over the last two decades. Once again, Snider did not have the courtesy or interest to speak to anyone in either the Board's Equal Opportunity Office, Equity Studies Centre, Race Relations Committee, Status of Women Committee, Labor Education Committee, or the Committee on the Education of Lesbian and Gay Students to find out what has actually been happening.

    Snider also seems unaware of the Board's Human Sexuality Program. This program provides support and counseling to young people struggling with issues around sexual orientation within the mainstream school system. As someone who has participated in this program as a counselor, I can assure Ms. Snider that helping young people consider their social and cultural positioning (i.e., race, class, age, etc.) is a crucial part of counseling any young person around decisions of how "out" it is safe to be. To suggest otherwise is to impugn the professional competence of any counselor.

    The vast majority of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are fully integrated into the regular school system. Most are not "out." Some are. Many avail themselves of services through the Human Sexuality Program. Many resist in other ways.

    It should be clear that all the students who choose the Triangle Program (no one is placed there) are there for multiple reasons. Their one commonality is that all have experienced some form of abuse around issues of sexual orientation. Certainly an education system and a world that respect everyone and meet everyone's needs is our goal. But to abandon young people in trouble while waiting for a perfect, non-racist, non-heterosexist, non-sexist system to emerge would be criminal.

    Debates about challenging racism in the lesbian and gay communities, debates about the best educational strategy for oppressed youth, debates about the intersection of multiple identities, all these are extremely important if we are to achieve a truly equitable education system and society. Unfortunately, the kind of shoddy work and ideological posturing exemplified in Snider's article does absolutely nothing to move us forward in our struggle to grapple with the concrete problems that educators and young people face.

    Tim McCaskell
    Student Programme Worker
    Equity Studies Centre
    Toronto, Canada

    Schneider Responds to Snider

    To the Editors:

    Although I believe that school programs like the Triangle Program can be critiqued on a number of levels, the article "Race and Sexual Orientation: The (Im)possibility of These Intersections in Educational Policy" by Kathryn Snider, which appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of the Harvard Educational Review, is both misleading and unfair. Snider fails to provide the reader with either the background of the Triangle Program's development or the context in which the Triangle Program operates. In this letter, I will provide an overview of that context and then comment specifically on some of Snider's claims and accusations.

    In 1985, Ken Zeller, a teacher employed by the Toronto Board of Education, was attacked and beaten to death by a gang of male adolescents who were students in the Toronto Board of Education system. When they were apprehended, it emerged that Zeller had been targeted because the adolescents believed that he was gay. That tragedy served to focus and intensify a preexisting grassroots movement aimed at compelling the Toronto Board to address the homophobia and heterosexism that were at the root of this murder, and to address the harassment and beating of many gay and lesbian students within the school community that caused some students to quit school.

    This movement was strongly supported by individuals within the school system; an openly gay social worker, his supervisor, several superintendents, a physical and health education consultant, and a school trustee were all instrumental in pressuring and, ultimately, convincing the Board to address sexual orientation issues directly. This led to lengthy hearings in front of the trustees (the elected officials who constitute the board of directors of the Board of Education). School staff, as well as community-based mental health professionals, gay and lesbian youth, and the parents of gay and lesbian youth testified at these hearings.

    The trustees' response was to produce a report that mandated the development of programs designed to foster a supportive environment for gay and lesbian youth within the school community. Specifically, the report mentioned the need for an initiative to provide counseling and other forms of support for sexual minority youth within the school system. As a result, the Human Sexuality Program was established as the vehicle to provide these services.

    The Human Sexuality Program was staffed by an openly gay social worker who was identified as the contact person and service provider. Its purpose was to provide an identifiably safe parallel service for any students who needed to discuss issues that involved their sexual orientation, but who were afraid that they would be met with a negative reaction if they utilized the usual student counseling services.

    Information about the Human Sexuality Program was disseminated throughout the system using flyers, word-of-mouth, and individual referrals. Students were assured that they would receive assistance in a gay/lesbian-positive atmosphere and that confidentiality would be maintained. This did not preclude the option that sexual minority students could continue to make use of the usual guidance and counseling services that had always been available to students.

    At the same time, professional training opportunities for teachers and other school staff were actively promoted by the Program, and speakers for classroom presentations on gay and lesbian issues were provided. Even prior to the establishment of the Human Sexuality Program, the Toronto Board of Education had been a leader in providing such professional training opportunities. As early as 1984, as a psychologist working at a children's mental health center, I had been invited on several occasions to conduct workshops on sexual orientation issues at professional development days sponsored by the Board of Education.

    At any one time the Human Sexuality Program has a caseload of ten to fifteen adolescents. In the past year, the Program has seen approximately one hundred students for individual counseling, and it offers a psychoeducational support group, consisting of about ten students at any one time. Program staff see families and consult with professionals in other school systems as well.

    In addition, the Program continues to provide professional training for staff within the school system and speakers in the classroom. In the past year, the Program's staff offered approximately 150 training sessions and classroom presentations. This part of the Program has been developed specifically because it is painfully obvious that, ultimately, the only way to protect and support sexual minority youth is by changing the heterosexist and homophobic culture that exists in our school systems, and in North American culture generally. At the same time, staff from the Toronto Board's Equity Studies Centre also conduct programs for staff and students as a routine part of their mandate.

    Another result of the Board's report was that a process for developing a curriculum package on sexual orientation was initiated in 1987. The package was completed in 1992. It consists of resources, lesson plans, and classroom strategies and exercises for addressing and discussing the issues. To my knowledge, it is the most comprehensive curriculum package on sexual orientation that has yet been developed.

    Both the Human Sexuality Program and the development of the curriculum package have been guided by Advisory Groups of which I was a member. Although the composition of the Advisory Group for the Human Sexuality Program has varied over the years, typically it has consisted of interested members of the gay and lesbian community, including a parent from Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), school administrators, a representative from the Toronto Board's Equity Studies Center (a program within the Toronto Board that focuses on anti-racism education), and the Head of the Adolescent Unit at the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children. Similarly, the Advisory Group for the development of the curriculum package consisted of interested community members, Board of Education staff, a representative of Equity Studies, and a prominent child psychologist from the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry.

    The Triangle School Program grew out of the Human Sexuality Program as the next logical step in providing support for gay and lesbian students, who were at risk of dropping out of school. Although there is some sharing of staff between these two programs, they operate as separate entities, with the Triangle School Program guided by its own community-based Advisory Group.

    The establishment of the Triangle School Program was not an isolated initiative, as implied by the narrow perspective presented in the article; on the contrary, it is simply the most recent of many initiatives that the Human Sexuality Program has undertaken to address the needs of sexual minority youth within the Toronto Board of Education. It was established because of increasing awareness that there is a small but significant segment of gay and lesbian youth within the school community who are being harassed to such an extent that if they have not already quit school, they are in imminent danger of doing so.

    Snider writes that "within the politically powerful faction of the gay and lesbian community [that] spearheaded the . . . Triangle Program . . . there is a . . . failure to see gender and race as mitigating factors in the process of revealing sexual orientation" (pp. 296-297). I take exception to Snider's assertion that the Triangle School was initiated by a "politically powerful faction" in the gay and lesbian community when, in fact, the tremendous amount of grassroots support the Triangle School Program has received has sustained it. Gay and lesbian adults in the community have made financial donations and provided the physical space to house the school. They have also volunteered their time to sustain the Program. This broad-based, tangible support has been extremely important because the Program originally emerged at a time when serious cutbacks to the education budget were being made.

    Furthermore, it is unclear who the "powerful" people to whom Snider refers are. Certainly there are individuals who have worked on behalf of sexual minority youth for many years as employees of or consultants to the school system, and these were the individuals who had the credibility and visibility within the school system to promote and lobby for the Triangle Program. However, to hold these individuals responsible for the putative failure of the gay and lesbian subculture to address multiple diversities is unfair and misrepresents the complexity of the politics of the identifiable gay and lesbian community in Toronto.

    As an educator, psychologist, and researcher, I have worked in the area of issues related to gay and lesbian youth for fifteen years. The question of whether it is appropriate to isolate sexual orientation issues and to address them in specialized programs is one that is raised every time a new initiative is made. However, questioning the need for specialized services at this particular time, in this particular culture, reflects ignorance of and indifference to the difficulties faced by lesbian and gay individuals, especially youth, when they seek support from mainstream services or systems. These difficulties have been documented repeatedly in studies such as O'Brien, Travers, and Bell (1993), Travers and Schneider (1996), and Simpson (1994).

    Research on the coming out process has demonstrated that, for most gay or lesbian individuals, sexual orientation becomes the organizing factor in their life at the beginning of this process. During this time, the fear of being rejected because they are gay or lesbian often prevents them from seeking support in generic settings. Specialized services address the needs of individuals at such points in their lives and, as such, are necessary components of any service delivery system. The Triangle Program was developed because there was a need to provide this type of specialized educational setting for some gay and lesbian youth at the Toronto Board of Education.

    Snider asks rhetorically whether the Triangle Program is encouraging the privileging of sexual orientation over race, and whether it is marginalizing its students by placing them in a separate program. In a number of places throughout the article, she suggests that the Toronto Board's stance on sexual orientation in general, and the Triangle Program in particular, requires that students choose between their community of sexual orientation and their community of family and friends. She goes on to state that the "Triangle Program feels justified in addressing [sexual orientation] singularly" (p. 300), and that "to be in the Triangle Program, homophobia must be acknowledged as a student's most significant barrier to success"(p. 299). However, she offers no evidence to support these contentions.

    Snider presents a critique of the "coming out discourse" in the lesbian and gay subculture, which she seems to believe is reified in the Triangle Program. However, most of her critique is irrelevant. For the students in the Triangle Program, sexual orientation became a major concern long before they ever came in contact with the Program, which is precisely why they are in the Triangle Program. These students are already marginalized by peers, including peers from their own racial and ethnic communities, specifically because of their sexual orientation. That marginalization has, indeed, become a significant barrier to the completion of their education. The Triangle Program does not force or encourage these adolescents to go public. In fact, most professionals who work with lesbian and gay youth agree that young people should not be encouraged to come out, but should be supported if that is what they ultimately choose to do. To imply that the Triangle Program is an agent for outing young people is simply incorrect.

    Snider critiques the idea of preparing gay and lesbian youth to reenter the homophobic, heterosexist environment that they were unable to tolerate in the first place. However, she offers no short-term alternatives for those gay and lesbian adolescents who need to complete their high school education but feel unable to cope with the mainstream school system. She also fails to see the value in helping gay and lesbian youth to cope with the heterosexism and homophobia that they will encounter in their everyday lives. As a long-term solution, the Triangle Program is no substitute for safe access to non-discriminatory education, but for the present it is the only alternative for these particular students. Snider fails to acknowledge the real progress that has been made within the Toronto Board of Education to address homophobia and heterosexism through staff training and professional development. She also fails to mention that the Toronto Board has become a model that has encouraged other boards of education in Southern Ontario to examine openly the issues around sexual orientation. In that sense, the Toronto Board has become a role model of social change. What has taken place in Toronto cannot be viewed as revolutionary, but it is a prime example of how inviting staff and students to participate voluntarily in educational opportunities will, over time, effect change in the culture of an organization. In light of the progress that has been made, it is incorrect to imply that the administrators and educators at the Toronto Board of Education are "upholding the precepts of the normative culture" (p. 300).

    Snider critiques the way the intersection of race, culture, and sexual orientation has been dealt with within the Triangle Program. If her critique has any validity, it applies equally to similar school programs, such as the Harvey Milk School in New York. To single out the Toronto Board and the Triangle Program in order to critique the general discourse on race, culture, and sexual orientation is unfair. I question why she chose to single out the Toronto Board of Education specifically.

    The way in which the Toronto Board of Education has addressed all of the issues surrounding sexual orientation makes an interesting case study, and educators could learn a great deal from the successes and the mistakes that have been made. Yet Snider fails to provide sufficient background and detailed information in order for this article to be instructive. By focusing on one particular board, out of context, she fails to provide any information that would help readers generalize the issues to their own school settings. The article, as such, is a gratuitous shot at one particular board of education, not the scholarly analysis of the relevant issues that I would expect to find in this journal.

    I will close by noting that, as far as I can ascertain in speaking to a number of staff at the Toronto Board of Education before writing this letter, no one associated with the Human Sexuality Program, the Triangle Program, or the Equity Studies Center has heard of Snider or was contacted by her. She has written a critique of a program about which she seems to have no first-hand knowledge. This is not only poor scholarship, but also the type of poor process that often makes it difficult for academics to establish trusting, functioning partnerships with our educational communities.

    Margaret Schneider
    Associate Professor
    Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology
    University of Toronto


    References

    O'Brien, C., Travers, R., & Bell, L. (1993). No safe bed: Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth in residential services. Toronto: Central Toronto Youth Services.

    Simpson, B. (1994). Opening doors: Making substance abuse and other services more accessible to lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. Toronto: Central Toronto Youth Services.

    Travers, R., & Schneider, M. (1996). Barriers to accessibility for lesbian and gay youth needing addictions services. Youth and Society, 27, 356-378.

    Snider Replies

    Within mainstream queer thinking racism and homophobia can't be uttered in the same breath. (Chunara, quoted in "Minorities, Gays," 1997, p. A12)

    As I find myself reading the letters received in response to my article "Race and Sexual Orientation: The (Im)possibility of these Intersections in Educational Policy," I am fundamentally dismayed that neither writer addressed the primary issue raised; namely, the continual separation and categorization of identity along a singular axis of race or sexual orientation, and the systemic inequities that can arise as a result of this inadequate demarcation. The notion, expressed by Schneider, that I chose to "single out" the Toronto Board and the Triangle Program reflects a "victimization" mentality that insinuates that my motives were in some way dubious and fostered by malcontent. To be perfectly clear, I was in no way attacking the Toronto Board specifically. However, I was raising questions that can and should be asked by the Toronto Board and many others. In fact, I was just informed by an administrator (vice-principal) from the Frontenac-Lennox and Addington school board that this particular article instigated a query on her behalf into how she frames and introduces programs that might aid the continual separation of identities. It is this sort of "reading," applicable across boards and programs, that was the intent of the article. Schneider's continual reference to "sexual minority" youth, as if youth struggling with homophobia can be singularly described as a "sexual minority," disembodies the complexity of their lives. This is exactly the framework that my article was written to criticize.

    When I wrote this article in the summer of 1995, the Triangle Program had yet to open its doors. I maintain that the challenge is to provide an analysis of multiple oppressions and to insist that policies are, from their very inception, designed with the complexity necessary to address these multiplicities. To suggest, as McCaskell does, that the existence of numerous committees is sufficient reassurance that programs will simultaneously address issues around racism and homophobia is fallacious and lacks a long-term analysis of how the best-intentioned policies can actually play themselves out.

    Neither Schneider nor McCaskell was concrete about the ways that the "Triangle Program is open to those youth who have failed in public schools for compound reasons such as homophobia and racism" (p. 298). It is also misleading that McCaskell did not address the documented dropout rates in the Toronto region. These rates indicate that more work needs to be done, and that more questions need to be asked, no matter how contentious they may be. If the questions that I asked are so wrong, then what, McCaskell, are the "correct" questions? By insisting that the questions in my article be addressed during the initial stages of policy formation, it is my hope that the systemic inequities that inadvertently seep into institutional practice can be eliminated.

    On a final note, I resent the elitist positioning of both writers. First and foremost, both individuals, through their respective comments, have very narrowly defined what constitutes "authentic" research. I will not contest that Schneider's representation of the context and history that instigated the creation of the Triangle Program is indeed a context and a history, but to suggest that it is the only context and history is iniquitous. Who has been written out of this account? Furthermore, both writers suggest that if you do not conduct research on their pre-defined terms, if you do not interview the people they have deemed respectable, if you do not come to their conclusions, then they feel justified in issuing slanderous comments under the guise of intellectual engagement. But what about these "other" questions, these "other" individuals whose voices are not heard through the litany of entrenched committees cited by McCaskell? How is it that asking these forbidden questions becomes an example of "shoddy work and ideological posturing"? Ultimately, I am left to ponder the improbability of my critics ever being able to hear the questions raised in this article in a manner that might instigate change at the policy level.

    For the young people who struggle with compound oppressions, who are on the verge of dropping out, and who do not see any singular answer or solution to their problems, I seriously hope that this article might be revisited in order to firmly establish whether or not The Triangle Program can and will reach many disenfranchised youth from varying backgrounds, histories, and cultures.

    Kathryn Snider

    Reference

    Minorities, gays invisible to their people. (1997, May 21). Toronto Globe and Mail, p. A12.
  2. Share

    Spring 1998 Issue

    Abstracts

    "The Department Is Very Male, Very White, Very Old, and Very Conservative"
    The Functioning of the Hidden Curriculum in Graduate Sociology Departments
    Eric Margolis, Mary Romero
    Cognitive Skill and Economic Inequality
    Findings from the National Adult Literacy Survey
    Stephen W. Raudenbush, Rafa M. Kasim
    Voices Inside Schools - Cacophony to Symphony: Memoirs in Teacher Research
    Karen Hale Hankins

    Book Notes

    Channel Surfing
    By Henry A. Giroux

    Against the Tide
    Edited by Karen Doyle Walton

    Working in Higher Education
    Edited by Rob Cuthbert

    Making School by Hand
    By Mary Kenner Glover

    Teaching Reading and Writing in Spanish in a Bilingual Classroom
    By Yvonne S. Freeman and David E. Freeman

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.