:: Article

Queering the classroom

By Elliot Ramsey.

There comes, in every child’s school life, a moment at which they begin to look differently at the world around them, to perceive in a far more critical way. Hormones raging, sexual and gender identities developing, and adolescence creeping in all coincide with the adoption of a deeper, more pervasive level of scrutiny about how others present themselves and what these presentations of self betray. A shift occurs, making us consider our peers in a different light. We observe their bodies and their behaviours, absorbing and processing the ways in which they express themselves, searching for meaning in the signs that we interpret. The body speaks a language and, at a point, we take up the task of deciphering it.

Because, as humans, we like the simplicity of learning through opposition. We want to understand more about what we are through acknowledging what we are not. It’s an important yet subtle facet of our self-construction. When we pick up on certain differences among our peers, it makes us ask questions about ourselves. Questions about what we think we ought to represent and what connotations our own bodies and behaviours carry. At school, this adoption of a more critical lens through which to view our peers overlaps with received expectations of what (and, more importantly, who) is acceptable; expectations which are hinged upon rigid gendered and heteronormative assumptions actively reinforced by school curricula.

Our years spent in school are those which undoubtedly shape our understanding of the world we live in, and what we learn is integral in informing our thinking and behaviour. But what we learn can be just as important as what we don’t. The absence of queer themes from the classroom, and often the sanitising or policing of sexuality as a topic entirely, directly affects the acceptance of queer people in society. The school curriculum has built an enormous barrier to constructing a system of pedagogical values which promote tolerance and inclusion. As it stands, it only works to deepen the social divisions that we pick up on from an early age, and to disallow queer people from seeing themselves reflected in the content that they engage with in the classroom.

It was during the hangover years of Section 28 (an amendment to the Local Government Act of 1988 which banned the promotion of homosexuality in the classroom in England and Wales until 2003) that I attended a comprehensive school in Derby, a former industrial town-turned-city in the English Midlands. Looking back, it was an odd time to be a queer school pupil, attempting to find my place in a vast, confusing world and conscious of the difficulties I knew people like me could face. All of this was likely influenced by the fact that my hometown was far from cosmopolitan. Even today, queer culture lives and breathes more deeply in our capital cities, and so growing up in a small, unremarkable place where that culture is inaccessible was a challenge. But in school, that peculiarly artificial environment, I was entirely aware of the difference between myself and my peers, and the curriculum only worked to enforce the divisions and hierarchies at play.

Although Section 28 had, by this point, been repealed and discussions of sexual- and gender-difference were technically legal, nothing changed magically overnight. Teachers were not all of a sudden willing to broach the topic of queerness, after having spent the previous fifteen years being reminded that it was illegal to do so. Looking back now, I know that what I sensed then was a fear, very much alive among staff, that sexuality was still a taboo subject. And, as such, my educational experience was framed in a certain light. One which didn’t leave much space for me to fully explore, understand or articulate my own identity.

In lessons, the concept of queerness would seldom be a topic of discussion. In fact, there was little mention of sexuality or gender identity in any arts or humanities class. The civil rights movements of the twentieth century weren’t discussed in history, few queer authors were studied in English literature. Even music and drama classes neglected to reference the queer culture that texts on the curriculum responded to. This absence of queer culture from the curriculum massively contributes to the way in which queer school pupils view themselves, and equally influences the way in which the rest of the classroom views them. If we intend to make school a wholly inclusive experience for all, then it is paramount that the topic of queerness plays a more prominent role in the arts and humanities syllabus.

In a report on homosexuality and the teaching profession, published by the National Council for Civil Liberties in August 1975, it was noted that it is ‘in the interests of children themselves, some of whom recognise their sexual orientation at an early age, that homosexuality should not be relegated to sex education classes.’ Now, over forty years since its publication, there remains a curriculum which does not sufficiently represent the young people it intends to educate, nor does it create an accepting space that heterosexual or cisgender pupils can learn about their queer peers within. This is not to say that the tireless work of queer activists pushing for inclusive sex education should be overlooked or undervalued. On the contrary, it is entirely necessary for us to be pushing towards greater parity in our teaching of sex and relationship education.

Recently in the UK, activists and public figures have campaigned for an inclusive approach to sex and relationship education, calling for a decentring of heterosexuality as the default. Similarly, in their June 2017 School Report, the charity Stonewall highlighted that an alarming number of LGBTQ school pupils are never taught about same-sex relationships or gender-difference. This is something which undoubtedly needs to change, but if we are to strive towards the acceptance of queer people in schools, then we must recognise sex and relationship education as one piece of a larger puzzle. Discussion and active engagement with queer culture must be integrated across the arts and humanities in order to move away from simply a sex-focused model of LGBTQ education.

Perhaps if queer pupils were exposed to more queer themes in the classroom, more representations of powerful people, writers, activists, musicians, politicians, participants in a long history of vehement resistance to society’s established norms, then they might grow up with a greater understanding of themselves. Perhaps if our schools allowed queer people to see themselves represented in the content they study, gave them a mirror to hold up in which to see people like them reflected back, then we would not have young people resigning themselves so willingly to what they perceive to be the inevitability of their unhappiness. Role models matter, access to your own cultural history matters, and urgent reform of the curriculum is entirely necessary in order to shape the future of a generation of young people.

I say this as someone who, at one time, believed that queerness was something to be ashamed of, to be relegated to the realms of whispered discussion. That queerness itself and unhappiness were inescapably synonymous. But I now know this to be false. Having spent my late teens and early twenties seeking out representations of LGBTQ experience, studying queer literature, film and art, engaging with theory in my academic studies, reading about the history of marginalisation and persecution suffered by people like me, I have come to a point of personal reconciliation. But doing so was not entirely easy, and I know that exposure to queer themes in the classroom would have been of tremendous benefit to me when I was at school.

Why do we not teach young people about the literary legacies of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Christopher Isherwood or Radclyffe Hall? Why do our schools not routinely educate pupils on the queer liberation movements of the twentieth century, and the prominent activists who stood at the forefront in the battle for equality? What of Marsha P. Johnson, or Sylvia Rivera? What of Harvey Milk, David Hockney, Harry Hay, Sally Ride, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich? What of Paris is Burning, My Beautiful Laundrette, The Watermelon Woman, Victim and other remarkable contributions to queer cinema? I could go on, listing the films, books, people and lives that have personally inspired me, made me feel part of something greater. There are bright and brilliant people whose contributions to our collective histories are forgotten in the classroom environment, and whose inclusion in arts and humanities subjects should be championed.

Some might ask the question: why is any of this of relevance to non-queer school pupils? What benefit could it possibly have to their education? The answer is very simple. It is relevant because all of our histories and cultures inevitably intertwine. The subordination and persecution of LGBTQ people is heavily imbricated with the history of global civilisation. In striving to educate all pupils, irrespective of sexuality or gender identity, about queer issues, schools will be making huge steps towards promoting inclusion and understanding of difference in the classroom. If education is the key to acceptance and tolerance, then we need to restructure the framework through which we educate.

When I began writing this essay, I did not know how I could bring it to a close. How to tie together, neatly with a bow, an issue so pressing, one which consumes so much of my thinking? It is not an easy thing to do. But I will do so by reflecting on what it means to me to be queer. It means to belong to something bigger than I can comprehend, to be a part of a rich, vibrant history. To look in a different way. To see things in a different light. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing depends. On what it depends, I can’t always say. It means reading, it means learning, it means having to try harder to tap into your own cultural history. It means not having everything at your fingertips, and then sometimes having everything fall into place. It means joy, happiness, freedom and acceptance. It means having to fight, to resist, to look around you, to learn and relearn yourself. To lean on others, to find support and acceptance from a community that surrounds you. And I hope, not long from now, that it means to be included, acknowledged and celebrated, by everyone, in the first instance.


Elliot Ramsey is a writer based in Liverpool, England. He has taught creative writing at community organisations, and has worked as a teaching assistant in schools.  He is currently editing the first issue of the literary arts zine Goodbye, and holds an MA in contemporary literature from the University of Liverpool.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 7th, 2018.