School's Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

School's Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

by Catherine Connell


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How do gay and lesbian teachers negotiate their professional and sexual identities at work, given that these identities are constructed as mutually exclusive, even as mutually opposed? Using interviews and other ethnographic materials from Texas and California, School’s Out explores how teachers struggle to create a classroom persona that balances who they are and what’s expected of them in a climate of pervasive homophobia. Catherine Connell’s examination of the tension between the rhetoric of gay pride and the professional ethic of discretion insightfully connects and considers complicating factors, from local law and politics to gender privilege. She also describes how racialized discourses of homophobia thwart challenges to sexual injustices in schools. Written with ethnographic verve, School’s Out is essential reading for specialists and students of queer studies, gender studies, and educational politics.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520278233
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/13/2014
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,330,447
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Catherine Connell is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University.

Read an Excerpt

School's Out

Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom

By Catherine Connell


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95980-4


Pride and Professionalism

The Dilemmas of Gay and Lesbian Teachers

At seven o'clock on a June morning in 2008, I gathered with a group of Los Angeles–area public school teachers and students to march in the West Hollywood LGBT Pride Parade. While conducting research for this book, I had met the members of an advocacy group for teachers and administrators in LA public schools, and they had invited me to join them in marching with several local high school Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) members and their advisers. I arrived at our designated parade lineup position to find a small group of students and teachers milling around, eating doughnuts and chatting in the early morning sun. As more of our marchers arrived, a GSA adviser brought over poster board and markers and set us to work making signs for the march. Students and teachers worked side by side, writing slogans such as "Rainbow Pride," "I Teach Justice," and "Support Gay Teachers & Students." Two students from a high school in Watts, a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood, were attending Pride festivities for the first time and proudly posed for a picture with their spray-painted "Gays in the Hood" poster.

After a couple of hours of restless waiting, the march finally began. Everyone seemed a little nervous, and we smiled tentatively at each other as we lined up to march. But when we rounded the first corner and came into view of the waiting crowd, we were hit with a roar of applause and whistles. Spectators jumped off the curb to hug and high-five us, shouting, "We love gay teachers!" and "Thank you for the hard work you are doing!" As we marched on, this enthusiastic response changed the teachers and students around me. Their nervousness dissipated, and they took longer strides, held their heads high, and waved their signs in the air with beaming smiles.

A few exuberant miles later, we finished the parade route. June, a white lesbian high school teacher who had marched, marveled, "Wasn't that incredible? I feel so proud of the work I'm doing now." She clasped my shoulder and pointed to a group of students crying and hugging a few feet away. "These kids," she declared, with emotion in her voice, "they are from Crenshaw [another low-income Los Angeles neighborhood], and they've never been to a Pride parade before. They've never seen any kind of support for gay people before. They told me they are just overwhelmed by the impact of so much support, and I gotta say—I am, too! Today I am so proud. Proud to be a gay teacher." As I drove away a few minutes later, I realized that I, too, had been affected by the emotional charge of the experience. I had marched in Pride parades before, but I'd never felt the magnitude of crowd enthusiasm that our group had garnered. The adrenaline, emotion, and feeling that I was part of something important stayed with me through the day.

A few days after the march, I went to see June at work. Her exuberance and pride in being an openly lesbian teacher seemed to have faded since the heady experience of the march. Instead, she was preoccupied with a recent classroom incident. During a discussion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a student had snickered loudly, "Huck Finn was a fucking faggot!" June's co-teacher, who was leading the lesson, had ignored the crack and continued teaching, even though June was convinced she had heard it. June was conflicted about her own response. She explained, "If [my students] know I'm gay and I'm sitting here and allowing someone to [ignore gay slurs]? Silence is complicity, and I'm not going to allow that to happen ... in the future, anyway. And I think that as I become more comfortable and confident in my role as a 'gay teacher' here that I will be more demonstrative about it. But then again, at what cost?" Later in our conversation, however, June shifted direction and rejected the label of "gay teacher," saying that she wanted students and coworkers to think of her as a "teacher who happens to be gay." "I'm not a 'gay teacher,'" she reiterated, shaking her head, "I'm a teacher who is gay." Despite her pride in the "gay teacher" label at the parade, June was now markedly more uneasy and distanced herself from the term.

June's conflicting statements suggest ambivalence about commingling sexual and professional identities. There was clearly something about the label "gay teacher" that made her proud and uncomfortable at the same time. At the Pride parade, she embraced the label because she saw herself as a role model to the students there, particularly to those from low-income, mostly Black and Latino neighborhoods. In school, she asserted distance from the label, insisting that her professional identity was separate from and more of a priority than her sexual identity. In this study of gay and lesbian teachers, I argue that the tension June experienced is driven by a fundamental incompatibility between the demands of contemporary LGBT politics, which center on the ethos of gay pride, and the norms of teaching professionalism, which expect teachers (gay and lesbian teachers in particular) to be cautious and self-disciplining about their personal—and sexual—lives. To be a professional in today's teaching context entails constant self-monitoring for any possible breach of propriety. For historical reasons that I will explain in the next chapter, any mention of homosexuality is especially suspect. Meanwhile, since the 1960s, the prevailing politics of gay pride have increasingly demanded that its constituents be "out and proud" in all contexts. Gay and lesbian teachers like June are as subject to this expectation as anyone else. Indeed, they face added pressure from those who argue that out teachers are important role models for LGBT and questioning students. The resulting clash between pride and professionalism significantly influences how they experience their workplaces, communities, and identities.

We are in a pivotal moment in the history of gay rights. Same-sex desire, once the "love that dare not speak its name," is increasingly accepted, celebrated, even considered mundane in many parts of the United States and, indeed, the world. Yet antigay discrimination and harassment, running the gamut from subtle insults to lethal violence, persist, even in this new "gay-friendly" era. Social scientists and the general public alike are scratching their heads at this paradox. Are we really, as some would say, becoming "postgay"? If so, what does that mean? This book offers much-needed answers to such questions. Analyzing the experiences of gay and lesbian teachers, who work in one of the remaining strongholds of explicit homophobia, makes it clear that the exuberance of the postgay claim is premature. But the problem goes farther than that. It turns out that the "postgay" ideology, which celebrates the assimilation and normalization of LGBTs, can be just as harmful to gay and lesbian teachers as the antigay culture of the schools where they work. Teachers are doubly constrained, on the one hand by the norms of teaching professionalism and on the other by the identity demands of the gay rights movement. This should be a warning to those of us who want to pursue sexual justice in workplaces and schools.

The clashing expectations of pride and professionalism force gay and lesbian teachers into a no-win struggle between their political and professional obligations. Some teachers respond to these clashing expectations by attempting to maintain a strict distinction between their identities as teachers and as gay or lesbian adults, in effect splitting into different selves whose emergence depends on their proximity to the classroom. Others try to knit together these identities into a cohesive whole. Neither strategy fully resolves the fundamental pride/professionalism dialectic, with the result that some quit teaching altogether. This book traces each of these paths and their consequences, as I argue that teachers will not be able to reconcile their political and professional selves until we systematically challenge the ideology that upholds the tensions between pride and professionalism.

While all gay and lesbian teachers must contend with this ideological conflict, its effect on their teaching experiences varies. In this book, I focus on these variations, with a particular emphasis on how attention to place, race, and gender performance helps us understand them. To do so, I draw on in-depth interviews and observations of a range of gay and lesbian teachers in California and Texas, states similar in size and demographics but starkly different with regard to gay-friendly law and policy. By considering the stories of teachers in different legal climates and school environments, with different relationships to race and gender privilege, this book sheds light not only on consistent experiences with the ideological tensions of pride and professionalism but also on important differences that demonstrate how sexuality intersects with other dimensions of privilege and oppression.


A sociological perspective on sexuality is crucial to understanding the experience of gay and lesbian teachers. While sexuality is often treated as a biological given, sociologists tend to approach it as a socially constructed phenomenon. From this perspective, sexuality is not merely a natural drive or orientation but a cultural artifact that reflects the social conditions of any given historical moment. Early sociologists of sexuality drew on labeling theory to make sense of sexual identity. In "The Homosexual Role," for example, Mary McIntosh argued that the label of "homosexual" did not capture meaningful distinctions in sexual behavior but rather was a selectively applied mechanism of social control. The study of sexuality has drawn heavily on the metaphor of sexual scripts, which, like theater or film scripts, tell (social) actors what they should say, do, and even feel when it comes to sex. John Gagnon and William Simon, the architects of sexual scripting theory, have gone so far as to argue that no one act or desire is inherently sexual: rather, acts and desires come to be defined as such through the process of sexual scripting, which defines not only what sex is but also what it should be.

Gay and lesbian teachers are subject to two contrasting scripts—one sexual, the other occupational. Contemporary scripts for gay and lesbian identity center sexual identity as the most important and essential component of the self. According to this script, gays and lesbians are supposed to feel united with all other LGBT individuals under the banner of gay pride. Coming out, which itself follows scripted conventions, is paramount. The guiding script for teachers, as I will show, comes into direct contradiction with this. Teachers are expected to perform a sexually neutral and gender-normative self in the classroom—and beyond. How teachers juggle these contradictory scripts is the subject of this book.

While labeling and scripting theories were instrumental in establishing the social construction of sex, they are often inadequate for explaining how and why certain labels or scripts come to hold greater cultural sway than others. Since the 1990s, the infusion of queer theory into the sociology of sexuality has helped to explain the emergence and relative intractability of certain scripts. First, queer theory's claim that sexual distinctions lie at the heart of modern systems of power helps to account for the emergence of sexual scripts, which are instruments of power that organize and regulate sexual behavior and sort us into hierarchies. Gayle Rubin argues that these hierarchies are organized into a charmed circle of "good" sex (for example, married, monogamous, procreative, vanilla) and the outer limits of "bad" sex (for example, homosexual, casual, commercial, kinky). Second, the emphasis on discourse in queer theory, particularly in the work of Michel Foucault, helps to explain the diffusion of sexual scripts, including the validation of some and the marginalization of others. Like McIntosh, Foucault challenged prevailing ideas about the essential nature of sex and sexuality. In particular, he rejected the repressive hypothesis, or the belief that sex is a natural and driving human force that must be repressed and controlled for the good of society. Instead, he argued that in the transition from premodern societies to modernity people gave increasing power to sex, first through religious and later through scientific and medical discourse. A discourse is a formalized way of understanding a particular phenomenon or behavior that circulates and comes to be taken for granted as "truth." Religious, medical, and scientific discourses transformed sexual behaviors like sodomy from mere acts to markers of identity, that is, markers of a person's essential self. Religious practices like confession, followed later by the scientific study of sex, transformed it from something we do to who we are.

Foucault and subsequent queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick noticed that discursive formations tend to develop binaries. Binary logics—either/or understandings of the world—eliminate nuance and uncertainty. They also create power distinctions, where one side of a binary is deemed right/good/healthy, the other wrong/bad/sick. Sexual discourses created such binaries for sexual behavior, the most significant of which was the binary distinction between heterosexual and homosexual. For queer theorists, what is especially pernicious about these sexual binaries is how they control and limit people. What's worse, they are enforced not only externally but internally: we use them to interpret ourselves and then behave accordingly. The ability to regulate from within as well as without is what makes discourse such a potent—and dangerous—instrument of power. A significant task of queer theory, then, has been to deconstruct discourses as mediums of power and control.

The application of queer theory in sociology has shifted how we study and understand sexuality. Sociologists of sexuality who draw on queer theory denaturalize sexual binaries by focusing on the fluidity, ambiguity, and contradictions of people's lived experiences of sex and sexuality. Queer theory also helps us understand the limits of sexual identity politics as a social movement frame. For example, Steven Epstein has used queer theory to critique the contemporary rights-based model of LGBT organizing, which defines its members as a distinct class or quasi-ethnic constituency. This organizing strategy, while effective, reinforces the very homo/hetero binary that created sexual inequalities in the first place. It also creates pressures to pledge allegiance to one's sexual identity over other identities, such as those of race, class, or gender.

In this book, I draw on these insights to make sense of the polarizing influences of teaching professionalism and gay pride. Teaching professionalism demands a classroom presentation of sexual neutrality, which I will argue is actually not neutral at all but rather a sexually normative presentation of self. At the same time, gay pride demands an "out and proud" ethos that is at odds with the realities of most gay and lesbian teachers. Ultimately, this binary opposition—you can be professional or proud—not only hinders the careers of gay and lesbian teachers but masks the messier nature of their actual lives. Further, it hinders teaching and learning about sexuality in the context of schools and obscures the operation of sexuality in this and other professional spaces.


While this book focuses on sexual identity, gender is intimately interwoven with the experience of sexuality. Where popular narratives base gender in the bedrock of birth-assigned sex, sociologists usually think of gender as a thoroughly social accomplishment. First articulated by Candace West and Don Zimmerman, "doing gender" refers to the way gender is both created and heavily policed in everyday interactions, and views gender as a highly routinized accomplishment rather than a biological essence. Through the interactive process, we learn what is expected of us as men and women, and we modify our bodies, speech, comportment, and self-concept accordingly. Those who attempt to transgress the boundaries established through interaction are held accountable. For example, if a man fails to do masculinity appropriately for any given social situation, he may be socially sanctioned with hostile stares, laughter, or aggression.


Excerpted from School's Out by Catherine Connell. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Tables
1. Pride and Professionalism: The Dilemmas of Gay and Lesbian Teachers
2. “Like a Fox Guarding the Henhouse”: The History of LGBTs in the Teaching Profession
3. Splitters, Knitters, and Quitters: Pathways to Identity Making
4. Dangerous Disclosures: The Legal, Cultural, and Embodied Considerations of Coming Out
5. “A Bizarre or Flamboyant Character”: Homonormativity in the Classroom
6. Racialized Discourses of Homophobia: Using Race to Predict and Discredit Discrimination
7. From Gay-Friendly to Queer-Friendly: New Possibilities for Schools
Appendix A: Methodology
Appendix B:
Interview Schedule for Teachers


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