May 1, 2018

Challenging Heteronormativity

The experiences of gender and sexually diverse students highlight possibilities for Alberta schools

A research chat with PhD graduate Tanya Surette

Tell us about your research project.

In January of 2016, the Alberta Government launched new Guidelines for Best Practices: Creating Learning Environments That Respect Diverse Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities, and Gender Expressions. This document was in response to the growing awareness of the ongoing oppression, marginalization, and discrimination affecting gender and sexually diverse children, youth, families, and faculty in schools across the province. These guidelines were met with a series of reactions, with much backlash and controversy erupting in Southern Alberta, which exemplified the ongoing homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity commonplace to many of the residents in this area.

My dissertation research explored the experiences of secondary students (grades 9-12) in public secular schools related to the topic of gender and sexual diversity and the impact of the heteronormative discourse operating within their schools and community on their developing attitudes, identities, and emotional and mental well-being. Heteronormativity refers to the belief that heterosexuality is the normal, natural, and ideal form of sexuality.

Through curriculum materials and content, discussions, and omission, schools endorse normative notions of gender and sexuality. I was curious to better understand how students come to experience the heterosexism operating at a systemic level in their schools and how this impacts their developing attitudes, identities, and emotional, social, and psychological well-being.

I have been brought to this topic repeatedly throughout my life. Having grown up in Southern Alberta, I witnessed first-hand as a student the way individuals who had non-normative identities were treated, talked about, and avoided. When I returned to schools as a counselor, I was disheartened to find these attitudes, beliefs, and injustices continued to be commonplace in schools in rural Southern Alberta. Over the past decade as a counselor, and now educational psychologist and consultant, I continue to witness these social injustices on a regular basis.

What did you discover?

Challenges and Oppression

One of the key findings from this work was that students who are gender and sexually diverse in rural Southern Alberta continue to feel marginalized and oppressed in their school environments, and are perpetually treated with hostility by their peers and negligence by their school staff and leaders. Students who participated in this study repeatedly discussed the normalization of hateful language towards gender and sexual diverse individuals (i.e., that’s so gay) which is desensitized by peers and goes unaddressed by school personal.

Additionally, students expressed a disappointment that their teachers continued to ‘force them into the closet’ through their avoidance of topics pertaining to gender and sexual diversity or, when these topics did come up, addressing them in a harmful and misinformed way. Their narratives strongly demonstrated a gap remains between supportive and protective policies and the lived experiences of this vulnerable group of students.

The students unanimously identified three factors that strongly influencing the negative views towards gender and sexual diversity: parental influences, heteronormativity, and Christian privilege. Collectively, the participants discussed the attitudes of their peers’ parents influencing their socialization around gender and sexuality, and thus their treatment of those who are non-normative in their gender or sexuality. Connected to this, the students discussed their peers policing a gender-binary and heteronormativity through how they treated one another and the hidden norms pertaining to differences in acceptable behaviors of the males and females in their schools. Lastly, the participants unanimously discussed the conservative Christian attitudes of the community in which their school was embedded had a strong influence on the overall climate and acceptance in their school and was a primary influencer in why teachers refrained from addressing homophobic and transphobic language and avoided topics pertaining to gender and sexuality in the classroom. The students felt religious freedom was taken as priority over freedom of identity and inclusion for those who are gender or sexually diverse.

Hope and Inclusivity

While many disheartening realities were uncovered in this research, the student narratives also captured moments of hope and aspects in which their schools were doing well to try to be more inclusive for gender and sexually diverse students. Each of the participants talked about words of wisdom for their educators and educational leaders of what they believed would really make a difference in creating schools that were truly respectful and accepting of diverse students. For policy makers, administrators, teachers, and support staff who are interested in adopting practices that create learning environments that support this vulnerable population, this research contains many tangible steps and strategies derived from student insights and lived experiences.

Here are a few specific insights and actions the participants highlighted for educators and educational leaders to begin to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for this population of students:

  1. Advertise you’re an ally: The students discussed the powerful messages held in just putting up a safe space sticker or poster on a classroom door or wall. These symbols demonstrated to the students in this study that their teacher cared enough about their well-being to show that they belonged and their safety and inclusion was important.
  2. Educated Educators: Many of the participants shared a belief that their educators simply didn’t know how to best support them because they were uneducated on the topic of gender and sexual diversity and held their own biases and socializations which influenced their avoidance or misinformed response to this area of diversity. Educators and educational leaders interested in increasing the capacity of teachers to be more respectful and protective of this group of students need to start with their own self-reflection around their feelings about this topic and build from there a competency in better understanding how to support and educate their students about this important diversity topic.
  3. Lockdown on language: Left unaddressed, the transphobic and homophobic slurs of peers was identified consistently as harmful and as sending a strong message of exclusion and hostility towards these students. The participants in this study called educators to be more alert and intentional in addressing this language and calling out the systemic oppression behind the derogatory remarks, such as ‘that’s so gay’.
  4. Talk about it: By routinely avoiding topics pertaining to gender and sexual diversity, the students articulated not feeling like they were considered or reflected in their learning. By bringing up discussions around gender and sexual diversity in core health literacy classes, drawing in literature that reflects diverse gender and sexualities in a normalized context, and engaging in discussions around respect and appreciation for this form of diversity when the topic emerges authentically in class, all students would benefit from coming to appreciate and understand this group of individuals and would be better prepared to engage in a democratic society.
  5. Freedom from religion: For policy makers, administrators, and educators aspiring to create safer schools for this group of students, an important consideration emerging from this research was around protecting students’ rights for freedom from religion and to have the freedom to express their identities and sexualities taken as a priority over promoting or protecting the religious beliefs of the surrounding community. Protecting students from normative and oppressive discourses offered through sanctioned religious teachings within their public schools and not allowing religious freedom to be a justification for discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual diversity would promote students’ rights to a safe and socially just educational experience.

Ultimately, my hope in completing this research was to provide a moment of interruption for policy makers, educational leaders, and educators that, despite efforts from the Alberta government and Alberta education, much more needs to be done to create learning environments that support this vulnerable group of students. Gender and sexual minority students are still not afforded an equal opportunity for learning and safety as their peers. This research calls attention to the gaps that exist between policy and practice and a unique opportunity to learn through the lens of students what they need from their school team to help them not only survive but thrive at school.