post by Dana Stachowiak, member of The Educator Collaborative
The Importance of LGBTQ Visibility: Handle with Care
That’s a picture of the fence in our front yard. Last year, we bought our home in Wilmington, and we weren’t in love with the white picket fence, but it sort of grew on us. We decided to keep it for a while, but it needed a little TLC with a fresh coat of paint. We live in a pretty diverse and artsy little neighborhood downtown – there are lots of signs and flags that support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, immigrants, LGBTQ folks sprinkled in front yards throughout. So when we came up with the idea to paint the gate portion of our fence using rainbow colors to support #pride, we felt like this would be the best neighborhood for it – so we did it! And we love it.
Every time I pull onto our street, I get filled with excitement. I’m a sucker for the live oaks that envelope the street and the Spanish moss that dances in the humid breeze of the South – and these do line our neighborhood with a sort of haunting existence (it also helps that there’s a swamp and several large cemeteries a block away). Along with the diversity, it’s another reason we chose to buy a house in this neighborhood. But nothing compares to the smile that grows across my face when our “GAYte,” as we affectionately call it (ya gotta really emphasize the “gay” in gate here), comes into view. I slow down – and I sometimes even pass the house and then turn back, just so I can have the full experience. Neighbors we hadn’t met yet have stopped in to tell of their enthusiasm about the GAYte, some folks stop and take pictures in front of it, and one day, even the self-designated neighborhood watch lady stopped by to ask about it.
“Can I ask you, what’s the meaning of the colors on your fence?” she asked.
I hesitated slightly, wondering if I should tell the truth (because you never know how people are going to react when they hear the word, “gay”) – and then I thought about all the signs and the people in our neighborhood – so I answered, “Oh, well….[the colors] stand for gay pride.”
I’m so glad I spoke of my pride and my truth because it sparked a 10-minute conversation about how much the self-designated neighborhood watch lady supports same-sex marriage, trans rights, gay rights, and everything having to do with social justice. I was thrilled – and thankful for the visibility of our GAYte.
Visibility is so important, especially for minoritized people like those in the LGBTQ community.
Visibility validates our existence. It affirms our identities. It gives us representation, a place at the table.
Last summer, I participated in the ILA’s Equity in Education panel for supporting LGBTQ students in literacy, where I talked about how much the visibility that I was afforded through the program meant to me. To be a non-binary genderqueer featured on a full color page of the program alongside other amazing scholars was incredible – I had dreamed of it as a young scholar, but never imagined it would be a reality. For the first time in the literacy world, I really felt like I belonged, like my voice was just as important as everyone else’s.
But visibility can also come with a price. It’s scary. It’s anxiety-inducing. It’s the unknown. As much as I love our GAYte, there is a lingering sense of worry that comes with it when I think about it.
Who will see it and get upset? Will they destroy our fence? Our home? Hurt our dogs when they are playing in the yard? Harass us?
Some may think these fears are irrational, but having experienced harassment for my visible gender and sexual identity, these fears have value. I have been asked to leave a restaurant because I “made the other patrons uncomfortable” – just by being me and being visibly genderqueer. I have lost consulting jobs because schools have been concerned about having someone “like me” visible to staff and students. One guy screamed at me for walking my dogs too close to his yard, “Get away from my yard, you f—ing faggot!” (Mind you, we were walking by on the sidewalk, but my dogs weren’t in his yard.)
So, what does this have to do with our work around literacy? A lot, actually.
In literacy circles, we talk about the importance of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1990). The visibility of people like us, of people not like us, and the opportunities opened for us with these stories that make our literacy and worldly lives richer–this is so, so important.
One thing that is not talked about enough, though, is the trauma that can come with visibility for LGBTQ students. This is not to say we should stop fighting for visibility or stop finding windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors to share with students. But this does mean we should take a pause and be thoughtful about what happens when we render our LGBTQ students visible. Let me reiterate that visibility is a good thing. But it’s important that we handle it with care.
I encourage educators to consider the following three types of students (and I know there are many more) as they offer windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors into LGBTQ lives and experiences in their literacy classrooms:
1. The Closeted Student
This student may be worried about being found out or outed if they show too much interest and enthusiasm in the topic. But they might really want and need more of it.
- What do you have in place to support this student?
- Can checking out books be private and/or discrete?
- What actions will you take to show the student you are a trusted advocate?
2. The Student Harboring Hate
This student has likely been inundated with explicit and/or implicit negative messages about LGBTQ people, so it’s important to recognize that opening discussions about LGBTQ people may also open space for this student to discriminate, stereotype, and oppress.
- How will you prepare your students for the information?
- How will you handle homophobic and transphobic comments?
- What do you have in place regarding respect and freedom of speech in your classroom?
3. The Student Sitting with Internalized Oppression
This student may be closeted, questioning, or even out, but they have received so many negative messages about LGBTQ people that they believe these things about themselves.
- In what ways will you use your teaching to encourage self-acceptance and love?
- How might you show this student that a happy and healthy live as an LGBTQ person is possible for them too?
- What might you do to encourage other students to support this one?
If educators take the time to “prepare for care” when providing windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in our literacy classrooms, students will feel more welcome, will cultivate open minds, and will embrace growth.
Need help finding LGBTQ-inclusive books?
Check out this book list from Welcoming Schools!
Looking for books that support trans and non-binary students?
Check out this other book list from Welcoming Schools!