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School's Out: Popular Media and the Gay Teen Martyr

Hi everyone! I'm Sharday and "School's Out" is my new guest blog on the topic of youth, sexuality, and—very broadly conceived—education. I'm a visual artist, musician, and writer, the latter of which mostly happens in the context of my PhD studies at a university in Kingston, ON. There, and in all my work, I take an interdisciplinary (mostly Religious Studies, Cultural Studies, and Gender Studies) and interlocking approach to cultural analysis. Since I have a guilty love of theory and the abstract, I decided to take this opportunity to ground my thinking in some concrete realities of queer life in the global North today.

Kids are indeed the future and so they're also the site of great moral panic. As more kids are skipping the closet, debate rages on about what is appropriate to "expose" young people to—which also raises the question of what is appropriate to acknowledge as already existing in young people's experiences. And because it is easier to recognize the specificity of queer sexuality, sociality, and familial forms in the face of unmarked mainstream culture—where hetero love stories provide the narrative framing for most cultural products—youth and non-normative sexuality are a fascinating and revealing combination. (Maybe my next post will be on why the Disney Princesses have made the "PC" leap to include a princess of color but won't be advertising a lesbian princess any time soon?) So in this series, I want to ask: How have discourses of sexuality and gender been transformed in the context of youth? Who gets to speak for kids? Where do young people receive their most influential messages about the values around sex, sexuality, and gender, and their proper performance?

I'm looking forward to your comments as a way to dialogue and workshop ideas, and if there's anything you want to see covered in an upcoming blog post, please let me know!

Now onto one of the topics I've been thinking about lately as I peruse the local newspapers...

There's a lot of talk lately across North America about gay youth suicides. In my neck of the words, the name on everyone's lips is Jamie Hubley, an openly gay Ottawa teen who recently took his own life and had publicly documented his schoolyard struggles in a blog. While it's heartening that public voices seem to be united in calling the situation tragic, they also seem to be individualizing the problem onto the psyches of kids and their bullies, as opposed to taking a sober look at the way prejudice works in society at large.

Family photo of Jamie Hubley and his father, Kanata South councillor Allan Hubley, as posted in the Ottawa Citizen online

In the climate of these discussions, thankfully, it's no longer politically correct in many circles to ask what makes these kids "the way they are"—losing our urge to discover where difference came from, as if it were the etiology of a disease, is definitely a stop on the way toward accepting difference—but what if we reframe the question (à la the heterosexual questionnaire) and ask how we all get to be the way we are? Education teaches us about our possibilities, but practice develops our tastes for these different options.

The heterosexual questionnaire, attributed to Dr. Martin Rochlin in 1977, was designed to turn the table on hegemonic assumptions of heterosexual normalcy

Unfortunately for most young people, queer gender and queer desire aren't options taught in sex-ed or social studies. As far as "practice" goes, sexual experimentation can be an important component. Disturbingly, queer sexual experimentation is often viewed as either a party trick or college-age detour on the way back to the straight and narrow. (What's more, the phrase usually only conjures up images of girls because female bodies are so commodified at every turn that, hey, why wouldn't women wind up wanting what the ads promise?) Heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise, makes sure that sexual experimentation isn't widely understood as the way that we come to know our real desires—the desires that lead us to choose partners, not just dance-floor flings, that situate us in political alliances—not just allow us to passively believe that others can love whomever they choose. By reading male-female desire into every part of the majority culture, the hetero norm also encourages us to forget how foreign some of our first heterosexual experiences felt. When I look back to my teenage years and think about the girls I made out with or had pseudo-relationships with on the sly while openly pursuing boys—without ever talking about why ours wasn't really a relationship—I wonder why today's PC rhetoric can maintain that sexuality is a private matter (baby, you were born that way?) and that acceptance of different sexualities is just a matter of who you want to marry. In reality, there's a mine of learned behaviors and diverted interests beneath the choices that the world can see.

Moreover, this flavor of toleration completely erases the fact that to be GLBTQ is not just a matter confined to one personal part of your life which, in order to be integrated comfortably, only requires that people be fine with the sex of your partner. It's about who you are when you're not partnered, too, and it's still in play when you're involved with "opposite" gender lovers, because it's really about the locus of your entire being in the social world. Hopefully every time you walk right into a boundary, whether linguistic, economic, or cultural, the pain of that impact will rouse you a little more until you wake up to a radical political consciousness. But this doesn't happen for everyone, no matter how queer they may really feel. And for some who surmount the many barriers to even coming out, something still might have to give. When it does, like it did for Jamie Hubley, we have to seize the opportunity in this tragedy for shifting our focus from the psychology of the troubled kid onto the society-level sickness we're really dealing with.

In order to create an environment where youth don't feel the need to choose between death and living up to "straight" expectations, we need to create a space of greater sexual possibilities and less social coercion. We need, among other things, real education about gender and anatomical and sexual diversity in schools; we need more role models in books, on TV, and in advertising; and we also need to be aware of the mental gymnastics our psyches can perform in order to keep our queer desires an invisible secret.

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Comments

29 comments have been made. Post a comment.

thank you so much for this

thank you so much for this article.

"...and we also need to be aware of the mental gymnastics our psyches can perform in order to keep our queer desires an invisible secret." that last sentence greatly resonated with me.

also, these bits:

"this flavor of toleration completely erases the fact that to be GLBTQ is not just a matter confined to one personal part of your life which, in order to be integrated comfortably, only requires that people be fine with the sex of your partner. It's about who you are when you're not partnered, too..."

i've found that there's a seriously problematic rhetoric that it's suddenly simply 'okay to be gay' because we were all 'born this way.' i feel it erases not only all of those individuals for whom gender identity, or sexual identity, or both, are fluid or not apparent and are constantly changing and often difficult to grapple with, but also the painful experiences that STILL surround many, if not most, LGBTQI people in their day to day lives. and, as you said, that the walls that we hit aren't simply bound to areas of our lives that are seemingly easily compartmentalized-- like one's 'romantic life' verses one's 'work life.' it's so much more pervasive, and with this rhetoric, especially amongst young people who aren't queer or come from 'accepting' and 'tolerant' environments and can't grasp what social stigma feels like when it's actually applied to one's identity, these experiences are often just erased.

Hi Leah, Thank you so much

Hi Leah,

Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for reading! You raise an excellent point about what it means to come from personal contexts that have been receptive, positive, and valuing of your gender and sexual identities/practices. It's so interesting to think about what underlies the notion of "tolerance" as you allude to, and how we are put in positions of needing to rely in specific ways on the benevolence of other people's "acceptance."

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S Bear Bergman is here to help:

Imagine if the library was full of books like those that S. Bear Bergman is going to publish! Totally worth checking out:

"It’s a little difficult to label young children as trans identified, because sometimes they are more shark or train identified than they are anything. One of the things about trans identity is that it requires a sense of one’s own identity and ability to identify as something, whatever that looks like. Little kids are just too little for that. Sometimes, there are kids who are a little older and take on that label, or their families feel comfortable with it and have taken it on, on their behalf, but I think what is actually more true for a lot of younger kids is that we don’t really know about their identity. We only know about their behavior, and what we know about their behavior is that it does not conform to ideas about gender roles in children. These are kids who used to more frequently being referred to as “gender nonconforming” but that has a pejorative tone to it that I don’t love. It’s like “you’re doing it wrong.” I hear more and more people referring to these young kids as gender independent and it feels right to me. There feels more room in that for the actual kid, as opposed to how this kid or any kid “should” be. It feels positive and something for which you could praise a child for."

http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/02/05/s-bear-bergman-allowing-all...

Thanks for your comment, N!

Thanks for your comment, N! This will be on my reading list immediately, if not sooner! :)

I appreciate reading things

I appreciate reading things like this
"Moreover, this flavor of toleration completely erases the fact that to be GLBTQ is not just a matter confined to one personal part of your life which, in order to be integrated comfortably, only requires that people be fine with the sex of your partner. It's about who you are when you're not partnered, too, and it’s still in play when you’re involved with “opposite” gender lovers, because it’s really about the locus of your entire being in the social world."

I find every day in my life, I encounter people that do not realize that their everyday conversations are in essence putting their heterosexuality into our public spaces. It is so often that you read about or meet people that question why I can't just be quiet and why I must flaunt my sexuality when they don't feel the need to show off theirs. I truly believe that most people do not know that they are already doing that and it isn't so much "flaunting" mine that is the problem but publicly displaying my nonconformity that is the real issue.

I try to make it a habit of mine to say things when I am confronted with moments that seem to be unknowingly heterosexually biased. I have had jobs where the majority of my coworkers are female and of course as society expects us to, many days their are conversations about dating lives and relationships. Talking about when they are mom's, how they're potential still unmet husbands wouldn't step up to take care of the baby or have the pregnancy, just so many instances that really only apply to heterosexual relationships. I find simply conversing from my own lesbian bias on the topic can be conversation stopping. It can be dismaying to hear a literal pause in conversation when I make a comment that doesn't follow the societal expectation even when everyone knows that I am gay.

I don't always mean to be outspoken but it isn't in me to let ignorance pass by unmentioned.

Thanks for your thoughtful

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Cait. I dig. It's a constant opportunity, one that can be completely exhausting sometimes, to use those pauses in conversation to make our small interventions in daily life. I can't tell you how reaffirming it is to hear someone else share their experiences with this type of scenario!

I agree

I totally agree with what you're saying about "publicly displaying nonconformity" being a problem. I am a heterosexual woman, so I still have the privilege of having discussions in which I can mention my boyfriend without stopping the conversation, but when someone says, "Well, when you have kids, you'll know" and I respond with "Oh I don't plan on having kids," the conversation either stops, with the other person totally confused, or my comment gets dismissed with some form of "That won't last forever" or "Oh, you'll see" or "Don't worry, you'll change your mind." A similar conversation stopper: mentioning my self-identification as a feminist. I've done the same thing you've done, trying to make sure I mention my child-less life plan or my feminism, in hopes of starting a conversation instead of ending one.
I once had a professor who talked about her experiences at the gynecologist's office. When asked about birth control, she would say "No I am not on it." "Do you use condoms?" "No." long pause...."What contraception do you use?" "None." longer pause...... then my professor would finally say, "I'm a lesbian." She was always waiting for the nurse who would be the first one to ask, saying "Oh, no birth control, no contraception, are you a lesbian?" but that nurse never existed. Instead, she would just get blank looks from people who thought she was crazy for not using any birth control, because they assumed she was heterosexual. I'll be glad for the day when society is inclusive enough that these everyday conversations ACTUALLY allow for free-flowing conversation from everyone, instead of just those who fit into society's little normal box.

Thanks for taking the time to

Thanks for taking the time to write about the very important topic of queer youth, sexuality and education. This article was brilliantly written and I look forward to reading more of your blog!

Thanks, Anonymous! Let me

Thanks, Anonymous! Let me know if you want to see anything in particular covered in the future!

Heteronormativity

Really good article! There was just one minor thing that I disagree with. "Heteronormativity, the assumption that everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise" Heteronormativity isn't only thinking the people you meet are heterosexual, but also thinking not being heterosexual is somehow negative or unnatural.
I don't think assuming people to be heterosexual is wrong. After all, most people are indeed hetero or in hetero relationships, which makes sense since this was until only a few years ago the only way a couple could biologically reproduce. The real problem is when the notion of "most people are like that" becomes "all people have to be/are like that", which of course is bullshit.
It's the same with blonde people. The majority of people aren't blond, so if I was to speak to someone on the phone, I might assume they have dark hair. My assumptions might have no impact on them except that they might decline if I offered them haircare products for dark hair. However, if there was, for instance, no haircare for blonde people at all, or being blonde was connected with negative stereotypes or even illegal so that blonde people had to dye their hair, that would of course be horrible (and is pretty much exactly what is happening right now to LGBTQ people).
Of course, the best possible situation would be to not assume anything about people you meet, but I don't think that is possible to our pattern-creating brains.

Re: Heteronormativity

Hi Clusianna,Thanks for your comment and for reading this post! You're absolutely right about the more nuanced definition of heteronormativity, and I should have specified my usage further since we all come from different backgrounds of experience - personal and theoretical - with the term. Heteronormativity indeed derives its meaning alongside heterosexism and homophobia, and the ways in which these patterns of thinking play out in the larger context of gender normativities. It bears acknowledging that these discourses are also enacted on and experienced by individuals and communities in different ways based on other intersecting ideologies and practices like racism, race thinking (which Sherene Razack says “divides up the world between the deserving and the undeserving, according to descent”), classism, ableism, and the many other ways in which we all come to know, comply with, and resist our positionalities. Thank you for bringing up the importance of attending to multiple and contradictory meanings in what we examine!

Thank you!

What a wonderful article - superbly written! This is an extremely important issue and I look forward to reading more!

Kids aren't the problem

I'm still in high school and go to a small school at that. There are a few openly gay people in my school, one peer close to my group of friends came out, and everyone is generally okay with it. The staff is supportive and many kinds come to my school to escape the bullying and the harassment in the first place. At my old middle school, being gay wasn't a death sentence but more of thought that you weren't man enough. From personal experiences, i feel as though the idea of what is girl and what is boy is the problem the kids have. I am not dainty, feminine, or girly in any sense of the word and I was picked on to death. If we teach kids to accept different kinds of boys and girls( boys that are effeminate and more manly girls) and I'm not talking about the Disney Channel "We are all different but we can get along" kind of thing. If we install tolerance in kids who are 5,6 years old, bulling over being gay or straight won't happen as much. Adults think that kids won't be able to handle all the "gayness" as if it would corrupt their own sons and daughters who, by the way, have watched more dirty porn then both their parents combined. Boys and GIRLS.

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