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Web Event #2: Gender and Sexuality Courses in High school

ccassidy's picture

            Many people have perpetuated a certain preface for high school: it is a time for self-discovery or reinvention.  There is this build-up, a significant drumroll, which inspires middle school students to believe in change and, hopefully, acceptance.  Maybe this is a naïve perception of secondary education. Maybe this can more accurately describe the college experience.  Nonetheless, there seems to be a sense of anticipation and optimism surrounding the concept of high school.  Having been a jaded high school graduate for two years now, it has become clear just how constrictive and heteronormative my experience was.  There are ways in which a high school institution could change its curriculum to include certain courses that could expand the minds of high school students in a way that leaves them more open to intersectional identities.  Queering the high school curriculum to include gender and sexuality courses would allow for the discussion of socially ‘taboo’ topics.  If these personal opinions, theories and identities are addressed at an earlier stage in education, it would make these topics more accessible and less foreign when they are encountered later on in life.

            My high school experience was essentially boring.  For the most part, everyone seemed to be congenial and content with who they were and how people treated them.  At least that is what I thought while I was experiencing it.  As I look back, I realize how the homogenous the student body was, how heteronormative the school uniforms were, how unaware students were of a lack of any kind of diversity.  This was the reason why my transition into college life, specifically life at Bryn Mawr, was so eye-opening.  Even after completing my sophomore year, I feel like I am just skimming the surface of a diverse community.  Based on my high school experience and transition to college, I think it could be beneficial for gender and sexuality courses to be introduced at an earlier stage in education so that controversial issues surrounding gender identification, feminist studies and sexual education can be addressed. As I walked around my ‘non-denominational’ institution, where I attended educational chapel services wearing short, pleated white skirts, I was a part of a traditional educational system that taught the necessities and nothing else.  No one was encouraged to speak about issues of race or sexuality outside of a classroom.  Nor was it acceptable for anyone to share details about their gender identification or sexual preferences.  Maybe that is an inherent aspect of the high school experience; maybe a high school student would not feel comfortable with discussing personal topics even if they were presented with the opportunity.  That being said, this all ties back to the issue that there is a stigma surrounding the topics of sexuality and gender.  The idea that it will be uncomfortable to have open discussions concerning and individual’s personal’s beliefs and desires only magnifies the underlying issue: it has never been spoken about freely and therefore it would be uncomfortable to speak about it now.

            Gradually introducing gender and sexuality courses into a high school curriculum would create spaces for open conversations about discovering identity.  While the ability to be open and forthcoming about these issues is imperative, the standard for these classrooms should be one of inherent acceptance.  That is not to say that philosophical ideas and theories can be challenged and debated to introduce new perspectives; however, students in these classes should have the ability to question everything.  In her essay “Sexual Identities in ESL: Queer Theory and Classroom Inquiry,” Cynthia Nelson introduces a new way to structure the content and discussions in a classroom to further encourage the act of questioning.  Nelson asserts that “a queer theoretical framework may be more useful pedagogically…because it shifts focus from inclusion to inquiry, that is, from including minority sexual identities to examining how language and culture with regard to all sexual identities” (371).  Introducing a Queer theory class in high school would give students the opportunity to go beyond the basics of sexuality studies and would encourage them to question larger institutions and cultural restrictions set in place simply through tradition.  This does suggest that at some point in our elementary and middle school education students lost their ability to ask probing questions that could potential destroy the safety net created through societal boundaries; however, Nelson advocates for a queer theory that analyzes “discursive and cultural practices” (373).  Including this type of pedagogy in a high school setting will build a base on which students can improve their ability to question their environment and the effect it has on identity. 

            While a gender and sexuality course would touch on very controversial subjects, providing students with the opportunity to be open to discovery new and different facets of intersectional identities.  This type of class has been successfully integrated into a local high school curriculum.  In 2011, New York Magazine published an article that examined a socially deemed radical sex education class.  This sex education class, found at a wealthy school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, allows students to speak freely about sexual orientation, fetishes and ejaculation and gives students to the chance to anonymously ask less complex personal questions pertaining to relationship dynamics and sexual expectations in a high school context.  The students and parents alike were satisfied with the serious answers they were receiving and impressive mature nature was inherent inside and outside of the classroom setting.  Adding this optional class to the curriculum helped students discover their personal desires, ability to take control of their relationships and expressing themselves.  When the idea that sex is considered to be a taboo activity and topic of discussion is deconstructed, the article reveals that students are seeking “a ‘safe space’ to pull a part and ponder the stew of relationships and sexual activity” (7).  A gender and sexuality course structured like this utilizes the queer theory that Nelson advocated for in her article, which encourages the asking of complex questions not only to receive serious answers but also realize that others have the same concerns.  Understanding personal desires and identities at such a formative could help students to feel more comfortable and therefore more accepting of others.

            This act of questioning and opening up about intersectional identities during high school years can set students on a path towards acceptance.  It may sound naïve to claim that by implementing a queered classroom setting that investigates these personal topics could change the way that each generation views a multicultural world.  In Nina Asher’s article, “Made in the (Multicultural) U.S.A.: Unpacking Tensions of Race, Culture, Gender, and Sexuality in Education,” she claims that reforming a curriculum to be more conscious of these identities would allow student to reevaluate “oppressive binaries of self and other” (71).  By allowing intersectionality to become a staple of everyday classroom discussion, the visibility of these personal identities will be the necessary amount of exposure for students and teachers so that they become increasingly more open-minded when faced with the an evolving world.

            Introducing gender and sexuality courses into a high school curriculum would provide students with an opportunity to explore topics that have previously been swept away for being too vulgar or personal.  Students need a space in which they can remove society’s misconceptions about intersectionality so that they can better understand the variety of identities that exist in the world.  The concepts of questioning and overall acceptance need to be integrated into a classroom setting so that these skills can develop once a student has graduated from high school.  There would be a significant amount of resistance that would come from older generations, whose fears would be centered on whether or not providing teens with this knowledge would encourage them to recklessly act on these sexual and non-conformist desires. However, progress in high school education and its ability to accommodate intersectionality will have to rely on the maturity level of students and their right to make their own choices pertaining to their identities.  High school students need a space to break out of the heteronormative structures that bind their educational experience and the direct way to accomplish this is to present them with the opportunity to explore the possibilities of identification, representation and action.  










Works Cited:

Abraham, Laurie . "Teaching Good Sex." The New York Times . N.p., 16 Nov 2011. Web.

7 Nov 2013. <


Asher, Nina. "Made in the (Multicultural) U.S.A.: Unpacking Tensions of Race, Culture,

Gender, and Sexuality in Education." Educational Researcher. 36.2 (2007): 65-73. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.

Nelson, Cynthia. "Sexual Identities in ESL: Queer Theory and Classroom Inquiry."

TESOL Quarterly . 33.3 (1999): 371-391. Web. 7 Nov. 2013.


pialamode314's picture

As we talked about in class,

As we talked about in class, I think one thing both of our papers really emphasize is the importance of making high schools safer spaces to talk openly about gender and sexuality. For my paper, I talked about this mainly in the sense of interactions that happen outside the classroom or in your typical high school classes - correcting biased language, teacher intervention, etc. For your paper, you talked about having actual courses in gender and sexuality to expand high schoolers' ideas and views on the subject. I think our ideas complement each other really well in this sense. Having courses in gender and sexuality could create a safe space where students feel more comfortable asking questions and confronting head-on the kinds of homophobic/transphobic issues that present themselves in other settings outside the class. By making high schoolers more aware of these issues and open to talking about them, it could allow them to spot such instances outside the classroom, and perhaps even inspire them to intervene on their own. It could also make it easier for students who identify as queer in gender and/or sexuality to be open about their identity in school.

Anne Dalke's picture

Queering the Classroom

I’m seeing an interesting relationship between your last web event and this one: there, you were reflecting on your own silence in the classroom; here, you are thinking about a much larger, cultural silence, one that pervades most high school classrooms: the languages of sexuality and gender.

What’s of particular interest here (to me) is the material you’ve found that advocates “queering” the h.s. classroom—not just working to include and affirm a wide variety of sexual identities, but shifting the focus to “examining how language and culture [operate?] with regard to all sexual identities.” Over ten years ago (and for several years before that) I taught a praxis class here called Thinking Sex, which
thought the language of sex, about bringing that language into the classroom, and about addressing issues of sexuality in a wide variety of other sites, such as nursing homes. It was something of a revelation, and might enjoy looking through the syllabus.

What is also striking to me is how “boring” you describe your h.s. experience as being—“constrictive and heteronormative,” yes, but “essentially boring.”  Queering the high school curriculum would certainly intervene in that dynamic!...but it would also go far beyond the sort of “acceptance” you celebrate to initiate a life-long mode of inquiry that would continue to question all sorts of “discursive and cultural practices” –including those that dominatein most classrooms and (to loop back to your first paper) silence most students therein. It’s less the acceptance than the continuing to question what is acceptable that most intrigues and excites me here.

Along those lines, be sure to check out the related projects by pialamode and Maya--and come to class ready to discuss.