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Making high schools safe spaces to explore one's identity

Maya's picture

Even though the United States has become more progressive with ideas about gender and sexuality, some people still do not feel comfortable coming out. In supposed safe communities sameness is prized and people create a false sense of comfortable equality. Living in North Carolina and going to a conservative high school I did not feel this restriction until my junior year. I began to feel this sense that nobody talked about their differences and nobody asked others about their differences. I did not learn until my junior year that a teacher at my school who taught me, mentored me, and comforted me was gay. She did not feel comfortable coming out to the students and some of the faculty also did not know.

In a constricting environment people downplay their differences instead of celebrating them. People shut down others and tell them they are wrong just because they are queer and so people learn to not talk about their differences. In high schools this is often the case because a student who does not want to be bullied or a teacher who does not feel she would be welcomed if she shared that part of herself will quietly hide their sexuality. Mainstream society deems students unacceptable if they stray from the current, ever-changing norm. In doing this society creates a non-normative standard. This standard is one that everybody strives toward so that they can be accepted and valued in the “popular” group. Many psychologists have seen this strive toward the top of society in high school as “something closer to a hunger for power, even a Darwinian drive” and this drive can sometimes take on forms that hurt others (Talbot 2002; 5). Queer people are forced to hide an important part of their identity if they want to “fit in”. People create this standard norm in high school that everybody strives to live up to, but queer people will never fit this norm. However, there are solutions that both students and teachers can look toward.

Social norms define an important part of society, but many times they can be used to hurt others. If someone does not fit the defined social norm they are become outcasts of the “correct” group. There is an expectation that everybody should fit into the social norm and if they do not they should always be striving toward it and look up to those who have already achieved this status. In high school this is very apparent especially since socially people struggle to find their niche, as often the hierarchy of social groups or cliques define whom people hang out with or don’t associate with. Both teachers and students help create this non-normative standard because nobody wants to stand up and start the wave against normalcy. High school is hard enough without people telling you that your identity is wrong. Margaret Talbot describes in her New York Times article how girls “talk about standing in ‘huddles’ and giving other girls ‘deaths’—stares of withering condescension—and of calling one another ‘dyke,’ ‘slut’ and ‘fat’” (5). People created a culture that automatically looks down on people who are different and creates hurtful names to lash out at other people. People fear the unknown and so instead of attempting to find out more about people who are different, they do not allow them a voice and shut these people down so that their fear of something different does not overwhelm them. People also do not want to stick out. Humans like being part of the majority and part of a comfortable group and so when the opportunity arises to stand out and talk back to the homophobic majority, people do not want to risk their place within the group and so stay silent. Deviant forms of expression, especially in how people dress and act, are looked down upon and people are made to feel exiled if they deviate at all from the norm, especially in terms of sexuality.

Many times queer students do not feel like they have a safe space where they can express their sexuality. Because of the idea that everyone is equal and nobody is different, people who question their sexuality in high school are never comfortable in the space where they grow up. In Exile and Pride, Eli Claire, a transgendered man, felt out of place in his hometown because he was queer. He believed that he would always be looking over his shoulder if he went back. “If I moved back to Port Orford, the daily realities of isolation would compete with my concerns about safety…I don’t believe I could live easily and happily that isolated from queer community, nor could I live comfortably while always monitoring the balance, measuring the invisible lines that define safety. My loss of home is about being queer” (Claire 2009; 35). He lost the sense of security that he got from his home because he never felt at home in his town or even in his own house because of his abusive father and mentally absent mother. He was an outcast because he knew that he would never be accepted in that community because of his gender identity. To create his own safe space Claire spent all of his time in the woods away from his house and his school. 

To create this safe space in schools people need to become more aware of the discrimination that goes on in high schools. As of 2009, gay and lesbian teens are two or three times more likely to commit teen suicide than other youths and about 30 percent of all completed suicides are related to sexual identity crisis (“Bullying Statistics”). This is all because of the lack of knowledge about the problem. Students have been questioning their sexuality and finding very few people who are willing to listen. Teachers and administrators have not been helpful with stopping the bullying and so it continues and the students are left to find their own way. Many people do this by taking their own lives because it becomes too much to handle on their own. Also in 2009, nine out of ten LGBT teenagers reported having been bullied at school within the past year because of their sexual orientation (“Bullying Statistics”). This is a problem that needs to be addressed because many teenagers suffer in silence, which leads to low-self esteem, loneliness, depression, and suicide. Queer students often feel victimized in high school. Eli Claire, after relating his story about his abusive father, wonders, “Will my words be used against me, twisted to bolster the belief that sexual abuse causes homosexuality, contorted to provide evidence that transgressive gender identity is linked directly to neglect” (145)? This kind of fear that gay people have inside of them is hard to let go of and feel strong about who they are as a person. They do not want society to judge them based off of just one single part of who they are.

Teachers can be part of the problem in schools but they should be part of the solution. Often times teachers make heterosexist comments and do not intervene when bullying happens. By making these comments they foster an environment that says it is okay for students who are different to be bullied and they also teach the students that they cannot depend on an adult’s support. In reality teachers should be the number one allies of students. Students should feel safe enough to go talk to teachers and tell them their problems. But when teachers are also the ones instigating the comments, even if they do not realize it, they perpetuate the problem. However, there are many solutions that high schools can look toward to stop bullying.

Many times people do not intervene in a bullying crisis because they believe they are not the right ones to step in or they assume it is all for fun and it is not necessary to step in and put themselves at risk of being teased or scoffed at. However, in cases of bullying, schools need to take preventive measures. Schools should “ensure (that) policies (on bullying and discrimination) are widely disseminated and clearly identify to whom harassment or discrimination should be reported…(They should) promptly investigate and take appropriate action when incidents occur…(and) provide yearly reminders of anti-discrimination policies to district and school communities” (Austin, 67). By doing this, the schools are taking the necessary steps to attempt to stop bullying before it has even begun and to make people more aware of the actions to take when bullying does occur. The most important and simple step schools can do is to educate people about bullying and the reasons behind it, the harms that bullying can lead to, and the ways in which they can help victims and bullies. Everybody in the school community needs to be made aware of this issue, from the board members to the school officials to the staff and faculty and the students. Schools can have information sessions, classes that kids are required to take that cover all of the different types of bullying, who to talk to if they need help and other general information. Public speakers could come talk to the students about bullying. Student-run clubs could make it their focus to educate the student-body, bring in the public speakers, have discussions during lunch and stand up to bullying when they see it happening. Identifying allies for kids also can help them feel safer in high school. Often times if students can identify a few faculty members that he or she feels safe talking to, it makes it easier for the student to work through the problem if they always have someone to talk to. Teachers can go through training about how to talk to students about questioning their sexuality and then post signs on their doors identifying them. Talking through the problems, although it can be challenging will help. People need to face diversity head-on and to do this, schools could create classes where these debates and questions can be safely talked about. These classes should be careful to, from the beginning, create a safe space where people feel like they can bring up any question and people also feel like they can voice their concern and comfortableness about certain topics or the ways in which their classmates discuss these topics.

This issue about creating a safe space so that people who identify as queer can represent themselves in a way that is most comfortable to them and not feel “othered” is an important and hard discussion. I previously talked about how changing school policy and making people aware of this change is important, but the next step, which is the most important and hardest step to take is helping to create a community of people who believe strongly that people can be whomever they want and love whomever they want. We need to make a safe place where a person can talk to anybody about their confusion. If we create this space it will allow people room to explore who they are as a person in an environment where they know they will always have people who they can fall back on. Someday hopefully, in high schools all over this country, queer people can stand up proud and believe in who they are as a person, surrounded by a loving and accepting community. 

Works Cited:

Austin, Don. "Preventing Health Risks and Promoting Healthy Outcomes among LGBTQ Youth." American Psychological Association, n.d. Web. 5 Nov 2013. <>.

Claire, Eli. exile and pride. Cambridge: South End Press, 2009. Print.

"Gay Bullying Statistics." Bullying Statistics (2009): n.pag. Web. 5 Nov 2013. <>.

Talbot, Margaret. "Girls Just Want to be Mean." New York Times 24 Feb 2002, n. pag. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.



pialamode314's picture

I see a lot of similarities

I see a lot of similarities between your paper and ideas and mine! We both focused a lot on how in order to make high schools safer for queer students we must first change the everyday culture, and that comes down to the little details, such as calling out biased language or homophobic/transphobic slurs or intervening in the case of bullying. Just as you said, a lot of this can come down to the teachers - they have the power to help change the culture, just as they have the power to perpetuate the current queer-unfriendly environment in most high schools. I didn't talk about this really in my paper, but I really loved that you brought up the importance of having teachers as a resource to go talk to safely about their identity and issues they may be having. For many students, they cannot go to their parents for these kinds of talks, and sometimes they may be afraid to talk to their friends about it because they fear their reactions. So, having teachers as a safe way to work through issues they might be having could really contribute to making queer students feel safer and less alone in a somewhat (currently) hostile high school environment.

ccassidy's picture

Safety and Queering norms

I think Marian, you and I all focused quite a bit on how to transform high school into a place where students feel that they can openly converse about sensitive topics.  If students feel that they can have these open discussions about their identity then it would hopefully lead to an overall accepting attitude.  I also thought it was interesting that our papers also touched on the idea of queering the norms of high school.  My paper asked for the queering of a classroom structure so that there is more freedom for discussion but it also suggested that students should feel more comfortable with questioning overall structures.  Your idea of queering the stigmas of high school seems to connect with that.  Both of our papers presented the idea that high school students could be taught to fight against the traditional or stereotypical aspects of high school and question any structure of power.

Anne Dalke's picture

The Trouble with Normal

I taught an ESem a few years ago called InClass/OutClassed: On the Uses of a Liberal Education, which worked specifically with the (range of answers! to the) question of whether schools function primarily as sites of socialization and normalization, reinforcing the status quo, or whether they might be explicit sites of intervention, mobility and change. Although you focus here on issues of gender and sexual difference, rather than on those of social class, it seems to me that the core questions are the same.

You pay attention to the “preventative measures” that schools can take, the “solutions they can look toward” in “creating a safe space” for queers to represent themselves, to “not feel ‘othered,’” to be “surrounded by a loving and accepting community.” “To create this safe space,” you argue, “people need to become more aware of the discrimination that goes on in high schools”; “teachers perpetuate the problem,” and this is “all because of the lack of knowledge.”

But where I feel an interesting tension in your project is in the rub between “queer” and “normal.” Your stated presumption is that “people do not want to stick out,” that “queer people are forced to hide an important part of their identity if they want to ‘fit in,’” that “people create this standard norm in high school that everybody strives to live up to, but queer people will never fit this norm,” that they are “made to feel exiled if they deviate at all from the norm.”

There’s actually quite a debate in the queer rights community about such questions; the defining text in the argument is Michael Warner’s  1999 book, The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Warner argues that the sole goal of gay rights activism should not be same-sex marriage, which stigmatizes other types of relationships, constituted by contrast as abnormal, inferior and shameful (you should be hearing echoes of Judith Halberstam’s challenge to “normative time” @ this point….). Warner says “straight” out that the queer rights movement would do better to abandon the pursuit of normality, and campaign instead for the recognition of broader varieties of sexual expression. In his analysis, the “norm” thus becomes what is problematic, rather than what must be accommodated.

Your earlier web-event portrayed a self who felt she should stand up for what she believes, but is guarded in doing so, using body language both to assert and to hide who she is and what she believes. Since I see some of both these moves in this paper, too…I’m wondering if Warner’s analysis gives you an opening….? What do you think of this idea?

P.S. Be sure to look @ the events created by pialamode and ccassidy, and come to class ready to talk w/ them about your shared ideas...