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Web Event 2: Queer Students of Color in High Schools

pialamode314's picture

In discussions today about making institutions – in particular, high schools – more accessible for people of various identities, many different ideas are brought to the table. These discussions largely center around topics such as race, sexuality, gender, and disability as separate issues to be dealt with. However, often this excludes people with intersectional identities. One specific example of an intersectional identity that is frequently ignored when discussing issues in high schools (and the main focus of this paper), is queer students of color. Although research in areas such as education and experiences of youth who identify as LGBTQ has increased over the past 20 years, the specific issues of LGBTQ students of color in elementary and high schools have been largely untouched by research and discussion. What little research does exist has shown that students who are both queer and colored, in addition to challenges related to their sexual or gender identity, face challenges related to their race and ethnicity (Diaz & Kosciw 2). It is important to try and make high schools safer places for these students to freely express their intersectional identities by exploring some of the reasons why queer students of color feel so “other-ed” by various communities, what kinds of issues they face in high schools, and discussing ideas for ways to improve their educational experience, both academically and socially.

One of the biggest problems that queer colored youth in general face is that they often feel “other-ed” both by queer communities and ethnic or racial communities. As Kumashiro states, “Ironically, our efforts to challenge one form of oppression often unintentionally contribute to other forms of oppression, and our efforts to embrace one form of difference often exclude and silence others” (Kumashiro 1). Sometimes identity groups have a somewhat narrow view of what defines its members and focus on one singular aspect of identity, making those members with hybrid or intersectional identities feel “other-ed”. For example, a queer student of color in their ethnic community may feel like “the queer one,” while at the same time, in the queer community they may feel like “the ethnic one.” Queer is often seen as a “White thing,” and sometimes queer studies pay relative inattention to issues of race and how the two intersect – and this sort of view in many ways permeates mainstream queer culture, including in high schools (Kumashiro 4). In reality, queer people have always been part of various communities of color, just as racial identities have always been part of queer communities. In a general sense then, we must work to change what it means to “be” queer or of-color – we must “change how mainstream society defines us and how we have come to define ourselves” (Kumashiro 6).

Applying this notion to a high school setting, teachers must be taught about these oppressive structures and ideas and learn to critique and transform them. Instead of reinforcing the binaries of “the oppressor and the oppressed” (Kumashiro 5), they must learn that there are many different forms of marginalization and privilege, and we must all work together against these various forms of oppression, as they all intersect and are related (Kumashiro 19). One way to initiate these kinds of discussions is to confront differences in identities, especially intersectional identities, in the classroom head on. “When teachers and students end up closeting or repressing certain aspects of their hybrid identities, they participate in not only silencing multiplicities and erasing parts of themselves but also limiting the overall educational experience” (Asher 69). By making the classroom a safe space to talk about and “come out” about students’ hybrid identities, it can allow for honest discussion of differences in privilege among students and how they can address that, eventually leading to better understanding of everyone as intersectional beings with many aspects to their personal identities.

Of course a major issue faced by queer students of color, especially in a high school environment, is bullying and harassment – both verbal and physical. According to the results of a study that was done, 48% of queer students of color (in high school) were verbally harassed and 15% were physically harassed because of both their sexual orientation and ethnicity (Diaz & Kosciw 21). As Asher states, “…we know from history, racial, cultural, and sexual ‘others’ – perceived as strange, odd, unfamiliar, or queer by those who see themselves as characterizing the apparent ‘norm’ – not only have been marginalized but also have endured violence” (Asher 68). Sadly this holds true for queer students of color today in many high schools, a large portion of who reported in the study as experiencing physical violence because of their sexual orientation or gender expression (Diaz & Kosciw 20).

When it came to verbal harassment, such as being called names or threatened, the vast majority of LGBTQ students of color had been verbally abused in the past year because of their gender expression and/or sexual orientation (Diaz & Kosciw 18). Unfortunately, racist and heterosexist language is all too commonly heard in high schools. Studies show this, and my own experience in high school is a testament to the kind of biased language that is so casually tossed around. It was not uncommon for me to walk through the halls of my high school and hear people use expressions such as “that’s so gay” (meaning “stupid”) or “fag”. My school also had a sizeable population of Latino/a students, and I would often hear students, even friends of mine, talk about those students in racist terms, judging them for the way they spoke, the way they dressed, their use of a non-English native language, etc.

Though these kinds of biased remarks permeate the halls of many high schools, usually very little school staff intervention takes place, as the dismiss the language as harmless since it does not appear to be directed at an individual. However, in the same study, queer students of color were asked how hearing that type of language affected them, and 81% reported that it caused them some level of distress (Diaz & Kosciw 12). In fact, a large number of students in the study reported hearing homophobic and racist remarks from school staff members themselves, which is troublesome indeed since by using that sort of language they are setting an example and implying that these types of biased remarks are acceptable (Diaz & Kosciw 11). A very simple way to begin countering this kind of verbal abuse in high school hallways then is for faculty (and peers) to intervene when they hear the use of language with even subtle heterosexist or racist undertones, thereby sending the message that these kinds of biased remarks are not tolerated at all. It may seem like a small thing to do, but even that small thing can go a long way in making high schools safer spaces for queer students of color.

For almost all queer students of color, being victimized by physical and verbal abuse in school can have many negative effects on their ability to receive an education. For example, the potential stress induced by harassment can affect the student’s focus and thus negatively impact their performance. In addition, students who are victimized may be more prone to missing more school in order to avoid such abuse that they could receive in school. In a survey conducted in 2007, it was found that students harassed for both sexual orientation and race/ethnicity had, on average, lower grade point averages and were much more likely to miss school than students harassed for neither, and students harassed for only one characteristic (Diaz & Kosciw 31).

There are many ways that schools can work to improve their environment and make it more welcoming and accepting for all queer students of color. First of all, having in-school resources such as Gay-Straight Alliances can be a great way for some students to join a community and feel supported in their identities. Also, adjusting school policies to explicitly address harassment in school, in particular harassment based on personal identities such as sexual orientation, gender, and race, is important for creating safe and welcoming school environments. In the same study mentioned before, a majority of students of color reported that their schools had no policy explicitly about harassment for sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, and almost half reported that their school did not even have a general anti-harassment policy at all (Diaz & Kosciw 38).

Probably one of the most important factors in changing high school environments in order to become more welcoming for queer students of color is the teachers – how and what they teach, and how they treat situations involving students with intersectional identities. As was briefly touched on earlier, in most cases today, staff responses and interventions in cases of harassment for race and/or sexual orientation and gender identity are usually inadequate, if they happen at all. So as stated before, an important change to make is having staff members intervene when they witness any such harassment. Teachers also have an opportunity to make a great difference in the classroom. In very few classrooms are students ever taught about LGBTQ-related topics or exposed to positive representations of LGBTQ people, history, or events (Diaz & Kosciw 38). By altering classes to include such information, it could make a huge difference not only for those students who are queer and colored in the classroom, but also for other students who do not identify as queer or colored by helping them understand the viewpoints and challenges faced by such people, and how these issues can relate to them. By talking about these issues head on, and making the classroom a safe space for people with intersectional identities to talk about their own experience, and for all students to express and confront contradictions, questions, and doubts in relation to issues concerning race, culture, gender, and sexuality, “we create opportunities for queering the gaze of future teachers” (Asher 71). If high schools were to reform their environments in these various ways, perhaps one day high school will no longer seem like a vicious jungle of judgment and shaming to those apparent “others” – those queer students of color – but rather will be an environment in which all students can both express and explore the many aspects of their identities freely, and to learn from each other by engaging in respectful, intellectual, and open conversations.



Works Cited

Asher, Nina. (2007). “Made in the (Multicultural) U.S.A.: Unpacking Tensions of Race, Culture, Gender, and Sexuality in Education.” Educational Researcher. Retrieved from

Diaz, E., Kosciw, J. (2009). “Shared Differences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools.” Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Retrieved from

Kumashiro, Kevn. (2001). Troubling Intersections of Race and Sexuality: Queer Students of Color and Anti-Oppressive Education.

“The 2011 National Climate Survey: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students of Color in Our Nation’s Schools.” (2011). Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Retrieved from


Katie J.'s picture

Queer Students of Color Event


You bring up a lot of great points. This intersectionality between being queer and a person of color is very rarely, if ever discussed. Typically there are groups that focus on one or the other, but these identities tend to be thought of as completely separate from one another. So if someone is a queer person of color it is almost expected that they choose which identity is more important to them, which should not have to be an option.

I have been working this semester with the Women's and LGBTQ Resource Center on my campus to try and promote a queer students of color video project. The main issue that I have faced is just trying to find enough people who are interested. My school does not have a lot of diversity and it is harder to know the best way to advertise this kind of project when those who would be interested have to self-identify. I have been able to get some interest, but still do not know if this project will continue after I graduate in December. Although queer students of color are an extremely small proportion of the population that does not mean that their issues and views are not important. Even if this project does not continue, I am proud of the work I have done because I have attempted to start something that has never been done before on my campus. I just wish that we could make something more lasting to help and create a safe and inclusive space for queer students of color.

ccassidy's picture

safe spaces

I think the most significant commonality between our papers is an emphasis on the need for a 'safe space' for high schoolers.  We both shared a little bit of our high school experience and how infrequently students or faculty spoke about issues of identity.  It seems like high school has essentially become a place of silence and-like you said in class today-and, consequently, oppression.  While our paper's addressed the same desired outcome, we approached the subject with different tactics.  My paper called for a physical classroom in which these topics could be freely discussed without the fear of any kind of judgment.  And yours seems to address the faculty and how they should act as role models for the students.  I think that either way that this is accomplished we are looking for a space that students feel comfortable enough to discuss their identity.

Anne Dalke's picture

Intersecting the Unconscious

As last month, you’ve done a nice job of researching a complicated question about public performance and reception of identity, focusing this time on questions of intersectionality. You list a range of needed interventions in high schools, calling for reforming those environments so that all students--especially queer students of color--“can both express and explore the many aspects of their identities freely.”

You recommend that
* “teachers must be taught…to confront differences in identities intersectional identities head on”;
* “a very simple way to begin countering verbal abuse is to intervene when they hear the use of language”;
* “resources such as Gay-Straight Alliances” must be made available;
* policies should be adjusted “to explicitly address harassment in school”;
* “staff members should intervene when they witness any harassment”;
*  classes should be altered to include information about intersectionality; and

* classrooms should be made safe.

These are all worthwhile efforts—you won’t get any argument from me on any of these counts! And/yet/but….

I find myself hung up on a word you introduce in a quotation early in your paper: that “our efforts to challenge one form of oppression often unintentionally contribute to other forms of oppression.” 


So much of the prejudice that gets expressed amongst us is unintentional, its motivations not known or understood. Last month, I often found myself evoking the work of Elizabeth Ellsworth in response to your classmates’ web events, and I evoke her here now for you. Ellsworth is a film theorist and educator who wrote a book called Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address. Applying the idea of mode of address from film theory to education, Ellsworth posits that, just as films are positioned to appeal to particular audiences, teachers address their students in order to appeal to who the teachers think the students are. But, Ellsworth goes on to explain, positioning by filmmakers and teachers is always imperfect: “The point is that all modes of address misfire one way or another. I never ‘am’ the ‘who’ that a pedagogical address thinks I am. But then again, I never am the who that I think I am either.”

Ellsworth attributes the failure of mode of address to match the requirements of an intended audience to two propositions: that what we think we know of other people is limited to what they have told us; and that what we think we know of ourselves is limited only to what we are conscious of.   So, rather than suggesting ways to bridge this gap, trying to make ourselves more completely known to and readable by others, Ellsworth argues that it is to be preserved as the space of agency and of learning. She claims that it’s actually in that space that teaching takes place; without it, we’d have nothing to learn.

I wonder how that strikes you as an intervention?

I’m thinking here, for example, of the most powerful moment (for me) in Eli Clare’s intersectional memoir: "The same lies that cast me as genderless, asexual, and undesirable also framed a space in which I was left alone to be my quiet, bookish, tomboy self, neither girl nor boy....How would I have reacted to the gender pressures my younger, nondisabled sister faced?" (151-2). Here misreading one identity—that of being disabled as being asexual—grants Clare freedom in another dimension—that of being queer.

Unintentional. And freeing.

I had asked, in response to your last web event, whether the harder we try to represent the self --especially the fluid, ever-changing self--the more specific we get, the more we might miss. Some of that possibility haunts this project too, I think.

P.S. Be sure to look @ the events created by ccassidy and Maya--and come to class ready to discuss your shared ideas.