queering adult education

July 4, 2007 at 6:46 pm (education, essays, queer)

woohoo! another one!

this is from 2006, the last semester of my degree. i was in turkey, so this essay is written for people who had never heard of queer until i showed up. it was a lovely class, at postgrad level, filled with interesting and idealistic people. unfortunately we never got very much done, as we were starting from scratch, with the revolutionary idea of a non-heirarchical, student-focused class. unheard of in turkey!

Queering Adult Education

Although almost everything ‘queer’ seems to remain controversial, some aspects have achieved the status of accepted issues either in the media, academic literature or in both. There are other issues, however, which remain virtually unrecognised, particularly in educational literature, appearing only in specifically queer texts (Sears, 1999). These ideas, if discussed in the media, would no doubt be sensationalised and not given rational consideration, yet they include many ideas that would benefit the discourse, and offer new perspectives.

Adult education research and practice now routinely consider gender, ethnicity, first language, prior education level, age and class as significant factors affecting many areas of learning, but issues of sexual orientation are generally overlooked. Similarly, diversity in all these aspects is often celebrated, but diversity of sexuality and gender is more often condemned, or at best invisible (Kerka, 2001).

This essay will discuss why adopting queer inclusive attitudes and practices into adult education environments is so important, and then offers some suggestions as to how this can be done. It further addresses some of the common questions asked about these issues, and will argue that the queering of education is both necessary and achievable.

The word Queer has two main meanings. Although the two meanings can be distinct, they overlap to a great extent and which queer is meant is not always specified. The first is used as an umbrella term for LGBTIOQ, an appellation often seen in shorter variants, such as GLBT, but which grows periodically as the importance of different groupings is recognised. LGBTIOQ actually stands for Lesbian – Gay – Bisexual – Transgender – Intersex – Other – Queer, which is a common representation of the diversity of non-majority sex, gender and sexual identities. The presence of ‘Queer’ itself within the acronym denotes the more specific, postmodern meaning. This use of Queer denotes a self-identity that is fluid, not bound by traditional categories and open to change over time. Use of this ‘Queer’ is a political choice that blurs the binaries involved in the dominant views of sex, gender and sexuality (Hill, 2004), and thus is radically different from older terms such as ‘homosexual’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’. These modernist terms draw on gay and lesbian studies and activism, which can be seen as having fought for pride in, and understanding of new categories rather than the questioning of such divisions. Postmodern queer however, draws on Queer Theory, an academic discipline linking the study of sexuality with wider concerns, such as the rejection and critique of categorisation and identity, and merges some aspects of its roots in lesbian and gay studies and activism with feminism, critical postmodernism and poststructuralism (Hill, 2004).

Queer theory can inform understandings of queer practice, such as ways to build communities, deal with oppression and live life in a queer way. In other words, it is “how we structure and label our lives”(Brooks & Edwards, 1999). Queer theory also draws on queer practice: “Being queer and doing queer are inherently critical stances”(Hill, 2004). Education is a very important part of queer practice. “Educating queerly” (Cahill & Theilheimer, 1999) removes the stigma of the other and teaches students to celebrate diversity. The most obvious beneficiaries of queer pedagogy are the queer students and teachers who are most visibly affected by the narrow mindedness of traditional education. Failing to pay attention to this issue can make it difficult for queer students and teachers to be comfortable in class, an affective factor that can significantly impact on students’ learning. More positively, queer education can help make up for the invisibility of queer people in much of society, which is a major problem for queer people of any age, particularly during the process of coming out to oneself, when there are a million questions, and often nowhere to turn for answers. Lack of positive role models and support in the mainstream community mean that anyone who is questioning their sexuality, or any queer person who is questioning any aspect of their life, is left without clear models of who they can be, and how, and their place in the world. As Hill states, “it is difficult to know oneself without first seeing oneself”(2004).

Encouraging all students to adapt to difference and to act and think for themselves (Pallotta-Chiarolli, 1999), however, not only benefits queer teachers and students, but is relevant to everyone. For a start it is offensive to assume no ‘straight’ students will ever question their gender or sexuality, or be called on to understand when a friend or family member does. Further, classrooms are often respected and everything that happens inside one has the potential to influence the thought and actions of others, and hence contribute to changing societal norms. Moving away from the heteronormative standards of traditional educational culture has the potential to renegotiate the borders and constructions of gender, and benefit all involved by increasing people’s flexibility and comfort level in dealing with difference.

Sexuality, which is often as much about gender and gender roles as attraction, is a topic rarely addressed in education, and discussions about, or displays of sexuality are in fact, usually suppressed as being ‘inappropriate’ subject matter in a public or formal environment. Nevertheless we are taught, implicitly and even occasionally explicitly, that the ‘correct’ sexuality is heterosexuality, and that any other would be abnormal. To ignore these issues is not only censorship, but reinforces the prevalent concept of gender as an unchanging constant and the assumption that everyone fits neatly into one of two genders, which is limiting and does not encourage or even acknowledge the diversity that exists. Teaching not just tolerance, but celebration of sexual and gender diversity, amongst other forms, will encourage rational, positive, open minded attitudes to difference, thus reducing the phobias and prejudices that are so evident in society today.

The roots of adult education lie in activism, social conscience, equality and critical theory, and it bears the responsibility to educate accordingly. Such responsibilities to society are not always recognised – Adult education sometimes categorises its theoretical frames as apolitical (Hill, 2004). However, Adult educators are in a much better position than other teachers to take up these responsibilities: although there is often still resistance, it is much less hampered by “the culture of fear and history of persecution directed at those whose sexuality or gender identifications are different from the norm. For many of us, the barriers to “queering” our classrooms are those we maintain ourselves” (Brooks & Edwards, 1999). Adult education has the freedom to cover topics many conservative parents want to ‘protect’ their children from. This is not just an opportunity but a vital responsibility.

How to implement queer education is something that even experts still have many questions about. Firstly, should queer teachers come out to their students and colleagues? This can often involve high personal risk, with possible loss of authority in the classroom, loss of employment, harassment, personal danger and in some places even legal implications. On the other hand, staying in the closet and hiding one’s sexuality and personality, involves keeping many secrets, being constantly vigilant and afraid, lying about personal matters and being unable to engage in ordinary, taken-for-granted chat and rapport building. Teachers have to decide whether being honest and not hiding half their lives is worth the risk in their particular situation, but it is more than a personal issue. A teacher who is willing to stand up and be open about their own queerness transmits a message few others can, that it’s ‘ok to be queer’, not only in theory but in reality, in public, and in the immediate context. Having an out queer role model in as immediate and respected a position as teacher can also have a demonstratedly positive impact on school students’ tolerance and critical thinking (Rofes, 1999), at the time and through the future, as well as on queer students’ comfort with their own identities and cultural literacy (Grace, 2004). Unfortunately ‘out’ teachers are rare in schools, as underscored by the many stories of people who only realise at eighteen or eighty years old that they’re not the only lesbian in the world, let alone the scores of adults who will sincerely announce that they have never met a gay person in their life. While everything related to queer remains repressed, the need and effects of role models for all ages cannot be underestimated.

On the other hand, must teachers identify as queer to teach about it? One might as well say one must belong to an ethnic minority to teach about racism, be a woman to promote gender equality, or have lived in the seventeenth century to discuss history. All teachers have a responsibility to be visibly accepting. Restricting these issues to the classrooms of queer teachers suggests it is only relevant to a minority, and furthermore puts an even heavier burden on queer teachers. While queer people are still persecuted and often avoid any mention of queer for fear of their jobs, it is sometimes straight teachers who must stand up for them.

Should a teacher raise queer issues without waiting for students to bring them up? Unfortunately students rarely bring up such issues seriously, as it is still a topic that is unacceptable or taboo, at least to a certain extent in most societies. Teachers have to be the first to broach the topic, as not to do so would be censorship by default. It’s also an area that is often thought of as part of a person’s private life, separate to other aspect of life, and the perceived connection to sex can make it an awkward topic. Such puerile attitudes can be offset by bringing up queer issues in a frank and forthright manner, without embarrassment. Some teachers object to this on the grounds that students should be able to direct their own learning, but students often can’t define their needs beforehand (Steele Foerch, 2000), especially when it comes to topics that are considered uncomfortable. And of course much of adult education, with its roots in activism and critical theory, is there to change the world; this is a good place to start.

If an open and frank attitude and approach to queer topics in class is recommended for all teachers, queer or straight, then the next question raised is ‘how?’ How should teachers approach issues that could be so sensitive and controversial in their class? One basic general suggestion is to examine your own binary ideas and the language and concepts you use in the classroom, and modify any language that assumes heteronormativity or traditional gender categories. This could mean, for example, avoiding dividing anything into two simple black and white groups, such as ‘right answers’ and ‘wrong answers’, and using gender-neutral job titles such as ‘flight attendant’ and ‘police officer’. Teachers should also make a point of using words such as ‘gay’ ‘lesbian’ ‘bisexual’ and ‘transgender’ openly, without embarrassment or unnecessary emphasis, and in any context, not just when specifically teaching about queer topics (Mattfeld & Schwartz, 2000). Strategies such as these help create a background atmosphere of critical thinking that can allow students to even entertain this new way of thinking. An extension of this is to explicitly teach students to be aware of binaries and of alternative ways of viewing the world. Teachers can help students develop the skills and attitudes to critique traditional perspectives, and avoid contributing to their reinforcement.

It is important that teachers “affirm difference by making space for students to speak from their own “different” experience” (Brooks & Edwards, 1999), but at the same time, ensure they are not pressuring students into revealing anything they don’t want to. ‘Space’ means not only allowing students to talk about their own experiences, but also allowing them not to. It also means allowing discussion of subjects about which the teacher is not knowledgeable, which is essential for topics with such personal implications: “While it is risky to admit ignorance for any teacher, knowledge claims in relation to identity can only inhibit learning” (Brooks & Edwards, 1999). Discussion of controversial and personal subjects can lead to conflict, but it is important to accept this, and allow differing opinions, without necessarily needing them to be resolved, for “if we cannot discuss conflicts around difference in the classroom, where can we discuss it?” (Brooks & Edwards, 1999)

While allowing difference of opinions is important, it is also important not to allow any homophobia to go unchallenged. Even remarks such as “it’s so gay”, often used as a general pejorative comment with no overt connection to sexuality intended, reinforces underlying ‘background’ homophobia. It can be very difficult to initiate discussion on queer issues, particularly the first time one tries, so remarks like can be viewed as a great opportunity to get the ball rolling. When challenging it is necessary to do it in a way that the student won’t find so threatening that they become oppositional and won’t engage in dialogue about it. “Don’t shut students or colleagues down for having “politically incorrect” opinions” (Mattfeld & Schwartz, 2000) but rather ask them what they mean by the comment, and whether they know what it actually means, and don’t neglect this starting point for a fuller discussion with the whole class.

A very important aspect of queering the classroom is not making any assumptions about your students’ sexualities and attitudes, or those of their family, other members of the community, people referred to, hypothetical characters in stories, or anyone at all, for that matter. It is common for everyone to be presumed heterosexual unless they visually conform to stereotypes of gay or lesbian people, but this heteronormativity should be avoided: is it not only oppressive, but inaccurate. It is commonly accepted that ten percent of people identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or gender different, and far more have a queer friend or family member. Further than heeding a vague injunction to ‘not assume’, a teacher must be as aware of assumptions as of binaries, and both model and teach against them. Both avoiding assumptions and including queer positive themes and materials must be considered not only in the classroom, but also when developing the underlying course or program plans that guide classroom behaviour. While conservative community pressure against queer education is sadly common, to assume a community’s reaction, or that of an individual member of the community, is to cooperate with the most homophobic elements of society.

One final question that causes much panic: what if we get it wrong? Educators need some education themselves to deal with unfamiliar and sensitive issues, let alone a whole new way of seeing the world. “we need some education to do this work effectively. But if we waited until we knew everything about everything, we’d never teach. We ask our students to take risks all the time; maybe we can take more of them as well.” (Balliro, 2000). Not teaching queerly means upholding the dominant norms of the majority mainstream society, and leaves adult education “embedded in/in bed with the colonizer” (Grace & Hill, 2001).

Queering education has far reaching beneficial consequences for all members of society. Queer teachers and students can appreciate being able to be open about their lives in class, while the whole class can learn to accommodate and value difference. Society profits from the resulting gradual change in accepted norms, as intolerance of diversity in all forms becomes less supportable. Teaching queerly is something that all teachers should consider. Queer teachers currently face many risks when coming out, but doing so is beneficial to both teacher and students, as there is a lack of positive ‘out’ role models in society, and the openness and honesty creates a better learning environment. Being queer is not a prerequisite for teaching queerly: any teacher with a queer positive attitude can do so, guided by the following suggestions. Model open, accepting attitudes and initiate discussion on queer topics: don’t wait until the students do, as it is unlikely they ever will. Don’t use binaries: be aware of them and teach about them. Value and affirm difference, discuss difference and conflict openly and allow space for personal difference, even if it challenges your own authority. Allow time for people to decide whether or not to disclose personal opinions or information. Address even subtle homophobia. Don’t assume anything about your students or anyone else, be aware of what gets assumed without even being noticed, and act affirmatively against it, not just neutrally. Perhaps most importantly, don’t avoid queer topics out of fear that you will ‘get it wrong’. Avoidance is not neutral, but actively maintains the problem.


Balliro, L. (2000). Are we imposing? Is it too uncomfortable? Do we know enough? Bright Ideas, 9(3). Retrieved December 17, 2005, from http://www.sabes.org/resources/brightideas/vol9/b3impose.htm

Brooks, A., & Edwards, K. (1999). For adults only: Queer theory meets the self and identity in adult education. In AERC Proceedings 1999, retrieved December 17, 2005, from http://www.edst.educ.ubc.ca/aerc/1999/99brooks.htm

Cahill, B. J., & Theilheimer, R. (1999). Stonewall in the housekeeping area: Gay and lesbian issues in the early childhood classroom. In W. J. Letts IV & J. T. Sears (Eds.), Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. New York: Rowman & Littlefield

Grace, A. P. (2004). Using information literacy to build LGBTQ cultural literacy. In AERC Proceedings 2004, retrieved December 17, 2005, from http://www.edst.educ.ubc.ca/aerc/2004/E_G.pdf

Grace, A. P. & Hill, R. J. (2001) Using queer knowledges to build inclusionary pedagogy in adult education. In AERC Proceedings 2001, retrieved December 17, 2005, from http://www.edst.educ.ubc.ca/aerc/2001/2001grace.htm

Hill, R. J. (2004). Activism as practice: Some queer considerations. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2004(102), 85 – 94.

Mattfelt, S. & Schwartz, D. (2000). Things we can do. Bright Ideas, 9(3). Retrieved December 17, 2005, fromhttp://www.sabes.org/resources/brightideas/vol9/b3cando.htm

Kerka, S. (2001). “Adult Education and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Communities: Trends and Issues Alert, no. 21”. Retrieved December 17, 2005, from http://www.cete.org/acve/docs/tia00089.pdf

Pallotta-Chiarolli, M.(1999). My moving days: A child’s negotiation of multiple lifeworlds in relation to gender, ethnicity and sexuality. In W. J. Letts IV & J. T. Sears (eds.), Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Rofes, E. (1999). What happens when kids grow up? The long-term impact of an openly gay teacher on eight students’ lives. In W. J. Letts IV & J. T. Sears (Eds.), Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Sears, J. T. (1999). Teaching queerly: some elementary propositions. In W. J. Letts IV & J. T. Sears (Eds.), Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue about Sexualities and Schooling. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Steele Foerch, J. (2000). Characteristics of adult learners of mathematics. In I. Gal (ed.), Adult Numeracy Development: Theory, Research, Practice. New Jersey: Hampton.



  1. Phil said,

    Would you mind if I referenced your paper in a paper I’m writing about Queer Educators?

  2. hanaleah said,

    i’d be delighted! would you please send me a copy when it’s done?

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