Bridging Multicultural Education: Bringing Sexual Orientation into the Children's and Young Adult Literature Classrooms

Article excerpt

Playwright / activist Tomi Avicolli writes:

School was one of the more painful experiences of my youth. The neighborhood bullies could be avoided. The taunts of the children living in those endless repetitive row houses could be evaded by staying in my room. But school was something I had to face day after day for some two hundred mornings a year. (330)

As Avicolli notes, attending school is mandatory. There is, short of dropping out, no way of avoiding the pain that results from physical and psychological abuse: the taunts of schoolmates, the sense of isolation from others, and a lack of protection on the part of teachers or administrators. Because I have worked with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or intersexed ( hereafter l/g/b/t/i) students in universities in Georgia, Kentucky; and Ohio inside and out of the classroom, I am very aware that the pain of elementary and high school is often overwhelming and leaves scars that take years to heal, if they ever do. I am also aware that heterosexual students are often not aware of the depth of pain that their taunts or silence creates, for cultural messages tell them that hate speech toward l/g/b/t/i students is allowable. Because name calling and ridicule begin in elementary school, I believe it is vital to begin interrogation of attitudes toward sexuality in elementary education. (1) While the past twent y years have shown gains in including African American, Mexican, Latinalo, Chinana/o, Asian American, and Native American experience in curricula, the same is certainly not true for literature that includes experiences of l/g/b/t/i persons. Too few states or school districts attempt to defuse the prejudices that are apparent in schools and in the greater culture. (2) In her essay "Homophobia, Why Bring It Up?" African American activist and writer Barbara Smith notes: "Homophobia is usually the last oppression to be mentioned, the last to be taken seriously; the last to go. But it is extremely serious, sometimes to the point of being fatal" (112). Smith continues, "curriculum that focuses in a positive way upon issues of sexual identity, sexuality, and sexism is still rare ... yet schools are virtual cauldrons of homophobic sentiment, as witness by everything from the graffiti in the bathrooms and the putdowns yelled on the playground to the heterosexist bias of most texts and the firing of teachers on no othe r basis than that they are not heterosexual" (114). As an African American lesbian, Smith understands that none of our lives are based on one single issue like sexuality, and that one way to understand the complexity and nature of intersecting and overlapping oppressions, and stereotypes, is look at them in combination in the classroom: "making connections between oppressions is an excellent way to introduce the subjects of lesbian and gay male identity and homophobia, because it offers people a frame of reference on which to build.... It is factually inaccurate and strategically mistaken to present the materials as if all gay people were white and male" (115).

At the regional campus in Appalachian Ohio where I teach it is vital for education majors who are mostly white working class students, often first generation college students, who have strong ties to fundamental religious beliefs, that issues that interrogate race, class and gender, including l/g/b/t/i issues, be included in the curriculum. Certainly the violence of the past few years, frequent gay-bashing, the well publicized death of Matthew Shepard, and shootings at numerous schools around the country which are often related in some way to sexism or to sexual innuendo, indicate the need for students to examine and change the prejudices that are so widely held. Warren Blumenfeld points out that "issues relating to GLBT people should be formally and permanently integrated into existing courses across the curriculum" and "homophobia and other 'diversity' workshops should be implemented for the entire campus community to sensitize and educate staff, faculty, and administrators" (Massachusetts Governor's Commis sion). …