Academic journal article English Journal

Using LGBTQ Graphic Novels to Dispel Myths about Gender and Sexuality in ELA Classrooms

Academic journal article English Journal

Using LGBTQ Graphic Novels to Dispel Myths about Gender and Sexuality in ELA Classrooms

Article excerpt

As teachers and teacher educators, we are committed to using texts that characterize our students' diverse experiences and that challenge them critically. Many English language arts (ELA) teachers actively combat homophobia and strive for gender and sexuality inclusivity in classrooms, and part of their effort includes sharing the experiences of people who identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer). However, ELA teachers may benefit from further support that offers specific vocabulary and practical methods for facilitating critical discussions about gender and sexuality (Thein). In this article, we argue that the format and content of graphic novels that depict LGBTQ experiences are a unique and effective pedagogical tool to engage students in critical discussions about gender and sexuality.

Queer Theory and LGBTQ Young Adult Literature

Several scholars suggest that LGBTQ young adult literature (YAL) should be actively included in ELA classrooms to create an inclusive environment and to challenge homophobic culture (e.g., Blackburn and Smith; Clark and Blackburn). Beyond the inclusion of LGBTQ texts, teachers should actively address intersectional identities, or the interdependent structures of oppression, based on race, gender, class, nationality, etc. (Blackburn and Smith). Educators should employ "queer readings" of texts in use in the classroom curriculum not labeled as LGBT-themed (in other words, texts that are "already on the shelf') and actively recognize and discuss instances with students where authors or characters challenge normative gender and sexual identities (Ryan and H ermann-Wilmarth). Other scholars offer literary analyses of LGBTQ YAL (e.g., Thein and Kedley; Linville) or share their experiences using graphic novels with queer youth (Blackburn et al.). Adding to this body of work, we propose that graphic novels offer ELA teachers a unique opportunity for queer, critical discussions about gender and sexuality in the classroom.

We ground our article in queer studies (Butler; Fausto-Sterling; Halberstam; Rich; Sedgwick). Queer theory distinguishes sex categories (assigned at birth, based on genitals) from gender categories (expressed as feminine or masculine, based on social and cultural norms). We use gender to indicate both gender presentation (observed visually through images) and gender identity (revealed in thought or dialogue bubbles). We use sexuality or sexual identity to describe preferences in who we are attracted to and choose for intimate or romantic relationships. Society's unquestioned acceptance of the gender binary as truth conditions us to view male and female as the only (non-overlapping) options regardless of evidence to the contrary. Compulsory heterosexuality suggests that though heterosexuality is thought of as natural and the default sexuality, this is erroneous- its privileged status is maintained because it is culturally and legally expected and rewarded.

Scholarship on multimodal texts (including graphic novels) reflects limiting notions about a traditional, print-based understanding of literacy as reading and writing alphabetic text (Hassett and Schieble). However, graphic novels are not limited to text and instead offer a complex interplay of written text and illustration, speech and thought bubbles, perspective shifts, panel arrangements, word balloons, font choices, color, and shading. Through reading graphic novels, students develop visual literacy skills and engage in complicated cognitive processes (Dallacqua; Schwarz). Students learn to use texts-in this case, graphic novels-in a way that challenges traditional and one-directional readings, coupled with learning about gender and sexuality in ways not attached to the binary. With practice, students can apply these critical readings to settings and practices in their lives beyond the texts they encounter in the classroom.

We offer ELA teachers strategies for identifying and dispelling myths about gender and sexuality and use the visual and thematic content of Adrian and the Tree of Secrets (Hubert and Caillou) and Honor Girl (Thrash) as exemplars. …

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