Youths' Choices to Read Optional Queer Texts in a High School ELA Classroom: Navigating Visibility through Literacy Sponsorship

By Schey, Ryan | English Education, October 2019 | Go to article overview

Youths' Choices to Read Optional Queer Texts in a High School ELA Classroom: Navigating Visibility through Literacy Sponsorship


Schey, Ryan, English Education


At a recent Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, I attended a session in the LGBTQ1 strand discussing English language arts (ELA) curriculum. The presenters argued that curricular inclusion can help work against homophobia and transphobia in U.S. schools, and they described different LGBTQ-themed young adult novels. When the session moved to audience responses, several attendees quickly raised their hands. The first to speak complimented the presenters and then explained she would never be able to teach an LGBTQ-themed book in her school. Community members would be up in arms, and her principal would never allow it. In response, the presenters suggested that instead of including the texts in a whole-class lesson where all students would be required to read them, she could instead include them in her classroom library for students to choose for independent reading. They went on to discuss how this approach could help the audience member avoid community complaints ("Their kids aren't required to read the books, so they can't say anything! They probably won't know you're including the books!"), and she would have a rationale to defend her choices with her principal ("If anyone has a problem, they can choose to read something else, but at least the students who are interested in them can access them."). The teacher who posed the question said this suggestion was something she could imagine doing, and several other audience members commented that they took the same approach, which they described as being successful.

While this is one anecdote, it's a scenario I've seen unfold repeatedly at the NCTE Annual Convention as well as at other conferences. I understand everyone in these interactions to be completely well intentioned. I believe the teacher who posed the question honestly perceived constraints in her school. I imagine the presenters were improvising in the moment to help encourage teachers to do what they can (Hermann-Wilmarth & Ryan, 2015) to queer ELA education rather than uncritically reproduce cisheterosexist curricula. Furthermore, I know this work to be challenging and complex, even as it can also be joyful and invigorating, as I collaborated for more than a decade in a teacher inquiry group focused on combatting homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism in schools (Blackburn, Clark, Kenney, & Smith, 2010; Blackburn, Clark, & Schey, 2018).

That said, I want to trouble this discussion because I am concerned that youth weren't considered substantially. While teachers have important personal and professional needs, these needs should not be the sole concern when making decisions about including, or not, queer topics in ELA curricula. My research has led me to question the recommendation to include books in a classroom library as a viable and unproblematic substitution for whole-class curriculum, and I am troubled that the two were framed through an either/or dichotomy. This approach might reduce a teacher's vulnerability and help the teacher feel more at ease. Yet, it potentially transfers vulnerability to youth since choosing to read queer books has made some students vulnerable to homophobia, as Blackburn (2012) has noted. Since U.S. schools have been, and continue to be, hostile to LGBTQ youth (Kosciw, Greytak, Zongrone, Clark, & Truong, 2018), an approach that reduces educators' perceptions of risks while increasing youths' actual risks is deeply problematic and undermines the rationale for queer curricular inclusion-namely, transforming schools so that they are more compassionate and queer-affirming. These troubles are more apparent in light of the findings of scholars (e.g., Blackburn et al., 2018; GLSEN, 2018; Hermann-Wilmarth & Ryan, 2019) who have problematized the degree to which teachers' perceptions of risk, such as around parental and community complaints, are accurate and reason enough to avoid teaching curricula inclusive of sexual and gender diversity. …

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