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Rethinking Sexual Identity in Education

reviewed by Rita M Kissen - 2006

coverTitle: Rethinking Sexual Identity in Education
Author(s): Susan Birden
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 0742542955, Pages: 196, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

As the national mood shifts toward the right, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and questioning) people find themselves under increasing attack by religious fundamentalists, neo-conservatives and others who would stigmatize the socially, racially, religiously, and sexually different.  As usual, schools and colleges are a crucial arena for the ensuing battles.  According to the most recent National School Climate Survey by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), 84% of LGBTQ students report being verbally harassed because of their sexual orientation, and 82.9% report that faculty never or rarely intervene when present (Kosciw, 2004).  Clearly, educators and teacher educators have their work cut out for them.

Early studies of sexual identity in education described the lives of LGBTQ students and teachers or offered guides for incorporating LGBTQ themes and topics into school curricula.  Given the imperative to make schools safe for sexual minority youth—indeed, for all youth—educators have concentrated, not surprisingly, on giving voice to silenced teachers and students and to sharing strategies for confronting homophobia in schools.  More recently, however, writers have sought to connect what happens in schools to theoretical perspectives developed over the past quarter century, from feminist theory to queer theory to postmodernism.  Susan Birden reminds us that our practice must always arise from theory, and that, as bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, theory itself can be “liberatory practice” (p. 59).  

Birden’s book is long on theory and shorter on practice; composing a series of variations on the theme of marginality (“Out-Siders/outsiders,” “out-sighting/out-siting”), she revisits the long-standing debate between essentialism and social constructionism and suggests a way out of the dilemma. After a brief review of the research on “compulsory heterosexuality” Birden sets forth six “praxes in re sexual identity,” using Aristotle’s definition of “praxis” to mean “theory plus action” (p. 22).  The first three—“the closet,” “inclusion,” and “coming out”—assume the terms “lesbian,” “gay,” “ bisexual,” “heterosexual,” and transgender” to be fixed and meaningful identities.  The praxis of the closet, for example, denies the role of sexuality in education and renders non-heterosexuality invisible, though Birden also illustrates the way that this praxis—a strategy of invisibility—can actually illuminate the philosophical perspectives of religion, critical pedagogy and feminist pedagogy as they re-enforce or challenge the invisibility of sexual minorities.  The praxis of inclusion, on the other hand, seeks to accord full legal and civil equality to LGBTQ people, including protection from violence; equality in the workplace, housing and the military; and the right to marry.  Birden rightly points out that much of the social progress of the past quarter century has been achieved by activists working within this civil rights model; groups like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian and straight Education Network), and the American Civil Liberties Union, have helped implement more inclusive school curricula and anti-harassment policies, and promoted greater visibility for LGBTQ people, along with children of same sex families.  Such changes have undoubtedly made life safer for many teachers and students.  Yet Birden is also right to point out the limits of this liberal approach, which “privileges ‘right’ over ‘good.’”  While inclusion promotes tolerance for the sexually different, it may not actually challenge deep-rooted homophobic stereotypes, particularly those grounded in religion (p. 41).

The praxes of location, refusal, and performativity, on the other hand, reflect the insights of postmodern theorists, especially Foucault (whom Birden discusses at length), emphasizing the fluid nature of identity and the importance of historical, political, and social contexts in how people define their sexuality and are defined by others.  These insights are important for Birden’s own theorizing about the roles of outsiders (marginalized people), Outsiders (LGBTQ activists), and Out-Siders (allies of the “out”), but they tend to leave behind the lives of actual teachers or students in a school or college classroom.

Seen as a continuum, Birden’s six praxes reflect a debate that has preoccupied Outsiders and Out-Siders (to use Birden’s terminology) for the past quarter century.  Most scholars and activists have argued either for the primacy of civil rights struggles, school policy reform, and legislative equality, or for the less political but (its adherents would argue) ultimately more subversive enterprise of queer theory and the radical deconstruction of sex and gender altogether.  Birden proposes a way out of this dilemma through Sartre’s concept of “seriality”--what Birden calls “out-citing”--in which individuals come together to resolve a particular issue or effect a particular change without relinquishing their identity(ies) in other groups.  Maintaining this double consciousness allows “outsiders” (marginalized people) and “out-siders” (their allies) “to come together around a specific issue, resolve them, then dissipate into a series again” (p. 144).  Anyone who has worked for social change for any length of time will certainly welcome a strategy for avoiding the familiar pitfalls of fractured identities and competing agendas; Birden’s advice can remind us of the late Audre Lorde’s wise dictum that there is no hierarchy of oppression.

The second part of Birden’s book presents real-life examples of how the six praxes operate in actual educational settings.  She relies on secondary sources for the voices of LGBTQ teachers and students, citing first person accounts and essays from other books.  While these accounts are important and revealing, Birden’s reliance on secondary sources distances her somewhat from the subjects whose experiences she analyzes.  The transcribed text of an interview can give us much information about the speaker, but it lacks the nuances of body language and tone of voice, and the spontaneity of face-to-face conversation that animate first-hand interviews.  Furthermore, despite Birden’s insistence on the need to link theory to practice, I wondered how many educational practitioners would find their way through the densely written first four chapters to the much more accessible fifth chapter, “Envisioning an Out-Sider’s Praxis.”  However “Rethinking Sexual Identity in Education” offers food for thought for advocates of identity politics, social constructionists, activists, postmodernists and good old-fashioned liberals—for all of us who need to think both theoretically and practically.


Kosciw, J.G. (2004). The 2003 National School Climate Survey:  The school-related experiences of our nation’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth.  New York:  Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 146-149
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12107, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:30:59 PM

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About the Author
  • Rita Kissen
    University of Southern Maine
    E-mail Author
    RITA M. KISSEN recently retired from the University of Southern Maine, where she was Professor of Teacher Education. She is the author of The Last Closet: The Real Lives of Lesbian and Gay Teachers (Heinemann 1996) and editor of Getting Ready for Benjamin: Preparing Teachers for Sexual Diversity in the Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield 2002).
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