Acting Out!: Combating Homophobia Through Teacher Activism
reviewed by Jill M. Hermann-Wilmarth - August 03, 2010
Title: Acting Out!: Combating Homophobia Through Teacher Activism
Author(s): Mollie V. Blackburn, Caroline T. Clark, Lauren M. Kenney, and Jill M. Smith
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 080775031X, Pages: 208, Year: 2009
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Acting Out! Combating Homophobia Through Teacher Activism is written by a collection of authors who are members of an inquiry group called the Pink TIGers where pink symbolizes the pink triangle that is sometimes used as a symbol by the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning) community and TIGers stands for Teacher Inquiry Group. The members of the Pink TIGers are teachers and teacher educators who have formed a community to explore issues of social justice as they relate to LGBTQ activism in education. As a lesbian teacher educator myself, I regularly encounter teachers who dont want or dont know how to bring anti-homophobic activism, LGBTQ issues, or straight ally work into their classrooms, so I was thrilled to read about and learn from this groups work. As I prepare to use this book with my masters degree students, I believe this book offers especially significant insights in three areas: 1) the power of situating LGBTQ and social justice issues in the tradition of teacher inquiry groups, 2) specific suggestions from teachers for conducting antihomophobia activism in a variety of school contexts, and 3) examples of how to theorize multiple positions surrounding LGBTQ issues in schools.
Each chapter of the book offers details from the work of a particular group member or members, but the importance of the inquiry group as context for their activism is central across chapters and offers readers important recommendations for the support required to take on this difficult work. For example, authors describe how they brought inquiry research questions formed within the group to their specific classroom contexts, which ranged from elementary to university. The various authors also reference each others individual work and the work they did as a groupincluding watching videos and reading common texts, marching in a Gay Pride Parade, and taking political action of various kinds. In the introductory chapter, the editors describe the logistics of conducting an inquiry group that met both in person and via email. These details provide a helpful model for others who hope to create similar kinds of communities. Included at the end of the book is a useful annotated bibliography of the videos and texts that the group shared.
As many authors point out, without the Pink TIGers, their own work would not have happened in the way that it did. For example, Jason Gonzales (Chapter 5) describes how, as a first year teacher, he became the sponsor of his high schools gay-straight alliance, including the risks and threat that entails. He writes, my resolve to take risks was fortified by affiliating myself with a like-minded community (p. 86). While the Pink TIGers did not magically make all of Gonzales work easy, they were clearly central in helping him think through his work. Likewise, Ryan Schey and April Uppstrom (Chapter 6), co-advisors of their high schools gay-straight alliance and first year teachers, found the Pink TIGers community invaluable. They reflect: This group allowed us to come together with experienced teachers who could look at our situations, which we were too close to see, and give their sound advice on how to respond (p. 100). Their reflections fit the model that Mollie Blackburn (Chapter 10) describes when she writes about how the Pink TIGers pose dilemmas get support from one another, consider together the dynamics at play in the dilemma, and rehearse possible responses (p. 149). The support was not extended only to new teachers, but experienced teacher educators, and indeed, even the founders of the group found the community to be a place where they solicited support and suggestions (p. 148) from the group when wondering how to respond to homophobia. Clearly, an inquiry community such as the Pink TIGers can be the impetus for doing activist and social justice work that might otherwise feel risky in many if not most educational contexts.
In addition to arguing for the strengths of an inquiry group context, the book also offers specific suggestions from teachers for conducting anti-homophobia activism in a variety of classroom contexts. For example, Caroline Clark (Chapter 3) outlines the various ways that she, a straight ally, has brought LGBTQ issues to her university class over the years. Through an analysis of these experiences, she traces the difference between anti work and ally work. While anti work serves primarily to interrupt racist, heterosexist, and homophobic discourse, ally work invites critical dialogue and discussion, interrogating perceived lines of difference and inquiring into the possibilities for creating productive alliances across these lines (p. 43). She details her own shifts from anti to ally work, and how her reflection on student response to assignments moved her to those shifts. Not only does Clarks chapter provide a model for teacher educators for how to reflect, revise, respond, and think about classroom practice and student work, but her definition of ally work clarifies how Pink TIGers who describe their work in other chapters translate their teaching into activism. While both kinds of work are important, Clark describes how ally work requires more than an interruption, but moves teachers and students into activism and change. For example, Clarks distinction is a helpful tool for seeing how out lesbian teacher Lauren Kenney (Chapter 4) interrogated her own stance as a secondary English teacher. Initially, she worried that bringing queer-inclusive literature into her classroom would cause students to dismiss [her] as the gay teacher who teaches only gay stuff (p. 65, emphasis in original). Her involvement with the Pink TIGers pushed her to think more critically about why she should include queer texts such as A Letter to Harvey Milk (Newman, 1988) in her class. Using the English language arts standards required of her by her district as a guide, Kenney put queer-inclusive texts into the curriculum as they met those standards. In her chapter, Kenney describes the vulnerability she felt as she did. She describes how the texts ended up working alongside the text of her own lesbian identity in her 10th grade classroom, offering teachers possibilities for including these and other queer inclusive texts in their own classrooms.
A third contribution to facing teaching about LGBTQ issues in education that Acting Out! Combating Homophobia Through Teacher Activism offers is encouragement to theorize ones educational practice. Multiple authors within the text do this. Anette Melvins analysis of race and outness (Chapter 9), for example, is thought provoking. It speaks in tandem with Jill Smiths (Chapter 8) analysis of her own privilege as a white straight woman when doing anti-homophobic work. Even as her career is being threatened because of the LGBTQ activism that she performed in her classroom and school, she explores how her privileged race opens the door to powerful players in the school and the district. Her thoughtful and honest exploration of how she benefited from particular identities and how other identities threatened her ability to do her job is compelling and informative. She offers a powerful example of what all educators with privilege of any kind could and should be doing.
While I wish there were more chapters concerning elementary education and LGBTQ issues, I found the frank discussion of inquiry, practice, theory, and the practicality of doing this kind of activism across multiple educational communities to be powerful and engaging. The authors offer teachers ways to think about what they are or are not doing to meet the needs of the LGBTQ communities in their schools and larger communities, and share ideas about how to bring this important social justice work to bear in their own educational contexts. If more teachers followed the lead of the Pink TIGers, schools could become more inclusive spaces that are better equipped to serve the needs of LGBTQ students and teachers.