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Making Space: A Gay-Straight Alliance’s Fight to Build Inclusive Environments

by Ross Collin - 2013

Background: Education researchers are paying increasing attention to student activism and to the social production of school spaces. Few studies, however, have brought these two concerns together to examine how student activists work to rebuild school spaces in line with their political commitments. In the present study, I address this gap at the intersection of two important research trends.

Purpose: I examine how a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) endeavored to build its school as an inclusive environment open to students of different sexual orientations. Focusing on the semiotic dimension of spatial production, I investigate how a conflict over a sign on the GSA’s bulletin board functioned as one front in an ongoing struggle to produce the school’s main hallway as a particular kind of space. As signs and constructions of space may be interpreted in different manners, I provide alternate ways of reading the conflict.

Setting: The setting for this study is a school serving a racially diverse, working class neighborhood in a major city in the Northeastern United States.

Participants: The participants were members of their school’s GSA.

Research Design: This is a qualitative site-based investigation. I collected data by using ethnographic tools including observation, interviewing, and document collection. Specifically, I sought to gather data on different actors’ different understandings of the conflict over the bulletin board. I analyzed data by using methods of naturalistic qualitative analysis and semiotics-focused discourse analysis.

Findings: Study participants read the conflict over the bulletin board in different manners. Each reading construed the conflict as (re)building school spaces in particular ways. Crucially, each construction either validated or invalidated LGBTIQ identities in the space of the school.

Conclusions: No one reading of the conflict and no one construction of the space of the school were necessarily “conclusive” or “correct.” Rather, the meaning of the conflict and the features of school space were struggled over and negotiated by actors at the school. These struggles highlight how conflicts over meaning are often disagreements over the construction and inhabitance of social spaces. In light of these findings, researchers should expand their analyses of student activism to consider how, through semiotic activity, activists work to rebuild and act in school spaces. Furthermore, researchers should produce studies helpful to activists working to build schools as more just and inclusive environments.

Figure 1. Male icons on bulletin board


The image presented in Figure 1 was posted on and ripped from the bulletin board (Fig. 2) maintained by the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) of the Boerum High School for Social Progress (BHSSP).1 The bulletin board, located in a main hallway of the school, was filled with pro-LGBTIQ images and slogans and displayed multiple signs supporting gay men. Few, if any, of these images and slogans had ever been tampered with. Over the course of two weeks, however, one or more people singled out for removal the image presented in Figure 1 (henceforth “the image” or “the male icons”). Despite the GSA’s best efforts, the image never remained on the board for more than a day.

Given the bulletin board’s location in a main hallway of BHSSP, this series of incidents may be read as a public argument with potentially serious implications for students’ inclusion and safety. All parties to this argument—the direct participants, as well as the students, educators, and visitors who passed the bulletin board and noticed the ongoing exchange—had to make sense of what the argument was about. They had to develop theories of what it meant for the image to be posted and what it meant for the image to be torn down. More specifically, parties to the argument were faced with questions including: How does the image—or the empty space where the image was—construe the hallway and the school as particular kinds of spaces? In these spaces, which sexual identities are accepted and which are barred? Which relationships are legitimate and which are illegitimate?

In this study, I center these questions about the politics of spatial production. In so doing, I press forward the “spatial turn” gaining momentum in education research (see Gulson & Symes, 2007; Leander & Sheehy, 2004). Yet to be explored by education researchers, however, are the ways school spaces are built through the discursive efforts of student activists. To address this gap, I employ tools of ethnography and discourse analysis in a study of the discursive dimensions of the struggle to build BHSSP’s main hallway as a particular kind of space. To set up this investigation, I discuss the history of GSAs and I review discussions of their efforts to rebuild schools as “safe spaces.”    


Formed in 1988 at the Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts (USA), the first Gay-Straight Alliance sought to bring together students of diverse sexual orientations to confront anti-LGBTIQ bullying and harassment in their school. In so doing, the group worked (perhaps unwittingly) to advance the efforts of previously established initiatives and groups. These include Los Angeles’ Project 10 education support network (Uribe, 1995) and the first-on-record LGBTIQ student group founded in 1972 at New York City’s George Washington High School (Johnson, 2007). Though different in terms of membership and organizational structure, each of these groups sought/ seeks to combat anti-LGBTIQ discrimination and to make schools safe spaces for students of different sexual orientations.2

Today, the 4,000-plus Gay-Straight Alliances in middle schools and high schools in North America function as officially recognized student clubs (GLSEN, n.d.). Working with faculty advisors, student members often run meetings and support groups; facilitate in-school and after-school workshops on topics such as non-discriminatory speech; raise funds; distribute literature and other material (e.g., “Hate Free Zone” signs); produce videos (e.g., “It Gets Better”); and organize events (e.g., The Day of Silence and Pride Week). Many GSAs, moreover, link in to the broader LGBTIQ rights movement by coordinating their efforts with other groups such as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), and Parents, Families, & Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).    

As noted, GSAs work to make schools safe, inclusive environments by combating anti-LGBTIQ aggression in both its physical and its discursive forms. GSA members know the latter—harmful enough on its own—can be used to license the former, turning schools into very dangerous spaces for students who identify as or who are perceived to be LGBTIQ. Thus, GSAs often work to persuade their peers not to use homophobic language. To interrupt and talk back to discriminatory speech, GSAs deploy a range of tools, from demonstrative silence (The Day of Silence) to lesson plans (delivered by ally teachers) to classroom signs (e.g., “Hate Free Zone” posters).


Given the centrality of discourse to the movement for LGBTIQ rights, researchers have investigated how LGBTIQ youth groups use language and other sign systems to organize themselves and carry out their work (Blackburn, 2002; Griffin, Lee, Waugh, & Beyer, 2004; Lee, 2002; Miceli, 2005). Few studies, however, describe in detail how LGBTIQ youth groups produce school spaces through discursive acts. Further, while some studies address the role of language in (re)producing school climates, these studies seldom trace out the connections between climates and material-discursive spaces  (Cohen, McCabe, Michelli, & Pickeral, 2009; Graybill, Varjas, Meyers, & Watson, 2009; Pascoe, 2007). To be clear, these studies offer valuable insights into the discursive dimensions of sexuality and schooling. They say little though, about the ways discursive acts transform physical locations into socially meaningful spaces such as school hallways. More specifically, they do not indicate how actors deploy signs in the struggle to build spaces as human environments where some sexual identities and relationships are evoked and materialized and others are barred. These concerns form the core of the present study.


Spaces are understood in this article not as empty containers for action, but as built environments that shape and are shaped by humans’ material-discursive practices. In this view, developed by theorists including Henri Lefebvre (1992), Doreen Massey (1984), and Edward Soja (2011), spaces are seen as habitats that call and enable (but do not require) actors to build and perform in specific situations. The latter, explains James Gee (2005), are material-discursive complexes made up of seven interrelated areas: identities; social relationships; activities; significance; connections; politics (the distribution of social goods); and sign systems and knowledge. A given space is made to suit a particular situation at particular times through humans’ habitual staging of that situation in that space and at those times. Practical knowledge of how to stage the situation in that space-time3 is stored in the cultural repertoires of social groups. As no two conjunctures of space and time are perfectly identical, though, that knowledge must be adapted to suit local conditions. Further, actors may adapt this knowledge to change the elements of the situation (e.g., performing as a gay man in a situation where that identity is typically barred). When adaptations succeed and are recognized, the group’s practical knowledge changes (however slightly).  

Consider, for example, how a group (re)produces the space of a classroom to realize the situation of a geometry lesson. The “raw materials” in the room (e.g., desks and posters displaying geometrical shapes) have certain affordances and certain conventional uses (e.g., individual work and concept illustration). These materials can be brought together and engaged by social actors to produce the situation of a geometry lesson: by sitting in desks at specific times, actors identify themselves as students (Gee’s Area 1); by sitting in distinct rows and columns, students relate to each other more as individuals than as co-investigators (Area 2); by glancing at the poster of the pink triangle when filling out a worksheet on equilateral polygons, a student performs the action “defining shapes” (Area 3); and by viewing the pink triangle as an illustration of a geometrical concept and not as an LGBTIQ rights logo, the student assigns it a particular kind of significance (Area 4).

As the example suggests, one way communicants build spaces and evoke and act in situations is through semiosis, or the use of signs (e.g., the pink triangle). Soja (2011) observes that the Greek root of semiosis is “semeion,” which means “sign, mark, spot or point in space (original emphasis, 246). This etymological note highlights the connections between signs and spaces: actors use the former to build the latter and the latter are the contexts in which the former take on meaning. Signs, that is, are not fixed entities— depending on how actors build contexts, signs can mean different things, evoke different ideas, and license different identities and social relationships. Imagine, for instance, the geometry teacher whose classroom is described above is also the advisor of his school’s GSA. The pink triangle on his wall may then function not only as an illustration of a geometrical concept, but also as an LGBTIQ rights logo. Mobilized along with other signs (e.g., a “Hate Free Zone” sign posted on the door) and “raw materials” (e.g., desks rearranged to form a circle), the triangle may help group members produce the situation of a GSA meeting. Thus, one sign may evoke and may be brought within different situations. That is, Sign A may be assigned one meaning and may be related to Signs B, C, and D in Situation 1; it may be assigned another meaning and may be related to Signs X, Y, and Z in Situation 2; and it may fade from view entirely in Situation 3. The meanings the sign takes on and the relations it is placed within are worked out through practice and struggle.

Just as the elements that comprise a space are made meaningful when placed in relation to one another, spaces themselves take on meanings in relation to other spaces. In many high schools, for example, hallways are structured by students in at least partial opposition to sites of learning and administration (Crocro, 2002; Dillabough, Kennelly, & Wang, 2007). That is, before school, after school, and during passing periods, hallways are produced as “back stage” spaces relative to the “front stage” spaces of classrooms and offices (Goffman, 1959). More specifically, some elements of the former are built in opposition to some elements of the latter. “Back stage” spaces offer different identities (those of youth culture vs. those of academia), evoke different relationships (peer group vs. individuality), feature different actions (socializing vs. learning), and so on.4 These student-controlled spaces can open up salutary possibilities: in hallways, students often perform the emotional labor of supporting each other during the school day. At the same time, though, these spaces can make room for all manner of bullying and harassment, including anti-LGBTIQ aggression (Crocro, 2002; Dillabough, Kennelly, & Wang, 2007; Pascoe, 2007). The permissibility of bullying and other types of interactions in the space of the hallway is negotiated by students and, less directly, by educators.

The ways different actors build different kinds of spaces may be examined using Gee’s (2005) theory of Discourse. Defining small-d discourse as language in use, Gee views big-D Discourses as networks of resources for thinking, speaking, reading, writing, dressing, etc. as a member of a social group. A crucial dimension of Discourse is semiosis: Discourses provide actors with group-normed ways of deploying and reading signs. Through habitual action, Gee continues, groups develop conventional ways of using Discursive resources to produce spaces in which they can realize and act within particular kinds of situations. Thus, Discourses are both ideational and material: they emerge from and are changed through the material practices of social groups.

Two Discursive resources important to the present study are Discourse models and situated meanings. As Gee (2005) explains, the former are theories, images, or storylines about how the world works or should work, while the latter are meanings that activate Discourse models and build specific kinds of situations. For instance, a GSA Discourse may offer a model of politics that defines the struggle for LGBTIQ rights not simply as a struggle for legal recognition, but as a struggle against oppression. This model may be activated by a pink triangle posted on a GSA advisor’s classroom wall. Moreover, this triangle may be used to build the situation of a GSA meeting where students: take on certain identities (e.g., politically engaged GSA members); forge specific relationships (e.g., bonds of solidarity); and so on.


The Boerum High School for Social Progress is a 400-student public school located in a low-income area of a major city in the Northeastern United States. Over the past two decades, city leaders have pressed forward initiatives to break up large comprehensive high schools into smaller schools organized around particular themes (e.g., social justice, environmentalism, technology, etc.). At BHSSP, students and educators explore themes of social justice both in classes and in justice-oriented clubs such as GSA. Though some students attend BHSSP to learn about social justice, teachers told me, most attend because the school is in their neighborhood. Many such students, teachers were quick to note, develop a passion for social justice.

The vast majority of students who attend BHSSP are from working class families. A little less than seventy percent of students identify as Latino/a (mostly of Puerto Rican descent), a little less than thirty percent identify as African American, and less than two percent identify as white or Asian.5

BHSSP’s Gay-Straight Alliance has been in operation for five years and convenes twice a week during meeting times built into the school day. The group is sponsored by Ian Quinn, a young, white math teacher in his third year at BHSSP. On Thursdays, the full group—between 20 and 30 GSA members and potential members—meets in Ian’s room to discuss pressing issues (e.g., the fight for marriage equality) and to organize events (e.g., The Day of Silence). On Tuesdays, the core committee of GSA leaders meets to reflect on the group’s work and to carry out short- and long-term planning.

The core group is comprised of three seniors, Julieta, Mariana, and Tomas, each of whom identifies as working class and Latino/a. Julieta identifies as a lesbian and has been out to her family, friends, and classmates for several years. Mariana, Tomas, and Ian, meanwhile, are straight. I identify as white, middle class, and male. While I introduced myself to the full group as a supporter of GSAs, I delayed indicating my sexual orientation until I knew more about the group—I wanted to find out if members identify their orientations or if they decline to do so in order to lower the pressure on members working out their own identities. On my third day of research, the full group was having a playful conversation about the name of the club and Ian looked at Mariana and Tomas and said, “I think we’re the S’s!” (i.e., the straight members of the GSA). The group laughed and several members gave me friendly, expectant looks. “Yeah, me, too,” I smiled.

Many club members identify as lesbians, female bisexuals, and heterosexuals. In the latter subgroup, Ian estimates, girls slightly outnumber boys. Significantly, no current members identify openly at school as transgendered, intersexed, or as gay males. Given the different histories and politics of the latter three identities, and given my focus on the incident involving the male icons, I concentrate in this study on the struggles at BHSSP over gay male identities and sexual relationships. More work is needed to support and research students and educators who identify as transgendered or intersexed (for a space-themed example, see McGuire & Conover-Williams, 2010).


My research at BHSSP was part of a larger project organized around the investigation of the semiotic practices of school-based student activists. The central question of this project is, “How do school-based activists use language and other semiotic systems to advance their projects in and around schools?” Hearing of my project, an educator with connections to BHSSP recommended I work with the school’s GSA.

At BHSSP, I sought to gather data that would help me understand how GSA members used sign systems available in GSA Discourse to rebuild school spaces as more inclusive environments. I collected data by using ethnographic tools including observation, interviewing, and document collection. Over a span of five months, I observed all but three GSA meetings (school breaks and cancellations reduced the overall number of meetings I could attend). I observed nine 50-90 minute meetings of the core group and five 50 minute meetings of the full group. Using a research journal, I noted GSA members’ statements about how different identities and relationships are accepted or contested in and around the school. During semi-structured 45-60 minute interviews, I asked Ian, Julieta, Mariana, and Tomas to explain in detail how and why different identities and relationships are (in)validated in different spaces. I also spoke with each interviewee about their understandings of the incident involving the icons. Additionally, I photographed and made copies of images displayed on GSA’s bulletin board; on the walls of the group’s main meeting room; and in hallways around the school.

In order to interpret this data, I combined methods of naturalistic qualitative analysis and discourse analysis. Using the former (Merriam, 1998), I focused on participants’ statements about how different identities and relationships are viewed in different spaces. Keying in on these constructs, I considered how the items Julieta displayed on the bulletin board echoed or resisted the messages about identity and relationships in circulation at BHSSP.

I also employed a semiotics-focused version of Gee’s (2005) method of discourse analysis to study the display and removal of the male icons from the bulletin board. I considered how these acts (a) built the space of the hallway in alternate ways, and (b) advanced different arguments about belonging and about the meanings of different sexualities. To begin, I identified patterns among the bulletin board’s elements (e.g., text and images) and other elements in the hallway (e.g., other signs, doors to other spaces, etc.). To study different sides of the argument, I analyzed patterns with the icons displayed and with the icons removed (in the latter case, a conspicuous gap stood out on the board). I then studied how these patterns built and legitimated alternate identities and social relationships (Gee’s Areas 1 and 2). Further, I considered how these patterns activated different Discourse models that figure sexuality in different ways.

While the discussion below focuses on matters of sexual orientation, I refer to gender identity from time to time. For instance, I note how some boys at BHSSP are more resistant than girls to accepting people of diverse sexual orientations. I only make reference to gender identity, however, when participants in the study raise it as an important issue.


Like other GSAs, the group at BHSSP works to improve the school climate for students of different sexual orientations. Ian remarked that while the school’s climate for LGBTIQ students is not perfect, it is getting better. Explaining his assessment, Ian noted that every year during Pride Week,

We have a group of—usually—boys who have an attitude towards the whole thing. And you know, out of 400 kids, that happens with two or three. You know, hey, we’re not doing terribly. And they pull themselves out of it instead of—they don’t have the power to sort of ruin the whole week.

As this anecdote indicates, BHSSP is at least somewhat open to students of different orientations.

Despite positive trends in overall school climate, gay male identities and relationships are seen by many students—especially boys—as illegitimate. Some of this opposition, Mariana and Tomas explained, comes from many boys’ equation of male homosexuality with weakness:

MARIANA: The guys outside the club . . . kind of think it’s cool for females to be gay6 or, like, they look at it like, “Now I have two girls.” They take it to the ignorant side. And I think they just look at it as the male is supposed to be the more dominant one, the one to, you know, be the muscle, the power, you know, to have the leadership role. It shouldn’t be with another guy. I think that’s how they look at it.

TOMAS: But I think it’s more harder for a guy [to be gay and out at BHSSP] because guys are supposedly the man of the house sometimes and taking responsibility. And I guess us guys, most guys have that thought where we have to be stronger and if we get a sense of weakness, then we let everybody step over us. That’s why I feel like why a lot of guys aren’t comfortable coming in here [to GSA] who are gay.

In these remarks, Mariana and Tomas identified (and rejected) a key Discourse model, or theory of how the world works/ should work. This “dominance model” of sexual relationships, employed by many BHSSP students (especially boys), posits that the male partner “naturally” dominates, while the female partner “naturally” submits. By the logic of this model, two males cannot form a “natural” sexual relationship because one of them would have to submit and take on a woman’s role. The “illogic” of two women forging a relationship, however, is less of a “violation” of the dominance model. Thus, when a BHSSP student uses the dominance model to read and respond to a representation of a gay male relationship, he or she may (a) read said relationship as structured by patterns of domination and submission (even when there exists little evidence for such a reading), (b) classify the man labeled submissive as the female partner, and (c) criticize the couple and, especially, the “submissive” partner for subverting the “natural” order of things.

While the GSA is working to improve the climate within BHSSP, the climates in some parts of the immediate community and the larger society outside the school remain inhospitable. Focusing on the difficulties experienced by some gay boys, Ian stated,

You look at the community issue and it’s a little bit more complex. Because even if they feel like they can come out at the school, if they come out at the school, they’re going to come out in their own neighborhood. And I don’t know if there’s support in the community for boys to come out.

The climate in the space of the school, then, is affected by and affects the climate of the community spaces and other social spaces to which the school is connected.

Mariana described certain community perspectives thusly: “Our school, you know, when we walk outside our school, they make fun of us, they call our school the ‘gay school,’ like everybody that comes in comes out gay.” The perception of BHSSP as the “gay school” was also mentioned to me by several ally educators at BHSSP. Informing this perception is a common Discourse model (rejected by Mariana) of how LGBTIQ identities are formed: Students can be “made gay” by schooling, either by “catching it” from out LGBTIQ people or by having the raw material of one’s being placed on a conveyor belt, fed into the machinery of school, stamped into LGBTIQ shape, and sent out transformed. Thus, a BHSSP student using the “transformation model” might stay on guard in school and might take care both to avoid LGBTIQ people and to resist what he or she sees as the school’s efforts to transform students’ sexual orientations.

The climate inside and outside of BHSSP, then, is complex: it is improving in some ways, but remains inhospitable in others. The following sections describe how this nebulous climate emerges from, and helps constitute, the material-discursive space of the school’s main hallway.


The main hallway at BHSSP is about fifty yards long and is punctuated with doors opening into offices, restrooms, stairways, and classrooms, where students’ lockers are located. The walls of the hallway are filled with college recruitment posters; informational signs (e.g., posters explaining the dress code); bulletin boards (e.g., displays of photos from prom); blown-up photos of students; and signs promoting rallies and initiatives (e.g., food drives). Clean and well lit, the hallway functions in part as a space where students socialize before and after school, as well as during passing periods.

On the wall near one end of the main hallway, outside Ian’s classroom, hangs GSA’s bulletin board (see Fig. 2). It is about eight feet wide and four feet high, and is posted across the hall and about ten feet away from the principal’s office. The prominent location of the bulletin board signals the administration’s support for the club. The board itself is covered by dark blue paper and is framed by a rainbow border. In the middle of the board in large letters are the words “GSA” (in silver glitter) and “Gay Straight Alliance” (in rainbow colors). On the board are rainbow flags, the bisexual flag (pink, blue, and purple), advertisements (e.g., for the club’s bake sale), and slogans such as “Learn 2 Accept,” and “Homosexuality is Not a Disease.” Also featured on the board are the images and texts examined in this article:

A sign reading “What part of LOVE don’t you get?” (Fig. 2, #7).

A sign comprised of two documents (#8):


a reduced-size copy of the September 8, 1975 Time magazine cover featuring Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovitch, Jr. in military dress, with the caption “‘I am a Homosexual’/ The Gay Drive for Acceptance”;


a paper with the first two paragraphs of Sgt. Matlovitch’s Wikipedia page and, at the top, his statement, “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

A small sign reading “Gay” and featuring interlocking male symbols (♂) (#4).

A sign reading “Respect the Love” (#19).

The male icons (#18).

The last image faced the door to the boys’ restroom. On the door is a sign with a male icon and the words “Boys’ Toilet.” The icon on the bathroom door directly faced the male icons on the bulletin board.

As the GSA leader in charge of promotions, Julieta took care to compose the bulletin board in ways that would engage her peers as they moved from room to room during passing periods. In this situation, Julieta knew, her classmates would have little time or inclination to read long statements about LGBTIQ rights. “I didn’t want it to be too, too informative, the bulletin board,” she told me, “because [students] have enough with their school work, so I know that they’re not going to stop and read that.” Thus, she chose to feature images and texts that are less informational and more immediate and exciting: “I felt if it was kind of fun, they would think, ‘OK, let me go to a meeting, see how it is,’ and then from there they would want to come more often, which is eventually what happened.” Describing her strategy for creating an exciting display, Julieta said,

It couldn’t just be, “Oh, there’s a meeting for GSA.” Like, it needed either hearts or stars or something or a lot of colors. And for the signs on the bulletin board, I didn’t know what to put. Like, I didn’t just want to be like, “Hey, if you’re gay, come out.” I wanted it to be like fun and eye-catching and stuff like that.

To make the bulletin board exciting, Julieta selected images, sayings, and themes from her LGBTIQ Discourse. “Being gay represents the rainbow,” she explained, “so why not bring all those colors out into the bulletin board that jump out at you and make you want to read it?” To find more material for the bulletin board, she conducted online searches—“Google was my best friend!” she laughed—and found images (e.g., the male icons) and sayings (e.g., “What part of love don’t you get?”) to include in the display. Ultimately, Julieta said, she wanted the bulletin board to make clear to students that the club is open to everyone and that it supports and respects students of different sexual identities:

Figure 2. GSA’s Bulletin Board



1-5. Signs: Interlocking gender symbols (♀ and ♂) plus corresponding labels: “Lesbian” (1), “Straight” (2), “Male Bisexual” (3), “Gay” (4), “Female Bisexual” (5)

6. Text: Statement about the struggle for “LGBTQ” [sic] rights in the US military and GSA’s support for LGBTQ service members

7. Sign: “What part of LOVE don’t you get?” plus rainbow colored heart

8. Image plus text: On right, reduced-size copy of the September 8, 1975 Time magazine cover of Air Force Sgt. Leonard Matlovitch in military dress, with caption “I Am a Homosexual/ The Gay Drive for Acceptance;” On left, Sgt. Matlovitch’s statement “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one,” plus first two paragraphs of his Wikipedia page

9-11. Rainbow flags (#9 includes a black bottom stripe with the caption “Victory over AIDS”)

12. Sign: Life/ Healing/ Sun/ Nature/ Harmony/ Spirit (in rainbow colors)

13. Flag: Pink bar/ Purple bar/ Blue bar, with caption “Bisexual Flag!”

14. Sign: Hypodermic needle filled with rainbow colors, with caption “Homosexuality is not a Disease/ It runs through the… Blood/ Pride à GSA”

15. Sign for GSA bake sale

16. Sign for GSA talent show

17. Sign for GSA-sponsored Day of Silence, plus rainbow flag with a face on it and an X over its mouth

18. Male icons (removed)

19. Sign: “Respect the Love”

I wanted it to be that, like, it could be neutral, that people were like, “OK, it’s not just for gay men, it’s not just for lesbians—it’s for everybody.” Like, no matter what you like, no matter what you do, at the end of the day, it’s still love, so you’ve got to respect it.

This call for respect, though honored by most students at the school, was answered by one or more individuals with efforts to remove representations of gay male identities and relationships.


During a one-on-one interview, Julieta recalled the struggle over the male icons. She explained:

I had the two men with the plus sign and the equal sign and the heart . . . But they ripped them off every time. I stapled them all back together. Nothing. I did just paper signs with like, “Respect the Love,” and I made it like, “Okay, I got your point, but you’re taking them off, now just respect the fact that it’s here.” Still ripped them off. And to this day it’s still off.

Over the course of two weeks, that is, one or more people repeatedly tore the male icons from the board and left pieces of the icons on the floor. Julieta stapled them back together or, when necessary, created new icons altogether. Her actions, however, did not stop her antagonist(s). Even when Julieta drew the icons on paper signs reading “Respect the Love,” they were still torn down.  

When I asked Julieta why someone would tear down the male icons but leave untouched the items on the board expressing support for lesbians and bisexuals, she replied,

Because in this school, like, um, I feel like, everybody, every guy and even every girl, like, they’re set out to be like, “I’m tough, you can’t do nothing to me, like, I’m just a tough person.” Especially the guys are just like, “I don’t want to deal with gay men.” Like, when you think of gay men, you don’t think “tough.” At least they don’t. I know a couple gay men that are pretty tough, so, but um . . .  I guess they just don’t respect it. Two girls is fine for them, but two guys, even though it’s on a paper, it still bothers them.

Thus, in Julieta’s view, the struggle over the male icons was in part a struggle over which identities and relationships would be respected in the school.

Reflecting on the incident, Ian said,

I think it was a specific boy that was doing that. He’s actually a really—he’s not—he’s someone I’ve had lots of conversations with about [LGBTIQ] issues. And he’s at a place of, actually, further along than most in terms of changing his . . . you know what I mean? You want to think it’s some jerky kid. He’s actually a really thoughtful kid, he’s part of the Interracial Alliance that we started this fall. And I kind of figured it out that it was him and he kind of admitted to it. And it wasn’t like, you know—you want it to be the jerk. But it wasn’t. And, you know what I mean, in discussions with him, he’s sort of been like, “Yeah, you know, I get it. It’s fine.” He’s sort of at that point: “I can respect it. It’s just I’m not gay. It’s not for me.”

INTERVIEWER: Sure. That’s really interesting. Did it almost become more of a thing like, “I tore this thing down, and then when someone put it up—”

IAN: Yeah!

INTERVIEWER: It didn’t even become about the image, it was just about “I’ll tear it down, they put it up...”

IAN: Yes. Yes.

Given that the student did not fully admit to tearing down the image and given the student’s gradual acceptance of his LGBTIQ peers, Ian did not reprimand him or publicly blame him for ripping down the icons.

In Ian’s view, then, the incident was more of a general power struggle than a conflict over LGBTIQ rights. How, though, might others have made sense of this exchange? How might they have seen this argument as a struggle over the production of space and the legitimacy of different identities and relationships?


This section presents a semiotics-focused discourse analysis. It offers ways of reading both parties’ efforts to build the space of the hallway in particular manners. More specifically, this section examines how Julieta and her antagonist(s) used symbols to legitimize and delegitimize certain identities and relationships (Gee’s Areas 1 and 2). Further, it describes how they manipulated symbols to build situated meanings and activate Discourse models.

While four different ways of reading the incident are offered below, many more are possible. Indeed, the direct participants in and witnesses to the incident may have read the exchange in different ways. None of these interpretations, moreover, is necessarily “correct.” Even if the person/people who tore down the icons took to the school’s intercom and described their intentions, this would not necessarily refute others’ interpretations. The meanings of the incident are worked out socially and are not fully determined by their authors.


In Ian’s interpretation, the incident is less about the posting and removal of the specific image of the male icons and more about the posting and removal of any image. That is, the incident was a power struggle, a fight not for an image on a bulletin board, but for power, for the ability to act even in the face of others’ objections. In this reading, the image of the male icons did not (or did not only) symbolize gay men. The image, along with the other images and texts posted on the bulletin board, symbolized Julieta’s and the GSA’s power in the space of the hallway. Conversely, the blank space marking the area where the image was posted symbolized (a) Julieta’s and the GSA’s lack of power, and (b) the power of the individual(s) who tore down the image.

To cast this reading in the terms of discourse analysis: the image and the blank space materialized GSA’s and its antagonist(s)’s bids to perform the identities “those in positions of power” (Gee’s Area 1). Relatedly, the image and the blank space materialized their efforts to contract relationships in which they have the power to act even when others object (Area 2). Moreover, in advancing these constructions of the hallway, they mobilized a “toughness model” of social interactions that defines the latter as contests in which individuals work out who can and cannot do what to whom. Julieta cited this toughness model and inadvertently bolstered the “power struggle” reading of the incident when she said, “[I]n this school… everybody, every guy and even every girl, like, they’re set out to be like, ‘I’m tough, you can’t do nothing to me, like, I’m just a tough person.’” The “toughness model,” then, works as a kind of platonic corollary to the “dominance model” of sexual relationships in circulation at BHSSP.

The “power struggle” reading has a certain appeal: it can help explain the actions of “a really thoughtful kid” (if he was, in fact, the party involved). Indeed, Ian likely devised this reading out of a desire to lower the temperature of the conflict between a student he liked and a club he advised. The “power struggle” reading has its limits, however. Most significantly, it offers no way of understanding why the male icons were targeted. One can only assume the image was selected at random and then, once Julieta reposted it on the bulletin board, returned to again and again to prove a point about power in the space of the hallway. Although it is possible the icons were randomly chosen, this seems unlikely, given the antipathy many students at the school felt toward gay men.


Another way of reading the incident, suggested by Julieta and consonant with the statements of Mariana and Tomas, figures the exchange as a debate over the meaning of gay male identities and relationships. That is, the incident may be read as a struggle to circulate in the hallway one Discourse model of gay male identities and relationships (a “love model”) and to negate another (a “dominance model”).

When I asked Julieta why someone would tear down the male icons and not another image on the bulletin board, she noted the importance of toughness at BHSSP and said:

When you think of gay men, you don’t think “tough.” At least [some other students, especially boys] don’t. I know a couple gay men that are pretty tough, so, but um . . . I guess they just don’t respect it. Two girls is fine for them, but two guys, even though it’s on a paper, it still bothers them.

This statement evokes the dominance model of sexual relationships noted and rejected by Mariana and Tomas. At BHSSP, Mariana observed, many boys “look at it as the male is supposed to be the more dominant one, the one to, you know, be the muscle, the power, you know, to have the leadership role. It shouldn’t be with another guy.” Likewise, Tomas observed that at BHSSP, some “guys have that thought where we have to be stronger and if we get a sense of weakness, then we let everybody step over us.” To activate and enforce the dominance model, this reading posits, one or more people tore down the image of the male icons. In tearing down an image showing two men together, the individual(s) involved (a) construed “natural” sexual relationships as between a dominant man and a submissive woman, and (b) defined male-male relationships as a violation of this rule.

To refute this framing, Julieta emphasized that gay male relationships are not about dominance, but about love (as originally suggested by the sign reading “What Part of LOVE Don’t You Get?” and by the heart in the image of the male icons). Julieta recalled, “I did just paper signs with like, ‘Respect the Love,’ and I made it like, ‘OK, I got your point, but you’re taking them off, now just respect the fact that it’s here.’” In this way, she worked to supplant the dominance model with a love model of relationships. Further, in casting the exchange in terms of “respect,” Julieta refrained from asking her antagonists to celebrate gay male identities and relationships—she simply called them to acknowledge and accept the presence of gay males in the space of the hallway and in the larger space of the school.


A third approach involves reading the incident in terms of front stage and back stage spaces. As explained above, certain areas of the latter (e.g., hallways) are seen by students and educators as being structured in opposition to certain areas of the former (e.g., classrooms and administrative offices). Thus, some of the identities, relationships, and Discourse models of the back stage are understood to differ from and even contradict those of the front stage. Building and acting in situations available in back stage spaces, therefore, can function as statements of opposition to—or at least independence from—on stage identities, Discourse models, and so on.

In this reading, BHSSP’s main hallway is seen as a back stage space over which students exercise a degree of control before school, after school, and during passing periods. In the prevailing construction of this space, gay male identities and relationships are construed as illegitimate (consider the dominance model in circulation at the school). This proscription distinguishes the hallway from front stage spaces and connects it to certain youth cultures that extend beyond the school. In these youth cultures, Mariana noted, open expressions of male homosexuality are contested and schools such as BHSSP that support gay males are maligned as “gay schools” where “everybody that comes in comes out gay.” Indeed, observed a BHSSP teacher when discussing the incident, “kids at the other schools [that share the building in which BHSSP is housed] call us ‘the gay school’ and make fun of us for having out gay students.” Thus, against the backdrop of their peers’ disapproval of the school’s official support of gay students, the proscription of gay identities in the hallway may function for some students as an assertion of (a) their independence from BHSSP’s front stage and from its ethic of supporting people of different sexual orientations, and (b) their membership in some of the youth cultures of their communities.


GSA’s bulletin board challenges the barring of gay male identities and relationships in the hallway. Along with items promoting LGBTIQ pride, in general, it features texts and images that support gay men in particular—the male icons, the interlocking male symbols, and the image of Sgt. Matlovitch. Viewed in one way, these images signify the efforts of students (the GSA) to make room for gay male identities and relationships in the student-controlled back stage space of the hallway. Viewed another way, however, these images symbolize the attempts of the school—via an official club—to extend its front stage ethic of inclusion into student-controlled space. Indeed, the administration’s decision to give GSA a large bulletin board in the main hallway of the school may be read as front stage actors issuing a strong endorsement of GSA and promoting front stage relationships in back stage spaces. By ripping down images that promote front stage ethics and that negate prevailing back stage rules of inclusion and exclusion, then, students resist the colonization of student-controlled space by central authorities. Troublingly, this resistance to authority—a potentially healthy impulse—is fueled by and feeds into homophobia.


Another reading of the incident begins with the question, “Why were the male icons targeted for removal and not the interlocking male symbols (♂) and the sign featuring Sgt. Matlovitch?”

To begin, the male icons are larger than the other images and easier to interpret in a short amount of time (i.e., when walking by the bulletin board during a passing period). The male icons are about six inches high and ten inches wide from the silhouette on the left to the heart on the right. The sign with the male symbols, in contrast, is about five inches high and three inches wide. On the Matlovitch sign, meanwhile, the letters in the caption “I Am a Homosexual” are only about one inch high. Further, while almost all students can interpret the meaning of the icons, few may know how to read the symbols. For these students, the symbols may be no more than obscure designs and the caption “Gay” may seem to refer to LGBTIQ people, in general. Thus, for some students—and, perhaps, for the individual(s) who tampered with the bulletin board—the male icons may have been the only visible images or texts on the board representing gay male identities and relationships.

Further, students who read the Matlovitch sign and who felt antipathy toward gay men may have left his image intact out of respect for the military. In addition to symbolizing toughness, a trait valued at BHSSP, the military is seen by many working class people—including many working class Latinos/as and African Americans—as offering paths into the middle class and into full cultural citizenship (Astor, 2001; Dempsey & Shapiro, 2009). Thus, students may have been reluctant to tear down an image of an airman, regardless of his sexual orientation.

Alternatively, students may have read the Matlovitch sign and concluded it had little to do with them. That is, they may have noted the date of the magazine (1975), the age of Sgt. Matlovitch (early 30s), and the institution in question (the United States Air Force) and they may have shrugged. Such a reaction would have echoed the responses of students to a text about Harvey Milk presented during a Pride Week workshop led by Mariana. She recalled:

It was difficult because they weren’t even interested. Some of them were like, “I didn’t understand the article.” Or, like, some of them were like, they didn’t understand who he was, or some of them didn’t even care. They didn’t care, I think, for the simple fact that they didn’t even read he was gay. I think they read that it wasn’t from [our city], so it didn’t have nothing to do with over here.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, really? That was the reaction of some people?

MARIANA: Yeah. Like, “Oh, who cares? That’s, like, all the way over there [in San Francisco].” And I think they were more like, they didn’t care about the year either, because this happened in the 70s and they were like, “That’s not now.”

From this perspective, the Matlovitch sign would appear irrelevant and would seem to pose few challenges to the social order of the hallway.

While the Matlovitch sign may have seemed innocuous due to its specificity, the image of the male icons may have appeared threatening because of its generality. That is, insofar as a male icon signifies any and every male—as it does on the sign to the boys’ restroom directly across from the icons on the bulletin board—the image can be read as saying “Any/every male plus any/every male equals love.” Thus, from a homophobic standpoint, the icons can be seen as templates forming the raw material of male students into the forms of gay men in sexual relationships. Factor in the icons’ connection to the boys’ restroom across the hall—a space where some males feel vulnerable and fear the advances of gay men—and the specter of being “made gay” is raised for some students. In this transformation model of sexuality (see above), students can be “made gay” by schooling, either by “catching it” from out LGBTIQ people or by having the raw material of their beings fed into the machinery of school and sent out in LGBTIQ form.

Mariana detected this sentiment in the reactions of some students to her Pride Week workshops. Several boys, she noted, refused even to act as gay men in role-playing exercises, fearing (in a half-serious way) doing so would “make them gay.” Similarly, Mariana recalled, many girls and boys said they would not want an LGBTIQ mayor

because everything would be gay. And I kind of asked them the question, “What do you mean, everything would be gay?” They was like, “All the stores would be about gay stuff” and how “everything would just turn into something gay, like everything would be colorful and stuff.”

Thus, consistent with the transformation model, several students at BHSSP expressed their fears that government institutions, including schools, could attempt to “make them gay.”

In tearing down the male icons, then, the individual(s) involved may have seen themselves as resisting the efforts of the school and the GSA to build the hallway as a space where people’s sexualities—indeed, their very beings—are changed against their will. That is, they may have sought not only to endorse a dominance model of relationships, but also to refute a model of sexuality and schooling that threatens their sense of who they are. While they may not have found such a threat in the interlocking male symbols, the Matlovitch sign, or other items on the bulletin board, they may have read the male icons as suggesting the forced transformation of male heterosexual identity. For this reason, they may have made a point of tearing down the icons.


Viewed from standpoints offered by contemporary theories of space (Lefebvre, 1992; Massey, 1984; Soja, 2011), hallways and other school environments appear not as inert backdrops, but as zones that constitute and are constituted by social action. Further, as revealed in this study, school spaces can emerge as conflict zones, both the areas of struggle and the objects of struggle (see Pratt, 1991). When a space is built one way and not another, it facilitates the staging of situations that are (a) governed by certain Discourse models and (b) constituted by certain identities, relationships, actions, etc. Thus, GSAs and other actors struggle to build spaces within schools that elicit and validate their identities, relationships, actions, Discourse models, and so on. To paraphrase Lefebvre (1992), then, many struggles in education may be construed as struggles over the “production of pedagogical space,” over who has “the right to the school.”

As shown above, however, a given construction of school space is not understood by all actors in the same way. Rather, it is interpreted by different actors to mean different things. Ian, for example, read the altered bulletin board as a sign of a general power struggle. Julieta, meanwhile, read it as an assertion of the “dominance model” of sexual relationships. The individual(s) who ripped down the icons may have read it in a different way altogether. None of these readings, however, are definitive—different actors read constructions of space through their different Discourses. Given the indeterminacy of the meanings of built environments, it may be useful to view the latter as constituted in part by struggles over meaning. In this view, the material-discursive elements of a space are seen less as meaning A, B, or C and more as being struggled over in ways X, Y, and Z. Thus, rather than view struggles over meaning as after-the-fact events, they may be viewed as constitutive processes in the (re)production of space. From this perspective, BHSSP’s hallway may be viewed as a product of social conflicts and GSA’s bulletin board may be seen as a flashpoint for specific struggles over the meanings of gay male identities and relationships. Moreover, given the emphasis in this approach on struggle and negotiation, students and educators may be viewed as active agents who do not simply use the spaces provided them, but reconstitute these spaces and argue over how they should be built, interpreted, and inhabited.

While spaces may be reinterpreted and reformed through negotiation, they cannot be remade in just any way at any time. Indeed, contests over the meanings of spaces are bounded and shaped by semi-permanent material-discursive structures. That is, dominant ways of reading and acting in spaces can shape the ways oppositional efforts are understood. Julieta, for instance, never considered reframing her antagonist(s)’s actions by posting an un-ironic sign on the bulletin board reading “Thank You for Supporting the GSA by Tearing Down the Male Icons.” This type of sign would make no sense when read against the prevailing material-discursive structures of the hallway and the school.

Taking all of the above into consideration, researchers might investigate how schools are reproduced as spaces through the interactions of students, educators, parents, community members, and policy makers. More specifically, researchers might study how student activists, working with and against other social actors, endeavor to build both the front stage and back stage areas of their schools in line with their political beliefs. Ultimately, such investigations of political struggles around the built environment of the school might link up with explorations of social movements’ efforts to rebuild and occupy larger and larger spaces.


Emphasizing the importance of struggles over space, Julieta added an uplifting coda to the story of the incident involving the male icons. In this coda, she described the fate of the streamers, posters, and other Pride Week decorations she hung up in the hallway a few weeks after the icons were first removed. Julieta recalled,

In Pride Week, when I had the decorations up, the rainbow decorations down the hallway, everyone was really proud of the fact that, even though they ripped off the men, they didn’t rip off the rainbow streamers that I had on the ceiling. So everybody was just like, “So maybe we are kind of trying to accept it.”

Even in the face of intolerance, then, the GSA asserted its presence in the space of the hallway and the school and was vindicated in its efforts.

Other GSAs might strengthen their own efforts by taking cues from the group at BHSSP. In general, they might recognize the importance of reconfiguring and inhabiting school spaces, from hallways to cafeterias to classrooms. More specifically, they might see the necessity of working with ally educators who can help GSAs find spaces to rebuild (e.g., hallways) and devise ways to rebuild them (e.g., maintaining large bulletin boards with pro-LGBTIQ messages). GSAs might even take a next step and place members on school committees that make decisions about the use of space. A student member of such a committee could work to open school spaces to people of diverse orientations. For example, she might lobby to grant GSAs permission to use the auditorium for talent shows (as is done at BHSSP); place “Hate Free Zone” signs at all school entrances; and establish a GSA Student Lounge. Most important, other GSAs could learn that struggles over signs and spaces take on real significance when they are struggles over social life. At BHSSP, the tearing down of the male icons and the maintenance of the streamers were important events because they were connected to the GSA’s ongoing efforts to reorganize the social environment of the school and replace homophobic Discourse models with models of love and equality. Absent the workshops, rallies, in-class presentations, and other efforts that make up the GSA’s larger project, the fate of icons and streamers would be of little consequence. In the context of a larger project that is itself situated in a worldwide movement for justice, however, the deployment of signs emerges as a key moment in the fight to rebuild and occupy the social environment.


Funding for this study was provided by Manhattanville College. Special thanks to Kristen Dean for producing Figures 1 and 2.


1.  All names are pseudonyms.

2. For insightful discussions of the features and limits of the “safe space” construct, see: Stengel, 2010; Hatford-Peer, 2010; and Weems, 2010.

3. The term “space-time” calls attention to the importance of both constructs to human activity. Given the inelegance of that term, though, the word “space” will be used to refer to built environments. Spaces must be understood, however, as constructions in time and as constructions with particular flows of time. For example, school hallways function as certain kinds of spaces before school and as other kinds of spaces during passing periods.

4. Binaries such as “youth culture vs. academia” are not objectively existing oppositions. Rather, they are constructs that are created, challenged, and renegotiated through struggle.

5. Racial dynamics likely played some role in the defacement of the bulletin board and in the ways the incident was interpreted. To the best of my knowledge, however, and to the best of the knowledge of the participants in this study, race did not play an overt, leading role. To uncover and analyze the racial dynamics in play, researchers would likely have to place the incident in historical context and consider how public schools in the USA have promoted definitions of family and sexuality at odds with the understandings of some members of some communities of color (see: Kumashiro, 2001). This history includes (a) the relatively recent and still atypical pro-LGBTIQ messages conveyed in some schools, (b) the more typical and longstanding promotion of the small nuclear family (versus different and larger formations found in some communities of color), and (c) the pathologizing of the sexual expressions of people of color, especially African Americans (as Toni Morrison (1993) demonstrates, many of the "classics" taught in English classes pathologize the sexualities of people of African descent). While such an effort to read the incident in light of changing dynamics of race and sexuality might yield significant findings, it is substantially different from the approach of the present study.

6.  At times in this article, I quote research participants as using the term “gay” as a synonym for “lesbian” or “LGBTIQ.” While I recognize the non-equivalence of these terms, I am committed to reproducing participants’ actual words.  


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 8, 2013, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17091, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 7:48:50 PM

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About the Author
  • Ross Collin
    Manhattanville College
    E-mail Author
    ROSS COLLIN is an assistant professor of literacy education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY (USA). His work has appeared in journals including Curriculum Inquiry, The Journal of Education Policy, and Research in the Teaching of English. His research agenda is organized around the study of schooling and literacy in times of socio-economic transformation. His current project focuses on the literacy practices of student activists.
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