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The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools

reviewed by Jessica Fields - March 17, 2011

coverTitle: The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools
Author(s): Stuart Biegel
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis
ISBN: 0816674582, Pages: 320, Year: 2010
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The publication of Stuart Biegel’s book, The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools, could not be timelier. The Right to Be Out appeared in Fall 2010, as the suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender students (and students suspected of being LGBT) sparked unprecedented media coverage of ongoing, pernicious anti-gay harassment on middle school, high school, and college campuses across the United States. In response to the bullying and suicides, celebrities, politicians, activists, and others contributed to the It Gets Better website (www.itgetsbetter.org). Launched by author and columnist, Dan Savage, and his partner, Terry Miller, It Gets Better offers video testimonials from adults who assure young viewers that life gets easier for LGBT youth as they grow up and leave the confines of homophobic and heterosexist peers, teachers, families, and schools. Print and online news media featured opinion pieces echoing the It Gets Better call for change, including one that Biegel (2010), the author of The Right to Be Out, published in the Huffington Post on National Coming Out Day.

For Biegel, the right to be out at school is fundamental—“both a right to express an identity and a right to be treated equally as a result of expressing this identity” (p. xiii). Biegel considers coming out and being out necessary steps toward “an improved quality of life that will benefit everyone” by fostering an openness that will

help further understanding and an appreciation of differences, . . . help decrease tension, reduce loneliness, save lives, minimize the pressure on so many to be something that they are not, lower the number of bad marriages, increase the amount of caring for other human beings, enable a greater degree of love between and among persons, and help maximize human potential. (p. xvi)

Biegel admits this is an “optimistic, best-case scenario,” and throughout the book, this commitment prevails.

No matter whether they share Biegel’s optimistic sense of potential for those coming out, educators, parents, researchers, administrators, and policy makers seeking a response to anti-gay aggression will benefit from Biegel’s comprehensive and clear analysis of recent U.S. legal and policy decisions regarding students’ and teachers’ right to be out at school. In Chapter One, he grounds the right to be out in the First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of free speech and equal protection and argues, “[T]he right to assert a gay identity appropriately encompasses the core interests of freedom and equality that are guaranteed to all Americans” (p. 22). Administrators and educators may cite concerns that open expressions of LGBT sexuality threaten to disrupt schooling. However, Biegel and the courts have found that it is not LGBT sexuality and gender that compromise safety, well-being, and learning in schools; instead, it is the anti-gay aggressors. To allow the bullies to prevail, Biegel argues, would be to grant them a “heckler’s veto” over LGBT students’ and faculty members’ constitutional rights (p. 27).

Biegel turns in Chapter Two to LGBT students’ right to be out (and, conversely, their right not to be out). He asserts, “The obligations of educators with regard to LGBT students in the K-12 public schools are affirmative and unequivocal” (p. 44). The violence against LGBT youth that was widely documented in Fall 2010 and that prompted the legal cases Biegel describes is a clear violation of this obligation. Biegel recounts numerous cases in which students, staff, administrators, and teachers call students “faggot” and “queer,” physically assault students suspected of being LGBT, punish students for displays of LGBT sexuality and gender, or fail to intervene as students suffer emotional and physical anti-gay aggression. Biegel finds that emerging federal and state case law ultimately affirms that “school district employees must be there for all students,” including those students who exercise their right to come out as LGBT (p. 44).

In Chapter Three, Biegel asserts that the First and Fourteenth Amendments similarly guarantee LGBT educators freedom of expression and protection from harm in their workplace. Tensions may emerge because employers “hire” teachers’ classroom speech with the expectation that they will advance schools’ pedagogical and curricular goals and teachers’ decisions to come out may, in this sense, not honor their employers’ expectations. Nevertheless, Biegel argues, “LGBTs must be treated the same as their straight counterparts;” thus, if straight teachers can share information about families and friends, LGBT teachers must enjoy the same right.

This obligation stands, despite apparent conflicts between curriculum, morality, religion, and values, the topic of Chapter Four. Biegel argues for a “reasonable middle ground,” one that courts have recognized in their endorsement of teachers and schools exposing their students to ideas that some students, educators, and families may find objectionable without promoting those ideas. Biegel asserts that case law provides for that middle ground; he also clarifies, however, that “middle ground” does not mean that schools must provide equal space and time to anti-gay sentiments. Instead, case law requires that students, teachers, administrators, and staff engage in civil exchange, refrain from ad hominem attacks, and approach religion respectfully (but with no more respect than they do secularism).

In the second half of The Right to Be Out, Biegel turns from law to policy. Much as he argued earlier for a “middle ground,” here Biegel organizes his discussion of policy change and the right to be out around an understanding that, “[a]t their best, U.S. public schools embody inclusiveness” (p. 109). In Chapter Five, Biegel summarizes research documenting homophobic school climates and the often violent consequences of those climates, including everyday bullying, large-scale violence, and fearful and unsupported students. He also recounts efforts to improve school climate, including the establishment of “safe zones,” gay straight alliances, suicide prevention efforts, multimedia resources, and programs addressing the needs of LGBT youth of color.

Chapter Six explores the possibility for change in classroom curriculum and pedagogy. Biegel is clear in his continued commitment to finding a middle ground:

With regard to curricular policy: this book stands for the proposition that every educator’s perspectives must be valued, and that the inclusion of LGBT-related content at this time should not be mandatory but should be left up to individual family and staff. Nevertheless, the optimum scenario that would benefit everyone would be to go forward with inclusion. (p. 140)

He thus identifies a range of incremental strategies for bringing LGBT content into classroom curriculum and pedagogy—for example, through teacher training, speaker panels, discussion of current events and notable LGBT historical figures, and a commitment to creative approaches to meeting standardized curricular standards—while also acknowledging and carefully disputing objections to such innovation.

Chapter Seven, on “The Culture of School Sports,” includes discussion of multiple examples of professional basketball, football, and baseball players who came out during or after successful careers. Biegel documents homophobic reactions to their coming out, locating these reactions in a broadly unwelcoming climate for LGBT athletes. Students get some attention here, but not nearly as much as one might hope. Interestingly, coaches get similarly scant attention—an unfortunate oversight, particularly given Biegel’s thoughtful discussion earlier in the book of the right of LGBT teachers to be out.

Biegel turns his attention to the particular experiences of transgender students in Chapter Eight. As he reminds the reader, the First and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee students a right to be out. They also enjoy “a concurrent right not to be out” (p. 176)—a right grounded in the Fourth Amendment guarantee of a right to privacy. This full understanding of the right to be out holds special importance to transgender students and teachers who may want not to disclose the specifics of their gender identities and who may navigate school contexts often characterized by discomfort, a lack of support, and violence. And, though schools may find themselves unsure how to respond to transgender students’ and teachers’ needs and to oppositional community groups, Biegel argues that resources are available from books and films to legal and policy precedent. These resources, like the others Biegel identifies throughout this book, contribute to the middle ground he values as the site for the sharing of ideas, beliefs, and traditions—a theme to which he returns in the Conclusion.

Biegel’s discussion of law and policy relevant to LGBT people’s right to be out (and not out) at school is remarkably strong. The book reads as a compendium of recent U.S. case law and public policy on schools and sexuality and represents a significant resource as such. Perhaps by comparison, some discussions in the book feel underdeveloped and tangential. A comparison of the cultures of sports and the military is interesting, but it again turns the reader’s attention to the experiences of young adults and does not illuminate much about schools, children, and youth. In addition, the discussion of “biology and brain science” (p. 112) is part of a larger argument for broadly inclusive education, but the discussion is too cursory to engage meaningfully with the questions science raises and answers about sexuality, discrimination, and tolerance.

In general, I would have liked more attention to the ways sexualities and queer studies scholars have complicated our understandings of coming out and being out (see, for example, Halperin & Traub, 2009; Sedgwick, 1990; Seidman, 2003). This literature’s consideration of the sometimes failed promise of coming out and the limitations of the visibility as a strategy for social change might have tempered the optimistic tone that prevails in Biegel’s book, but they might also have brought the particular issues facing LGBT youth to the critical literature surrounding the right to be out, its affective desirability, and its role in effecting social change.


Biegel, S. (2010, October 11). Bullying, teen suicides out of the shadows. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stuart-biegel/bullying-teen-suicides-ou_b_758081.html

Halperin, D. M., & Traub, V. (2009). Gay shame. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Sedgwick, E. K. (1990). Epistemology of the closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Seidman, S. (2003). Beyond the closet: The transformation of gay and lesbian life. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 17, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16368, Date Accessed: 9/18/2020 2:16:13 PM

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