Interrupting Hate: Homophobia in Schools and What Literacy Can Do About It
reviewed by Stan C. Weeber - April 13, 2012
Title: Interrupting Hate: Homophobia in Schools and What Literacy Can Do About It
Author(s): Mollie V. Blackburn
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752738, Pages: 128, Year: 2011
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Are you an advocate for a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, or questioning (LGBTQQ) student? If so, your world will be rocked by Mollie Blackburns latest book. The functional equivalent of a fire alarm set off at close range, this book draws immediate attention to the high rates of abuse, harassment, and neglect suffered by LGBTQQ students due to homophobia in our schools. The corresponding poor scholastic achievement of these students is tragic and unacceptable in a society that pretends to be decent and just. It is a loss too great to calculate in dollars. These are precious human beings, and they deserve better. These students can be helped by literacy; literacy assists in interrupting hate just long enough that these students can regain traction in life and continue on a path to actualize their full human potentials.
Blackburn says that our previous efforts to advocate for such students have not been sufficient. It is not enough to assign queer-friendly assignments in your class. It is not enough to be faculty adviser of the Gay-Straight Alliance. It is not enough to reach out to LGBTQQ students after school and to be friends with them outside of school. Blackburn hints to us in the gentlest possible way that such gestures are mostly about ourselves and not the students. These actions are performances whose purpose is to generate positive impressions of ourselves. As Erving Goffman suggested, such performances are directed to an audience, much as in a stage play. Students are part of the audience, but only peripherally so. Though not saying so directly, Blackburns narrative suggests that our performances with respect to LGBTQQ students are something like vita-padding exercises aimed at impressing all the right peopleour faculty colleagues, department heads, deans/principals, and presidents/superintendents.
Blackburn believes that performances have their role in the recovery of such students, but these performances bring forth the imagery and substance of Judith Butler and not Goffman. Butler wrote that performances are linked to the development of our identities. Many of our identity performances vary little in terms of content; they are self-similar. The repetitions of the performances solidify but also destabilize identity because of the slight variations in each one. The sum total of these performances becomes our personal identity.
The author skillfully applies this notion of performance to literacy. Literary performances become a vehicle for students wounded by homophobia to regain a more positive sense of self and to endure whatever bad things may happen to them in the future. Some of the important applications occurred outside of school settings in places that were definitely not school but were safe spaces for students to work out their identities. In our tour of The Attic (Columbus, Ohio), we see a queer-friendly off-campus place where students learn that they are not alone, that they are not victims, and that they have a right to learn about themselves. The Attic was a safe space for students to reject school altogether if they pleased, or even to imagine what a queer-friendly school might be like.
What about school environments? Youth service providers can help LGBTQQ youth in asserting their agency in school by simply providing an embracing space for individuals to work and practice in preparation for going public in traditional schools. This includes intensive preparation for the day when the performances go live in front of hostile audiences. Collective action by LGBTQQ students can help such service providers become more sensitive to the language that they use. They can encourage the provider to create space for such youth to write narratives about themselves, stories that can later be shared with school audiences.
Studentteacher alliances can help LGBTQQ youth to use literacy as a tool to develop and assert their agency. The teachers in these alliances are often non-LGBT people who are committed to ending bias and discrimination against LGBT people; however, they can be anyone standing up against the name-calling, bullying, and harassment that exist in homophobic schools. A teacher ally must be prepared to perform being an ally repeatedly, not just once. Performances may have to be played in multiple contexts, such as in queer-friendly contexts, in the home, as well as in school. Blackburn demonstrates such an alliance in action in an off-campus literature discussion group. The point of this group was to select, read, and discuss LGBTQ-themed literature that provided images of allies and, thus, opportunities to consider the impact of their actions.
Alliances among teachers help to support the antihomophobic efforts of LGBTQQ and ally students. Again, teachers must be committed to being an ally more than once or to always being in the process of becoming allies. An example of an inspirational teacher inquiry group is the Pink TIGers, which started in central Ohio in August 2004 and has met monthly ever since. The group comprises teachers of elementary, middle, secondary, and postsecondary students; these teachers may themselves be LGBTQQ, or allies, and are both novice and experienced. All share a commitment to combating homophobia in schools.
This superb book should be read by any faculty member who has reason to believe that there is a potential LGBTQQ activist or ally in his or her classroom. Further, it should be issued to new faculty as required reading, lest their own preconceived notions of how homophobia in schools can be solved be quickly dashed by the harsh realities of daily life in schools.
Why not call the book Eliminating Hate? Blackburn understands the enemy too well. Homophobia and heterosexism have been seeping deep into the social structure of our schools for decades, and there is little evidence to suggest that this situation will change anytime soon. Consequently, Blackburn wisely advises us to interrupt the hatred with thoughtful literary performances, an interruption that stalls the negative long enough for the student to construct an even wider safe space for a more positive reentry to public education.
The faculty who reject the concept of interrupting hate are the ones who most need to read this book. Unfortunately, their biases may not allow them to read it. For the rest of us, Mollie Blackburns book deserves the closest possible reading, along with heavy doses of contemplation and critical self-appraisal. Blackburn has sounded the alarm and given us tools to take corrective action. How will we respond to the challenge she presents to us?