(Un)Normalizing Education: Addressing Homophobia in Higher Education and K-12 Schools
reviewed by Kevin L. Nadal - September 28, 2016
Title: (Un)Normalizing Education: Addressing Homophobia in Higher Education and K-12 Schools
Author(s): Joseph R. Jones
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1623967066, Pages: 65, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com
Interpersonal Contact Theory, which was conceptualized by Gordon W. Allport in the 1950s, hypothesizes that when people have less contact with individuals of stigmatized or historically marginalized groups (e.g., people of color, people with disabilities, etc.) they are more likely to maintain stereotypical beliefs and biases about these groups. People who belong to dominant groups (e.g., white or able-bodied people, etc.) often have limited knowledge of marginalized groups, usually due to stereotypical depictions in the media, learned biases, or prejudices that are taught by ones social environments, or both. Regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, many heterosexual and cisgender people may have particularly limited knowledge of, or exposure to, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people due to the lack of inclusion of these groups in educational curriculum.
In earlier studies, research found that when heterosexual people knew of, or were friends with, LGBTQ people, they were more likely to be affirming of LGBTQ rights and equality (Bowen & Bourgeois, 2001; Herek, 2000). Studies have also found that heterosexual people who have meaningful relationships with LGBTQ people (and who also have knowledge about LGBTQ history and experiences) are more likely to be more affirming and supportive of marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights (Horne, Rostosky, Riggle, & Martens, 2010). One study found that transphobic attitudes decrease more after listening to an interactive panel of transgender people share personal narratives than they would after listening to a lecture about transgender issues (Walch, Sinkkanen, Swain, Francisco, Breaux, and Sjoberg, 2012).
The impetus of Joseph R. Jones new book, (Un)Normalizing Education: Addressing Homophobia in Higher Education and K12 Schools, appears to be exposing general readers to personal narratives of homophobia for the purposes of increasing levels of open mindedness. As a former high school English teacher who witnessed bullying on campus, Jones interviews college students and educators from both higher education and K12 schools across the country. In eight short chapters, the author describes vignettes of lesbian and gay people who have overcome homophobic bullying, harassment, and discrimination in addition to educators who have witnessed such instances. Jones examines many concepts highlighting different examples of how heterosexism may occur, from hegemonic masculinity to the performance of gender. He offers recommendations for educators to change the heteronormative cultural norms that isolate and hurt gay and lesbian students. Given the number of LGBTQ young people who report being bullied in schools and the rise of LGBTQ suicides in recent years, Jones reports that the aim of his book is to illuminate others beliefs and provide a personal account about homophobia and heteronormativity and how it truly functions within our schools (p. 3).
While I applaud Jones attempt to educate heterosexual and cisgender people about experiences of homophobia within school systems, there are major limitations to his text. First, the book focuses exclusively on gay and lesbian people. The author fails to highlight that sexual orientation identities can range on a spectrum and excludes experiences of bisexual, queer, and pansexual people. Such information would be relevant and crucial for educators to hear, especially since recent studies have revealed current young LGBTQ people identify more as queer than gay or lesbian (Nadal, Whitman, Davis, Erazo, & Davidoff, 2016).
On a related note, I recognize that some scholars (including myself) sometimes choose to separate conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity. This is done to promote the idea that each concept is independent and should not be conflated. However, by not highlighting the experiences of transgender and/or gender nonconforming (TGNC) people in school systems, Jones misses an opportunity to educate his audience about how hostile school environments result in transphobic bullying, harassment, assault, and even murders. Jones perhaps could have described how transgender people are ten times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population and four times more likely to attempt suicide than lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults (Hass, Rodgers, & Herman, 2014). Perhaps the author should have also shared how transgender people are killed at significantly disproportionate numbers. For example, 21 transgender people were murdered in the U.S. in 2015 and most of them were women of color.
Further, it appears that Jones narratives are written through a colorblind perspective in that readers do not learn explicitly about most peoples racial backgrounds. For instance, Madison is described as a 20-year-old rugged young man who attends a local state university (p. 3). He comes from a middle class family with his father being a small business owner and his mother a nurse (p. 3). While Madison describes his experiences with homophobia in high school, I wondered about his racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. If Madison was Black, Latino, or from an immigrant background, would those identities exacerbate his experiences with heterosexism? Instead, is the reader to presume that Madison (and other people discussed without racial descriptors) is white simply because whiteness is normalized in both LGBTQ communities and general society?
Similarly, Jones treats the LGBTQ community and racial/ethnic minority groups as completely separate entities throughout the text. He fails to recognize the possible intersections of LGBTQ people of color who might identify with both identities. For instance, in discussing the lack of familial support that queer students may experience, the author writes, [u]nlike racism and sexism, many non-heterosexual students do not have a strong familial support system. If an African American student is harassed because of his race, he can return home and receive some support from family (p. 43). This simplistic separation of LGBTQ people from people of color presumes that LGBTQ people do not also experience racism and sexism. While this choice was likely inadvertent, such logic promotes a dangerous notion that LGBTQ experiences are really white experiences.
Methodologically, I wish I had known more about how many participants Jones interviewed and their demographic identities. Stylistically, I wish the author aligned more with the most current language used in Queer Studies such as writing cisgender men instead of biological men or using the acronym LGBTQ instead of GLBT.
Despite these limitations, one aspect that I like about the book is that Jones mentions the notion of covert heterocentricity. These are the ways heterosexism can be less overt and manifests itself in systems and environments. The robust research on microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination, would support these notions and help the author's argument. People who experience microaggressions are at risk for mental health issues (e.g., depression, anxiety, trauma) and behavioral issues (e.g., substance abuse or eating disorders) (Nadal, Whitman, Davis, Erazo, & Davidoff, 2016).
I also believe that many of Jones arguments have merit. For example, I agree that people have an easier time saying homophobic slurs (like the F word) than they do racial slurs (like the N word) and that overt heterosexism is typically more socially acceptable than overt racism. I also agree with his chapter on hegemonic masculinity. Specifically, when cisgender men feel threatened about their masculinity, a combination of their sexism and heterosexism emerges.
Ultimately, any book that attempts to promote awareness about LGBTQ communities can be helpful and I applaud Jones in his advocacy against heterosexism in (Un)Normalizing Education. However, we need to be responsible in ensuring that we are inclusive of all letters of the LGBTQ acronym, particularly if this were the only LGBTQ-affirming text that an educator or graduate student would read.
This review was originally submitted by the author with the title "Normalizing Queerness in Education: A Call for Increased Inclusivity."
Bowen, A. M., & Bourgeois, M. J. (2001). Attitudes toward lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students: The contribution of pluralistic ignorance, dynamic social impact, and contact theories. Journal of American College Health, 50(2), 9196.
Haas, A. P., Rodgers, P. L., & Herman, J. L. (2014). Suicide attempts among transgender and gender non-conforming adults: Findings of the national transgender discrimination survey. Los Angeles, CA: The Williams Institute at University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.
Herek, G. M. (2000). Sexual prejudice and gender: Do heterosexuals attitudes toward lesbians and gay men differ? Journal of Social Issues, 56(2), 251266.
Horne, S. G., Rostosky, S. S., Riggle, E. D. B., & Martens, M. P. (2010). What was Stonewall? The role of GLB knowledge in marriage amendment-related affect and activism among family members of GLB individuals. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 6(4), 349364.
Nadal, K. L., Whitman, C. N., Davis, L. S., Erazo, T., & Davidoff, K. C. (2016). Microaggressions toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and genderqueer people: A review of the literature. Journal of Sex Research, 53(45), 488508.
Walch, S. E., Sinkkanen, K. A., Swain, E. M., Francisco, J., Breaux, C. A., & Sjoberg, M. D. (2012). Using intergroup contact theory to reduce stigma against transgender individuals: Impact of a transgender speaker panel presentation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(10), 25832605.