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Intersections, Ambivalence, and Racial Justice in Schools: Black Queer Students Remap Complexity

by Cris Mayo - 2018

This chapter analyzes retrospective interviews with Black LGBTQ college students discussing how their racial and LGBTQ identities intersected in high school. Their complex analysis shows the difficulties schools had recognizing the intersections between support for racial equity and LGBTQ-related equity. Their experience demonstrates the necessity of preparing educators and administrators to understand how many vectors of identity shape students’ lives. Their narratives, too, show how Black community values and practices helped them to develop their sense of political advocacy on all issues, that traditions of civil rights advocacy gave them vocabularies for articulating new recognition and rights claims, and that longstanding forms of racialized sexual and gender identities were resources for their own rethinking of their commitments, even if they nonetheless did not always experience acceptance at schools or at home.

This chapter analyzes retrospective interviews with Black LGBTQ college students discussing how their racial and LGBTQ identities intersected in high school. These Black queer students’ complex analysis shows the difficulties schools and other institutions had recognizing the necessary connection between support for racial equity and LGBTQ-related equity. Because of the particular challenges they faced in schools, including lessons learned about equity and justice that did not include the intersection of race and sexuality, these students’ experience demonstrates the necessity of preparing educators and administrators to understand how the many vectors of identity shape students’ lives. The stories they tell reflect, too, the strengths they bring to their education and to the education of their peers because of their complex subject positions and ambivalent experiences of support in their communities. While their inspiration to push for positive changes at their schools came from families who talked about civil rights struggles, their sense of alienation sometimes also derived from the same source: their struggles were not always recognized as part of the struggle for racial justice by the institutions that shaped their lives. The students’ activism drew on traditions of struggle that were respected by home and school. But despite this convergence, students felt that they were not fully respected. Indeed, the students felt whatever respect that got from schools and families relied on their not being too open or advocating too strongly for LGBTQ-related rights and issues. Their experiences of partial and ambivalent support—especially from school leaders and teachers—demonstrate the necessity for schools to more explicitly address intersections among race, sexuality, and gender identity.

The experiences of Black queer students show not only the need for institutions to think and act intersectionally to support and educate all students but also how critical race theory and queer theory can wind together in fruitful ways. Both of these theoretical formations trouble a simple recourse to experience without understanding how institutional practices and norms shape the categories that in turn shape that experience. Both CRT and queer theory, too, share a pessimism about reform of particular institutions without significant changes to power structures. As critical race theory and queer theory both suggest, institutional changes will almost inevitably reinscribe normative practices and almost inevitably miss complexities that challenge dominant norms. Yet both theoretical formations, like the students represented below, also use fragments of liberatory promise to push for better outcomes even in challenging institutions. Robert Reid-Pharr (2001) brings together this sense of desire for contentious community, recognition of critical intervention, and hope for complexity: “I still yearn, then, for a vision of the good, for a public dialogue and a civic life that celebrates multiplicity, that prizes ambiguity, that recognizes the play of identity and difference that makes possible community as well as change” (p. 175). Like Reid-Pharr’s hope for contentious community, Black queer students push for innovation beyond what those foundations seem to promise.

I begin with a discussion of how the institutional critique of critical race theory and the critique of normality in queer theory may be combined in useful ways for analyzing the struggles of students experiencing intersecting forms of bias and intersecting sites of agency. I then examine the structural barriers to equity and recognition that Black queer students experience in schools, outlining the particular challenges of ambivalent and partial recognition interviewees experienced. They describe how they moved beyond schools and into community-based activism or online spaces to supplement what they could not access in schools. In conclusion, I suggest that their experiences stand as a reminder that respectability politics and the refusal to acknowledge LGBTQ students of color is a significant limitation to school-based diversity efforts. Leaders need to do better and to reflect more strongly on their limiting biases and fears in order to provide more recognition to the critique queer students of color bring to schools (Brockenborough, 2015).


This sense of the power of ambiguity and the challenge of ambivalence has characterized many discussions of the intersections among race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, gender identity, and beyond. The conceptual framework of intersectionality helped the students in this study to understand their experiences as they tried to situate themselves in relationship to their families and communities. They also grappled with complexity as they tried to connect with other students across the LGBTQ+ acronym, whether in social groups or intimate relationships. As a theory that emerged out of practice, intersectional identity politics has not only come to provide a (possibly recursive) vocabulary for thinking about complex difference but has also helped push theoretical formations like critical race theory to explore complexity in relation to law and institutional structure. The interlaced ways in which intersectionality, ambiguity, and ambivalence reflect a critical reading of both liberatory possibilities in organizing and education and also mark out limitations in institutional improvement. If school policies, leaders, teachers, and staff only address one aspect of student identity, they give students some tools to succeed but also mark out forms of exclusion at the same time. Inclusion, if incomplete, becomes exclusion.

Like LGBTQ activists of color frustrated at the lack of attention to issues related to sexuality and gender, or activists critical of aspects of respectability politics that have excluded segments of communities of color from politics, advocates for intersectionality demand that political and educational representation become more complex. Now in 2017, at its 40th anniversary, the Combahee River Collective’s “A Statement on Black Feminism” continues to set the standard for exploring intersectionality, examining the “interlocking” (p. 210) nature of oppression along multiple vectors that are “experienced simultaneously” (p. 213). The statement, too, notes the reluctance of movements that have made significant progress in holding institutions accountable to address how identities and oppressions interlock, noting the lack of attention to sexuality, gender, and race. Even as they discuss the exclusions they have experienced from Black political organizations and social institutions because of their gender and sexuality, the Combahee River Collective, too, draw on traditions of strength, to movements and changes that have only been partially successful but that indicate the potential for building further. But they also recognized that without broad-based change to economic and political structures, much reform would remain unable to achieve justice. The tensions of connection and frustrations of compartmentalization generated by trying to act intersectionally are summed up by Gloria Anzaldúa, who pushes against dichotomizing competing cultural or positional resources, asking instead for “a tolerance for ambiguity” (p. 95) in which a new consciousness may jar one out of “ambivalence” (p. 95).

The theoretical practices of critical race theory and queer theory complicate the degree to which students can undo the normative climate of schools. In her analysis of the community-based strengths Black people draw on to navigate racist institutions, Tara Yosso (2005) explores the “Outsider, mestiza, transgressive knowledges” (p. 70) that challenge deficit thinking and show intersectional approaches to oppositional agency. The intersectional aspects of her article are an important aspect to her work exploring the problematic but generative situations structured by racism. By shifting the conversation to forms of capital derived through interaction with oppression, Yosso’s explorations are reminiscent of Foucault’s (1980) analysis of the generative nature of power, a conception that has helped various queer theorists think through how resistant communities emerge in the midst of repression. Critical race theory, poststructuralism, and queer theory all share an understanding of the structuring power of institutions, the interstitial spaces of agency, and the necessity of resistance, however much of that resistance is still connected to power. Her citation of theorists who examine the discursive aspects of intersectional identities gestures toward some of the overlaps between critical race theory’s institutional critique and queer theory’s critique of normativity. By focusing on transgressive knowledges, Yosso continues a tradition in women of color feminism, queer theory, and CRT. As Devon Carbado (2000) has argued, also citing all three theoretical formations, the discursive formations of identity positions are used in law and institutions to buttress inequality both in institutional practices and in movements intent on justice. Without a more granular attention to differences within and among intersections, attempts at reform will continue to enact exclusions (Carbado, 2000).This generative response to oppression is an ambivalent and complex process and by necessity draws on multiple aspects of subjectivity and community.

Queer youth of color understand the process of oppositional thinking and they know how to try to challenge institutional exclusion, too, in ways reminiscent of Yosso’s (2005) “navigational capital” and “resistant capital” (p. 80). Students need to know how institutions work, how to survive in those institutions, and how to engage in practices that disrupt the simultaneous and sequential forms of exclusion they experience. Put simply, those who resist racism and homophobia need to know when and how to create sustaining practices that help them maintain their differences that are not yet fully understood by the institutions in which they are situated. Their abilities to create queer, trans, and gender variant communities and relationships shows their facility with resistance, but their frustrations with a lack of response from school leaders or families shows, too, a yearning for better routes to self and community creation. Yosso’s discussion of mobility capital acknowledges the sorts of structural impediments students face but also explores in detail the kinds of resistant mobilities that institutions should recognize as strengths. The narratives of Black queer youth discussed here also situate resistance, creativity, and educational capital within ambivalent formations in schools.


The project from which these interviews are taken focused on college students, asking them to reflect on that kind of complexity in schools and how their peer groups negotiated the differences they shared and did not share. Because the study focused on college students’ memories of high school, the fuller consequences of institutional misrecognition of Black queer, trans, gender nonbinary, agender, and other students who identify as non-normative with regard to gender, gender identity, and sexuality may not be evident in their experience. LGBT students are more likely to face school disciplinary procedures than straight students (Palmer, Greytak, & Kosciw, 2016). They are also more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe and as a result many get detention or suspension (Palmer, Greyak, & Kosciw, 2016). Of over 7,000 LGBT students surveyed, 48% indicated that they had been in detention, suspended, and/or expelled from school (Palmer, Greyak, & Kosciw, 2016). LGBT students of color experience school discipline at higher rates: 46.7% of Black students, 44.1% of Latinx students, 47.3% of multiracial students, and 36.3% of white students (Palmer, Greyak, & Kosciw, 2016). While they experienced bias from teachers and principals, they were able to graduate and go on to college. Their experiences, even if connected by the acronym “LGBTQ,” are not the same, but in some sense, they are also linked by how schools positioned them as outsiders to sexual and gender norms. They formed some connections across those linked letters of the acronym but a longer explanation of many of their—and other students’—stories shows the limitations of such attempts at connection (Mayo, 2017).

Black queer, nonbinary, gay, and/or bisexual youth who narrate their experiences in this chapter show the limitations of considering only one aspect of identity at a time and, even in times where the word intersectionality may have gained traction, they also show how much teaching and learning needs to happen before queer issues become solidly a part of education. They show too that discussions of intersectionality need to—and often do, of course—situate complex identity within institutions, oppositional practices, youth culture, sometimes hidden/sometimes visible queer cultures, and so on. Their stories are reminders of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s (1991) discussion of how “converging systems” (pp. 1240–1241) structure experiences—in her example, how systems designed to address race or gender miss the intersections and also miss other categories of difference as well (like class and sexuality). While the students worked hard to insist on their complexity, many different levels of schools resisted their complexity. Teachers silenced their dissent, principals denied their participation, and extracurricular programs like Gay-Straight Alliances were allowed to die on the vine, without institutional support or protection from harassment. Black queer students are positioned by institutions in ways that negatively recognize their intersectional identities. When white peers push them away, they experience racism; when no one addresses LGBT issues, they experience homophobia and transphobia (McCready, 2010). When the collision of race and sexuality are ignored, they experience full erasure, an experience Black trans scholars have taken up as a form of non-being (DiPietro, 2016). In response, the students seek to build further instead of dwelling on critique (Johnson, 2017). Students here point out, too, where institutions miss their experiences and needs, even in schools that were attentive to the educational links to Black Lives Matter or had offered programming related to sexuality. Students argue that the link between Blackness and queerness was not fully recognized. However, although the students were positioned by institutions, the students also pushed against that institutional positioining.


Schools are not the only institutions that shape the lives of Black queer youth, of course. Whatever institution they inhabit, queer students note the shifting and ambivalent sense of membership they experience. Given the exclusions queer students face in families and communities, it is all the more important that schools recognize queer students (Mayo, 2006) and that school leaders, especially, understand how their policies and practices can become more LGBTQ-inclusive.

Families, like schools, are sometimes a place where they can organize and resist and sometimes a place that disparages and ignores them. They also talk about their experiences of sometimes being supported in families and communities, and also moments where that support was withdrawn or not complete. Their experiences of varying levels of recognition and support in the institutions of the family follow Marlon Ross’s (2005) argument against the whiteness of the metaphor of the closet, suggesting that there are gestures of recognition that do not require spoken acknowledgment of Black queer identity but instead, by action and connection, keep Black queer community members close and cared for. Those gestures of connection and commitment to their educational futures as Black youth are crucially important to educational success, but as the students below discuss, that support was wavering or contingent on their acting straight or, at the very least, not acting too gay. But they each, in different ways discussed in more detail below, also wanted more in terms of formal recognition. Their stories are stories of students reading only partial support for institutions. Their negative or ambivalent experiences help to point out what they felt they missed.

They wanted clear commitments and follow through from administrators on social justice programming that fully included the intersection of their race, gender, and sexuality. They wanted better preparation of teachers, some of whom began to teach about sexuality but did so in ways that exacerbated Black queer students’ exclusion. They wanted schools to pay attention to how the structuring influences of racism, homophobia, transphobia, and sexism pushed students out. Their experiences, perhaps no more generalizable than Ross’s argument but as conceptually important, show that tacit support from institutions, even sustaining institutions like Black families and communities, is not always enough to help Black queer people negotiate nonsustaining institutions like schools. School leaders need to understand the impact of their decisions to only subtly or partially advocate for students who face persistent exclusions. And rather than adding to the sense that students are only ambivalently a part of the school community, leaders need to take more positive steps to ensure inclusion.


The Black queer students included in this article were interviewed in 2016 as part of a project on Gay-Straight Alliances and informal peer networks in high schools that supported queer students. The project examined how youth made connections across and within differences in schools to counter bias and to support one another. Forty students of diverse races, ethnicities, gender identities, and sexualities shared their memories of schools in diverse locations with diverse student populations. Open-ended questions focused on how they learned about diversity within LGBTQ and other communities. Students came from rural, suburban, and urban schools. Some had experience in school-recognized Gay-Straight Alliances, others had not been allowed to form GSAs, and others had found GSAs to be exclusionary, usually racist, but sometimes also cliquey. Each of the students here, whether from predominately Black urban schools like Cedric and Covada or from a predominately white suburban school like Tim or a mixed rural school like C. J., discuss the shifts in their abilities to use community-learned capital to navigate challenging spaces where racism, classism, and/or queerphobic environments were potentially impeding their progress. Their narratives, perhaps more than anything else, show the minute-by-minute decisions about how to negotiate complex identities and connections, how to hide and then quickly re-appear, and how to look back critically and wonder if school experience would have been very different if some of these navigational strategies hadn’t been necessary. How would their experiences have been different if school leaders had acknowledged the presence of Black queer students? How would their experiences have been different if their struggles had been acknowledged as part of school projects related to social justice?

Their experiences, too, show the interlocked negotiations of institutions in which they live: family, community, and school. These are not separate support systems; in some situations one or the other augments whatever is missing in schools. In other situations, peer group support has to fill in for absence of clearly articulated support in family, community, and school. In short, their analysis of their experience often reflects the difficult losses and creative gains of living under variegated forms of oppression, ignorance, silence, resistance, and oppositional community. Their experiences, too, show that intersections of subjectivities mean that intersections among institutions need to be considered more carefully. While the students represented here show their navigational capital and queer adeptness at reading social interactions carefully, they also talk about the multiple institutional pressures they face. Because schools have different responsibilities to encourage queer futures, educational institutions need to provide the kind of explicit forms of support and education that these students discuss needing—and those forms of support need to be very clear about how race, sexuality, and gender identity intersect.


In his South Side Chicago high school, Cedric found temporary spaces of acceptance but also challenges to being too much of who he wanted to be. His family’s lessons about the importance of being authentic, knowing about the diversities of difference in the community, and about the limits of acceptance all shaped how he approached his queer identity in school. That familial support, however partial or ambivalent, enabled him to develop navigational capital to weather the also-partial institutional support he experienced in schools. He felt school-based support was there only as long as he stayed in the closet about his gayness and maintained gender normativity. He described his ability to use his navigational capital in school as related to his father’s lessons:

My father told me the story of Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde, every group can’t be the same as other groups. When I going out with flamboyant people maybe I was more flamboyant. There was pressure to join other groups too. There were gangs and they wanted me to join and I didn’t. They punched me in the mouth with brass knuckles and I lost a tooth. It was really that bad and you needed to be with a group.

His initial decision to socialize with what his father felt was a less-than-respectable gay group, though, met with significant fatherly resistance. However much this strong lesson taught Cedric about how there were limits to his father’s acceptance—and his father was never fully accepting of any gay group he was in—he credits his father’s support with how much he has been able to succeed in school and now in college. Yet, at the end of a story about his father’s going to help one of Cedric’s friends who was being severely attacked for being gay, Cedric also remarked at how he felt let down by not having more structured conversations about his identity.

His mother’s frank discussions of sexuality, too, while important to his continuing health, raised some concerns in retrospect. Much as her insistence that he take sexual health seriously did show him that his family cared for him, he wanted to know more about options and tactics related to health education and to understand why sexual ignorances circulated among his peer group and community. Because schools did not provide sexual health information relevant to his concerns, he relied more on family but was also dissatisfied there as well.

Cedric’s experiences in schools were a similarly ambivalent mixture of semi-support and silence, signaling the on-and-off quality to when and how he could come out as gay. His attempts to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at school came to nothing when no teacher in his school would risk their reputations with the principal and the rest of their professional colleagues in order to be the adviser. He did have an organized group of friends with whom to talk about gayness, desire, flirting, and so on, but only a few years later, that group drifted apart, and some friends are now heterosexually married or no longer identify as gay according to Cedric. The instructor who was most comfortable talking with him about being gay turned out to not be a fully certified teacher but rather an instructor pursuing certification who was very concerned about keeping his job. The instructor did not feel he could risk anyone knowing he was supportive of gay students. So the one supportive person Cedric had thought was a teacher with a stable job was actually in an insitutitionally tenuous position and unable to risk any controversy. The ROTC instructor Cedric respected the most and who, in turn, recognized Cedric’s leadership qualities was not someone with whom he shared that he was gay. Cedric thinks that if that ROTC instructor could have known more about the young men with whom he worked, those young men would have done better in life. He explained, “it would have been this cloud of acceptance instead of feeling like we had to mask our conversation.” That sense of longing for more than ambivalent or context-specific respect frames his decision to continue in his own education:

I have a BS in liberal studies with a public health minor and am working on my thesis about ignorance in the Black community on HIV. I am trying to understand who we as African American people work through sexuality, our understanding of the practices of sexuality that influences ignorance of sexuality. Like “I’m a top” so I’m not going to get HIV and so many families don’t even have conversation on homosexuality.

And even as Cedric can credit the leadership training he received in ROTC and his ability there to meet other young Black gay men and work with them for better futures, the outcome was not positive for everyone. Misrecognition of their complexity meant they were not fully valued by the school and that still weighs on him. When recounted what the leadership experience had gotten his cohort, he was the only one who was working toward a BA. None of his friends were able to take full advantage of “any great aspirations.”

Tim, a Black man from a suburban school, characterized his identity as gay in high school as “don’t ask, don’t tell. It was treated as a novelty like it was something you would see on TV, Like, [spoken exaggeratedly cheerfully] I’m gay!” He explained that he felt he couldn’t be gay and Black and tried a strategy of withdrawing from sexuality:

Well, um, senior year was like when I like more discovered these part of my self and in African American families it doesn’t exist, it was just a phase, a phase, it’s not who I am and I don’t know how I found out about it, I came out as asexual like junior year, and I felt kind of plagued by that identity and I thought damn this is the least of both worlds it’s like even if I would be more supported if I was gay because it was like more tangible and it was like the only sexuality that was acknowledged, and being straight is really easy and I didn’t think about the romantic things until I was in college and I was like damn, before I thought I wasn’t straight but now I have to acknowledge it and it’s something that’s ok now that I see people who are more out about it.

Social justice issues were not part of disciplinary areas that interested Tim but he was glad to have some discussion of gay issues in his humanities class in high school. But even then the level of such discussions also seemed to reflect the relative privilege of some of the other students:

it’s not like we’re going to say “fuck the poor” but we’re going to do things that are close minded to those issues. There were huge issues to just get prepared for high school [in his area of interest in computers] and I was not prepared to get involved in social discourse, I know where to put a comma but I don’t know how to get involved in social discourse.

As a result of not knowing how to think about injustice, Tim could only look back on his high school years and realize he was experiencing exclusion and microaggressions. Without having other Black friends to reflect on experiences with, high school just felt like a hostile place but not for identifiable reasons. Concentrating on his academic goals, he looked back and realized that in his high school “it was pretty difficult to find parts of your identity on purpose and the parts of my identity I discussed were by accident outside of school.”

Similar to Cedric’s desire to have more direct and formal conversations about being gay, Tim also wanted to have all intersecting aspects of his identity become part of his learning—and to learn about his privileges as well:

I think in the end it would be really nice to have a place to talk about your identity, like every part of your identity there is to think about like recently I did this thing where I traced my hand and put down on each finger each thing that I identify with like putting on the board your sexuality, your racial identity, your social class, I think at the end of the day it’s really important to humanize and here’s another thing I know there were trans people in high school but I didn’t know that they were trans until I got to college, I didn’t know that I had biases until I got to college and I don’t think those would have been removed if I didn’t know people personally who were trans and was like wow, everything I saw on television and things my parents said is bullshit so I think that in high school it would be great to have more tangible examples of people even though I understand outing yourself as an entity can be stressful but like knowing, being aware that those entities exist and that they’re surrounding you is pretty helpful I would say.

Tim’s experience with stress at high school, which he put down to not just general subject-area stress but also to unkind students, became much clearer later as racism. Looking back, he understood, too, that had there been opportunities to think about the different diversities he himself embodied and those of other students, his daily experiences would have made more sense. Instead of for what was for him a retreat into asexuality, he would have been more present. Even acknowledging, as he does above, that this kind of knowledge would not have been without its own problems, his reminiscence reminds him of how much was not available to him in his school.

C. J., a first-generation Nigerian homoromantic bisexual, that is, more attracted to women but also attracted to all genders, also talked about how her school experience limited her understandings of social justice, Blackness, and queer identities. Her experiences of racism and racialized tracking in her southern rural high school inclined her to get out of the region as soon as she could. She found both tension about her identity from her religious background but comfort from a friend:

A while after I came out I wasn’t happy, I’m like oh no, I’m gay, I’d pray every night, I was crying I was so upset. I was like God, please stop it, I can’t be this because I’ll go to hell or something. I was really worried but my friends, I was like, talking to them, was like we can’t change this about ourselves, it’s natural, you’re still a good person you’re just a good person who likes girls, and they also came from religious backgrounds. One of my friends, his father was a preacher and he was like the Bible says a lot of stuff but not everyone is following everything in there. Things like that and maybe they were not trying to make me feel better but they were showing me how rebellious they were and not to make the system run better so I was like, ok.

The doubled histories of the Black church, then, provided both her sense of worry at her lack of respectability and a source of understanding about why opposing injustice was necessary. Talking with queer friends, one Black and one white, helped, too, when white students at school argued against her ideas:

I gave this presentation on white privilege this one time and everyone was like, “this is false, this is fake, you’re making this stuff up” and it was nice having people who understood my frustration and maybe we couldn’t fix everything but like this oppression stuff sucks, yeah.

When C. J. ran into issues or ideas that went beyond the expertise of people around her, she turned to the internet. She also suggested that in areas where someone might not know enough about LGBTQ issues or about race and social justice, finding those resources online would be a big help:

I would say if they have it in them to advocate in their school try to talk to their teachers or their principals hey, I think we should start this club, just start there, and the internet is a great resource to know what you’re talking about and if I knew then what I know now I definitely would have gone to my friends and say we should start a GSA…the internet was definitely a safe space for me whenever I went onto my tumblr or my twitter it was really a safe space, to not lose hope or because you don’t see a lot of people like you in your school that doesn’t mean you that what you are don’t exist …

But she also cautions that finding common space does not mean that people have common experiences: “a lot of people like to bunch [claps hands together] the queer community, whether you’re white or Black or Asian or you know, anything, you all have the same issues and it’s not true because sexuality is viewed so different across the world.”

Cedric, Tim, and C. J., despite coming from very different institutional locations, had similar experiences with schools that gave just a little attention to diversity but not enough to actually address these queer Black students when and where they needed more structural and explicit support. The openings provided by their school were relatively modest—encouraging Black men to seek leadership training, encouraging students of color to pursue STEM careers, or even inviting students to talk about the power and privilege that shaped their lives. But after that initial, brief invitation into considering diversity in a small, curricular way, support from teachers and administrators evaporated, at least as far as the three students above could tell. No one in the school community was willing to act as an advocate for them, and all the students understood this to signal that administrators were not interested in LGBTQ issues. They each understood more about their lives later or from nonschool sources. So while the slight opening did help them along a bit, like Cedric’s concern that his peer group got left out of educational aspirations, they felt like there was a lack of clear commitments from their school communities to challenging bias and to substantively incorporating the intersections of race and sexuality into the official curriculum.


Covada described a much more activist school on the South Side of Chicago that reflected the political activism of Black and Latinx students and started to invite, as well, input from Black students like Covada on other issues. But those overtures, Covada felt, were not serious. When she shared her experiences of homophobia and her observations of transphobia, the principal pushed responsibility off onto students:

I remember my senior year I was on the principal’s student advisory council so I would meet with the principal among other students and we would talk about programs we would want and groups we would want and I would tell him there are a lot of homophobic comments and a lot of transphobic comments and he would say, well, there’s not a lot I can do to change what students say so I don’t know what that organization is going to do to make an impact on the student body. I was so mad, I was so mad because you know you go to people in authority when you want help and he would paint himself as a person you could go to if there was problems and there were these issues that would go on that he would not talk about and he was actually confirming that.

Her school leader had shown himself interested in racial equity specific to encouraging Black student activism, but not sexuality even if it was connected to Black students’ struggles. His decision to indicate to the school community that one form of difference could become a community concern but another was an individual problem clearly disappointed Covada.

This same school leader’s invitation to have students help advise him, further, was taken as an invitation to join the struggle, but the invitation ended in rejection. That same back and forth—being invited to share, encouraged to be open, and then finding herself ignored—also characterized Covada’s early years of coming out to her family:

So family is really interesting, because I was dragged out of the closet when I was like thirteen, my, I was texting this girl I was interested in and her mom read the text and because everybody was so close knit she called my mom and my mom was like Covada what the hell and I was like mom, I’m sorry, I’m bi, I like girls too, … I got a partner started dating, my mom saw a picture and she said can I ask you a question, is that you girlfriend? And I was like, yeah, and she was like, ok, and it’s something we don’t talk about it, she’s ok about it we just don’t talk about it a lot, she’s like how are you and so and so doing, we’re fine, how’s so and so doing, fine and some issues happened where they thought they were going to be kicked out and she was like they just come and live with us…

Her discussion of her mother’s acceptance of her agender partner and even her mother’s studying about gender and asking after her partner moves back and forth from a humorous sense of her family’s attempts to understand gender and sexuality as part of movements for political equality, to a personal sense that her mother wasn’t there for her during difficult times in high school. The high school was supportive of Black political issues, she noted, weaving discussions into class periods and supporting a student-organized Black Out day, including a die-in protest in solidarity with Black lives lost to police violence. It isn’t a stretch to see that the discourse of being “out” as a gay person is precursor to thinking about being out as Black, but even that tangential connection that might be made between movements didn’t come up in official curriculum.

Covada did share that discussions of gayness came up in psychology and sociology classes but not connected with students’ experiences in school. The discussion in psychology, Covada explained, centered on the teacher’s insistence that twin studies, where both twins are gay, prove that gayness is not a choice. She recalled the teacher chiding the class, “It’s not a choice, it’s not a choice, if you write that it is a choice, I will write an F on it, it’s not a choice, trust science.” Covada shared that she appreciated the teacher’s efforts to, in a sense, push against prejudices that made gayness seem frivolous. But her experiences with curricular inclusion were far from positive and point to the necessity of schools to bring LGBTQ issues into the curriculum in ways that reflect current trends in the field. In addition, given her negative experiences with having discussions with peers about the issues raised by the class, school leaders and teachers need to be trained in how to facilitate classes that take up potentially controversial topics. It is not enough to open a discussion and leave Black queer students to fend for themselves against other students who disapprove of them.

Part of Covada’s challenge in high school was that her school did provide institutional support on social justice issues, including curricular and extracurricular support for racial justice. The lack of institutional support for the intersections of race, queerness, and gender identity diversity was all the more crushing because it marked the limit for what counted as “racial justice,” echoing Cathy Cohen’s discussion of marginalization within Black communities and the way respectability politics justified the regulation of Black queers (Cohen, 1999). Covada was disappointed that the “prototype GSA” wasn’t able to garner more positive attention, especially given the focus on diversity forwarded by her administrator and her teachers. Instead, the group’s meetings were often interrupted by harassers:

People would drop the f word and run past so it wasn’t what it needed to be successful. We didn’t build community and have that safe space that we needed to deal with that happening and deal with just things that are happening in the queer community always…we didn’t have the space to talk about violence against queer people or queer people of color. When you look at those intersections, we didn’t have time or space or the tools to talk about why people are thinking about that I’m bi, I want to do threesomes, or that I’m overly sexual.

The school did have policies that prohibited sexual harassment, and Covada talked to peers and administrators about the problem but did not find that the institutional commitment to diversity extended to the problems she and her group were having. Friends outside of the GSA weren’t interested in having those intersectional conversations and instead grew bored or uncomfortable when Covada talked about queer issues. She felt, too, that a relatively new principal was uninterested in continuing queer-friendly programming, and she felt he “felt like he was walking on eggshells.” His fear of parents, she felt, was behind his decision to cancel what had been yearly AIDS testing on National AIDS Day. She said he had explained his reasons for canceling the testing in these words: “I don’t want your parents to think I’m encouraging sex.”

Covada was able to take the lessons about Black Lives Matter and other forms of oppositional race politics and apply those lessons about race to learn more about the kinds of things that were missing for her in terms of queer-inclusive intersectional politics in public schools. Her out of school work was still focused on racial inequality and, in particular, registering Black voters, but unlike her school where race and sexuality were not officially linked as issues, community organizers were open about being gay and able, as well, to articulate race-based political activism to queer activism. Like other students discussed here, the inability of school-based lessons or even peer networks to adequately sustain that kind of intersectional analysis—even while there were sometimes spaces in schools that did support some structured discussion of racial inequality—meant that support for gay, queer, agender, and so on, Black students had to come from somewhere else. Covada knew to look for it, though, and that lesson about finding support from alternative institutions may have, in some sense, been a negative lesson based on what was missing in school but it also derived from the justice-oriented project the school claimed. My point here is not to say that avoidance of race and queerness was a good thing—far from it—but to say that schools that build lessons and organizations that focus on racial justice into their official curricula and extracurricular activities provide important lessons for students who want to push further. Covada’s family’s teachings against racism, her community’s diversity and activism, and her own energies merged together and also drew in lessons about queer Black exclusions that she had learned in schools.


Covada, Tay, and Cedric are each examples of students who found what was missing in other-than-official routes but who wanted more official recognition from the institutions in which they participated. Tim took longer but also eventually found a way to make sense of the racist and homophobic microaggressions in his high school experience. In some sense, each of the students above hit a kind of institutional lag-time. Their schools recognized some diversities, but not others. Schools were attentive to some aspects of Blackness but not willing to be clear about support for Black queer, trans, and gender nonconforming students. Their peers did not fully embrace whatever partial messages about inclusion and respect for diversity they received from administrators because those messages neglected to be fully inclusive or compelling. All four of the students, though, stuck with school and kept moving forward in extracurricular activities, internet communities, and community organizations. Yet, despite what are strong lessons about racial justice and even some degree of support for diverse gender identities and sexualities they got from their families, each student had to find fuller support elsewhere. They used an intersectional form of mobility capital to make those sideways moves into taking space not defined specifically for them, finding a sense of community in difference, or waiting until later to fully reflect on the issues that had troubled them in school but that they had not yet had vocabulary or place for. They kept going. They knew to keep going because they had examples of other people in struggles related to their race, class, and neighborhood that showed them that there are ways in and through and around. Each one of them also knew that not everyone got through. Cedric, in particular, could look back to his peer group and see how damaging the lack of explicit and stated support for Black gay young men had been. When he counts out the number of his peers who did not have the same familial support that he had, even including parental disapproval of his sexuality, he knows that schools have failed too many.

Each of the young people interviewed wanted more recognition of the seriousness of the racism they experienced together with also official and structured lessons pertaining to Black queer lives. Each, too, made very specific requests of their institutions while they were in schools and in direct conversation with teachers and administrators. While some found partial support for some aspects of their aspiration—for Tim, support for his interest in STEM; for Cedric, development of his leadership capabilities; for Covada, a place on the principal’s advisory board—they either did not yet know how to describe the racism and homophobia structuring their lives (Tim), or how to talk to authority figures about their gayness (Cedric), or how to have administrators and teachers really take Black queerness seriously (Covada). Tay relied on friendship networks in real life and on the internet.

They all in different ways, though, agreed that they want to see a fuller recognition of Black queer lives as part of Black communities, educational institutions, and political struggles. School leaders need to take intersectionality seriously when they structure school activities for racial justice—or any sort of justice and equity. School leaders need to be clear about calling for respect for all forms of diversity and understanding how intersections racialize sexuality, gender race, and so on. Attention to diversity is not only attentiveness to one category at a time—or leaving key categories out. Attentiveness to diversity, inclusion, and difference means upsetting the norms of respectability politics to more fully understand all the students who are in schools. This is important in all schools, but the focus here is on how schools that address Black students can improve the lives and hopes of those Black students. This means significant rethinking, at every level of such advocacy, how, as Roderick Ferguson puts it, “the regulation and transgression of gender and sexuality are the twin expressions of racial formation” (p. 145). He advocates for a queer of color critique that pushes against the normalizing features of respectability politics. For school leaders who aspire to such class mobility and respectability through their professional positions, critically thinking about how they mobilize nondiscrimination as part of respectability politics, and who they exclude when they do so, may be challenging.

The queer of color critique of normalizing power and the normalizing function of schools, too, may be difficult for teachers to challenge. Some of the subjects Black queer students wanted to see more attention to were related to sexuality education, to forms of gender or sexuality dissidence not ever discussed by schools, or interrupted narratives about the cohesion and unity of communities of color. Teachers need to be adequately prepared to teach about LGBTQ issues and, importantly, be able to facilitate educative discussions about those issues. It is not enough for institutions to educate about one aspect of identity and leave out other complexities—this point about intersectionality could be just as well made about many differences, but the students here have focused on sexuality and gender identity. While the students discussed above did significant work on their own to get through school and to try to make spaces within institutions that did not provide official space, they all discussed the losses they experienced: misunderstanding who they were, seeing friends leave school, harassment and ignorance from peers and school administrators. Their experiences are reminders that attention to Black school success means understanding Black diversities. It also means that school professionals need to have opportunities to learn more about these intersections, to make lessons about them part of the official curricula, to ensure that leaders are adequate advocates and are aware of the level of hostility in their schools and actively work to address it. Much as the stories of the four students discussed above indicate the resistant energy and commitment, they also show the losses entailed when schools do not recognize how they systematically marginalize Black queer students.

Still, the students interviewed here show how their understanding of Black community values and practices helped them to develop political advocacy and educational aspirations. What these students learned in schools, families, and communities about the Black traditions of civil rights advocacy gave them vocabularies for articulating new recognition and rights claims, even if LGBTQ subjectivity and rights weren’t fully a part of the teachings they experienced or even if queerness disrupted respectability narratives. Although queer identities were only minimally recognized by families and schools, students nonetheless gleaned signals that queer life in their communities did exist. The ambivalence of this minor inclusion was noted by students: it meant, in a certain sense, that Black queer people were seen but were not to be focused upon in detail.

But this ambivalent self-education, built on their navigational capital, parts of histories, and partial community support is not enough. Schools can build on the practices that these Black queer, trans, and gender nonconforming students are doing on their own time, in conversation and organizations that are supplemental to schools, not centrally a part of them. Black queer, trans, and other LGBTQ+ students bring resources to schools, and schools need to be more intentional in helping them to build their skills, their connection to historical and contemporary movements. This means that all events and curricula that intend to foster respect need to recognize that sexuality and gender identity are part of all diversities and that sexual and gender identity, too, deserve specific attention. Queer and trans organizers like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, both key activists at Stonewall and beyond, mobilized their own understandings of Brown Power and Black Power in their work, organized together and apart from other movements. However ambivalent and partial the recognition they received from feminists, Black nationalists, or other groups, or how difficult it was to make those intersectional connections, they built alternative communities. Their work opened the possibilities for queer youth of today to continue to build alternative communities, too. But as we seek to improve educational experiences and outcomes for Black youth, alternative communities are not enough. If we take the education of Black youth seriously, we need to ensure that the education of Black queer youth does not go missing. However much the youth who shared their stories here have developed oppositional agency and navigational capital, schools, too, need to do their parts.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 14, 2018, p. 1-22
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22384, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 2:37:26 AM

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About the Author
  • Cris Mayo
    West Virginia University
    E-mail Author
    CRIS MAYO is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Director of the LGBTQ+ Center at West Virginia University. Mayo’s research focuses on LGBTQ issues in public education, intersectionality, and philosophy of education and includes Disputing the Subject of Sex (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), LGBTQ Youth and Education: Policies and Practices (Teachers College Press, 2013), and Gay-Straight Alliances Among Youth in Schools (Palgrave, 2017).
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