Beyond the Binary

People like binary systems. A or B at the optometrist. On or off for lights. But start talking identity with someone who studies it and you realize—if you haven’t already, with all this business about bathrooms—that the gender binary is a social construct. The UO’s Department of Education Studies uses the academic term “heteronormative” to describe this—basically what Archie and Edith Bunker meant when they crooned, “And you knew who you were then / Girls were girls and men were men.”

Put simply, it’s a paradigm—a narrow frame in which you are a boy or a girl and that’s that. If you were male at birth but identify as female, you’re outside the frame, and vice versa. If you’re not sure of your identity or sexual orientation, you are also outside the frame.

Julie Heffernan and Tina Gutierez-Schmich want students to understand how this frame shapes their attitudes toward identity and equity. Together they teach EDST 455/555, Equal Opportunity: Homophobia, a course that examines how students relate to, and might eventually advocate for, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) community in educational settings. About 75 percent of students in the class intend to become teachers, but as Gutierez-Schmich is fond of saying, “I believe we’re all teachers.” Grounded in research-based course work, the class culminates in a weeks-long series of events, collectively referred to as “UO TeachOut,” that explores the gulf between acceptance and advocacy—especially in schools. Some program participants make the leap and others simply peer over the edge to experience the fear and confusion that accompanies identity struggles, but few leave unchanged.

UO TeachOut arose as an inclusive place for LGBTQ students and their teacher advisors to convene outside their politically constrained school districts. The first UO TeachOut event, the 2010 Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Youth Summit, had 40 attendees—mostly students from the four area GSAs (high school only) with a handful of professionals. The 2016 summit welcomed 344 students and 61 teacher advisors from 29 area GSAs (now including middle schools). It’s grown now to include a summit for educational leaders, a “BBQueer” barbecue for adults in the community, and much more. It takes school and community support to pull everything off, but also enthusiastic collaborators on campus such as the dean of students and the president's office. Other funding comes from the College of Education and the Pride Foundation.

UO TeachOut is not just about gender and identity; it also addresses the need for schools to actively support stigmatized groups, from immigrants to kids with disabilities. The parallels quickly become obvious to students who, by the end of the term, become so comfortable with their differences that a certain intimacy develops. The last day of class often is for sharing memories from the term and thoughts from their final papers. It’s intense at times, as though they’ve experienced something profound together. The emotions range from guilt (“I felt that way in my heart, but . . .”) to pain to joy. For a few months, atheist, Christian, gay, straight, black, and brown come to terms with the idea of “otherness,” and so they understandably forestall their return to a world in which this is elusive. There’s a group photo to prove it really happened, a replenishment of vital nutrients via Voodoo Doughnut, and they’re off.

“What we have found over time is that [our EDST 455/555 students] all shift and they all move,” said Gutierez-Schmich, a freshly minted PhD who also directs the equity and outreach office in the Bethel School District. “There are opportunities for students to go a little bit deep or way deep, depending on their comfort levels. Regardless of what they choose, by the time they end, there is a shifting and a movement of some form. There has yet to be a student who didn’t, at the very minimum, start checking their own biases and assumptions.”

Heffernan agreed this is one of the learning goals, but added, “One of the goals is to be able to speak, and be a little bit fearless, or at least reduce that fear of conflict and disagreement. In general, the field of teaching is ‘nice.’ To be contrary is to be an outlier, a curmudgeon. We want students to go out and create spaces in which you can just sit and disagree.”

Silence in schools—that is, failing to advocate for students in a stigmatized population—is a focus of Heffernan’s research. What she’s found, both through her scholarship and seven years of running UO TeachOut, is that school districts struggle to talk about these issues or make advocates feel supported. For example, if a teacher advises a GSA group and upset parents assume they’re gay, does the district have the political will to say it doesn’t matter?

Unfortunately, standing up for any marginalized group in a school, especially LGBTQ students, is fraught with risk—even for teachers who fit the heteronormative frame. Those who don’t often remain closeted because coming out could be career suicide—a problem UO professors like Heffernan don’t have to confront.

 “I’m in higher ed. I can’t really be fired for being gay," she says, "We’re clearing the path for people who have more obstacles.”

—By Cody Pinkston

Cody Pinkston is director of marketing for the College of Education.