Connell Talks Gender in the Classroom

Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, Dr. Catherine Connell visited Colgate on Monday, October 19 to speak about her book, “School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom.” In her afternoon discussion held in the Women’s Studies Center, titled “Pride and Professionalism in the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Teachers,” Connell explained the nature of her research and the paradox that she found. 

Connell conducted roughly 50 interviews with K-12 public school teachers in California and Texas, as well as participant observation in fora such as gay pride parades and teacher training sessions. The purpose of her research was to explain how public school teachers identifying as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) navigate the classroom and the professional world. Connell found a disparity in the results between the two states in which she conducted research and discussed how California has legislation protecting LGBTQ teachers and ensuring job safety, whereas Texas lacks any legislation whatsoever. She also noted that federal protection for LGBTQ teachers does not currently exist.

Connell assumed that she would find a difference in the way that gay teachers navigated their professional worlds dependent upon the state in which they taught and the extent of protection it afforded them. However, she found that the differences between the states was more minimal than she had expected. She was struck by the paradox that emerged from the general narrative of all teachers, namely the result of the hetero-normative teaching field situated within the era of gay pride. 

Connell explained that American schools are one of the last strongholds of homophobia. She found that the idea of “professionalism” expected of teachers has historically been a euphemism for heteronormativity. Connell argued that societal homophobia tends to collapse a gay individual into a mere sexual being, whereas the sexual aspect of heterosexuals is made invisible and accepted as the norm.

This presents an obstacle for gay teachers who want to come out to their classes yet still wish to maintain the same degree of professionalism and respect afforded to them prior to their coming out. On the other hand, the era of gay pride rhetoric emphasizes a gay individual’s coming out in order to fully embrace one’s sexual identity. This contradicts the heteronormative sphere of the public school that encourages presenting oneself as either heterosexual or asexual.

“Dr. Connell’s important research about the challenges faced by gay and lesbian teachers demonstrates that the struggle for LGBTQ equality did not end with the recent Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. Furthermore, her research convincingly shows that while laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation are important and necessary, these laws alone do not always create a social climate in public schools that encourage gay and lesbian teachers to be open about their sexual identity,” Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Colgate Travis Beaver said. Beaver was one of Connell’s former colleagues, and he touched upon the failure of legislation to act as the universal solution to LGBTQ discrimination, a fact apparent from

Connell’s research.

Connell warned that the gay-pride model places too much emphasis on the coming out process and fails to address larger structural obstacles. She prescribed dismantling the current codes of normativity that enforce schools’ heteronormativity, suggesting curriculum changes that implement queer theory and ending gendered dress codes that support the gendered binary between male and

female teachers.

“We must move beyond the gay-pride model,” Connell said.