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Sexuality in SchoolThe Limits of Education$

Jen Gilbert

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780816686377

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816686377.001.0001

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(p.ix) Introduction

(p.ix) Introduction

Queer Provocations

Sexuality in School
University of Minnesota Press


Every September I fret about what to wear on the first day of teaching. It is a perennial worry, well-honed after a life spent in schools. The entire summer leading up to my first day in high school, a perfectly composed uniform hung in my closet: gray and maroon kilt, white button-down oxford cloth shirt, navy blue tie, maroon V-neck sweater. Aside from the kilt, not much has changed. These days my first-day uniform consists of a white button-down shirt, V-neck sweater, dark jeans, and colored sneakers. In high school I understood the uniform to be a failed attempt to flatten out differences between students: all the markers of class and gender and fashion would be hidden beneath the drab monotony of sensible kilts, penny loafers, and polyester sweaters. But now, my uniform protects me: I understand that students will look at me today, for the first time, and they will have impressions and draw conclusions that I cannot control. I cannot anticipate what sense they will make of me—a middle-aged, round, masculine, white, and rather jolly professor—but I do try to give myself the best possible suit of armor, clothes that represent a certain version of myself: plain and direct, neutral, youthful, grounded.

This story is ordinary. Everyone who teaches must decide what to wear, to find clothes that perform and protect and so help shape what a teacher can look like. But for the queer teacher, these clothes, this decision, are freighted with significance. What will my clothes reveal or conceal about me? What does my white button-down shirt announce? Can I recognize myself in students’ perceptions of me? Will students see some version of themselves (p.x) in me? Am I wearing something that could be used against me? These questions index the vulnerability of teaching for queers. Even as I recognize that I must survive students’ use of me—vicious, kind, or indifferent—I am not sure when a student’s gaze means she is paying close attention or staring disdainfully. This delicate assessment registers the uncertainty of pedagogical relations, an uncertainty heightened by sexuality.

In an essay inviting teachers to risk sharing their sexual identities with students, Jonathan Silin (1999) asks, “How does our gayness function in the classroom?” (97). Against the confidence that the teacher’s disclosure of her sexuality will be educative, the question registers a pause. It is as if Silin is not quite sure what will happen when gayness makes an appearance in school, either because he comes out as a gay man or because a student discloses that she or her parents are gay. Gayness, his question admits, introduces uncertainty into education. Sexuality affects how classrooms function; but like that first day in September, when my shirt and shoes and short hair meet students’ interest and disdain—and my own history of growing up in schools conditions how I will decide what counts as interest or disdain—we cannot know in advance how the meanings of sexuality will come to affect experiences of teaching and learning.

Education incites sexuality; our sexuality finds a playground in school where the taunts and raucous laughter and loneliness help us know who and what we want. Sexuality animates education; teaching and learning are invested with an erotic frisson that propels and sabotages the practices of education. This is the dilemma my title, Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education, describes. There can be no education without the charge of sexuality; love, curiosity, and aggression fuel our engagements with knowledge. And yet education—its practices, procedures, rules, structures, and relations—can be undone by the wildness of sexuality. Sexuality will push education to its limit, and education, despite this debt, will try to limit sexuality. This is the charged emotional terrain of teaching and learning about sexuality in schools.

(p.xi) The research literature on sexuality education captures stories that notice how teachers and students alike are limited by an education that tries to control sexuality even as they articulate their desires through and despite those limits. Alyssa Niccolini (2013) expands on Michelle Fine’s (1988; see also Fine and McClelland 2006) work on the missing discourse of desire in schools to notice how, when schools banish discussions of pleasure in the name of protecting girls, girls themselves pass soft-core romance novels back and forth in order to talk about pleasure among themselves. Jessica Fields (2008) recounts how a female sex education teacher sat cross-legged on the floor, holding a picture of the female reproductive system between her legs and in so doing inadvertently offered her own body as a model for the lesson. Cris Mayo (2007) describes how acrimonious public debate over a new multicultural curriculum that included discussion of lesbians and gay men did not just shut down conversations about sexuality but, paradoxically, had the potential to hold the closet door open. And Wanda Pillow (2004) begins her study of pregnant teens by offering a vignette in which a very pregnant young woman tries unsuccessfully to fit her body into the preformed seat and desk in her classroom. All these stories catalog the contradictions that appear at the intersection of sexuality and education. Girls take talk of sexual desire underground and develop new vernaculars of pleasure; teachers’ bodies are sexualized despite and through the hygienic discourses of science; opposition to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) sexualities unwittingly names new possibilities for children and youth; and the pregnant teen, embodying so dramatically the failure of a certain version of sex education, works diligently to fit into the routines of classroom life. These examples chart the limits of education.

The story of education and sexuality that I tell in this book pays homage to the strange and contradictory movements of desire. I archive moments when sexuality enfranchises new modes of teaching and learning, but I also recognize when our fantasies of teaching and learning domesticate the wildness of sexuality. I (p.xii) inherit this project from other scholars who point to the pleasures that schools serve up despite educational practices aimed at, in part, suppressing any hint of sex.1 Indeed, from the regulations and prohibitions that pockmark the landscape of the school and educational policy, new sexual desires and identities surface.

It is thus no accident that I am especially concerned in this book with articulating a vision of life in schools that does justice to the variegated experiences of LGBTQ students, teachers, and families. Controversies about LGBTQ issues are often the manifestation of a more general conflict around sexuality in education, and disputes about LGBTQ issues have inspired new sets of prohibitions and regulations that all teachers and students—queer and straight—must navigate. I advocate always for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people in schools, as well as our protection from discrimination and violence, but I do so with a commitment to seeing schools as caught within the contested relations between sexuality and education. Rather than cast schools as monolithic spaces—warehousing bullies and their victims, and governed by an out-of-touch administration—I read the affective life of the school as always contested, even for the tormented gay teen. Schools are filled with the hopes and aspirations of parents and students alike; the lingering effects of a history of compulsory public schooling, the stock storylines of TV sitcoms, debates over the value of certain kinds of knowledge, and the professional longing and ennui of teachers and administrators. Its emotional geography stretches from the classroom to the cafeteria, to the gym and the science lab, to the staff room and the Facebook page, and out into the parking lot and under the bleachers. In all of these places, and amid all of these social and cultural histories, teachers and students steer their ways through the daily dramas of friendships made and lost; the raced, sexed, and classed divisions that hold some people apart and bring others together; and all the other concrete and ephemeral phenomena that give the school day its shape and texture. The complexity of this portrait of the school holds as true for the preschool as for the university. (p.xiii) Championing the rights of LGBTQ people in schools in ways that go beyond simply protecting LGBTQ students, teachers, and families from harassment requires theories of sexuality and education that engage the messy, ambivalent, and deeply contradictory spaces and relations of the school.

Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education is a study of the educational breakdowns, conflicts, and controversies that emerge when the relationship between sexuality and education flares up to reveal underlying antagonisms between the wildness of sexuality and the purposes of schooling. Each chapter begins with a moment of conflict—efforts to censor LGBTQ-themed literature in elementary school, debates over the purposes of sexuality education, or concerns over the bullying of LGBTQ youth, for instance. These conflicts are evidence of large-scale cultural battles about sexuality, but sexuality is also a conflict for the self. As a result, these controversies are symptoms of how the most intimate of our experiences can come to shape how we see and act in the world.

When thinking through these controversies I take my cue from queer theorist Eve Sedgwick (1990), who argues, “It is only by being shameless about risking the obvious that we happen into the vicinity of the transformative” (22). To risk the obvious is to insist that we name the homophobia and transphobia that work insidiously to degrade the humanity of LGBTQ students, teachers, and families in schools. However, the risk of the obvious is also that behind, or beneath, a controversy that pits religious, conservative parents against well-meaning, tolerant teachers and LGBTQ activists, a shared set of assumptions and beliefs about sexuality that may work to undermine an expansive understanding of LGBTQ rights.2 Being on the right side of an issue is not enough if, in standing there, we erode the possibility for new, more expansive understandings of sexuality and learning. One can be politically correct but conceptually flawed. Yet, despite the flaws in our thinking about issues, we nonetheless make commitments, however contingent and ambivalent.

(p.xiv) For example, I have serious concerns about how the push for same-sex marriage has hijacked other important LGBTQ rights claims and tied the social recognition and protection of LGBTQ people to a stifling form of neoliberal subjectivity (cf. Duggan 2012), but I also want LGBTQ people to be able to marry. Coming down on the right side of a political issue is not enough if in doing so we lend legitimacy to a set of beliefs that, in the end, damage our self-interest. Throughout this book I try to walk this fine line, heeding always Robyn Wiegman’s (2012) advice that critique must “derive its most fascinating and passionate rigor from registering the contradictions and incoherences that arise from identificatory modalities as they fail, just like we do, to arrive in any of the right places” (171–72). This ethics of failure asks us to tolerate living in the tension between the political and identificatory affiliations that constitute LGBTQ communities and our own sense of strangeness, brought on by an unruly sexuality that may send us toward certain people and places but is also restless, expansive, and, if we are lucky, wild. This wildness also must be part of how we conceptualize sexuality in schools.

Queer Provocations

We cannot take for granted that we know what we are talking about when we are talking about sexuality. Sexuality saturates educational spaces, objects, and relations. This promiscuity is sexuality’s charge and its danger. When educational institutions try to cordon off sexuality in the health class or the guidance counselor’s office, to fix “sex” as a knowable and discrete entity, that effort reflects a tacit acknowledgment that sexuality moves through educational objects and pedagogical relations in unpredictable ways. Across this study I make a claim for seeing the fates of sexuality and education as intertwined: there can be no thought of sexuality without invocations of schooling, upbringing, civilizing, and all the procedures we imagine are necessary to call an unsocialized sexuality into the fold of human society. Similarly, there can be no thought (p.xv) of education without the propulsive charge of sexuality enabling and disturbing the work of teaching and learning.

My use of both sexuality and education is somewhat impious: my tasks are to notice the range of ways each concept is used, especially in debates about LGBTQ issues; to note places of conflict and convergence between different theoretical orientations; and to place my own project amid those debates while also seeing the conflict over the meaning as itself an effect of studying sexuality and education. To study education is to be already caught in the very dynamics you wish you could notice; our educational biographies haunt our intellectual acts, and so a study of learning is always implicitly autobiographical.3 And sexuality—linked to curiosity and what psychoanalyst Melanie Klein (1998) calls “the epistemophilic instinct”—fuels our desire to know even as it undoes that push for mastery. Sexuality drives understanding but is never commensurate with our understanding of it. It is always too much for our conceptual and affective apparatuses.

We need to articulate a theory of sexuality that is curious about its origins and can account for its unruly effects. As Talburt and Rasmussen’s (2010) and Mayo’s (2007) reviews of research on LGBTQ and queer issues in education reveal, educational research grapples with a tendency to collapse queer sexualities into recognizable LGBTQ identities. Talburt and Rasmussen (2010) write, “Privileged [within educational research on LGBTQ issues] has been a tacit ‘strategic essentialism’ in which queer educational research needs visible queer subjects to study or regulatory straight spaces to transform in order to understand itself as queer research” (4). In their call for an “after-queer” moment in educational research, Talburt and Rasmussen summon “fruitful approaches that may help queer educational research expand its arenas of analysis, linking the seemingly nonsexual and the sexual, the seemingly normal and the queer, the repeated and the emergent” (2). Theirs is a call to see sexuality as irreducible to the names we use to find and make it; this book is a response to their invitation.

(p.xvi) LGBTQ is a fragile construction, and I make a special effort to designate moments when the acronym “LGBTQ” feels freighted by a false sense of political unity.4 The fractures that are spackled over by the false unity of LGBTQ are multiple: racialized subjects may not find themselves inside any of the terms on offer; the lesbian, already anachronistic, may feel diminished when she becomes a letter; gender collapses into sexuality, and trans-experience is neglected; and, most important for this study, sexuality exceeds this alphabet. No matter how precise our catalog of identities, desires, and behaviors, something escapes and then returns to mark the limit of what can be known. I am interested in how sexuality can coalesce, provisionally and sometimes defensively, into those categories we use to hold it—lesbian, gay, straight, and even perhaps transgender—but then pull those categories apart, exposing the desire to get it right and find the perfect name as a mask for a deeper anxiety that sexuality has the capacity to leave us feeling shattered and unintelligible, even to ourselves.

Wiegman (2012) charts the uncertain line from sexuality to identity and writes a new axiom for the field of queer studies that is an organizing principle for this book: “It is impossible to know in advance how anyone will need to travel the distance between her desires and the world in which those desires must (try to) live” (159). From desiring women to worldly experiments in loving other women, there is no straight line—indeed, perhaps no line at all. Wiegman urges a humility; again, an ethics of failure: we are stuck in the double bind of always inhabiting and resisting the identity categories offered, and our desires do not necessarily precede or fall in line with those categories. But Wiegman’s axiom can make a second turn. Just as it is impossible to know what we will make of our desires in the world, we also cannot know how the world will and will not infiltrate our desires. We do not just head out into the world to live our desires; we are inhabited by the world, and our relation to it is equally uncertain and impossible to know. The world presses itself upon us, but we do not and cannot always recognize those impressions. Put these (p.xvii) two axiomatic twists together and what emerges is a theory of the relation between sexuality and education. Our sexuality sends us out into the world where we must live our desires, and this propulsive quality is at the center of our engagements with knowledge. But similarly, the world leaves an impression on us, marks our desires in ways both knowable and unknowable. The world is its own elusive education, felt but not known.

This relation between the self and the world continues to thrill me and to upset my theoretical bearings. I have been and continue to be deeply invested in psychoanalysis and the insistence that we read the world from the inside out; that is, our interpretations of the world must always pass through our psychic apparatus and so are marked by our intimate histories of love and loss. As Freud (1925) argues, “Perception is not a purely passive process” (238), and we are always creating the world we are surprised to discover. But, following much work in queer theory, I am also concerned with how the world presses itself upon us, takes up residence inside ourselves, and circumscribes the limits of intelligibility. The psychoanalytic question of limits—what belongs to me and what belongs to the other—feels especially urgent here. It is a relation that José Esteban Muñoz (2009) describes as “between surface and depth” (123), and, like him, in this study I try to hold open a space between the proliferating surfaces of queer theory and the depths of psychoanalysis. Both fields are themselves organized around theories of sexuality, but far from speaking with a single voice, queer theory and psychoanalysis, as disciplines, are effects of conflicts over the nature and reach of sexuality. At times I wade into these debates and tentatively take a side. But just as often, the conflicts offer important clues into the function of sexuality for teaching and learning. The conflicts raise questions about the sources, aims, and objects of sexuality, and the expansiveness of these questions is, in part, a reply to the narrow casting of sexuality as “sex” in education discourse.

To address these conflicts in a way that keeps alive the promise of their disruptive potential, I offer a series of provocations (p.xviii) drawn from psychoanalysis and queer theory that ground this study of sexuality and education. These provocations are not comprehensive, but they do articulate my theoretical commitments—contingent as those may be. When I return at the end of the book to a similarly contingent list of pedagogical commitments that I hope could orient a welcome to LGBTQ sexualities in schools, my hope is to give these provocations life within the spaces and relations of the school. I offer them as a call to imagine a theory of sexual subjectivity tainted by queerness.

Sexuality begins at the beginning of life.

When controversies arise in schools about sexuality, sexuality is often positioned as an intruder, arriving on the scene from some other foreign place only to ruin the peaceful innocence of children and the school itself. At the threshold of adolescence, that foreignness is located inside the body of the nascent teenager whose hormones, also imagined as invaders, erupt to wreck the calm of childhood. In the trajectories assumed by these controversies, sexuality has a proper time and place, but it nonetheless always arrives too early as an uninvited guest. This understanding places sexuality outside of the subject as something one acquires in the course of development or socialization.

In psychoanalysis, however, sexuality may bear the traces of cultural norms, but it is not an effect of puberty or media socialization; it does not infect the subject from without. Instead, sexuality begins at the beginning of life: sexuality inaugurates subjectivity. As Joan Copjec (2010) explains, “Sex is not a predicate of the subject, it predicates that there is a subject” (65). The parents’ sexuality, in some sense, makes the child and then also calls the child into being. Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality is difficult, in part, because he argues that sexuality comes before there is a self able to “handle” sexuality. And this child, made by a sexuality that always remains enigmatic, is the paradigm of erotic life (Phillips 1998). Sexuality makes beginners of us all, which is (p.xix) to say that the history of our beginnings and our beginnerness haunts our sexualities.

Sexuality is a question.

Sex predicates the subject—arriving before understanding, and calling the subject into being—and so it remains both a question for the subject and a stand-in for the question of being (Copjec 2010). For Freud, the sexual researches of children are experienced as questions about origins and sexual difference. Where did I come from and what is the difference between boys and girls, are, for Freud, paradigmatic questions—the questions from which all other questions arise. Sexuality is experienced as a question, but the answers we might variously offer to ourselves and others are, more often than not, defenses against the question itself. “Answers,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (1999) writes, “are not a cure for questions” (3). Sexuality remains a question, and this radical quality is unsettling because it points to the subject’s opacity: we cannot answer the question of sexuality because a part of ourselves is foreign, and that foreignness—often understood as sexuality itself—refuses to be known. Copjec writes,

The human being is, as a sexuated being, the being whose being raises questions for her. Or: it is simply the experience of sexuality that raises the question of being by rendering the subject inconspicuous, opaque to herself…. The conspicuousness of the subject’s inconspicuousness, experienced as a question withheld from him or her, thus persists as “a piece of ignorance” and continues to pose the question of who he or she is. (2010, 67–68)

In this sense, the question of sexuality is the question of being; our sexuality, “as a piece of ignorance,” ruins our wish for absolute knowledge.

But just as it undermines fantasies of omnipotence, sexuality is also the source of curiosity. And this curiosity—so central to learning—also threatens the aims of education. Adam Phillips (1998) writes, (p.xx) Integral to, indeed constitutive of, the sexual behavior of children is their curiosity about sex. One could almost say that their curiosity is their sexuality. And yet it is their very curiosity about sex, Freud suggests, that creates for them a fundamental conflict with what he calls the “ideals of education.” Children want to know about sexuality, but the grown-ups tell them they need to know about something else; and they need to know about something else—call it culture—to distract them from what they are really interested in. Education, Freud implies, teaches the child either to lose interest in what matters most to her or to compromise that interest. Interest has to have something added to it, called education, to make it acceptable. (21)

In this portrait of education, culture ruins curiosity or, at best, directs curiosity toward acceptable objects. This is a conflict at the heart of learning; our most pressing questions carry the traces of our infantile sexuality, but in order for them to become part of an educational project, those questions must find substitutes in socially sanctioned activities.

Sexuality needs stories.

If, for psychoanalysis, sexuality “is fundamentally but not only a question” (Copjec 2010, 71), the question interrogates the problem of origins. Like the child who asks where she comes from, sexuality poses and then disrupts the promise of origin and causality. It is both the promise of our beginnings and a force “without why”—without, that is, purpose. If sexuality begins at the beginning of life, it also demands a story of its beginnings. But the story—where did I come from?—is written backward, in the time of what Jean Laplanche (1992) calls “afterwardness.” There is an untimely quality to sexuality—less cumulative than retrogressive—as the meanings of sexuality arrive too late even as they feel precocious.

This dynamic comes into view starkly in narratives of coming out. These origin stories, so central to the constitution of LGBTQ subjectivities and communities, are marked by a romance of beginnings. Across some of the literature on LGBTQ coming-out (p.xxi) narratives, scholars lament the banality of the genre. Each story, they complain, begins with the recognition of difference—“when I was six years old I knew I wasn’t like other boys”—and then proceeds in lockstep through experiences of torment to the claiming of an identity, participation in a community, and, hopefully, love, or at least sex (Probyn 1996, Sumara 1998). Critics have asked whether new forms of identity require new kinds of stories (Loutzenheiser and MacIntosh 2004). Is it possible, they ask, to tell a less teleological story of coming into one’s own, where uncertainty and ambiguity persist and are not resolved into the wholeness of identity?

These critiques raise important questions. First, how might new narrative forms enfranchise new relational modes? This question is important in queer theory and throughout this book because it requires us to notice how the stories we are telling about LGBTQ identities do not simply describe the experiences of queer youth in schools but rather call youth into particular ways of being and set the terms of recognition. Queer youth then come to recognize themselves through their proximity to these stories and construct, for themselves, a narrative that is made always in relation to those norms. Second, what can the centripetal force of these stories of sexuality—the pullback toward beginnings—tell us about the nature of sexuality? That is, rather than see these stories, however conventional, as either true or false accounts, or as failures of a literary imagination, what does the urge to put sexuality into history tell us about the nature of sexuality? This question, which plumbs the relation between narrative and sexuality, asks us to notice how narratives of becoming do not just tame the wildness of sexuality but also are an effect of sexuality (Georgis 2013). Each of these questions recognizes the untimeliness of sexuality—what in queer theory is being described as anachronisms (Freeman 2010), “feeling backward” (Love 2007), or “feel-ing historical” (Nealon 2001). Sexuality, always precocious and always belated, requires stories that can hold this untimeliness while hinting at other possible futures and pasts. (p.xxii)

Sexuality is made from love and hate.

Sexuality is not a synonym for pleasure, nor is it simply pleasureseeking. Sexuality has the capacity to both tie us to the social, making us feel part of something larger than ourselves, and to become the grounds of a politics, identity, or community. But sexuality also has the capacity to unbind; shatter social ties; produce feelings of loss, disappointment, or ecstatic loneliness; and undo illusions of identity, politics, and relationality. And all these possibilities can be a source of pleasure or nonpleasure. This ambivalence—that sexuality is made from love and hate, often for the same object—is a feature of the relationship between sexuality and education.

This ambivalence causes tension both for the self who must tolerate the confusion of feelings evoked by sexuality and for the fields that study sexuality and might wish sexuality could mean one thing. In recent conversations in queer theory, this tension has emerged in what is being called the “antisocial thesis.” Precipitated by the publication of Lee Edelman’s (2004) polemic No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, which insists that queerness is a refusal to participate in the promise of the future, embodied in the figure of the Child, the antisocial thesis disputes the political function of queer sexualities. The hope that queerness could hold people together in contingent political formations, create new collectivities, or inspire antinormative pedagogical dreams is contrasted with the ways that sexuality can dissolve social bonds, leading to self-shattering, alienation, and dissimulation. Can these qualities precipitate new queer subjectivities or politics? Across special issues, invited panel presentations, “feel tanks,” and edited collections, scholars working in queer theory argue, rebut, propose, and push the limits of these questions. The conversation itself—a ferocious reply to rumors of the death of queer theory—would seem to suggest that the study of queerness, at least, pulls people into networks of belonging. But I also suspect that the resuscitation of queerness and the invocation across queer theory of utopias, (p.xxiii) optimism, and political fantasies work against the aggressiveness and nonutility of sexuality. But those moves, from self-shattering to social bonds and back again, trace the vicissitudes of sexuality. This study moves between understanding sexuality as excessive, asocial, and unconscious, and queerness as a strategy for and effect of living with those contradictions.

Sexuality is a human right.

These provocations—to think of sexuality as inaugurating subjectivity, as persisting as an unanswerable question in the self, as mired in love and hate, and as subject to narrative—put tremendous pressure on the concept of education. Education is entangled in the same troubles. The desire for mastery and absolute knowledge defends against the helplessness that learning introduces; our relations to knowledge are bound to be caught up in love and hate; questions, which remain an ambivalent object of education, are both exciting and hazardous; and the stories we tell about education risk holding the difficulty of learning at bay.

This portrait of sexuality and education offers lessons for a study of LGBTQ students, families, and teachers. If sexuality is a human right—as the efforts to include LGBTQ students, families, and teachers in schools propose—then these complicated relations are our humanity. The push for full recognition of the human rights of LGBTQ people and communities needs to begin with a theory of sexuality that tolerates the ambivalent and contested relation we have to the categories that name us and that we use to name ourselves. We are all entitled to what Avery Gordon (2004) calls “a complex personhood.” Critiquing the tendency in social science research to equate persons with social markers—a poor person becomes defined by his or her poverty, the African American is lost behind a static conception of race, and the lesbian is understood only through her sexuality—Gordon demands that we notice, in our reading and research practices, the complicated relationship that individuals have both to the particularities (p.xxiv) of their lives and to the social categories we use to make sense of the world. In a beautiful list that attempts to repair the hubris of sociologists, Gordon writes, “Complex personhood means that all people (albeit in specific forms whose specificity is sometimes everything) remember and forget, are beset by contradiction, and recognize and misrecognize themselves and others” (4). She goes on to insist that we are all stuck and have the capacity for transformation, come together to act while also disagreeing, and are haunted by presences we both know and don’t know: “At the very least, complex personhood is about conferring the respect on others that comes from presuming that life and people’s lives are simultaneously straightforward and full of enormously subtle meaning” (5).

To heed Gordon’s advice and recognize the straightforward as well as the subtle meanings of people’s lives, our vision for the rights of LGBTQ students, teachers, and families would—like her list—make claims for the right to an ordinary life. No longer would it be enough to insist that LGBTQ people have a right to live free of harassment. Instead, those of us thinking about education would be charged with imagining and creating conditions for LGBTQ students, teachers, and families to lead full lives in schools—full of affirmation and acceptance but also of contradiction, forgetting, and misrecognition. This complexity is an effect of our sexuality; so, to welcome sexuality into the school, we must make room as well for our unintelligible selves. We can invite sexuality into the school, but we cannot know in advance who or what will arrive—and this impossibility marks the limit of an education committed to mastery.

These provocations, however partial, invested, and conflicted, name my theoretical bearings. But these bearings are restless and refuse to stay still; like Sedgwick’s elaboration of a reparative reading position, the provocations are a response to loss, and the losses are multiple: the injuries that make subjectivity and the difficulties that can mar a queer life. Distinguishing between reparative modes of knowing from paranoid structures (p.xxv) of thought, Sedgwick (2003) argues that paranoia is a strong theory that anticipates and finds confirmation of its beliefs everywhere, while in the reparative mode, the knowing subject risks surprise:

To read from a reparative position is to surrender the knowing, anxious paranoid determination that no horror, however apparently unthinkable, shall ever come to the reader as new; to a reparatively positioned reader, it can seem realistic and necessary to experience surprise. Because there can be terrible surprises, however, there can also be good ones. (146)

The reparative position recognizes that “people are fragile” (Hanson 2011, 105). We are injured already, from both the terrible and good surprises, and as a condition of entering the social and securing the love of others. In the reparative position, this injury, if or when we can bear it, blurs the boundaries between inside and outside, right and wrong. We are always already compromised. This compromised self—riddled by contradictions; injured, in part, by sexuality—is at the center of pedagogical relations. Could education begin with this fragile subject? And could an antihomophobic and antitransphobic inquiry recognize the ordinary fragility of the LGBTQ subject?

Structure of the Book

This book was written in fits and starts over many years. One chapter had its beginning in my dissertation; others were drafted through births, deaths, breakups, falling in love, long semesters teaching, and over my first sabbatical. I was surprised, therefore, when I read all of the chapters start to finish and discovered, again, that I had been writing my way into a similar set of concerns over and over from slightly different vantages, through the undulating rhythm of everyday life.

These concerns, which I have outlined in this introduction, continue to feel urgent. In the chapters that follow I bring these concerns to the pedagogical relationships that constitute the (p.xxvi) everyday life of educational institutions—especially the recognitions and misrecognitions that are the danger and potential of relations between adults and children and youth. Because adults have all survived their own childhoods and adolescences, their engagements with contemporary children and youth, as well as with discourses of development, are haunted by affective histories that find symptomatic representation in the worries, anxieties, and hopes that adults have for children and youth. Discussions of sexuality and children and youth are filled with adults’ own, largely unarticulated, emotional conflicts. This investment can be an act of love and care and a calling of children and youth into a world that is waiting for them, but this investment risks misrecognizing children and youth as representations of the adults’ narcissism. It is a generational dynamic that I will describe as Oedipal, drawing on psychoanalytic theories of development. But psychoanalysis is not the only description of this conflict. Hannah Arendt (2006) declares, “The essence of education is natality” (171). “We are born into the world as strangers,” she argues, and despite the uncertainty the strange ushers in, it is “the fact of natality” that makes possible a new beginning; “the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew” (9). This newness, however, threatens to overthrow the old, and so children and youth are received by their parents and the wider community as both a promise and a menace.

Each chapter is located in this conflict, and the portrait of intergenerational relationships that emerges respects both the promise of the new and the durability of the old. Chapter 1 begins with a juxtaposition: What is the relationship between “the queer child” and the LGBTQ adult? That is, to what use do LGBTQ adults put their childhoods? And how does the articulation of an LGBTQ identity require a history rooted in childhood experience? In my first iteration of the adult–child pedagogical relation, I argue that the invention of a childhood that could bolster our claims to a coherent LGBTQ identity neglects contemporary children whose sexualities may or may not be legibly queer. Looking at two court (p.xxvii) cases—one about the censorship of children’s picture books that portray same-sex families and one about the inclusion of a transwoman in a “women-only” rape crisis center—I explore what happens when the equality-seeking claims of LGBTQ adults rest on an inaugurating story of a queer childhood.

Chapter 2 follows the child into adolescence and considers how the idea of risk separates the conflicts of adolescence from the achievement of adulthood. I argue that adults’ sense of their own “grownupness” is put under pressure by the acting out of youth. Working closely with psychoanalytic theories of adolescent development, I analyze a short story by David Leavitt that frames as an emotional problem the decision to have safer sex. The story, and the conflicts of love and loss the story describes, open up the problem of sex education to the vicissitudes of affective life.

Chapters 3 and 4 elaborate on these dynamics. Each centers on a representation of a pedagogical relationship between adults and youth. Chapter 3 examines the antibullying video project It Gets Better, and chapter 4 looks at a documentary film, Desire, which chronicles the lives of teenage girls in and around New Orleans. In It Gets Better and Desire, adults call young people into stories about the horizons of their desire. The It Gets Better project was started as a response to media coverage of the suicides of young gay men; it asks ordinary LGBTQ adults to share stories of a future when their sexual identity is not only a source of pain and ostracism but also a site of pleasure and love and hope. I explore how that call into a future sets the terms for what a good gay life can look like while also offering youth the narrative resources to construct stories for themselves.

In chapter 4, I focus on the ubiquity of the prohibition in sex education; everywhere youth turn they will meet some version of an adult no. Drawing on theories of thinking from psychoanalysis I make the counterintuitive claim that sometimes a prohibition can create the conditions for thinking. When Peggy, one of the subjects of the film Desire, meets her parents’ and her schools’ (p.xxviii) rules about having sex, she decides to become a sex researcher, asking her friends what they think about when they think about sex. This, I argue, is a model for a thoughtful sex education.

In chapter 5 I consider how this orientation to the problem of sexuality and education can guide the kinds of welcome we offer LGBTQ students, teachers, and families in schools. Drawing on Derrida’s essay on hospitality I offer three examples in which schools are called upon to open their doors to the wildness of sexuality: debates about marriage equality and its impact on public schooling, welcoming the transitions of transgender students, and a more personal story of tolerating the irruption of sexuality in a class on adolescence. From there, I outline a reluctant manifesto for welcoming LGBTQ issues, students, teachers, parents, and community members into the spaces and relations of education. What is required to open the door of the school to whomever and whatever turns up? What kinds of stories of sexuality can find legitimacy in schools? My commitment is to understanding how schools can become places where we tolerate our perennial beginnerness, where the questions of sexuality can inspire the researches of students and teachers; where love, intimacy, and loss can become part of the affective register of sex education; and where everyone is free to explore the impossible routes between their desires and the world in which those desires must try to live.


(1.) See, for example, Boldt and Salvio 2006; Britzman 1998a; Gallop 1997; McWilliams 1999; Todd 1997; Walkerdine 2001.

(2.) It is a lesson I take from Jessica Fields’s (2008) study of sex education debates in North Carolina. Fields followed controversies about abstinence-only sex education in three counties, and in her analysis she uncovers some of conceptual complicities among groups that, politically, appear diametrically opposed. For instance, she argues that when liberal parents and school administrators support a more expansive comprehensive sex education by invoking discourses of childhood innocence, they unwittingly shore up racist ideas about black women’s sexuality being always already corrupted. Similarly, Fields notices that conservative parents who oppose comprehensive sex education also have a broad and generous theory of sexuality even as they insist that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only legitimate site for its expression. See also Lesko 2010.

(3.) See, for instance, Bride 2008.

(4.) While I likewise hope to expand queer educational research to include the vicissitudes of sexuality and of education, I am not outside of the dilemma that Mayo and Talburt and Rasmussen designate: I am caught in the bind of having to name those bodies, relations, and desires that I am interested in thinking about in schools. In this book I pay attention to the ways that sexual and gender minorities are cast in schools as repositories for sexuality itself and how the categories we use to name sexuality, however provisional and however necessary, end up describing and limiting the range of intimate possibilities available. Throughout the study, my language risks imprecision even as I try to be careful to name what I am talking about. I most often use the acronym “LGBTQ” to gather together a panoply of gender and sexual minorities. I chose this term because it closely resembles the ways that, sexual and gender minorities are being described in schools and educational research and I want to address myself to those teachers and scholars working in and thinking about schools. Yet the acronyms we might use to describe sexual and gender minorities are ever expanding, largely in an effort to reach out to those communities whose sexualities are rendered invisible by the narrowness of mainstream gay culture: two-spirited, intersex, and asexual people, for instance. A recent call for papers for an international conference featured the acronym, LGBTTIQQ2SA*, with the asterisk standing in for all (p.106) the names yet to be invented to describe nonnormative sexualities and genders. I appreciate the political longing such an acronym enacts, but I am suspicious of the wish for comprehensiveness it represents. As Wiegman (2012) insists in her study of the disciplinary formations of women’s studies, we cannot expect a name change—or expanded acronym—to repair the exclusions that the name represents. Every acronym, including LGBTQ, masks antagonisms between the terms. There are times when the interests of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transpeople come together and other times when they fall apart. And the Q, which I understand to designate queer, somehow has the potential to undo the tidiness of the LGBT but equally runs the risk of being made palatable because of its association with LGBT.