Just A Valentine’s Card? Challenging Heteronormativity and Cisnormativity in Schools

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By Laura Schrier

Every February a wave of pink and red washes over UK commercial districts as shops prepare for Valentine’s day, marketing the perfect gifts for “him” and “her”. But more than just an extra excuse to eat chocolate and participate in consumerism, February marks LGBT History Month, an annual observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender history and an important time to reflect on both the achievements and ongoing struggles for rights and equality in the LGBT+ community.

LGBT+ inclusivity has been a topic of increasing conversation among UK schools, as they explore ways to make the environment safer for all students. While many UK schools have made positive efforts on this front, with steps like the implementation of programmes to prevent homophobic and transphobic bullying, much of these efforts focus solely on the “safety” of LGBT+ students (Marston, 2018). While the protection and safety of LGBT+ students is critically important, schools often fall short in examining meaningful ways to cultivate whole school inclusivity for LGBT+ students that expands beyond just “safety” to a focus on “equality” (Marston, 2018).

One of the central barriers many schools face in achieving inclusivity for LGBT+ students is tackling heteronormativity* and cisnormativity* (world views that promote heterosexual and cisgender* (see glossary below) people as natural and normal, marginalizing and erasing the experiences of LGBT+ people).  It is important to note that being heterosexual or cisgender affords a privilege that is often hidden to those that benefit from it. In other words, we live in a world where being anything but heterosexual and cisgender is premised as abnormal.

With regards to the school environment, there is always much debate about uniform policies, changing rooms and bathroom facilities, all of which are often based on the idea that gender is binary and can cause fear for gender-questioning and transgender young people and staff. Many schools are now creating gender neutral bathrooms that are inclusive to all students and creating more choice and inclusivity in their uniform policies. However, schools perpetuate hetero/cisnormativity in a number of other ways too.  For example, surveys, applications, and other official forms often force students to select their sex or gender, which are often equated as the same thing, and typically restrict students to a binary of girl/boy or female/male. IT systems can be difficult to update if a young person changes their name and pronouns and this can translate to misgendering on exam certificates and other official documentation that they carry with them later in life.

One of the most prominent ways schools promote hetero/cisnormativity is through the curriculum. It is uncommon to see positive, healthy representations of transgender individuals or non-heterosexual relationships in school curriculum and, while some schools have books, displays and posters which feature LGBT+ people and issues, these are rare resources and often not mainstreamed into teaching. Furthermore, teachers often have little to no training on how to create an inclusive classroom for LGBT+ students. Thus, cis/heteronormativity can manifest in the classroom in seemingly subtle ways, often without well-intentioned teachers even noticing. For example, creating seating plans that are based on a ‘boy, girl, boy, girl’ arrangement can create classrooms that are unwelcoming for transgender students. It also further reinforces the false idea to students that gender is a binary where all people should either fit into the category of boy or girl. I myself have committed seemingly harmless acts in the classroom, like calling out “quiet to the chatty girls in the back,” without realising in the moment the profound impact these actions can have on students who could be misgendered* or marginalised as a result. In addition, parents/carers can be referred to as ‘mum and dad’ if teachers are not checking their privilege and relationships and sex education can focus solely on heterosexual relationships. Teachers can feel worried about answering questions young people ask about gay relationships or transgender issues, for fear of not having the backing of their Senior Leadership Team or parents/carers.

Thus, one of the most critical ways to create a truly inclusive school environment for LGBT+ students is to train all school staff and teachers. Whole school training is vital to equip staff with an understanding of LGBT+ issues, adequate vocabulary and inclusive language, and tools not only to support students on an individual level, but to foster inclusivity within their classrooms and the school at large.

In a month where we are bombarded by representations of heteronormative relationships, February offers an important time to question the manifestations of heteronormativity and cisnormativity around us and in our own lives. These practices have a vast impact on LGBT+ students, who face bullying and mental health issues at alarmingly high rates. For anyone committed to equality, we must recognise the ways that cis/heteronormativity negatively impacts the LGBT+ community and do the work to challenge and disrupt it.

As we take the time this month to reflect on LGBT history, we must ensure that we do not treat this as a special issue that we can merely squeeze into the shortest month of the year. Instead, we can use this month as a jumping off point to do the work of deeply examining our schools and institutions and take action to create inclusive spaces and systems for all. Furthermore, we can also evaluate our own actions and language. Teachers can work on incorporating LGBT+ examples into their classroom discussions and lessons, while also including things like LGBT+-inclusive posters, resources, and books in their classrooms (Tompkins, 2017). It is also imperative not to make assumptions about students’ gender identity or sexual orientation based on their appearance or behaviour. Teachers can be conscious of their language and ensure it is not boxing students into a gender identity or sexual orientation. Teachers can also speak up in their schools and voice the integral need for greater attention to these issues.

EqualiTeach is a delivery partner in a Government Equalities Office funded programme to help London primary schools to promote LGBT+ inclusivity, and tackle homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying. The programme runs from April 2019-March 2020. For more details see: www.equaliteach.co.uk or contact Sarah Soyei: enquiries@equaliteach.co.uk


*Heteronormativity- the belief that heterosexuality is the norm or the assumption that all people are heterosexual

*Cisnormativity – the belief or assumption that a person’s gender identity matches their biological sex, otherwise known as being cisgender.

*Cisgender- an individual whose gender identity matches the biological sex assigned at birth. Cis-” is a Latin prefix meaning “on the same side as,” and is therefore an antonym of “trans-.”

*Non-binary- an umbrella term used by some people who experience their gender identity as falling outside the categories of man and woman. Many people believe that there are only two genders, however gender isn’t binary. Some may define their gender as falling somewhere in between man and woman, as a combination of both or as wholly different from these terms.

*Misgender- refer to someone using a pronoun or form of address that does not correctly reflect the gender with which the person identifies

Additional Resources:

For a more comprehensive glossary on LGBTQIA+ terms, see: Stonewall’s Glossary of Terms

For more information about creating inclusive schools see: Mermaids’ Trans* Inclusion Schools Toolkit






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