I remember being on the Paris Metro in the 1980’s.
At the time it was quite usual for buskers to come on to the carriages and busk. They were often very good.
That evening, as me and a friend headed into Paris to go to club I think was called Boy, a girl got on. She clipped a large silk scarf across the opposing seat rods at the end of the carriage, put some music on a ghetto blaster (it was the 1980’s) and started to do a hand puppet show from behind the scarf. I remember it was really beautiful. People started smiling and taking money out to give to her when she finished.
However a woman and a young girl got on (the young girl was wearing a long coat). They didn’t speak. They walked down the carriage – the woman with her palm outstretched, the girl opening her coat to show that she was naked from the waist up. She was also covered in what looked like acid burns from the waist to her jaw. It was so ‘in your face’ that most people just handed the money that they had meant for the busker to the woman.
And that was the really surreal part. The busker couldn’t see what was going on behind the silk scarf. While all this was happening she was continuing on with her puppetry. It was only at the end, when she requested a contribution and the people in the carriage looked away, that she realised something had gone wrong.
Shock tactics work. Worst case scenarios are presented in reports as if they’re typical. Those examples will often be selected to highlight the most emotional language. That they’re successful in LGBT research in education is reflected in the dogma that sexual minority youth are continuously bullied, brutalised and even threatened regularly with rape in schools (if you read the Stonewall School Report 2012 P5, P12 I think you’ll find it’s implied). Like the woman and the girl it’s actually very difficult to argue with this kind of emotive barrage. Like the busker, it undermines more positive research that celebrates resilence and joy. That great difficulty is that, like the scarred girl, it’s not false. The expressions of pain and of oppression may be very real. The great tension in LGBT research in education is how not to let them become overwhelming. Otherwise, many LGBT reports on young people have more in common with tabloid talk shows such as Jeremy Kyle’s than peer-reviewed research.
This was a well-organised, well run conference as you would expect from the BSA Youth Group.
I’m not sure I totally agree with Jo Phoenix’s opening remarks – that there are no more sexual pioneer researchers. I don’t consider myself one, but I’m not sure that I’d want to close the door to another generation taking our disciplines into completely radical directions.
Matthew Waites’ keynote was a quantitative analysis of Age of Consent debates across the globe (especially in Commonwealth countries). He pointed out quite interesting trends: for example, the centralising moves towards an age of 15/16 in many countries. He also quickly discussed the recent Teddy Bear Clinic judgment in South Africa which decriminalised consensual sexual activity between young people between the ages of 12 and 16 (where the judgment views young people and their consenting bodies in a very different light from standard recent British juridical-medical discourses). Given the time restraints, and much of the material being quantitative, there wasn’t much opportunity to offer a cultural context for the data presented though some was offered in relation to India which helped illuminate the figures.
Mark McCormack’s keynote on the social mechanism of decreasing homophobia was full of cultural context. For me – this was one of the best papers of the day; not least because the content was matched by the presentation (is learning to use Prezi that hard for most people). I thought he raised important issues about how Stonewall report on homophobia. How these may not be a moral panic, but have some of the features (of a sexual panic?) (which would be picked up on by Clarissa Smith on porn discussing Simon Watney’s conception of a sexual panic). He also discussed homohysteria as a concept (the fear of being socially perceived as gay) and outlined a model of homohysteric language. What kind of factors might impact upon this. I thought that this was a incredibly strong paper; the only thing I would have liked was more clarity on the specific youth populations his work was speaking to.
Clarissa Smith’s paper on porn anxiety and children was, for me, the stand-out paper of the day. As mentioned before, Smith distinguished between a moral and a sexual panic. Sexual panics involve anxieties that may flare up into moral panics, but mostly they exist all the time in our media and society. They are dominant narratives about sexual fears that exist at a low to medium level at all time in our society which the media both fuel and feed off. Porn and children involve a dominant model of porn, easily understood by adults. It engages with the rhetoric of the child in danger, framing risk, exposure and addiction. The difficulty is that when young people are spoken to about porn, they also frame their public accounts in accordance with this public model available in the media. Smith then offered ethnographic accounts of young people speaking about their porn use (where they’d been offered the opportunity to reflect rather than simply say what they felt was socially acceptable). The accounts were so considered and challenged how we view youth sexuality, youth agency and the use of porn.
Most of the other papers that I saw were postgrads. Although the standard was very high with one glaring exception; I’m not going to comment as I wouldn’t want someone to comment on my work at this stage.
Usually this parable is told about four blind men and an elephant, but I find that version far too disablist. I just think at least a couple of the visually-impaired men (though why they have to be men) would know to check out the whole animal.
So, in the spirit of a politically correct fairy tale, here is a methologically correct parable…
One day four LGBT researchers in education was asked to go into a pitch-black cave (the secondary school system) and describe the animal (the elephant who is meant to represent all sexual minority teenagers) that that they found there.
However, the cave being very dark, the animal being quite large, and their own preference as to where they put their hands meant that each of them gave a different description of the animal they encountered.
The researcher who felt the whizzing tail thought it was an insect; the researcher who felt the elephant’s side thought it was a cow; the researcher who felt the tusks thought it was a boar; and, the researcher who felt the trunk thought it was a snake.
In other words, each of them described a different youth population of sexual minority youth which was somewhat accurate, but not the whole picture. The problem was: each researcher felt their description was the most generally accurate and so they argued.
While they were arguing the elephant left the cave because youth populations aren’t static; they change. That are certainly patterns of behaviour with particular groups of sexual minority youth that we can look at. But we should be careful to over-generalise from parts of an animal; particularly if we have no idea what the full animal looks like or if the animal has moved on to pastures new.
There’s a certain kind of career-minded gay and lesbian teacher I’ve known.
There’s also a certain kind of trajectory to their careers and compromises (which I mostly blame on teaching).
They’re ‘out in the staffroom not in the classroom’. A friend of mine describes one colleague as “stomping down corridors in butch boots and dark business suits trying to look as masculine as possible.” Then “he would hide in his office and play Kylie on headphones so no one would hear.” The tragic part is everyone knew, including the students. The signals he modelled about his sexuality to LGBT students were dreadful as he acquired an office, progressed to Vice Principal, etc..
At this point (and this is often the trajectory), feeling secure, he decided to begin a PhD looking at homophobia and education. However, and this is when I met him, there was no sense of him reflecting on his own complicity in the institutional heteronormativity of education. Everything was projected unto the homophobia of straight students and selected prejudiced straight teachers. He found homophobia, but what he didn’t find was his own internalised homophobia. It was also as if all these feelings that he had internalised on the way up the career ladder were now being transferred to sexual minority students without considering that their life experiences might be significantly different. After all, having the same or similar sexual or gender orientations doesn’t make us the same?
This is not to discount the accounts of victimisation, of homophobia in English secondary schools. Many such accounts are clearly accurate and appalling, but it’s important to recognise that LGBT researchers in education often come from precisely this group of teachers. It’s vital we recognise that they bring with them issues (however unconsciously) that impact upon the research they intend to conduct. It’s also vital because these teachers have usually been successful in their careers so that the research that they conduct is usually awarded a certain weight. However, I would argue that the trajectory of those careers have involved compromises that will impact upon research in significant way unless we learn to reflect meaningfully upon them