I recently had the pleasure of co-coordinating a session on creating safer classroom space. In the process, I designed a skit that presented a scenario in which a student is not comfortable discussing LGBT issues as a result of his religious convictions and upbringing. In the two sessions that occurred, a number of significant points were raised, including the fact that, while racism and sexism are commonly called out for rebuke, homophobia, often in the guise of religious belief or devotion, is excused or tolerated. Of course, such duplicity occurs not only in the classroom, as the recent political discourse about religious business’s freedom to decline services to LGBT people makes amply clear.
This tension between tolerance for religious difference and acceptance of LGBT equality and dignity poses significant questions for educators at all levels, but especially at the college and university level, where courses dealing with both of these issues are common. Whose rights deserve more respect and tolerance? Does the student whose faith precludes or forbids tolerance for LGBT people (as well as other sexual minorities) need to be sternly rebuked in the classroom or the office? How do we as educators work with such students to engage in meaningful dialogue, rather than just shutting them down? I don’t pretend to know the answers to these questions, but they do need to be asked by those of us who have an investment in promoting social justice for sexual and gender minorities, no matter how difficult the answers might be.
Furthermore, designing and performing this sketch, as well as engaging in and sometimes answering questions about it, brought home to me just how much I take for granted as a teacher at private institution in New York that, typically, offers significant institutional support for LGBT issues, faculty, and students. It may not be a perfect school, but it’s far better than many state and private schools in other parts of the country, including my own Appalachia, as well as in other parts of New York State. Whether or not we want to realize it, those of us that are pursuing doctoral degrees in prestigious schools in urban centers, especially in the northeast, may one day find ourselves in those geographical spaces where there is not an assumed support for matters LGBT. As terrifying as that prospect is for some people, we also need to recognize that it is precisely people who live in those areas–both those who share our beliefs and those who don’t–who are most in need of pedagogical experience and investment in engaging with the tough questions raised by the intersections and conflicts between religion and human sexuality. Furthermore, we need to develop strategies for coping not just with students, but also with administrators that do not support LGBT issues.
I have long thought that it is a mistake for LGBT theorists and thinkers to simply assume that people in rural America should flee their intolerant small town and country environs and escape to the welcoming embrace of the big city. There is a lot about rural queer identity, and rural live in general, that is worthy of celebration, even if it is sometimes tainted with the idiocy of those who espouse bigoted views. If we want to effect meaningful social change for people in all parts of the country, we need to start engaging in meaningful and sustained dialogue with those with whom we most vehemently disagree.
There are, of course, no easy or simple answers when it comes to this issue. Or at least there shouldn’t be. As tempting as it might be to simply state that homophobia, no matter how fancily dressed it may be in its garments of religious devotion, has no place in our contemporary society, the reality is that things are far more complex. If we, as educators, want to fulfill our mission of opening up minds and fostering critical engagement with today’s pressing political issues, including those that directly affect gender and sexual minorities, we have to be able to engage with even the most religiously devout of our students in deep and meaningful ways. This is not going to be an easy task, but it is one that many of us will have to confront as we begin to enter the profession. We would do well to start engaging in that conversation with our students, with ourselves, and especially with those who don’t agree with us. And we should do so as soon as possible.