Queering the classroom

Colorado educators and advocates team up to help bring queer literature into education


A group of educators at the University of Colorado Boulder have created a one-of-a-kind event — perhaps the first of its kind in the world.

On Saturday, April 25, the Queer Young Adult Literature Conference will bring together educators, middle and high school students, college students, university staff and faculty, and community members to learn more about young adult literature featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning themes and characters. Through talks with genre revolutionizing authors and workshops with local educators and activists, the one day conference tackles the lack of LGBTQ literature in most educational settings.

The conference is the joint brainchild of sj Miller, an associate professor of literacy studies in CU’s School of Education, and Mike Wenk, a doctoral candidate in the same department. They also received support from the National Council of Teachers of English Student Affiliate, Lambda Literary and the Colorado Language Arts Society.

For Miller, who prefers to avoid gender-specific pronouns, the conference is a keystone in creating safe environments for young LGBTQ individuals.

“Our queer kids are dying and, for me, that’s the core of it,” Miller says. “Literature is a pedagogical vehicle to disrupt suicide — a way to intervene in the classroom. At the heart of this is bringing in queer text that affirms and speaks to kids so they can develop a positive identity.”

Miller calls it “queering the classroom.”

“It means disrupting heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is the normal orientation) and giving kids a different lens to look at the world through that part that is missing,” Miller says.

Miller adds that suicide among LGBTQ youths is a “national crisis.” According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lesbian, gay and bisexual youths in grades seven through 12 are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. The CDC admits more studies are needed to better understand suicide risks for transgender youth, but one study with 55 transgender youth found that about 25 percent reported suicide attempts.

Miller taught high school in Santa Fe, N.M. as an openly queer teacher, keeping a library of books in the classroom that addressed gender and sexual diversity, as well as posters on the walls featuring quotes from queer and straight authors. While Miller sees growing momentum to incorporate more queer literature into curriculums, the number of teachers doing the work is still small.

Bethy Leonardi and Sara Staley, postdoctoral research associates in CU’s School of Education, are trying to change that. Staley and Leonardi are co-founders of A Queer Endeavor, an initiative that helps pre-service teachers incorporate topics of gender and sexual diversity in their courses. At the conference, they will discuss creating a safer classroom through increased LGBTQ topics in the curriculum.

“There’s a lot of research that suggests when queer youth have access to even one supportive educator in the building in school, it makes a tremendous impact in their school experience — they show up more often, they report experiencing less bullying and harassment, they feel more connectedness, they feel part of the school community,” Staley says. “We know that when schools show support by having a visible [Gay-Straight Alliance] or by having signs around the school that are supporting the LGBTQ community, we know when LGBTQ youths see themselves reflected in positive, affirming ways in curriculum, that has tremendous impact, too.”

Leonardi says most teachers receive no preparation in starting conversations with students about LGBTQ topics.

“There’s the idea of … internal safety, the way that heteronormativity is throughout curriculum — who you can bring to prom, the stories you can read, the families you can see — all that stuff keeps queer identities out in a different way than bullying,” Leonardi says. “For queer kids or kids who don’t identify in the gender binary or in any binary really, there’s no place for them to make sense of themselves. There’s no framework to make sense of who you are or who you’re becoming. So while they might not be [physically] bullied, there’s still this sense of ‘Where do I fit? Where’s the framework that’s available to me to figure out who I’m becoming?’”

Sara Connell, the transgender programming coordinator for Out Boulder, will lead a conference session on transgender narratives in young adult fiction. The session will begin with a short discussion on current transgender language, and then move into an examination of some common tropes found in contemporary young adult literature featuring transgender narratives.

“People will start to see that a lot of these stories talk about shame or having a secret or being born in the wrong body,” Connell says, so the second part of her presentation will focus on presenting a solution to these narrow ideas of what it means to be transgender. “How do we flip these scripts about transgender people always have to be sad and depressed and have a huge conflict with their bodies, and they always want surgery and they always have to want hormones — how do we write stories that don’t fit in that box? A lot of these things are still limiting for our community.”

Connell, Leonardi and Staley all agree that high-quality queer young adult literature should have a plot that doesn’t revolve around the character’s gender identity or sexual orientation.

“I think the next step is when a queer character’s identity doesn’t become the back-of-the-book’s selling point,” Connell says. “I want love stories where people happen to be queer-identified. Or stories where someone already transitioned six years ago and the point of the story is trying to get into student government, and it just happens they are a transgender character.”

There are a number of authors in the young adult genre who have created transformative queer literature for young adults. Participants will have the chance to interact with authors Malinda Lo (a former Boulder County resident), Julie Anne Peters (who currently resides in Lakewood), Sara Farizan and Alex Sanchez. Sanchez’s Rainbow series trilogy, focusing on the issues gay and questioning youth face as they come of age, has won numerous awards, including the American Library Association’s award for Best Book for Young Adults.

The conference will also include writing workshops, discussions on creating gay-straight alliances, dialogues on what it means to be an ally and an introduction on including a queer literacy framework in the classroom.

“We think about the word ‘queer’ not just as an adjective to describe someone’s gender or sexual identity, but also to queer something or turn something on its head,” Leonardi says. “Because of that historical silence in schools around LGBTQ topics, bringing these issues into education is a queer endeavor. So we kind of use [the word queer] to signify a few things: To queer something, to play with something that’s been ‘normal’ for so long — and it’s not normal. It’s very diminishing and isolating and keeping a lot of identities out of education spaces.”