Schools are heteronormative. That is the conclusion of the researcher and author of Hétéro, l’école? Plaidoyer pour une éducation antioppressive à la sexualité, an essay published in 2019. “In fact, schools send two main messages,” she notes. “They expect young people to be heterosexual and there are two sexes that are more different than similar. This harms both LGBTQ+ students, whose reality is denied, and other students, who are compelled to fit into the “right” way of being a girl, or a boy.

She explains: “A very tangible way of sending this message occurs when we teach the topic of puberty. Usually, a woman’s body and a man’s body are shown with menstruation indicated on one and more hairiness on the other. This is presented as two really dissimilar realities, whereas in other countries, the same content is presented in a different way. This shows that the approach is not neutral.”

Moreover, some countries, such as Sweden, have adopted an entirely different approach that emphasizes the similarities between boys and girls, such as the growth of body hair and increased sexual desire during puberty, she adds. “It may seem trivial, but in various ways, we teach that girls and boys are more different than similar. In the long term, young people absorb this message.” The same applies to dress codes or separate, gender-based changing rooms and bathrooms. In so doing, we presume that children are heterosexual and that girls must be protected from boys’ urges by a wall.

Gabrielle Richard 

In the same vein, the heterosexuality of students is constantly taken for granted, even in stories told to children or in organized activities such as proms or Valentine’s Day. Such events highlight heterosexual couples, usually without allowing room for diversity, states the researcher associated with Université du

Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Université Paris-Est Créteil. “No one presents this as an opportunity to discuss sexual orientation, which of course, it is.”

Modeling interactions

This difference is embodied even in the schoolyard, where boys monopolize centre stage and girls stay on the fringes, and in interactions between youths, the researcher notes in her work. “Often, the pyramid of adolescent popularity is measured in conformity to gender norms. This means that the most popular girls are, quote unquote, real girls,” she explains. “And the more you depart from these behaviours, the less popular you are.”

Interactions in the classroom are no exception to the rule. “Being under the impression that there is a male nature and a female nature completely different from each other influences the way we treat students. For example, teachers tend to punish boys less frequently than girls for unruly behaviour, because they expect boys to behave that way, since they are boys.” Besides, more than 80% of teachers feel that children learn differently based on gender, according to a 2016 study by the Conseil du statut de la femme. “This shows that we often unwittingly hold different expectations based on children’s gender.”

An invisible reality

While doing her master’s degree, Gabrielle Richard closely examined over 17 000 pages of educational content proposed by the Ministère de l’Éducation. “I was looking for passages that evoked themes such as gender identity or homosexuality.” In the forty references unearthed, most had a link to the Holocaust, because homosexuals were targeted by the Nazi regime. “This shows that such questions are rarely discussed and that, when they are, it’s in a context of victimization,” she notes. “What is highlighted is how difficult it is to be gay and this is presented as a path riddled with pitfalls.”

Even sexuality education courses conceal these realities. Which means that many students finish their education having barely covered topics such as sexual orientation or gender identity or without having covered them at all. “In fact, this silence speaks volumes,” the sociologist says. “It sends a message to LGBTQ+ youths or youths who are questioning that it is not OK to be who they are.”

These students not only feel forgotten, they also feel that they are not important in the eyes of the school, she says. “It is just as problematic for those who are gender questioning. Since these issues are never talked about, they don’t really feel normal. And they don’t even know what words to google to find information!”

These topics are often still taboo, notes Gabrielle Richard. “Many teachers don’t dare to talk about them, because they are afraid of the students’ and the parents’ reactions, and I don’t blame them.” Often, teachers are ill-equipped and lack the knowledge needed to address the questions, she observes. Which doesn’t mean that the questions should be swept under the rug. “What the world needs, and not only LGBTQ+ students, is education that opens horizons, that is liberating, and that doesn’t trap people in little boxes starting in childhood.”

Calling codes into question

To improve the situation, Gabrielle Richard says that schools need to review the way they do things. “Currently, most schools have adopted an inclusive instructional approach,” recalls the researcher. “This means that teachers are asked to add content illustrating diversity in their classes, for example, by including in the reading schedule a book written by a homosexual or racialized person.” A laudable approach, but it is not sufficient for changing mentalities over the long term, in addition to being difficult to maintain.

Instead, the sociologist advocates an “anti-oppressive education,” in which teachers and students identify and challenge the social norms conveyed through the education program. She suggests using several practical exercises taken from her book, such as the heterosexual questionnaire. “Since when have you known you are heterosexual? Have you revealed your heterosexual tendencies to the people close to you? How did they react? The mere fact that this not an oft-posed question shows the extent to which it is never challenged.” For younger children, it is possible to emphasize the lack of diversity, or the presence of stereotypes in a story, for instance. “In fact, this approach allows to prompt reflection and to develop a critical thinking instinct in students,” she stresses.

The sociologist advances several other ideas, such as using inclusive language or even introducing oneself, at the start of the year, using one’s first name as a sign of openness. “But since we are talking about biases and norms that are often unconscious, they are not easy to deconstruct,” she thinks. For that to happen, she believes that teacher training should include courses in anti-oppressive teaching practices, which touch on all forms of exclusion, as well as reflection in order to identify one’s own biases.

In short, schools should put in place an atmosphere of inclusion which allows all students to flourish. “One may often feel that discussing homosexuality in the classroom will only be useful to one student per class, but that is untrue. We should not close our eyes. All students question themselves about topics such as identity, about how to know whether they are attracted to someone or it’s simply friendship, or about whether or not to wear certain clothes.” Thus, schools should open up the field of possibilities for students. “This is essential for educating citizens who will be able to contribute a democratic and pluralist society,” she concludes.

“In fact, schools send two main messages. They expect young people to be heterosexual and there are two sexes that are more different than similar.”

“What the world needs, and not only LGBTQ+ students, is education that opens horizons, that is liberating, and that doesn’t trap people in little boxes starting in childhood.”