Equity, Promising Practices, Teaching

Infusing Some Queer into Teacher Education

for an overnight trip in grade 9 when I wasn’t even out yet we had random room assignments and I really didn’t know my two roommates. The two of them spread throughout school that they didn’t want to be in a room with me because I would probably try to rape them. I’m going to try to rape them? Please. But that was the stupid, rude assumption they were spreading – and not just about me either but about all gay people – and it made me feel bad about myself. The girls then went to school administration and said they shouldn’t have to room with me. The administration chose to reassign me and allow them a room of their own. That was how administrators handled the situation! What if I had said something about one of the girls’ race or something, something which I would never do, but what if I had? Administrators would have challenged my racism as they should have and as I know they did at that school. But they chose not to challenge homophobia … why not? Are they not teachers?


People at my first junior high school treated me so shitty and made so many comments I couldn’t concentrate on school-work and struggled academically. The teacher and principal they were like “what’s happening to you is not OK but we can’t control all the bullying … it’s going to happen.” They were way too right because all the time there it did happen and all the time there my grades sucked bad.

Ryan [1]

Gay Houston teen beaten with metal pipe after principals, bus driver ignore his pleas for help.[2]

As these quotations illustrate, publicly-funded schools in North America are often scary and dangerous places for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (GBLTQ) youth. Moreover, many teens suggest, in fact, that the adults (teachers, administrators, bus drivers, etc.) charged with ensuring their safety and learning often do little to promote their acceptance by and safety among their peers.

Recent research from Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (Egale) Canada shows that change is happening in some regions, where schools and school divisions have developed safe-schools policies and procedures that explicitly address homophobia and when students and parents are aware of these policies and their power. But for more widespread change to occur, we believe that educators need preparation to become more sensitized to GBLTQ teen issues and equipped with the empathy, knowledge, and skills to support and protect these marginalized students in their care. Infusing pink issues, in a meaningful way, into pre-service teacher education programs is one critical way to contribute to these educators’ preparation.

The goal of this short article is to describe a sample of pink initiatives undertaken in the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island. These initiatives are reflective of principles that guide the Faculty’s work:

The University of Prince Edward Island Faculty of Education strives in all its actions to:

  • build caring, equitable, and just relationships and practices
  • develop communities of creative and critical thinkers who value diversity.[3]

Additional Background and Rationale for our Initiatives

Beyond this mission statement, there is a body of research that substantiates the need for teacher education around GBLTQ issues. For example, Egale Canada conducted an online survey with 1,700 youth across Canada.[4] A large majority of participants who identify as GBLTQ reported feeling unsafe at school, and even half of the straight participants agreed that at least one part of their school is unsafe for GBLTQ students. One in four “out” lesbian, gay, and bisexual students had been physically harassed about their sexual orientation. Many GBLTQ participants reported that staff never intervened when homophobic comments were made at school. Forty percent of GBLTQ participants reported that they would not be comfortable talking to their teachers, 60 percent would not talk to their principal and 70 percent would not talk to their sports coach about GBLTQ issues.

This report also refers to GBLTQ participants and suicide. Indeed, the mental health field has argued that GBLTQ teens face significantly higher risks and incidence of mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts and attempts, than other teens. Recent research conducted at McGill University with 1,856 youth aged 14 years and older confirms this.[5]

Moreover, some studies have been conducted with teachers and school administrators to assess their comfort addressing GBLTQ issues schools, how safe they feel doing so, and how often they do so.[6] It is clear that teachers feel unprepared to address these issues with students. All authors call for safe-school policies and for increased attention to GBLTQ issues in teacher education programs. This is also the intention of this article.

We have found that the use of talking circles, inspired by Aboriginal communities, have been helpful in promoting a sense of safety in speaking about sensitive issues such as gender and sexual orientation.

The Initiatives[7]

The initiatives have been inspired by principles of transformative pedagogy.[8] Some of the activities also include strategies that draw on techniques from a pedagogy of discomfort.[9] Foucauldian notions of truth-telling are also foundational to our approach.[10] Familiarizing students with critical thinkers, like Foucault, encourages them to question taken-for-granted truth claims that surround not only sexuality but other domains, as well. However, sometimes truth-telling is painful and even intimidating for students. We have found that the use of talking circles, inspired by Aboriginal communities, have been helpful in promoting a sense of safety in speaking about sensitive issues such as gender and sexual orientation.

The initiatives have been implemented principally in three courses in the second year of our two-year Bachelor of Education program. During the first year of this program, students also complete a course in inclusive education which exposes them to students with a variety of differences (from the norm). This course focuses on teaching and learning for all students, no matter their abilities or differences. In second year courses focusing on child and/or adolescent development and on culture and society, we have had success with three activities.

In the first, we unpack gender identity and sexual orientation. Students are given two sticky dots. The males get one colour and the females another. On the whiteboard, or on a large piece of paper on the floor, we draw two horizontal lines. At opposite ends of the first line we write male and female. Students are asked to reflect on where they situate themselves along this male-female continuum. They come forward, anonymously, and place their dots along the line. At the same time, they also place their second dot along a sexual attraction continuum. Students place their dots towards the male end of the continuum if they are uniquely or more attracted to men and towards the female end of the continuum if they are attracted to women. Once all dots are placed, students are asked to do a free-write about their feelings and observations of the placement of the dots. This is followed by a discussion of stereotypes associated with gender identity and how society “others” those who do not conform to typical, expected male or female traits. This inevitably leads to a discussion of students’ sexual experimentation and their own struggles and assumptions relating to sexual orientation. We have also had fascinating discussions that examine why almost all of the males in our classes seem hesitant to admit anything but total maleness and total straightness during these activities, while we have observed much more variability amongst the women.[11] These discussions take place in an Aboriginal talking circle using a talking stick or similar object that assigns the speaker the “floor”, and others respect and listen attentively to their colleagues as they speak.

In a second activity, students work in groups to brainstorm as many labels as possible that they have used or heard to refer to GBLTQ individuals. Most of these labels are derogatory (e.g., puff, cocksucker). It is fascinating to hear students talk about their discomfort writing down some of these terms. Other students have never heard of some of the terms and cannot believe what they are learning. Many students talk about their shame because they are guilty of “othering” and bullying peers that they had suspected were gay or lesbian during their public school years. A few students have the courage to share what it felt like during their public schooling to be called such names.

As a gay teacher educator myself, I (Miles Turnbull) always share such stories and also talk confidently about calling myself a “big ole fruit” or “queen”. Students are often taken aback, in a positive and reflective way, by stories of the empowerment of the marginalized who appropriate the derogatory language used by others to marginalize and bully them. I always ensure that discussions focus on what to do in schools when students direct this language towards their peers. There are at least three goals associated with this activity: 1) to increase awareness of youth language that future teachers should be aware of; 2) to unpack the discomfort and shame students feel when they realize the pain that others can feel when such nasty terms are directed towards them; 3) to encourage these future teachers to have the courage to challenge their students who engage in “othering” and bullying using this derogatory language, be it in the classroom, in the hallways, or on the school bus.

In the third activity, I have told my story of schooling as a young gay male in Prince Edward Island schools. I and other instructors have also invited gay or lesbian friends to class to share their stories. In all cases, the speakers share intimate, real, and sometimes painful stories about how they were bullied at school, how many teachers and administrators ignored the bullying, how they tried to hide and escape the pain by keeping busy with academics or by excelling in sports. I always talk about pretending I was straight because I was supposed to. I reflect on my experiences in an international school where it was okay for me to be “out” and for me to talk about gender identity and sexual orientation with my friends – this educational institution and the educators there changed my life. I talk about almost getting married to a woman, and how a good friend convinced me that this would be disastrous for her and for me. I share the tragedy of my first lover’s suicide.

Following stories such as these, students share their reactions to the stories in a talking circle. Some remain silent. In many instances, this sharing leads students to talk about their own friends and family members who have struggled. They often talk about students they witnessed in schools during their practica, and this becomes an opportunity to tackle head-on how these future teachers can become advocates for students in their schools. We share resources from websites and talk about safe-school policies. We can only hope that some of our students become change agents in the schools where they will teach.

If they are not willing to take this time, to accept all students as they are, and to create safety for all students in their care, then maybe teaching is not the best career choice for them.


We intentionally used the term “infusion” in the title of this article. We believe that it is crucial to avoid one-off workshops on GBLTQ issues. It takes significant time to help future teachers unpack their own beliefs, attitudes, and personal experiences with gender identity and sexual orientation before they feel ready to embark into schools as advocates for their GBLTQ students. But as we tell students during the kind of sharing described above, if they are not willing to take this time, to accept all students as they are, and to create safety for all students in their care, then maybe teaching is not the best career choice for them.

Although we could do much more during the teacher education program, GBLTQ issues are examined in at least three courses over the two years. All Faculty members are also encouraged to infuse principles of social justice and inclusion for all students in every course. After all, as one eloquent research participant, and then his mother, in Hilton’s current research project state:

People at my new school were way more open-minded, like somehow staff were “dialed” about gay issues. I figure either someone had come out there before or else the teachers had really paid attention at some training seminar somewhere (Ryan, from Hilton, 2010).

The two years Ryan spent in the new school were phenomenal. I couldn’t have asked for more supportive partners to help him come into his own personally and academically. But don’t get the impression there was no homophobia there because there was. The difference was the number of people who stood up to it starting with the school leadership (Brenda, from Hilton, 2010).

We are hopeful that our initiatives can make a difference.

EN BREF – Les écoles publiques nord-américaines sont souvent des lieux angoissants et dangereux pour les jeunes gais, lesbiennes, bisexuels, transsexuels et en questionnement (GLBTQ). De nombreux adolescents indiquent que les adultes chargés d’assurer leur sécurité et leur apprentissage font souvent très peu pour favoriser leur acceptation et leur sécurité parmi leurs pairs. Les éducateurs ont besoin de préparation afin d’être sensibilisés aux questions d’identité sexuelle des adolescents et développer l’empathie, les connaissances et les compétences requises pour soutenir et protéger ces élèves marginalisés dont ils sont en charge. La faculté d’éducation de l’Université de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard a lancé des initiatives dans le cadre de ses programmes de formation des enseignants afin d’aider les nouveaux enseignants à exposer leurs propres croyances, attitudes et expériences personnelles d’identité et d’orientation sexuelle et de les préparer à devenir les défenseurs de leurs élèves GLBTQ.

[1] T. Hilton, “Queering Freedom: Schooling Experiences of ‘Out’ Youth and Their Parents on Prince Edward Island.” Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Society for Studies in Education, Concordia University, Montreal, 2010.

[2] www.dallasvoice.com/gay-houston-teen-beaten-with-metal-pipe-after-principals-bus-driver-ignore-his-pleas-for-help-108758.html

[3] www.upei.ca/education/mission-statement-goals-and-history

[4] C. Taylor and T. Peter, Youth Speak Up about Homophobia and Transphobia: The First National Climate Survey on Homophobia in Canadian Schools Phase One Report (Winnipeg, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2009). Retrieved from http://egale.ca/extra/CG_Taylor__Climate_Survey__Phase_One_Report.pd

[5] Y. Zhao, R. Montoro, K. Igartua, and B. Thombs, “Suicidal Ideation and Attempt Among Adolescents Reporting ‘Unsure’ Sexual Identity or Heterosexual Identity Plus Same-Sex Attraction or Behavior: Forgotten Groups?” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 49, no. 2 (2010): 104-113; also see www.youth-suicide.com/gay-bisexual/#suicide-updates for reference to many more studies relating to suicide and GBLTQ youth.

[6] M. Schneider and A. Dimito, “Educators’ Beliefs about Raising Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in the Schools: The Experience in Ontario, Canada,” Journal of LGBT Youth 5, no. 4 (2008): 49-71; J. B. Mayo, “Negotiating Sexual Orientation and Classroom Practice(s) at School,” Theory and Research in Social Education 35, no. 3 (2007): 447-464; K. M. Harbeck, ed., Coming Out of the Classroom Closet: Gay and Lesbian Students, Teachers, and Curricula (New York, NY: Harrington Park Press, 1992).

[7] The initiatives described here have been collaboratively developed and implemented with colleagues, Fiona Walton and Sandy McAuley. I am grateful to them for “pushing” my boundaries as a second language teacher educator. The work I describe briefly here has been very meaningful and rewarding for me.

[8] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970; 2007).

[9] M. Zembylas and M. Boler. “On the Spirit of Patriotism: Challenges of a ‘Pedagogy of Discomfort,’” Teachers’ College Record, Special Online Issue on Education and September 11, Fall 2002.

[10] M. Foucault, The Use of Pleasure: Volume 2 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1985).

[11] As in most teacher education programs across Canada, the males are outnumbered significantly by the females. On average, only 15% of our students in the Bachelor of Education program are male.

Meet the Expert(s)

Tom Hilton

Tom Hilton is a student in the Master of Education program at the UPEI. His thesis relates the schooling experiences of openly queer youth and their families on Prince Edward Island. He is currently Executive Director of AIDS PEI.

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Miles Turnbull

Miles Turnbull is Associate Dean and Coordinator of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). His research interests include code-switching in second and foreign language education, language revitalization, and males and masculinities in language education.

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