Queering the Classroom – Rebecca Ryall

An examination of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in the Catholic school context


Education in Australia is both a right and a legally regulated expectation.  In addition to academic instruction, schools play an important role in socialising children toward adult norms.  Through the physical spaces of the classroom and the playground, and the virtual spaces of various curricula, schools represent important cultural sites for the production of citizens.  If the social and political climate of the school is ‘not supportive of every child, then true educational experiences do not exist’ (Meyer 2010, p. 10).  Australian research reveals that ‘compared to cisgendered young people, transgender and gender diverse students were significantly more likely to have…suffered discriminatory physical abuse…to self-harm and attempt suicide’ (Jones & Hillier 2013, p. 287).  This paper uses a queer approach to examine aspects of the educational experience available at a local Catholic high school. It aims to illuminate the hegemonic cultural identities and relations of power, using educational resources and research from the fields of feminist family studies, queer theory and pedagogy, and cultural studies.

Queer, Heteronormativity & Cisnormativity

Deconstruction of heteronormativity and cisnormativity illuminates the power of the school – as a cultural and social institution – to regulate and reinforce gender categories. The representative school is an independent religious institution shaped by the values and traditions of the Marist Brothers and the Presentation Sisters.  The mission statement of the school is to ‘enable students to achieve the fullness of life’ and the motto is ‘In word and deed’.  The school possesses a comprehensive safe school and bullying policy (drawn from the National Safe Schools Framework) which sets a clear intention to protect the following student rights: ‘the right to feel safe and comfortable and for property to be safe; the right to travel to and from school feeling safe; the right to be treated with courtesy and respect, and the right to learn’.  School governance is overseen by various committees comprising both Marist Brothers and members of the laity.  The school is bound by Federal and State Government directions in delivery of curriculum.  The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians ‘articulates nationally consistent future directions and aspirations for Australian schooling agreed to by all Australian Education Ministers’ (ACARA 2009).  This nationally endorsed policy document obliges all school sectors to provide a quality education, free from discrimination based on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation (among others). It is important to note however that religious organisations and institutions in Australia are currently exempt from Federal and State anti-discrimination legislation (Sex Discrimination Amendment: Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Intersex Status Act, 2013).

Heteronormativity has been extensively interrogated by theorists and practitioners within the fields of education, family and feminist studies.  Heteronormativity is conceptualised as an ideological composite that fuses together biological sex, gender identity and expression, sexuality and family constellations into a singular theoretical complex.  Essentially, distinct binary oppositions – male/female, masculine/feminine, heterosexual/non-heterosexual and normal family/deviant family – are conflated, and heteronormativity becomes the unexamined and unopposed gateway to power, rights and resources. Scholars of gender and sexuality, and queer theorists (Butler 1990; Connell 1995; Sullivan 2003), have effectively argued that the categories of gender, biological sex and sexual orientation represent three distinct aspects of a human being’s character and identity, although intersectionalities do exist. Scholars in crip theory (McRuer 2006) would add that heteronormativity also implies able-bodiedness, and those interested in race and whiteness studies (Durie, 2003; Moreton-Robinson, 2006) would argue that whiteness is an implied aspect of heteronormativity.

Cisnormativity can be understood as an invisible ideological framework which privileges those individuals whose gender identification matches their assigned birth gender.  The unexamined dominance of cisgendered hegemonic discourse establishes and reinforces relations of power in which some voices are heard, and others are not.  Figure 1 illustrates the informational and institutional erasure, or silencing, of the voices and experiences of gender diverse individuals in the institutional context.

Figure 1: Cisnormativity in an institutional context (Bauer, G et al. 2009, p. 356).

 Queer theorists are concerned with problematizing and deconstructing the concept of ‘normality’.  Warner positions queer as ‘that which opposes not just the normal behaviour of the social, but the idea of normal behaviour’ (Warner 1993, p. xxvii).  Through deconstruction of notions of deviance and normativity, and analysis of cultural and discursive practices which create identities, it becomes possible to reinscribe categories of gender and sexuality.  This repositioning affords an understanding of the way that institutions, policies and practices impact those who have the least power.

Deconstructing The School: Governance

The complex system of governance of any school apportions power, of varying degrees, across myriad domains.  Being a federally funded school brings expectations for any educational institution.  Having a religious basis brings another layer of complexity, with religious institutions bound by the expectations of their own governing bodies.  The classroom environment is governed by the specific teacher, with their own pedagogy, ideology and socially constructed prejudices.  Within the classroom, and the social milieu of the playground, ‘the institutional gaze is distributed and re-distributed’ (Foucault 1977, p. 173) from the hierarchy and ‘throughout internal mechanisms…the individual begins to take responsibility for regulating their own behaviour and that of others’ (Cumming-Potvin & Martino 2018, p. 41).  The students themselves become complicit in the construction and regulation of hegemonic heteronormativity.

Conditions of Entry: Enrolment & Uniform

The representative school examined in this paper is positioned as one of the best performing high schools in the local area, in terms of academic success and sporting prowess.  The school offers places to about 1500 students across years seven to twelve and regularly maintains waiting lists for places.  In examination of heteronormativity and cisnormativity in this context, enrolment forms were analysed for their construction or regulation of hegemonic normativity.  Enrolment forms gather personal information about both the prospective student, and their family/ies.  Following requests for full name and date of birth, prospective students are asked their ‘gender’, with the provision of space for the applicant to nominate ‘M’ or ‘F’.  References to parents are not gender specific (parent/carer is used in data collection) and the form allows nomination of three parent/carers but only allows space for two parent/carers who live with the child.  Requiring prospective students to nominate their gender as either male or female conflates biological sex with gender and fails to recognise and collect data relating to gender diversity.  Information collected at enrolment is not useful in understanding diversity in family arrangements.

As with most private schools, students are expected to adhere to a strict uniform code, with punitive consequences for non-adherents, whether they be on school grounds or other public or private property.  The Uniform guidelines (available on the College website) clearly define the College’s expectations regarding wearing of the uniform, providing a ‘boy’s uniform’ option and a ‘girl’s uniform’ option.  The NSW Department of Education School Uniform Policy (NSW Department of Education 2018) requires schools to offer uniform options which: ‘promote a sense of belonging for students; take into account the diverse nature of the student population and comply with anti-discrimination legislation’.  This policy was amended in June 2018 to require that all female students have access to a shorts or pants option.  Additionally, the NSW Department of Education Legal Issues Bulletin No. 55 (NSW Department of Education 2014), outlines the rights and responsibilities of schools with respect to transgender identifying students, with particular reference to access to alternate gender markers, access to uniform of their chosen gender, and access to appropriate bathroom and toilet facilities.  Again, being a religious organisation, the school is exempt from compliance with anti-discrimination legislation.  Being an independent school, the school is also under no obligation to meet the requirements imposed by the NSW Department of Education.

The representative school is a co-educational facility whose demographic is composed of 45% identifying as male and 55% identifying as female.  As data collection only allows for students to identify as male or female, it is not possible to know what percentage of the student cohort identifies as gender diverse.  Additionally, no data is reported which identifies the prevalence of non-standard family relationships, such as same sex parents, or relationships including gender diverse individuals or polyamorous relationships.  Enrolment forms do identify single parent families, and also collect information about multiple carers, but this information does not appear in the College’s Annual Report and therefore is probably not instructive in development of policy or delivery of content.  The National Safe Schools Framework reports that 10% of school students are same sex attracted (Mitchell et al 2014), 4% of students identify as either transgender or gender diverse (Clark et al 2013) and 1.7% of students are intersex (Blackless et al 2000).  If these statistics were to hold true within the context of the representative school, it would be reasonable to expect that about 150 of their current student cohort are same sex attracted, about 60 identify as transgender or gender diverse, and roughly 25 intersex students attend the school.  Homosexuality, gender non-conformity and intersex status are not religiously mediated, so it is reasonable to assume that, although this is a religious institution, the diversity of the student population will reflect the diversity of broader society.  Without appropriate data collection, however, it is not possible to know with any certainty.  This is reflective of the informational and institutional erasure referred to in Figure 1.

Classroom Discourse

Given that high school children spend around five hours of each school day in a classroom, the discourse of the classroom requires scrutiny.  Classroom discourse is ‘any type of discourse which goes on in the classroom: between teacher and students, or among students with or without the teacher’ (Pontecorva 1997, p. 169).  Cumming-Potvin and Martino (2018) gathered information from West Australian secondary English teachers as to their willingness and ability to set texts of their choosing, for discussion and analysis.  They noted that while a small number of respondents did set texts in which a leading character displayed diversity of sexuality or gender, these characters were invariably troubled or cast as victims.  While diversity in texts is to be applauded, displaying characters thus perpetuates the narrative of marginalization and social isolation of the gender or sexually diverse student.  This research illuminates the pervasive discomfort experienced by many teachers when confronted with issues they view as controversial.  Meyer (2010) examines the ‘hidden curriculum’, shaped by informal jokes and comments between and among students and staff, evidenced by school-sanctioned events, and the sporting and other activities valued by the school community (p.  61). This ‘hidden curriculum’ subtly informs both the information that is delivered, and how it is delivered to students, and more crucially, what conversations are not conducted.

The religious context does on the surface seem to introduce levels of complexity, but scholars are divided as to the appropriate response of the religious community to students whose identities fall outside of the heterosexual matrix.  In his examination of queer theology, Henry calls for an ‘educational commitment that embraces the spiritual identity of the young person in the educational encounter that it offers, while also refusing to script what that identity ought to be as a consequence of this encounter’ (2018, p.  14).  Edmund Rice Education Australia – a network of Catholic schools – has developed a policy document guiding educators and school leaders in the provision of an education which is inclusive and committed to justice and solidarity (Edmund Rice Education Australia 2017).  This document directly links inclusion with the Catholic mission of education and recommends schools revisit and revise all bullying and discrimination policy, with explicit attention to acknowledging the presence of students with diverse sexuality and gender, and protecting the rights and dignity of these students.

Students at the representative school are routinely separated into gendered groups for sporting activities, sexual health education, and the healthy relationships program ‘Boys of Honour, Girls with Grace’ (worthy of discussion in a standalone paper, in the opinion of this writer).  Additionally, bathrooms remain gendered, with only five ‘accessible’ or unisex bathrooms to accommodate 1500 students across two campuses. Every time a student needs to use the toilet or is required to join a gendered group for sport or class activities, the student is required to announce or affirm their gender and given only two options.  Not only does this silence and isolate the voices of students of diverse gender, it also serves to further entrench the heteronormative and cisnormative discourse of the school.  This is an example of institutional erasure, as illustrated in Figure 1 above.

The leadership team at the school profess to be actively pursuing an agenda of inclusion based on conservative Catholic pedagogy.  They claim to be working to address the persistent gendering of bathroom facilities, stating that any new toilets built in the future will be designed such that they will not ‘need’ to be gendered, and working towards rebadging some of the current toilets to unisex.  They also make assurances that the uniform options will be adapted in the near future, and that any student may currently request to wear the uniform options with which they feel most comfortable.  The practice of conducting certain classes, and other activities such as camps, along binary gender lines is also receiving attention, as is the gathering of information from students and teachers regarding gender identification.

Conclusions on ‘Naturalness’

The school plays an important role in the life of any child.  Most Australian children will undergo thirteen years (including preschool) of compulsory education, through which they will be moulded as citizens.  The unexamined school environment constructs, regulates and reinforces binary divisions both through the physical construction of the environment, and through the discourses governing classroom participation and curricular content. In this sense, the network of power ‘involves multiple processes, patterns, origins and location which overlap, repeat or imitate one another, support one another, distinguish themselves from one another according to their domain of application’ (Foucault 1977, p. 173).  Challenging assumptions about the ‘naturalness’ of binary gender identity is integral to providing safe and inclusive learning environments, where multiplicities of gender and sexual identities are affirmed, and no longer marginalised.  Schools have the capacity to disrupt the normative hegemonic discourse through attention to: the physical environment; classroom discourse; gender neutral uniform options; diversity of curricular content and adequate data collection, thus acknowledging, exploring and celebrating the diverse experiences of those previously marginalized.


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Rebecca Ryall is a single mother of two (one teenaged daughter and one non binary adolescent) living off grid in the middle of the forest in northern NSW.  Rebecca is a full time student at Southern Cross University Lismore, where she is completing a BA with majors in writing and cultural studies.

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