A Characterization of Systemic Heteronormativity in Schools

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Curl, Brandon James

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Although schools are central places of learning and development for all youth, gender and sexually diverse (GSD) individuals often face significant challenges when navigating educational spaces. Historically, queer scholarship has focused on specific interventions to improve the experiences and outcomes of GSD students, yet the field has frequently failed to recognize the structural role of heteronormativity within schools. Inspired by the works of Ray (2019) and Sewell (1992), I propose a novel theory of heteronormativity that treats the school as an organization embedded in the larger social order. I argue that the school itself is a heteronormative structure resulting from the cyclical connection between schemas and organizational resources. This phenomenon benefits students who conform to gender and sexual norms at the expense of students who do not, ultimately leading to differential outcomes. Furthermore, these effects are mediated by the diversion of social and material resources away from GSD students, such as denying them access to a classroom for Gay-Straight Alliance meetings. To demonstrate the utility of this framework, I analyze specific manifestations of heteronormativity and describe how they substantiate the core principles of my theory. I then note prominent disruptions (e.g., inclusive curricula) to the dominant heteronormative system and provide insights into the dismantling of this system, with a particular focus on the challenges to be faced. This framework can inform parents, teachers, administrators, researchers, and lawmakers about the role of systemic heteronormativity within the school and provide clear guidance for improvement and future research.


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