Author traces, challenges attitudes about school workers' sexual, gender identities in new book

AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University education professor examines changing social attitudes about acceptable sexuality and gender identities for the nation's educators in a new book, "Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the Twentieth Century."

In the book, author Jackie Blount questions subtle discriminatory practices that indicate the nation's school districts remain "highly sex-stratified, gender-polarized, and hostile" to thousands of professionals whose sexuality and gender cross conventional boundaries.

Blount also looks at how discrimination continues to negatively impact some students and influences all, despite efforts by schools to address and support diversity.

Blount uses history to track changing national trends in gender bias beginning in the 1800s. For example, it was once common for female teachers to remain unmarried or leave the profession. Today, Blount says, the expectation is that teachers should be married.

Entrenched fears about the sexuality and gender of school personnel prevail, Blount says, and those issues cement the glass ceiling for female teachers and turn some men away from teaching young children.

Educators who have challenged traditional gender-linked roles and assumptions are identified in the book.

"As Superintendent Ella Flagg Young guided the enormously complex Chicago Schools from 1909 through 1915, she relied heavily on her longtime companion, Laura Brayton, for both professional and personal support," said Blount in the book.

The book also describes a link between homophobia and gender discrimination that reinforces a system that punishes lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGBT) persons and those who violate gender norms.

Those biases constrain the lives of LGBT school workers. She says most of these school workers feel compelled to hide their sexual identities out of fear of losing jobs, thus robbing LGBT students of role models. All students lose, too, when they are deprived of the service of these educators.

"Deep-seated concern about the sexuality and/or gender of school workers has profoundly affected school policymaking, personnel practices, curriculum and activities," says Blount. "Just as they were 100 years ago, school workers today are hired in part to model and preserve normative sexuality and gender. To generalize, women teach and men administer."

By hiring mostly married men who have coached sports to serve as school leaders, school boards tacitly promote deep-seated biases, Blount asserts.

"Today, for example, school administrators, particularly high school principals and district superintendents, are called on to police the boundaries of acceptable sexuality and gender," Blount says. "They make decisions about whether or not gay/straight alliances may meet in their high schools. They decide which teaching candidates to hire. They choose whether or not dress codes will be implemented, including those that are gender-associated. They oversee gender-associated school activities and officially approved courtship rituals, such as dances. Not coincidentally, the vast majority of high school principals and school superintendents are married men, many of whom symbolically epitomize heterosexual masculinity."

Blount maintains that it is time to call this unexamined assumption into question for the benefit of students, teachers, staff, administrators and communities.