Even though it’s 2019 and it seems like there would be more acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ people, there is still a lot of work to do. And while I personally support those in the community, I wanted to know more about how I can do a better job as a teacher. So on Part 1 of my interview with Cody Miller, an assistant professor in New York who gives professional development on these issues, we discuss what has and hasn’t improved with schools, how cisgender and hetero educators can support their queer colleagues and students, and how to address those that don’t approve of the LGBTQ community.
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Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at the College at Brockport State University of New York. Prior to that he taught high school English for seven years in Florida.
His teaching and research focus on the various ways students construct their identities in LA classrooms with a specific emphasis of how young adult literature influences students, worldviews, and meaning making capacities.
He’s also led professional development sessions that focus on writing instruction and developing inclusive spaces for LGBTQ students. And currently, he is the chair of the National Council of Teachers of English or NCTE LGBTQ Advisory Committee. Cody was awarded the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2016 and recognized as one of the International literacy associations 30 under 30 in 2019. So now that you know more about Cody, here’s my conversation with him.
Cody, thank you so much for being on the podcast. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
Thank you so much. I’m super excited to be here.
Now you’ve done some work with teaching tolerance and track to you even received an award and now you’re working with the National Council of Teachers of English on LGBT q issues. So can you talk about this important role that you have within both of the groups.
Sure. So for teaching tolerance, I was awarded their teaching award back in 2016. And since then I’ve been working on their advisory board. So on that board, teaching tolerance, his mission is pretty broad, right and includes all grades and content areas. So it takes a very generalist approach to education.
The stuff I particularly focused on for teaching tolerance, and what I’ve written is by and large, discussing LGBT q topics and classes, as well as looking at kind of the politics of education and, and what’s happening in schools based on what’s happening in our broader political atmosphere. And I would say that teaching tolerance in general is much more like broadly focused, right, so they have like a best guides for supporting LGBTQ youth that spans K12 all content areas, including administrators as well, so really kind of a holistic view of schools.
So that’s kind of my work. That’s my work there. Whereas in NCTE is more focused on English teachers, of course, and that spans k 12, including higher ed, but it is really focused on English as a subject area, which is what my background is in.
So I’m the chair of the LGBTQ Advisory Committee, which is a committee dedicated to looking at how do we support LGBTQ families and communities within English language arts? How do we make English classes affirming spaces for LGBTQ youth? And the big work I’ve been doing on that this year is once a month, a member from the committee writes a blog piece for NCTE that shares inside and practices for how to make affirming spaces and English class for LGBTQ youth. So that’s been a lot of the work that I’ve been doing this year with that organization
And is that beyond just including more inclusive texts are we are we talking about? Just like teaching strategies in general?
Yeah, I mean, obviously text are such an important part, right? But it does go beyond just text, right? Because it also includes how do we make space? We’re talking about LGBT identities and writing instruction, for instance, how can we talk about not just LGBTQ identities, but also things like heteronormativity, and cisnormativity and all of these ideologies that harm LGBT people? How can we talk about those systems? And any text, right?
So I say that you could easily use, you know, Lord of the Flies, which is the canonical text that a lot of schools have to talk about things like toxic masculinity, right? And how manhood and masculinity gets tied up to violence and how does that harm people so texts obviously are super important and my heart is in young adult literature.
However, it’s more than just text. It’s also things like writing instruction, the language and procedures we use in classrooms. Beyond just text, though, my heart will always be with text.
Yeah, I think that’s interesting that you bring that up. Because a lot of times when we’re analyzing literature, we do talk about gender roles. But it’s always heteronormative gender roles. It’s always, you know, how are men supposed to behave? How are women supposed to behave? But there’s not a whole lot in the middle.
When we have these conversations, at least for a while, and a lot has changed and stayed the same. I feel like in school since you and I were in middle school or high school in terms of LGBT q awareness and issues. So I’m just curious, what have been the most positive changes that you’ve seen? And what have been the biggest disappointments?
Yeah, so I think a number of things on the positive front, right. So the fact that we now have so much LGBT key representations and books and curricular material right?
It seems like I cannot keep up with the rapidity of how LGBTQ young adult literature is coming out. In fact, I was at a bookstore the other day. And as I was looking through the YA section, I was like, here’s like, you know, five books that came out in the past few months that I haven’t read, and like, part of my job is reading these books and knowing these books.
So that’s really good that there’s so much variety and there’s more curriculum materials being made for for LGBT youth, which is, I think, obviously a step in the positive direction. Also, just in general, you know, schools don’t exist in a vacuum. So changes that we have in society and culture. You know, they eventually bring changes and school. Right. So we know from lots of studies that millennials and Gen Z views on LGBTQ topics are just in general more progressive than previous generations.
And that if you look at polling their kind of is an emerging consensus among millennials and Gen Z that LGBTQ people deserve dignity and deserve rights. And so obviously, when you have, you know, when you have a group of an emerging generation that eventually is going to enter teaching, then they bring their views about LGBT folks to their teaching. Right. So I think that’s a really positive change, as well.
But there are some disappointments, right, because we know that support for LGBTQ rights, it doesn’t always, seamlessly translate into incorporation of LGBTQ curriculum material. There’s some research by Amanda Thein and Paula Greathouse that shows that even teachers who say like, you know, I support LGBT rights. I support, you know, all these kind of big political issues that get talked about the news. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve been go and use LGBT q material and their classroom right. So there’s still a divide between the political views of thumb Teachers and their actual pedagogy.
And then I think the other disappointment is that we know that, you know, this is kind of common throughout American history that whenever a marginalized group begins to gain rights, there’s always pushback. So while it seems that, you know, it’s very rare to hear, even talks about marriage equality anymore, right, like after the Obergefell decision, suddenly all the people who spent years and years and years saying that gay people getting married will destroy the Foundation of America, like just gave that out for I like, Oh, just kidding. I guess that wasn’t the case. Because they’re gonna become politically salient. It didn’t become a socially acceptable form of hate, right.
But there are new forms of socially acceptable forms of hate. Right. So you see this on, you see the attack on trans students basic rights to use the restroom. I think that that’s become the new battleground that anti-LGBTQ politicians have chose to stake out and make the battleground because once the consensus emerges among the population, it’s hard to push against that consistent consensus. So you find like the next area that’s that, that can be exploited to shut up support for anti-LGBTQ votes.
For so many, especially in conservative areas, it’s still a really tough time for those students. And, you know, luckily, I am in a more progressive state, but I’m going to be completely transparent here that I’m probably one of more of those disappointments because I completely support the community but I have not done my share in terms of just including it in the conversation, I think because of my own discomfort and not knowing and I guess you could call it my ignorance.
And there’s been a lot of there’s a lot of acceptance you had mentioned Gen Z and there’s a lot of acceptance right now. I can see it in my middle schoolers there are a lot of girls especially who are beginning to wonder if they are by or trans and you know, we have a really strong GSA at my school and a lot of them are going there and I’m and I started thinking you know, this is this is really important to them so I feel like in order to really say that I support it and walk the walk, I have to do this and I’m really interested to hear, as we continue our conversation about ways that people like me who guess we support it, but we haven’t done our share can do that. And you know, it does personally upset me though that there are so few states that have protections for LGBTQ in our schools and workplaces, I think there’s like 13.
I think that’s I mean, that’s ridiculous. So why do you think it’s taking so long for the other 30 plus states to get on board? I mean, if my state doesn’t have such protections, let’s say that I am in one of those 30 plus states also, what are my options if I am LGBTQ?
Yeah. So I think one of the reasons that it’s taking so long for the other 30 states to get on board is that there’s a lot of misconceptions, right. So if you look at the polling, most Americans support protections for LGBT people. And they believe those protections already exist. Right. So there’s some polling shows most Americans think that like, that already is law. And in fact, this year, the house right passed the Equality Act, which is federal legislation that would protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination. It’s dead on arrival. The Republican-controlled Senate has that they won’t touch it. Donald Trump is that he won’t sign it. So it’s dead on arrival for now.
But it’s 2019. And that just passed. But there’s this conception that like those protections already exist. And I think that part of that is we have a narrative in this country that inevitable progress, right. We’re always moving forward. So we had Obergefell the Supreme Court decision in 2015. That said same-sex marriage, marriage equality is legal.
But what we don’t talk about is that LGBTQ teachers can get married on Sunday and then fired on Monday. Right. So that’s an important part of the conversation that often has been kind of left out and the bigger marriage equality talk. The other thing is that the Supreme Court will more than likely soon take up. the question of Is it constitutional to fire someone for being LGBTQ and I mean, there are five justices that are very hostile to LGBTQ rights, and four that are pro LGBT rights. And I’m not a math teacher four is less than five, right? One is barely hanging on.
So I think that if the court takes that case, and then rules in favor against LGBTQ people, not only will that be devastating, I think it’s going to be a shock to so many Americans who are not part of the LGBTQ community, because they’re going to assume that like, oh, like why, right, like I thought that there’s already protection.
So I think that one of the most important things you can do is educate yourself and vote right and register people to vote. There was an LGBT q Town Hall presidential Town Hall last week, where a number of candidates in the Democratic Primary, not all candidates, but a number of candidates came in and talked about their agenda. And they were asked questions and it’s telling that the Department of Education and the Department of Justice were two agencies that constantly came up during that town hall because those two agencies have really broad power that can harm or support LGBTQ people and schools, right. So it was Betsy Devos and Jeff Sessions who overturned Loretta Lynch and Arnie Duncan’s pro support for trans students within public schools.
So there’s just so much power in those executive agencies that I think it’s easy when we’re thinking about like laws for LGBTQ people, we get caught up in like these big celebratory court cases, it’s easy to forget the like the minutia of executive action.
But what can you do if your state doesn’t protect you, so check your local district because lots of you know we know that within “progressive states,” there are nonprogressive areas. And then the inverse is true “non-progressive states” or progressive areas. So I think one thing is to check your school district and to check your county because lots of kind of more progressive areas within more conservative states typically have passed laws that protect LGBT people.
So I taught for seven years in Florida. Florida is a state that has not passed protection for LGBTQ people, but the county I was in had passed it. So there is some, you know, kind of local versus state government, their little pockets, their little pockets. Yeah. And I think that’s something to be aware of. That’s really important. But again, I think the most important thing we can do is vote, talk about these issues, register people to vote. You know, I think that that’s super important because I wish I could say I’m optimistic about the Supreme Court, but I would be lying.
Especially like you said, it’s imbalanced right now. And would you ever recommend that someone move out of an anti-LGBTQ area? If they identify? I’m just curious, like, would you personally not teach in an area that’s hostile?
Well, it’s complicated, right?
I mean, just from your perspective, you’re not prescribing, but for you personally, as a teacher, would you venture into an area that is hostile and just stay closeted? Or do you see what I mean?
For sure. So before I answer that, I want to kind of complicate something really quickly though, that the area of the country that has the highest amount of same-sex parents if I’m, if the numbers still hold true, I need to look into this but it used to be actually the South.
So the area that was most hostile to LGBTQ people in terms of legislation, actually was the area that like same sex couples raising children were right. So life is messy. Life is complicated.
But also, I mean, you think about the south and like, Atlanta right? Atlanta is in Georgia, but Atlanta is like a very progressive city, right. In the way that kind of metropolitan areas are.
So to answer your question, my first year that I taught in Florida was a pretty a pretty homophobic area, both in terms of the local politics but also the school and I only taught there a year and a reason was I didn’t feel not only there’s this thing where like no one wanted, like it was hard for the school to recruit teachers because it was a really small rural area. So it was just hard to get people to apply. So I didn’t really worry about losing my job because they’re having a hard time recruiting teachers anyway, right? But I didn’t feel comfortable and I didn’t feel like I could be myself. And I think about that.
So I left. I mean, I also had kids, one or two kids who were LGBTQ and came out to me and like I became, you know, a space for them to talk. And I think that’s super important. I grew up in an area in North Florida that was very small and rural. And there was no out like LGBTQ educators or even LGBTQ kids. So I come from an area like that.
But yeah, I eventually, I left after a year because I didn’t I kind of felt like I couldn’t kind of keep the mental stamina to bifurcate myself at the school.
And I’m sure there are a lot of especially new ones because you know, tenure is important. When you’re making these types of decisions. Some teachers might be afraid to even talk about it because of lack of tenure. Or let’s say you work at a charter school and there is no tenure. So, you know, I was just curious about that. And for me personally, as a cisgender straight woman, how can I support my LGBTQ students? Like what can I do to make them feel like they belong? Other than putting up you know, like a flag or putting little signs that say, this is safe space? I mean, something more meaningful, especially since a lot of them still seem to be figuring it out, or, and are scared of what people will think.
Can I go back to your last question really quick, though, I think not even thinking about because you’d mentioned if you don’t have tenure, or if you’re at a charter school, it doesn’t offer it but Florida is “right to work state.” So there’s no option for teacher tenure in Florida. That was eviscerated back in 2010. So our 2011 after the 2010 midterm, and all the hardcore right-wingers took over various state governments. A lot of them eviscerated tenure.
So for like most teachers in the south, like, especially new teachers tenure isn’t even an option. And it’s my belief, of course that eviscerating tenure also made workspaces more hostile for queer people, because at least if you have tenure, that’s a level of protection, right? And the way that if you don’t, you don’t even have that. So yeah, the number of states that just tenure is not even an option is also I think, something that we always have to kind of ground in these conversations about protections for LGBT q educators.
So, again, educate yourself and vote. I hope all listeners go and register like five friends to vote after this podcast at least because I think that’s, that’s, that’s how we’re going to have to turn this ship around. But anyway, sorry, your question. Before I get on my soapbox about terrible legislation.
So how can you make them still feel? How can you make them belong? Right? So I think something that you would hinted at earlier is really knowing how your own dominant identities shaped the way you think about the world and schooling curriculum. Right. So how do identities as how to straight and cis identities, shaped the way that you’ve experienced school I think is the first place to start because you first have to know how your own dominant identities have given you access to power within a school that LGBTQ folks would not have access to.
And I think ensuring LGBTQ voices and curriculum is is really important. If that means you can’t do a whole you know read aloud with an LGBT q voice but you can include them on your on your bookshelf, then that’s a really that’s a good start.
I think that always evaluating our language and procedures. So for instance, if we say, ladies and gentlemen, that’s erasing people, nonbinary folks, that’s erasing, anyone who doesn’t fall strictly within that binary. So I’m from the south. I love a good y’all because y’all is inclusive.
So, if we are in elementary school, you know, not lining up boys and girls. Like, that’s really problematic and so not doing that. I think that you had mentioned not just having a sticker, but I do think what is on your wall does communicate powerful ideas. Like, I think that it’s really easy, especially in 2019 to say like, what is the Safe Space sticker do so what? But, you know, like, we know that schools are inherently pretty harmful places to queer people. So sometimes the sticker just to say this space is like, we know it’s not the most affirming but like within this institution, I’m going to be an affirming person. I think stickers are important, like, obviously, not just a sticker, but I think there’s still value in having visibility, just show that you support LGBTQ communities.
And then lastly, I think, how do we communicate ideas about family. So if we only say, you know, mom and dad that that excludes not just kids who come from LGBTQ families, but includes all sorts of kids in their family structures. So I think those are some kind of foundational steps to think about making your spaces affirming for LGBTQ youth.
And I think especially with the subject area that you and I teach, it’s really easy to, like you had mentioned include, you know, I don’t have to just have normal, like the cannon, you know, whether it’s male and female falling in love. There’s a lot of areas where we can insert the LGBTQ voices and I’m looking into that.
So you know, I’m beginning my personal journey on this. Because I feel like it’s taken. I mean, I’ve been teaching for 18 years, I feel like it’s taken me long enough. And I have now an audience and I would love them as new teachers to not wait this long, especially with the amount of resources that are out there. And I do have to admit there weren’t as many texts when I started teaching. I’m sure you can you know that or I was looking at them through my gender-normative eyes.
So I didn’t see that there could have been undertones or we could have had the discussion about gender normativity, you know, it, I didn’t think outside the box that way. And so now that I’m doing all this research and learning, it’s like, wow, I could have even deeper conversations with my students.
Yeah, and I think that to always keep in the back of our minds is that by virtue of being Teachers in a way we are rather directly or indirectly, also kind of cultivating the next generation of Teachers. So as a middle school student sees that you are using LGBTQ texts, if they go on to be a teacher, they obviously they will already have a kind of a groundwork for what that could look like. And I think that that’s why I think it’s so important that we talk about why it’s important to include LGBTQ text for the affirmation of LGBTQ kids. I think it’s also important to think about that when we do that we’re also showing the future generations of Teachers, right that like this is, this is the foundation for it. And in a way it like hopefully it continues the process. And so, eventually, we don’t, eventually it’s not something that generations of teachers feel like they have to navigate to do this work.
It’s just normal because we’re all having the conversation. And, you know, of course, the utopian idea is that there isn’t that separation anymore.
And so, now on the flip side, there are still a lot of Teachers, you and I know this in the field that believe that being gay or transgendered is immoral, that there are, you know, religious reasons for this. They think it’s a mental health reason they think it’s a choice that we’re making or that’s perverted, which influences how much or how little they support our LGBT q students, and I can’t change their minds, especially those that have been teaching a while or tell them what to do. What can administrators do to make the entire school a safe place, knowing that there are these teachers that don’t agree with it?
Yeah, so I think that to kind of preface an answer. I think that if we frame it as Do you believe all students deserve access to dignity in education? And if you think being LGBTQ is immoral, then your answer is that you don’t think all students deserve dignity. And I think we just have to have that really hard conversation. And I’ve been with teachers who are like, you know, that’s an attack, blah, blah, blah. But it’s like, the reality is schools are very hostile places to LGBTQQ youth, you’re either actively working to make them less hostile or you’re part of the problem. And I think we just have to name that truth.
To get your question though, I think there are a number of things administrators can do so for instance, holding LGBTQ affirming professional development. So administrators can start book clubs that use books that support LGBTQ youth administrators can bring in safe safe zone training, you know, to help their faculty learn how to make their classroom safe spaces for LGBTQ.
There’s a number of readings from GLSEN and Teaching Tolerance that administrators can bring into faculty meetings. Administrators can change language on forms and procedures, right? So we talked about language around family, right? Administrators can, from a top-down perspective, implement that kind of change. Administrators can make sure that in any communication to the community, they take a broad definition of family, they can support the creation of Gay Straight alliances. And not just support the creation of it, but actively advocate for it and talk about it.
You know, and their meetings with other principals, right to show that like, my school did this and here was the what made it great and like you should, you should support your students and starting and I think also advocate for LGBT q curriculum. You know, I think that there’s the old quote in politics, right, show me Show me your budget. I’ll show you your values. I don’t remember who said it. It sounds good. It sometimes gets credited to Joe Biden, but I never want to quote Joe Biden. And he had like plagiarize before. So he probably plagiarize it from someone. And but that’s it, right? Like, show me where you’re spending your money. And I’ll show your values.
So if you say that you support LGBTQ youth like we need some money to get some LGBTQ books and the classrooms. So I think there’s a lot that administrators can do to make schools more affirming for LGBTQ youth. So it is, you know, true that some teachers are going to be bigots. And that’s really unfortunate. But that doesn’t mean that the teacher who was like, Oh, I support LGBT rights, but I don’t know how to do this while I get in trouble. Well, if you have an administrator saying like, here’s the professional development that sends the signal that like you will not get in trouble, right. I think it’s less about like, any kind of movement to recognize the humanity of marginalized folks.
There’s always is going to be brutal on the margins who you can’t, who will never change, right. And I think that spending time, so much time on the folks on the margins is like, just not a good way to spend our capital. And instead, we need to find like, Where are the people who are supportive of this work, but just don’t know how to do it? Or maybe they’re scared to do it? And how do we get them over that fear and show them how to do this work? I think that’s where the energy should be. and administrators can play a really big role in that.
Isn’t Cody awesome! I got so much out of just this first half of our conversation because Cody has a great way of discussing difficult topics in a way that really shines a light on the problem while also highlighting solutions.
Before I go into my key takeaways, I wanted to define a couple of terms that Cody used that I didn’t know about until this year (yup, it took me that long guys).
He mentioned “Heteronormativity,” which is the assumption or attitude that heterosexuality is the norm or default sexual orientation. When we see the world and our classrooms through the eyes of heteronormativity, we’re teaching that heterosexuality is normal and everything else is not.
Cisnormativity is the assumption that your gender identity matches your biological sex. In a similar fashion as heteronormativity, cisnormativity makes being trans or nonbinary the exception or abnormal. It’s the idea that if you see a girl then that person must be female, you see a boy they must be male. I can tell you from experience that more and more I’ve seen this assumption as false in my classrooms and operating from this point of view is harmful to those students.
So here are my key takeaways from my conversation with Cody.
First, I’m pretty ashamed that it has taken me so long to start addressing LGBTQ issues in my classroom despite being a staunch supporter of LGBTQ rights. I thought it was enough just to be vocal about their rights but then go back to business as usual in my classroom. If I truly support those students, then I need to do more than just accept them, I need to change the narrative and how I run my classroom.
Second, I can support my students by thinking about how my hetero and cisgender identity shapes how I teach. Cody suggests small but significant changes such as including LGBTQ voices in the curriculum, which can be books on your shelf, changing our language when we address kids, so not saying ladies and gentlemen or boys and girls and eliminating practices that involve sorting students into groups of boys or girls.
Finally, when addressing those that are opposed to members of the LGBTQ community, it’s important to craft the narrative as being about the rights of the students. If you believe that ALL students deserve an education, then whether or not they’re straight or LGBTQ is a non-issue. And admin can step in and create a safe and affirming space in schools by having professional development that specifically addresses these issues.
So Cody and I talked for nearly an hour, so I split up our conversation into two parts. So be sure to hit that subscribe or follow button so that you won’t miss out on the rest of this conversation next week.
Links for the articles and books that Cody mentions are in the shownotes, as well as how to connect with him.
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