The sound of silence: Educators managing and reproducing heteronormativity in middle schools
Heffernan, Julia I., 1967-
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Heffernan, Julia I., 1967-
Recent national studies indicate that well over three quarters of sexual and gender identity minority high school students are subjected to verbal and physical violence related to their gender identity or sexuality. An array of sociological studies has found that adolescents openly acknowledge homophobic justification for past verbal harassment and abuse, and masculinity studies associate this abuse with affirming a normative masculinity. This study seeks to determine what conditions could contribute to the social production of such endemic violence and simultaneously preserve a pervasive silence about its social origins. Recent educational research suggests that school based homophobic violence is a product of the overt and covert social rules defining "normal" gender and sexuality appearance and behavior. Drawing on contemporary post-structuralist feminism and queer theory, this study refers to these social norms broadly as "heternormativity" and to the practices that reproduce these norms as "heteronormative discourses." To generate insight into the educational reproduction of heteronormativity, this study undertook a one-year field study in a public middle school, observing incidents of heteronormativity among adolescent youth and the faculty. Data collection included formal observations, participant observations, and semi-structured interviews. Using an embedded multi-case design, fourteen cases in which the school offered interventions into social acts of heteronormative dominance and violence directed at students are analyzed. The study finds that the school interventions themselves often served to reinscribe the heteronormative discourses that produced the acts they purport to deter. The interpretation of and response to incidents of harassment frequently deployed heteronormative rhetoric and reasoning that reinforced narrow conceptions of gender, silenced sexual and gender difference, and contributed to the erasure of stories and lives that do not fit within the heteronormative frame of life in early adolescence. The study closes with a series of suggestions for reducing the reproduction of heteronormativity through a series of educational interventions.
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