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Friday, 8 April 2011

'The Gayest Kid Ever' - Gender, Sexualities and School

When in primary schools, I've quite often heard it said that a child is really gay. More recently, it was said that one boy is the Gayest Kid in the World. When a teacher says something like this, I usually doubt it carries any malicious intent and it is rarely said in an overtly condemnatory manner, but it remains a fixed character judgement and one which is harmful.

It is a textbook example of the concepts of the heterosexual matrix and normative heterosexuality in action.

The heterosexual matrix is the lens through which individuals in society make sense of the world through presupposing a coherent identity - eg male (sex), masculine (gender) and attracted to women (sexuality). By thinking through the heterosexual matrix, any deviation from the norm is one category affects how people conceive of the others. For example, an individual with an indeterminate biological sex becomes suspected of having a deviant gender, or an abnormal sexuality - see the sexual fetishisation of Thai 'ladyboys'.

Normative heterosexuality works closely with the heterosexual matrix, and provides a hegemonic validation for certain sexual and gender identities - making some identities normal and some abnormal. The processes of normative heterosexuality may be quite difficult to identify; this is exactly why they are so potent. In the establishment of a sense that certain genders are abnormal or unnatural or immoral or ungodly, you see the deployment of different discursive paradigms - in turn psychiatric, biological/eugenicist, ethical or delusional - which seek to present heterosexuality as the norm.

Back to gay kids. The first hurdle is the entrenched presumption, ingrained in Western culture since Rousseau, of childhood innocence. The willful (willed?) ignorance of child sexuality is something which has been problematised by Foucault in theory, and by the research of Emma Renold, among others, in educational research. The lengths to which schools and adults go to prevent displays of child sexuality stand in hypocritical contradiction to the denial of its existence - why strain to prevent the manifestations something which doesn't exist?

Children have sexualities and sexual cultures - most of you need only think back to when you were 9,10,11 to know this - but this isn't the topic here.

When the teachers say that a certain child is - as I have recently heard from a teacher - 'the gayest kid ever', they are quite clearly not talking of sexualities whatsoever. They were not implying anything about the sexual practices of the particular 7 year old boy - instead, the teacher makes the potent conflation of sex/gender/sexuality.

In my time in schools, I have not once heard a teacher refer to any of her young female pupils as a big lesbian, certainly not the biggest lesbian ever. In only a handful of schools can I recall girls policing other girls so explicitly, using terminology of female homosexuality. It appears to be a phenomenon curiously weighted against male children that they must prove their straight sexuality, rather than have it presumed or rendered invisible, as with girls. The Gayest Kid Ever's gendered identity is only problematic because of his biological sex, and because of the 'asymmetry' between the two. Male (sex) children should act like boys (gender); sexuality is called into question for those who don't.

In terms of gender identity, the school and the playground are dangerous places for a boy in the process of constructing his sense of self, his subjectivity, in the situated context of the different masculine identities available to him. Most boys will play the game of masculinity. They will go out into the playground or sports field every lunchtime without fail for an hour of football: they might not be in the mood for it, it might have been played unfairly for years, they might want to do something else, they might (shock horror) dislike football, but most will still play. Not the Gayest Kid in the World though. Having seen the procession of injured peers pass by him, and witnessing the bullying and fights, he decides he'd rather have something else as a hobby. But if football is a site for the construction of masculinity, to be playing outside the touchlines positions the Gayest Kid in the World alongside the other excluded people - the girls, the younger kids, the women, the disabled and the bullied.

When a teacher says that a child is the Gayest Kid in the World, what I think they are trying to do is somehow 'apologize' for the gender of the child - the hushed-tones way in which the 'information' about these children is given to me, as an outsider, almost seems like I am being given a disclaimer. There isn't usually any overt malice, but the child is nonetheless barricaded into this paradoxical master status. The atypical gender performance of a 7 year old boy - be it through something as stereotypical as being 'overdramatic' or things like disliking football or being tactile - calls into question their sexuality (which is thought not to exist).

Nobody benefits from this. From being told about his 'gayness' I know nothing more about the child, other than that the teachers perceive him to be different enough from the rest of the boys that he warrants his own label. As male children (sex) who perform their gender differently by not behaving like the other boys (gender) are gradually pushed to the side and silenced, all that remains to be seen is a narrow vision of boys doing their gender 'properly'. These boys get into fights, argue, don't voice their frustrations except in outburst and the same teacher who would label the Gayest Kid in the World would explain away these conflicts with "Boys will be boys".

So long as teachers are complicit in constructing the one-sided battle between Real Boys and the Gay Kids, boys will be boys, but these boys might not want to be boys in this way. So long as schools perpetuate the heterosexual matrix, gender violence will be inflicted on their children.

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