Part 3: Schools, States, and Queer Youth
Angel White (any/all)
TW: Discussions of ableism, ageism, bullying, child abuse/neglect, classism, homophobia, misogyny, police violence, racism, school shootings, sexual assault/harassment, suicide, and transphobia
So far, we have discussed the problems facing youth, especially queer youth, and how they are connected to childhood. After that, we analyzed the ways in which queer organizations, past and present, have failed to support queer youth. With this investigation of queer activism, it was noted that youth liberation has fallen out of discussion in both progressive and radical spaces. Currently the movement to youth liberation, while still existing, is much smaller than in the past, and it isn’t commonly acknowledged by other social justice movements.
For this third part of the article, I want to start outlining what the demands of a new queer youth liberation movement could look like. To create this, I want to investigate sources of oppression for queer youth, as well as youth in general, and see how these can be overcome. Through this investigation, I hope to find ways we change both ourselves and our world that benefit queer youth and lead towards liberation.
To do this, I will be focusing on two main areas of struggle. First is that of education. With education, I will discuss dominant ideas of schooling and how they fail queer youth. After this, I will mention alternative forms of schooling (as well as non-schooling methods) and discuss the ways in which they could benefit queer youth. The second area of struggle I will investigate is that of political systems. Here, we will discuss how the state is a source of oppression for queer youth. This will reveal the necessity of creating alternatives to the state for the possibility of liberating queer youth. Through exploring these topics, I hope to demonstrate some of the institutions which oppress queer youth and must be opposed.
Schools suck. Speaking for myself at least, I hated going to school and found it extremely stressful. And I’m not alone in this. The majority of students express negative feelings towards school. The most commonly associated feelings with school are “tired,” “stressed,” and “bored.” Yet, even though schools lead to such negative consequences, we continually presume we need this kind of schooling. We have even created compulsory education laws to force students to attend school. We justify such laws and expectations by the idea that we need to make sure children gain an education.
This justification is based on the assumption that students need to be forced to be educated. This argument ignores the natural curiosity of children. In Susan Engel’s “Children’s Need to Know: Curiosity in Schools,” she notes that children from an extremely young age are naturally curious. For example, children as young as two often break rules set by their parents. This rule-breaking is an expression of curiosity as it both allows the children to explore new things, and allows them to learn about the social consequences of rule-breaking. Such examples show that youth, even as young as two, conduct experiments to learn about both the physical and social world around them. This also extends to youth in school. Engel notes that students who are allowed to “follow their own hunches, try things out, and make mistakes” tend to stay more interested and develop a deeper understanding of what they are learning.
Our current education system, with its focus on coercive education, doesn’t promote this type of curiosity. Returning to Engel, she tells us that studies show children tend to exhibit less curiosity within schools than outside of them. And Engel’s own research showed that curiosity decreases overtime, with students in fifth grade showing much less curiosity then students in kindergarten. It should be very clear that the coercive nature of our schools leads to this outcome. Children learn best when curious, when allowed to try things out, but our schools instead tell children to only learn very specific things and only when they are approved of by an authority figure. I think, ironically, this is what causes us to accept this argument that we need to coerce youth into learning. If we beat their natural curiosity out of them, then they won’t want to learn, so we have to force them.
This coercion that is a part of schools plays into the role education actually takes in our society. Schools are designed to perpetuate dominant narratives and maintain the status quo. This is done by creating a space where the educator has immense power and then is required to use that power to give a specific narrative approved of by the state. For example, here, at the University of Michigan, Indigenous American elders aren’t acknowledged as academic sources equal to Western academics (something that NASA [Native American Student Association] asked to be changed in their 2020 “United Demands”). These narratives help control how we think and, when we are introduced to subversive texts, they make sure we will analyze these challenges to the status quo using the concepts developed by the status quo. All of this control and authoritarianism shows that coercion and the failure to develop children’s curiosity isn’t caused by the school system working incorrectly, but by it doing exactly what it was intended to.
One of the dominant narratives in our society is that of cisheteropatriarchy (it should be noted that this type of analysis could be done with other oppressive dominant narratives, but since this article is about queer youth, I will focus on cisheteropatriarchy). As such, queer youth are even more negatively affected by the repressive school system than non-queer youth. We can see this by noticing how queer youth in schools are disproportionally the victims of bullying, harassment, sexual violence, etc. Discussion of queerness is suppressed in many states across the United States. All of this contributes to queer youth having higher dropout rates and houselessness than non-queer youth, and contributes to one in five trans youth attempting suicide. Needless to say, schools are rampant with anti-queerness.
Yet, the problem is also larger than I think most people realize. Oftentimes we only focus on homophobia and transphobia (and other forms of direct anti-queerness) as causes of the problems queer youth face in schools. This ignores the larger systemic ways in which queer youth can be harmed by the institutionalization of anti-queerness in our schools. Jukka Lehtonen’s 2021 study “Heteronormative Violence in Schools” explores more broadly how heteronormativity and cisnormativity hurt queer children in Finland. Lehtonen notes that while the majority of violence against queer people is not motivated by anti-queerness, much of this violence is still based on institutional anti-queerness. For instance, queer people often have less friends and less of a support network, meaning that they are more often targeted for bullying and violence. This is made worse by the fact that, for safety reasons, many closeted queer people stay away from queer communities for fear of being outed. Another example is that anti-queer slurs are often used as a general insult against people even if they are not queer. A closeted queer person who hears such a slur used against this will likely be more negatively impacted by it. These examples show that schools don’t just allow for violence motivated by anti-queerness, but institutionalize anti-queerness.
Another important thing to acknowledge is the part that “queer allies” play in upholding anti-queerness in education. In a 2022 study of educators in Ontario, ninety-four percent of educators stated they supported trans-affirming policies in schools. Yet, these “trans-supportive” educators often perpetuated transphobia and cisnormativity. Many of the educators didn’t attempt to put in place the trans-affirming policies they claimed to support, arguing that since they didn’t have trans students, the policies didn’t apply to their education. Many educators who did have trans students only saw trans-affirming policies as accommodations for those students, and did not consider that supporting trans students meant they needed to deal with larger issues of cisnormativity. Other educators thought that they didn’t need to specifically deal with transphobia because of their school’s general support for diversity. Finally, some educators, especially those in K-6, claimed to support trans students, but didn’t think discussions of trans people was “age appropriate” for their students.
Even when educators wanted to make larger changes, many were prevented by lack of institutional support. Many of the schools in Ontario which claimed to have trans-affirming policies didn’t make even basic changes like changing class rosters to include trans people’s preferred names or make administrators use gender-neutral language. In other circumstances, educators were left to implement the policies by themselves without institutional support. This led to situations where using trans students’ preferred pronouns was only done by certain educators and not always consistently. This lack of institutional support was even worse with curriculums, where changes were not often made to be inclusive or supportive of trans students. Respect for trans students is also especially lacking from educators in religious schools, where they were often directly told to ignore trans issues and not mention them in class. All of this shows that educators trying to be supportive of trans youth is often nowhere near enough.
Normally, in response to this horrible reality for queer youth, queer activists push a reformist platform. Yet, many of the solutions offered by these reformers just don’t work. For instance, trans-supportive training for educators isn’t something that necessarily leads to them being more supportive of trans students. This is made worse by the fact that many educators are transphobic, just not willing to say that publicly. Educating these people will just make them better able to hide their transphobic beliefs and practices, not actually change their opinions. And given that schools are places where cisnormative practices are taught and reinforced, queerphobic educators will likely have support from the design of the system. Further, it should be noted that “queer allied” educators often downplay the importance of anti-queerness, so even if we could convince non-queer people to support queer people in theory, that won’t improve the material conditions of queer students.
I think at some point we need to just accept that our schools will always be places that institutionalize anti-queerness. Public or private, religious or secular, all mainstream schools are based on coercion, authoritarianism, dominant ideologies, and maintaining the status quo. Instead, I suggest we try and find alternatives to mainstream schools and work towards the abolition of mainstream education. This isn’t a novel opinion; youth liberationists in the 1970s identified schools as one of the most important vehicles of state repression. But it is one that I think has been lost since youth liberation lost its popularity. And the abolition of mainstream education is necessary for the liberation of queer youth. As we have seen, education is a place where queer youth are routinely hurt and forced to deal with anti-queer narratives. It is time we stop asking queer children to suffer through these horrible torture facilities and actually try and give them a place where they can truly learn.
Once we understand the need to oppose mainstream schooling, I think it becomes important to ask what we should do instead. Most people have never had any form of schooling beyond mainstream education, so it can be difficult to imagine what other options there are. One alternative, and by far the most popular one, is that of free schooling. Free schools are a wide range of schools based on democratizing education and letting children have a say over what they learn. They became popular in the 1960s and 1970s and attempted to combine the lessons from multiple other alternative schooling styles. One of these was the progressive school movement of the early 20th century, and specifically A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. These schools, like their later free school counterparts, also stressed the importance of democratic schooling and student freedom. But, these schools also had flaws, relying on authoritarian leadership and not including workers in their democracies. Another influence was the Anarchist Ferrer schools which empowered children, challenged orthodox, capitalist principles, and lacked strict curriculums. While the Ferrer schools were a radical experiment in freeing children, they still often saw schools as political instruments for propaganda, and not as places to free children of political control. A final influence was the Freedom Schools of Black activists in the South. These schools stressed the importance of focusing on youth perspectives and of adjusting education to the specific needs and environment of the community. While they made important contributions to education, these Freedom Schools still suffered from issues of misogyny and adult supremacy, which limited their potential as community-based radical schools. Free Schools brought together the democratic principles of the Progressive schools, the consciousness raising of the Anarchist schools, and the community focus of the Freedom schools to create a form of schooling which would embody the needs of promoting democratic schooling in different communities. Still, it should be noted that even with their radical potential, Free Schools have often been dominated by white, middle class families.
While free schooling is the most popular form of alternative education, it isn’t the only one. Another example is that of self-directed educational communities. These communities are designed to lack schooling entirely, instead creating an educational method based on youth-led education. The benefits of this form of education is discussed by Antonio Buehler from his essay “Changing the Context” in the anthology book “Trust Kids!” by Carla Bergman. Buehler discusses his work at Abrome, a self-direct educational community in Austin, Texas, where he notes that the control over environment given to children allowed them to express their interests to a greater extent. Buehler specifically gives an example of an autistic child who could finally express himself without fear of repercussions that schooling forces on neurodivergent youth. A further example of alternative education is unschooling. Unschooling is a form of homeschooling that focuses on children being able to learn through their natural exploration. In her essay “The Power of Unschooling” (also from “Trust Kids!”), Akilah S. Richards discusses how unschooling allowed her children to explore their own interests, getting a head start on other children who aren’t allowed to start exploring their own interests until much later. Richards further notes that this type of exploration meant her children could learn things and gain perspectives on the world that she lacked.
Free schooling, self-directed learning, and unschooling are just a few of the many forms of alternative education. And all of these forms of education could improve the lives of queer youth. Free schooling would give queer youth power over their own education and allow them to not rely on cishet adults to make educational decisions for them. Self-directed learning could help queer youth express their own, unique ways of learning that resist cisheteropatriarchal expectations. Unschooling could give queer youth a safer environment to learn which doesn’t force them into potentially dangerous schooling environments. While none of these will solve all the issues queer youth face, I think they all offer a wide array of benefits. And I think if we embrace a multitude of educational styles, we can get away from this idea that youth need to learn through one means. By exposing the inaccuracy of this claim, and showing the diversity of experiences with childhood, we will not only help youth, but also undermine the mythology of childhood we discussed in part one of this article. All of this should remind us that our struggle here isn’t to replace one dominant form of schooling with another, but to replace it with a diversity of educational methods.
In this section, I want to discuss the state. More specifically how statism, the political ideology that believes the state & government should be the center of political power, harms queer youth. To see this, we will be exploring how the various ways in which the state, and those who represent it, hurt youth, especially queer youth. Through this analysis, it will become clear that the state is not only currently hurting queer youth, but by design hurts queer youth. And that, due to this structural disposition against queer youth, the state will always be an enemy of queer youth and their allies. I hope that revealing how the state hurts queer youth will demonstrate what we need to avoid when we try to support queer youth and envision a liberated world.
The state is oppressive to youth in many ways. Throughout this article, we have already seen this. In the first part of this article, I mentioned how the American government was instrumental in pushing for the nuclear family. The nuclear family creates an environment which isolates children, leading to parents being able to create trauma and harm, and causes families to take creativity away from their children. Another example is from the second part of this article, where we discussed that current kidnapping laws can apply to parents who take in trans children kicked out of their homes. This is, again, a demonstration of the state’s incursion into the lives of queer youth, where its rigid rules hurt them.
Expanding beyond what we have already discussed, another place where youth are oppressed is in the foster system. Youth in care are even more vulnerable than general youth as, by being in this government run program, they become commodities of the state. This happens because youth in care don’t get to choose if they want to leave their home, where they go, or really anything within the foster system. This, combined with the constant surveillance, analysis, and othering of youth in the foster system creates a situation where they are dehumanized. Given this, it should be no surprise that foster youth are more likely to be houseless as an adult, lack academic support, or be abused.
This is even worse for youth with other marginalized identities. Youth of color are overrepresented in foster care in the United States compared to their white counterparts. This is intentional, as CPS (Child Protective Services) has been a tool to oppress families of color. For instance, in response to the civil rights movement, CPS was weaponized against black mothers, leading to a larger increase in foster care youth from 1960 to 1965. CPS also disproportionately harms poor families. Child neglect is the most common reason for CPS to take children away from their parents. Many poor families lack adequate resources for their children and, instead of helping these families get the help they need, CPS takes their children away from them. This system is maintained by CPS having extensive powers to investigate parents, having open-ended rules on taking children away that CPS workers can interpret however they please, and having little oversight over their actions. In other words, CPS is functionally a police force. And this has led Black sociologist Dorothy Roberts to call for abolition of the CPS, or what she calls “family policing.”
The failure of CPS and the Foster Care System is important as they are the solutions the state gives to the issues of child abuse and neglect. It should be clear from this that our current methods of “protecting” children are insufficient. More than that, I think we need to recognize the inherent harm in this narrative of “protecting” children. Youth are trapped within their families, which as we’ve noted are promoted by the government. When youth are taken away from their families without their consent, they aren’t freed, but given to the state to control. Ultimately, the failure of Foster Care and CPS is that they don’t attempt to free youth, but instead take youth away from one restrictive environment and put them in another.
The foster care system isn’t the only way in which the state restricts youth freedom. Police have also been used to restrict children. Cops hurt children, especially black youth, with modern police even using tasers and K-9s (police dogs) on kids. This violence by police against youth is made worse by cops in schools, who are often called SROs (School Resource Officers). Cops in schools are a relatively recent phenomena, with the first SRO program being in Flint, Michigan in 1953, and SROs didn’t become widespread in schools until the 1990s. In recent times, the state has claimed we need SROs to prevent school shootings and violence. This is inaccurate as SROs not only don’t prevent school violence, but actually seem to be a cause of it. Beyond not stopping violence, SROs themselves often commit violence against students, especially marginalized students. Further, Black students and students with disabilities are the most likely to be referred by SROs. This is a notable problem as being referred by an SRO is often the first step on the school-to-prison pipeline. Interactions with SROs are also associated with mental health issues, worsening grades, and students generally feeling less safe at school. Even with all of this, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer just directed $25 million towards hiring 195 more SROs in the state of Michigan. If you have time to sign, DAYUM (Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan), a youth-led organization fighting for benefits for youth in Detroit, has a petition against Whitmer’s decision.
On top of dealing with all of the above issues, queer youth have to deal with additional, often targeted, oppression from the state. One of the most notable examples recently of this has been book bannings in schools. Of the books banned in the 2021-2022 school year, the most common subject for these banned books being queer themes. This shows what I think was obvious: that these book bannings were targeting queer books. And book bannings aren’t the only, or main, way that schools’ ability to support queer youth is being attacked by the state. Don’t Say Gay laws have become a national discussion with the passing of an extremely harmful law in Florida. While Florida’s law is awful, it isn’t unique and such laws have been widely used and put in place since the 1970s, and were a large part of the attacks on queer people during the AIDS crisis. Continually, these laws have been pointed out to violate many of the principles that the Supreme Court has identified as grounds for discrimination lawsuits, yet the courts haven’t made any major decisions to prevent them. All of this is to say that queer youth are specifically targeted and hurt by the state.
This attack from the state on queer youth becomes even more evident when we focus on the current conditions for trans youth. Trans youth are constantly under attack from an America which becomes more transphobic as time goes on. There have already been 391 anti-trans bills in 2023, and many of them attack trans children. These include laws like SB 100, which was recently passed in Utah, which prevents students from changing their records without parental permission and requires schools to notify parents if their child is transitioning at school. And these laws don’t stop there, criminalizing trans athletes, gender affirming care, trans youth’s access to bathrooms, and so much more. All of these have horrible effects on the trans youth living in these states and, at least speaking for myself, make me terrified of living as trans in the world to come. All of this demonstrates that, as trans people, our lives are constantly about being criminalized by the state and fighting against it for our survival. And attacks on trans youth aren’t likely to slow down anytime soon– just consider how Republicans continue to oppose gay marriage even as public support is at an all time high. This is an important reminder that even when we have the general populace on our side, queer people aren’t benefiting from our “democracy.”
Against these anti-queer, anti-trans policies from the right, liberal politicians often advocate for hate crime and anti-discrimination laws. Neither of these help solve the issues queer youth are facing. Hate crime laws simply don’t work. They promote the idea of deterrence, which has been proven ineffective at deterring crime, and instead only give more money to the police, who in turn disproportionately harass and incarcerate queer and trans people, especially queer and trans people of color. A similar account can be given for anti-discrimination laws which fail to address the root causes of anti-queerness. These failures show that liberal policies to support queer people are ineffective and counterproductive.
While we could continue on forever, finding more and more ways in which the government is the enemy of queer youth, I want to take a bit more of a macro analysis here. Mainly, I want to note that when we’ve looked at solutions to the problems facing queer youth, the solutions are to move away from state power. With the education system, we saw that government control of education has led to stagnancy, oppression, and authoritarianism. Instead, we noted that we need schools based on community power, not state power. We saw that the foster care system is oppressive and that the solution is its abolition. Abolition is also the way in which we can deal with the oppression caused by the police towards all marginalized people.
Turning our attention towards queerphobia, the issue here is that cishet adults, and not queer youth, have power over queer education and queer lives. Once we recognize this, it allows us to recognize what is really going on with the current attacks on queer youth. For all of their rhetoric about parent rights, the solutions conservatives have only ever involved parents in education in superficial ways. And this rhetoric about parental control of education actually hides a much more insidious claim: that poor, non-white, and non-traditional families, and not structural oppression, are responsible for their children’s failures in schools. And I think once we realize that this is the claim the right is making, we can start to understand why all their policies, like book bannings, curriculum restrictions, bathroom bills, etc., all involve increasing the government’s control of education even though this seems contradictory to their rhetoric. When conservatives say they want to uphold family’s rights, they mean the system which protects the dominance of cishet white families. This is also why hate crime laws and anti-discrimination laws are so ineffective. Instead of trying to challenge this bigoted system and give power to queer people, they keep power away from us while pretending the system can work for us. To fix this, instead of fighting for trans rights or trans justice, we must start fighting for trans self-determination. And this need for self-determination can really be generalized to all marginalized people who also deserve such autonomy. All of this is to say, the real issue is not the ways in which the state is using its power, but the fact that it has it at all.
To see the way in which the state uses its power to restrict attempts at youth liberation, I think an example from the early Soviet Union is helpful. In her book “Abolish the Family,” Sophie Lewis describes the work of Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai fought for the collective raising of youth, recognizing that the patriarchal family was oppressive to both women and youth. She would become the leading feminist activist in the Soviet Union, and her work would lead to women in the Soviet Union getting the right to divorce their husbands. But when she tried to get the Soviet Union to officially oppose the patriarchal family, she was opposed by Lenin who claimed the Soviet Union needed to “save the family.” This would lead to attacks on Kollontai and her proposals for equal pay based on gender and a national infant care system would both be defeated. Finally, when she joined the Workers’ Opposition and criticized Lenin’s authoritarianism, she would be exiled from her country. I think Kollontai’s story is important as it shows, even in the few cases when youth liberationists gain power in the state, they are quickly suppressed and attacked. State power isn’t a method which will bring about queer youth liberation, and, instead, we need to instead create alternatives to the state which will be truly liberatory.