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Engaging With Diversity and Sexuality in Education

Still from educational video, 'itsy bitsy spider'

What is diversity? While it primarily has to do with difference, it is also a concept that points to fracturing, generativity, in-betweenness, and processes of becoming. In particular, its intersection with sexuality provides a way to understand the different ways in which sexuality is expressed and experienced. Diversity also pushes us to ask: how do our experiences and self-knowledge about sexuality emerge? What else is entangled with sexuality and how does that impact the multiplicity of our experiences in our everyday lives? To explore these questions, I will discuss education about sexuality in formal and social situations, as well as through poetry by women of colour and LGBTQ+ people. Throughout the piece, I will come back to what I find to be the greatest challenge of promoting inclusivity for various sexualities: the limited exposure to or silence around diversity as a lived multiplicity. By multiplicity, I mean the various ways in which diversity emerges from our everyday experiences. I highlight this multiplicity particularly as it begins in childhood, as children become oriented to difference, or categories of difference such as sexuality, race, caste, class, gender, and nationality. As a biracial woman, I draw from my experiences as a child of colour, an identity that in a societal context resonates and often intersects with experiences of sexuality. How do children – especially children of colour – learn to navigate parts of themselves and others that they have not yet been fully exposed to – such as sexuality or race – while at the same time being put into those categories? Without an understanding of diversity as the way in which we experience and interact with the world, lack of engagement with diversity may promote the inability to see and respect the various ways people experience difference, and as I specifically highlight here, their sexuality.

Think about the songs and stories we learn in childhood. For me, what immediately comes to mind are songs that help children pronounce words, such as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” or “Hey Diddle, Diddle,” the little rhymes that are easy to learn, fun to imagine, and often easily taught. Yet, in a time when children are learning about the world, and themselves, there is a curious silence around the topic of diversity. You can see the dilemma; children are struggling to understand how to get to know the world, which often gets taught through categorisations and classifications such as language or shapes. Yet, in reifying the consistency of life’s components, and the routines which are the backbone of most children’s (and their parents’) ability to function, it can be difficult to attend to the multiplicity of life, and to appreciate that the categories kids so painstakingly learn are mutable. How do you teach diversity?

In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked

Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,

Who knows what blazes through his mind?

Is it still his life he moves through, or does

That end at the end of what he can name?

  • “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy M. Smith

In the poem, Tracy M. Smith points out one of the limitations of language: how do we know what we don’t know, or what we have not formally learned? How do we understand the unknown? These questions seem to echo queer feminist Judith Butler’s theorisation of gender – an iterative performativity that gradually builds into a lived reality, a feltness, a being that shapes and contours one’s experiences of life. With this familiarity that is embedded in the body, one learns how to interact and feel in the world. As French philosopher Michel Foucault has demonstrated, schools are one of the major institutions which socialise individuals into disciplined subjects; people learn through schools not only modes and methods for thinking and acting but are shaped on an ethical and affective level to tend towards particular ways of being. For example, through the distinction between a lesson about homes and the lived experiences of home – the feeling of home, what one does at home – we can begin to ask how an education which attends to diversity of not only definitions but also experiences may trouble the semblance of sameness which seems to exist within current education systems that are geared towards standardised testing. But also, attending to diversity becomes a responsibility we share as experiencers in the world to listen to and honour our own being and that of others. Thinking back to when I was a child, I don’t remember ever talking about race, even though I am biracial. But I do remember the first time my race became a defining feature of my identity, and a point of confusion, sadness, and later, of solidarity. Especially now, as I reflect on the ways in which discriminatory politics and violence around race are currently becoming normalised, if race is going to be taught in a way that highlights diversity of experiences, would that also mean teaching intersectionality? Teaching about colonialism? About structures of violence that are embedded in different ways across societies?In terms of sexuality, what are the stakes in reifying a system in which people are never exposed to diversity, or are silenced about their sexuality and have to “discover” it on their own?

all my life I’ve been trying to remember

who I am. all my life I’ve been erasing
myself to make seats at the table

for everyone else. how can I demand
more from the world if I can’t even

ask for my name in love?

  • “Ways I am Tired” by Fatimah Asghar

What are the ways in which sexuality is taught? In children’s books, I’ve most often come across texts which frame sexuality as tied to pregnancy and birth. By this I mean, the diversity of sexuality is silenced and heterosexual relationships are assumed to be the norm. For younger children, this manifests in books that talk about a child’s birth. As kids grow older, perhaps in a health class in middle or high school, they begin to learn about their bodies and the ways in which their sexuality becomes both an object and an agent, possible of such effects as pregnancy. What is lacking in these texts are the multiple ways in which sexuality is experienced by different people. Few texts discuss kids’ experiences navigating their understanding of their own sexuality, how they learn to negotiate who they are becoming with (for example)instances of bullying, feelings of confusion, or finding acceptance. The silence around experiences of sexuality, particularly for youth, runs the risk, as Fatimah Asghar poignantly describes, of the disappearance of self. This is particularly true for people of colour, as the last line of her poem describes; if she can’t ask for her name to be said correctly, why should she expect others to insist on it for her? Thinking with Latina feminist Gloria Anzaldúa, whose experiences of sexuality were influenced by her status as an immigrant as well as the perspectives of her family, I am driven to ask: what will it take, despite the increasing recognition (though not without debate and contestation) of gay marriage and of the diversity of sexuality, for people, especially people of colour, to feel comfortable expressing and being the sexuality they identify and resonate with?

In my travels in Mexico, Guatemala, and India, I find that both in the US and in the Global South, sexuality is often viewed as a singular experience. One example I was most struck by were the assumptions about my marital status; it was presumed I was married with kids, just married, soon to be married, or at least, wanting to be married. My sexuality was already preordained as fitting along heteronormative lines which would follow the trajectory of a traditional family structure. In a small town of majority indigenous people, I was surrounded by social cues as to how I should act within my assumed sexuality: whether it was talking about relationships, explanations about the appropriate expressions of affection, or the expectations of values for one’s future. I attempted to light-heartedly steer people away from the notion that you’re “normal” only if you have a heterosexual, monogamous relationship by switching dance partners during a local event where dancing was often done by married or long-term partners. While this by no means explained everyone’s perspective of sexuality, I emphasize this entanglement between sexuality and traditional notions of marriage to demonstrate the various ways this one perspective became a dominant narrative. Despite my small instance of rebellion, I never could adequately express why the assumption of marriage made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I felt as if my viewpoint that sexuality was not just one experience would not have been tolerated. But it was more that every time I tried to articulate this, it seemed like I was trying to justify myself and how I felt. Being silenced has a way of not only stopping words that could and should be said, but in devaluing the articulation of the words themselves. I return to the two poems by Asghar and Smith as a way to shatter the silence around sexuality and recognise diversity, not just as a fact, but as a lived experience that is unapologetic and needs no justification.

We all go through life learning about ourselves. Our bodies and selves in the world are made up of categories of identity – such as sexuality, race, nationality, gender, caste, class – that are changing within discourses of power in multiple ways, as well as our affective relations with people, spaces, times. As we go forward and seek to cultivate spaces of inclusivity, we should think about how our formal and social education systems can better incorporate diversity, and in particular, how we can embrace the diversity of experiences into our teaching.For me, it means listening to stories and experiences of sexuality as more than a singular experience, but as a part of a larger narrative about acceptance and being. Particularly as a woman of colour, I understand the power of solidarity and collaboration as methods for increasing inclusivity. From my experiences, I find that diversity is not an end unto itself. Instead, it is a tool for reflection, a mirror that shows not only who we, and the society we live in, are in the present, but what we aspire to be in the future.


Works Cited:

Smith, Tracy M. 2011. “My God, It’s Full of Stars.” In, Life on Mars. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.

Asghar, Fatimah. 2018. “Ways I am Tired.” The Adroit Journal. Accessed on on April 14, 2019.


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