The purpose of this study was to explore how rural sex educators create environments that are inclusive to queer students. The normative experiences of sex education in the United States guided this qualitative study that was informed by queer theory and performance ethnography. Examined within these normative experiences are the implications of policy and curricula, the impact this has on queer students, teacher responses to the injustice of normalizing practices, an analysis of queer students and teachers in rural environments specifically, and an evaluation of the silence of rural queerness. This provided the lens through which the practices of rural sex educators who worked to create inclusive environments for queer students were viewed. Challenging definitions, such as sex education, rural, and queer, - along with the tension of using the word queer in non-academic settings - are also addressed. The primary means of data collection in this study was an online focus group with nine rural sex educators who actively work to create inclusive environments for queer students. In addition, I engaged in an active journaling process that included both an audit trail of events as well as personal creative writings that served as ancillary data.
As a qualitative study informed by queer theory and ethnography, findings of the study are first presented in the form of guided narratives followed by an analysis of common themes in the narratives. Themes within the sex educators’ narratives indicate that they navigate their rural environments to be inclusive to queer students in four key ways: (a) engaging with various levels of community; (b) shaping their own classrooms to reflect their values; (c) connecting with students by creating an environment where all questions are answered; and, (d) teaching students to think critically about sexuality and the impact it has on their lives.
Implied throughout this study is that what is taught in a sex education classroom is that which the community finds to be philosophically within the constraints of “normalcy” (Rasmussen, Rofes, & Talburt, 2004; Campos, 2002; Irvine, 2002; Moran, 2000; Warner, 1999; Wolfensberger, 1972). Quite a few rural districts in the study were open to queering sex education, and therefore the educators often did not have to be as subversive as one may assume. All educators found it critical to either have an explicit set of classroom rules, or to be part of a school district that had these and truly enforced them - not only with students but also administrators and parents. Educators sometimes found it necessary to create sanctuaries in their classrooms due to the external community pressures that students engaged beyond the boundaries of the classroom. The data indicate that teachers will be challenged by community activists, religious leaders, parents, administrators, students, or other community constituents, reinforcing Dejean’s (2001) idea that many educators are discontent with the status quo and actively working to overcome normalizing practices. A lack of consistent training for teachers makes it challenging to define what educators consider to be a “queer-inclusive” environment, since no standards exist. Educators felt that in order to teach critical thinking, which fits in with the federal definition of abstinence-only education, they were obligated to provide accurate information to students, including answers to questions as broad as “What is sex?”
This study contributes to the fields of education and women’s studies in multiple ways. First, it identifies the importance of critical thinking about queerness in sex education. Queer students need to perceive that classroom activities affirm their experiences. Second, it highlights the importance of educating communities and teachers on queer ways of knowing, which increases the possibility of engaging learners in ways that are seen as relevant to their lives. Third, it underscores the need for consistency and measurement of sex education efforts in the classroom. Fourth, it highlights the unique rural voice within queer-inclusive sex education, a voice that has often been ignored or dismissed. Suggestions for further research and implications for education theory and practice are discussed.