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Queering Science for All Probing Queer Theory in Science Education

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Looking for an Opening am looking for an opening. I am sitting on the edge of my chair, my mouth dry. It is late afternoon and the conversation has been going on for over an hour. I am one of twenty-six graduate students and post-docs sitting tightly in a room, the same room we have been in all day, talking to each other about science curriculum materials. This conversation, the one we are having now, is on the agenda as "Tea Time Chat: Rethinking Diversity." Someone passes around a platter of tea cookies. At the front of the room, four of the principal investigators on the project are visible on a television screen, participating via Internet Polycom technology from several remote locations. We have been exploring how curriculum materials can address issues of diversity. So far, the conversation has been mostly about reaching inner-city African Ameri-can students and sometimes about urban schools that have students from multiple ethnic back-grounds. The two people leading the conversation, both post-docs, are African American. They are the only people of color in the room or on the TV. Everyone defers to them as the experts on diversity. I am looking for an opening to suggest that in addition to race, class, and gender, maybe there are other ways to think about diversity. I am looking for an opening to try to get people to really "rethink" diversity. My pulse begins to race to about 110 beats per minute. I feel the sweat begin to bead on my forehead, and I feel short of breath. I don't hear what anyone else is saying right now; I am only trying to figure out how I am going to say it. I want everyone to realize that there are other people who get left out of science education, who are invisible in the discourse, and who are marginalized in schools. Can anyone tell how anxious I am? I silently curse that it always works this way, that whenever I want to bring up this topic, it always feels like I am coming out again (and again) for the first time, even though most of the people in this room and on the TV know I am a lesbian (I think they do, anyway). But every time it feels this same way. The anxiety is there about how the topic will be received and whether or not people will see it as relevant. I am going to take the risk, once again, because it is relevant, it is important, and it has bearing on all students' learning and all teachers' teaching.
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Volume 25, Number 2, 2009 62
FEATURE ARTICLE
Queering Science for All
Probing Queer Theory in Science Education
KRISTIN L. GUNCKEL
University of Arizona
Looking for an Opening
am looking for an opening. I am sitting on the edge of my chair, my mouth dry. It is late
afternoon and the conversation has been going on for over an hour. I am one of twenty-six
graduate students and post-docs sitting tightly in a room, the same room we have been in all day,
talking to each other about science curriculum materials. This conversation, the one we are
having now, is on the agenda as “Tea Time Chat: Rethinking Diversity.” Someone passes
around a platter of tea cookies. At the front of the room, four of the principal investigators on the
project are visible on a television screen, participating via Internet Polycom technology from
several remote locations. We have been exploring how curriculum materials can address issues
of diversity. So far, the conversation has been mostly about reaching inner-city African Ameri-
can students and sometimes about urban schools that have students from multiple ethnic back-
grounds. The two people leading the conversation, both post-docs, are African American. They
are the only people of color in the room or on the TV. Everyone defers to them as the experts on
diversity. I am looking for an opening to suggest that in addition to race, class, and gender,
maybe there are other ways to think about diversity. I am looking for an opening to try to get
people to really “rethink” diversity.
My pulse begins to race to about 110 beats per minute. I feel the sweat begin to bead on my
forehead, and I feel short of breath. I don’t hear what anyone else is saying right now; I am only
trying to figure out how I am going to say it. I want everyone to realize that there are other
people who get left out of science education, who are invisible in the discourse, and who are
marginalized in schools. Can anyone tell how anxious I am? I silently curse that it always works
this way, that whenever I want to bring up this topic, it always feels like I am coming out again
(and again) for the first time, even though most of the people in this room and on the TV know I
am a lesbian (I think they do, anyway). But every time it feels this same way. The anxiety is there
about how the topic will be received and whether or not people will see it as relevant. I am going
to take the risk, once again, because it is relevant, it is important, and it has bearing on all
students’ learning and all teachers’ teaching.
Gunckel Queering Science for All
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Volume 25, Number 2, 2009 63
“What other diversities should we look at? How about special education?” There, someone
said it. I have to speak now! This is the perfect opening. Go!
Suddenly, a voice in the corner of the room, my voice, I think, says, “Well, I think we need to
think about sexual orientation and about how school science helps or hinders gay, lesbian,
bisexual, and transgender students learning science and teachers teaching science.”
There, I said it! Now, what will they say? How will they react? I look around the room and at
the TV, anticipating someone will say something, anything. I wait. Silence.
What is Queer Theory?
Defining queer theory is a slippery task, because queer theory resists definition. At its core,
queer theory is about making the normal queer. It questions the normative processes that struc-
ture lives, actions, language, power, and knowledge. These processes define and categorize
people, ideas, identities, and institutions. Because queer theory is about disrupting normative
processes, it is also about disrupting definitions and categories. Therefore, to define queer theory
too closely is to contradict the intent of queer theory. As described by Sullivan (2003), “queer
theory is a discipline that refuses to be disciplined….It does not want to straighten up and fly
right” (p. v). It is easier to describe what queer theory does than to try to define what queer
theory is (Britzman, 1995; Sullivan, 2003).
Queer theory disrupts the normative processes. It challenges categorical thinking and specifi-
cally aims to disrupt the hetero/homo binary. Queer theory examines how the social construction
of sexuality is normalized so that heterosexuality is portrayed as the only normal and natural
form of being human. Queer theory reveals how truths and selves are socially constructed,
questions how and by whom identities are created, and opens spaces for the reconstruction of the
self. As such, queer theory asks what can be, rather than what is (Snyder & Broadway, 2004).
Snyder and Broadway (2004) identify three areas of focus for queer theory: deconstructing
the social construction of identity, disrupting binaries, and interrupting heteronormativity.
Drawing from poststructuralism and the works of Derrida and Foucault, queer theory takes the
position that identity is socially constructed (Morris, 2000; Sullivan, 2003). How one identifies
oneself depends greatly on how the self is created by others (Letts, 1999; Luhmann, 1998; Sears,
1999). Language and discourse play an important role in defining these identities. Within the
discourse, human sexual identities are reduced to binaries (male/female, heterosexual/ homosex-
ual, straight/gay, etc.). Each term in the binary is constructed in a unified, monolithic essence
(Gamson, 2000; Sullivan, 2003). Furthermore, moral value is attached to the terms, with the first
term seen as more desirable, more normal than the second term (Snyder & Broadway, 2004). As
a result, heterosexuality becomes defined as the natural order and is normalized as the standard
against which all behaviors, identities, relations, and social constructions are measured as either
normal or deviant (Sullivan, 2003). Queer theory allows for the reconstruction of possible
identities outside the monolithic normal/abnormal or natural/deviant binaries (Gamson, 2000;
Morris, 2000; Snyder & Broadway, 2004). Following Derrida, queer theory aims to deconstruct
these binaries by showing that the binary terms are not unified essences but exist only in relation
to the existence of the opposite (Butler, 1999; Morris, 2000; Pinar, 1998). Queer theory aims to
interrupt heteronormative thinking and thus open areas for broader perspectives of, more com-
plex thinking about, and more imaginative possibilities for conceptualizing the human expe-
rience (Sumara & Davis, 1999).
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An important distinction exists between queer theory and theories of assimilation of gay and
lesbian people. Both approaches strive for social justice and at their center aim to eliminate
homophobia, discrimination, and harassment of gay, lesbian, and all queer people (Tierney &
Dilley, 1998). However, assimilation theory strives to gain acceptance for gay and lesbian
identities from the heterosexual majority. In contrast, queer theory questions the construction that
privileges heterosexuality as normal and marginalizes homosexuality as deviant (Luhmann,
1998; Malewski, 2001; Tierney & Dilley, 1998). Rather than normalize homosexuality, queer
theory rejects the hetero/homo binary altogether and in the process, brings the entire heterosexist
structure of society to collapse (Luhmann, 1998). According to Tierney and Dilley (1998), queer
theory is not only about the rights of individuals, but is also “about how identity and power
intersect,” how institutions are controlled, and how discourses are legitimized (p. 62).
Stay in the Closet: Too Queer for School
I am sitting in a chair across the desk from the principal, feeling very uncomfortable and
vulnerable. This is the second time in less than two years, in two different schools, that I am
having this same conversation with a school principal.
“No, you can be assured that I do not discuss my sexuality in the classroom,” I say quietly.
“I didn’t think so. I just wanted to make sure. If I get parents calling about this, I want to be
prepared. You should know that I support you and will go to the school board to defend you, if it
comes to that,” the principal says nervously.
My mind is screaming at him. “What do you mean you will defend me? I have done nothing
wrong. It was my car that was vandalized with hateful words. It is your school that condones this
sort of violence by forcing all queer people to stay in the closet. I am not the only queer teacher
here in this school! There are queer kids and kids who come from queer families who are your
students. What sort of message are you sending them?”
Instead, I politely say, “Thank you.”
My mind is still screaming as I walk out the door, weak-kneed and feeling nauseated. “Don’t
you realize the damage that your actions are causing? Don’t you see that this school is forcing
some students to be invisible? Don’t you understand that you are denying all of your students,
not just the ones who might be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, but all of your students
possibilities to understand the world from a different perspective? Don’t you see that you are
forcing all students to learn your knowledge of the world and denying them opportunities to
construct a new, maybe better world?”
I slowly walk back to my classroom. The police officer comes by later in the day, during sixth
period science, to take a statement. One student is suspended from school. The whole school
knows what happened. But I can’t talk about it, at least not to students.
I wonder to myself, “How could this be different? What would be so terrible for these stu-
dents to know? How am I supposed to be their teacher when I have to stay hidden? How can I be
real? They know. Students know when teachers are holding back. They have questions. The
unanswered questions become fears; they become reasons for violence and for intolerance of
difference. How can we expect to raise children who can make the world a better place if we
instill in them the seeds of distrust, dislike, and yes, hate, for the Other?”
No one sees the damage done by shoving this day back in the closet.
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What is Queer Theory in Education?
Queer theory in education critiques schools and education as institutions and processes that
limit possible identities, promote binary constructions, and naturalize heteronormativity. Queer
theory provides a framework for examining schools, curriculum, and pedagogy to find those
identities, bodies, and experiences that have been silenced, ignored, and rendered invisible. It
provides another lens through which to understand how schools and education function to
structure and reproduce the norms of the culture.
Many people question what sexuality has to do with education and whether it is appropriate
to connect sexuality with education. Applying queer theory to education has two important
purposes. First, from a social justice perspective, the application of queer theory to education
strives to make schools and the processes of education more egalitarian and democratic (Letts,
2001; Malewski, 2001). By questioning how schools promote heteronormativity and examining
how schools limit possible identities, queer theorists seek to limit the damage done to gay,
lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and all other queer people in schools. Schools are highly homo-
phobic and heterosexists institutions (Pinar, 1998). Only by disrupting heteronormativity and
creating spaces for new or Other identities can schools achieve democratic equality (Letts, 2001).
However, applying queer theory to education is about more than giving voice to marginalized
identities (Britzman, 1995). It is also about questioning the purpose of school, what counts as
knowledge, what knowledge is taught, how students learn, and what students learn. This section
will review some of the work that relates to both purposes for applying queer theory to education
and will conclude with an exploration of possible implications for not just marginalized queer
people but for society as a whole.
Discussion of sexuality in schools is a taboo. It is generally viewed as relevant only to health
education and then, as only relative to sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, abstinence, and
heterosexual marriage (Britzman, 2000). The possibility that sexuality is relevant to elementary
education is even more controversial. There is the assumption that children are innocent and
need protection and sheltering from sexuality. This assumption reflects the conception that
schools are intended to transmit knowledge to students, who are empty vessels waiting to be
filled (Malewski, 2001). However, elementary school children know a great deal about sexuality
and gender relations from the media, peer groups, their encounters with the world, and from
school (Brickmore, 1999; Wallis & VanEvery, 2000). To think that sexuality is not present in
schools is indicative of how heterosexism constructs normality in such a way as to render
sexuality invisible.
Sexuality is always present in schools, not just in sex education classes (if they exist). For
example, Brickmore (1999), Sears (1999), and Wallis and VanEvery (2000) show how schools
promote the image of the family as always consisting of one father and one mother plus the kids
as the only natural family configuration. Sexuality is present in this image, but because it is an
image of a heterosexual family, the sexuality component is unseen. Explorations into how
schools unquestioningly promote heterosexism reveal that sexuality is present and ubiquitous in
the schools already. What is taboo is not the sexuality itself but any image, form, or discussion of
sexuality that reveals the ways that sexuality constructs the normative world.
Schools are places where children construct their identities (Letts, 1999; Schneider & Owens,
2000). However, the heterosexism present in schools prevents students from recognizing all
possible identities. The value-laden binaries (male/female, straight/gay, heterosexual/ homosex-
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ual) normalize and validate only certain identities and limit how children learn to grapple with
the complexities of identity (Britzman, 1995; Letts, 1999; Morris, 2000). Such limits on possible
identities and the values associated with particular identities do damage and violence to those
constructed by others as outside the normal and the natural (Butler, 1999; Letts, 1999; Morris,
2000; Schneider & Owens, 2000). Queer theory exposes the damage these binaries do to not only
marginalized identities but to society in general (Sedgewick, 1999). People with non-
heteronormative identities have always been present in schools, as children, parents, and teach-
ers. The literature is full of examples of how students whose sexual or family identities are
marginalized must negotiate significant obstacles in achieving academic or social success in
schools and who often choose to drop-out of school rather than face continual harassment and
persecution (Blackburn, 2004; Luhmann, 1998; Schneider & Owens, 2000). From an ethical and
social justice perspective, illuminating the heterosexism of schools is a step towards equalizing
the educational opportunities for all students. Furthermore, opening the closet door of schools so
that all children, families, and teachers can find their identities within the school community
makes it possible for all people to benefit from the often hidden contributions of non-
heterosexual people (Schneider & Owens, 2000).
Schools are also places that deal with knowledge. In the Western way of thinking, where
mind, body, and spirit are separated, knowledge in connected to the mind only (Malewski, 2001).
There is no acknowledgement of the role that bodies and spirits play in knowledge creation.
There is no recognition of the role that Eros, desire, satisfaction, and pleasure play in learning
(Britzman, 1995, 2000; Malewski, 2001; Sumara & Davis, 1999). Queer theory exposes how
sexuality underpins notions of what counts as knowledge, how knowledge is constructed, how
students learn, and what students learn. Queer theory offers new ways to rethink the grounds of
knowledge, what counts as knowledge, and how knowledge is organized (Britzman, 1995, 2000;
Malewski, 2001; Sumara & Davis, 1999; Tierney & Dilley, 1998). Queer theory reconnects
knowledge and learning to sexuality and shows that, in fact, sexuality as linked to knowledge is
ever-present in schools.
However, as with identities discussed above, schools present knowledge along heteronorma-
tive lines and thus, render the sexual component invisible. If only one definition of sexuality is
allowed, it limits what counts as knowledge (Sumara & Davis, 1999). Britzman (1995) and
Luhmann (1998) use queer theory to interrogate these limits and ask what is beyond the limits,
what is it we cannot bear to know? Queer theory helps broaden knowledge by extricating and
interpreting the ways that knowledge is heterosexualized and therefore, limited. Interrupting the
heteronormative structures of knowledge is necessary “to broaden perception, to complexify
cognition, and to amplify the imagination of learners” (Sumara & Davis, 1999, p. 202).
Queer theory questions not only what counts as knowledge but also how knowledge is con-
structed and who constructs it. Queer theory asks not what we know but how we know (Luh-
mann, 1998). Britzman (2000) suggests that sexuality is necessary for curiosity and making new
ideas. She applies queer theory to question how the structures of education limit curiosity and
thus, limit the possible cultural constructions of knowledge. Britzman (1995) suggests that queer
theory can transcend the limits of thinkability and offer new possibilities for knowledge not
previously thought. Tierney and Dilly (1998) show that in addition to asking how knowledge is
constructed, queer theory asks who constructs the knowledge. To Tierney and Dilly it is as
important to understand and interpret the identity of the author of knowledge as it is to under-
stand or create the knowledge. Similarly, Luhmann (1998) uses queer theory to disrupt the view
of teaching as knowledge transmission and suggests that teaching is knowledge creation. Queer
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theory questions how students come to understand. It requires that educators think about how
desire and sexuality bring students to engage in learning (Malewski, 2001). Queer theory also
requires that teachers ask about how students resist learning and how certain identifications
prevent learning. In all of these questions, identity and sexuality are central. They play a role in
what knowledge is constructed, how it is constructed, who constructs it, who learns it, who
teaches it, and how. Queer theory posits knowledge not as answers but as interminable questions
(Luhmann, 1998).
Applying queer theory to education has significant benefits. First, for people whose non-
normative identities prevent their visibility in schools and interfere with their learning and
teaching opportunities, applying queer theory to education opens an avenue for achieving
democratic equality (Letts, 1999; Malewski, 2001). However, interrupting heteronormativity also
opens possibilities closed off previously to all people. Queer theory opens education to become,
in the language of Sedgewick (1999), a universalizing discourse. As a universalizing discourse,
queer theory allows educators to move beyond inclusionary curricular efforts (Malewski, 2001).
Rather, queer theory in education opens new identities, new knowledge, new ways of construct-
ing understanding, and new ways of teaching and learning to everyone. Thus, queer theory in
education is more than claiming equal rights for all; it is also about claiming the previously
unseen and previously unknowable for everybody.
Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and a Passion for Learning
“You live in one of the most exciting places on Earth! There is only one other place like it
and that place is in Africa. Imagine the place that you live is as exciting as Africa. Beneath your
feet, this very minute, the Earth’s crust is being pulled apart. What happens in places where the
Earth’s crust is pulled apart?” I look around at 30 bored faces staring back at me. “Look out
that window. What do you see? Out there, on the horizon, what is that?”
The faces continue to stare at me. A few students in the back of the room are whispering to
each other. A few students turn to look out the window.
“It’s a volcano! A volcano almost in your backyard! Isn’t that the coolest thing? I mean, how
many people even know that those black hills are volcanoes? Did you know that in New Mexico
we have almost every type of volcano there is? We have more types of volcanoes than Hawaii or
Oregon! Look, you can see one right now. What else happens when the Earth’s crust is being
pulled apart?”
A hand rises in the back. I think, “Finally, a response.”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“Earthquakes,” I practically yell, ignoring the question. “Yes, we have Earthquakes here.
Not as big as the ones in California, but they happen here almost everyday. We can’t feel most of
them, but they record them at the Seismic Laboratory. Did you know that only a few years ago
they recorded a whole bunch of Earthquakes just south of here and that geologists think that it
may have been related to fresh magma rising to the surface? They think that the magma actually
almost erupted— it was that close! We could have taken a field trip to see a live volcanic erup-
tion!”
A few students look up, suddenly looking a little interested. I am practically hoarse. I find
Earth science fascinating, and I want my students to be fascinated too. I spent more than eight
years studying geology, and I want to share with my students the incredibly amazing stories that
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the Earth has to tell. Where is their passion? Where is their curiosity? Don’t they see how
wonderful this is? How do I make this relevant to their lives? “Come on,” I am thinking,
“Learning about the stories of the places we live is great. Don’t you want to go on an adventure,
find out what we can, learn more, discover exciting new things?”
The students seem so cut-off. There is no passion, and there is little curiosity. And if there is
no pleasure, passion, curiosity, or desire, then there is no learning.
What is Queer Theory in Science Education?
Science education serves as an example site for applying queer theory and asking the sorts of
questions about schools, identities, knowledge, teaching, and learning that are presented in the
previous section. This section will review some of the recent work that applies a queer theory
lens to science education.
How is Science Education Heteronormative?
Queer theory exposes the many ways that the science curriculum is heteronormative, pro-
motes binaries, and bolsters the construction of limited identities. Snyder and Broadway (2004)
show that secondary-level biology textbooks construct sexuality in strictly heteronormative
terms. Of the eight textbooks they examined, none discussed sexuality outside of the heterosex-
ual norm. None of the textbooks included a discussion of a possible genetic origin for sexual
orientation or discussed homosexuality in any reference other than AIDS. Furthermore, none of
the textbooks discussed human sexuality as having any purpose or motivation beyond reproduc-
tion.
Similarly, Letts (2001) reveals that the wording of the National Science Education Standards
emphasizes reproduction as an essential attribute of all living things. School science normalizes
heterosexual sex for procreation as the only natural form of sex for any organism and as a
central, “defining characteristic of being alive, of being normal” (Letts, 2001, p. 269). Letts
(1999) also illustrates how primary-level science trade books and textbooks superimpose binary
cultural gender categories onto binary “biological” sex categories in such a way as to reinforce
the male/female and masculine/feminine dichotomies. Letts refers to this superimposition as the
construction of heterogender, a concept that simplifies the complexity of gender to make it seem
that gender is naturally occurring and that there are only two, polar opposite ways of being that
are normal.
I argue further that the emphasis in science education on some science process skills, such as
classification, promotes the view that all things and all beings can be categorized, labeled, and
organized into neat packages based on identifiable characteristics and relationships. Most
sciences, including chemistry, physics, biology, and Earth science, rely on classifications sys-
tems. Neils Bohr once stated that “the task of science is both to extend our experience and reduce
it to order” (quoted in Hawkins, 1990, p. 100). Much of school science is about learning these
classification schemes and learning the processes of classification. Students as young as third
grade learn how to use dichotomous keys, based on binary descriptions, to classify objects and
organisms (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989; National Research
Council, 1996). I argue that the processes of classification naturalize “order” so that anything
that does not fit into the reduced order is viewed as not normal. School science emphasizes the
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importance of students learning to classify using binary descriptions to understand the order and
as a result, promotes the conception that all objects and organisms fit into predetermined, or-
dered, and natural categories and identities.
Pedagogy also contributes to the heterosexism of school science. Letts (2001) explores the
ways that school science is seductive and shapes students’ knowledge. Sometimes, this seduction
leads to delights and pleasures, and sometimes it leads to errors, wrongs, and betrayals. For
example, Letts (1999, 2001) describes several instances of typical ways that teachers can perpe-
tuate the heterosexual stereotypes in science classes. In one case, when studying insects, a sixth-
grade teacher taunts a boy for refusing to hold a cockroach, an activity that the girls in the class
were willing to do. In another incident, a fourth-grade teacher makes pedagogical decisions
about how to conduct an activity based on a heteronormative framework that assumes allowing a
boy and a girl to touch each other has sexual overtones, while allowing two girls or two boys to
touch each other is an asexual activity. Reading school texts is another pedagogical practice that
perpetuates heteronormativity. School science stresses reading for information contained in the
text rather than reading texts to inquire about what is missing. Snyder and Broadway (2004)
make the point that textbooks that are silent on issues of non-heteronormative sexuality force
teachers and students to “read straight” (Britzman, 1995). Such texts thus deprive some margina-
lized students of the opportunity to see themselves in the text and deprive all teachers and
students of the opportunity to read critically and explore knowledge beyond the heterosexual
limits (Britzman, 1995; Morris, 1998).
Finally, Letts (1999, 2001) shows that the major policy documents that guide science educa-
tion are heteronormative. Teaching “Science for All” is the current mantra of science education.
The National Research Council’s National Science Education Standards (1996) emphasize that
Science in our schools must be for all students: All students, regardless of age, sex, cul-
tural or ethnic background, disabilities, aspirations, or interest and motivation in science,
should have the opportunity to attain high levels of scientific literacy. (p. 20)
As Letts notes, this statement does not include mention of gender, masculinity, femininity,
sexuality, or minoritized sexual identities in the list of identities included in Science for All. This
“‘discourse of invisibility’ (Rodriguez, 1997)” promotes a biased, uncritical, and partial view of
science education and science education reform” (Letts, 2001, p. 268).
Queering Science Education
Queering science education means exploding binary gender and sexuality constructions, col-
lapsing heteronormativity, and opening spaces within science education for the marginalized
identities. It requires that teachers and students complexify science education by “exposing the
social codes, forces, and institutional powers that interact to shape the ideas of what is normative
and deviant at any particular moment” (Snyder & Broadway, 2004, p. 631). Queering science
education requires teachers and students to take a queer, critical stance towards science know-
ledge. It requires that teachers and students question how science knowledge is created and by
whom.
Queering science education means providing teachers and students with a more complete
presentation of sexuality than currently exists in most curriculum materials. Curriculum materials
need to show images of people with various sexual orientations and family compositions. Within
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biology, for example, queering pedagogy means addressing the misconceptions that homosexual-
ity does not occur in nature and that the only purpose for sex is reproduction. It means exploring
the controversies surrounding the evidence of a genetic basis for sexual orientation, the study and
treatment of HIV and AIDS, and the sanitization of sex and sexuality in the curriculum. In
elementary school, it means not hiding sexuality from children. At all levels, it means providing
space within the curriculum for students to see themselves and their families. Queering science
education means making the invisible visible.
Somewhat ironically, queering science education may actually be congruent with many of
the aims and efforts of current science education reform. Current reform efforts emphasize
Science for All. Science educators and science education researchers are grappling with what
teaching Science for All really means. To many science educators, teaching Science for All may
mean one science for all students. However, many other science educators are examining the
possible ways that school science acts to either help or hinder students from diverse and often
marginalized backgrounds learn science (Aikenhead, 1996; Brickhouse, 1994; Calabrese Barton
& Yang, 2000; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Keller, 1999; Lee & Fradd, 1996; Letts, 2001;
Lynch, Kuipers, & Pyke, 2003; Moje, Collazo, Carillo, & Marx, 2001). In some ways, these
projects are steps towards queering science education because they question how science and
school science are hegemonized. However, these projects fall short in that they do not consider
the role that sexuality plays in constructing science knowledge or learning science. Much work
has explored how science and science education are gendered (Haraway, 1999; Harding, 1992;
Hildebrand, 1998; Keller, 1999; Traweek, 1999). However, little work beyond Snyder and
Broadway (2004) and Letts (1999, 2001) has considered how science and science education are
sexualized. Queering science education requires that science educators and researchers, teachers,
and students examine how science is (hetero)sexualized, and how this helps or hinders students
whose identities are constructed outside the normalized territory.
In addition, current science education reform efforts emphasize the importance of engaging
students in inquiry practices. The National Science Education Standards state that school science
should reflect “the intellectual and cultural traditions that characterize the practice of contempo-
rary science” (National Research Council, 1996, p. 21). An important aspect of inquiry, accord-
ing to the NRC, is that “inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical
thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations” (National Research Council, 1996, p.
23). Snyder and Broadway (2004) refer to inquiry as a queer pedagogy. However, rather than
inquiring into nature, queering science education requires teachers and students to inquire into
science. It requires teachers and students to identify assumptions about what is considered
normal, and by whom. It requires teachers and students to use critical and (un)logical thinking
and always to consider alternative explanations for what is considered normative and natural.
Inquiry as a queer pedagogy engages students in science-in-the making, rather than learning
ready-made-science (Latour, 1987; Snyder & Broadway, 2004). It also helps students see science
and science knowledge in relation to the world and to their lives, preparing students to take a
critical stance towards the role of science in society (Brickhouse, 1994). Inquiry as queer peda-
gogy thus benefits all students not just those with queer identities. Viewing inquiry science as
queer pedagogy fulfills the queer theory aim of making the queer normal and the normal (in this
case, inquiry) queer.
Queering science education also means changing the power and authority relationships
among teachers, students, and knowledge. All too often, school science rests on an authoritative
view that science is about facts, that the role of the teacher is to transmit the answers, and the
Gunckel Queering Science for All
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Volume 25, Number 2, 2009 71
students are to memorize and regurgitate science answers on tests (De’Sautels & Larochelle,
1997; Sharma & Anderson, 2003). Teachers then wonder why students become disengaged from
learning and from school (Malewski, 2001; Morris, 1998). If queering science education means
inquiring into the nature of science and science knowledge, disrupting the heteronormative
structures, and opening spaces for exploring new identities and knowledge possibilities, it
requires that teachers become more than knowledge transmitters in the classroom. Teachers must
recognize the role that sexuality and desire play in engaging with ideas, inquiring into know-
ledge, and motivating students to learn. Furthermore, teachers and students must view the
science curriculum as more than factual information; they must make learning relevant to more
than tests and closing achievement gaps. Queering science education means turning the science
classroom into a space that fosters curiosity, challenges the status quo, explores the unseen, and
recognizes the ways that knowledge, sexuality, and identity are related (Morris, 1998).
For example, imagine the elementary classroom studying life cycles using an open jar of
flightless fruit flies rather than pictures of the stages for the fruit fly life cycle. The teacher and
students become co-learners (Malewski, 2001) as wonderings are offered and plans made to
explore what happens as the fruit flies mate, lay eggs, die, and new fruit flies hatch. Questions
are asked about the sex of the fruit flies and mating behaviors. The teacher treats these questions
openly, not rushing to hide or make judgments about what should be seen. Curiosity and passion
are awakened, possibilities are explored. Students inquire not just into life cycles but also into
the ways that science comes to understand the world. Together, students and teachers have the
opportunity to explore and question the hows and whys of that understanding as they explore
their fruit flies.
Why Queering Science Education Is Important
Current science education documents, including Science for All Americans, Benchmarks for
Science Literacy, and the National Science Education Standards, emphasize the importance of
Science for All, defined as science literacy for all citizens. They stress the economic, technologi-
cal, and political necessity for all people to know and understand science. A major effort in
science education is defining what science literacy looks like and how to achieve it.
According to the sociocultural perspective of learning, all learning takes place within a social
context (Aikenhead, 1996; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999; Lemke, 2001). This social context
includes the shared ways of knowing, valuing, and interacting with others within a community
(Aikenhead, 1996; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999). It also includes all of the community’s shared
tools for making sense of the world: languages, representations, belief systems, value systems,
and special practices (Lemke, 2001). These shared ways of knowing, interacting, and sense
making constitute a common culture among the members of the community. Defined in this
manner, knowledge construction cannot be separated from culture. The learning of knowledge
must include the learning of the culture in which that knowledge resides. Therefore, science
literacy means becoming literate in the culture of science and the culture of school science
(Aikenhead, 1996; Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999). As explored in the previous sections, these
cultures are often constructed along heteronormative lines.
The culture of science, like all cultures, has a border that helps to define it (Aikenhead,
1996). For students for whom the culture of science is familiar, for whom their dominant culture
is congruent with the culture of science, crossing the border to learn science is relatively smooth.
For students for whom the culture of science is unfamiliar, the border crossing to science literacy
Gunckel Queering Science for All
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Volume 25, Number 2, 2009 72
may be difficult or impossible (Jegede & Aikenhead, 1999). For queer students, the border
crossing into the culture of science may be not only difficult but also dangerous. It requires
students to mask their identity and deny their sexuality in order to gain entry into the heteronor-
mative culture of science.
For science education to achieve its goals of science literacy, opening the borders to the cul-
ture of science to students who have been traditionally excluded from learning the culture of
science is imperative. Giroux (1991) explores the characteristics of a border pedagogy that
challenges the traditional borders around dominant cultures. Giroux constructed border pedagogy
to challenge racist borders in education. Queer pedagogy could be considered a border pedagogy
to challenge heteronormative borders. For example, Giroux’s border pedagogy offers students
multiple referents to explore the cultural codes of a culture. Similarly, queer theory also provides
referents to explore the heteronormative codes of cultures, including the cultures of science and
school science. Giroux’s border pedagogy gives voice to students from the position of their own
identities. Queer pedagogy demands a presence for queer identities in science education. Gi-
roux’s border pedagogy deconstructs the role that feelings, pleasure, and desire play in the
master narratives of education. Queer pedagogy deconstructs the role that pleasure and desire
play in the construction of heteronormative knowledge and identity. Giroux re-draws the cultural
borders to include those who have been marginalized and excluded. Queer pedagogy constructs
spaces for queer identities within science education. Thus, opening the borders to science educa-
tion requires a postmodernist approach that critiques the culture and allows those outside to cross
the borders easily and safely. To ignore border pedagogy in general, and queer pedagogy in
particular, is to fail in achieving the goals of Science for All.
Yet, it is important for science educators to recognize that opening the borders of science
education is not a minoritizing act. It is not just those whose identities are constructed by others
as marginalized who will gain from obtaining access to the culture of school science. It also
means that the culture of school science will change as well. Redrawing the borders of the
culture of school science decenters the culture and shifts the location of power (Giroux, 1991).
As a social construct, created through interactions among people, school science reflects the
values, attitudes, knowledge, and identities of those who participate in the culture. The culture of
school science will change when those traditionally left out gain access to the culture (Brick-
house, 1994). Thus, opening the borders of school science becomes a transformative act.
I believe that many in the science education community deny the inevitability of the trans-
formation of science education, and eventually the culture of science, that Science for All is
creating. Science educators cannot continue to operate believing that Science for All will have no
impact on the culture of school science itself. Transforming school science benefits all members
of society by providing space within school science for the open and free exchange of ideas
necessary for a healthy democracy. If science education is going to play a role in preparing
citizens “to engage intelligently in public discourse and debate about matters of scientific and
technological concern” (National Research Council, 1996, p. 13), the culture of school science
must embrace the liberal democratic ideal that values space for all ideas. Queering science
education makes space for the new identities, new knowledge, and new ideas necessary for
citizens to engage intelligently in matters of scientific concern in a postmodern world. Queering
science education opens possibilities for understanding the complexities, multiplicities, and
power dynamics that operate within science education and within the public scientific discourse.
Thus, queering science education is a universalizing act. Science education for a liberal democ-
racy requires queer Science for All.
Gunckel Queering Science for All
Journal of Curriculum Theorizing Volume 25, Number 2, 2009 73
Queering the Normal—New Possibilities
I am sitting in a chair across the desk from the principal, feeling very uncomfortable and
vulnerable. This is the second time in less than two years, in two different schools, that I am
having this same conversation with a school principal.
“No, you can be assured that I do not discuss my sexuality in the classroom,” I say quietly.
“I didn’t think so. Maybe you should.”
Did I just hear him right? Did he just say I should come out in the classroom?
“I think it would be good for the kids,” he says. “They need to see more gay people in real
life. They need to understand that the vandalism that happened today was wrong. They need to
feel your pain, in order to understand why it was wrong.”
I am shocked; I don’t know what to say. My mind is thinking, “This is so queer.”
He continues, “The closet doesn’t help anyone, not you, not me, not the students.”
Finally, I ask, “But what about the parents? What about the school board?”
He laughs. I think, ‘This is definitely queer.”
He says, “They need to understand that this school is about opening possibilities, not closing
them down. We all learn from each other, and the only way we can do that is if we can be
ourselves. All of our students are constructing identities. They need to see many identities, not
just straight man and woman identities.”
“Um,” I say, not sure what to say next.
“You should know that I support you. I think that we need to make this school a place where
you can come out to your students. Then, your students will see you as a more real person. They
will probably connect more with your science teaching and maybe even learn more science. They
may find the passion for learning.”
I politely say, “Thank you.” I walk out of the office weak-kneed. I think to myself, “What a
queer world! There are lots of possibilities.”
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... The most frequently mentioned capacity of GSDST was disrupt heteronormativity. An abundance of science education research has been published conceptualizing the ways that school science practices and structures and influenced by and reinforce heteronormativity (e.g., Gunckel 2009;Letts, 1999;. Heteronormativity has been defined as "the view that institutionalized heterosexuality constitutes the standard for legitimate and prescriptive sociosexual arrangements" (Ingraham, 1994, p. 204). ...
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Este trabalho é recorte de uma dissertação de mestrado que envolveu a pesquisa e o desenvolvimento da atividade educativa “Vamos falar sobre gênero?” buscando problematizar com alunos do ensino fundamental os significados inscritos nos/sobre os corpos. Apresenta os resultados obtidos com a análise de uma narrativa audiovisual produzida no contexto desta atividade. Trata-se da narrativa “Preconceitos, Estereótipos e Bullying na Escola”, uma dramatização em vídeo, que conta a história de duas alunas, as quais criticam e buscam resistir a heteronorma. Com base no quadro teórico de Lundin (2011) e no modelo de análise temática de conteúdo de Bardin (2016), a narrativa foi analisada a partir de quatro categorias-chave: Corpos e suas Hierarquias, Corpos e suas Dicotomizações, Corpos e suas Estilizações e Corpos e suas Resistências. Como principais resultados, destaca-se a critica das alunas às práticas de bullying contra os sujeitos, que se afastam de modelos hegemônicos de feminilidade; às representações dos corpos presentes nos materiais didáticos, que contribuem com a naturalização das diferenças ao reforçar o pensamento binário e a normatização, por meio de uma performance, em que pode-se evidenciar que narrar é resistir. Por fim, percebemos o potencial da narrativa audiovisual como um processo potente de mobilização de saberes, experiências e propulsora de atos de resistência contra processos de generificação.
... Queer theory recognizes that heterosexism and discrimination against queer people are systemic in society, which makes it necessary not to "condone heteronormative and cissexist male approaches as the only methods of inquiry" (Nadal, 2016, p. 301). It is a critical theory about the intersection of identity and power (Gunckel, 2009), which pushed the first author to consider her relationship with the participants as part of the data analysis. Queer theory provides scaffolding for analysis by encouraging the use of transgressive practices to look for deeper, unusual connections (Browne & Nash, 2016, p. 7). ...
... Queer theory provides scaffolding for analysis by encouraging the use of transgressive practices to look for deeper, unusual connections (Browne & Nash, 2016, p. 7). For example, it has been used in education research to reexamine "institutions and processes that limit possible identities, promote binary constructions, and naturalize heteronormativity" (Gunckel, 2009, p. 65), and to think critically about education both as it is and as it could be (Gunckel, 2009). Queer theory has been underutilized in research about the experiences and feelings of LGBTQ+ individuals in STEM fields (Jennings et al., 2020;Lange et al., 2019). ...
... The above examples, in which the focus is to increase LGBTQ+ representation, are referred to by Rands (2009) as the add-queers-and-stir approach. Although this method provides windows and mirrors of LGBTQ+ identities, some might argue that increasing representation does not do enough to dismantle the power hierarchies of society's heteronormative and cisnormative framework and is bound to fall short of a truly inclusive curriculum (Rands 2009;Gunckel 2009). As a queer Latinx woman who never saw my own identity represented in my K-12 schooling, I agree with this assessment. ...
... Unlike the add-queers-and-stir approach, which attempts to normalize various sexualities and gender identities, queer theory calls for rejecting notions of normal (Jagose 1996). Queer pedagogy describes the application of queer theory to teaching practice and calls into question the nature of knowledge and learning (Britzman 1995) in much the same way as teaching through inquiry (Gunckel 2009;Nelson 1999). A queer pedagogy works to expose and disrupt the power hierarchies of education by bringing into question the knowledge and ways of learning that we Some might argue that increasing representation does not do enough to dismantle the power hierarchies of society's heteronormative and cisnormative framework. ...
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In this article, the author discusses strategies for creating more equitable K-12 mathematics experiences for LGBTQ+ students. Strategies range from engaging in self-education, creating LGBTQ+ inclusive classroom spaces, and adopting LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum and queer pedagogy. The importance of considering school context while engaging in this work is also discussed.
... Queer theory posits that there are many artificial dualisms which exist in our society, often where one side of the dualism is given higher value than the other. Queer theory aims to disrupt binaries, normative processes, definitions, and categories [30]. In the technical discourse of science and engineering particularly, everything is classified into categories, and anything that falls outside these categories is deemed "not normal". ...
... In the technical discourse of science and engineering particularly, everything is classified into categories, and anything that falls outside these categories is deemed "not normal". Queer theory critiques curriculum to consider broader perspectives, more imaginative possibilities, and to question what counts as knowledge [30]. ...
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There has been little progress in increasing the diversity of engineering over the past three and a half decades. Much of the diversity work in engineering has an implicit liberal feminism and fails to deconstruct the hierarchical social categories and the underlying ideals of engineering culture. There is a growing need to critically look at the embedded culture of engineering and how this presents a barrier to diversity. This paper provides a critical review of key ecofeminist literature and how engineering education can learn from ecofeminist approaches. The ecofeminist framework aims to breakdown dualisms that artificially separate humans and nature, and rather emphasizes the essential interdependence of all organisms. The aim of this work is to better understand how ecofeminism could be used as a framework to change the culture of engineering education to create a more inclusive environment and foster a greater holistic skillset in our students.
... Furthermore, sex education (in the UK this mostly takes place in biology lessons) has encountered a number of obstacles and is generally focused on reproduction, leaving issues of homosexuality not recognised (Reiss 1998). Some studies have shown biology textbooks tend to accommodate binary-gendered political views, associating homosexuality with diseases (Snyder and Broadway 2004), while other studies have concluded that schools are homophobic and heterosexist institutions, thereby creating a hostile and tense environment for teachers and students who do not fall within the binary gender classification (Gunckel 2009). Many schools and families have failed to understand the thinking and feelings of LGBTQ + students and teachers properly, tragically causing many of them to attempt suicide (Smith and Drake 2001). ...
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In the twenty-first century, the rise and support of fascism-related views threaten freedom of speech, freedom of sexual orientation, religious tolerance and progressive agendas that advocate equity. We argue that mainstream science education generally does not, but should, educate students against fascism-related views-such as racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance-with a view to strengthening mutual respect and the common good. We argue some science teaching practices are found to be suitable to fascism-like ideologies (e.g. race in genetics teaching), and that the use of the concept of 'scientific literacy' has focused on neoliberal possessive individualism. As a consequence, mainstream science education overlooks the development of sympathy, altruism and inter-personal skills. We also discuss the activity of science education in authoritarian, undemo-cratic regimes in history, showing that fascist regimes have long used 'apolitical' scientists' achievements to establish and expand regimes' intolerant and violent ideologies. We use that historical relationship to argue fascism is science education's business. Given the fear that current political discourses in many countries are again swinging towards fascism, we outline potential pathways for science education which focus on the social and emotional development of students. We argue that to develop a pedagogy for democracy, that attends to equity and social justice, it is imperative it enables pupils to develop at a psychological level with diverse others, including through their own agency. This pedagogy builds on critical pedagogies.
... Research studies have found that cultural norms and biased perceptions of competence limit LGBTQ students' opportunities for success, which causes stress, social and academic isolation, and anxiety over future job security [18], [29]. In the professional workplace, science and engineering professionals report experiences and perceptions similar to those of students [19], [16], [30]. In a study that compared the academic climate and career consequences for LGBTQ faculty, those in STEM fields reported the highest level of discomfort on campus, in departments and in classrooms; those who were not comfortable were more than twice as likely to consider leaving their institution [20]. ...
... The perceived objectivity and normative practices within mathematics creates dissonance among students that their queer identity is irrelevant and should not impact their experiences. For instance, although queer students report neutral climates in STEM spaces, this in part because they report not having connections with queer communities and don't believe their queer identity relates to the discipline (Cech, 2013;Gunckel, 2009;Haverkamp et al., 2019;Hughes, 2017). These students often cast STEM as an escape from their queer identity since "STEM creates objective viewpoints where orientation is not considered… [and] gender and sexuality are not important to the efficiency of work" (A. ...
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Research, programs, and policies to support queer students in secondary mathematics environments remain largely underdeveloped and undertheorized. Mathematics education research has attended more closely to how race and gender are linked with dominant discourses of participation and mathematical performance. In this synthesis, we conducted a broad search of literature, resulting in 81 articles, related to queer student experience in all STEM environments to highlight potential practices to support inclusive environments specifically in secondary mathematics. Drawing on a queer stem identity framework (Mattheis, Arellano, Yoder, 2019) we highlight the unique nature of queer identity (e.g., the potential for one’s queer identity to be invisible) that positions queerness as unseen and irrelevant to the pursuit of STEM. The perceived masculine and heteronormative nature of mathematics environment impacts queer students when defining their queer identity and coming out in the classroom, creating a cognitively stressful experience, and leading to less robust mathematical identity formation. In order to help promote queer students in navigating these settings we document how role models and curriculum allow for a reconstruction of the nature and mathematics by promoting a connected, inclusive, and social discipline. We conclude by highlighting the need for future studies and implications for practices in order to create environments that promote the development and visibility of queer mathematics students.
... The following excerpt comes from a research article entitled, "Queering science for all: Probing Queer theory in science education" written by Kristin Gunckel (2009). Gunckel, who identifies as a Lesbian and is a graduate student, describes their 1 experience during a STEM project meeting with other graduate students, post-docs, and the principal investigators. ...
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Supporting student success in introductory mathematics courses is a growing national imperative in order to both diversify and increase the number of well-prepared Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduates. Efforts to diversify STEM fields have focused on broadening participation, addressing equitable outcomes, and promoting inclusive learning environments for an array of student identities. At the same time, educational research, institutional programs, and policies to support Queer-spectrum students remain largely underdeveloped and undertheorized. By Queer-spectrum, I mean students who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Two-spirit, Intersex, Pansexual, Asexual, or in other ways Queer because of their queer sexual identity or non-cisgender identity (Kumashiro, 2001). Broadly speaking, this dissertation study seeks to explore the lived experience of Queer-spectrum undergraduate STEM students through a transformative mixed methods design (Mayoh & Onwuegbuzie, 2015), which is structured in three phases. Drawing on large scale quantitative survey data (n=25,785) for the first phase, I examine how Queer-spectrum students describe mathematical learning opportunities in introductory mathematics courses and how these reported descriptions differ within Queer-spectrum students and between Queer-spectrum and Straight students. In the second phase of this study, I use a phenomenological approach and grounded theory techniques to identify mathematical discourses (e.g., beliefs, norms) related to Queer identity based on individual interviews with 17 Queer-spectrum students. Based on this analysis, I define the exclusion-irrelevancy space to network together mathematical discourses that positions queer identity as excluded and irrelevant to the pursuit of STEM. In the third phase of this study, I draw on thematic analysis and Nasir’s (2011) identity resource constructs to document the resources that support Queer-spectrum students in STEM using focus groups with Queer-spectrum students at four universities. Taken together, these three phases seek to transform and advocate for inclusive STEM environments for Queer-spectrum students. The aim of this study is to provide both a broad understanding of Queer-spectrum student experiences in mathematics while providing illustrative accounts to capture the nuance of the lived experiences for Queer-spectrum students. I conclude this dissertation study by looking across the three phases and, most importantly, provide implications for practice and policy in STEM education to promote more inclusive STEM environments.
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