Stuart Biegel, The Right to be Out

Review by David L. Wallace
University of Central Florida

Biegel, Stuart, The Right to be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2010. (300 pages)

[1] Two of the chief difficulties in addressing the on-going struggles faced by members of oppressed groups in American society are (1) the presumption that the problems have largely been solved by civil rights legislation or anti-discrimination policies and (2) the presumption that one is not implicated in continuing systems oppression unless he or she is involved in intentional forms of prejudice and discrimination such as burning crosses on lawns, firing a teacher because he is gay, or spewing racial epitaphs. Many of us want so much to believe that American society has largely moved beyond racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, abledism, religious intolerance, and other forms of bigotry that we fail to understand the ways that oppression has become more subtle, expressing itself through tokenism, reverse discrimination arguments against affirmative action, and unrealistic expectations for members of oppressed groups (e.g., supermom syndrome).

[2] The situation faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and transsexual (LGBT) Americans is an interesting case for understanding the continuing struggle for equality that many Americans face. For LGBT people, like members of other oppressed groups, the trend seems to be toward greater visibility and acceptance particularly in popular culture. However, this increased visibility and attempts to gain civil rights for LGBT people have also raised the stakes, making sexual identity and gender expression actively contested issues. However, unlike many oppressed groups who enjoy civil rights protection, LGBT people face both overt discrimination that is legal and more subtle forms social prejudice.

[3] Stuart Biegel's new book, The Right to be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools, examines the struggle of LGBT people for equality in one very important setting: K-12 public schools. Queer theorists might rightly question Biegel's choice of "the right to be out" as the central metaphor for his project because the metaphor casts the issue in largely binary terms (in/out; right/wrong) that tacitly buys into the very problematic distinction that designates some sexual identities and gender expressions as problematic. Indeed, noted queer theorists such as Eve Sedgwick and Judith Butler have argued that we need to move beyond such essentialist positions toward models that recognize the multiplicity of difference issues that are nearly always involved when identity is contested. However, as Jonathan Alexander and I argue elsewhere, a range of strategies are necessary to challenge the kinds of oppression that LGBT people face, and there are good times to single out sexual identity as a problematized position. Given the examples of overt discrimination faced by LGBT people in K-12 settings described in The Right to Be Out, Biegel's right-to-be-out metaphor seems apt.

[4] Overall, the book brings together an impressive array of legal cases and precedents, actual examples of contesting LGBT identities in public school settings, and principles that would be helpful for students, teachers and administrators who are concerned about changing the culture of education that continues to marginalize those who are seen as having non-normative sexual and gender non-conforming identities. The first half of the book focused on the details of relevant legal cases and issues, and the second half on more the more immediately practical issues of addressing the need for change in school climates, creating change in curricula, understanding the contributions of the culture of school sports to the oppression of LGBT people, and the issues faced by transgendered youths. The chapters on sports and transgendered youth are must reading for anyone involved in education.

[5] Biegel's first four chapters reviewing the legal issues facing LGBT students and teachers in K-12 public schools make a compelling case that essentialist arguments are still necessary in this context. In the introduction to the book, Biegel clearly invokes an essentialist position when he sets out the basic premise of exploring the right to be out as a necessity for LGBT and other Americans to live their lives fully and openly. Biegel clearly recognizes that "outness" is not binary category, rather it means different things to different people in different situations (see page xv); however, his choice to ground is investigation in this binary distinction is necessary as a basis for sorting through the dizzying array of legal cases and decisions that he explores in the first four chapters. These four chapters take up the legal bases for the right to be out, the challenges faced by LGBT students, those faced by LGBT educators, and the complex relationships among curriculum, religion, and morality when issues about sexual identity and gender expression are called to the fore in American public schools.

[6] In these four chapters, Biegel reviews many cases, providing both information about the situations that spawned court cases and details about the legal decisions themselves. Although I cannot speak to the quality of Biegel's use of the many legal cases and decisions he discusses as this is beyond my expertise, his discussion of these cases is detailed (sometimes too detailed) and has the potential to help readers understand the issues at play in this messy transitional stage of LGBT rights in public schools. Biegel makes a valiant attempt to make accessible to readers complicated issues such as the differences between court cases based on First Amendment issues versus cases based on Fourteenth Amendment issues. His discussions in these four chapters attempt to identify issues of equity related to sexual identity and gender expression that are relevant to students, teachers, and administrators. Unfortunately, the principles that he draws from these analyses too often get buried in the details of particular cases or in the analysis of technical legal issues. However, these chapters are made more readable by a useful mini-history of LGBT activism in American education (chapter 1), powerful examples of discrimination faced by LGBT students (chapter 2, see pp. 26-7 especially), cases that educators have faced (chapter 3), and useful principles for action that eventually emerge (e.g., finding the "reasonable middle ground" in chapter 4).

[7] In the second section of the book (chapters 5-8 and the conclusion), Biegel turns to issues of public policy related to implementing the right to be out. In these chapters, Biegel maintains a much better balance among the details of relevant legal cases, narrative details of actual examples, and principles that help to guide educators. Chapter 5 on addressing school climate starts slow but comes to a critical statement assessment of the work reviewed in chapters 1-4:

At a minimum, administrators, faculty, and staff should be familiar with what has transpired in recent LGBT-related litigation and should be cognizant of the fact that the courts are increasingly intolerant of actions or inactions by school officials that contribute to the mistreatment of LGBT youth. (119).

[8] Chapter 6 on creating change in the classroom includes a sensible and substantive discussion of various means to address sexual identity and gender expression in curriculum, illustrating what moving into the "reasonable middle ground" could entail in practice (see page 144 especially). This discussion is appropriately cautious given the legal battles that have arisen about LGBT issues in education. However, I admit that I found the recommendations in this chapter a bit tepid even if they are realistic because I cannot imagine such tentative recommendations related to seeking equity in education for any other marginalized group. Also, the discussion of curricular innovations discussed in this chapter suffered a bit by not being more directly informed by queer theory. Even if it is sensible to counsel educators to move forward slowly, they should be informed and warned about the dangers of half measures (e.g., tokenism and essentialism).

[9] Chapter 7 announces itself as about the culture of school sports and how it contributes to various forms of marginalization for LGBT students. However, after a brief discussion of this topic, the chapter focuses primarily the prejudices against LGBT people in sports contexts beyond K-12 school settings. Despite the slightly misleading title, this chapter mounts a bold challenge of organized sports that identifies several relevant issues. Chapter 8 about the challenges faced by transgendered youth is, by far, the best in the book. Biegel begins the chapter with an excellent discussion of the complications of transgendered/transsexual identities and gender non-conforming youths. In this chapter, Biegel provides both concrete suggestions for curriculum and useful discussion of such practical issues as names/pronoun use and access to restrooms for transsexual, transgendered, and gender non-conforming youths. Although I teach in higher education rather than K-12 settings, I will return to this chapter as an important reference.

[10] The brief concluding section is a bit odd in that its primary focus is an argument based on a number of concrete examples that out LGBT politicians have clearer positions of power than closeted ones. A summary of the legal issues and principles for action would likely be more relevant for most readers.

[11] In summary, I am happy to have this book on my shelf. It is an important introduction to a number of issues. I suspect that the first four chapters will be useful only for those who are very interested in the legal issues faced by LGBT people in public schools or for those who find themselves thrust into a situation in which those legal issues must be addressed. In contrast, chapters 5-8 address issues about which any educator or administrator needs to be informed.

Work Cited

Alexander, Jonathan and David L. Wallace. "The Queer Turn in Composition Studies: Reviewing and Assessing an Emerging Scholarship." College Composition and Communication 61.1 (September 2009): W300-20.