This article addresses the question of Canada’s relative inclusivity, and the work that remains to be done to achieve that ideal, through a group whose existence and experience was still criminalized within my own lifetime: the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and two-spirit community (LGBTQ).1 The subject is equally topical in the United Kingdom, since 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of same-sex acts between adult men over the age of 21 in private. Similar legislation was enacted in Canada in 1969, although ‘gross indecency’, the charge normally brought against gay men performing anal sex, was not removed from the penal code until 1988. I was born in 1964, the year that Jane Rule published Desert of the Heart, a novel often hailed as the first positive representation of love between women in the modern era. Rule finished the manuscript in 1961 and sold it to Macmillan Canada in 1962 but had to approach 22 US publishers before anyone would touch it. As recently as 1993, Rule’s books were being seized at the Canada–United States border on suspicion of obscenity, if they were destined for gay-friendly bookstores such as Little Sisters in Vancouver or Glad Day in Toronto. And Rule’s works featuring openly gay characters leading ordinary lives were certainly not being taught in high schools. My current research explores whether things are improving for LGBTQ youth in Canadian high schools, now that more than ten years have passed since the legalization of same-sex marriage. While public attitudes may be shifting, there seems to be a growing disjunction between an increasing acceptance of homosexuality and gender diversity, and a spike in homophobic and transphobic bullying, hate crimes and teen suicides.
This article investigates the transformative potential of research-informed theatre as pedagogical strategy to promote community formation and institutional change, in the context of a social justice agenda. Specifically, I am interested in strategies to improve the school environment and make curricula more inclusive for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and two-spirit youth in Canada. As the basis for my case study, I focus on the work of Tara Goldstein, Professor of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto. Formally trained in critical ethnography, Goldstein is also a published playwright who employs performed ethnography and research-informed theatre to disseminate her findings to a wider audience, including trainee teachers, school authorities and parents. Her work can be understood in the context of a range of interrelated forms of reality theatre, including auto-ethnography, community theatre, verbatim theatre, ethnodrama, documentary theatre and tribunal plays.2 Goldstein’s plays stage dialogical encounters between multiple stakeholders, where research participants and other audience members make a direct contribution to the research conclusions. The potential strength of this method lies in the convergence of three elements: original ethnographic research; live readings or performance; and subsequent audience conversations. This creates a collaborative circuit between scholar, research subjects and communities, tapping into the power of theatre to intensify reality, to evoke shared emotional experience, and to promote experiential learning. Goldstein’s work thus serves as a model simultaneously for innovative research practices, applied theatre and creative pedagogy.
My article examines two plays designed to help trainee teachers prepare for the debates and situations they will encounter in classrooms. Zero Tolerance (2008) is an example of research-informed theatre; this 30-minute performance script is based on The Road to Health, a four-volume report produced in response to the fatal shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in the hallway of his Toronto high school in May 2007. Snakes and Ladders (2004), a performed ethnography based on Goldstein’s own qualitative research into the implementation of equity policies in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), engages with the challenges facing anti-homophobia initiatives in secular public high schools serving diverse communities. Collectively, Goldstein’s plays help to highlight the need for institutional, systemic change and whole-school pedagogies in the struggle to achieve genuinely inclusive education.
‘Performed ethnography’ is a creative research methodology that has emerged in the field of educational studies across Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia over the past 30 years.3 Key proponents include Norman Denzin and Johnny Saldaña.4 As the name suggests, in performed ethnography the scholar turns concrete qualitative data into a literary text or dramatic script that can be read aloud by a group of participants or performed for a live audience. Post-performance conversation permits fresh analysis of the research findings by the research participants, audience members and actors. Performed ethnography is one of several arts-based approaches with which contemporary researchers are experimenting.5 While performed ethnography implies the author has conducted and dramatized their own ethnographic data, the related term ‘research-informed theatre’ can be used more broadly for drama based on other scholars’ research. Research-informed theatre intersects with a broad range of disciplines, such as education, anthropology, sociology, psychology, health, justice, cultural studies and performance studies – the list could be extended indefinitely to encompass scholars from any field who seek alternative ways to share research findings with audiences beyond the academy.6 There are almost as many terms to describe research-informed theatre as there are practitioners. In his study of ethnodrama, Saldaña catalogues approximately 80 terms he has invented or found in circulation among artists. Their common denominator is that ‘the script or performance text is solidly rooted in nonfictional, researched reality’,7 which implies a desire for fidelity to the original documents and a strong ethical commitment to both participants and community. Saldaña defines ethnodrama as
a written play script consisting of dramatized, significant selections of narrative collected from interview transcripts, participant observation field notes, journal entries, personal memories/ experiences, and/or print and media artifacts such as diaries, blogs, e-mail correspondence, television broadcasts, newspaper articles, court proceedings, and historic documents. … Simply put, this is dramatizing the data.8
For Saldaña, ethnodrama refers primarily to the literary genre; performance of the script on stage in front of a live audience transforms it into ethnotheatre. The audience for such works often consists of people with a close relationship to the concerns being explored; indeed, the research participants, actors and audience generally collaborate to construct the work in a shared performance context. Performed ethnography is thus a hybrid form that must accomplish a complex balancing act between competing commitments and stakeholders. As ethnographer, the author must maintain sufficient scholarly rigour for the original study to remain credible and valuable, while simultaneously maintaining their ethical obligations to the research participants, community and audience. Questions of aesthetic and theatrical design often rank a distant third to such considerations.9 The motivations to create research-informed theatre include ‘to raise awareness, propose alternatives, provide healing, and inspire change’.10 I argue that research-informed theatre of the type written and performed by Tara Goldstein offers a powerful means to promote active learning about LGBTQ issues among teacher trainees and educators, who will consequently be better prepared to implement more inclusive approaches to curricula, policies and school environment in Canadian high schools.
Unlike those of us who attended school in the 1970s, Canadian students now have some constitutional protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 1996, the Canadian Human Rights Act was amended to include sexual orientation, and the Supreme Court has ruled that sexual orientation should be ‘read into’ Section 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Similar legislation respecting gender identity and expression has only recently been ratified by the Canadian Parliament. In June 2017, the Senate voted in favour of Bill C-16, an act updating the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to incorporate the terms ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’. While the inclusion of (some) LGBTQ rights in constitutional and human rights legislation is an important step forward, it offers little practical help to LGBTQ youth in their daily school lives. Because education in Canada falls under provincial rather than federal jurisdiction, actual educational policies respecting LGBTQ youth have emerged piecemeal, often only in response to legal challenges. Since 2012, three provinces have introduced new legislation that makes explicit mention of LGBTQ rights: Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, in Ontario in September 2012; Bill 18, the Public Schools Amendment Act (safe and inclusive schools), in Manitoba in September 2013; and Bill 10, an Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children, in Alberta in March 2015. In each case, it was the clause that would permit explicitly named student-led anti-bullying clubs, such as Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs),11 that provoked the most controversy and resistance in segments of the public and the media.
There is a growing body of evidence to support the contention that LGBTQ youth are particularly susceptible to implicit and explicit violence at school. Since 1999, the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network has been conducting a biennial National Climate School Survey in the United States to document the incidence of anti-LGBT language and victimization in American classrooms, and its impact on student experience and performance. The first comparable national survey on homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in Canadian high schools was conducted between December 2007 and June 2009, and published in 2011 by the Egale Human Rights Trust (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere). In their Executive Summary, Taylor and Peter note:
The lack of a solid Canadian evidence base has been a major impediment faced by educators and administrators who need to understand the situation of LGBTQ students in order to respond appropriately and to assure their school communities that homophobic and transphobic bullying are neither rare nor harmless, but are major problems that schools need to address.12
The study surveyed over 3,700 students from across Canada, using two methods: an open-access online survey intended to reach as many sexualand gender-minority students as possible; and an in-school session under controlled conditions in 20 randomly selected districts. One in seven students (14 per cent) who completed the survey in class self-identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, two-spirit, queer or questioning.13 This figure suggests that there are several sexual- or gender-minority students in each class across Canada, not to mention those who may have LGBTQ family or friends. The findings show that notwithstanding the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the legalization of gay marriage in 2005, Canadian LGBTQ youth continue to experience harassment and feelings of insecurity at school on a regular basis. For example, 64 per cent of LGBTQ students report feeling unsafe at school; 74 per cent of trans students and 55 per cent of sexual minority students (as well as 26 per cent of non-LGBTQ students) experience verbal harassment due to their gender presentation; and 21 per cent of LGBTQ students report physical harassment because of sexual orientation.14 More worryingly, 33.2 per cent of LGBTQ students claim that school staff never intervene when homophobic incidents occur, while approximately 10 per cent of LGBTQ students report hearing homophobic remarks from teachers themselves on a daily or weekly basis.15 The report concludes that ‘Many schools have a well-developed human rights curriculum that espouses respect and dignity for every identity group protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms except for LGBTQ people’, and recommends that ‘Faculties of Education integrate LGBTQ-inclusive teaching and intersectionality into compulsory courses in their Bachelor of Education programmes so that teachers have adequate opportunities to develop competence before entering the field’.16
The invaluable data provided in the Every Class in Every School climate survey has now been matched by the final report of The Every
Teacher Project, launched in January 2016. The largest study of its kind to date worldwide, this landmark project surveyed over 3,400 K-12 teachers from across Canada in the 2012–13 academic year about their perspectives on and experiences of LGBTQ-inclusive education. As the report acknowledges, ‘teacher organizations have often led the way (alongside progressive school districts) towards LGBTQ inclusion by developing curricular resources, offering professional development for their members, defending members in conflicts with school system officials involving LGBTQ rights, and consulting with government’.17 Almost three-quarters of the respondents agreed that ‘inclusion’, rather than concepts such as ‘security’ or ‘regulation’, is essential to fostering a safe school environment. Yet as the data demonstrates, even teachers who had completed their Bachelor’s of Education within the last five years felt that their training did not adequately prepare them to address LGBTQ issues in the classroom. A representative sample of the findings includes the following points:
59 per cent felt their Bachelor of Education (B.Ed.) programme did not prepare them to deal with issues of sexual diversity; 26 per cent responded that they were prepared but would have liked more instruction; only 7 per cent considered themselves to be very well prepared.
64 per cent reported their programme did not prepare them to address issues of gender diversity in class; 20 per cent felt prepared but would have liked more instruction; only 4 per cent felt very well prepared.
The two topics most likely to be encountered in teacher education classes were ‘homophobia in schools’ and ‘issues LGBTQ students experience’. Nevertheless, 38 per cent of respondents reported they had received no instruction on homophobia in schools, while 45 per cent reported no discussion of issues LGBTQ students experience.
With the exception of these two topics, more than half of respondents reported that none of their teacher education courses contained any LGBTQ material at all.
Even with respect to the most common topic, homophobia, only 22 per cent of educators encountered such material in more than one course.18
Such data has significant implications with respect to the relative capacity of teachers to implement new, inclusive education policies with any confidence, as stipulated in legislation such as Bill 13 in Ontario, Bill 18 in Manitoba and Bill 10 in Alberta. In essence, whether or not teachers have received formal training to deliver LGBTQ-inclusive education appears to be largely a matter of chance, depending on which institution they attended and what courses they took. This is the gap that Goldstein seeks to fill. She has been teaching an elective on Gender, Sexuality and Schooling for approximately 15 years at OISE.
Tara Goldstein’s Work
Goldstein is formally trained in critical ethnography, which ‘attempts to get beyond people’s daily assimilated experience to expose the ways in which structures of power reproduce themselves in everyday life’.19 For the first 12 years of her career, she conducted conventional ethnographic research in the field of education, engaging in the growing critical teacher education movement across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. Influenced by the ‘literary turn’ in American anthropology in the 1980s, and the reconceptualization of qualitative research methods from a postmodern perspective, Goldstein wrote her first ethnographic play, Hong Kong, Canada, in 1999. She has since honed her playwriting skills through writing workshops and a Master’s in Fine Arts from Spalding University. Initially, Goldstein preferred the term ‘performed ethnography’ to describe her work. More recently, she has adopted the term ‘research-informed theatre’, since she has begun to adapt other people’s work (as well as her own) for performance; Zero Tolerance is an example of one such text. She established her own theatre company, Gailey Road Productions, in 2007, ‘after several years of submitting [her] plays to professional theatre companies and not having any success in getting any of them produced for a public audience’.20 Goldstein’s body of work invites exploration of several pertinent questions. Given the variety of ways through which one might disseminate research, when is a performed play the best method?21 What can theatre or performance do that a peer-reviewed scholarly journal article cannot?
First, Goldstein follows scholars such as David Conquergood in recognizing that contemporary ethnographers need to create multiple texts, each of which addresses a different audience.22 Conquergood observes that social drama must be acted out and rituals performed in order to be meaningful: ‘It is not just in non-western cultures … that cultural performance functions as a special form of public address, rhetorical agency.’23 Engaging in ‘coactivity’ or co-performance shifts the research dynamic to a situated, collaborative model that is more aware of the researcher’s position of privilege and the ethical responsibilities to the participants. Second, staged readings and public theatrical performances reach beyond the academic readership of scholarly journals, in a more accessible fashion: ‘Postreading/performance conversations also allow educational researchers to link up their research to their teaching and larger public forums on pressing social issues.’24 Third, theatre has the capacity to concentrate and amplify feeling and sensory effects. As Erin Hurley puts it, theatre offers ‘super-stimuli’: ‘by offering superstimuli, theatre solicits or activates feeling responses in the audience; by focusing the audience’s attention, theatre manages the nature and moment of the audience’s feeling response, potentially orchestrating it into a common, collective response’.25 Finally, in her book on theatre, education and performance, Helen Nicholson speaks of ‘creative moments of unknowingness and confusion’ – an openness to the spirit of inquiry and even the possibility of making mistakes that seems vital to learning.26 Whereas most peer-reviewed research is fixated on concrete outputs, targets and esteem indicators, theatre work can be more contingent and less competitive. Overall, performing ethnography can mobilise critical, emotive and experiential factors to maximize the chances of stimulating both individual and collective responses. In the following sections, I conduct a brief textual analysis of Goldstein’s Zero Tolerance and Snakes and Ladders to illustrate these issues.
Case study: Zero Tolerance
Zero Tolerance, Goldstein’s eighth play, is a 30-minute performance developed in response to the TDSB’s four-volume, 595-page report The Road to Health,27 an investigation into school safety prompted by the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in May 2007. Goldstein decided to adapt the report in order to provoke discussion about its 126 recommendations among teacher candidates and educators at OISE. The fourth draft of her script was performed in September 2008 as a staged reading for 500 teacher education students at OISE’s annual Safe Schools Conference.28 It is worth noting that the revision process itself is crucial: each successive draft underwent a ‘validation’ reading in the presence of educators or parents working in and with Toronto public schools, and the script was revised once again after the staged reading to incorporate feedback from the event.29 This concept of validation reflects the scholar/playwright’s ethical commitment to the communities affected by the issues, and the role of consultation and collaboration in producing work that conveys the research data as accurately and effectively as possible. The play consists of five scenes, with Goldstein herself taking the role of narrator, and a cast of teacher education students and staff members from the Centre for Urban Schooling. Following the performance, a panel composed of a school vice principal, a teacher educator, the director of the Centre for Urban Schooling and one of the teacher trainees delivered a set of prepared responses to the script. This was followed by a two-hour discussion with around 30 audience members, while other students went on to a series of workshops developing themes from the play, such as peace building, conflict resolution and peer mediation. Although Zero Tolerance was conceived and mounted several years after Snakes and Ladders, and does not focus primarily on LGBTQ issues, a brief consideration of this play illuminates Goldstein’s working methods and her pedagogical philosophy.
Zero Tolerance intersects with Snakes and Ladders in at least two ways: first, through the notion of tolerance itself; and second through a brief allusion to homophobic bullying as one of several issues related to school environment demanding to be solved. In Scene 4, Teacher 2 notes: ‘There are 40 students who transferred out of their home schools to the Triangle Program this year because of homophobic bullying and harassment. Forty.’ Teacher 1 adds, ‘Forty students, all completing high school in a church basement, with only two teachers to teach the entire curriculum in four different grades’ (42). The Triangle Program is an initiative of the Oasis Alternative Secondary School, founded in 1995, which prioritizes the needs of LGBTQ students. The existence of such programmes no doubt offers a crucial lifeline, but this poses a whole new set of questions. Quite apart from the tendency to quarantine the victims, rather than dealing with the systemic conditions that have created the problems in the first place, one wonders what happens to students who live in districts without a Triangle Program to provide an escape route. The National Inventory of School District Interventions in Support of LGBTQ Student Wellbeing, conducted in 2014, found that urban districts were more likely than rural ones to have LGBTQ-specific interventions in place; there were also significant regional variations, with Alberta and Québec least likely and Ontario, British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces most likely to support LGBTQ-specific interventions.30 Canadian LGBTQ youth need comprehensive solutions that will be equally accessible to everyone, regardless of where they live.
In designing the script for Zero Tolerance, Goldstein faced several challenges – not least of which was selecting which aspects of the voluminous report to transform into half an hour of performance material. As the title indicates, she chose to foreground the governmental school safety strategy and its problematic legacy. The play informs us: ‘In 2002, the Tory Government amended the Safe Schools Act. Suspensions and expulsion were made mandatory for many forms of student misconduct’ (20). Goldstein frames this as zero tolerance for marginalized and disengaged youth, since the investigative panel found that these sanctions were applied in a discriminatory manner against students of colour and those with disabilities. Yet these draconian measures did not make schools violence- or weapons-free. In addition to examining how the Safe Schools Culture has hurt Toronto’s most disenfranchised students (24) and recounting Jordan Manners’s final moments, other scenes deal with (sexual) violence against girls and the need for renewed relationships between teachers and students. Thus, Zero Tolerance dramatizes the anti-bullying Safe Schools climate that prevailed in the period immediately prior to the enactment of Bill 13 – a disciplinary strategy which Goldstein demonstrates is not merely ineffective, but actually damaging to many students (and by implication to the wider community).
The opening monologue frames the play as a ‘story’ told by Tara Goldstein, teacher, educator and playwright, based on her own reading and understanding of The Road to Health – in other words, as one (subjective) interpretation among numerous public, media, institutional and academic responses to the report. A similar selfreflexive strategy was employed in the staging: images of the report’s three authors were projected onto a screen while the actors playing them onstage introduced themselves. Other characters include five pre-service teachers, a principal, a group of parents, a group of high school students and a reporter. The performance was staged and directed by MA student and theatre artist Jocelyn Wickett: ‘Jocelyn felt it was important to consider the relationality between the readers and the audience. She wanted the audience to feel that their role as active listeners was just as important as any other role in the performance.’31 The concept of active listening points to a key aspect that distinguishes participation in research-informed theatre from reading a scholarly article: the audience is present as a group in a particular place, time and context, which can generate its own dynamic and invites potential interaction between performers and audience. The decision to situate the person reading the part of the reporter among the audience at the opening of the play adds to this effect, reminding us that we are all members of a community invested in varying ways in the events under discussion. Wickett positioned the performers in two groups, with the panel and new teachers seated to one side of the stage and the principal, students and parents to the other; placing the panel and teachers upstage, further away from the audience, signals the relative power dynamics in these debates. Moreover:
In certain heated moments in the play, the parents and high school students stood far enough downstage that they almost became part of the audience. When the parents and high school students turned upstage to question the panel and then direct some of their lines out onto the audience, the audience had a sense of being part of the action.32
While the readers of the script are not professional actors, a series of simple movements, gestures, beats or pauses serve as punctuation, drawing or deflecting attention.
Another strategy employed to good effect is the use of what Goldstein calls ‘throw lines’. These are short interjections, usually a single sentence, spoken by an individual parent, teacher or student, representing voices from the community. For example, when the panel expresses the belief that the Safe Schools Culture has hurt the most disenfranchised, Parent 2 responds, ‘As a society, we have failed our children’ (24). Sometimes such lines are repeated, creating echoes or refrains, such as one parent’s anger that ‘Forty thousand learners were denied an education’ (21, 24), or another parent’s disavowal, ‘There are no guns in my kid’s school’ (18, 34). Goldstein and Wickett characterize the throw lines as ‘embody[ing] groups of people who have something to say about the report. These are lines that need to carry emotion. In some ways they are like a Greek chorus. A voice for youth. For parents’.33 In light of this assertion, it is significant that the stage directions in the script almost invariably indicate that whoever is speaking at the time – usually one of the three panel members who authored the report – ignores the interruption. This suggests either that the panel rejects the views expressed – especially in the case of the media reporter, who is used in the play to express oppositional views – or that ordinary members of the public are relatively disempowered and unheard in relation to official discourses.
One of the central decisions in the design of this play involves casting the pre-service teachers to recount the last moments of Jordan’s life. The reconstruction helps to keep this specific individual’s personal tragedy in mind, and to remind the audience that ‘One Bullet Wounds Many’ (16). But placing the words in the mouths of the trainees also encourages them to imagine themselves as part of the situation. For instance, Teacher 1 remarks ‘I teach Visual Arts. Jordan Manners could have been my student’ (26). At another point, the performers describe how the first teacher to find Jordan injured and unresponsive tried twice without success to call the main office from his classroom intercom. Teacher 2’s question, ‘Can you imagine how he felt?’ (28), calls for empathy. Indeed, the most frequent refrain in this section of the play is ‘It could have been me’ (27, 29, 31), expressing the range of powerful anxieties and emotions resonating among a cohort of new teachers who might in the future be called upon to deal with comparable situations. After the recitation of the known facts, exchanges between the different groups (panel, teachers, parents, the reporter) become more interactive and dialogic. The panel concludes that there are no ‘quick fix’ solutions, that ‘[d]ismantling the Safe Schools Culture is imperative’, and that this is not just a school problem but one that ‘requires a coordinated effort by all relevant arms of government and community agencies’ (36–7). This recommendation not just for whole-school pedagogies, but for concerted efforts across social services, health, government agencies and community, is reiterated repeatedly by researchers into homophobic, transphobic and biphobic bullying and LGBTQ-inclusive education. The narrator’s closing monologue ends with the question, ‘How can we do our part at OISE to work against another shooting at a Toronto school?’, echoed as the pre-service teachers, the principal, the parents and the media reporter each repeats, ‘How can we do our part?’ in turn. Thus, Zero Tolerance concludes with a call to action ‘typical of performed ethnography, which strives to promote dialogue and cultivate new understandings around important social issues’ (5). Given the context of OISE’s annual Safe Schools conference, this call is aimed particularly at trainee teachers and educators to get involved and reflect on their own practices.
Case Study: Snakes and Ladders
Snakes and Ladders, Goldstein’s third performed ethnography,34 explores the challenges facing anti-homophobia education in secular, public high schools serving multicultural, multiracial and multi-faith communities. The play and the research that underpins it emerged in response to the revised equity policy of the TDSB, which as of the 2000–1 school year ‘requires all its teachers to work towards a homophobia-free teaching and learning environment’.35 Completed in 2004 and revised in 2009, Snakes and Ladders dramatizes material drawn from Goldstein’s qualitative study entitled Challenging Homophobia and Heterosexism in Elementary and High Schools (2002–3), examining how four Toronto schools had begun to implement the new equity policy. The data used to write the play is drawn from observation field notes taken during three school visits, and interviews conducted with six teachers and administrators and two OISE pre-service teachers on practice placements in Toronto schools. Their points of view, activities, and some of their actual words appear in the play.36 Goldstein also carries out her own analysis of the pedagogical possibilities of using Snakes and Ladders in teacher education, based on observation notes from six of her classes at OISE and interviews with a small group of students about their experiences of working with the script.37 Thus Snakes and Ladders offers a good example of an instance where Goldstein conducted the original research into practices in Toronto schools, turned it into a play, held formal and informal conversations about the efficacy of the play, and published those findings in scholarly journals as well. This provides multiple types of output and points of entry into the subject, each adapted according to audience and context. While this play addresses a discipline-specific audience invested in education and pedagogy, elsewhere Goldstein does involve wider communities in the process of research and creation.
Snakes and Ladders comprises 14 scenes, all set in the fictional Pierre Elliott Trudeau Secondary School in Toronto in the spring of 2003. The cast of characters includes Anne Diamond, the rookie principal; two experienced teachers, Rachel Davis, lesbian Jewish faculty sponsor of the GSA, and Anne James, Jamaican-born Christian faculty advisor of Students and Teachers Against Racism (STAR); four student teachers of various backgrounds and ethnicities, including Roberto, a gay male of South American heritage raised by Southern Baptist parents, and Rahima, a straight Muslim woman; two student representatives from the GSA (one an openly gay teen and the other a straight Chinese Canadian ally), and two students from STAR (both straight of Caribbean descent). The action revolves around the GSA’s initiative to mount a Gay Pride event. Karen Diamond is initially reluctant – she has been taken by surprise and is anxious to avoid controversy in the first year of her tenure as principal. However, she modifies her position after a conversation with her mentor, who advises her that the new equity policy includes anti-homophobia. Meanwhile, Anne James suggests to Rachel that STAR and the GSA should team up for a week-long series of events devoted to anti-racism and anti-homophobia activities, commemorating 21 March, the International Day to Eliminate Racism. However, when Anne and Rachel present the scheme to a combined meeting of STAR and GSA students, they encounter mixed reactions from the STAR representatives, ranging from lack of awareness to outright resistance. The play also showcases a spectrum of teacher positions, from activist advocacy, to indifference, to questioning, to the rejection of homosexuality on religious principles. The play incorporates a flashback sequence of Roberto coming out to family and friends at age 15, and closes with a school council scene, where three parents offer differing community views on the initiative. As befits the complexity of the situation, the play is open-ended, leaving many issues unresolved: Pride Day events will go ahead, but subject to review by the principal. Overall, through class performance and discussion of Snakes and Ladders, new and experienced educators can explore conflicting positions and attitudes towards anti-homophobia education, and assess the relative merits of different strategies, both for dealing with incidents in classrooms and for negotiating working relationships with colleagues, administrators, school boards and parents. For example, the professional desire to protect students and implement equity legislation can come into conflict with an individual teacher’s own religious or personally held beliefs about homosexuality or LGBTQ lives that are sometimes themselves homophobic. The following discussion analyses some of the play’s ‘teachable moments’.
According to The Every Teacher Project, ‘Teachers are being held back by fears that they will not be supported and lack the training to do [LGBTQ-inclusive education] properly’.38 The opening scenes of Snakes and Ladders model for pre-service teachers the potential barriers to anti-homophobia education, let alone LGBTQ-inclusive education, that can be posed by school boards or administrators fearful of public reactions and controversy. For instance, Karen Diamond misidentifies the GSA as a ‘gay group’.39 She is initially unaware that the TDSB equity policy includes anti-homophobia, and she characterizes Pierre Elliott Trudeau Secondary as a friendly school where everyone gets along, despite the fact that Rachel informs her of the experience of one gay Grade 11 student, Jeffrey Lee, who was forced to transfer to another school the previous year because of homophobic verbal harassment by other students. Karen tells Rachel, ‘we’re teachers, not social workers. It’s not our job to facilitate support groups for gay kids. We’re not experts. We have counsellors we can refer students like Jeffrey to if necessary … Most parents don’t want their children to hear about regular sex at school, never mind gay sex’ (72). As Rachel laments in the next scene, such misconceptions are common. Dissenters frequently fail to distinguish between gay sex and discrimination, homophobia or other LGBTQ issues; hence for people such as Karen, ‘talking about gay issues means talking about sex. Homosexuals are homo-sex-uals’ (74). Further, opponents minimize or dismiss instances of harassment. Rachel observes, ‘You can’t walk down the hall of this school without hearing someone yell out “fag” or “faggot.” Most teachers let the slurs and jokes slide. They pretend they didn’t hear anything’ (75). This allegation is partially borne out by the findings of the first national climate survey on homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in Canadian high schools, cited above. To balance Karen’s conservative caution, Goldstein includes the supportive attitude of the more experienced principal, Bob Myers, who not only has the confidence that comes with surviving more than one crisis in his career, but has a vested personal interest, as his own daughter is a lesbian who remained closeted in high school. Myers asserts to Karen: ‘in order for the [equity] policy to do any good, we have to implement it. Even when it’s difficult. Even when it brings us into conflict with staff and parents. Karen, the policy needs to be implemented. I’ll support you’ (86).
Snakes and Ladders is particularly useful for pre-service teachers in the way that it broaches potential strategies and discourses for dealing with awkward situations they are likely to encounter. For example, one of the student teachers, Amy, has been asked to facilitate the question-and-answer session following a film screening about homophobia, and she expresses to a peer her anxiety that she might say the wrong thing (95–6). It can help students to talk over difficult issues in class when they are projected onto a character, rather than having to speak about them in the first person. As Goldstein comments: ‘Often, issues of diversity and equity are discussed in a depersonalized, distanced manner in teacher education classes. Engaging in the reading of a play script is a powerful way of creating a personal and emotional connection with issues faced by the characters of the play.’40 Goldstein uses a similar strategy in Zero Tolerance when she has the five actors cast as the pre-service teachers re-enact the final moments of shooting victim Jordan Manners. In Scenes 9 and 10 of Snakes and Ladders, teachers Rachel and Anne model ways of defusing antagonisms and dealing with straight students’ frequent lack of familiarity with LGBTQ terms and existence. Rachel remains calm when Diane uses a derogatory slur, adopting a non-confrontational Socratic approach to point out why the word is inappropriate. Similarly, the dialogue between Anne and Diane in Scene 10 represents one type of scenario in which teachers come up against students’ deeply learned or felt antipathy to LGBTQ existence (even if they themselves have experienced some other form of discrimination, such as racism). Here Diane also articulates a common line of defence, appealing implicitly to discourses of censorship and the politics of recognition: ‘But what if I don’t want to be a straight ally? … if I don’t agree it’s okay to be gay, shouldn’t my opinion be respected?’ (94). In response, Anne invokes a universalist human rights ethic of tolerance, emphasizing the right to existence and to respect, implicitly drawing a parallel to other forms of oppression and conflict:41
Anne: (Pauses) I want you to think about something. People are. We have to respect the right of all of us to just be. Be who we are. And that’s not easy. And it doesn’t happen without some kind of conflict. Because we don’t live in the world all by ourselves. (94)
Elsewhere, Goldstein points out that official TDSB policy interprets anti-homophobia education within a human rights discourse and as safe schools education, and that this is an institutional discourse within which teachers will be expected to position themselves, since ‘students from families who would prefer their children not discuss homosexuality at school are not allowed to opt out of human rights and safe school education activities at their school’.42 Thus the play rehearses difficult inter-personal situations and some of the pedagogical, philosophical and institutional discourses that teachers are likely to contend with in their classrooms.
If trainee teachers have concerns about how to handle potential confrontations with students, they are just as likely to encounter a range of opinions among other colleagues and school authorities. In Scene 11, pre-service teacher Rahima faces a parallel dilemma to that expressed by Diane. She has been asked to organize and introduce the visit of Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia (TEACH),43 and this reveals conflicting values for her as a devout Muslim: ‘I mean I don’t believe that gay people should be discriminated against. I bust kids for saying “fag” in the hallway, and I have gay friends in the cohort, like Roberto. But I don’t think it’s okay to be gay. You can’t be gay and Muslim’ (97). Roberto rejects this statement in the next scene, telling Rahima about an organization called Al-Fathiha that seeks to work out how to be gay and still follow the faith. However, when Rahima remains silent, refusing to enter into a dialogue on this subject, Roberto offers to introduce the TEACH group in her place, if she in turn will co-facilitate a workshop on homophobic as well as racist name-calling. This scene prompts teacher education candidates to debate the extent to which Rahima’s privately held view contributes to a hostile school environment. If so, it seems to be through omission rather than commission – that is, she does not seek to contradict the school’s official policies or undermine anti-homophobia efforts, but she does not actively work towards a genuinely inclusive institution either. As one participant at an international conference on teacher education comments, ‘Not all allies are perfect allies. Rahima is not a perfect ally for Roberto. But she’s a good enough ally.’44
Not surprisingly, the scenes revolving around the opinions expressed by Diane and Rahima, and the way colleagues such as Anne, Rachel and Roberto handle such situations, provoke some of the most frequent and intense debates when Snakes and Ladders is performed in teacher education classes. While Goldstein has chosen a Muslim character as the main vehicle to express conservative views in the play, this is difficult terrain for adherents of many other faiths.45 The difficulty of addressing racism and homophobia simultaneously, particularly when further complicated by resistance due to religious beliefs, is a challenge that resonates strongly in multicultural, multilingual and multi-faith communities. Also, as any educator knows: ‘Competition for time and resources is one of the barriers that can hinder or undermine the success of an alliance between anti-racism and anti-homophobia educators’.46 This problem is only exacerbated in times of fiscal uncertainty or restraint. The play’s plot also succeeds in representing the ways in which different aspects of identity can pull even thoughtful and sensitive individuals in conflicting directions – and educators’ views are bound to vary on the outcome of the negotiation between Roberto and Rahima, and what constitutes best practice. Goldstein offers a snapshot of her students’ opinions through the pseudonymously named Judy and Barb: while Judy sees the characters as coming to some sort of compromise, or at least ‘an interesting space of negotiating together and working together’, Barb is plainly irritated by Rahima’s character for being so unwilling to listen.47 Both impressions are productive for post-performance discussions, as
such discussions provide students with access to ideas or discourses that may be different from those within which they currently position themselves. Barb’s remarks suggest that Roberto is assisting Rahima in reproducing religious homophobia. Judy’s remarks suggest that Roberto is accommodating a colleague’s religious beliefs in order to maintain an important professional relationship. A third discourse that has arisen in classroom discussions is about Roberto showing respect for the religious pluralism evident in his secular school. Positioning oneself in each of these discourses carries different possibilities and constraints for anti-homophobia education in public schooling.48
Neither the play nor Goldstein’s post-performance workshops provide a resolution to these dilemmas. Instead, she encourages educators to weigh the relative merits of different discourses and strategies, given the particular context: what is the benefit and what is the cost of each interaction, at a particular school, in a given moment?
As its title suggests, Snakes and Ladders foregrounds real-life dilemmas faced by teachers, and the compromises that are often necessary to make even limited progress towards LGBTQ-inclusive education. Such education might be categorized according to three broad strategies: basic safe-schools, anti-bullying and anti-homophobia work, of the type that current provincial governments are most likely striving for in recent legislation; positive schooling moments, such as using LGBTQ texts in classrooms; and queer pedagogy, which would be sex-positive and frame gender as fluid. As Snakes and Ladders suggests, many institutions are still coming to terms with, and facing obstacles to, the most basic anti-homophobia initiatives, such as Pride Days or GSAs. While Rachel handles Diane’s use of a homophobic slur in a calm, non-confrontational way, at other moments she expresses frustration with people’s resistance or lack of understanding. In one instance, Rachel is interrupted when she starts to object to Karen’s characterization of the equity policy and Pride Days as ‘teach[ing] tolerance for others’ (91). In the long term, mere tolerance is insufficient, in comparison with full recognition and inclusivity of LGBTQ people’s lives and experience. (As Roberto pithily remarks to Rachel, ‘I don’t have a lifestyle. I have a life’ .) But in the short term, circumstances can persuade educators and government authorities to settle for tolerance as a first step: even Rachel finds herself resorting to the concept of tolerance during the school council meeting in the final scene of the play.
One of the strengths of live performance is its flexibility, its adaptability, its ephemerality: its present-ness. Traditional social science research generally aims to triangulate results: that is, multiple methods are employed so the scholar can be more confident of the findings; they hope the mixture of methods will produce similar results.49 Theatre, in contrast, provides a forum to stage diverse, even conflicting and contradictory points of view simultaneously. I return to Nicholson’s formulation of ‘creative moments of unknowingness and confusion’. Such a state of mind seems important to facilitate genuine learning: permission to be in uncertainties, to try out new ideas or differing points of view, even to get things wrong. Open-ended play scripts provide opportunities for students and educators to re-imagine alternative endings, or to explore practices that may not yet be actualized in their own daily working lives.
There is no doubt that progress is being made towards genuinely inclusive education, and the will to achieve institutional change seems to be growing. In 2014, the superintendents of all Canadian publicly funded school districts, French and English, were invited to complete a survey about a range of interventions on behalf of LGBTQ students, including generic and LGBTQ-specific harassment policies, GSAs, LGBTQ-inclusive policy, course content, professional development and teaching resources. The resulting National Inventory shows increasing awareness of the potential harm to LGBTQ students caused by a hostile school environment, and growing determination to address the problem:
Every one of the interventions that we questioned participants about had been implemented at the district level in at least some districts. A minority of districts had implemented many interventions, including the four mainstays of LGBTQ-inclusive education: LGBTQ-specific harassment policy, course content, professional development, and Gay-Straight Alliances or equivalent.50
A number of promising initiatives are underway. In response to the Ontario Accepting Schools Act, the Egale Human Rights Trust is offering free professional development workshops to all schools, to provide ‘concrete strategies for creating safer schools for all students and staff by addressing homophobia, biphobia and transphobia with confidence; free comprehensive resources to support inclusive classroom teaching and school-wide strategies; [and] opportunities to network and share resources with other schools and teachers’.51 In January 2017, Christopher Campbell and Catherine Taylor designed an Every Teacher Project toolkit: ‘a guide to support the implementation of the Every
Teacher Project recommendations for all levels of the school system’.52 The toolkit is divided into seven sections: teacher organizations; ministries of education (provincial and territorial governments); school districts; schools; school system employers; Faculties of Education; and religiously affiliated schools and organizations. Each section is structured with a contact form (for collating a list of contact information for key individuals within that organization in one place); an audit form (to assess what has already been accomplished, what is being done, and what steps should be taken next); and a fact sheet for each recommendation (outlining the rationale, supporting research, resources and frequently asked questions with suggested answers). Such initiatives, coupled with the growing body of research on this topic, are helping to raise awareness and expand networks of practical support.
But change cannot happen overnight, and progress is uneven. Canadian educators face ongoing challenges:
Even in 2015, given LGBTQ students’ long and ongoing history of exclusion, both systemic and systematic, from all aspects of official school life, as well as their extreme marginalization in unofficial school life, the persistence of organized opposition to their right to a safe and inclusive education continues.53
The National Inventory shows significant regional disparities and an urban/rural split with respect to the provision of LGBTQ-specific interventions. Increasingly, teachers are expected to implement policies of LGBTQ inclusion, but ‘professional development is needed to increase the efficacy of these interventions’.54 Many school districts leave teachers to self-educate and find their own resources: ‘Even in districts that provide professional development (PD), system constraints and political pressures not to “promote the lifestyle” or “gay agenda” can result in weak attention to inclusive lesson plans and teaching practices’.55 Most LGBTQ teachers are reluctant to be open with their students, which deprives LGBTQ youth of role models in their daily school lives. Only 22 per cent of superintendents reported that their districts have LGBTQ-inclusive curricula.56 So things may be getting better for some LGBTQ students, but there is still considerable room for improvement.
The work that Tara Goldstein does at OISE is exemplary. She is one of just 11 Canadian specialists in LGBTQ-inclusive teacher education listed in the resources section of the Every Teacher Project toolkit.57 It is probably fair to say that the TDSB and OISE boast some of the most progressive policies and programmes in the world. OISE hosts numerous visiting scholars and educators from around the world every year, with the potential to disseminate best practice. But it is telling that even here, Goldstein’s course on Gender, Sexuality and Schooling is elective, not compulsory. Until all teacher learners receive instruction in LGBTQ-inclusive pedagogies as a requirement of their B.Ed. and graduate courses, and all Canadian schools incorporate LGBTQ-inclusive learning, Goldstein will continue to be the exception rather than the rule.