Diversity and Democracy

Queer's Dual Meanings: Possibilities for Service Learning

Queer is a word with two meanings. It can be an adjective used as an umbrella term to describe the LGBTQ community. It can also be a verb meaning "to trouble": to question assumptions about dichotomous thinking and conceptions of what is natural or inherent. Both definitions have implications for service learning. Service learning can provide opportunities for students to engage with LGBTQ communities' strengths and needs while deepening an understanding of academic disciplines and social justice. But service learning across organizations and communities can also be "queered" or troubled, raising new kinds of questions that lead to deeper critical reflection and more sophisticated understandings.

Mills College (Photo by Philip Channing)

Queering Service Learning

Queer theorists question or trouble what is considered "normal"—a construct often referred to as normativity. They consider how normativity is constructed and given meaning both culturally and historically (Butler 1990; Foucault 1979; Sedgwick 1990). "Queering" service learning therefore means questioning service learning's normative categories: Who is the privileged "provider" of service, and who is the underprivileged "recipient"? It also means challenging whether these categories are natural or constructed out of relationships of privilege and power—and thus subject to rethinking.

Service-Learning Partnerships with the Queer Community

Faculty across departments and disciplines can partner with LGBTQ community institutions serving a variety of needs:

  • LGBTQ arts groups and historical societies can become partners for service learning in the humanities.
  • Health and social service organizations working in the LGBTQ community are potential partners for projects in medicine, the sciences, and the social sciences.
  • LGBTQ advocacy groups can be sites for service with explicit connections to legal and political learning goals.

In smaller communities with few resources focused solely on LGBTQ needs, more broadly framed organizations can be sites for service learning that engages with queer issues and communities:

  • Organizations serving homeless youth may work with a large number of LGBTQ young people.
  • After-school recreation centers may partner in developing anti-bullying projects.
  • Arts organizations may welcome opportunities to prompt community dialogue about LGBTQ issues.

-David M. Donahue

Queer theorists also raise questions about binary or dichotomous thinking. Rather than focusing on fixed and unequal identities, queer theory encourages thinking in terms of reciprocal relationships characterized by shared and overlapping roles. In service learning, this means blurring the borders between providers and recipients as well as between learners and teachers (Hillman 1999). It can also mean blurring the boundaries between communities. Queer theorists frame individual identity as multiple, intersecting, socially constructed, and fluid (Kumashiro 2001). Thus communities, especially those based in queer identities, are likewise complex and mutable, resistant to easily drawn boundaries of inclusion and exclusion.

Practicing Queered Service Learning

Drawing on the observations outlined above, faculty can take steps to queer any service learning project:

  • Never make assumptions about the identities of students or community partners. When asking for students' email addresses and phone numbers at the beginning of a course, also request their preferred names and what if any pronoun they use when referring to themselves—information that may or may not match the registrar's roster. Remind students not to make assumptions about each other's identities or capacities for learning and change.
  • Use reflection to question dichotomous thinking and to embrace contradiction. Prompt students to consider how community partners are serving and learning along with them. Help students embrace the idea that service is about engaging in both short-term projects and long-term change, not choosing between the two. Encourage students to engage in critical reflection on social problems from poverty to racism, which can challenge preconceived ideas about what is natural, what is constructed, and what can be reconstructed.

Practicing Service Learning for the Queer Community

The practices outlined above will benefit any service-learning project. But service-learning projects that promote social justice for LGBTQ persons require additional planning and critical reflection:

  • In framing service learning for students, explain why the project is supporting the LGBTQ community, particularly in courses where the whole class is involved in one project. Connect project goals not only to course learning goals, but also to standards in the discipline and related professions.
  • Provide options. While service learning for LGBTQ communities can help all students grow in empathy, do not impose students who are struggling with trans/homophobia on communities and organizations whose work could become sidetracked as a result.

Service learning on behalf of queer communities can take many forms (see box). In my education courses, both those with and without an explicitly queer focus, I have implemented projects in partnership with LGBTQ organizations in the community and on campus. These projects have provided students with knowledge about current educational policy, skills in curriculum planning and field research, and dispositions towards creating inclusive schools and taking action against inequities—all valued outcomes for education scholars and practitioners. My students have worked with an LGBTQ film distributor to develop curriculum guides for films that bring LGBTQ issues into the secondary school curriculum. They have collaborated with a group supporting gay–straight alliances in middle and high schools to determine which public school districts were meeting their responsibilities to inform students of their rights under California law related to nondiscrimination based on gender, gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. (We investigated over two hundred school districts and found only one in full compliance!) On-campus projects have included collecting oral histories of LGBTQ alumnae for a library archive and collaborating with a group working to create a queer student space at the college.

Affective Outcomes

Students bring their whole selves to service learning, and their responses to service learning with LGBTQ communities will be affective as well as cognitive. Some students who identify as LGBTQ may feel great pride in fighting homophobia, while others may be reminded of painful experiences. Students who do not identify as LGBTQ may develop powerful new identities as allies, while others may grapple with trans/homophobia or struggle to reconcile with religious teachings. And students questioning their sexuality or gender identity may have personally transformational experiences.

Likewise, queered service learning can also prompt affective change. This is especially true when students see that they have thought and acted in oppressive ways. Their understanding can create a state of "crisis" where, according to Kevin Kumashiro (2002), they "are both unstuck (i.e., distanced from the ways they have always thought, no longer so complicit with oppression) and stuck (i.e., intellectually paralyzed and need to work through their emotions and thoughts before moving on with the more academic part of the lesson)" (63). Faculty might want to avoid creating classrooms that prompt crisis. But as Kumashiro points out, "education is not something that involves comfortably repeating what we already learned or affirming what we already know. Rather, education involves learning something that disrupts our commonsense view of the world" (63).

Engaging in disruption through service for queer communities and queered service learning takes time. It also requires a capacity to encounter difference, work through resistance, avoid dichotomous thinking, and embrace contradictions. But it can lead to profound changes in our and our students' views of the world.


Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Hillman, Thea. 1999. "Dissolving the Provider–Recipient Split." Academic Exchange 3 (4): 123–27.

Kumashiro, Kevin. 2001. Troubling Intersections of Race and Sexuality: Queer Students of Color and Anti-Oppressive Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

———. 2002. Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Sedgwick, Eve. 1990. The Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

David M. Donahue is a professor of education at Mills College.


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