Diversity and Democracy

Teaching LBGTQI Issues in Higher Education: An Interdependent Framework

While attending a plenary presentation at an education conference ten years ago, I heard a major figure in the field of multicultural education say that there was no place for LBGTQI (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, Queer, and Intersex) issues in multicultural education, and that "they" should have "their own" conference. It was a shocking disclosure: not only was the speaker being brazenly heterosexist and homophobic while sitting on a panel in front of a thousand conference attendees, but she was displaying a remarkable lack of understanding about the interdependent manner in which forms of oppression operate in the United States—and the corresponding need to address them in complex and overlapping ways. The incident was also a powerful reminder for me that those who claim to be social justice educators often need a stronger understanding of what social justice education (SJE) is.

Nine years later, at that same national conference, I was invited to present an afternoon keynote on the intersections of LBGTQI oppression and racism and how an end to racism cannot be achieved (nor a social justice framework claimed) without also addressing the core elements of heterosexism and homophobia. Certainly the conference organizers were making a positive statement in asking me to speak about this topic, but the angry (more specifically, homophobic) reaction from some audience members helped me see that there is still a great deal of work to be done in US colleges and universities around LBGTQI issues, social justice education, and the need to educate students and faculty about the deep and complex ways that various forms of oppression act interdependently to buttress each other's oppressive structures.

In the service of illustrating how the LBGTQI issues addressed in this issue of Diversity & Democracy relate to a broader social justice framework, this article will clarify what a social justice approach is, explain the benefits of an interdependent approach to teaching about these issues, examine some ways in which heterosexism and homophobia are intertwined with other forms of oppression, and suggest ways to educate about LBGTQI issues that best prepare students to critically participate in complex national and international social justice discourses.

Defining Social Justice Education

Social justice has become something of a buzz word in higher education over the last two decades, and the term has been watered down somewhat in the process. For this reason, while working on the second edition of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Adams et al. 2010), my editorial colleagues and I were careful to dedicate more space than in the first edition to identifying the core components of a social justice educational approach. Social justice education addresses the social construction of identity groups, the creation of dominant and subordinate categories with respect to these identity groups (depending on their relationships to power and resources), the systemic power structures within each form of oppression and how these structures overlap and reinforce each other, and the various pathways to liberation. Drawing from this framework, my coauthors and I attempted to show how forms of oppression in the United States support each other both historically and currently, feeding off of each other for their maintenance and expansion. Attention to this interdependence is necessary to achieve the level of societal and systemic change that brings about real and substantive equity and justice. A social justice approach to LBGTQI issues in higher education would move beyond creating "safe spaces" or "embracing diversity" to examine the construction of sexual orientation categories, the structures of heterosexism and homophobia in our society, and the interdependent nature of LBGTQI oppression with other forms of oppression such as gender oppression and racism.

Having said this, I can also say that many institutions and divisions within higher education that do accurately address the oppressive and liberating components of SJE issues often use a single-issue approach (where educators focus on a particular "ism"). Based on my eighteen years of teaching at the college level, I know that this method of taking one issue at a time can be beneficial when working with groups that have little knowledge of a particular issue because it often helps those groups get a slightly clearer picture of that "ism." Sometimes, in order to provide more of a "real-world" perspective, faculty may go a step further and use an intersectionality perspective to highlight the complexity, common roots, and overlapping nature of different forms of oppression. Institutions and divisions often adopt either or both of these approaches strategically. Indeed, in focusing on LBGTQI issues in higher education, this issue of Diversity & Democracy has adopted elements of each strategy.

Nonetheless, different forms of oppression are not discreet entities that merely intersect, but are in fact deeply interdependent for their very survival. As such, each form of oppression works diligently to reinforce, legitimize, and support all other forms of oppression. Thus, I think the most effective way to teach about multiple forms of oppression is to use a framework that speaks to this true interdependence. This may seem like semantics, but it has a powerful impact on how we in higher education approach issues such as heterosexism and homophobia and on how we prepare students to address these issues in their lives and society.

The Interdependent Approach

To illustrate the above point, I will focus my examples on the classroom with an understanding that many of these points are applicable to cocurricular education. In a typical classroom conversation about the intersectionality of heterosexism and homophobia with gender oppression and racism, faculty may identify common ways they manifest (for example, in reduced opportunities and outcomes related to employment, education, or physical health as compared to those experienced by members of the dominant group). They may discuss the common dynamics of power from which these "isms" stem (institutional power combined with hegemonic ideologies). They may even address how different forms of oppression are historically rooted in the social construction of identities. This analysis is indeed useful in helping students see the commonalities between these oppressions in a general sense. But the connections between these forms of oppression are actually deeper and more insidious: they need each other in order to survive.

An interdependent approach suggests that there can be no LBGTQI liberation without gender liberation and the fundamental dismantling of racism and whiteness (white privilege and white supremacy). Let's consider gender specifically: the socially constructed gender binary of what it means to be a "real man" and a "real woman" as defined through rigid gender roles serves as the foundation of heterosexism and homophobia in the United States. Third graders in our public schools are not harassed and bullied because of their sexual orientation, but rather because of their perceived nonconformity to gender roles. Therefore, creating a less homophobic and heterosexist campus is simply impossible without addressing gender oppression.

Similarly, but from the opposite direction of analysis, racism and whiteness deeply need both LBGTQI and gender oppression in order to feed and serve the structures of racial inequality in the United States. Just as LBGTQI and gender oppression hinge on the socially constructed "gender binary," racism hinges on the socially constructed lie of race. This incredibly potent and deadly lie is only a few hundred years old, while the lie of the gender binary has been told and retold for millennia. Thus racism draws on the gender binary for deep and powerful support for its own fallacious constructions.

In the same fashion, racism and whiteness need heterodominance. Take the example of the institution of the heteronormative family, which has been used to justify "nation building." The colonial movements of "manifest destiny" and "westward expansion" that ended the lives of millions of people of color would not have been so readily supported if they were openly described as a nationalistic grab for more resources. But when packaged as "the government meeting the needs of a growing population and an expanding America" as embodied in the stereotypical heteronormative family, genocide and the institution of slavery become more palatable.

Thus educators should keep in mind that challenges related to LBGTQI oppression are interdependent with challenges faced when addressing all other forms of oppression in the United States. Fundamentally, they all need each other to survive, and therefore eradicating one form of oppression, in this case heterosexism and homophobia, deeply depends on eradicating them all.

Teaching Interdependently

To illustrate: In my upper-division class on heterosexism and homophobia in the United States, I begin by helping students explore how constructed gender roles serve as the foundation of heterosexism and homophobia, and then address how racism and classism use heterosexism and homophobia to maintain these forms of oppression. Framing the course in this manner adds complexity to the content right away, and speaks to the lived experience of many students by opening up avenues for identification and personal, as well as systemic, analysis.

Similarly, when addressing racism that targets American Indians in the United States, for example, in my teacher education course, I talk about the dynamics of genocide and the racialization of Native Americans across the continent. But I also make a point to discuss how European colonizers imposed Western Europe's strict gender roles on American Indian nations, bands, and tribes, many of which had egalitarian gender structures and therefore were a threat to the patriarchal powers moving across the continent. In more violent moments, the colonizers used forced rape and sexual assault by native men toward native women as a tool of ideological colonization. In parallel fashion, two-spirit people (those not conforming to rigid European gender roles and thought to possess both masculine and feminine qualities), deeply revered in many American Indian communities in North America, were met with intense violence and all but exterminated at the hands of colonial heteronormativity and gender conformity.

Seeing the Big Picture

Given these interdependencies, when we educators address heterosexism and homophobia on our campuses, we need to address the ways other oppressions such as gender oppression and racism support and reinforce heterosexism and homophobia and each other. This reinforcement occurs not by happenstance or because the forms of oppression are similar, but because each form of oppression desperately needs the others for its own survival. An interdependent approach to teaching about heterosexism and homophobia, as well as any other form of oppression such as classism, disability oppression, or religious oppression, offers a deep analytical frame and a broad array of tools for students to engage in democratic discourse and critical analysis. Using this approach beyond the classroom (for example, in residence life, student affairs, and student government) affords the campus community complex mechanisms for affecting positive engagement, multi-issue organizing, and substantial change that will make our higher education communities safer and more productive for all.

And so, in a time when higher education is expected to do more with less, it is ever more critical that we approach issues of oppression with an interdependent social justice framework, which can itself provide context for programs and aspirations focused on LBGTQI issues. More than ever before, this moment in history necessitates a citizenry that is well educated, comfortable with complexities, and able to simultaneously hold a macro-level understanding of interdependencies and a micro-level sense of what each person can do to work for the betterment of all. It is within such a context that issues of heterosexism and homophobia and gender oppression and racism and whiteness, as well as all other categories of oppression, can be addressed in more proactive and effective ways.


Adams, Maurianne, Warren J. Blumenfeld, Carmelita (Rosie) Castañeda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L. Peters, and Ximena Zúñiga. 2010. Readings for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Heather W. Hackman is an associate professor of human relations and multicultural education at St. Cloud State University and the founder of Hackman Consulting Group.


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