Vol. 26. No. 2 (June 2016) pp. 28-31

DON’T BE SO GAY: QUEERS, BULLYING, AND MAKING SCHOOLS SAFE, by Donn Short. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013. 316pp. Paper $32.95. ISBN: 978-0774823272.

Reviewed by Eric van der Vort, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, emvander [at]

A number of suicides among LGBTQ youth have received significant media attention in recent years. Many of these deaths have included stories of bullying in the form of verbal and physical violence perpetrated against LGBTQ youth, bullying that is often described as one of the central causes of these suicides. Beyond these high-profile cases, which continue to appear in the media with tragic regularity, statistics on LGBTQ youth experiences in the United States confirm the troubling fact that these youth are often targets of verbal and physical violence. According to the 2011 National School Climate Survey (a regular survey published by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network)), nearly 82% of LGBTQ youth were verbally harassed at school because of sexual orientation and 38% were physically harassed. Additionally, 64% reported verbal harassment and 27% physical harassment based on gender expression. Similar numbers have been reported in this survey for years. Recognition of a widespread cultural practice of bullying LGBTQ youth in schools and its very real consequences has led to an outpouring of research on the subject. One of the questions this research confronts is what the most effective means are to ensure school safety for queer youth. Donn Short’s DON’T BE SO GAY is a timely and necessary additive to this discourse.

Short’s work focuses on the attempt to make schools safe for LGBTQ youth in Toronto (Canada). Short rejects top-down approaches to the problems and solutions of school safety. He adopts an explicitly socio-legal approach in examining “the ways that state-issued laws and policies… are effective and to what extent their reach may be complicated or rendered less effective” (p. 178). He centers LGBTQ students as their own expert witnesses to find out what safe schools should look like through interviews and participant observation of schools. He combines the students’ voices with a comprehensive review of the legal and political background of safe schools policy in Toronto. This review examines the text of provincial and local policies as well as interviews with teachers and administrators. The resulting work is an ambitious and empathetic case study of a major school district’s struggles to define and implement effective safe schools policies for LGBTQ youth and, in the process, all students. At its core, Short’s argument suggests that legislation and policy are critical elements to creating safe schools, but that many contemporary safe schools policies are reactive to individual incidents and thus ignore the greater problems of culture that impede the effective implementation of such policies. Multiple normative orders concurrently exist alongside these official policies which complicate effective implementation: heteronormativity and aspects of youth culture such as ‘anti-snitch’ and gender codes or religiosity. To ensure effective implementation, Short and his respondents argue largely as one, effusive declarations and punitive actions are not enough; proactive efforts to shift school cultures are the only truly effective means to create safe schools for LGBTQ youth and all students.

The book proceeds in three informal parts. In the first section, Short sets up the structure of the text. Chapters 1 and 2 emphasize theories of bullying and their place in Canadian education and law, and a survey of the history of safe schools policy-making by in Toronto and Ontario, a history that shows the legal commitment of officials to providing safe school environments conducive to learning. Chapter 3 presents four different schools Short visited in his research, which demonstrate the multiplicity of ways that the official commitment to providing safe school environments have been implemented at their most immediate level. In [*29] this chapter, Short argues that schools tend to conceive of safety in one of four ways, implementing policies and a school culture that emphasizes different aspects of safety: control (an emphasis on controlling student identity), security (an emphasis on physical safety), equity (an emphasis on equality among students), and social justice (an emphasis on justice in both the school environment and larger culture). Given the weight Short and the queer youth whose voices he draws on throughout the text places on shifts in culture, it comes as no surprise that the latter two dimensions – equity and social justice – offer the most promising avenues for establishing safe schools.

Chapters 4 and 5 expose the heteronormative culture that undergirds much of schooling and the ways in which heteronormativity serves to create barriers to the implementation of what Short calls equity policies. Short employs hidden curriculum theory to describe these heteronormative assumptions that are so central to education. “The hidden curriculum,” he notes, “is composed of the unspoken social norms that are outside of the manifest curriculum but that students are nonetheless expected to learn” (p. 115). From this view, much of schooling, including methods of achieving safe schools through control or security, privilege “heteronormative gender scripts” (p. 108) and uncritically accept heterosexism, to the detriment of queer youth and their peers. Short employs the voices of his respondents to describe in detail the ways that heteronormativity and heterosexism, quite distinctly from homophobia, work to marginalize queer youth. Conversely, he shows how attempts to shift the underlying culture of schools provides a more effective means to provide safe schools than punitive or reactive policies intended to prevent or punish specific and individualized incidents.

Chapters 6 and 7 focus on the other normative orders that arguably joust for dominance with state law in the creation of state schools, specifically the quasi-legal system of youth culture. Chapter 6 contains a concise and useful summary of theories of legal pluralism. While he does not go so far as to claim that the aspects of youth culture under consideration represent legal orders, Short argues that they are of such paramount importance in explaining the behavior of youth in their school environments that the perspective of legal pluralism is appropriate for their analysis. He makes this case convincingly, and in the subsequent chapter demonstrates the de facto governing power of youth culture. He refers to one example several times: in this example, the male gaze becomes an enforcement mechanism, turned against a gay-identified student in the classroom environment. A silent expression of disapproval of the gay student’s outward performance of his sexuality serves, in turn, to temporarily closet the gay student, or at least convince him to perform his sexuality in a less obtrusive fashion. This enforcement of heteronormativity through the temporary closeting of the student is a hallmark of youth culture in Short’s analysis: a social system operates in the corridors and classrooms of schools, communicated through silent glances, ugly words, and the threat or even reality of physical violence, that oppresses and marginalizes LGBTQ youth even in the presence of state laws and adult allies. “Snitches get stitches,” so the saying goes, a reality made all the worse for LGBTQ youth. The act of reporting acts of bullying, observed or experienced, can serve not only as a violation of anti-snitch culture, but can also serve to attach the stigma of being queer (in the eyes of a dominant youth culture) to the reporting individual. To the socio-legal scholar, this has all the marks of an informal legal system: codes exist and are enforced; violators are punished; order, of a sort, is maintained.

These latter chapters are likely to be of the greatest interest to LPBR readers. Short’s statement that he is not asserting that the features of youth culture he examines are a legal order of the sort legal pluralism is concerned with seems unnecessary. Yet his sensitivity to debates about what is or is not law reveals this section’s main contribution. He writes, “I am less interested in debates about whether other normative orders amount to law or legal orders and am drawn to a consideration of these cultural influences as complicating factors that attract equal or greater loyalty in the day-to-day [*30] lives of the individuals whom formal state-issued law seeks to govern” (p. 172). In choosing to allow queer youth to speak about their experiences, Short provides an excellent example of ways in which we might study the effects of normative orders that have the quality of establishing informal social control and that seem to have the hallmarks of legal orders after all. It is well-established that law operates far beyond the corridors of the state; Short’s contribution is to note that the effects of informal social control can sometimes be best articulated by those who are governed by and find themselves in violation of these informal legal orders that attract, as he describes it, equal or greater loyalty than state law, sometimes even in direct competition with the state.

Overall, the work is timely and the topic an important one. The sharp focus of the case study – a handful of schools in Toronto – may seem limiting, but the lessons that Short draws from his time in the Toronto schools and the extensive interviews he conducted will likely convince the reader that there is much to be learned from his approach, and the relative limitations of geography and demographics do not limit the impact of his findings. In this sense, Short’s work presents a useful model for research on similar topics or with similar social groups. Even with the goal of centering students in his research, however, Short is unable to separate entirely from the necessity of relying on more traditionally authoritative voices. Much of the book is devoted to the experience of teachers, rather than students. The teachers inevitably speak on the topic of implementing safe schools policies or, more often, challenging and resisting the ways administrators have chosen to implement these policies. Their inclusion is not detrimental to the book, but does sometimes seem jarring in a project that is so focused on student voices.

Readers will also note the deep concern and personal interest Short brings to this topic. At several points throughout the text, he references empathizing with his respondents because of similar experiences. This is a strength of the text: Short is embedded within this difficult and complicated topic, and he brings an ethnographer’s sensibility and cultural competence to his research with aplomb. This confers a sense of authority to his interpretation of the facts and did much to assure this reader that the research was conducted with all the care and attention such a topic demands. Still, greater transparency in the methodology employed would have been a welcome addition. Short goes to great lengths to describe the ways in which he conducted his interviews generally and how he established contacts, comported himself in the field, and selected the evidence he provides the reader. However, he never describes in great detail the interviews he conducts, despite noting at several points that he asked each of his respondents similar or identical questions, for example, asking each of his respondents to tell him “what words were used to insult a girl and what words were used to insult a boy” (p. 221). Greater clarity in the structure of the interviews would have been a welcome insight into the conduct of the research.

Short’s work is refreshingly interdisciplinary, situated at the intersection of socio-legal studies, queer theory/LGBTQ studies, and education law and policy. He situates the work particularly in the socio-legal realm, but draws authoritatively from all three fields. The work will be of primary interest to socio-legal scholars because of its consideration of the barriers to the effective implementation of state law and the ways in which formal law must joust with culturally-rooted informal competitors for legal authority and compliance. For queer theorists and scholars of LGBTQ studies, the book will represent a welcome addition to the growing literature on the topic of school safety and queer bullying, especially with its emphasis on giving agency to queer youth to speak as experts on their own experiences and insights. For those interested in education law and policy, the book contains a wealth of insight into the operation of both on the ground and the importance of culture in influencing not only diversity in education but in the creation of effective policies, not only for LGBTQ youth but likely across a variety of domains.

Finally, it is worth noting Short’s challenge to the definition of bullying that is generally [*31] employed in research and policy-making. Short rejects the widely accepted idea that bullying is something that occurs at the individual level, described predominantly as “a student… [being] exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one, or more, students” (p. 2). Instead, Short notes that there are cultural and ideological biases underneath much of the bullying that occurs in schools and, in the course of his research, provides useful exposure for the idea that bullying is far more than a matter of schoolyard tussles or harsh words – bullying is often a tool of oppression that serves to perpetuate the dominance of one culture while marginalizing and excluding individuals who refuse or are unable to conform to that culture’s expectations. Short’s challenge to the predominant definition of bullying is worth taking note of and expanding upon in future research.

© Copyright 2016 by author, Eric van der Vort