Heterosexual Privilege in Music Education and Those Who Don’t Care

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(Cliffnotes of this post: A new article addresses heterosexual privilege in music education, I know about it because of negative reactions on OneNewsNow, and I actually had the opportunity to address LGBT issues while I student taught.)

Our society expects those in the music education profession to contribute to societal development by affirming and educating future generations. As individuals, perhaps we were even attracted to music education by that call.

Those are the opening words from an article called “Sexual Orientation and Music Education: Continuing a Tradition,” by Louis Bergonzi published last month in Music Educators Journal. They resonate profoundly with me and the decision I made to become a music educator over seven years ago. Though I had not yet come out—even to myself—I definitely knew I could make a profound impact on the world by helping young people share in the joy of music-making. I’ve made other decisions since then, deciding to focus more directly on social justice issues and identity development through Student Affairs, but I doubt I’ll ever stop thinking of myself as a music educator.

The reason I know about this article is because of a headline I saw on conservative “news” site OneNewsNow: Sour notes – ‘homophobia’ and music ed. Despite being rife with the conditionalizing language of “homosexual” as all OneNewsNow articles demeaningly use, this article actually summarizes Bergonzi’s article quite well. Bergonzi effectively outlines heterosexual privileges that both students and teachers benefit from, and also addresses curricular dilemmas (For example, would you tell students Benjamin Britten wrote almost all of his operas for his partner of 39 years, Peter Pears?). Bergonzi also makes sure to hammer home the negative climate LGBT students face and the importance for teachers to recognize and be supportive when such challenges affect their students. (Click more to learn more about GLSEN’s most recent climate survey.)

So why is all this stuff getting attention on OneNewsNow? Well, Bergonzi is a professor at the University of Illinois, so of course the Illinois Family Institute had to chime in on the matter. Let me remind you that the IFI is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. If you visit their site (DON’T), you will see some of the most offensive coverage of issues you can imagine (I’m very much struck by the disrespectful description of Obama appointee Amanda Simpson as a “Transgendered Man” who is referred to as Mitchell throughout the article). Incidentally, Bergonzi’s article is mentioned nowhere on the IFI’s site, so I wonder if OneNewsNow contacted Laurie Higgins (IFI’s “Director of the Division of School Advocacy”) to get a quote just so they could make an issue out of this.

Laurie Higgins tells OneNewsNow that it is not the music teacher’s role to discuss the student’s romantic life.

“That is quintessential social justice teaching…and Bill Ayers — many people have heard of Bill Ayers [who] is at the University of Illinois the Chicago Circle campus — is sort of one of the premiere contemporary advocates of this, and they view themselves as agents of social change….I don’t think that’s the proper role of public educators,” she says.

It scares me that Higgins is, herself, a teacher. When you work in a school, if you want to connect with students, then yes, you actually learn quite a bit of detail about their lives. I’ve had literal breakthroughs with students because I set aside their voice lesson to take time and just listen about the challenges they’re facing in their lives. You’d be surprised by the depths of a 9th grader’s thoughts and feelings. Teachable moments are just waiting to be uncovered! To completely ignore what students (of any age) experience in their lives is to send a clear sign that you don’t respect them.

My student teaching at Charles O. Dickerson High School was an absolutely amazing experience. By the time I started, I had already had most of my grad school interviews and secured a summer internship in a campus LGBT center, so I knew I was already on a different path. But here I was teaching music. And I taught music, I taught lessons, I directed the chorus, I helped produce a musical, I helped host a NYSSMA conference, and I participated in an amazing end-of-year concert. I cherish all of those memories and the amazing connections I made with my students and fellow teachers, many of whom I still keep in touch with almost three years later.

But there was one day of my student teaching that was more personally meaningful than any concert, performance, class, lesson, or rehearsal. As an alternative to the National Day of Silence, I had the opportunity to talk openly with students about LGBT issues and coming out. Over three lunch periods, students could opt to attend Q&A sessions with me and another panelist discussing all kinds of challenges about being gay and understanding sexual orientation. I was supported by my supervising teacher, other faculty, and the high school’s administration, many of whom attended the sessions. Almost all of the students I worked with regularly attended one of the sessions and asked thoughtful and respectful questions.

In some ways, that day vindicated my decision to pursue Student Affairs, but that’s not why it meant a lot to me. I honestly think that my ability to be open and to address issues of personal concerns for my students was the most meaningful thing I could offer them as an educator. Many students were actually proud of me and thanked me for being so open about such challenging issues. That day was the only day my sexual orientation was discussed at that school, and there were absolutely no negative consequences.

I’m glad that ignorant cretin Laurie Higgins bothered to call out Bergonzi’s article, because it deserves a lot of attention. It’s easy to assume that music education is gay-friendly, particularly because a lot of musicians seem to be gay. But when you look at the culture of music ed, it’s easy to see how many students might never see it that way. The ridiculous pettiness of high school politics keeps many teachers closeted, and there isn’t much we can do about the heterocentricity of music throughout history. Still, if Glee in any way reflects reality, there is truth that many gay students seek refuge in music programs, and teachers need to be aware of homophobia and how to make sure all students feel included and welcome.

I have many friends who are music educators, and I hope they take this article seriously. It’s concise and addresses many considerations in a thoughtful, informed way. (I have the full article if any of you out there wish to read it.)

I’ll end this post with a recording of a song called “Music Unites the World” that’s lyrics were originally written by an 8th-grader. This recording is from when I originally sang it as a 9th-grader at a 2000 ACDA conference, but I also had the opportunity to share this piece with my students at Charles O. Dickerson High School in 2007. When I think back to our final concert and their performance of this simple but beautiful song, it still brings a tear to my eye.

Music really can unite the world, but not on its own. We have to make it happen.

ACDA Baltimore 2000 – Music Unites The World

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There are 3 Comments to "Heterosexual Privilege in Music Education and Those Who Don’t Care"

  • Allison says:

    I read that article last month and loved it.  You’re absolutely right — the general public, conservative or not, assumes that the music room is automatically a safe place for gay students.  It often is, but not just because music is taught there — it’s also because of the teachers who care about the development and happiness of individual students.
    As an educator who has worked with students  in small towns, suburbs, and a mid-size city, I can definitely say that words like “fag” and “homo”, and the sentiment behind them, have not been washed from the next generation’s vocabulary.  Making school a comfortable place for kids, gay or not, takes deliberate, proactive effort — including, but not limited to, telling the whole story about Ben Britten and Peter Pears.
    I’m glad MEJ published that article, and I’m glad you’ve devoted a blog post to it.

  • Mitch says:

    Thank you for an intelligent, reasoned post on an important topic for all teachers–music and otherwise.

    Mitchell Robinson, Editor
    Music Educators Journal
    College of Music
    Michigan State University
    East Lansing, MI 48824
    Email: mrob@msu.edu


  • Annonymous says:

    Thanks for posting this wonderful commentary on the Bergonzi article. I am very interested in studying the experiences of queer music students and am having difficulty finding anything specifically relating queer culture and music education. I’m guessing that’s becuase it would be so hard to convince schools/parents/administrators/irb people that this is a topic that can be safely addressed and towards an important goal. Thanks again for sharing. Rock on.

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