Queer students are in higher education to learn just as much as non-queer students are. When attending a class, most queer students want to feel a part of the class cohort, rather than a teacher to both students and the class leader. Oftentimes, however, this is difficult.
Expecting queer students to speak up about queer issues or experiences can be tokenistic, and take a mental and physical toll on them (Feroe, 2018: 2423). Feroe recounts of her experience at Harvard: ‘as one of the few publicly queer women in my class, I am frequently called upon to facilitate conversations about LGBTQ populations and looked at as a guide for respectful exploration of LGBTQ culture,’ and this has caused ‘exhaustion’ (ibid.). The effects of tokenization, or the use of a minority identity student as the class spokesperson for that minority, has exponential effects particularly on queer Black students and queer students of colour, who face the intersectional weight of being expected to speak for multiple minority identities at once (Imam, 2019). The effects of tokenized students can be characterised through emotional labour, which can be felt through increased anxiety and exhaustion, as students are made to modify their emotions and act as the class mediator (WELD LAB, 2022). It can lead to burn out, cause spillover effects of retreating from activities outside of the classroom, and has also been found to increase drug consumption as a way of escapism (ibid.). Much like the effects of stereotype threat, tokenising queer students holds disasterous effects for students’ mental and physical health, long and short term. Here are a few ways we suggest you can counteract these pitfalls.
As told by Imam, looking directly at minority students when asking questions about minority identities is a certain way to make the student uncomfortable (Imam, 2019). Instead of pointing out or picking on queer students to answer questions or join discussions, foster a safe space that will make them feel comfortable to speak up. It should not be expected of queer students to want to share their stories or experiences, or ‘out’ themselves for the sake of education, and gaps in knowledge should be filled by research tasks, non-queer students, or the teacher.
Queer students can be pushed into specialising in areas of their identity. For example, we know we have been ready to write an essay on one thing -which has nothing to do with queerness- yet have been told by the teacher that we should give a ‘queer perspective on it,’ or else pushed into writing something completely different and more queer focused. A queer student’s specialism might not be their identity. We know these suggestions often come from good intentions of having more queer content within academia, however, queer students may be left feeling their purpose within the class is to educate others on their identity, rather than learn and explore all avenues they are interested in (Nathoo, 2021). We suggest that you combat this by encouraging all students to pursue their interests, no matter their direction. And again, don’t assume, ask.
Issy Stephens (they/ she)