Monday, April 9, 2012

Baby, It's Marginalized Outside

I'm working my way through a new book, SAFE SPACES: Making Schools and Communities Welcoming to LGBT Youth, by Annemarrie Vaccaro, Gerri August, and Megan S. Kennedy (Praeger, 2012). It will no doubt be useful to many people, but there's something about the book that bothers me.

In the introduction, the authors declare:
Safe Spaces is not merely a book about facts, figures, and statistics. It was born out of the real-life experiences of LGBT youth. In fact, Safe Spaces gives voice to a population that historically been marginalized. ... Safe Spaces is a cultural critique of sorts, one that exposes deeply entrenched marginalization of LGBT youth in America [6, 7].
I don't deny that this is a worthwhile project. What bothers me is that the authors seem to want to give the impression that they're doing something new. Just on my own bookshelves I have several books about LGBT youth, dating back to at least the late 1980s. Most are based on interviews, so as to 'give voice' to their subjects. There are many more than the ones I own, and that's not counting increasing numbers of works of fiction about the lives of LGBT youth; there's also plenty of material online written by young people, instead of being mediated through well-meaning adults.

In this light, it's hard for me to see how Safe Spaces could possibly expose "entrenched marginalization of LGBT youth". Such exposure and giving voice to youth began a couple of decades ago, so the real question for the authors to answer is what they have to add to the conversation. So far -- but I'm admittedly only about 25 pages in -- the answer appears to be "Nothing much." That's not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe books and articles on a certain subject have to reach a critical mass before they can have much social or institutional effect. What worries me is that the authors themselves seem to think they're breaking ground, coming to the rescue of kids who'd long been marginalized until SuperTeachers flew in. That belief gives the book a self-congratulatory tone, making it subtly more about the authors than about the kids, and it's that tone that I think makes it hard for me to read.

The reason I find this annoying is that it doesn't stand alone. Aside from gay youth, another issue that gets rediscovered regularly is People Who Have Sex with People of Their Own Gender Without Being Gay. (Yet another is Gay Men and Straight Women: Best Friends -- Or Are They?) This phenomenon was not unknown even before 1948, when the first Kinsey volume was published, and the AIDS epidemic brought it into new relief, giving us the construct of Men Who Have Sex With Men. It's not surprising that popular media, which are built on identifying or inventing new trends, should be ignorant of that history. But back in the early 90s a colleague handed me a copy of a professional journal article, I think aimed at college counselors, built on interviews with a half-dozen college students who reported homosexual contact ranging from pickups to affairs while refusing to think of themselves as anything but straight. Nowhere in the article was it mentioned that this was old news. Maybe the author felt it necessary to treat it as a revelation so that the article could pass as a contribution to the field -- but why didn't the editors of the journal recognize that it wasn't?

Similarly, perhaps Vaccaro, August, and Kennedy believed they needed to present their book as something new in order to get it published and make it look impressive on their c.v.'s -- they're all academics, and I know life is hard in the Ivory Tower. But if you distort history, you're not doing any favors to your students and their students after them. I've complained before about books written by respectable academics and published by mainstream houses which contain serious errors of fact, but then I've also argued that readers need to read everything critically, whether it's in print or on the Internet.

I also have strong reservations about the whole concept of safe space, which I've written about here before at length. If I go by the index, the authors of Safe Space don't bother to define their central term; that's not a trivial omission, since even professionals don't agree on its meaning or parameters. It looks like Safe Spaces is going to be a long hard slog, so I'd better get back to work on it. There'll be more to be said on this subject, unless I manage to procrastinate more effectively.