Mollie V. Blackburn

Moving Across Differences: How Students Engage LGBTQ+ Themes in a High School Literature Class

SUNY Press, 2022

208 pages

$95.00 ($31.95 paperback)

Reviewed by Daniel Dawer

In 2022, the US saw an unprecedented surge in discriminatory laws targeting LGBTQ+ youth. Along with restrictions on transgender and nonbinary young people’s access to healthcare, restrooms, and athletic activities, extremist lawmakers in ten states approved legislation censoring inclusive K-12 school curricula, and school district leaders removed books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters from thousands of school and classroom libraries. Meanwhile, accusations of indoctrination and grooming leveled against LGTBQ+ people and their educator allies have accompanied an increase in threatened— and actual—violence. 

In response to this weaponization of homophobic and transphobic hate, coalitions of educators and students have organized to make their schools safe and welcoming spaces for LGBTQ+ youth. For teachers and researchers seeking to further this work, Mollie V. Blackburn’s Moving Across Differences: How Students Engage LGBTQ+ Themes in a High School Literature Class offers an essential window into a classroom in which queer literature enables young people to communicate across their differences and move closer to one another. Even as attempts to erase LGBTQ+ voices escalate in statehouses and school boardrooms, Moving Across Differences demonstrates how educators and students can build community through listening, learning, and literacy, and it positions the classroom as a critical site for forging solidarity and resistance in the struggle for queer liberation.

Blackburn, a professor at Ohio State and a former middle and high school teacher, returns to the classroom to teach three semester-long LGBTQ+ literature elective classes at an arts-based, queer-friendly charter high school. Combining ethnography and teacher research, she examines how students in her classes move with respect to their sexual orientations and gender and racial identities, as well as in their relationships with religion and family. Blackburn situates her analysis at the level of the classroom encounter—the juncture at which students and teachers come together to engage in productive struggle and dialogue—and considers how students are pushed or pulled within these encounters, both toward and away from new understandings of themselves and one another. By focusing on how students navigate these encounters, Blackburn aims to “show researchers another way to understand people and their communities as dramatically dynamic,” offering a novel contribution to literacy studies that emphasizes young people’s fluidity and flexibility.

Blackburn organizes Moving Across Differences into six chapters, focusing in each on one type of move that her students make. Chapter One examines how students talk about sexual identities, and how their conceptions of coming out, labeling, and internalized homophobia (re)shape their ideas about sexuality; Chapter Two traces students’ understanding of gender, and documents the language they use to explore gender fluidity and interrogate the concept of ‘normal’;  Chapter Three attends to the ways students move with respect to race, concentrating on white people’s tendency to push away people of color and Black people’s experiences finding belonging within Black communities; Chapter Four considers students’ movements with respect to religion, and how religious communities welcomed or pushed away students, particularly when these communities clung to homophobic and transphobic values; Chapter Five explores how students move with respect to their families, and how their experiences reading literature shaped their critiques and understanding of their own families; and Chapter Six contrasts the act of giving with forgiving in classroom encounters, demonstrating how the former is necessary for moving closer to others, but the latter is not.

Building on the work of Sarah Ahmed and other queer scholars, Blackburn draws a critical distinction between ethical and unethical encounters. For encounters to be ethical, she explains, “people must be close enough to listen but not so close as to threaten.” Allowing students to stand back or withdraw from conflict can prevent ethical encounters from occurring—but so can unexamined ignorance, prejudice, or talking without listening. Instead, students must be pulled toward the differences in their classrooms and communities, as this movement creates the possibility for broadening understanding of themselves and one another. Once they are pulled closer, however, they must also be able to give. On this point, Blackburn takes care to distinguish between giving (being open to vulnerability) and forgiving (excusing harm that was caused), emphasizing give as the “crux of ethical encounters”:

In classroom encounters, when teachers and students move closer to one another, they must be agile, but they must also take responsibility for themselves and for their actions, including historical ones in which they are implicated. Further, they must be generous. This does not mean that they must forgive. Some things at some times in some places are quite simply not forgivable. And even if one person, like me, decides something is forgivable, they cannot impose this decision on someone else, like the students with whom I shared my class.

As the students bring their diverse life experiences to bear in their reading, writing, and class discussions, they practice giving—albeit imperfectly, at times—and complicate their understanding of queerness and one another. They express different interpretations of what it means to come out, espouse conflicting positions about the appropriateness of assigning gendered labels to fictional characters, and move both toward and away from trans-ally and trans communities. We also witness how students move with respect to racist and antiracist ideas, and how they make sense of tensions in their religious communities and families. In some moments, we see students pulled into the embrace of communities that support their empowerment; in others, they push themselves away from these communities as acts of self-preservation against homophobia, transphobia, and racism. When students read and discuss literature depicting LGBTQ+ characters’ family dynamics, for example, they critique their own experiences being policed by family about their gender, but they also try to empathize with the fear and grief that parents of trans children might experience. Throughout their discussions, Blackburn attempts to hold space for students to change their mind, learn from one another, and be pulled by their classmates toward new understandings, preparing them to continue evolving in how they conceptualize other people’s identities as well as their own.

Moving Across Differences points to the urgent need for continued research on the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in schools and classrooms that strive to maintain queer-friendly learning environments. While many teachers who work with diverse groups of students want to promote their safety and inclusion, they are not all prepared to facilitate discussions about LGBTQ+ literature, and they will need support to create space in their classrooms for students to practice fluidity and movement. While Blackburn provides detailed unit plans from her course in the appendix, these do not contain much in the way of practical guidance to help teachers structure classroom discussions or activities. The plans lack mechanisms for centering student voices in the lesson planning process. Future studies might examine how teachers can partner with queer youth in the design and implementation of literacy curricula. They may consider how elevating LGBTQ+ youth voices can contribute to a queering of the classroom.

Transforming our schools and society into more compassionate and accepting spaces, where queer students and teachers can exist free of oppression, first requires healing:

Those who have survived the damages must do everything in their power to prevent their continuation. They must do everything in their power to heal. But so, too, must those who have inflicted the damages. They must take responsibility not only for what they have done but also for what they have benefited from. Without doing so, they cannot heal.

The radical possibility of classrooms like Blackburn’s, where young people have the freedom to shift in their ideas about sexuality, gender, race, religion, and family as they read and discuss diverse LGBTQ+ literature, is exactly what is at stake in efforts to prohibit discussions about sexuality and gender identity in schools. When we move closer to people who are different from us—and when we give (but not necessarily forgive) in our encounters—we establish the intimacy needed to pull one another toward new ways of understanding our differences, and closer to a kinder and more just world.