U-M Sociology Instructor: It’s Important For Preschool Teachers To Actively Work To Disrupt Heteronormativity

Readers of a Michigan Patch are engaged in an ongoing, bitter discussion after a controversial article highlighted the findings of a University of Michigan instructor studying heteronormativity. There was some confusion among readers as to what the term heteronormativity actually is. Heidi Gansen, Ph.D. student and sociology instructor at the University of Michigan, studied the prevalence of heteronormativity by observing children in nine Michigan preschool classrooms, and she defined it as a social setting in which “heterosexuality is always assumed, expected, ordinary, and privileged.”

She isn’t the first to study the topic. Many others have come before her and looked at the same sociological issue. Researchers Karin A. Martin and Emily Kazyak, the authors of “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-Rated Films,” for example, explained a half-decade ago that by the time kids complete preschool, they have a heteronormative view of the world.

“Heteronormativity structures social life so that heterosexuality is always assumed, expected, ordinary and privileged,” Martin and Kazyak explained, as reported by Broadside in 2012. Gansen’s and others’ definitions are almost the same. So, said more simply for explanatory purposes, an example of heteronormativity in a preschool setting would be a classroom in which there is little tolerance for veering from typical gender roles or heterosexual relationships. This environment, according to many sociologists, ensures that a child who is either not heterosexual or not cisgendered would likely feel shame in expressing their differences while playing or learning.

Gansen observed nine preschool classrooms in one 10-month span. She looked at the socialization that the children received from teachers’ practices that she says were clearly reproduced through peer interaction. Gansen wrote a detailed report explaining her research that was published in the current quarterly issue of Sociology of Education.

“I find that before children have salient sexual identities of their own, children are beginning to make sense of heteronormativity and rules associated with sexuality through interactions with their teachers and peers in preschool.”

The most controversial statement Gansen wrote, according to the Patch readers’ recent comments, was her suggestion that teachers should disrupt heteronormativity in the preschool classrooms. Gansen said that “these findings demonstrate the importance of teachers actively working to disrupt heteronormativity, which is already ingrained in children by ages 3 to 5.”

“I find heteronormativity permeates preschool classrooms, where teachers construct (and occasionally disrupt) gendered sexuality in a number of different ways, and children reproduce (and sometimes resist) these identities and norms in their daily play. Teachers use what I call facilitative, restrictive, disruptive, and passive approaches to sexual socialization in preschool classrooms. Teachers’ approaches to gendered sexual socialization varied across preschools observed and affected teachers’ response to children’s behaviors, such as heterosexual romantic play (kissing and relationships), bodily displays, and consent. Additionally, my data suggest young children are learning in preschool that boys have gendered power over girls’ bodies. I find that before children have salient sexual identities of their own, children are beginning to make sense of heteronormativity and rules associated with sexuality through interactions with their teachers and peers in preschool.”

Heteronormativity in the preschool classroom also addresses gender roles.
Preschool male takes the lead on learning how to plant, which researchers say is a result of heteronormativity in the classroom. [Image by FatCamera/iStock]

According to Campus Reform, Gansen says that the issue is especially important because preschool is contributing to the “reproduction of inequalities pertaining to gender and sexuality” before the children have a concept of who they are.

Gansen would like to see preschool teachers more actively demonstrating tolerance. Gansen said that if one of the girls in preschool wanted to pretend to be the husband in a household while playing house, she would be quickly corrected by her peers. Gansen’s suggestion to disrupt heteronormativity would mean the preschool teacher would step in and say that it’s just fine if the girl wanted to pretend to be the husband while playing house.

Gansen also said that it’s a mistake for teachers to always refer to “same-gender signs of affection or homosocial behaviors as friendly” as opposed to romantic. Gansen says that the teachers left no concession for the fact that some of the preschoolers might not be heterosexual.

U-M researcher says heteronormativity is harmful in preschool.
Heteronormativity in preschool can be seen when same sex friendships are always seen as friendships. [Image by FatCamera/iStock]

“Teachers have a responsibility to not make assumptions about their students’ identities—and that includes their sexual orientations and gender identities,” Chris Tompkins wrote for Teaching Tolerance, explaining in more detail why he, like Gansen, believes that heteronormativity in schools is harmful to many children.

To disrupt the heteronormativity, Gansen says that preschool teachers could do things like talk about how gay marriage is legal or model acceptance when students themselves play in ways that “interrupt heteronormativity.”

Do you agree with these sociologists or do you think heteronormativity is not an issue that should be addressed by preschool teachers?

[Featured Image by DGLimages/iStock]