Dr. Anika Tilland-Stafford is a postdoctoral fellow in History at SFU.

Research, History

Anika Tilland-Stafford on her forthcoming book, Is It Still a Boy? Heteronormativity in Kindergarten

May 21, 2015

May 17th is recognized worldwide as International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia, but as SFU postdoctoral researcher Anika Tilland-Stafford argues in her forthcoming book, Is it Still a Boy? Heteronormativity in Kindergarten (UBC Press), stamping out homophobia and transphobia is a far more complicated, ongoing process than can be encapsulated in a one-day event. 

Tilland-Stafford is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in SFU’s Department of History and her current project, “Regulating Recreation: Sexuality and Children’s Welfare in the Cold War,” looks at how Vancouver’s Alexandra Neighbourhood House not only ran recreational programs for children in the 1950s and 60s, but also referred children and mothers for social and psychiatric services based on non-normative gender behavior. While this current project deals with many detailed historical records and archives, Tilland-Stafford says her research is firmly situated in the fields of Children and Gender Justice or Critical Child Studies.

Is it Still a Boy stems from ethnographic research she completed for her doctoral dissertation: a critical analysis of how one Vancouver Kindergarten classroom addressed heterosexuality, queerness, gender conformity and gender creativity. Early on in pursuing the project, Tilland-Stafford says she was “warned not to even try,” that it would be “impossible” to do such research in schools, and most importantly that it was “impossible to talk to the children.”

When we try to talk about gender and sexuality where children are concerned, explains Tilland-Stafford, we come up against a discourse that is constructed in a way that does not acknowledge children’s autonomy and persists in seeing them as innocent and asexual: “What I’ve noticed in my research is when we want to talk about a range of sexualities and genders, we come up against a discourse about what children are (innocent and asexual), rather than what they are actually doing, which is navigating pretty complicated relationships and feelings in their everyday lives, all the time.” What is more, she notes, there exists a double-standard: “Within this construction, it is rarely acknowledged that heterosexuality is not asexual and it is imposed on children everyday from the very beginning of their public school experiences.” Importantly, she observed in her fieldwork that there “wasn’t a single day when they weren’t discussing sexuality and gender, if we acknowledge that mainstream and normative sexualities and genders are sexualities and genders.”

Contrary to the notion that she was going in to “discuss sex and sexuality with 5-year-olds,” for her doctoral work, Tilland-Stafford explains that the project was about talking to educators and students about what they already knew: “I picked three special occasion dates: Valentine’s Day, Anti-Bullying Day, and Mother’s Day. Over the course of my fieldwork, I had interviews with educators and—if you can call it this—‘focus groups’ with 5-year-olds. With the educators and students, I talk about the planning and/or reflection on such events. I wasn’t going in to talk about ‘sex or sexuality,’ but asking them about what Valentine’s Day is all about, or what they remember about Pink-shirt Day, or for whom and why we celebrate Mother’s Day.” 

"Everyday is Pink Day." A design by students at New Westminster Secondary School.

Tilland-Stafford’s research found that in many ways the institutional space of the classroom and school tended to unintentionally reinforce gender conforming heterosexuality. “What the research unearthed,” she says, “was the real need to have every-day talk and life involve queerness and transgendered subjectivities, and not to be relegated to a special event.” Describing the ways gender-conforming heterosexuality was seamlessly woven into everyday activities in the school, Tilland-Stafford gives an account of an “ordinary morning,” what she sees and hears while walking down the hallway with her class: “I see, in the hallway, a library book display case with many interesting-looking children’s books: heterosexual families on vacations where funny mishaps occur; a child getting into trouble with her heterosexual parents; a young girl attending a heterosexual wedding…Walking by a teacher, I hear her reference her husband in relation to a fieldtrip with no self-consciousness that she’s just made reference to her ‘sexuality’ in front of her class. When I get downstairs to the classroom, a student teacher is in the middle of telling the support worker about a funny, romantic, anecdote about when her dad first met her mom.”

If a child were to imagine themselves as heterosexual or even pre-heterosexual, she notes, this short walk alone would show them nearly a dozen examples of they might have an “interesting future and a life.” In stark contrast, she argues, the only time during her fieldwork that queerness was discussed or represented was on one day: “It was Anti-bullying or Pink Shirt Day; a speaker came in, defined gay, defined homophobia, and then said to the children, ‘Don’t bully people for being different.’” Addressing queerness and difference in this way not only relegates it to a special event, but—more troublingly—associates queerness and difference with the threat of violence. Children are told, “It’s ok to be different, but you might get bullied or beat up because of it.” For youth who might identify as queer, transgender, or gender creative, then, envisioning a future is doubly difficult—both because every day experiences do not reflect nonconforming sexualities and genders, and because queerness and difference are so persistently linked to violence or bullying. 

Tilland-Stafford has also co-edited a collection with Sarah Rudrum for Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, Constructions of Risk: the Production of “At Risk” Bodies and Populations in Health, Education, and Community Services (forthcoming, 2015). The book looks at the complex ways “at-risk” is mobilized with the intention of improving health and community services for particular populations, but how that language also limits other kinds of critical work. Tilland-Stafford’s own work in the collection looks at the history of disability in public schools, current discourses of disability and inclusion in public schools, and the ways that disability has been seen as a risk rather than as being a part of “the spectrum of human learning, expression, and functioning.” This work also connects to her work on queer discourses, and the challenges facing queer or transgender youth.  Youth in these populations are “deemed as having a higher percentage of drug use, for example, or a higher potential for harm,” she explains, “I think it was Jack Halberstam who wrote about the way youth come out and are seen as entering a ‘risk’ category rather than inheriting a really interesting, creative, powerful counterculture and lineage or legacy of profound activism, organization, and arts.”

Cordoning off the work of reducing homophobia and transphobia to particular days or events does more harm than good, as is evident in Tillford-Stafford’s research. Alongside a recognition that discourses on ability and disability share similar struggles against ableism, her work shows that what is critically needed is a more consistent community practice of celebrating and incorporating queer and transgender stories, histories, and countercultures.