York prof studies the communities of LGBT high school students

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students are building community in an unlikely place – the high school bathroom. Sheila Cavanagh, professor of gender and sexuality studies in the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies, has been awarded a Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) standard research grant worth $103,123 to study this largely uncharted area. Her groundbreaking project titled, "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Students and Bullying in High School Bathrooms," will explore how students experience the gender segregated design of high school bathrooms – a space at issue for LGBT youth who don’t conform to normative ideas about gender and heterosexuality.   

Right: Sheila Cavanagh

Scholars have identified the public toilet as a space in which hate crimes have been committed against gender, sexual and racial minorities. High school bathrooms can be particularly dangerous places – locations for bullying and sexual assaults. Conversely, Cavanagh says they are spaces in which LGBT students build community away from the watchful eyes of authorities.

“The architectural space of the high school washroom seems to be out of scholarly bounds, yet central to hegemonic organizations of gender and sexuality in high school cultures,” says Cavanagh. “They are spaces where students negotiate gender identifications and sexual desires in ways that are not always recognized and validated by teachers, administrators and curricular materials. This project will build on interdisciplinary research in the field while exploring questions about the social organization of gender, sexuality and sex education; it will also examine why educational theorists and practitioners have tended not to acknowledge – let alone study – the washroom as a pedagogically significant space.”

Gendered geographies produce what sociologists call social difference. Cavanagh says the bathroom genders its users in ways that are race and class specific. “One need only reflect upon the history of racially segregated bathrooms in the United States, upon the privatization of washroom facilities in the present day, and the imposition of the English water closet on the non-western world from the early days of colonial expansion to present-day tourism, to understand the relevance of excretion to histories of colonization, class, gender, race, sexuality and imperialism,” she says.

Cavanagh also notes that the history and politics of excretion are closely linked to the history of sexuality. There is a productive silence around the bathroom – much like the silence in and about the bedroom. Curiosities about gender in the washroom are not unlike wonders about sex in the marital bed; they involve attentions to orifices, genitals and sexuality. Each function is gendered and laced with taboo and prohibitions on speech. Both are regulated by intricate gender codes of conduct, by social codes of decency and respectability and homosexual prohibitions.  

“Little is known about how LGBT students experience these prohibitions,” says Cavanagh. “Even less is known about how adolescent and teenage bodies are subject to scrutiny in gender segregated spaces including the high school bathroom.”

Cavanagh aims to shed light on this area by conducting semi-structured interviews with LGBT upper-year secondary school students, graduates and those who have, for whatever reason, discontinued their secondary education. She will employ feminist qualitative research methodologies and utilize queer, psychoanalytic and post-colonial theories in conjunction with critical disability studies, cultural studies and transgender studies.

During the final year of the project, Cavanagh will write reports and policy recommendations with an emphasis upon community health, curriculum development and anti-violence initiatives. Upon completion of her study, she plans to share her research findings with the academic community, school boards across Canada, community groups and organizations concerned with LGBT anti-homophobic and transgender positive curricular planning, and activist groups working on LGBT positive public space campaigns.

Building on her current research, Cavanagh is writing a book on queer geography and gendered space titled Toilet Papers: Gender Mis/Recognitions, Queer and Transgender Subjects. She is also beginning another major research project on sex museums and post-colonial representations of queer sexualities in the international context.

Cavanagh teaches courses in social theory and sexuality studies in the Atkinson School of Social Sciences. Her scholarship focuses on the social regulation of gender and sexuality in schools; transgender studies; sex museums; film studies; and body studies. In 2007, she published Sexing the Teacher: School Sex Scandals and Queer Pedagogies (UBC Press) and has written articles in journals such as: Sexualities: Studies in Culture & Society; Body & Society; Social Text; Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society; and the International Journal of Cultural Studies

For more information, visit Cavanagh’s Web site or e-mail sheila@yorku.ca