By Patrick Tomczyk, MA
I write this blog entry on the heels of Wear a Pink T-Shirt day, a Canadian initiative that promotes anti-bullying initiatives, celebrated across the country annually on February 25th. This year the North American Drama Therapy Association (NADTA) community looks forward to a conference with the theme of Diversity and Social Justice. As a drama therapist researching homophobic bullying and working in private practice with LGBTQ adolescents and young adults, diversity and social justice concerns are very relevant to my research and practice. The nature of my work is situated within Canada: a country that has a reputation for its politeness, as its people profusely say “sorry”; a leader in LGBTQ rights as one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage; and a country that promotes international human rights. While my point of reference is the Canadian context, I do wish to raise awareness regarding some of the issues for all members within the NADTA community as there are significant similarities in themes and data surrounding bullying research from the UK, Australia, the US, and Canada. My work focuses on “homophobic bullying” (Rivers, 2011), which is an internationally used and defined term, widely accepted by NGOs and governments as: “bullying behaviours that are motivated by prejudice against a person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity” (Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2007; Government of Alberta, 2015; NoBullying.com, 2015; Save the Children, 2015).
Bullying is a systemic national issue in Canada. Although our borders may be far and wide, our population is just over 35,000,000 (Statistics Canada, 2014). Consequently, news of deaths from violence or suicide, related to bullying, garner national media attention and make headlines across the country as the names continue growing on an already long list: Reena Virk from British Columbia, Jenna Bowers from Nova Scotia, Mitchell Wilson from Ontario, Jamie Hubley from Ontario, Marjorie Raymond from Quebec, Amanda Todd from British Columbia, Rehtaeh Parsons from Nova Scotia, and Todd Loik from Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, with more than 400 adolescent suicides annually, suicide is the second most common form of premature death among youths aged 15 to 24 in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2008). Bullying is often a key-contributing factor to youth suicides, and LGBTQ youth account for a significant and disproportionate number of these deaths.
Egale is Canada’s national lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) human rights organization: advancing equality, diversity, education and justice. In 2011, Egale released the findings from the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools Final Report (Taylor et al., 2011). The data illustrates a real cause for concern about homophobic bullying within Canada. The national study found that 70% of all students hear derogatory comments and normalized expressions such as “that’s so gay” or “faggot” every day in school. Moreover, 10% of students report that these pejorative expressions are used directly by their teachers. Alarmingly, more than half of LGBTQ youth feel unsafe at school, compared to 3% of their heterosexual peers. Equally important, 58% of heterosexual youth report finding homophobic comments upsetting. Almost half of sexual minority students are verbally harassed about their gender expression and/or sexual orientation. Lastly, more than 1 in 5 LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted because of their sexual orientation and 49% of trans students reported being sexually harassed at school. This data is only a snapshot of the urgency of the situation in Canada.
With respect to homophobic bullying, Quinlivan & Town (1999) describe how hetero normalizing processes are maintained within schools by the “maintenance of silences, the pathologisation of (homo)sexualities, and the policing of gender boundaries” (p. 509). Sexuality has been historically constructed as heterosexual or homosexual. Furthermore, the acceptance that normal sexuality is heterosexual has become the norm.
Queer theory seeks to challenge “the constructed social nature of these unwritten gender expectations,” that have been socially constructed and reproduced throughout history, and now, within the status quo, by contesting imperialist and essentialist notions of self and other (Ryan, Patraw, & Bednar, 2013, p. 92). Queer theory has, at its roots, an activist approach to creating social change. Britzman (1995) explains that queer theory “begins to engage difference as the grounds of politicality and community” (p. 152). It is not just a theory limited to theorizing about gender and sexual identities, but rather it “offers a critique of reigning ideologies of subjectivity, power, and meaning” (Greene, 1996, p. 326). Queer theory begins by challenging our understandings of the concept of identity in itself, in addition to interrogating the enforcement of socially expected norms and behaviours, and the processes by which normalcy is defined (Britzman, 1998; Greene, 1996; Morris, 2000). Quinlivan and Town (1999) explain that:
Queer theory draws on the philosophies of the gay liberation movement and aspects of lesbian feminism in its aims to destabilize and critique heterosexuality, emphasize sexual diversity, draw attention to gender specifics and frame sexuality as institutional rather than personal (p. 511).
As a drama therapist working with school-aged LGBTQ youth, one of the goals I seek to achieve is social change. This is driven by my desire for social justice and the promotion of equal human rights, particularly with respect to LGBTQ issues. My practice is strongly based on Boal’s (1979) theatre of the oppressed, which is an activist approach to promoting social change through theatre. The therapeutic techniques I utilize fall within the “tree of the theatre of the oppressed” (Boal, 2006); particularly image theatre, forum theatre and rainbow of desire. The underlying philosophy of forum theatre is liberatory, and with my clients, I engage in a therapeutic practice of freedom, a process that involves a rethinking of concepts such as ‘meaning,’ ‘truth,’ ‘subjectivity,’ ‘freedom,’ and ‘power.’ Sessions enable LGBTQ youth to explore how grand narratives of sexual identity and orientation have been historically and culturally normalized and how they can challenge stereotypes, prejudices, inequalities, and destructive myths. Within group sessions, participants brainstorm lifelike scenarios of homophobic bullying, and through play and dramatic action, participants explore how to develop positive relationships across perceived boundaries and barriers of sexual identity while rehearsing for future action – “a rehearsal of revolution” (Boal 1979, p. 155). A drama therapy informed by queer theory, a queer drama therapy, can interrogate our implicit and taken for granted assumptions of heteronormativity and homophobia, and can indeed disrupt these harmful binaries and become an intervention for homophobic bullying and develop a catalyst for social change.
It is in exploring questions about difference and diversity through Drama Therapy, that cultural bias and who/what determines ‘normal’, and how normalcy is maintained within the status quo, become interrogated. Pinar (2003), writes that “democratization […] cannot proceed without a radical restructuring of hegemonic white male subjectivity” (p. 357). A queer drama therapy can respond to this call by addressing the intersections of gender, sexuality, identity, and sexual orientation by becoming a catalyst for social change. If we are to seek a just and socially democratic society then we must begin to think ethically about what discourses of difference and diversity exist within drama therapy and “to engage a traumatic perception that produces the subject of difference as a disruption, as the outside to normalcy” (Britzman, 1995, p. 152). It is this disruption that becomes a site of therapeutic change where meaning making and healing can occur.
I hope this blog post can serve as impetus for dialogue, and I invite anyone to engage in further discussion on queer theory and drama therapy in hopes of queering our practice and our systems of power/knowledge. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Tomczyk, MA resides in Alberta Canada. He currently works in private practice in both Calgary and Edmonton and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Alberta. His arts based, intervention research is focused on homophobic bullying, queer theory, and applied theatre.
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