All-girls high schools are the perfect environment for queer experimentation—at least, that's what one might gather based on portrayals in pop culture. Since the early 20th century, plays, films, and books have used all-girls classrooms and boarding school dormitories as plot devices, showcasing tense and often titillating interactions between female students and sometimes even staff. The many depictions of all-girls pedagogical spaces as incestuous hotbeds of lesbian sex have led to the myth that these spaces encourage queer behavior, but is there any truth to it?
"There is this idea all-girls schools are breeding grounds for homosexual behavior," Dr. William Bukowski, chief researcher in Concordia University's study of gender roles in all-girls schools, tells Broadly. But whether same-gender schools can cause this behavior, Bukowski is not convinced. Certainly, the idea that students would seek out these venues of education purely in search of girl-on-girl action is far-fetched, but many administrators, researchers, and alumni of all-girls and same-gender schools wonder whether same-gender spaces can provide a unique opportunity for community and acceptance.
Bukowski's study found that girls experience more victimization in mixed-gender schools than in same-gender spaces. "Some conditions are more likely to promote same gender experimentation than others," he says, also noting that his study suggests that students are more likely to find support in a same-gender school.
Bukowski believes certain environments may help one better come to terms with latent feelings. "The context of an all-girls school could certainly make this type of homosexual experimentation more likely," he says. "But if it can be provoked so easily, it must be part of [one's] nature."
While Bukowski believes that all-girls environments are more likely to be climates of support and acceptance, many of these schools can in fact serve as propagators of religious and otherwise conservative traditional values that uphold heteronormativity. Simone Davis, who studied at an all-girls Catholic high school in New York City's Upper East Side, recalls her high school experience being very heteronormative. "It was like a regular school—most people talked about boys," Davis tells Broadly. "I had a very straight worldview."
Davis, who didn't realize she was gay and gender non-conforming until college, doesn't believe her all-girls high school education had a direct impact on her sexuality. "Most of my ex-classmates are straight," Davis says. "For two years, I was surrounded by women but I was uninterested in them." She also believes that part of the reason for her lack of queer curiosity in high school was rooted in the strict religious values, harsh gender roles, and heteronormativity her Catholic school upheld. "There was no LGBT club and a lot of people kept their sexuality—any kind of sexuality—under wraps," Davis says.
Like Davis, Priya Bryant, who wrote about starting an LGBTQ club at her all-girls high school, recognizes the striking need for nuanced sexual education resources at many same-gender schools. "My issue was that even if girls had wanted to talk to someone about their sexuality, there was no real capability to do that," Bryant says.
Bryant remembers her school faculty remaining largely silent about LGBTQ sex education and sexuality. "Being anything other than straight was viewed largely as taboo [by students] in the first few years," Bryant says. "[There were] lots of rumors about various unpopular students being gay/bi as a way of slandering them." Though the climate at her school has since improved, Bryant and many of her classmates remember feeling uncomfortable being open about their sexuality.
The key point is that girls in same-sex schools aren't forced to perform or engage in compulsory heterosexuality in quite the same way as girls at mixed schools. But this doesn't mean that otherwise straight girls 'turn gay.'
"The key point is that girls in same-sex schools aren't forced to perform or engage in compulsory heterosexuality in quite the same way as girls at mixed schools," Bryant says. "But this doesn't mean that otherwise straight girls 'turn gay.'" Indeed, all-girls schools do not have the mythical power to "turn people gay," but some establishments serve as spaces where students can deviate from heterosexual performativity; an idea that one might argue is a way of queering education.
By allowing students, as Bryant says, to engage with others in an environment where heterosexuality is not a prerequisite for human interaction, students may be afforded the space to develop broader understandings of human sexuality and interpersonal relationships that supersede heteronormativity. "I think that girls who realized they might have some level of same-sex attraction had greater possibilities to act on that attraction," Bryant says.
Though some all-girls schools may succeed in creating welcoming atmospheres that could create the ideal climate for openness, it would be inaccurate to suggest that all-girls schools somehow create queer identities. "Schools, in general, are spaces for exploration," Davis says. "At that age you explore a lot—it doesn't matter what school you go to."
While the mythology concerning all-girls schools that has existed and evolved for the better part of the last century may be rooted in a truthful assessment of creating supportive environments, it's essential to note that the enduring cultural curiosity about what girls do together has roots in misogyny and homophobia.
"When people think of all-girls anything there are these fantasies," Davis says, noting the tendency for girls' and women's spaces to come under fire and give rise to discriminatory mythology. "Traditional men's spaces aren't automatically thought of as gay; I don't know why that exists for women."