We’re discussing Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in Queer Literature and Theory later this afternoon. I found this TEDx talk that McIntosh gave that sets up the article nicely; also, her talk lets us know that she didn’t just write the article and move onto something new. She’s a true scholar-activist in that she’s devoted her life to exposing and dismantling systems of privilege.
Never file your nails or blow-dry your hair—
go to the barber shop with your grandfather—
you’re not unisex.
Stay out of the kitchen. Men don’t cook—
They eat. Eat anything you want, except:
croissants (Bagels? Maybe.)
Don’t watch Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.
Don’t stare at The Six-Million Dollar Man.
—Richard Blanco from “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother”
We began our class with poetry instead of policies or introductions—“what did you do over winter break” just didn’t seem to cut it today. I had just finished reading that portion of Book IV of the Aeneid with my Latin III class where a storm comes, “forcing” Aeneas and Dido to seek shelter in the same cave, thus animating the force of “Fama” or “Rumor” (Vergil’s version of Gossip Girl). With poetry already at work in Room 13 (my classroom, which is actually next to Room 11; Room 12 is tucked a few hundred yards away by the lake), I picked Richard Blanco’s poem “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother,” written in the voice of Blanco’s grandmother, for the first impression of our Queer Literature and Theory course. First moments of class are like a first date; you’ve got to start strong if you want a second date.
Blanco was the right choice for the class’s inaugural meeting. We’re here almost exactly a year from the moment he burst onto the national scene by reading “One Today” at President Obama’s second Inauguration. The buzz surrounding his selection as inaugural poet (only the fifth person every to fulfill this role) centered on his being the youngest person, the first Latino (he’s a Cuban-American), and the first gay person to deliver a poem that captures the nation’s imagination and aspirations. If you recall the President’s speech that day, you’ll remember that he drew a connection between the extension of freedoms to various groups overtime, opting for an alliterative thread to stitch Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall together. The poem (the poet, too) and the speech dovetailed memorably.
Besides the perfect title, the moments of humor, and the fun cultural references, the poem offered us, as a class, a perfect introduction to one of our ongoing concerns for the class: how deeply entrenched gender expectations are. Because the rush of a first day of class is so amazing, I had to really resist the urge to immediately jump in and wax eloquent about the poem after we read it together. I’m sure I get twice as many words in on a first day as I do on other days due to adrenaline, nerves, and too many trips to the communal Keurig machine. I asked the class, “What’s the underlying assumption that makes this poem work?” A half-rest later, a student sitting directly across the table from me piped up: “That there are girl things and boy things.” And another added, “That everything is gendered.” And I added, “Yes, something along the lines of pink-blue binary.” I love these moments when students immediately see clearly what fuels a particular text.
They realized very quickly the oppositional pull between the grandmother’s staunch reinforcement of the pink-blue binary and Blanco’s queer rejection of falling into the norm. The recognition of the binary and the fact that there are those who exist outside its constraints provided us a good starting point. Tomorrow, we’ll discuss Peggy McIntosh’s “Male Privilege and White Privilege” wherein she shows how structural binaries breed hierarchies; hierarchies breed oppression. It’s going to be interesting to talk with a group of teenagers at a well-to-do boarding school about “knapsacks of privilege.” It’s important to feel uncomfortable; that discomfort can catalyze good discussion.
To introduce the McIntosh article after we had finished up with Blanco’s poem, I tried to connect with my students on the level of gaming culture. I told them about articles that were trending a few years ago that said, essentially, that living life as a straight white male was the lowest “difficulty setting” possible due to long-entrenched, structural privileges. We’ll see what they think tomorrow.
I should note that, while I anticipated 13 students, we are 12 (plus me). One student apparently dropped today right before class; I think that my reading list stunned a few of the students. They’re second-semester seniors, and that usually translates to a general loathing of anything deemed strenuous. I’m choosing to ignore that. They don’t get to quit. They are the 12—tribes of Israel? Months in a year? Disciples of Jesus? Doughnuts in a dozen? Days of Christmas? Labors of Hercules? They’re QTITs (Queer Theorists in Training)—maybe.
A few years back, I posted this sticker from the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition on my classroom’s door.
In May 2013, Domenick Scudera, a theater professor at Ursinus College who teaches a course to freshman called the “Common Intellectual Experience,” wrote “Teaching While Gay” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. As the only tenured / tenure-track professor teaching this core liberal arts course with a set of preselected texts, Scudera wrestles with whether his sexuality shapes his classroom discourse, whether or not his students’ intellectual experiences could be compromised by his being “out,” and whether or not he should create a space for a student to feel safe in expressing views opposing homosexuality. One of the course’s texts is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir with two queer threads: Bechdel’s own, as she comes to identify as a lesbian, and her father’s, as reveals that he is gay.
As Scudera says, if Anti-Semitic, racist, or misogynistic views came up while discussing a text, he would address the issue in class directly. But, with regard to homosexuality, he feels differently, and his careful probing is worthy of attention. At one point, he wonders if one of his students expressed opposition to homosexuality, would he feel safe. That turns the typical conversation from the idea of our students’ safety to the instructor’s safety. And, it’s a legitimate concern: the instructor is also part of the same community of learning as the students. The instructor is responsible for curating a conversation that is conducive for learning; if he or she feels compromised or undermined or, perhaps even, bullied, then the moment of learning has clearly been disrupted.
In “Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings,” Maxine Greene says, “If the human being is demeaned, if her or his family is delegitimized, crucial rights are being trampled on. This is partly because persons marked as unworthy are unlikely to feel good enough to pose the questions in which learning begins, unlikely to experience whatever curriculum is being presented as relevant to their being in the world.” While the obvious application of Greene’s statement is to the student population, it also extends to the teacher. Of course, the teacher is in the position of power to set the tone or to police the various modes of expression in the classroom. But in our protection of our students’ rights and worthiness, we have to also protect our own. And we have to remember that though we may be positionally “teachers” and our students positionally “students,” the actual teaching and learning is mutual and dynamic. Though we may be shaping the conversation around a certain topic, we are tasked with reading and interpreting the most slippery texts in the room: our students.
I seriously doubt that I’ll have any student express open opposition to homosexuality in my Queer Literature and Theory course. In my four years at this school, I haven’t felt any open hostility due to my being openly gay. One reason I applied to teach at this particular school in the first place is that it met one of my firm criteria: it lists sexual orientation in its nondiscriminatory policy. When I looked around at many potential independent schools for teaching jobs, especially in the South, they stopped short of listing sexual orientation in these policies. But just because an oppositional viewpoint isn’t regularly expressed does not mean that we shouldn’t consider what those viewpoints are and where they come from, especially in the classroom. My job, in creating the best educational experience, is to curate that conversation.
Scudera ends his piece still digging, still questioning:
Do we, as educators, have an obligation to respect our students’ views that run in opposition to our own lives? Fifty years ago, that was not an issue. Being an openly gay professor was not realistic, and no college course would assign a book like Fun Home. There were no books like Fun Home.
Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.
We have to respect our students as people and their right to harbor views for whatever reason. We do not have to let a particular view expressed exist unchallenged, regardless of whether it aligns with our own beliefs. I am not one to check my biases, beliefs, or background at my classroom’s threshold. No, those things I carry with me because they shape me. I feel that being open about those biases and beliefs, and my background is key to my students’ knowing and respecting where my thoughts come from, just as I do for them.
It’s telling to note how the landscape of gay rights in America has changed since Scudera’s article was published on May 9, 2013. Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, and Utah have, since the publication of this article, approved marriage equality. That’s six additional states in about seven months. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor ruled DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional. And, finally, the ENDA (Employment Nondiscrimination Act) passed the Senate on November 7, 2013, and is awaiting vote by the House. All of this to say, that the cultural landscape seems to be changing much faster than many of us anticipated. Scudera’s image of a professor in 2063 could very well come into being much quicker. An additional catalyst for change: teaching queer subject matter to our students (even high school students) so that they do not view non-normative sexualities and gender expression as deviant or morally compromised. We can be open with our students about our experiences as queer people so that the abstract concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” or “transgender” or “genderqueer” become real people and real relationships. The poet William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things” when talking about conveying abstractions through physical, concrete images. The same thing works for turning cultural or political rhetoric into something real; it’s my opportunity to take “queer” or “gay” and remind my students that those terms are attached to and lived by me.
Tomorrow will be the start of second semester at the independent boarding and day school where I live (#boardingschoolperks) and teach. The school has announced that, on Monday, we’re going to start two hours later than normal due to a hard freeze. In the Deep South, we swing to extremes when dealing with weather; sometimes it’s warranted. I’m certainly not complaining about a two-hour extension to my winter break. Love and civility are stronger in a school community at 10:00 a.m. than they are at 8:00 a.m. But when I saw these record-breaking low temperatures for Monday, I had to wonder if, on the first day of my teaching Queer Literature and Theory (a new course) at a high school in Alabama, Hell was (literally) freezing over. But, by that logic (?), Hell equals Alabama. And Alabama is far from Hell. Trust me. I grew up in Mississippi.
I’ll anticipate a few of your questions and “interview” myself.
Q: Who are you?
A: I’m a 28-year-old teacher and writer. The stars say that I’m a Libra with a “moon” in Scorpio (at least, my astrologically-inclined friend Jessica tells me the latter). I studied classics and English as an undergraduate before realizing that, obviously, the economically-savvy pathway for graduate school was poetry. Thus, an M.F.A. program in poetry and all the concomitant riches! I’ve published a book of poems, He Will Laugh (Lethe Press, 2012), and am currently editing an anthology of essays and poems exploring the queer experience in the American South (due out in September 2014 from Sibling Rivalry Press).
For the past four years, I have taught at an independent, coeducational boarding and day school in Alabama (more on that later). I teach upper-level Latin courses and one senior English elective each semester. In the fall, I teach a creative nonfiction and poetry workshop; in the Spring, I like to mix things up. I’ve taught Contemporary Literature (how’s that for specific?), Southern Literature and Culture, and The Coming-of-Age Story. But last year, when we were to tell the Dean of Academics what electives we would be offering for the coming year, I threw out Queer Literature and Theory, half-way thinking I would get a response along the lines of, “Interesting. Let’s talk about this.” or “Are you sure?” or “What?” Instead, I got the silence = assent response.
Q: Are you…
A: gay? Yes. queer? That’s fine too.
Q: Are you...
A: out? Yes. To your students? Yes. Actually, I was never really “in” so to speak. When I moved to this school, I had to make a decision: would I be out to the community, to parts of it, or some other complicated mixture of masking and revealing. At the time, I was moving to this new state with my then partner, now ex. We weren’t living on campus at that point, but he was going to be around, and I wasn’t going to do the linguistic dance of “Here’s my ‘friend’ or ‘roommate'” or whatever. That’s thinly veiled Southern for “Yes, I sleep with him.”
Also, I had a book coming out that anyone could read or buy and realize that, yes, I was indeed a card-carrying, voting member in good standing of the “homosexual community.”
I also wondered how different my experience as an adolescent would have been if I had had an openly-gay teacher and if that would have made my coming-to-terms with my own sexuality easier? Suffice to say that, at the Mississippi independent school I went to, I received a very solid academic background, but my exposure to “diversity” (of any sort) was severely lacking.
I needed my students to know that there’s a part of me that informs who I am as a reader and thinker and, ultimately, a teacher.
More than once, I thought back to that episode of My So-Called Life where Rickie, cast out for being gay by his uncle, shows up to Mr. Katimski’s house unannounced. And, in the moment of Rickie’s great despair and reaching out for help, there’s the big reveal: Mr. Katimski’s (male) partner and, thus, his outing. As fond as I am of the too-short-lived show, I played a different part.
Q: Is there a “big” gay / queer community at your school?
A: No. I am the only openly-gay teacher at the school. There are queer students, and we have an active GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), which I sponsor. There’s a good amount of “queer visibility,” though there’s certainly a wide range of actual opinions concerning the open presence of all things queer amongst the various constituencies of the school. I’ve seen / heard very little blatant homophobic behavior / speech; however, I don’t think that’s necessarily an indication of tolerance and certainly not acceptance.
Q: Did anyone sign up for your Queer Literature and Theory course?
A: I have 13 students (all seniors) currently enrolled. I’m not under the impression that all of them signed up because they were eager to parse Judith Butler and Foucault. Some took it because of the “cult of personality” that exists in schools–you know, where you take every course with Mrs. X because she’s a badass. Some took it because it worked well with their schedules. But a handful, I’m sure, took the course for genuine interest.
Q: So what’s on your reading list?
A: A lot of stuff. I decided to be ambitious; even if we don’t “cover” all of the texts I’m having them buy, hopefully, they’ll keep everything and maybe one day read through everything or give things to people who will. I don’t know; incredibly wishful here.
Making this syllabus was really, really difficult. Syllabus-making is such a responsibility, a rush, a power. I always give the disclaimer to my students that I could do a course makeover in heartbeat, that “our” Queer Literature and Theory course is not “the” Queer Literature and Theory course. It is “a” look into “some” aspects of a vast field. I’ll encourage them, in college or graduate school, to take a course under a similar heading because it will undoubtedly be different.
Our first reading is Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988). It’s not necessarily a classic “queer” text, but I want to locate “queer studies” as the scion of women’s studies+gender theory+gay/lesbian studies.
Other texts: Woolf’s Orlando; Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; Bornstein’s New Gender Workbook; Carson’s Autobiography of Red; an anthology of trans* poetry and poetics called Troubling the Line; a theory anthology from Routledge; Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy; Mann’s Breakfast with Thom Gunn; Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats; Jensen’s The First Risk. And more. I know, ambitious.
Q: So why the blog?
A: I don’t know if a course of this nature has ever been taught at the secondary level. I looked around at the course catalogs of several other independent schools, and I found nothing similar. I just assumed that a course exploring queerness wouldn’t be taught at a public high school (maybe that assumption is off; I don’t know).
Several months ago, I wrote a couple of poems, exploring my experience as a gay teacher, for an anthology called This Assignment is So Gay (edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press in August 2013). I enjoyed the experience of doing that very basic rule of creative writing: write what you know. So much of my life is consumed with teaching / being part of a boarding school community. It makes sense to write that.
I want to document this experiment. There’s just not a lot of content that exists written by queer teachers. There’s even less content about queer teachers teaching queer subject matter. Especially in a high school. Especially in Alabama.
When you seek out something, and it doesn’t already exist, then make it yourself.