Queer Space vs. Queer Course

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Nine times during the course, I have my students write response papers of at least 500 words, so I can keep track of what they’re thinking, what’s challenging them, and what threads seem to be common amongst them.  They turned in their first responses last Friday, and they were powerful.  Each response acknowledged the fact that something they had previously assumed as a given they had begun to question.  Bornstein’s work, particularly, forced them to consider their own genders in a deeply personal (sometimes uncomfortably so) manner.  But the process of exploring their own genders allowed her theoretical language to be grounded in experience.  The workbook, basically, made them, the students, the “texts” in this English course.

I was particularly struck by a few students who mentioned the fact that our class, as an academic space, had a completely different way of looking at queerness than they had experienced in other settings.  If you look around the room, most (but not all) of the students are cisgendered, heterosexual allies.  Those students who identify more as queer have experience talking about queer culture and issues related to queer lives, but these discussions have occurred in spaces expressly created for support and a sense of community. They’re spaces usually outside the confines of school.  Those are queer spaces for queer people to share experiences with others who live similarly.  I remember, a few years ago, when I was a Lambda Literary Fellow and went to a writers retreat for queer-identified writers.  It was a much different experience being in a workshop full of other queer writers, as opposed to my M.F.A. workshops.  But, in a sense, that particular space was both an academic one and an expressly queer one.

My suggestion to those students who are feeling unease as we talk about subjects so deeply tied to their own experiences, but in a more theoretical or academic manner, is to remember who they are in relation to the others at the table.  And to be patient.  It’s impossible to completely check aspects of your identity at the door.  But it’s important to remember what biases we bring to the table and those of our fellow class members.  It’s that whole how does your positionality bias your epistemology thing again.  

So much of what we’re talking about is brand new and radical to the majority of the room.  For others, what we’re talking about is how they see themselves.  What I want from all of them is a fundamental sense of mutual respect and a quickness / willingness to forgive when, perhaps, a classmate comes off as insensitive or overly judgmental because of a lack of empathy in that moment.  

One of Bornstein’s basic ideas is to do whatever is necessary to make yourself happy so long as you’re not mean to another.  I think that, when we’re in a space of self-exploration and we feel vulnerable, our defenses can push us into attack mode.  I hope that my students will continue to be civil towards each other so that everyone can learn and grow.

Kate Bornstein, Gender, and Power

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We’ve started reading / working / journeying through Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarachy and Sex Positivity (Routledge 2013), which is an update of Bornstein’s original My Gender Workbook (Routledge 1998). Of all the books I selected for the course, this one immediately inspired curiosity from my students and from my colleagues in the school’s bookstore. A cutline on the front cover of the book, which appears as a sort-of multicolored composition book, says, “Now with more high theory, quizzes, and SEX. Plus robots and pirates! xox-Kate.” And, yes, judge this book by its cover. It’s fun–but serious fun–fun in the service of social justice, of raising our awareness of our gendered existences.

We’re just two chapters in, and we’ve had good, frank discussions about gender, sex, being trans, and how binaries can be oppressive. Before we started talking about Bornstein’s (work)book, I showed this video of her speaking to Brown University’s Class of ’69 (of which she was a member) at their 40th reunion. Interestingly, she is one of two women to have a Brown diploma from pre-1970. Women, until 1970, took classes and received diplomas from Pembroke College at Brown University (just like Radcliffe was Harvard’s women’s college and Barnard was Columbia’s). Since Bornstein is an MTF (male to female) transsexual (as she identifies in the video and in her writing), she has this rare status of being a woman of her age who has a Brown diploma.

Bornstein makes us comfortable by making us laugh; at ourselves and our assumptions about gender. She leads us through self-reflection in the form of “quizzes.” She humanizes high theory by including tweets from her “twibe” (people who tweeted her and got her thinking about how to update the workbook). Essentially, she queers the way we discuss gender. As she says, ‘Well this whole book is a mix of metaphors, styles, genres, and points of view.” Its polyvocal, multifaceted approach to dealing with gender perfectly performs the idea of defying categorization and essentialism.

While Foucault was speaking to an purely academic audience, Bornstein is speaking to everyone who will listen. Foucault gives us complex definitions of power as it relates to systems, sex, identities, and history. Bornstein, on the other hand, defines power according a social justice perspective: “Power is access to resources.” She then shows how identity, desire, and power are interrelated and how gender sometimes controls identity, desire, and power.

We’re just into the second chapter, and Bornstein has just blown a mighty hole into the notion of sex = gender. She’s commanded us politely by “asking” the reader to use the word “sex” only for “fucking and so on” so that it “robs essentialist thinkers of their gendered biological imperative.” At first, that seems to be such a minor, basic change. But the more I think about the implications, wow…

I’m looking forward to our class’s discussion.

WTF: What the Foucault?

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We read enough articles that mentioned Michel Foucault’s work that it seemed ridiculous to avoid reading his work (in translation), so I gave my students some sections of The History of Sexuality Volume I.  So far, we’ve discussed “We ‘Other Victorians,'” which I guess you could say is Foucault’s introduction to his introduction on sexuality.  I’ve also selected portions of “Method” and “Domain” (later in the volume) and plan on reading to them a few other key passages.  It’s difficult to gauge how much of this theory the students are ready to parse.  But, early on, I’m still blissfully optimistic that the grappling is going well.  No one has fallen asleep–that’s a good sign.

On Friday, we talked about Foucault’s project in discussing sexuality, knowledge, power, and politics.  We marched through the repressive hypothesis and into his discussion of the controls exerted on sexuality not so incidentally coinciding with the rise of capitalism.  We talked about the limited spaces for and “uses” of sex, and the more we talked about how controlled sex and sexuality are, the more we began to question why.  The students quickly realized that this “history” is unlike any other “historical” text they’ve encountered.  One student made a particularly good observation: I feel like Foucault is better at raising questions than he is at tracing history.  Yes; the more we know, the more we wonder.

Here are some questions that Foucault raises in this section that are particularly useful or maybe a better term here since we’re talking Foucault would be pleasureful:

1. What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?

2. What paths have brought us to the point where we are “at fault” with respect to our own sex?

3. Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it?

4. What were the effects of power generated by what was said?

5. What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them?

Foucault provides us with an excellent set of questions as we look at power, knowledge, and pleasure related to sex and sexualities.  I know that I’ve been thinking quite about what Foucault says about the nature of power, which is “to be repressive, and to be especially careful in repressing useless energies, the intensity of pleasures, and irregular modes of behavior.”  I’m sure that Foucault’s notion of “repressive” power plays into McIntosh’s idea of the “oppressive” nature of privilege. And his idea of “irregular modes of behavior” clearly assumes “regular” modes–or, as we say, “normative.”

On a less serious note: in at least 73% of the photos of Michel Foucault I’ve found, he’s wearing a turtleneck.  As one who sports the turtleneck far too often, I approve.

Queer vs. Gay / Lesbian

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/07/laverne-cox-carmen-carrera-katie-couric_n_4555080.html

I thought this video from Katie Couric’s show that has been circulating around brings up an important point with regards to trans* issues, the fact that focusing always on the body can divert people’s attention from issues of social justice and violence. I’ll definitely need to bring this up in class tomorrow.

We just finished talking about the difference in the terms / associations “queer” and “gay/lesbian.” And we also talked about the relevance of queer studies generally. Basically, for the terms questions, the students boiled it down to “what’s at stake” or what a particular group wants. Generally, they saw that those who frequently use the terms gay / lesbian have an assimilationist agenda: they want to be included at the table. And those opting for queer are more revolutionary: they want to destroy the table because the table is broken.

Perhaps the most useful understanding of the relevance of queer studies came through looking at Eve Sedgwick’s contrasting of the “minoritizing” view and “universalizing” view in Epistemology of the Closet. The minoritizing view (usually gay / lesbian) sees homosexuality as something of interest to those people for whom it is an identity. But the universalizing view sees homosexuality or same-sex desire as “an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people acros the spectrum of sexualities.” Clearly both views are at work at once.

It seems, to some degree, that the terms lesbian and gay are often used in a minoritizing sense–the people for whom same sex desire is a defining aspect of their identity want to be assimilated into existing cultural norms (e.g. the right to marry). On the other hand, “queer” (the universalizing view) sees societal norms as oppressive and in need of radical change. Queers want nothing to do with the status quo (no interest in marriage, for example).

We’ll continually complicate this understanding, but we got a good look into why certain groups opt for the language they use and the implied aims of those terms.

8 Student Responses to White Privilege and Male Privilege

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We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s article and the TEDx talk (posted earlier) that further explained her paper and her life’s work.  After showing the video, I gave each of the 12 students a notecard and told them to write in three minutes their immediate reactions to the article and TEDx talk: an observation, a challenge, a question.  Here’s some of what I got:

  1. I like that she raises the point of white guilt and that it’s not our fault if we’re born into certain circumstances.  However, as human beings, we should be held responsible for how we act in accordance to our circumstances.
  2. How is the idea of lessening white privilege separate from white guilt?…What could the emotional response be besides guilt?
  3. I appreciate that she made it clear that good people can be “oppressive” and that realizing that you are oppressive doesn’t magically rid you of privilege or oppressive thoughts / actions.
  4. It’s sad to think that so little has changed in 25 years.
  5. In the U.S. white people are generally favored just because of the idea of superiority that this nation was built on.
  6. While those benefitting from privilege are the ones who would be able to do something about the inherent unfairness of it, because they are the ones intertwined into the system, nothing gets done about it.
  7. Definitely written for a female audience.  Some of her comments were not useful for making her point and were designed to elicit a negative response toward not just the oppressiveness to men, but men in general.
  8. A distinction that McIntosh makes in her paper—that privilege systems are detrimental to society as a whole, not just to the people who are oppressed by them, seems like it might be useful in teaching people of privileged groups about these systems and, at a basic level, convincing them of their existence since it can’t be read as accusatory and might not turn people away. 

As expected, a range of responses.  I really thought that #8 was smart and useful, especially in a community of privileged people.  And, in our ensuing discussion, we were debating what rhetorical strategies could possibly be effective in bringing those benefitting from privilege systems into a conversation about the system’s dismantling.  They were trying vehemently to find “the answer” (good students that they are), but I had to remind them that they weren’t expected to find “the answer,” but that their pursuit should be smart.

The students were exposed to a couple of $25 academic words for the first time in the paper: epistemology and hegemony.  We talked a bit about epistemology and theories of knowledge and knowing.  I posed this question as something that they should ask themselves continuously, especially while in educational environments: “How does my positionality bias my epistemology?” Or “How does who I am and where I stand in relation to these other people shape what I know about the world?”  Considering these questions / aspects of oneself can really offer pathways for learning and self-understanding. 

We circled back to the article after some more discussion, and I asked them which of the 46 privileges due to whiteness they found most effective.  They all, surprisingly, rang out in agreement: “Number 46!”  For her final “privilege” due to her race, McIntosh says, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”  The fact that she ends this list on a concrete image, a visual image, a concrete image, really grounds the list in lived experience.  I couldn’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ mantra: “no ideas but in things.”  There’s also T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative at work here, as well.  McIntosh takes this idea of privilege, something rather abstract, and makes it a physical thing easily seen: a ‘flesh’ colored bandage.  That resonated with us all. 

When we looked to the end, where she lists eight heterosexual privileges, I reminded the class that she published this in 1988—at the height of the AIDS crisis and a much less accepting cultural attitudes towards the gay community.  Queer studies didn’t really exist as a discipline, so McIntosh’s exposure of heterosexual privilege is both brave and forward-thinking.  I asked them, though, why, in a paper titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege” that spends a 4 of its 20 pages (20%) discussing heterosexual privilege, does she not include “heterosexual privilege” in the title as well.  They were quick to come to the conclusion that including bringing up sexuality in the title could have been the death knell for the paper; including a heterosexual privilege in the title could have been “too far” and thus deterred editors from publishing the paper. 

I asked them if they thought that if I titled our course something like “Minority Literatures” or “Texts from the Margins” or something less loaded than Queer Literature and Theory my class would have had more people enroll.  I wonder what sort of stigma, if any, they’ve experienced for signing up for a queer-labeled course. 

Tomorrow, to reinforce some of the ideas of McIntosh’s discussion of privilege systems, I’m going to show them this cartoon.

“Inaugural” Class with Blanco

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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:

          deviled eggs

          Blow Pops

          croissants  (Bagels? Maybe.)

          cucumber sandwiches

          petit fours

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.

After Scudera’s “Teaching While Gay”: Sexuality Shaping Conversation

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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.