Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Matt Cox

Takeaways of Queering Participation: Taking Chances

Of course it’s critical to complicate sexuality and gender identity where race, class, gender, sex, ethnicity, and (dis)ability are concerned. I have always spoken about this complication in terms of intersectionality, the idea that there are multiple (if not myriad) components to individual identity and they exist in interwoven and crosshatched/crossing patterns. They do not lie in parallel nontouching lines, but rather they tangle with one another and inform one another in difficult and confusing ways (both confusing to the outside world and to the individuals themselves).

Allan Berube supports this idea of complex and myriad identity in our community in “Intellectual Desire” when he writes, “The ideas of gay community, gay politics, and gay studies were built partly by white, middle‐class‐identified, college‐educated gay men around a belief that homosexuality could and should stand alone as the organizing principle for our lives and work—as if our homosexualities had not been significantly shaped by our race, gender, and class (60).” Besides pointing to the importance of intersectionality, Berube also calls for more voices, more identities, and more criticism around issues of sexuality.

In "Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality,” Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem point out that power structures in the academy encourage certain strong characteristics (such as openly identifying first and foremost as a lesbian rather than a woman, or first as a white middle-class person rather than as gay, and so on) and discourage complexity. It is their goal, they state, to “critique both the academy’s tendency to neutralize the political aspects of identity performance and the essentialist identity politics that still inform many academic discussions of gender, class, and sexuality” (466/67). I think this caveat is true even fourteen years later. We have to complicate these conversations. If we bring up LGBT and queer identity and issues in the writing classroom but don’t account for our straight students and their positionality or don’t account for the ways race, class, and so on work together with sexuality, we are failing our students.

So how do we do this? How do we as writing instructors breach issues of sexuality and gender identity (and other identity markers) in a classroom? And how can broaching those issues help students (both LGBT and non‐LGBT queer) to participate in new and unconventional ways? To me, such questions have always seemed the most puzzling of all. How do we actually not bring these things up? If we are embodied humans who bring our culture, our beliefs, and our bodies into the classroom, how do we not tie our knowledge-making processes back to ourselves? How do we not talk about what’s at stake in our writing and in our intellectual work? How do we not consider who our audiences are and how we might create risks to others and ourselves based on what we do or do not reveal? Maybe negotiating closeted spaces our entire lives causes queer people to forget that ultimately everything comes back to our personal lives, struggles, and identities.

In my own dissertation a few short years ago, I wrote about “working closets”—the idea that in workplaces and institutional spaces, queer people are constantly moving in and out of closeted and noncloseted situations (whether they consider themselves “out of the closet” or not). In interviews with LGBT and queer people in corporate environments, their stories revealed that time and time again, they were making choices to sometimes reveal queerness (and/or gay identity) and sometimes to hide or “not push it” (what Yoshino would call “covering”). There are high risks for queer students when they decide whether to come out in a moment or to hold back and not reveal more. We as instructors have to understand this risk and make the space and understand when an opportunity might be, at times, not used even though we have created it. Many times over the years students have told me weeks or months after a class (and in private) that even though they couldn’t be out in the classroom they appreciated so much knowing they had a teacher who supported queer identity.

Broaching topics of sexuality and orientation in a writing classroom can be tenuous and risky for all involved. What can instructors, both LGBT identified (or closeted) and allies of the LGBT and queer community, do in their classrooms to help LGBT students (both out and closeted) to participate and feel safe and secure in that participation? Is being “out” as LGBT or ally the only or the best way students (and instructors) can participate in the classroom? While this piece does not inquire further into that topic quantitatively, students’ (and my own) stories anecdotally seem to suggest yes. This is not to say closeted students and instructors do not, in nuanced and subtle ways, contribute to more complex and diverse understandings of communication, writing, and human experiences around sexual orientation and sexuality. But I argue that, in a field (rhetoric and composition studies) that largely now values the social‐epistemic view on writing, encouraging students' coming to be better writers and communicators through their interactions with themselves and their world, being out is the best way to be able to reveal and process one’s own stories through writing (both to self and to others). I believe this conversation is ripe for further study and both student and instructor input.

My own experiences tell me that even beyond coming out personally (as either LGBT or an ally), just the neutral or positive mention of LGBT issues and the matter‐of‐fact existence of LGBT people in the world can show students that they matter and their voices should be heard. Additionally, the students in this chapter, when talking about their own experiences, seem to indicate that simply being given this kind of friendly, careful space is vital to be able to explore and write openly and sometimes messily about their stories. I have found that even in the most business writing and professional and technical communication‐oriented writing classroom, I can still find opportunities that relevantly explore how issues like race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability come up in the workplace or in society as a whole. While initially being uncomfortable or shocked, students nearly always seem to quickly recover to appreciate honest conversations about interacting with individuals and work settings different from their own backgrounds.

Teaching and mentoring over the years has shown me that students come from so many experiences and backgrounds. There will be resistant students, enthusiastic students, conservative students, progressive students, introverted students, outspoken students, and so on. Alexander writes that “while we as instructors may be reluctant to examine issues of sexual literacy, our students are not—and they are showing us some interesting ways in which to grapple with and conceptualize sexual literacy” (74). Alexander’s point here reminds me of my own moment early in the weeks of a new semester a year or so ago in a business-writing classroom. I was, as usual, grappling with when and how to come out to my students. I started the class as always by asking students what personal stories or thoughts they’d like to share or what issues in the news they wanted to talk about (before diving further into class). A couple of my students immediately and nonchalantly brought up an issue in the news that week involving a gay professional athlete. What shocked me was how little students really seemed to be bothered by or uncomfortable with the topic of a gay person even as I had sat there in class grappling with how to bring up LGBT issues and my own orientation. This represented a visible change from six years previously when I had taught for the first time.

We are living in a more open time. And even students who may not be personally open to questions and issues of sexuality and sexual morality still have come to understand they live in a culture where these issues will come up frequently. When I think about Gen’s work making space for student participation in the classroom, I think about the ways she also balanced her own personal and professional identities. I never knew her to shy away from who she was in both respects. A loving partner, a caring instructor, an engaged researcher and writer. My friendship with her blossomed around that encouragement to tell my stories. She had that effect on me and those around her. She helped me make space. This is what we must pass on to the students we touch.

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