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

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

Matt Cox

Defining Queer and Situating Participating

Terminology always seems tricky in the LGBT community. The community has struggled, from its earliest days of self-naming, to be inclusive. At times it has succeeded, and in moments it has failed. In its earliest days in twentieth-century-post-Stonewall-riots Western culture, the term gay and lesbian was used. Eventually this gave way to LGB (or lesbian, gay, and bisexual )and then to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender). Sometimes GLBT is used, sometimes LGBT. Sometimes other letters are added on and in (A for ally and/or asexual, Q for questioning and/or queer, etc.). And sometimes queer is used on its own (usually with a lowercase letter q to show that queer resists rules and assimilation).

In academia, gay and lesbian studies has given way to queer theory (or at least lived next to it, sometimes in disharmony). In this way, queer theory grew up in the 1990s as a challenge to gay and lesbian studies’ simple and essentialized labeling and assertions about sexuality and difference. As David Halperin writes, “Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-àvis the normative” (47). In this way, queer encompasses all that is outside of the dominant culture’s ideas of normal. Even though queer in its colloquial usage has a history as a hurtful epithet, it has been reclaimed as a largely positive term in non-dominant sexuality and gender communities. In fact it most often now appears (and is used mainly in this piece) with a lowercase q to resist dominant conventions (such as capitalizing proper nouns and titles). In this piece, I will often use the term queer to inclusively describe the LGBT community, including any other parts of sexual and gender groups considered outside the norm (heterosexual). I will, however, use the students’ own terminologies in the stories and examples I analyze in this chapter. Similarly, as queer is not only a label but is also considered a verb: disrupting the norm, going against embedded hierarchies and modes: I will also at times refer to queering as a practice that seeks to do this disruptive work.

A Memory

Gen and I were discussing stories. We were at the Conference on College Composition and Communication that spring. We were in San Francisco. “You should really contribute your own story to the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN) at Ohio State, Matt.” I thought about it for a second. “I can’t imagine my story is very interesting. I’ve always been a reader and a writer; there was never a special moment when one person really helped me. Just lots of little moments along the way.” Gen smiled: “You have to talk about those moments, all of those moments.” I sat down and the camera rolled. And it poured out. I had been a shy, introverted kid. I had feared school, and other kids. I had feared the slight lisp in my speaking. I was afraid to be singled out, made fun of, ostracized. I sat silently in all my classes, fearing being called on. View the literacy narrative.

In thinking about situating what “participating” means, a conversation about queer and queered work is a natural entry point, perhaps for no other reason than that there are as many ways to participate as there are individuals and circumstances/situations. I think many of us can imagine that historically privileged idea of student participation that focuses on verbal sharing (“speaking up” in class). This type of student is the one who always sits near the front of the traditional classroom space, is always engaged, always follows the teacher’s every move with their eyes, and always raises their hand to answer every question. And yet, in our field, we know participation has such a wider reach. Writers participate in their sharing and in their creative meaning-making practices (both alphabetic and visual/nonalphabetic) and in their reading and absorbing and ruminating. And many students hold back out of fear or self-consciousness. For queer students, holding back has historically been the norm. Feeling kept on the outside and looking into the heterosexual normative positionality is the default. The norm is also the heteronormative. The heterosexual-assumed classroom. Not unlike “innocent until proven guilty,” we are all “straight until self-identified or identified by others as gay/non-straight.” Nearly twenty years after she coined the term, Harriet Malinowitz’s idea of “assumed global validity of heterosexual knowledge” (65) still rings true for our field and our writing classrooms. Her call for liberatory pedagogy to take social-epistemic rhetoric a step further so that we may not only think as critical intellectuals but actually empower students to change the conditions of their lives is truer than ever. In this piece, traditional ideas of participation are seen as privileging some students while oppressing others instead of empowering all (or even most). It is critical to open up the participatory spaces where our students can tell their stories and share their own journeys (both personal and intellectual).

An Echo

She sat in my office in tears. A twenty-one-year-old student in my Introduction to Professional Writing class at Michigan State had come to my office to see me privately. She had been so moved that we were doing a class project that worked with the MSU Counseling Center and the stories of helping people dealing with depression in college that she wanted to share her story and trials with me. She was in the process of coming out to her family. A family that was conservative and religious. They had rejected her and she was struggling with depression and anxiety. I thought back to my own coming out. My own religious family. I felt her anxiety and worry. It was visceral for me. I loved to teach. I loved knowledge and inquiry. But maybe this was the real reason I came into the academy. Maybe I knew somehow I was connected to students like this.

Memory and Participation

I forget it is still so hard for LGBT students. There’s so much in the news and media today about the advancement in LGBT rights and visibility; so many students are out and visible on campuses and in their personal lives. In some months it has seemed like every week a new state legalizes same-sex marriage, and there seems to be loads of LGBT-related news each day. For someone who grew up gay and deeply closeted in the rural Midwest in the 80s and 90s, it still seems miraculous. Because of this though, I—and I think we—forget it’s still so very hard for so many LGBT youth and students to deal with questions of sexuality and gender identity even now.

I believe all of us, queer or nonqueer, have these memories of being on the margins, of not fitting in, and of being in classrooms where we felt like outsiders. In Understanding Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality: A Conceptual Framework, Lynn Weber notes that schools and classrooms historically have often been the sites of both oppression and resistance to oppression (188).

One of the ways we can counter such oppression and make space for resistance is to open up these previously mentioned participatory spaces. In his 2008 work Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practices for Composition Studies, Jonathan Alexander points out the ways focusing on race, class, and gender differences enables students “to participate actively in a complex society by telling their own stories about their lives, or by having that participation hampered by controlling and sometimes silencing gestures or classism, racism, and sexism” (7). Alexander goes on to discuss (citing Bartholomae, Yoshino, and others) ideas about how individuals, including students and writers, enter into discourse and pass as a part of a community. He asks how sexual literacy can continue to become part of the writing classroom (27). By sexual literacy, Alexander gets at whether or not students have a language or a set of theoretical and rhetorical tools to speak about and process their own thoughts and experiences about sex and sexuality.

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