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There’s a lot of anxiety out there about “teaching homosexuality” in the classroom. What does that even mean? Teaching kids how to file to be on their partner’s benefits plan when they can’t get married to them? Teaching them the difference between water-based and silicone-based lube? Teaching them how to pronounce “patriarchal hegemony?” It’s ridiculous. “Teaching homosexuality” isn’t a thing.
Except for when it is! Sort of. Many of us were lucky enough to have teachers who didn’t make us queer as such, but they did help make it a little easier on us, sometimes even before we knew it about ourselves. Later, as more fully formed queer humans, we looked back on these teachers and were able to be grateful for the ways they had supported us growing into the giant queermos we were meant to be. Here’s to them.
Depending on how you teach it, American literature as a topic can either be the best or the worst. So many interesting things happened in the literature of this fine nation! So many important social issues! Or we can talk about, like, Hawthorne or whatever, I guess. Luckily, Ms. M, my instructor for 11th grade English, was interested in the former. I learned more about the ways social justice can be reflected in literature than I ever had before, thanks to books and stories like Native Son, The Awakening, and The Yellow Wallpaper. Ms. M even included Bikini Kill’s “Bloody Ice Cream” as a reading once. Oh, and did I mention she didn’t shave her legs, and was openly bisexual and feminist?
Part of 11th grade English was writing in a regular journal and turning it in to Ms. M every few weeks. Once, when I had written a particularly angsty journal entry about my feelings about feminism or something (I wish I was kidding),and Ms. M returned the journal to me with not only a supportive note scrawled back, but a photocopy of a page from her VERY OWN JOURNAL. Words cannot describe how flattered I was. The journal page included some of her own personal musings about feminism on it, which was neat. But even more importantly than that, the photocopy included the backside of another page of her journal — one where she had written about why she makes the effort to always come out to her classes. I don’t know if she could have known that I was struggling with coming out at the same time, or that even seeing the words “queer” or “bisexual” written down was still thrilling to me, but it blew my tiny baby mind. And for the rest of my time that year and in high school, I felt like I had someone in my corner — which eventually made me feel like I could be in my own corner, like that could be okay. Which is really the best thing any teacher can do, ever.
(Years later I ran into her at a Mountain Goats concert of all things. She remembered me (I think)! It was like a scene out of a movie.)
In the first English class I took from Dr. Shutters at Idaho State University, she made sure that we spent plenty of time talking about the queerness that existed in William Shakespeare’s sonnets, Annie Proulx’s short stories and Oscar Wilde’s entire life. Over the next several years I took as many classes from her as I could. Partially because I knew that she was more than willing to talk about queer and feminist approaches to literature, and partially because she was brilliant, funny, had a cute pixie cut and was in pretty much every way, an awesome teacher. The class she taught that was most important to the formation of my queer identity was definitely Gender Transformations in Literature. In this class we read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and poetry by a transgender poet. This class shifted my paradigms. I had heard of trans* people before and thought that maybe that identity might fit me, but I had never spent so much time thinking about it or learning about it before. I had always tried to compartmentalize the part of me that thought about those kinds of things. Then one day our class watched the groundbreaking documentary Paris is Burning and I saw the beauty and strength of the women that were featured in it. That was really a watershed moment for me. During and after that class I started to really take a look at who I was and question whether or not I could actually start to transition. It’s definitely thanks to Dr. Shutters that I was able to realize that I am trans*, realize that transitioning was a possibility for me and eventually come out as the queer trans* woman that I am.
When I went from a rural farming community in south Florida to the liberal feminist homosexual agenda that is Smith College, needless to say a lot of things changed. That first year was a whirlwind of new exciting queer and feminist experiences. So, naturally as a tomboy-for-too-long gender weirdo, I enrolled myself in the first sociology class about sex and gender I could get my hands on and hungrily devoured it. It wasn’t until after the class that one of my friends told me the professor was a lesbian. My brain exploded. But she’s not butch! And she has kids?! Wait, what? Even though I was being exposed to kids my age of all sorts of gender presentations and orientations and even though I had just taken this gender and sexuality class I still was assuming that this woman was straight! This was the moment when I really started to examine and dismantle my understandings of sexuality and gender presentation (with a hearty dash of ageism awareness to boot).
I didn’t realize it until Rachel asked me about this, but I think that this professor’s approach in the classroom with queer issues has shaped the way I deal it when I’m teaching Sociology in grad school. She never disclosed her queerness and while some might say that I don’t have to disclose my queerness since I am so visibly queer, I resist the urge to share that. Maybe it’s my privilege as someone so visibly queer to not feel that obligation to disclose. A friend of mine who says her students assume she’s straight says she always comes out to her students at some point as it comes up naturally, but for me there is something about not making it personal – like this is and should be legitimate subjects of conversations without it being personal for me. Ultimately, I think this dynamic is rooted in the idea that queers have sexuality and that an agenda follows from that – like straight people don’t have sexuality or an accompanying agenda! Like maybe even though I read really, really gay that if I don’t disclose it and try to hit all sides of the argument I can be just ambiguous enough that these kids won’t immediately dismiss me as having a personal agenda. So, in a way my goal is to upset my students expectations about me based on my gender presentation just like my professor did.
I’ve always thought of my queer identity as very tied up in queer academia, for better or for worse, because as soon as I kissed my first girl I made it a priority to enroll in as many Gender Studies classes as I could at my school, New York University. The queer community at NYU – and in New York City in general – is large, but I was intimidated to approach most social situations as a newly maybe out queer girl, especially considering I had long hair and a track record of kissing only cis men and identifying as straight. The classroom was an easier gateway, for me, to start exploring the feelings I thought I might be having. And the Intro to Gender and Sexuality Studies class was the perfect place to start.
I had heard from many students, both gay and straight, about the professor who taught the class. People said she was brilliant, funny, and gorgeous. People were right. From the moment I nervously took my seat in the large lecture class at the beginning of the semester and the professor walked in, taking long confident strides to the front of the room, I felt confident that I was in good hands. The syllabus made me so excited; it was filled with Michel Foucault, Leslie Feinberg, Audre Lorde, Andrea Smith. I’d read some of the texts, only heard about others. I hungrily continued to peruse the syllabus. Each week the professor had listed “themes” we would deal with along with the texts we would be reading: theories of desire, the politics of sexuality, queer critiques of second wave feminism, gender and performativity, “homes” vs. “houses”, intersectionality, colonial violence, homonormativity… my head was swimming, but I couldn’t wait to dive in. I was having a lot of anxiety about my own authenticity at the time – the first girl I ever fell in love with was convinced I was a “confused straight girl,” and I didn’t have much “proof” to convince her – or myself – otherwise. I wanted to learn everything. This class seemed like a good place to start.
I know that queering the academy can be tricky, and I know there is innate privilege in learning about gender and sexuality studies in a classroom in the ivory tower rather than from learned experiences in the world. But if anyone could teach the subject matter in honest, nuanced, and non-exploitive ways, it was this particular professor. She had been a member of the queer community, both personally and academically, for a long time, and she brought a lifetime of intersectional lived experiences to her classroom lectures (and to her books, which I found and hungrily read on my own time). She became a role model in my mind. She was beautiful, it’s true – I don’t want to dwell on that because it’s not the most important part at all, though her arm muscles were something of a legend amongst the students who took her class and when I lift weights at the gym I still, three years later, do so under the hope that one day I will have biceps that match hers – but as someone who had never really understood the concept of “having a crush on a teacher,” she made me realize what the big deal was when it came to that particular trope. It wasn’t just her looks that made me crush on her and admire her, though. She was no-nonsense, hilarious, and very kind. I stopped by her office hours a few times to parse out ideas she’d touched on in class and to ask advice about persuing a graduate degree in Gender and Sexuality Studies (which I obviously have yet to do) and she was always warm and attentive.
She was the smartest woman I had ever learned from; in the years since taking her class I’ve taught friends and lovers certain concepts that I learned directly from her, and whenever they express pleasure or excitement over learning the new thing I credit this professor. One of the biggest compliments an ex-girlfriend ever said to me was, “Well if you learned all that from one professor, it sounds like she did a really great job teaching you.” I hope she did. If I have soaked up even a quarter of the things I learned in that introductory class, I know I am a better person than I was before I took it.