These are the axes:
Bodies are inherently valid
It is complicated
Since starting this blog, a few people have asked me why I decided to give a queer title and framework to a blog where so many of the discussions and posts are related to education. I have tried to answer these questions by stating that education, to me, is unavoidably queer work. This statement, I have found, tends to make people uncomfortable.
In my time working amongst educational collectives as a workshop leader, classroom teacher, tutor and after school coordinator, conversations about the links between queerness and education have been brought up many times, and have often been met with discomfort by many members of those same collectives. When people hear ‘queer’ and ‘education’ uttered in the same sentence, they tend to think it means teaching youth about being TLBG, or else that it implies a vision for education which is exclusively by and for TLBG people. While I am not strictly opposed to either of these potential transformations, I am attempting to think on a broader scale when I refer to a queer education.
Perhaps the the thing which most worries people when the idea of “queer education” is introduced is that it links two things that most of us accept as fundamentally separate: Sexuality and teaching kids. I have also learned from years of working with youth that queer mentors and educators are plagued with suspicion and read as dangerous in ways that their straight counterparts rarely ever are. Since queerness and all the identities included within it are usually understood to be inherently sexual, and often perverse–an understanding which, in my experience, originates amongst adults far more often than it does with children–queer people become marked as sexual in ways that no one else does, ways which are often deemed inappropriate for kids, sometimes to the extent that we are not allowed around younger members of our own families, or are fired from positions as teachers and mentors. These reactions from parents, family and community members, which I have experienced many times as a queer individual and educator, are part of the true and sometimes heartbreaking realities which all transgressives come up against in the efforts of revising our community’s traditions. Yet this is still not the primary point which a queer education brings up for me.
One the reasons why I have always loved teaching is because I see it as an extending bridge between all the fractured sections of my life. For me, there is no way to separate my work as an educator from any other part of my existence, because the areas in which, at any given time, I am trying to strengthen myself “professionally” are the same ones I am working on and struggling with personally; Being a voice of protest in the face of adversity and injustice; Advocating for myself while simultaneously acting on behalf of my community; Finding the balance between acceptance and resistance; Listening and being a more effective communicator; Trying to explain and to see things from perspectives other than my own. Just as I am always fighting to be my whole self within my family, amongst my friends, as a Black man in the queer community, a queer man in communities of color, a radical amongst politically and economically mixed circles, so, too, I am always struggling to be my whole self within a given learning community, to be as honest and authentic with my students as I intend to be with myself. For me, this does mean being out, it does mean illuminating queer histories and identities in the classroom, it means forging special bonds with other queer members of my school community, and it means challenging the oppressive traditions of every community with which I identify. Yet all of these acts and commitments, I believe, fall under a larger understanding of queerness and its relationship to public education.
When I speak of queer education, many seem to fear some kind of perverse melding of sex and the nurturing of kids. Yet to me, more than sex, more than sexuality, more than gender transgression, queerness at its heart is about desire: The desire to be whole, to live in liberation, to tear down the borders and boundaries which prevent richer interactions, to celebrate and locate joy where joy has been disbanded. Why shouldn’t these kinds of desires factor into our work as educators? After all, it is the same systems which render desirous teachers inappropriate which also segregate the learning process into the ghettos of Math, English, Science and History. The same bodies which tell us there is no place for our queerness in education also glorify quantifiable skills, swear by test scores, and value obedience in place of question asking and creativity. A queer education–one which which imagines students as community members instead of numerical products, which gives voice to the oppressed over the master’s narratives, which struggles for human rights and rails against privatization, and which equates love with learning–is precisely what is required if we are to labor in the direction of a global vision which is truly justice-oriented.
While queerness as a sensibility may be born from TLBG experiences and activism, the quality of investing in one’s outsider status is one with which all marginal people should gain familiarity, including radical educators. For ultimately, being a public educator means engaging in a deeply natural and inherently radical process within the confines of a profoundly unnatural and definitively conservative structure. And we realize, even as we are continuously devising new ways of surviving and navigating that structure, that the only way justice will be possible is if the structure itself comes down, and that it is exactly those of us who are silenced by it who must take on the responsibility of dismantling it. What could be more queer than that?
A friend of mine and I who both identify as femme were chatting the other day about the different ways our identities are understood in our various communities. She, who identifies herself as a queer woman, moves in predominately queer female and trans circles, whereas I operate in a largely gay male context. Both us of expressed frustration with the fact that our femme presentations are often devalued and degraded by the queer communities we belong to, and are even seen as selling out. She spoke of the “dyke hierarchy” in her community, the endless pressures to be as transgressive as possible by prioritizing and playing up masculine qualities–pressures which labeled her as a traitor. I talked about the suspicion with which I was consistently met, and the conception that by being effeminate I could only be caricaturing an unreal part of myself, satiating the hallmarks of the gay servant and the reviled sissy. Both of us talked about feeling undesirable because we were not masculine enough. Both of us were struck by the fact that communities which are so focused on transgression could simultaneously place such great emphasis on masculinity and patriarchal structures of power. Both of us were saddened that we often felt disrespect and spite from the people whom we love and struggle alongside, simply because we identify in ways which we have all been taught to stigmatize.
Amber Hollibaugh, who has come to be seen as a leading voice on high femme identity and politics, writes in her book My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home that the femme identity is always treated with suspicion and distain precisely because it invests itself into the qualities most commonly associated with weakness and powerlessness. Even across queer communities, we, too, are often convinced that relying on masculinity is the only way to be commanding and threatening in the face of the powers we seek to challenge. To Hollibaugh, the femme identity is always a radical one, no matter who dons it, because it works to command and threaten without reifying male status or masculinist hierarchies. It challenges power on the terms which power most fears, and refuses to forfeit any of its own desires, tendencies or passions in the process.
For myself, identifying as femme is not about adhering to any code or strictures of conduct. It is about loving my body, even when I am told I am too skinny or not in shape. It is about respecting and revering the women in my life without objectifying or essentializing them, but also without pretending that we are the same. It is about loving who I love, desiring who I desire, and not worrying about what types of roles I or my partners should take on in a relationship, or in bed. It is about dressing the way I like, and moving the way my body wants to move. It is about talking in the slang of Black and Latin@ queer communities. It is about being unapologetically raunchy. It is about making people uncomfortable in ways that I hope will make the world a safer place. It is about speaking loudly. It is about placing myself in a lineage of other queer folks of all identities who also stood by their communities while challenging them to change. It is about remembering the riot, and never being comfortable with the way things are. It is about dancing and laughing, gathering and organizing. It is about feminism. It is about fearlessness. It is about always being ready to fight.
My truest hope for the future of my community, and of all queer communities, is that we let go of suspicion–that we love and respect all of our incredible ways of being as subversive, and as having the potential to unite us in radical efforts. For being a gay man in good health is subversive, but so is being one who is happy with his body the way it is. Being a queer women who identifies as butch is subversive, but so is being one who does not feel the need to identify herself in any particular way at all. Rejecting gender all together is a way of challenging power, but so is finding an unexpected space for oneself that makes straight people and queers alike uncomfortable. And any one person can do some or both or all or none of these things and still be a subversive. Our true radical power comes not merely from the labels we don nor the ways we present. It comes from recognizing a structure which needs to come down, identifying our friends and allies in the struggle, and figuring out how we can best support one another in the innumerable ways we find to break chips off the stone.