Reading Queer Work with Students Part II

Thank you to everyone who has read and commented on my post about reading queer work with students.

I chose to read the essay, “Origin of Dress” by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (please check out my literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages).

The essay was well received! Students who came to meet with me the week before saying nonfiction was boring, found Quintana’s essay not only engaging but relatable. I used this piece as an introduction to creative nonfiction and asked students to write some creative nonfiction of their own. Most students brought detailed understandings of themselves living in a gendered world.

When we put the piece away, one student asked, “So, will we read more stories like this?” She meant more nonfiction.

And while I was concerned to read work by queer authors and work featuring queer content and protagonists, I knew this was the right thing to do. Not only had some students expressed an interest in reading and learning about LGBTQ issues, but I also knew any fear I had was my own internalized homophobia. I didn’t want to read queer work for fear I was pushing the gay agenda, or flaunting my queer identity.

Students’ comfortability with queer content varied, but no one shut down or was visibly distressed. In some meetings the author’s sexuality never came up at all. In others, the student was the one to name Quintana’s sexuality as part of their discussion of the narrative.

What helped me the most in making the decision to read queer work with students, was putting this in perspective. If I had been an educator fifty years ago, I wouldn’t want to look back on my work and know that I avoided texts by people of color because I didn’t want to offend students or parents. I do not mean to make a comparison between the fight for racial equality and the fight for equality across sexualities and genders, but the same principle applies for this situation. To create an exclusive learning environment that only speaks to what is acceptable and won’t rock the boat is morally wrong. I would not be comfortable teaching a majority white-washed cis male heterosexual curriculum. Even if I my choice to read Quintana’s work had caused offense (and as far as I know it hasn’t) I still believe I made the right choice to read queer work with my students.

In the upcoming weeks, I might still read “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” with a few students who are strong readers. I will keep everyone updated.

Thank you again for your support, encouragement and advice!

Reading Queer Work with Students

I’m not technically a teacher. I work in a high school, I read texts with high school students, but I’m not a teacher. I’m not bound by State or Federal curriculum requirements. I don’t give tests. I’m not employed by the high school and when choosing what to read with students, no one is checking in to see if what we read is “school appropriate”.

What we read is “student appropriate” instead–the right text for the right student (I meet with students one-on-one a few times a week, so I am able to read one book with four students and another book with a different four students etc). I recognize I am in a unique position to be able to make such choices.

I’m about to choose texts for this school year and I’m running into a question I never thought I would ask: how do I read queer texts with high school students?

The first texts we read of the semester I read with all students and I’m debating between two pieces:

  1. “Psalm in the Spirit of Amnesia” a poem by Julie Marie Wade published in PANK 11.1 Spring/Summer 2016
  2. “Origins of Dress” an essay by Christina Quintana, published in Nimrod International Journal 59.2 Spring/Summer 2016 (unavailable online, but keep an eye out for my upcoming literary magazine review of Nimrod for New Pages)

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Both pieces are by lesbian authors, although Quintana’s essay is more focused on sexuality and its presentation than Wade’s.

Quintana discusses being a lesbian and her relationship with wearing dresses through a series of vignettes. On the one hand, I think high school students will have no problem relating to a piece about how we are judged by what we wear. On the other hand, I’m asking students to relate to a lesbian protagonist and I’m concerned that this might shut down any conversation about the piece’s literary content.

For Wade’s poem it would be an insult to the author to discuss the content and not discuss why she expressly names her sexuality in the poem. I’m asking students to see themselves in a lesbian narrator.

Gay-agendaBut engaging students to empathize and see themselves in characters and situations that might be different than their own is my goal! So, why do I feel I’m promoting the “gay agenda”?

I know some of my students come from conservative and/or religious families, but I’m less concerned about offending someone, than I am about not being able to have a conversation. When I was in high school, I would shut down if an adult mentioned sex or sexuality in any way. I would literally be terrified to speak because I didn’t have the language to know I was ace, only that I found the whole idea of sex disgusting.

My students aren’t me and I know that. But I’m looking for advice on how to meet students where they are, even as I tell them that queer content is just another thing to read, another experience to understand.

Any thoughts on which piece I should read with my students? Does anyone have any advice on reading queer material with high school students? If you’ve done it, how did it go?

Thank you for your thoughts.