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.

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3 thoughts on “Reading Queer Work with Students

  1. I think the way to keep them from “shutting down” is to remember that when you’re discussing queer anything, it’s not just about sex. Sexuality isn’t sex; we asexuals know that better than anyone, right? So when you have kids who start to shut down because eww, discussing sex with adults is weird, I think that’s a good opportunity to remind them that the discussion isn’t about sex. It’s just about the person, any person, and how as a reader you do or do not relate to them. I think you’ll find students more open-minded in this way than adult readers, though of course even in the current teen generation there are homophobes.

    The one thing I would caution, though, is keeping in mind you might be having this discussion with closeted kids who may legitimately not be able to have that kind of conversation. Forcing someone to put themselves in another person’s shoes is a good thing, but forcing them to confront something they may not be ready to confront in themselves can be problematic.

    (And dude, no, this post isn’t homophobic at all. :P)

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