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!

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My Shaved Head

Wow, guess I never made an update on this, but I shaved my head in March. I took a little pair of sewing scissors, cut off my curls and then buzzed my head in my bathroom. I liked it so much, I reshaved my head April.

Shaving my head has been the most feminist action I’ve taken. I have never had such complete control of my appearance, and it is such a powerful feeling to own my body and defy gender norms of feminine beauty.

profile picture bald

I want to look as queer as I feel and be proud of who I am.

When I first shaved my head, strangers asked me if I had cancer. My hair has grown out a bit since April and now strangers assume I am sick in a different way: they assume I am queer and the thought sickens them.

Yesterday a man yelled “Fag!” out his car window at me as I walked down the street.

For a few moments I thought I deserved the slur. I wanted to look queer, after all. What else should I expect? But I was victim blaming. If I deserve anything, it is to look how I want, cut my hair how I want, dress how I want and be respected as a human being. If I should expect anything, it is to be able to walk down the street (no matter the time of day, no matter the length of my hair) without being afraid.

We all deserve respect and dignity and we should expect nothing less.

The slur shouldn’t bother me, and I know I am hardly alone in this instance of homophobia and street harassment. But I can imagine my brother as the man in the car. He was the type of person to laugh with his friends at women he thought were dressed “slutty.” He believes women are “asking for it.”

He does not approve of women with short hair. He does not know I shaved my head and I will see him less than a month.

It’s disturbing that the man who shouted at me from his car hardly feels like a stranger. But the people who commit acts of bigotry and violence against any marginalized person or group, are people we know. They are our neighbors, our childhood friends, our friends’ parents, peers we went to high school with. They are our family.

But they are never right in what they do or say to us. We are never to blame.

The Casual Language of Sexism and Homophobia

For the past week I was chaperoning a dizzying tour of colleges in PA. But instead of leaving with a flavor for each school, I left with the muddy taste sexism and homophobia crusting in my mouth.

I was a tour guide for my college, so I understand that when you’re giving a tour sometimes you’re coming up with your words on the spot. I do not think our tour guides meant to be offensive, but as a queer feminist, their language was hurtful and isolating, even while it was also mundane.

But when a female tour guide describes the all-female dorm on campus as “the quiet dorm because it’s all girls” what am I supposed to think?  First, these are women, not girls. They are adults. Second, women are not naturally more quiet or passive or reserved. These are harmful stereotypes of women being perpetuated on college campuses and repeated to high schoolers.

When the same female tour guide later says, “our school’s 60% female, but that’s not a problem” my first thought is, why would it be a problem? What makes a majority of female students on a college campus threatening or a dissuading factor for students to apply? Why aren’t we celebrating these women?

On a different college campus, a male tour guide (who expressly said he is a feminist, that he cares about anti-racist work and participates in community service) said, “I’m not gay, but I love that dean.”

I’m not gay, but…

And in an instant, a space which should be welcoming to all becomes hostile. Because I am a female. I am queer. And your college campus is suddenly a threat.

I spoke to both of these tour guides after the tour and let them know how their language was harmful. Please, speak up when you hear things that make you uncomfortable, whether it’s about an identity you hold or not. These small things, this casual language, must also be stopped if we are ever to address the larger issues of rape culture and more blatant homophobia.

Please, speak up so that public spaces can be our spaces too.

Asexual (and queer)

I use queer as an ace inclusive term. Because the LGBT doesn’t include my experience (or the experience of pansexuals, demisexuals, and many others!) and when I hear LGBTQIQA, I feel like I’m back to being a first year student in college and timidly approaching the Queer club’s representative asking, “Does the A stand for Ally or Asexual?”

I’m done having to “come out” even in queer spaces.

Yesterday, at C2E2 (Chicago Comic Entertainment Expo) I went to the panel “Where are the Asexual Voices?” presented by Lauren Jankowski. Jankowski runs Asexual Artists: a blog dedicated to highlighting asexual art and artists, so anyone on the ace spectrum knows they are not alone in the creative process. Our work matters and our sexual orientation should be celebrated.

7155e1d6b8c14e380dbc6f4f233b9d57And while I’m openly queer online and have published essays about coming out as asexual and my asexual experience in Wilde Magazine and Voices and Visions (available to read for free), I identify as queer in most online spaces. I identify as queer and not ace.

If I say I’m queer you can assume I’m a lesbian and I won’t have to correct you. If you assume I’m a lesbian you assume you understand my sexual orientation and do not ask further questions.

I fear going back to high school, when I didn’t have the language to say I’m asexual and instead floundered through conversations about how I didn’t understand crushes and had no desire for a boyfriend or to have my first kiss. And even well intentioned friends told me, “You just haven’t found the right person.”

As an ace person, we face invalidation every day. We are not straight enough, we are not queer enough. We are infantalized. We are instructed on how to use a condom by ill-intentioned room mates in high school summer programs. We are outed at social gatherings as a spectacle. And I’ve put all this behind me because hey, it happened 4 or 5 years ago and I’ve also had incredibly loving conversations about being ace where my friends and my mother are respectful and show nothing but support.

But just a few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a queer ally training for seniors in high school and made the decision to come out as queer. And while I recognize the immense privilege I have in holding a job where I can come out to my students at all, it still felt like a lie or an omission because I did not come out as ace. I still fear the questions about my sexual orientation.

Being queer and not ace has allowed me to hide and cloak myself in a more understood and accepted term.

I’m done hiding. I am an asexual homo-romantic writer. I am asexual (and queer), but I cannot keep hiding under the queer umbrella.  I am proud to be ace.

Demonizing Teenage Sexuality

I work with high schoolers everyday. Other adults, snort and chuckle, pat me on the back and say:

“Ooh, that’s rough.” “How’s that going?” “Good luck.”

When I once failed to properly lock the staff restroom, a teacher who followed me in demanded I learn to  lock the door properly. “Believe me,” she said, “you don’t want one of them getting in.”

Them. As if high school students are dangerous animals and that just because we see them everyday doesn’t make them human beings. We herd them from class to class on a bell schedule to manage them. We place security officers in the hallways and the cafeteria to control them. We expect criminal behavior.

And because our school system does not trust young people to walk from class to class without, of course we do not trust them with their own sexuality. Yes, teenagers make mistakes. And yes, those mistakes are especially harmful when they involve sex and sexuality, because what is a healthy sexual decision and what is rape might not be clear.

So, let’s talk about it!

I grew up in liberal blue-Democratic Connecticut, and our sex-ed program only focused on STDs. While I don’t remember it being an abstinence-only education, in health class there was still no discussion of healthy sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality was heterosexuality (and allosexuality–not being ace) only. There was no way to be a teenager and also make smart choices.

Teenage Sex = WRONG.

This is especially challenging for queer students (promiscuous stereotypes, anyone?) and students like myself who are ace and might not even have the language to say so.

But what happens if we change that narrative?

Chicago schools have begun to institute sex ed as early as kindergarten in order to promote a healthy shame-free understanding of sexuality from an early age. As from thinkprogress.org said in 2013, not teaching accurate sex education

has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished.

I am privileged to work one-on-one with students where I have fewer restrictions than teachers. I can question the sex ed curriculum and American sexual mores. One of the most liberating ways to do this is to not shy away from sex language. If it’s not a big deal for me to say “queer” “sex” “vagina” “penis” “trans” “cis” these words become a little more normalized. Young people then have space to consider what healthy sexuality means to them and how they can develop healthy and smart relationships. My expectation is not perfection, but it certainly isn’t failure.

I refuse to be embarrassed by high schoolers singing and dancing to songs about sex during a school dance. As long as there is no coerced sexuality or romantic conduct, I would not step in. If high school students are shouting and singing about sex acts, this might be the only place where talking about sex is a free act. And if we, as adults, are embarrassed or demonize this freedom, then shame on us.

We have clearly not created inclusive spaces in schools and youth programs where people of all sexualities and genders can discover what healthy sexuality means for them. It’s time to create those spaces.

Queer and Going Home

While Thanksgiving is an incredible way to connect families around a shared meal, it can also be a means of stress, especially if you are queer and have not yet come out to your family (or extended family, friends at home, etc). It feels like you’re stepping back into the closet and closing the door.

Though I am not out to most of my family, I am deeply privileged for having an incredible mother who supports me. I recognize that this is not the case for every queer individual.

Here are some tips for passing the potatoes without feeling threatened to spill the beans.

  1. If you have an ally, use this person. Tell them you’re feeling uncomfortable and they can be a means of support to redirect awkward conversations about who you’re dating, your gender, etc.
  2. Reroute a conversation. Remind your aunt about how great her apple pie is. Ask your uncle about how his new job is going.
  3. Don’t be afraid to stop a conversation directly. If possible say that a question or a comment was hurtful or uncalled for.
  4. Keep your cool. Breathe deep. Know your limits. Excuse yourself for a moment in the restroom to collect yourself when it feels safe to do so.

This is not an exhaustive list and I know I cannot speak to all manners of experience.

Your health, mental and physical is a top priority. Happy Thanksgiving.

Not Gay as in Happy

9781551525815_LostBoiI finally got a copy of Sassafras Lowrey’s novel Lost Boi from the library! Hir story is a queer retelling of Peter Pan and in my mind, nothing could be better.

A proper review is coming (I haven’t finished the book yet) but I wanted to share the most amazing quote as a teaser to remind you to read this book:

‘Not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you.’

Have a gay day everyone!