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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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.

Books by Women: Foxfire

303564Thank you, mh1430 for responding to my recent post on which books by women you’d like to see me review next. As per request, here is my review of FOXFIRE: Confessions of a Girl Gang by Joyce Carol Oates.

This was the first novel by Joyce Carol Oates I’ve read. Now I have been meaning to read more of her work because this novel was so beautifully put together. The novel focuses on a teenage girl gang in Upstate New York during the 1950s. The gang, FOXFIRE, targets misogynist men, sexual predators and racists.

What struck me the most about this novel was the narration, as it is both first person and third person and weaves between the two. Maddy Monkey looks back on her life as FOXFIRE scribe and narrates. She pulls together the notes she took on the gang’s exploits, where she refers to herself in the third person, as well as her reflection on the past events. The result is a narrator who is both distanced from herself and her past mistakes, as well as reliving them and far too present. The novel is raw from Maddy’s reflections.

Whoever’s reading this, if anyone is reading it: does it matter that our old selves are lost to us as surely as the past is lost, or is it enough to know yes we lived then, and we are living now, and the connection must be there? Like a river hundreds of miles long exists both at its source and at its mouth, simultaneously?–FOXFIRE, Joyce Carol Oates

And while Maddy is the narrator, she is not the protagonist. Legs Sadovsky is. Legs, the androgynous leader of Foxfire, the exquisite Marxist, the woman who defies her gender and defies the law and it is difficult not to fall under the cult-like quality of her words and the daring quality of her actions. Even at her most manipulative or insensitive, I wanted her to succeed at whatever her goal was. What I love the most that her gender and her sexuality are left undefined. If the novel were set in 2016, would Legs be trans? a lesbian? pansexual? polyamorous? We don’t know.

And it is that very not-knowing that guides the novel to perhaps the most perfect ending line I have ever read. Because for all the novel repeats that “FOXFIRE burns and burns,” the novel ends (no spoilers):

Like a flame is real enough, isn’t it, while it’s burning?-even if there’s a time it goes out?

Keep on reading and tell me which book you’d like me to review next.

 

 

What It’s Like to be a [blank]

I was at a Slam Poetry workshop the other day with Cyndey Edwards. As a prompt to get us writing poetry, she share Patricia Smith’s poem “What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t).” Take a look at the poem below.

What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t) by Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
priming in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance in your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally have a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

_______________________

What I enjoy the most about this poem is that it reads like a ‘how-to’ guide and is  instructional as well as personal. Here’s the prompt so you can write your own poem and share it with others!

First, we created a list of ways we identify. My list included everything from being asexual and homoromantic, to being a tea lover and a comic book reader.

From that list, we generated our own “What it’s like to be a [blank]”. The idea behind writing this poem is for us to define ourselves and claim ownership our identities and experiences.

Below is my first draft of “What It’s Like to be Asexual and Love Women.”

It’s not a Freudian lack no

Penis envy but a

Filling like the dentist’s

Hands inside your mouth the whir of

Metal drilling into bone under

Gum and enamel so your teeth grow

Strong so you grow strong.

Fixed.

Drink your tea.

Fill those silent mornings evenings wondering

How long can Single last

Before your Aunt, your Grandfather, the dentist (who

Goes to your Synagogue), the airport security agent begins

To ask

Questions about

Where your man is

(maybe) where your woman is

And why you want to shear your

Hair to your scalp and

are you gay and

“a little” does not answer

Cannot provide sustain the

Fullness that is romance

Without sex.

Teaching Empathy

“I’m not an empathetic person,” my brother said.

I saw my brother for the first time in nearly a year at Thanksgiving. We were discussing the Syrian refugees coming to America and he said he would not let any of them into this country because it’s their problem not ours. He shrugged and said, “I’m not an empathetic person.”

I do not understand.

How is it possible to be a human being and not be able to put yourself in the position of another human being? I’m wondering if empathy can be taught. For myself, I did not grow up empathetic and my world view was limited and circling around myself. I’m working on becoming a better person.

As an educator, I’ve learned to ask questions because a student should learn an idea on their own and not be fed my opinion (which can be wrong or misleading). But I’m not a teacher all the time and don’t want to be. I don’t always have students and the power that puts me in charge just because I’m out of college and the students are in high school does not make me qualified to teach empathy.

I think writing helps create empathy. I think that if you can imagine yourself as a character born out of your head, you can understand another human being, or at least know a few steps in the right direction.

I think reading helps create empathy. I can only hope to read more broadly about the experiences of those who I am not, whether through gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability or nationality. There is much to learn and billions of lives with stories which may or may not ever be told.

Please send me any thoughts on how best to become more empathetic. How do you teach empathy? Thank you for your thoughts.

Happy National Coming Out Day!

I never know what to say on National Coming Out Day. On the one hand, I am incredibly privileged. My mother is the most supportive and incredible human being I could ever imagine. My friends, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are accepting of me as asexual and homo-romantic. I pass as White, I’m cis, I live in a liberal city.

But I have yet to officially come out on Facebook. My Aunt as well as one of my Uncles are my facebook friends and I’m not ready for them to know I’m queer. My Aunt might tell my grandfather and I definitely don’t want him knowing I’m queer, especially because I’ll be home for the first time in months for Thanksgiving and I don’t want my sexuality to be the conversation of choice.

I joke sometimes that I think my grandfather suspects I’m not straight (i.e. a lesbian) because he’s made hints that it’s okay if I don’t get married. He knows I’ve never shown an interest in men. But when I come out to the rest of my family, I want to be honest. I won’t come out as a lesbian because I’m not a lesbian.

I’m asexual and I’m homo-romantic and I won’t compromise on that to make my identity simpler to understand.

Again, I’m privileged. It I were to come out to the rest of my family I’m sure I would still be loved. I would still have a place to live, I would still have employment, and I would still have people in my life like my mother who would stand with me.

On National Coming Out Day, I celebrate these brave individuals who take these steps though their lives might not be so certain on the other side. I celebrate those who are out and proud every day, showing that queer life can be normal life and that we are everywhere. Thank you to the queer community for all your bravery today.

Are you married? and other loaded questions

I bus tables at a restaurant and a coworker today asked me if I was married. He’s older, in his thirties or forties and though I knew he wasn’t asking me out, I was deeply uncomfortable.

I told him no, I’m not married and he proceeds to tell me that he’s surprised because with my sweet personality he’s sure some nice guy will snatch me up soon. Bull shit.  He thinks this a compliment but I went from being uncomfortable to being offended. I don’t want to be snatched up! I’m not some dessert made for someone’s pleasure. Who I am cannot be broken down into ‘sweet’ and if I am sweet it is not for the benefit of anyone else, regardless of sex or gender.

The worst part was he was trying to be nice! But questions like this are heteronormative. He assumed I was straight, assumed I wanted (and needed) a man in my life and assumed that I had the privilege of being able to get married if I so choose. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong again. I have ace friend who worked at a restaurant and she pretended to be a lesbian because it was more convenient for her than having to explain being ace. I don’t want to pretend to be anything. I am asexual and I don’t want to hide this fact, but I don’t know how to bring it up. It’s not my place to explain my sexuality to my coworker and I am not comfortable having that conversation at work, especially with an older man I barely know.

I feel gross and objectified. I’m not a person in his eyes because all I am is a sweet girl ripe for marriage. Is it so much to ask to be treated as a human being?

I pulled him aside and told him his comment made me uncomfortable. He asked why and I said because it was a personal question. This is true; it is a personal question. But more than that, it’s a loaded question. Even with the best intentions, asking someone questions about romantic or sexual relationships can make the other person feel threatened. I am immediately on edge if someone asks me if I have a boyfriend. Even the non gender specific question of “Are you dating anyone?” holds assumptions about my sexuality and I will inevitably disappoint with my answer.

Does anyone have advice on answering or diverting loaded questions? Any advice on how to watch your language so you don’t make someone else feel unsafe? I would appreciate the feedback. Thank you.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.