How (not) to do Queer Studies in the classroom: Teaching to think beyond tolerance

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Christopher Smith, University of Toronto
Guest Contributor

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

In the fall of 2010, I was invited by the Association for Media Literacy (AML) to facilitate a workshop that explored the potential and fruitful relationship between Queer theory and media literacy. Understanding that queer theory can often be untranslatable outside of a university setting, I sought to enable future secondary school teachers to conceive of an anti-homophobic pedagogy that was accessible to teens and also encouraged their students to think critically. In tandem I wanted to underscore that queer theory/studies is not an umbrella term that encapsulates scholarship that accounts for the lives and histories of individuals one might understand as being lesbian, gay, bisexual, etc. One must resist the desire for easy shorthand. Queer critique and theorizing as Natalie Oswin notes, is fundamentally invested in “understanding how norms and categories are deployed” by whom and for what purpose. What follows is a series of critical reflections that emerged for me from that encounter.

The inspiration for the workshop was borne out of a series of moments in the months prior to it. The first provocation emerged from a random conversation with a long-time friend, now a teacher at our former junior high school. During lunchtime chat it was revealed by my friend that teaching empathy was a necessary and important shift in the Toronto District School Board’s mandate regarding equity. Intrigued, I pondered how a former and familiar pedagogical imperative of teaching tolerance suddenly became an investment in engendering an affective relationship to social justice.

Simultaneously, like many other folks, I was watching television programs such as Ugly Betty and later Glee, curious about the near-coincidental emergence of narratives that focused on the lives of self-identified gay-male youth. One could imagine that such a cultural moment signals a shift in societal views or opinions about sexual-orientation(s), perhaps even an example of embracing tolerance as a successful means for confronting and resolving social conflict. Reminded of film and media scholar Kara Keeling’s caution in the essay “Joining The Lesbians: Cinematic Regimes of Black Lesbian Visibility,” that not all visibility is inherently progressive, I was prompted to ask, what sort of moment is this where gay male youth (in particular) are widely represented? Further, why is it that the experiences we are invited to share primarily revolve around bearing witness to the degradation that bullying entails?

Despite the different narrative trajectories of both shows, what aligns Glee and Ugly Betty is the explicit theme that educational institutions have failed these youth. Presuming that the reader is familiar in some sense with the narratives I am referring to, the profound display of the neglect of educational administrators to create a safe environment for learning resonates as itself a form of violence. Indeed, both of these shows emerge within a heteropatriarchal regime of representation and visibility. As such, an archetypal image of a gay male youth can only be knowable and represented for an audience if they are enduring such trials and tribulations. One is left with the question of why this is the logical avenue to pursue and, further, is there an undisclosed pleasure in doing so? Do audiences, by virtue of thinking that tolerance is their mandate, secretly relish in the violence displayed before them? Watching/engaging Glee can make you feel like a “good” empathetic person, from a distance. One can say to himself or herself with ease “I would never treat someone else like that.”

Upon encountering the “It Gets Better” campaign that was then reaching a critical mass by the time of the workshop, my focus shifted to a series of other related questions. Despite the well-intentioned gesture of empathy by primarily elder coupled gay men, towards lgbt youth enduring homophobic and transphobic violence, what might be the limitation of this gesture?

As noted by Gerald Walton in a previous blog in this LGBTQI2-S series, “[n]ational surveys from GLSEN in the United States and Egale in Canada indicate that gender atypical youth are more likely to be the target of harassment and bullying than their gender typical counterparts.” Similarly, as Melissa Carrol suggests, the “It Gets Better” campaign “evidences a widespread lack of political information, care, and sentiment for young female queers, especially those deemed unhappy.” In addition many have highlighted how the campaign lacks a nuanced understanding of how queer youth of colour negotiate homophobia. See a counter response by the Embracing Intersectional Diversity Project led by Tomee Sojourner as an example.

It is not my goal to revise these assessments, much of which I am in agreement with. However, while I concur with many of the critiques circulating in the blogosphere, the elision of “race” in this conversation is striking.

Let’s consider for instance, the unfortunate suicide of 11-year old Carl Joseph Walker. Carl Walker an African-American youth became one of many whose suicide would be noted and signalled to as further evidence that schools are becoming increasingly hostile environments due to a rise in bullying.

Concurrently with the groundswell of “It Gets Better” submissions, the material fact that young Carl Walker may have been encountering homophobia quite differently was overlooked. He was not an archetypal “out” gay youth. As remembered by his mother Sirdeaner Walker, he was a sensitive, caring young boy. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey shortly after young Carl’s demise, Ms. Walker disclosed that Carl had never declared any internal struggle with his sexual orientation to her. Many have probably presumed that an inability for Carl to disclose his “true” self was the cause for him taking his life. That might be a serious misstep. I was moved by Ms. Walker’s insistence, that he would have been loved regardless if he were to, as we say, “come out.”

If we take this moment seriously, however, the challenge before us is to critically assess whom we imagine and seek to address in anti-homophobia campaigns, as well as our pedagogy. The experiences of young Carl Walker suggested to me that homophobia was ever present in his daily life, and yet we can also infer that much of this had little to do with his “actual” experience of his sexual orientation. As a result, black students like Carl Walker might not garner any solace, and are not addressed in the notion (however well intentioned) that “it gets better.”

As has been noted in the recent study conducted by Egale “Every Class in Every School, Egale's Final Report on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools” an increasing number of students are encountering homophobia due to their “perceived” sexual orientation. According to the final report “10% of non-LGBTQ students reported being physically harassed or assaulted about their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”

This empirical fact illustrates in part that experience of intolerance (in particular homophobia) by youth happen in complex ways. In tandem with the heteropatriarchal assumptions about sexual orientation and gender performance students confront, we might also consider how such assumptions are deeply racialized from the outset. Such a consideration does not necessarily mean adapting previously existing modes of inquiry so that they become “inclusive” of the experiences of queer youth of colour, as some might infer. Rather, we might ask for instance, in what world does a sensitive black male youth (such as Carl) become a target of homophobia? What limited (and racist) assumptions of and about black masculinity informed such hostile aggression?

In such a circumstance what is revealed from the outset is that many students who are interpolated as “queer” for gender non-conformity are also perceived to be in breach of normative racial/racist codes of masculinity/femininity. Further, it illustrates to us that racism and homophobia often operate in tandem to command particular performances of gender by youth of colour.

To pose such questions then is to take a queer pedagogy beyond the presumption that the purpose of our intervention is solely to create safer educational settings for sexual-minorities, and gender outlaws. As Sirma Bilge has posited “queer must be understood as a political metaphor without a predetermined referent that serves to challenge institutional forces normalizing and commodifying difference.”

Akin to what Bilge proposes as a “queer intersectionality” approach, in the workshop I sought to engender a critical space where we could discuss how multiple systems of domination shape media representations, how they eventually circulate, and how they are consumed. A queer pedagogical approach as I imagined it at the time, might engage media literacy beyond enabling students with the skills to decipher representations. Rather, in expanding what we imagine as “literacy,” media representations became a site where students could acquire the critical tools to assess cultural phenomena such as Glee or “It Gets Better,” within their broader sociological context.

In the end, I was left with the understanding that much work is still needed on this front. We must be able to account for those lives that seemingly fall outside of our frame of inquiry. We must be willing to also “queer” ourselves, as we encourage others to be critical of the society they are inheriting.

Christopher Smith is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology & Equity Studies in Education at O.I.S.E./University of Toronto. A video related to this topic can be found on AML’s YouTube channel.