Coming Out and Creating Queer Awareness in the Classroom:
An Approach from the US-Mexican Border
tatiana de la tierra, University of Texas at El Paso
After being out for over fifteen years, not being out is not an option for me. When I began to teach English Composition in 1996, I didn’t debate whether I would come out in the classroom or not. I did, however, consider the different ways that it could be done, the timing and the theatrical aspects of it. I wondered and even worried about the response from my students and the administration. I considered my social responsibility to come out in an academic arena that was relatively foreign to me as a new graduate student in an M.F.A. Creative Writing program.
I didn’t consult with peers or conduct research on theory or pedagogy before coming out. I simply came up with ideas and organized them into a lesson plan. But before getting into that lesson plan and the strategies that I subsequently developed, let me preface this paper with the identities that are at my core and drive most of my actions. I was born in Colombia and, at seven years of age, emigrated to Miami with my family in 1968. For all practical purposes, I am a product of the culture and educational system of the United States. But I am Colombian, fully bilingual and bicultural, as well as a lesbian.
What do my identities have to do with my approach to coming out in the classroom? Everything. When we walk into the classroom, we bring the entirety of ourselves with us. Beyond our political and religious inclinations and economic status are the particular ways in which we maneuver in society. In my case, I became a leftist when I came out as a lesbian in a heavily politicized anti-patriarchal feminist environment. I am of working-class stock, a goddess worshiper, a lover of art and a stickler for order.
I mention this because my background and personality have notable effects in the classroom. I am conscious of the amount of money students spend on materials for class. I ask them not to turn in assignments with unnecessary fancy plastic or cardboard covers. I design a syllabus not to be taken lightly; I expect students to come to class prepared, to turn in their assignments on time, and to participate. And finally, I strive to make the classroom fun. I am passionate about writing and I know that many first-year students in English Composition courses have negative attitudes as a result of being force-fed five-paragraph formulas and having their writings marked up in furious red ink by their high school teachers. I want students to walk out of my class refreshed by the power of the written word. I want them to appreciate the writing process, to be able to identify a good essay, to be inspired by a story or a poem, to realize that there are many approaches that can be taken to completing assignments, and to know that they are creative thinkers capable of producing good writings themselves.
Being out and making my political positions known as a composition teacher raises important pedagogical questions. Do I want my students to walk out of my classroom being better informed about lesbian and gay issues? Do I want them to see gays and lesbians and all other sexual “outlaws” as human beings? Furthermore, do I expect students to be politically astute? Do I want them to realize that the nuclear dumping site that was proposed for Sierra Blanca, ninety miles from El Paso and twenty miles from the Mexican border, was the result of environmental racism and US imperialism? Quite honestly, given my history and political convictions, I would love for my students to oppose anti-immigrant legislation and support gay rights. But do I expect my students to disregard the religious doctrines, bestowed upon them by their parents and grandparents, that say that homosexuality is a sin? Do I encourage them to eat less meat? Do I instruct them on how they, too, can be gay, if only they would allow themselves to experiment? Do I use the classroom as a political arena of my making, with conscious intent to change their convictions?
When I am teaching writing, whether it is English composition, research and critical thinking, or creative writing, my main priority is just that–to teach students to write. The way that I do this, however, is influenced by my political ideology and personality, as well as by guidelines from the English Department at my university. This combination of factors determines the materials and pedagogies that all instructors choose for a class, including syllabi, lesson plans, and class policies. It’s not realistic or appropriate to use one’s authority in the classroom to impose one’s politics on to students. Yet, some may interpret my selection of materials or topics, or even the way that I present myself, to have the same political overtones that I claim to be avoiding. Regardless of intention or interpretation, the classroom works as a site of social transformation. On the cover of a membership brochure of the National Council of Teachers of English are words that confirm this idea: “CHANGING THE CLASSROOM. CHANGING THE WORLD.”
This “change” occurs within a complex environment. Students and teachers both enter the classroom with pre-existing ideologies that range from political convictions to expectations of the learning process. Inevitably, some of our differences will be revealed along the way, and these differences may affect the dynamics in the classroom. To further complicate things, even though most of us are in class by our choice, there is great resistance to being there. As a teacher, I have to lecture, lead discussions and review my students’ essays, regardless of my mood. I may be annoyed at the bible-thumping student who sits in the front row and constantly makes comments that I find obnoxious, but still, I have to teach. Meanwhile, my students may be overwhelmed with the workload, critical of my teaching methods, angry because it takes them half an hour to find a parking space, or frustrated at writing itself. Whatever the reasons, teachers resist teaching and students resist learning. And then, there is the fact that the classroom is inherently politicized in the hierarchy between teacher and student, whereby students are disempowered by the very structure of the classroom. As Maxine Hairston writes in “Diversity, Ideology and Teaching Writing,” “The real truth about classrooms is that the teacher has all the power; she sets the agenda, she controls the discussion, and she gives the grades” (536). The change that occurs in the classroom, then, is the result of this complex mixture of elements.
Learning takes place when teachers acknowledge the fact that there are ideological differences, that there is resistance, and that there is an unbalanced power structure at work. We need to recognize that education is ideological and that the classroom is a politicized space, instead of pretending that it’s neutral ground. We need to engage our students’ resistance, instead of trying to dismiss it. And we need to assure our students that even though teachers are in a position of power, we are there to facilitate their learning experience. We need to be honest, to an extent, about who we are, and we need to give students the opportunity to also be honest about themselves. All of this allows the classroom to become an organic space where ideas are debated, contested, redefined, and articulated in different ways. Acknowledging and working with factors already present in the classroom creates an opportunity for it to become a site of social transformation because students are then able to problematize their positions.
The innate power of the classroom was a key concept in the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. When Freire placed language within a political context and taught Brazilian students to read and write in their natural environment, the Marxist educator discovered just how empowering literacy skills were when the students were able to become political advocates for themselves. Scores of teachers were influenced by Freire’s work and intended to follow suit by deliberately using the classroom in ways that could greatly transform the lives of their students. While I don’t advocate teaching with an “agenda,” I do set up conditions that encourage students to think critically. I want students to open their minds but I am not trying to force them to think the way I do.
So Much Social Responsibility, So Little Time
These are frightening times, though, and I am concerned, not only for the sake of queers who are not protected from bigotry, but also for immigrants under attack by the federal government and all people of color who are losing the battle against affirmative action. As Henry A. Giroux writes in “National Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism”: “Nationalism is currently being shaped to defend a beleaguered notion of national identity read as white, heterosexual, middle-class, and allegedly threatened by contamination from cultural, linguistic, racial and sexual differences” (48). Peter McLaren, in “Paulo Freire and the Academy: A Challenge from the US Left,” takes this concern into the classroom when he writes, “Teachers and students together face New Right constituencies of all types and stripes–in particular, fundamentalist Christians and political interest groups who are exercising an acrimonious appeal to a common culture monolithically unified by a desire for harmony in sameness” (152-153).
These mistaken ideas of a homogeneous society that Giroux and McLaren refer to can lead to the bigotry at the root of two incidents that received national attention in 1998–the gay-bashing death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming and the racially-motivated murder of James Byrd Jr., an African American man who was dragged to death in Texas. While extreme examples, these events represent the serious nature of hatred and fear of “otherness.” And in my case, as someone whose legal identity in this country consisted of a green card that labeled me a “Resident Alien” for twenty-seven years, and as someone who is out as a lesbian, I am clearly “other.” When I walk into the classroom, I am conscious of being a raced, gendered body. The fact that I am a Latina lesbian affects me as a teacher, because in order to teach, I have to, at some level, break through my students’ notions of the “mainstream.” The classroom does not exist in isolation from the horrific deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. As someone conscious of social problems and as someone who is vulnerable to acts of hatred just because of who I am, I feel a measure of social responsibility.
What to do with this social responsibility? I have several strategies and coming out is one of them. I come out, not only as a courtesy to my gay students who deserve queer support, but also because coming out affirms a reality of the moment. Teachers today must acknowledge that there are gay students in the classroom and that we are in the midst of a queer revolution, one that spans the entire world. Every day I receive dozens of e-mails about queer conferences, demonstrations, and legislative challenges in places such as Madrid, Sao Paolo, Cologne, Buenos Aires, London, Mexico City, and so on. In September of 1998, for instance, I received an e-mail from Infogay, an international listserv, with “Latin American Briefs” on the subject heading. The message informed me that Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that school teachers cannot be fired for revealing they are gay. Beyond issues of gay rights, hate crimes, and social visibility, there is growing discourse on gender and sexuality as bisexuals, transvestites and transsexuals contribute to public debate. “Father Knows Best” has been discarded by those of us who have come to realize that “family values” do not include our families or even us in our blatant representations of ourselves. Regardless of where they stand on this discourse, or even if they’ve yet to consciously consider it, students form part of a society that is already actively working within queer solidarity or trying in various ways to eradicate it or discuss its importance. Queer issues are relevant in English courses, just as are topics such as the death penalty, Ebonics, and English-only legislation. These are our contemporary issues, the ones that make headlines, that citizens cast their ballots on, and that students need to learn to consider in a critical manner in English composition classes. The arguments that are articulated in discussions and debates allow students to examine their positions.
Another strategy integral to my teaching methods is to include texts by and about people of color and queers within the materials that I select for my classes. Each semester I compile a reader of essays and creative writing for my English composition courses with the purpose of using selected writings that show a variety of writing styles and techniques. I emphasize literature by people of color for several reasons. To begin with, perspectives from people of color are too often absent from English composition textbooks and from classrooms in general. The reality is that there is a significant and growing body of work by Latins, Caribbeans, Asians, African Americans, and Native Americans. If, in the process of selecting material for my reader, I choose to ignore this literature, then I am guilty of erasing important voices. One advantage to emphasizing writings by people of color is that, by interacting with the texts, students will see that there is not one model that represents the experience of people of color. The literature offers the reader alternative worlds.
Another reason for using texts by people of color is that there is great power in representation and our students of color deserve to have texts that reflect their lives. While Anglo heterosexuals are presented with multitudes of images of themselves in the media, the classroom and the political arena, gays and lesbians and people of color rarely see representations of ourselves, and usually, when we do, they are negative ones. In my entire education in this country, I seldom saw my Colombian or lesbian self reflected in any classroom. The challenge is for all educators to assume the responsibility of multicultural representation in the classroom.
Here, at the University of Texas at El Paso, situated on the border between the United States and Juárez, México, 74% of the undergraduate population is of Mexican descent. The dead-white-European-heterosexual-male canon, which has been sanctified and debated in literary circles for decades, is decidedly challenged in my classroom. What, then, are my students reading? Edwidge Danticat, Esmeralda Santiago, Nellie Campobello, Amy Tan, Amiri Baraka, Jamaica Kincaid, Cristina Garcia, Alice Walker, other writers of color, and even a few white males, such as Joe Brainard and Michael Cunningham and white females like Susan Minot and Lucia Berlin. But because most of my students are Mexican-American, I focus heavily on Chicano voices, such as Helena Maria Viramontes, Luis Valdez, Sandra Cisneros, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Rudolfo Anaya. I also include several pieces that touch upon gay experiences, such as fiction by Nice Rodriguez and John Rechy, as well as a contemporary gay-themed article from a mainstream magazine or newspaper.
Am I cramming ethnically and politically correct texts down my students’ throats? Am I doing what I claim to not be attempting to do–politicizing the classroom? Am I guilty of using a model that, according to Hairston, “. . . envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers” (530)? Well, yes and no. I am an out Latina lesbian who is using representation as a political tool, and I am using these texts to teach writing. Teaching composition goes beyond presenting formulas for cohesive essays–it involves teaching students to think critically and to develop skills in logic and argumentation. The materials I select prompt students to think, write, and consider a variety of topics and perspectives, as well as teach them to write effective introductions. The reader that I compile for my classes in many ways mirrors English composition textbooks; the main difference is the addition of creative writing and texts by queers and people of color.
I teach students to write essays through focusing on such contemporary methods as employing prewriting techniques and having a clear thesis statement, organizing information logically, and revising. In addition, I liberally use creative writing techniques, such as “showing” versus “telling,” and ask students to attempt to emulate strategies used by published writers. Each selection has a corresponding writing assignment. At times, the assignment is an open response, a page in length. Other times, students are instructed to try out specific techniques or to comment on a specific aspect of the piece, such as the topic (i.e., love, grandparents, prostitution, language, movies, gays).
I also use creative texts to demonstrate important elements of composition and craft. For instance, we discuss thesis statements in class and then read “Fish Cheeks,” by Amy Tan, as an exercise to identify the thesis statement. To discuss distinctions between expressive, informative and persuasive texts, I use Esmeralda Santiago’s “How to Eat a Guava.” For the persuasive essay, some texts focus on contemporary debates, such as smoking in public spaces, euthanasia, and English-only legislation. I use Gloria Anzaldúa’s “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” Julia Alvarez’ “Bilingual Sestina” and Luis Valdez’ “Zoot Suit” as springboards to discussing the relationship between language and culture. Students turn in a creative writing journal three times in the semester and are graded for having completed the assignments, not on the content. The grades are then combined at the end of the semester and they total a percentage of the final grade, usually between 10-20%. Students are never penalized for their response to my selections. The grades that they receive on the final drafts of the four essays they write per semester carry the greatest weight on their final grade.
If I were teaching in a predominantly Anglo university, I would probably still use a large number of texts by writers of color and queers. My selection of material would depend on the course and the complexities of the geographical region and of the student population at hand. To some extent, I would use some texts that reflected the student body, though I would look for unique works that may be unfamiliar to them. Given the growing population of “minorities” and the rising visibility of gay issues in the mainstream, maintaining a multicultural and queer perspective in the classroom is of essence regardless of the geographical location of the classroom.
“Speaking Secrets” from the “Hard Place”
I have been out in the classroom since I began teaching over two years ago and I have employed a variety of strategies, from a full-blown “presentation” to simply allowing students to interact with the queer texts in the reader. Coming out is easy for me because the word “lesbian” is so integral to my identity. It’s also comfortable for me to be out in an academic setting in El Paso, where I feel solidarity and even a sense of familia, Latin style, with the undergraduate students. If I were somewhere else, maybe coming out would be a different issue for me. But here, I am out in the community, I participate in local readings, date a butch in public, and dance in a gay bar. Most of my published writings reveal my lesbianism, one of my lesbian plays has been put on stage at this university, and students have prior knowledge of my sexuality (and word gets around)–so I can’t keep a secret that clearly isn’t one. And neither do I want to, as I chose, many years ago, to be vocal, not silent, about being a lesbian.
It’s too late for me to “hide” because I already came to terms with my lesbianism. As Mariana Romo-Carmona writes in the introduction to Compañeras: Latina Lesbians, “When we weigh the benefits of being silent and saving the other people from the shock, or ourselves from the pain, we internalize the hatred against us. In essence, we begin to believe that our lives are less important, and we continue to hide a part of ourselves” (xxiii). There is little benefit to being silent in a course where students are, in part, using writing to express their personal history and experience. By revealing my lesbianism, I am showing students that there is no need to hide, that all of who we are is significant, and that silence is not required.
But the ease that I have with coming out contrasts sharply with other teachers’ experiences. As Mary Elliott writes in “Coming Out in the Classroom: A Return to the Hard Place”: “Perhaps we feel that our political or personal development should have delivered us beyond ‘the hard place’–the pounding hearts, shaking voices, sleepless nights, and hours of strategizing with friends” (694). Elliott cites deep fear as the cause of difficulties in coming out. She writes, “Fear, then, begins the story, and, with no apparent bridge across the abyss, the story for many of us ends abruptly there–at the hard place” (701). This “hard place” that Elliott refers to is one with which I don’t identify. It’s not that I don’t worry or consider the repercussions, but this visceral response, this intense fear embodied, is not my experience. Coming out does involve personal risk, though. It forces you to confront yourself, not only as a lavender-blooded queer with political overtones, but also as a human being willing to speak your truth.
If only I had done as my grandmother instructed me when I was a teenager: “Never reveal all that you are or all that you know.” Putting yourself out there is dangerous. Some things are meant to be a secret. Deena J. González tackles “secrets” in her article, “Speaking Secrets: Living Chicana Theory.” She writes, “Speaking secrets is never easy. In many cultures, it is considered bad form because secrets stigmatize families and community, separate one from loved ones, and leave bad impressions . . .” (46). What would my grandmother think of me now, I wonder? I never did come out to her, but then, she died before I had fully come out to myself. She was a keeper of secrets, and I doubt that she would have approved. By coming out, and also by “speaking secrets” of other sorts, I hope to be a part of the greater movement that González alludes to in the conclusion of her essay, “Speaking Secrets: Living Chicana Theory”:
To deal with these issues [woman-identification, lesbianism and misogyny] in an academic environment, and break the cycle of violence into which we have been socialized and accommodated, means that we must begin to name our fears, to acknowledge that we cannot move forward alone, and that each step we take to tell secrets moves us one step closer toward what bell hooks and others term a liberatory, transformative life. (69)
Coming Out: A One-Dyke Version
Coming out, whether it is in El Paso or Manhattan, is a process that should be personalized by each instructor. There is not a way to do it that is “the” way. How we choose to come out depends on us as individuals, on the setting of the classroom, and the context of discussion in which it occurs. My Mexican-American students are mostly Catholic, working class and tend to fit on the “conservative” side of the political spectrum. Many of them live with their parents, work, and are the first in their family to attend college. Most likely, they grew up dancing to disco, listening to rancheras, and eating tortillas with one hand and French fries with the other. They have an image of the Virgen of Guadalupe in their homes. They rock with Maná and Shakira and croon with Juan Gabriel and Selena. They are well-dressed, well-mannered, and respectful. I, on the other hand, am a writer and a pagan. I am a melomaniac, especially fond of salsa and vallenato. I drive too fast, live too hard, hibernate one day and travel the world the next. I love plastic flowers, loud colors, gaudy rings. These are simplistic generalizations, of course, of both my students and myself, but I include them here as a synopsis of the players involved in my act of coming out.
To reiterate a central point from the introduction, when we walk into the classroom, we bring the entirety of ourselves with us. Be yourself, and you will find a way to “be” queer. Come out because you want to, because it is a gift you can offer your students and the academy, because you want to be socially responsible, because you want to check it out, because you can. Don’t come out because of queer political pressure. Following, then, is a recount of a coming-out lesson plan, along with other approaches that I have used in coming out and creating queer awareness in the classroom. An analysis, as well as an overview of student responses from end-of-semester evaluation forms, follows this pedagogical section.
To begin with, coming out is a “process.” You don’t just yell “I am queer” into a bullhorn and leave it at that, because there is a reverberation, a before-during-and-after effect. I am a “person” and a “lesbian” in the classroom. I am someone with particular characteristics that my students are able to identify as “me” in the form of my appearance, my personality, my response to them as people and as students. All of this makes me a “person” without emphasizing the fact that I am a woman who desires other women. This is not to say that I would lie or otherwise mislead if I were somehow put to the test before officially coming out. But if possible, I prefer to establish my personhood before being branded as the dyke that I am. As Elliott writes, “. . . to announce my sexual orientation as I hand out the class syllabus unproductively fragments my identity and polarizes the students in relation to that fragmentary self-representation in a way that seems no less deceptive” (704). In her conclusion, she states: “Only if students can see the teacher as an individual rather than an ‘agenda’ is there hope of that teacher forging the kinds of new and productive ways of thinking, writing, and working with the students that most of the coming out testimonials describe” (706). I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; it is the gist of coming out. To give students the opportunity to see a lesbian as a person may sound simple, but considering that lesbians are commonly thought of as perverted, man-hating, and dangerous and indecent bulldaggers, the simplicity of being perceived as an individual is powerful.
The first time that I came out in the classroom was the result of a lesson plan that I very carefully constructed. National Coming Out Day, celebrated on the 11th of October, was the magical date. It was also convenient that we were past the middle of the semester (and so I was already a “person” in their eyes), and that we were about to commence working on the persuasive essay. By then, my students and I had already established what I perceived to be a free-flowing relationship. Our collective purpose was to develop writing skills; this was accomplished in a friendly, familial environment. I had come to genuinely like and care for some of the students. What if my favorites turned out to be homophobic? Or if the laid-back atmosphere were to become charged with politics? Or if they walked out on me en masse, complained, rebelled, rejected me or my lesbianism? These were my concerns as The Day neared.
I began class by writing the words “gay and lesbian” on the board and instructed students to freewrite for five minutes on what these words meant to them. This process is one that I had previously used in class, with different topics, so this was familiar to them. They were free to turn the writings in with their journal, which was due at a later date, or to keep their initial opinions to themselves. As I noted later when I reviewed their journals, this generated a variety of (unedited) comments: “fags and homos should go back in the closet”; “If someone is a good person then his/her sexual preference has no ill effect on who they are”; “gays are people who don’t like themselves”; “they bring diseases”; “it’s unnatural”; “gays know how to dress”; “they make great room decorators”; “it’s a disorder of the mind”; “people are usually born this way”; “glamorous world”; “freedom of choice”; “not accepted by God”; “doesn’t bother me”; “power rangers”; “dirty jotos”; “lesbians are a turn-on”, and so on.
Then I asked students who had gay and lesbian people in their lives to raise their hands. About half of them did, which surprised me; I expected fewer. Later on, I was to learn that my students had gay family and friends, and that several were, themselves, gay. I told those who had not raised their hand that from then on, they could say they knew a lesbian because, in fact, their teacher was one. I proceeded to give a brief overview of National Coming Out Day and to relate some of my personal history as a lesbian, such as how long I had been out and how my lesbian identity had evolved over the years. They responded with a rush of excitement, laughing at some of my anecdotes, and shouting out questions.
Taking advantage of their enthusiasm towards my personal revelations, I invited them to ask me lesbian-related questions. They asked: When did you first know that you were a lesbian? How did your mother react? Have you ever had a boyfriend? If lesbians like other women, then why do they dress as men? Have you ever wanted to marry another woman? Is it true that one woman acts like a man and the other one acts like a woman? How has society’s rejection of lesbianism affected you? These are typical questions that most of them had never had an opportunity to ask a “live” lesbian. I answered their queries quickly and honestly. I related my lesbianism to current homophobic legislation that doesn’t allow marriage or equal access to constitutional rights and employment benefits. I told them about the Colombian girlfriend that I had who I was not allowed to marry and bring into the US. I also found out that a few students in each class already thought I was gay. I ended our question and answer session by getting on to the work as outlined in the syllabus.
The topic for the day was developing ideas and writing an effective introduction. I came prepared with lesbian-related examples for all of the techniques that we were going to cover. I let them know that if they listened closely they would learn to apply the techniques to their own essays. Following are several examples of the texts that I wrote and used to demonstrate a variety of writing techniques.
Facts: Although statistics fluctuate, it is believed that about 10% of the general population is gay. Every large city has its share of gay bars, book stores, groups, and events. There are also lesbian and gay publishing houses, electronic chat lines and restaurants. There is even a gay credit card publicized by the lesbian tennis star, Martina Navaritalova.
Description: Imagine seven thousand women in the woods for a solid week. At night, beneath the starry skies, campfires burn throughout the land and women gather in circles, singing and talking. At one in the morning the amber flames are still flickering; by now the women are dancing and drumming. At some point, the women will crawl into their tents with each other beneath the twinkling stars. They are in nature and they are part of nature.
Classification: A separatist is a lesbian who attempts to eliminate male interference from her life. She does not want or need men for any reason, and she goes to great lengths to keep them out, even going as far as changing the spelling of certain words. A “woman” becomes “womon;” “women” becomes “womyn” or “wimmin;” “history” becomes “herstory,” and so on. Thus, language is a key to asserting a separatist identity.
Examples: When she was eight years old, she was inseparable from her best friend, Lucia. Then it was Vicki, the girl with the golden hair, who held her in awe. When she was ten years old she became best friends with Amy and refused to do anything unless Amy was involved. By the time she was eleven she realized that these close friendships were more like the crushes that other girls her age had on boys. Although she hadn’t realized it, she had had lesbian tendencies throughout her childhood.
If that had not been The Day, my students would have read about airplanes, Girl Scouts, softball teams and musicians–the topics used in the textbook at hand that semester, Your Choice: A Basic Writing Guide With Readings. Instead, they were presented with my lesbianized versions of texts that demonstrate strategies for developing ideas in an essay.
With a few minutes of class time remaining, I asked the students to freewrite once again on what “lesbian” and “gay” meant to them, and to note if there were any changes. Then, to wrap up the coming-out class, I sang “Amazon ABC,” a lesbian pride song written and recorded by Alix Dobkin (510). The class ended with a healthy round of applause. It was a theatrical event of sorts; I was on exhibit and my audience was scrutinizing me and the lesbianism that I represented. My students were mostly respectful and naturally curious, even though there was some snickering during the question and answer segment. It wasn’t until after the end of the semester, though, that I could really assess the impact that coming out had on my students.
The rest of that particular semester continued as planned in the syllabus. The only other significant in-class activity that focused on gay issues was an exercise several weeks later designed to show how to explore the pros and cons of an issue, as preparation for the persuasive essay. I brought copies of “Gay Families Come Out,” an article about gay adoption inside that week’s Newsweek, which had a photograph of Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher embracing on the cover. After reading the article aloud and leading a discussion on some of the points and anecdotes in the article, I instructed them to write “I do/do not support the adoption of children by gays.” They were to freewrite on which ever was their opinion by listing ideas and information that supported their belief. Then, so that they could become adept at identifying the other side of the argument, I instructed them to support the opposing view. A few students resisted, claiming that their views were too strong. Did I overdo it? Am I guilty of manipulative teaching methods? Or, rather, did the students’ homophobia get in the way of an exercise created to have them think of both sides of an issue, regardless of the issue itself?
“Flesh and Blood” Versus “Why Does Everything in this Class Have to Be Gay?”
Coming out that semester had an immediate effect in the classroom and affected my relationship with several students. Regarding the previous example, for instance, one student complained, “Why does everything in this class have to be gay?” Another student, who was obviously angry about a D+ that I had given him on his expressive essay, complained to the administration that I had been too personal and graphic in my coming out presentation. In another case, a student addressed me in his journal. He wrote: “But what I can’t understand is why do gays want so much attention. I never saw any of my straight high school teachers read or talk so much about straight people like you do about gays. It seems you want to convert some of the students into what I call ‘gayism.’ p.s. nice try!” This was a student that I liked and his hostility threw me. I responded, “No, I don’t think it’s even possible to ‘convert’ people into ‘gayism’ any more than you can convert others to ‘heterosexualism.’ What I do want to do is have it be an open issue that is okay to talk about in the classroom, and since there are so many different kinds of legislations in the works at this moment, it’s also a timely issue.”
On the other hand, there were some notable and surprising reactions from students. One, who had written “gross, sick fags” during the initial freewriting approached me several days later, seeking information for a pro-gay rights speech that he had decided to write for his speech class. Nearly half of the students selected a gay-related issue for the persuasive essay. Among the essays was one that opposed gays in the military because they make heterosexuals uncomfortable; one that used the “all men are created equal” argument to support legislations that favor gay partnerships, and one that sanctioned homophobia as long as violence wasn’t involved. Regardless of the positions taken, though, the most valuable aspect of this is that they took the time to consider queer issues in a meaningful way. Most of them, for instance, opposed the adoption of children by gays, but their main reasoning was that it could be detrimental to the children because of the societal stigma against homosexuality. With the exception of Christian fundamentalists, most of my students did not appear to be homophobic. They spoke freely to me about their gay relatives and friends, for instance. And the ones I had branded as “conservative” because of the topics of their previous essays, such as quinceañeras, church retreats and traditional Mexican weddings, were surprisingly open-minded and sympathetic.
The most tremendous and positive result from having come out that semester, though, was that my gay students felt like they had someone on their side. One let me know, through his journal, that he was afraid that the male students would interpret his friendliness as a come-on. Another one, who had written a personal essay about being gay, avoided coming to class on peer-review days, when students are required to comment on each other’s essays. During the last week of the semester, this same student stood up in front of the entire class and read his coming-out essay, “Flesh and Blood,” and received a respectful round of applause. (I have subsequently used his essay in my reader.) On the last day, I found out that I had at least two other gay students whom I didn’t know about. One wrote, in his evaluation, “thanks for coming out. It made me feel better about myself as a gay.” Another one, my favorite student of all, trailed me to my office afterwards for his true confessions. At fifteen, he told his father that he was gay and was sent to a psychologist who “cured” him. He lived with his parents, had a girlfriend, and pretended to be straight. A year later, he moved to California on his own. He wrote me a letter, saying “Now all of my friends know I’m gay, so I am completely out!” Long after the semester was over, several of my gay students often visited me during office hours, seeking a gay connection. Clearly, the fact that I came out greatly impacted my gay students.
Overall, my assessment of having come out in the classroom that semester is, more than anything, a positive one. With the exceptions already noted, the majority of my students did not change in how they related to me or in their work. They continued to participate in class discussions and from the surface, English composition was just another one of their classes. Were they inhibited as a result of my having come out? Were they merely being polite and tolerant? And if this is the case, is this necessarily a bad thing? It’s impossible for me to know what effect my lesbianism had on my students during or even after class. I do know that there was healthy debate, pro and con, on all the issues that were discussed in class, including the gay ones.
I also know what they wrote in their class evaluations, and if this is a reliable measure, the results are decidedly favorable. During the last week of the semester I pass out an evaluation form with specific questions. There is also an official computerized evaluation that goes directly to the English Department, the results of which I don’t see until the following semester. I let students know that the evaluation that I pass out is for my own information and that I am very interested in their assessment of class because their view point could affect how I plan future classes. I also ask them not to put their name on it, though some of them do, with the hope that they will be as honest as possible. One of the questions on the evaluation form that semester was, “How do you feel about the fact that your teacher came out as a lesbian?” The overwhelming responses were along the lines of “it’s cool;” “does not bother me;” “it’s her choice,” and “it didn’t change anything.” Many wrote that they were initially shocked. A few commended me, with comments such as, “It took a lot of courage and I respect you for that.” Only two students out of fifty wrote what I interpreted as negative comments. A few noted that I was, above all, a teacher. One wrote, “She is just as respected as all my other teachers. And she’s alot cooler!” Finally, one of the student’s responses hit home: “I thought you had confidence in us and shared what was a secret. By this the class became closer.” That, for me, was at the heart of coming out. I was real, the students were open, and it was, above all, a revealing, human experience.
I haven’t come out in quite the same way that I did that first semester, mostly because I am curious to see how different approaches affect the classroom. Looking back, it was an in-your-face approach and it had correspondingly strong effect. Not since have I had nearly haf the class select a gay-related topic for their persuasive essay. No other student has complained about me to the administration. I don’t have gay students trailing me to the office, confiding in me. I do still come out, but I do it in the midst of a debate, in answer to a question, casually and unplanned. I don’t make a big deal out of it, though. I don’t even ask them the lesbian question on the evaluation forms at the end of the semester. Even though I eventually let my students know that I am a lesbian, I rely more and more on their responses to the queer texts in the reader, hoping that their minds are open to cultural and sexual diversity.
My subdued approach still garners hostile reactions from select students, though, evident from their responses to the writing assignments in the reader. One wrote, in reaction to “The Land of the Free,” an essay in favor of gay rights written by a previous student, “The constitution say all men are created equal therefore you must be a man not a homo sexual. the reason gays do not have the support of the government is because they chose to be gay. I did not choose to be a Mexican I was born one… gays are fighting for rights that are against the constitution and against the law of God.” Another one, in response to a chapter from John Rechy’s novel, City of Night, wrote, “I have a solution to cure the worlds aides problem but when I called Hitler his secretary told me he was booked for life. Ha, ha, get it.” I do not respond to these hostile and ignorant comments; there is no need to fuel hatred and there is little hope that any reaction, on my part, will favorably impact their homophobia.
Inclusion of texts by people of color in the reader and a focus on Chicano writings also drew notable criticism from a few students. As the same student who made the Hitler reference wrote in his evaluation, in response to “What did you like least about this class?,” “I felt I had to be Mexican to fit in. I felt I was discriminated against because I am a Christian.” (Ironically, this same student’s response to “What did you like most about this class?” was “The openness.”) Another Anglo student e-mailed me early on one semester, writing, “. . . I suppose I could be considered as a bitter old white guy. . . I get frustrated at all the material that seems to me to be either too TOUCHY/FEELY, or man-hating, or gay, or ethnic, or just plain boring for me. I have no prejudices, I am just not interested in this stuff.” A week later, he wrote me again, saying, “I am starting to like ‘ethnic-bicultural-gay-touchy/feely stuff’ more by the minute. Seriously, I do like your class. I will try to keep my ignorance to myself, and get on with lesson.” These students are exceptions to mostly favorable responses to materials in the reader; I cite them to show the power of including certain texts.
My English composition classroom has my lesbian presence, queer and ethnic texts in the reader, creative writing assignments, strict class policies, a fun atmosphere and an intense focus on writing. What has been, across the board, the main criticism that students make of my class? Too much work. What are their “Additional comments, critiques & praises” on the end-of-semester evaluations? “It was the bomb.” “I learned more about writing style in this class than any other English class.” “I liked and appreciated the day you showed us yourself. Up until then I thought you were sort of slave driving.” “You are an original teacher whose comments are helpful and direct.” “The class went well because there wasn’t much pressure on what topics to talk about, and everybody was pretty open minded.” “This is the first English class that I have liked & actually learned something good in. I also liked the stories you picked for us to read.” “I really liked the student-teacher interaction. I was really glad that you weren’t no monotoned professor.” “Everything here was off the wall and made me realize that there’s always more than one way to get something done. . . Thanks!”
Creating Queer Awareness for Queers and Allies
My approach to teaching, which emphasizes a personalized teaching style in an environment with notable queer and multi-cultural presence, is one that can be used by any instructor. Creating queer awareness in English composition classes is quite simple when the instructor weaves gays and lesbians into the fabric of the course. A teacher need not be gay to do this, and in fact, I strongly urge heterosexual allies to consciously make their classrooms queer friendly.
There are many ways in which English composition teachers, gay or straight, can incorporate queer visibility in their teaching methods. This can be done without deviating from the focus of the class at hand. Coming out in a way that complements some aspect of the writing process, as I did with the lesbian-themed excerpts that exemplify writing techniques, is one way. If an instructor is not gay or does not want to come out, he or she can invite a local gay activist or artist to do a presentation for the class. This presentation can be used as a catalyst for in-class debates on gay issues, or the students can do an in-class writing that evaluates the presenter on his/her performance and on the content of the material presented. The presentation can simply be a creative reading that includes queer themes, something I have done in other English classes as per the request of colleagues. Students can be assigned readings and responses aside from those in the textbooks, and gay authors or gay themes can be included in the options they have to select from. Multi-media presentations, including music, film, theatre, art and photography, can be used to bring queers to life in a colorful and provocative way.
Queer topics can be presented or discussed when the teacher is introducing the range of topics appropriate for particular essays. A first-hand account of growing up gay and what it’s like to have a gay relative, for instance, are good topics for expressive essays. An informative essay on cultural symbols can focus on gay symbols, such as the rainbow flag, the pink triangle, double-male and double-female signs, and the color lavender. Essays about cultural icons can include figures such as Audre Lorde, Frida Kahlo, Harvey Milk, Xena, Zorro, Sappho, Liberace, Wonder Woman, and so on. Holidays can include Gay Pride, National Coming Out Day and the Stonewall Rebellion. Persuasive essays can tackle topics such as the expanding definition of “family,” hate crime legislation, coming out on television and queer texts in elementary school libraries. With a little knowledge and creativity, English composition teachers can easily support gays within the classroom while teaching students to discuss current issues and formulate ideas for their essays.
Each semester is a coming-out experiment for me. I am interested in gauging my students’ reactions to homosexuality, in seeing how they respond to texts, in how they respond to me as a teacher and as a human being. There is nothing scientific about my perception of their perception of me or of lesbianism. I read their gay-related commentaries (in their journals, essays, and creative writing responses) with great interest. Sometimes I respond to their comments, sometimes I don’t. I’ve ended up, for now, taking a mellow, middle-of-the-road approach to coming out. I have a “que sera, sera” attitude. Coming out is my small contribution within a society that I hope will one day be just, inclusive, progressive. I don’t want to look back at my life years from now wondering what would have happened if only I had come out, if only I had strived for racial equality, if only . . . I have a clean conscience, and I have hope.
11 de octubre de 1998, el paso, tejas
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