Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

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A Queer Pedagogy

7 February, 2018

I worked as a public-school literature teacher for just shy of a decade. I had the privilege of introducing pre-teen and teenage children to good stories well-told and the honour of hearing them tell their own stories. It was never easy, and if I am honest, it was often grueling. Some classes, of course, are more difficult than others. Some were even resistant to what I had to offer. But, every few years, I got a class that was just the right make-up of kids at just the right time with just the right experiences to make the stories live, to make the words sing and the narration dance. But whether it was a difficult class struggling against every lesson or a shining class stretching the words beyond the author’s own limited horizons, I told them all the secret to finding meaning: seek the seed of truth; look for the human experience that tells you what it is like to be alive and together in the world.

Every class found this, at least at first, to be queer. They were right; it is queer. Certainly, in the literal sense of the word it is. To have an instructor insist on multiple answers to the important questions even as the school system administers tests that demanded a single right answer, is strange. The encouragement to empathise with an antagonist’s anguish and to grapple with the darkness lurking in a protagonist’s heart seems perverse to good girls and good boys. Though, as a mentor told me when I was a student, as a storyteller you cannot ever be the good girl.

It’s this last truth that makes the perspective I taught them queer in the outcast sense, in the beaten and bleeding sense, and in the passionate and holy sense. I was asking my students to place themselves on the margins. To see the world through the eyes of the other: the other belief, the other gender, the other morality. To take what they held as most normative and twist it round, viewing the world upside down and inside out. To stop trying to be the good girl who is quiet and accommodating or the good boy who derives his value from his strength and to queer their perspectives, running at oblique angles to the rest of the world. In the final years of my teaching career, this was intentional, but in the early years, when I was struggling to be the good girl who arrived early and stayed late, who attended school concerts and sporting events all while being the virtuous spouse of Proverbs 31, this queered pedagogy only seeped in when I was exhausted and could no longer maintain the tweed-jacket expectations. It happened when I was in my most vulnerable and honest place. I believe that stress and exhaustion reveal our inner character and what I learned was queer perspectives came naturally to me because I was a queer woman.

Perhaps, it’s better to say, what I re-learned. My earliest sense of self was as a queer girl. I was four when Mrs. Peterson informed me I was standing in the wrong line: I was in the girls’ line and I belonged in the boys’ line. I did not have the word queer—with all its danger and strength—at that age, but what I felt was distinctly queer. I knew who I was and who I wasn’t with the same surety that Mrs. Peterson believed she knew which line each child belonged in. That sense of queerness stuck with me throughout my half-day kindergarten class. I played with the girls, I ate with the girls, and I sat with the girls during story time. But at nap time I was told to lay my sleeping mat—a rug woven of earthy greens and reds and purples—alongside the boys and be quiet.

That evening, as my parents drew me a bath and prepared to wash the day’s play off me, I asked them how they knew I was a boy and not a girl. I had been thinking about this and it occurred to me that some girls had short hair and some girls had Smurf t-shirts and some girls looked like boys and they were still girls. My parents recited primer biology; the biology adults still recite authoritatively to children, and to transgender people in a disgusted and vicious tone, and to themselves when they are most desperate for reassurance: boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Even at the age of four that didn’t square with my understanding and now, as an adult woman of transgender experience, it feels queer that some girls are believed when they yell, “I’m not a boy; I’m a girl!” and some girls aren’t.

The attempts to exorcise me of my queerness and to turn me into a good boy fractured me. I hid my true face from people, presenting them with what they wanted to see while I viewed them over my shoulder through a compact’s shattered mirror. It was in this way, I learned the importance of stories. The stories we tell to keep ourselves safe, the stories others tell about us to maintain the illusion, and the early seeds of our stories, the ones we bury deep inside ourselves.

These seeds are the ones I encouraged my students to seek. Kernels buried deep and choked out by all the “good” vegetation planted by professors and politicians and pastors and parents. I taught them to dig their hands into the earth, rip out those straight rows of pedestrian flowers, and look for the bits beneath. Find what is sleeping in the dark, waiting for its chance to stretch deep roots and poke green shoots into the light and burst with vibrant reds and purples.

I worked as a public-school teacher for just shy of ten years and I am transitioning out of that season into something new. I have exhorted students to engage with human stories well-told and I suspect what comes next will be radically different than what has come before. Still, the essence inside me is queer and I know that I will carry my queer pedagogy into whatever I do next.

This post was written for the Queer Theology Synchroblog 2018 – check out others’ posts here

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Altruism as Existence

20 February, 2012

2:34 pm
Alexandria, Virginia

Our existence is dependent on two conditions, which together, I call mutual validation. The idea here is for me to completely exist as a person I must be observed and I must be aware of the observation (that is, I must in turn observe the observation).

First, we must be observed. Our existence is only partial as long as people are unaware of the existence. Take my neighbours, for example, their behaviour should be dependent on the existence of the other people in the building. If they are aware of the others they limit the behaviour accordingly. Music is kept at a reasonable volume, voices are not unnecessarily raised, garbage is cleaned up. The awareness of the other means their behaviour is altered, in other words the other person’s existence is validated by the fact they have had direct influence on the neighbour’s behaviour. But if our neighbours play their music at excessive volume, leave trash outside the door, and they host an all night mosh pit and kegger in the hallway, then we don’t exist. They are not aware of us, we have no influence on their behaviour and we are as good as ghosted.

We see this also in discussions, for example a misogynist is telling a joke about women when he notices I am in the room and he elects not to tell the joke. My existence as a person, specifically a female person, has just been validated because it has had an impact on another person. If the misogynist told the joke to me in order to offend me, I would also exist because their behaviour has been altered, albeit negatively, by my presence. If, however, the misogynist is sitting at a table with a male colleague and me and he tells the joke to the male colleague without considering my potential reaction (positive or negative), I have been erased and thus do not exist.

It is also necessary for us to observe this acknowledgement. If we are not aware of the other person thinking of us then we have invalidated their existence. If their existence has been invalidated then there is nothing they can do to validate our existence, thus by denying the other person existence we deny ourself existence. So, if you are thinking of your Mum and she is thinking if you, you are engaged in mutual validation and are holding each other’s place in the world. But, if you are thinking of your mum and she is unaware of your thinking of her those thoughts have no substantial abilities, they do not impact the other person and have been erased, become non-existential.

I have not left my flat in three days. Because I have been unobserved by others my existence in the world is negated. I must interact with another being capable of perception to sustain my existence. So, I post a blog or a Facebook message. This message is seen by others and they reply or choose to “like” the post, which I then see. Now I exist, because I have had an impact outside of myself and I have observed the results of that impact, I have been validated and validated in return. Along those lines, when my cat is meowing for supper and I feed him, I again exist. But if I write someone and they do not respond, even though they have read the email, my existence is not sustained because I am unaware of the interaction with what I have put out as an extension of self. Likewise, should I choose to ignore the cat, his existence is denied and by denying him existence he is unable to validate my existence and thus through neglect of him I become less.

This speaks volumes to the idea of being in community and how we treat one another. When we assign value to the other person we are in turn assigning value to ourselves. By meeting another person where they are at we impact them, the impact is observed, and we observe the results of that impact. In other words altruism is literally the key to our survival, it affords the greatest possible positive reaction, which in turn gives us the greatest degree of validation and we exist as people.