Saturday, June 16, 2007

Gay Pride Parades; Or, Queer Activism (or not) at a Not-So-Queer School

Gay Prof’s post on the Boston Gay Pride Parade got me thinking about my own past attempts (meager as they may be) to participate in queer activism. As a lowly grad student teaching the required comp and lit courses in a R-I school that has a demographic that's white, southern, often rural, and just as often racist, sexist, and homophobic, I struggle to find ways to introduce issues that deal with both gender and sexuality, but especially the latter. Most of my students are freshman and sopphmores, and the last thing they want to do is take my required ENGL course. To the point, though, I offered an extra credit assignment one summer in a literature course. It wasn’t required, but since there weren’t many events on campus during the summer, this was a shot for some “gimme” points. The offer was for students to attend the not- too- far- away Gay Pride Parade in Very Large Town. They weren't given any agenda. Go. Check it out. Talk to people if they wanted. Observe. That kind of thing. Then, the only thing they had to do was to write thoughtfully and critically about the event (8 pgs. or so), how it reinforced/changed any previous assumptions they may have had about the queer community, straight people, consumerism, political activism (these are just a few of the prompts I provided, but they were free to take their own line of questioning). While I provided some starting questions, they turned out to be unnecessary, as the few students who went had lots to say on their own. One of the main comments was how "corporate sponsored" the event was. Many of them - and these are 18 & 19 yr old straight kids from small-ish country towns - said that it seemed like much of the purpose and political goals of the event were overshadowed by the fact that it was just another event at which to party and spend lots of money.

Another student commented, in response to one of the writing prompts that addressed hatred/discrimination, that she'd seen two lesbians holding a small girl (presumably their child), and the girl's hair had been buzzed and she was wearing the rainbow shirt. In the student's response, she suggested that this instance was no different than watching two parents take their child to a white pride rally, because the child was in effect being "brainwashed" from the start. She wasn't really being given the option of not supporting the event, and for the student, this was a problem.

Now, these responses received no feedback from me. As long as the writing was complete, thoughtfully, organized, etc. the student got the extra credit. But, the learning experience for me came from someone at the parade who spoke with one of my students. One of my male students took his girlfriend with him. After being eyed for a while, the woman next to him said “What are you doing here? Aren’t you straight?” He explained the extra credit opportunity (which he didn’t even need actually), and she said “That’s really awesome. More people at your school should be doing things like this.” Then, she introduced her girlfriend to them, and they talked some more.

My questions are plenty: Was this really a good thing I did? Should I have responded to the students’ writing? And if so, how? I mean, I wasn't going to grade them on whether or not I agreed with their responses. Some of their comments remained fairly juvenile and simplistic in terms of intellectual energy. But others brought up some really good points, which I may not have been able to address adequately and articulately had I tried to respond. (And as an aside, all my gay and lesbian friends have disappeared to other universities – big shocker there – so I didn’t have their input). Was my effort well-intentioned, but juvenile itself? Or, does it count as some kind of activism in its own right? I’d like to think so, as I’m lacking in opportunities for queer and feminist activism these days. I hope to be able to teach courses on the History of Sexuality and Queer Theory someday, so this is an important issue for me. I’m just at the wrong place to get any guidance for doing so ..sigh.


Roger Owen Green said...

A parent takes a child to a civil rights march, or an anti-war march. Is that "brainwashing"? Or doing what parents are supposed to do, which is instill (their) values in their children?
I suppose I would have asked the student to define "brainwashing".

Sarah said...

The issue of taking the child to the parade is complex because is raises the question of whether it is ethical to teach a way of belief to a child who has no way of making his or her own judgment. To these parents, supporting the gay community, and presumably acceptance of difference and respect for people in general, is an important value they they believe should be taught to their child. I have heard many people lament the fact that people stand outside Planned Parenthood with their children protesting abortion, criticizing those parents for forcing their politics on their kids. But they see it as a moral issue and they believe that it is imperative to teach this moral stance to their children. People usually react negatively to such things and call it brainwashing when they disagree with the politics involved.

I'll think more on the question you asked about how you should respond to papers--don't have a response to that yet.

AcadeMama said...

On instilling values:
I think this is where it turns into an issue of semantics. That is, there are certain values, for example, that I want to instill in my children: tolerance, honesty, empathy, a strong work ethic, ambition. To me, these are the non-negotiables or core values of our particular family. Inherent in tolerance is acceptance of races, genders, sexualities, religions, classes, other than my/our own.

These may or may not end up being the same things my children value as they become adults. And while I'm passing "my" values on to them, I don't necessarily see these values as political per se, nor would I consider it brainwashing. But, some could very well argue that all parenting - a job that requires adults teaching children values based on their own conceptions of right/wrong, good/bad, etc. - is by its very nature "brainwashing."

I did take my oldest daughter to an anti-war march in 2003, when she was just 4 yrs. old. She was holding up her fingers in a peace sign, but she had no idea what the whole thing meant. I took her not because of politics, I was a single parent and didn't have anywhere else for her to go. She was simply mimicking what she saw everyone else doing.

I think I'm doing what I'm "supposed to do" by teaching her some core values *AND* still giving her room to form other values as she grows older.

GayProf said...

Christians take their children to religious services on Sundays. They often dress their little girls in pink, curl their hair, and perhaps make them wear a festive hat. Why would the student see that as "normal" but not queer parents doing the opposite?

In terms of teaching, I guess the question comes down to your pedagogical goals. What did you want to accomplish with this assignment?

As for teaching queer theory, I say just do it. I taught for years at a Texan institution where I was the only gay professor on campus who was out to his students. Sure, there were tons of other queer professors, but they came up with tons of excuses about not being out in the classroom. I took some grief from a few students, but I also think that the benefits far outweighed the costs. Students are more likely to learn and be intellectually engaged if they know that their profs are willing to engage honestly with them. They are less likely to respond, though, if they feel they are being manipulated or that profs are trying to "trick" them into adopting a certain position.

mgm said...

Your post brings up some really great questions that we shoujld consider both as parents and as teachers.

I tend to agree with AcadeMama that parenting could be considered "brainwashing." After all, The Toddler knows nothing other than what I teach him. SuperDad and I are teaching him our values. He has nothing else to go on.

I only hope that what I teach him is that nothing is absolute and that he has the right to make up his own mind for himself. But I also hope that he'll make the decisions I would want him to make. Why? Because I want him to be accepting, openminded, patient, loving, and I hope he'll become a good citizen. Brainwashing? Maybe, maybe not. I think it's what all parents want for their children, regardless of politics.

As for commenting, I have a hard time keeping my pen off papers, especially when I run across an opinion that seems uninformed. I think Roger Green is right to ask the student to define "brainwashing." Does she mean that this child's parents were trying to "turn her gay?" If so (and I confess I think she probably did and maybe that's wrong of me), she might need a little guidance. But then, does that mean I would be brainwashing her? By the same token, though, she may have been brainwashed by conservative politics, media, parents, yada yada yada, and needs someone to reveal that to her.

I guess I would argue that any writing assignment needs to be placed in conversation. By commenting, we give students a chance to see that their ideas have impacts, even if the only person who sees the writing is the teacher. It helps them to think critically and helps them to really understand their own ideas.

Sarah said...

Great comments! I would hesitate to comment on those papers because students can react defensively when they think, as GayProf said, that you are trying to push an agenda, and that can put a stop to your efforts to get them to think past their assumptions and prejudices. And it would be hard to say ANYTHING on such papers and not appear to be pushing an agenda. But, I also agree with MadGradMom that students need guidance in thinking things out, and that is a big responsibility of a writing teacher. Those papers are probably often full of logical fallacies or ideas that are just not thought out or put into perspective, and they need help taking that step outside their comfort zone. Sometimes it really hasn't occurred to them that there are other ways to think or that reality isn't as simple as they once thought. They need someone to point that out to them and help them to grow, and that is a responsibility that should fall on teachers, especially college teachers. And if you boil it down to simply teaching the conventions of rhetoric, they need your comments to point out where their rhetorical strategies succeed and fail. So, I think I would comment. I would hesitate, but then I would comment. (But I also had BIG problems with a student once who accused me of advancing a liberal agenda based on my comments on his poorly argued papers)

Tad Richards said...

I posted a link to, and excerpt from, your blog entry on a bulletin board I administer, devoted to discussions of news and news-related issues. Since there is a lively (ultra)conservative presence on that board, there's a lot of attacks on lib media, lib academia, etc., so I referred to you as an example of what academics do.

I also posted some of the highlights from that discussion on my own blog -- -- where I also linked to you.

Hope I didn't distort your position too much. I very much liked what you had to say, and what you had to question.

Michael R. Grady, BA, BSW said...

The extra credit assignment would have been more appropriate in a Social Psychology class than an English Lit. However, it is always appropriate to expose children to other cultures to widen their views of society and the world as a whole. Maybe a study of Gay/Lesbian Lit would be appropriate.

AcadeMama said...

Hi Michael,

"Maybe a study of Gay/Lesbian Lit would be appropriate."

I'd love to include such readings, however, the current literary anthologies that are used most often for Introduction to Literature -type classes - which was the course I was teaching, don't include any selections that would directly fall into this category. Only a few texts in the anthologies lend themselves indirectly to such a categorization. And this is despite the fact that there is attention given specifically to, for example, the history of African-American literature.