Navigating Disclosure in a Critical Trans Pedagogy

Navigating Disclosure in a Critical Trans Pedagogy

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 4 Summer 2020

Author(s): Rusty Bartels

Rusty R. Bartels is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition at Syracuse University. He received his PhD in Cultural Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies from the University of California, Davis where they taught in both American Studies and the University Writing Program. He is revising his book manuscript Memories of Sacrifice: World War II National Parks in the U.S. Pacific World, which examines the public memory and rhetoric of militarized landscapes in the American West and Pacific World via the creation, development, and interpretation of World War II National Parks in the US Pacific World. Their additional research interests include issues of disability, accessibility, and neurodiversity of students and faculty in the composition classroom broadly, and first year writing specifically.

Abstract: This essay approaches a Critical Trans Pedagogy as informed by the author’s embodied experiences of gender from being an undergraduate student to a faculty member. At the heart of the Critical Trans Pedagogy proposed here is the idea of disclosure. As faculty, I argue that it is our job to alleviate the student’s burden of disclosure by working to remove the assumptions we make about the in/visibility of our students’—and our own—in/visible identities, and that a Critical Trans Pedagogy helps us do this by providing tools to question the norms our assumptions are built from.

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In “Unscripting Curriculum,” education scholar Harper Keenan asks, “what does it mean to build a critical trans pedagogy from a queer and trans life?” (539). In “The Promise of Trans Critique”, Gabby Benavente and Julian Gill-Peterson identify “[Susan] Stryker’s commitment to knowledge production directly out of the material, embodied livelihood of trans people…the recognition and affirmation of self-knowledge and feeling as theory,” (27). As a trans faculty member, following Benavente & Gill-Peterson’s discussion of Stryker, I understand my embodied experience to be the theoretical framework from which I’ve developed my own Critical Trans Pedagogy. For me, as a white, queer, male-presenting, non-tenure track faculty member working often in First Year Composition, these embodied experiences come not just from the classroom of the present, but from my entire educational trajectory. This trajectory highlights the in/visibility of my “trans-ness” in relation to my peers, professors, students, and colleagues, and it’s this in/visibility, and the subsequent navigation of disclosure, that has been a key framework as I build my own Critical Trans Pedagogy.

Much has been written about teaching about trans related topics from literature talking about how trans identity is leveraged to teach about the trans experience (Courant 2011), to how both cis- and transgender individuals teach about gender in a trans-inclusive way (LeMaster and Johnson 2019; Catalano, McCarthy, Shlasko 2007; Beauchamp and D’Harlingue 2012; Daniels 2011). However, neither my teaching nor my scholarship focuses on gender or gendered experiences, and I’ve found it hard to identify where and how to position myself and my experiences. A smaller but growing body of work does speak to these questions that address how an instructor’s embodied trans and/or gender non-conforming experiences shape their pedagogical choices more broadly (Sathiyaseelan 2014; Keenan “Khaki Drag” 2017). My Critical Trans Pedagogy, then, is borne out of my embodied experiences as a trans student, trans grad student, and trans faculty working in the general composition classroom. This Critical Trans Pedagogy enables us to: resist gendered assumptions in our classrooms; recognize the in/visibility of our students gender identities and expressions; understand the vulnerability of disclosure, or “coming out”; and even begin to consider how in/visibility of identities and experiences other than gender will be present in our classroom spaces.

Theorizing Experience

Sinduja Sathiyaseelan writes how “coming out is not necessarily ‘coming out as’ but can be ‘coming out as not’—in this case, as not heterosexual” (58). For Sathiyaseelan it’s not just about queerness or straightness, but about gender as well, writing about how “my femme gender expression and my identity as a queer, genderqueer bisexual are rendered invisible by my students’ understandings of gender and the body” (60). Coming out then functions as a type of disclosure in part because our students, our colleagues, and sometimes ourselves, hold assumptions about what bodies mean and/or what they should look like and/or how they should function or behave. Disclosure is vulnerable because we are working against assumptions that society carries about what is “normal” or what is expected of us. It presupposes that there is something “hidden” to disclose or otherwise “reveal.” It assumes that there is something “unknowable” about a person without that disclosure. Like Sathiyaseelan, I’ve had to navigate the in/visibility of my gender to my students, but also as a student.

My own understanding of my gender has evolved over the years, but it always comes back to “NOT a girl.” As I navigated social, legal, and medical transitions over time—not in a way to go from one binary to the other, but to get about as from “girl” as I felt comfortable—I’ve found that these processes have impacted me at different stages of my education, and my different roles in education.

Initially, disclosure was liberating. I attended an all-girls high school, and consequently, my college search prioritized those with trans-inclusive reputations. Socially, I felt not just seen, but able to share myself, from the very beginning. While much conversation has happened over the decade plus since I began college about using pronouns in introductions, my first night in the dorms included us sharing our pronouns when we introduced ourselves, which was the first time that I was able to introduce myself as myself, and actually have my peers take up my chosen name and pronouns.

However, the “unknowable” that disclosure seeks to make “known” can also be a point of danger, a necessity, and a price to pay. These experiences that I’ve had, as both an undergraduate and graduate student, and as a faculty member, of having to navigate when and how to disclose my name, pronouns, and identifications as a trans individual, have informed both how I structure the classroom environment and the choices I make about myself as a teacher. As an undergraduate I had to ask myself, “how important is it that this faculty member know?” I had bad experiences of rosters with legal names being passed around to sign in on, and positive experiences with professors giving us space to introduce ourselves privately to them with notecards. The biggest anxiety that first year though was not knowing how the first day of class would go. I was going to have to out myself in one way or the other to each professor, but the question always was: How? When? Over email? In person? Wait and see how the first day goes?

As I went through my transition, the impetus for disclosure would change. Where first I needed to affirm a name and pronoun there were not “obvious,” it would change to “clarifying” a gender that began to be read inconsistently. This also became one of the most nerve wracking stages of the process where strangers would ask me if I was a boy or a girl; where I would start to get ma’amed if I let my hair get just a little too shaggy; and I would almost hold my breath to use the men’s restroom because I was sometimes just not sure how I was read.

Sathiyaseelan’s discussions of coming out—coming out in the specific context of the composition classroom—is a vulnerable one, and one that is considered in the context of the student’s education; it is also an act that resists being normalized or essentialized at the expense of being a “neutral” body in the classroom, because bodies are never neutral. This is something I had struggled with figuring out as a graduate student because by the time I started graduate school, it was the first time I could present myself as myself, and not have to explain myself. In the classroom, I would talk about myself as I (thought I) understood my students to see me as—as a short, white, male-presenting individual. For me, focusing on the “presenting” aspect of my gender held space open about what my gender actually was, and even if it was a subtle choice of language, it allowed me to focus on what would be visible to my students without having to disclose what was “invisible.” This is where I think about the idea that G Patterson (2016) cautions against, a pedagogical neutrality that “unquestioningly centralizes the needs of students from privileged social groups while putting queer and trans students and teachers at risk,” (134). As a queer and trans teacher, I then ask how do I navigate my own safety and comfort while also being present and visible to and for my queer and trans students? Sandretto’s (2018) framing of a “queer intent” in literacy education asks us to question “who counts as normal.” For me, this is where I’ve tried to translate my embodied experience into pedagogical practice while navigating my own disclosure (where I also don’t hesitate to disclose my queerness in the same way I hesitate around my trans-ness). Regardless of if or how I disclose my trans-ness, my embodied experiences with my gender and all that we’ve been through together, pushes me to further open up spaces for challenging the assumptions we carry into our classrooms—assumptions about our students and about ourselves.

In my more recent shift in roles from graduate student to faculty, and from one institution to another, has brought with it some changes. For the first time that I can recall, I had students “she” me in my teaching evaluations (in more than one class). I also had students awkwardly and hesitantly “she” me during class presentations in one class section. These more consistent misgenderings also coincided with me starting to grow my hair out for the first time since high school (spoiler: it didn’t last long, but not for gender reasons). But this encounter made me start to re-evaluate once again my relationship to my gender, and my (assumed) gender’s relationship to my students, and consequently, to my teaching. These experiences have had me reassess how I exist in the classroom and in relation to my students and my pedagogy. My own Critical Trans Pedagogy has always meant recognizing that there can be a multitude of in/visible genders in my classroom, even if I wasn’t disclosing my own. And even though I do not teach “gender studies” courses, or even a “gender studies” lens into First Year Composition, gender—in all its complexity—still emerges in our texts and conversations. It appears in how we manage introductions at the beginning of the semester; it appears in misgendering – of myself, of authors we read; it appears in students designing research projects and survey questions; it appears in texts as we talk about authorship, context, and audience. Even when I don’t put myself out there to my students as a trans individual, I am making sure that the knowledge we are working together to produce pushes back against norms and assumptions society tells us about gender—and one of those assumptions is that we can know someone’s gender just by looking at them, or seeing their name on a screen. And, if that is a false assumption, what other false assumptions might we be making about people and their stories just by what we think we “know” about their bodies?

Experience into Practice

Assumptions about bodies rest on the premise that we can know something about that body—that bodies are obvious in what they are. Any trans person can tell you that’s false. So if we can’t assume something about a person based on the body put in front of us, how can we be sure to “know” the things we need to know about that person, so that we may interact with them in the ways that they need, and create the kind of pedagogical environment that will support their learning? For me, this comes back to practices of disclosure, and the recognition that disclosure and in/visibility go hand in hand. As I reflect on my experience around not just if, but when, to disclosure, pedagogically I have recognized that it’s not just disclosure, but the timing of that disclosure that emerges as significant.

Many students, scholars, and activists have designed trainings and offered suggestions for “best practices” of how to make the classroom a trans-inclusive space. In a 2011 article, Dean Spade covers many of the best practices including: don’t read aloud or share the roster with students; make space for students to share preferred name and pronouns; don’t dead-name or misgender your students; don’t ask invasive questions about medical procedures (57-58). Many of us rely on the first day of class to gather information about our students, including details like preferred name and pronouns to use. At the same time, this information may change, so we also need to be able to keep the dialogue open.

What follows is a simple gesture, but one that I have found effective in both my teaching, but also in my past as a student. At the beginning of each semester, part way through class on the first day I ask students to answer a set of questions – sometimes I’ll distribute it on paper, sometimes I’ll post the questions on the board and students have the option to turn in paper or send me an email. The questions I ask include:

  • Name (as it appears with the university):
  • Name I should use to address you in class:
  • Pronouns I should use to refer to you class:
  • (Please indicate if I should use different names and/or pronouns in different spaces. I also recognize that these might change over time, and I invite you to let me know of any changes you would like to make.)

By giving students the space to introduce themselves to me, rather than outing them on the spot through roll call, I’ve already created a space that acknowledges the existence of (potential) trans bodies in the classroom, even if I myself haven’t come out to them as Trans. It also comes from a space that acknowledges that transition is a process, and that people’s understandings of themselves and their genders evolves over time.

In addition to making space for the student to introduce themselves to me, I also make a point orally to let them know if there is anything else they would like me to know as it might interface with their work in the course during the semester. This is part of my Critical Trans Pedagogy, that has led me to a space to recognize how in/visibility of experience might be present in other ways (such as through access needs), but also through an understanding that needs and experiences change over time. If I don’t need a student to have legally changed their name in order to call them by that name, I can begin to ask, what other sets of experiences or needs can I recognize without requiring (legal) documentation? But also, how can I work to decenter norms around other embodied experiences beyond gender? My Critical Trans Pedagogy does not assume that I can equate being trans with any other marginalized identity, but it does provide me an entry point for asking questions—asking “well, why is it this way? Does it have to be?”—and for working toward decentering that which is “assumed.” If I can recognize the in/visibility of my own embodied experiences, how can I hold, and make space, for the in/visibility of others’?

Works Cited

  • Beauchamp, Toby, and Benjamin D’Harlingue. “Beyond Additions and Exceptions: The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies.” Feminist Formations, vol. 24, no. 2, 2012, pp. 25-51.
  • Benavente, Gabby, and Julian Gill-Peterson. “The Promise of Trans Critique: Susan Stryker’s Queer Theory.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 23-28.
  • Catalano, Chase, McCarthy, Linda, and Shlasko, Davey. “Transgender oppression curriculum design.” Teaching for diversity and social justice, 2nd ed., edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin, Routledge, 2007, pp. 219-245.
  • Courvant, Diana. “Strip!” The Radical Teacher, no. 92, 2011, pp. 26-34.
  • Daniels, Leyden. “Erasing the Marker.” The Radical Teacher, no. 92, 2011, pp. 55-56.
  • Keenan, Harper Benjamin. “Khaki Drag: Race, Gender, and the Performance of Professionalism in Teacher Education.” Confronting Racism in Teacher Education: Counternarratives of Critical Practice, edited by Bree Picower and Rita Kohli. Routledge, 2017, pp. 97-102.
  • —. “Unscripting Curriculum: Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 87, no. 4, 2017, pp. 538-594.
  • LeMaster, Benny, and Amber L. Johnson. “Unlearning gender—Toward a critical communication trans pedagogy.” Communication Teacher, vol. 33, no. 3, 2019, pp. 189-198.
  • Patterson, G. “The Unbearable Weight of Pedagogical Neutrality: Religion and LGBTQ Issues in the English Studies Classroom.” Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics, edited by Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, Routledge, 2016, pp. 134-146.
  • Sandretto, Susan. “A case for critical literacy with queer intent.” Journal of LGBT Youth, vol. 15, no. 3, 2018, pp. 197-211.
  • Sathiyaseelan, Sinduja. “Negotiating the Bi-nary: Strategic Ambiguity and the Non-Nameable Identity in the Classroom.” Writing on the Edge, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 56-61.
  • Spade, Dean. “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk About Gendered Bodies.” The Radical Teacher, no. 92 2011, pp. 57-62.