Out in the Classroom: A Transgender Pedagogical Narrative
Author(s): Lee Hibbard
Lee Hibbard (he/him, they/them) is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Purdue University. His research interests include archive theory and practice, digital rhetorics, queer game studies, and identity formation, and a lot of his interest intersects with his experiences as a queer nonbinary transgender man. Contributing to this special issue has given him the opportunity to further explore his identity and share how much teaching has allowed him to become comfortable in his own skin.
Abstract: This article addresses one instructor’s personal experiences as a transgender writing instructor at a major institution. Questions of disclosure, identity, and pedagogy have required my looking beyond the binary of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the closet as an instructor, and interrogating how I must repeatedly come out to new students and groups of people. I draw upon work done by scholars engaged in critical examinations of the interplay of transgender identities and pedagogy (Patterson 2016; Keenan 2017) and share my journey as a transgender instructor from the start of my teaching career to my current engagement with both my gender and my pedagogy. I also go a step further into this process by interrogating how my positionality as a white and male-perceived instructor impacts how my transness and pedagogy remain in conversation with each other as I meet new student populations and come out at the beginning of each semester. This pedagogical coming out narrative provides an example of the complex interplay between identity and pedagogy in the classroom, as well as extrapolate concepts that could be useful to other instructors who seek to interrogate and unpack how their own positionalities, disclosures, and identities intersect with their pedagogies.Tags: Coming Out, Disclosure, identity, pedagogy, queer theory, transgender
I first stepped into a classroom as an openly transgender instructor in the spring of 2015. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition, it was my second year as a Masters student, and trying to navigate how to address my change in gender with students and colleagues alike was harrowing. I was teaching at a state college in northern Alabama, and the student population of my Composition I course was almost entirely white male cisgender engineering students. Despite the open acceptance I received from my colleagues, I was unsure how my students would respond, and staying in the closet was out of the question if I wanted to avoid the emotional distress and dysphoria-inducing situation of being misgendered. How, then, did I tell a room full of largely conservative students from the rural deep south that despite my appearance at the time,1 I was a man, used he/him pronouns, and wanted to be referred to by a masculine name? How could I engage with them authentically and trust there would be respect, acknowledgement, and acceptance of my gender identity? Could I teach effectively in an environment where I would open myself up to a multitude of dangers? Would it be safer to stay in the closet? Could I survive if I stayed in the closet? How would I address this again in six months when I had to come out all over again to a new group of students? Now in my seventh year teaching writing, these questions still follow me as I navigate interacting with my students, especially as my gender identity continues to shift and move from simply “male” to “non-binary” and “masculine.” Acknowledging this shift opens a whole other host of gender identity disclosures and complexities and further requires me to look beyond the binary notion of being “in” or “out” of the closet in the classroom, instead coming out again and again to new students and new groups of people.
The fact that these questions evade definitive conclusion and must be asked repeatedly speaks to the very nature of my gender and my experiences engaging with my gender in the context of my pedagogy. As I have taught in different classrooms at different institutions, with different student populations, I have had to adjust and shift how I address my gender and doing so has led to me constantly interrogating, considering, and confronting my identity, to the point that even writing this piece has led me down new and complex paths in both the classroom and my personal transgender journey. In this fashion, I draw upon work done by scholars engaged in critical examinations of the interplay of transgender identities and pedagogy (Patterson 2016; Keenan 2017) and see value in sharing my journey as a transgender instructor from the start of my teaching career to my current engagement with both my gender and my pedagogy. I also see the value in going a step further into this process by interrogating how my positionality as a white and male-perceived instructor impacts how my transness and pedagogy remain in conversation with each other as I meet new student populations and come out at the beginning of each semester. I am therefore sharing this pedagogical coming out narrative with two major goals in mind: the first is to provide an example of the complex interplay between identity and pedagogy in the classroom from one transgender instructor’s perspective. The second is to extend this example beyond my own experience and extrapolate concepts that could be useful to other instructors (transgender and otherwise) as they interrogate and unpack how their own positionalities, disclosures, and identities intersect with their pedagogies.
Identity Disclosure: Coming Out as Trans in the Classroom
My disclosure of my gender identity always occurs on the first day of the semester, and is integrated into my overall introductions to the course. I craft a slideshow that includes course policies, syllabus information, and personal items to give my students the opportunity to get to know who will be teaching them for the next sixteen weeks. My introductory slide has traditionally included my name, my number of years into graduate study, my gender identity and pronouns, and my research interests (for a recent iteration, see Fig. 1 below). This has shifted minimally in the time I have taught, and is always something I address in a matter-of-fact tone with my students in a single sentence: “I’m a transgender man, please use he/him pronouns, and I answer to Mister Lee, or just Lee.”
The first time I put this method into practice, the Spring of 2015, I received no pushback, comments, or negativity from students in my section, including those that had worked with me the previous year when I was still female-identifying and using she/her pronouns. This became my method of choice for the next year and a half while I worked as an adjunct at the same institution, disclosing my gender identity to my students on the first day and leaving it at that. This method changed minimally as I entered my PhD program, though the circumstances were different: my students and my colleagues knew me only as Lee, and though I still did not fully pass,2 I faced fewer instances of being called by the wrong name. My template and my method therefore had minimal need for changes and I proceeded with teaching as before.
My interrogation of my need for disclosure arose once more within the last year, as my regimen of hormone replacement therapy allowed me to regularly pass as male. This brought with it a new host of questions and complications, as I realized that my goal, not that any transgender person necessarily needs a transition goal, was not necessarily to go “stealth,” or to present outwardly as my actual gender rather than the one I was assigned at birth (Johnson 2017). Doing so not only felt like it erased my lived experience as a transgender individual, but placed me in a binary gender category that failed to fit the way my gender truly felt. My identity, more complex and not fully aligned with ‘male’ and not at all “female,” occupied a different space in both my mind and in the material world to the point that I felt that no longer disclosing my transness reflected a lack of authenticity to myself and the core of my personal pedagogy—that the material, technological, and discursive aspects of identity impact the way that people live and derive meaning in the world (Hekman 106).
While the method I have chosen to disclose —using the slide on the first day of class—has remained largely the same over the years, the subject of that disclosure has shifted. On the surface, the need to disclose my trans identity has lessened with my ability to pass as male, but the shift in my gender identity along with my desire for authenticity has kept the contents of my introductory slide the same over the years, and though the pronouns have shifted to include “they” as well as “he,” my method of disclosure remains the same, and reflects my teaching philosophy.
Disclosure in the Material World: Positionality and Context
My ability to be out as transgender in the classroom is heavily influenced by my own unique circumstances and positionality in the world and at my current institution. While sharing my own coming out experiences as a transgender instructor has value, so too does a thorough interrogation of the factors that allow me to be out in my classrooms. Every transgender person has a unique experience and relationship with gender, identity, and coming out, and these experiences are all the more unique to different classroom experiences. As noted by Keenan, queer and trans experiences defy static definition, and are deeply tied to personal experience and transgender pedagogues cannot speak to any transgender experience but their own (539-540).
My positionality at a largely white, midwestern institution impacts my ability to be openly queer and transgender, as does my own whiteness and access to medical and social resources as a university employee. My mentors and colleagues respect my gender identity and my pronouns, and I am not the only transgender graduate student in the program, or indeed in my cohort. The language and knowledge to work with transgender instructors is therefore an integrated part of the departmental climate in which I currently exist, something that is far from a universal transgender experience. I also have access to trans-inclusive healthcare, with my graduate staff insurance covering my hormone treatments, making it possible for me to medically transition.
In the classroom itself, I have received little pushback from students or instructors concerning my gender identity, with all but one or two incidents being accidental misgenderings or outdated understandings of how to address transgender individuals. Examples of outdated or incorrect modes of address include using “preferred pronouns,” which centers that the pronouns are optional and not required in order to respect the person, or “male-identifying,” which implies the person’s maleness is artificial and inauthentic and serves to perpetuate cissexism, or the notion that trans people’s genders are inferior to or less authentic than cisgender people’s genders (Serano 12). This environment, which has been largely free of any harassment or trouble due to my gender, gives me a position of privilege and a place in which it is relatively safe to express and develop my gender identity. This is not something universally experienced by transgender instructors.
Discussions of being LGBTQ+ and out in the classroom shift depending on the institution and political climate of that institution, where less-welcoming environments lead to instructors who come out being viewed as bringing their own political views into the classroom in a disruptive or unnecessary manner (L. Allen 85). This notion, which Patterson notes is often tied to the insistence of neutrality as pedagogical best practice (134), continues to frame LGBTQ+ identities and their existence as unnecessarily political and therefore not suited to a classroom. The consequences of this neutrality, however, can consolidate vectors of oppression in the classroom through appealing to this idea of the student-as-everyman (Patterson 145) and serves only to further separate the classroom from the material consequences of reality. As a student of rhetoric and composition, I seek to reflect upon the assertion Patterson makes that writing pedagogies should be rooted in social justice and that while multiply minoritized teachers can adopt neutrality for the sake of survival, this “does not give the rest of us an alibi” (145). My positionality as a disabled, queer-identifying, transgender instructor remains in interplay with other aspects of my identity, such as my whiteness, my ability to attend graduate school, and my ability to pass as male: things that give me the ability to move through the world via different vectors than my multiply-marginalized colleagues. The labor of spreading awareness and knowledge related to social justice issues such as gender and sexuality is therefore something that I am well suited to address from the position I inhabit, where I can be visibly out and disclose myself authentically in a way that has the potential to help those with fewer options and vectors of access.
Transgender Teachers, Transgender Students: The Risks of Disclosure
Navigating my positionality within my institution requires my consideration of not only my own safety, but the safety of the students under my instruction. While my identity and association with a marginalized group has the potential to place me in harm’s way when in a classroom, the identities of my students are just as important and worthy of consideration when examining how my identity and pedagogy interact in the classroom. Transgender students face risks and anxieties surrounding disclosure just as instructors do, and accommodating their ability to choose how and when to disclose their identities to me and to their classmates has led me to adopt specific pedagogical approaches towards gender identity that extend beyond my own coming out.
In my classrooms, pronoun and identity sharing are always opt-in practices I encourage partially by being open about my own identity while providing private avenues for students to choose to disclose to me if they feel comfortable. These private avenues vary but are also integrated into first day/first week icebreaker activities, where I make use of a Google Form survey or a simple notecard system to give students a private way to share information about themselves with me. The questions associated with this form include asking about a student’s name if it differs from what appears on my roster, pronouns, and other course-related questions about comfort with technology, past experience with writing courses, and food allergies (see Fig. 2 for the most recent version of the Google Form used in my classrooms). I try to be cognizant of my student’s comfort in disclosing their identities, mainly due to how much my own identity has shifted and changed over the years as both a student and an instructor.
Being transgender in my experience is not a binary state of being/not being, but rather a continuum that requires consideration of different material circumstances of disclosure. Scholarship into the language and culture surrounding transgender identities reflects this, with Rawson and Williams noting the complex language development surrounding the term and the shifting definitions, use by influential figures, and activism related to the term’s use (p. 6). There is no one monolithic transgender experience, and this impacts both myself and any transgender students who enter my classroom. Some transgender students may not yet be comfortable disclosing to a group of strangers, others may not be certain of their gender identity, and still more may feel pressure to remain in the closet to avoid harassment or danger that I do not face as an instructor. I work hard to avoid “one size fits all” approaches, such as mandatory public pronoun sharing during introductory activities, which can unnecessarily out students before they are ready, or place them in the position of being forced into the closet (Haimson and Airton 2019). Thus far the private disclosure approach has given students in my classes a comfortable space to share their identity with me before deciding if they feel comfortable coming out to their peers. I have been fortunate enough to not receive pushback from students in the class regarding the correct use of pronouns for a transgender classmate, but as I have experienced misgendering as an instructor, I would feel comfortable implementing the same strategy for dealing with the situation, which involves correcting the student in question and reminding them to be respectful of other people’s identities. Thus far, this has sufficed in halting any incidents, but I would feel comfortable reaching out to my supervisor or other senior faculty to defuse the situation if it escalated.
My first experience with a transgender student who wanted to be out in my classroom was in the Fall of 2019, in a section of Multimedia Writing, an upper level course housed in the Professional Writing course track. Jane3 was a computer science student who signed up for the course at the recommendation of her roommate, who had not taken a class with me himself but knew of me through other avenues. Jane’s first day survey contained no indication of her identity beyond she/her pronouns, and my roster reflected her real name, and other than mentioning to me that I knew her roommate, she didn’t share anything about herself privately with me. Instead, she was among the first to participate in the Unit 1 presentations, which involved a curatorial review and rhetorical analysis of social media habits. Jane presented the class with her Instagram, which chronicled her transition journey, including her posts before she came out as transgender, her coming out post, and her various celebrations of pride thereafter. I have no doubt in my mind that she could have chosen any other social media account or experience to share, but her willingness to disclose her trans identity in an environment in which I as the instructor had previously come out was not lost on me. Disclosure of transness, on the part of students or instructors, should never be mandatory in a classroom environment, and based heavily on the needs and comfort of the individual, but I am, particularly after this experience, aware of how my own disclosure can help create a safe space for transgender students, and how my positionality gives me the opportunity and institutional safety to create that space for those students. Not every student who takes a class with me will feel comfortable sharing their identity with me, and they shouldn’t feel that they need to in order to succeed. My willingness to share is something I try to put forth as part of an open environment, so other students, whether they’re like Jane or the students who choose not to share their identity with the class, know that they are in a safe and respectful environment. I cannot minimize all of the risks for these students, but I can at the very least make it clear that if they choose to disclose their identities, they will have me on their side as a strong advocate for their choice. This advocacy need not be tied directly to the experience of transness, and rather stands as a potential best practice for instructors looking to create a safe and positive space for their trans students. Non-trans instructors can achieve this in as simple a manner as respecting a trans student’s pronouns and identity and speaking up against any pushback or negativity from other students. Support of transgender students involves cultivating a classroom of respect that can be enacted by non-trans instructors as readily as trans instructors.
Narratives of Disclosure: Some Current Conclusions
I will never think that identity disclosure should be mandatory in the classroom. Instructors and students both have reasons to keep their identities to themselves, most significantly safety and comfort, and my goal in sharing my tactics and methods is not to suggest that disclosure is the best pedagogical practice for anyone. I engage in disclosure first and foremost because of my positionality: I am able to, I have the opportunity, and I have the safety to do so. This may change over time: I am very aware that my time as a PhD student is drawing to a close and things are likely to be different wherever my journey takes me in the future. At this point in time, I am able to use my own disclosure as a tool to create a classroom that is more inclusive and safe for my students, as well as create avenues for education and learning about new experiences. In my own experience, engaging in an openness with my students has led to an environment of mutual creativity and sharing of ideas that operates from a foundation of respect, and while not every classroom falls into these somewhat idealistic circumstances, the potential for those environments to exist and my ability to cultivate them as an instructor serves as an example of what disclosure can do in a pedagogical context.
Teaching should never be static, and how we engage with our students, classrooms, and material, is inextricably tied to our identities, circumstances, and disclosures. My creation of this coming out narrative has given me the opportunity to further interrogate the circumstances in which I—a transgender instructor—operate at an institutional and a personal level. Engaging with and writing about identity in this case has given me yet another opportunity to see a shift in how I view my gender, which I spent many years trying to center firmly in a masculine context in order to escape the strongly visible feminine presence I had been born with. My return, again and again, to the need to come out in each classroom I enter, each institution I attend and operate within, leads me to retread avenues of self-discovery, to continuously decenter and destabilize my view of who I am, to re-contextualize myself as a person and an instructor with every new experience. My transgender identity, which currently falls somewhere beyond the binary, will likely continue to shift and grow and evolve as I repeatedly return to the questions that face me at the beginning of every semester. My findings, particularly after the writing of this narrative, indicate the value of this practice, and reflect my views of pedagogy. It is my hope that sharing this narrative of how my transgender identity interplays with my pedagogy offers some insight into the opportunities and affordances instructors can find if they similarly interrogate their identities and see where their pedagogy and their material ways of being and seeming in the world intersect.
- While there is no one way to look “like a man”, my features at that point in my transition journey still read as traditionally feminine in most public contexts, leading to people most commonly perceiving me and (mis)gendering me as a woman.
- Passing in this context meaning I would be perceived as the gender I more closely align with (male) rather than the one I was assigned at birth (female) (Ginsberg 1996). The notion of passing is one problematized by its implication that a trans person who ‘passes’ is “getting away with something” by being perceived as their gender and serves to often center cisgender experiences of transness (Serano 176-179).
- Name changed for the sake of privacy.
- Allen, Katherine A. “Opening the Classroom Closet: Sexual Orientation and Self-Disclosure.” National Council on Family Relations, Vol. 44, No. 2, Apr 1995, pp. 136-141.
- Allen, Louisa. “‘Undoing’ the Self: Should Heterosexual Teachers ‘Come Out’ in the University Classroom?” Pedagogy, Culture, and Society, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2011, pp. 79-95.
- Crawley, Sara L. “When Coming Out is Redundant: On the Difficulties of Remaining Queer and a Theorist after Coming Out in the Classroom.” Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2009, pp. 210-215.
- Cummings, Martha Clark. “Someday, This Pain Will Be Useful to You”: Self-Disclosure and Lesbian and Gay Identity in the ESL Writing Classroom.” Journal of Basic Writing, Vol. 28 No. 1, Spring 2009, pp. 71-89.
- Ginsberg, Elaine. Passing and the Fictions of Identity. Duke University Press, 1996.
- Govender, Navan N. “The Pedagogy of ‘Coming Out’: Teacher Identity in a Critical Literacy Course.” South African Review of Sociology, Vol. 48 No. 1, 2017, pp. 19-41.
- Haimson, Oliver L., and Lee Airton. “Making Space for Them, Her, Him, and ‘Prefer Not to Disclose’ in Group Settings: Why Pronoun Sharing is Important but Must Remain Optional.” Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues, National Center for Institutional Diversity, June 4 2019.
- Hekman, Susan. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010, print.
- hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, New York, 1994, print.
- Jennings, Todd. “Teaching ‘Out’ in the University: An Investigation into the Effects of Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Faculty Self-disclosure upon Student Evaluations of Faculty Teaching Effectiveness in the USA.” International Journal of Inclusive Education, Vol. 14, No. 4, 2010, p. 325-339.
- Johnson, Talia C. “Engaging Stealth Mode: What is ‘Going Stealth’ and Why is it Important?” Talia C. Johnson, Feb 3 2017.
- Keenan, Harper Benjamin. “Unscripting Curriculum: Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 87, No. 4, 2017, pp. 538-556.
- Liddle, Kathleen. “Despite our Differences: Coming Out in Conservative Classrooms.” Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 19, No 2., 2009, pp. 190-193.
- Nedela, Mary R., Murray, Michelle M., and Sarah M. Steelman. “Using Self-Disclosure to Manage Student Misconceptions in a Human Sexuality Classroom.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 9. No. 1, 2018, pp. 29-52.
- Neilsen, Elly-Jean, and Kevin G. Alderson. “Lesbian and Queer Women Professors Disclosing in the Classroom: An Act of Authenticity.” The Counseling Psychologist, Non-Traditional Teaching Special Issue, Vol. 42 No 8, 2014, pp. 1084-1107.
- Patterson, G. “The Unbearable Weight of Pedagogical Neutrality: Religion and LGBTQ Issues in the English Studies Classroom.” Sexual Rhetorics, eds. Johnathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes, Routledge, 2016, pp. 134-146.
- Rawson, K.J and Cristan Williams. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense, Vol. 3, Issue 2, 2014.
- Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, Berkeley, CA, 2007, 2016. Print.
- Wolfe, Susan J. “Using the L-word: Coming Out in the Classroom.” Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 2, 2009, pp. 181-185.
- Wood, Laurie. “NOT A HETERO.” Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2005, pp. 430-438.