Excerpts from Terms of Play: Poetics on Consent as Method

A: Age of Consent

A: Ask

D: Discourse

D: Dress Code

F: Fantasy

F: Feedback

F: Feel

I: Initial Negotiation

L: Listening

N: Negotiation of Power and Identities

P: Personal Professional Ad

P: Play is Negotiated, never Assumed

P: Power (some tenets)

Q: Queer Sexual Ethics

S: Shame

V: Vulnerability

Y: Yes, an Expression of Desire

A: Age of Consent

The necklace came wrapped in a cloud of cotton, tucked inside an emerald green department store box. Sterling silver, circular as the unanswerable, the necklace coiled, like the segments of a wooden snake toy, through the center of a small heart. We weren’t jewelry people. I’d rarely seen gifts that fancy given as a gift in my immediate family. So, the necklace was imbued with an out-of-proportion, almost magical significance. The gift was both the talisman against evil, and the evil itself.

 

Snakes attack the unsuspecting from their slithering places on the ground.

They wait.

They watch.

They strike.

 

He came right through the front door to a holiday dinner the year I turned thirteen, bearing gifts, and looking for tacit permission. Through the tall grass, he slid onto the scene in a low-set, silver muscle car, which, in retrospect, wasn’t even that cool. He was a snake, too, hair slicked back, dressed in the false innocence of whiteness. He had a way of smooth moving, then, striking without cause.

 

He spit metallic venom, hissed when infuriated, which he often was, especially when I acted childish. He was much older. Said, shhhhhhhh, don’t tell your father. He’ll kill us, like we were in this together. He was quietly violent, omnipresent. Then left the sting of distance.

 

I was not ready. I was thirteen. I crept upstairs to my room, which had a canopy bed, dotted in simple, embroidered flowers. I crossed my eyes at them, like a kid would do to make the image of a snake appear. 

 

I un-clipped the necklace from my throat, scrunched up my nose to stop the tears, and thought, grow up! He’s not going to like you, if you act like a baby.

 

The monster in my closet, the part I’m afraid to admit–I unwrapped the necklace myself, heart thrumming with the new sensation of being wanted. I let him. I felt proud, that he chose me a silvery snakeskin collar, fitted close to the throat. I let him fasten it on. I did. But I was too young to know what the ritual meant.

***

A: Ask

My sister-in-law has already taught her four-year-old consent.

 

“Do you want to hug?” my niece asks me, holding her summer brown arms out wide.

 

“I would love a hug! Thanks for asking.”

 

“Okay! Are you ready?”

***

D: Discourse

To practice consent, you need to enter our worlds, queer places, where queer people aspire to explicitly negotiate our relationships, making sure everyone is mutually satisfied. You need to enter our discourse to understand consent.

The action of entry requires knowing particular discourses, bound by particular rules. These discourses should be, but are not always, flexible to allow for nuance and shifts in accepted knowledge (Hawkins, Borich, and Capello). Entering an academic discipline is no different, though many queer people find it challenging to get in. Honestly, I don’t want to get in, unless you want me here. Do you want me here? Does this text feel okay to you?

There is also the ongoing question of who can enter into the discourse of queer rhetorics (Oleksiak). I mean, the question of: if one enters into queer discourse, does that make them queer? Am I queer if I like queer discourse? Do queers want to be taken in completely, or is being known too well by straight people dangerous? 

Here is an entry point. Here is a whole, queer world, opening up to you. 

 

Come in. 

 

Let me tell you a bit about our House Rules.

***

D: Dress Code

In sixth grade, my guidance counselor shuffled me into her office just before third hour during registration week. “I see you signed up for Drafting Class. That class will be filled with boys. Wouldn’t you be happier in Art Class?” This, and furrowed brows, and empathetic head nodding, made me suspect I was in trouble. But I was twelve, with the kind of untarnished optimism that sticks around until folks start saying, “can’t,” “don’t,” “shouldn’t,” “wouldn’t.” 

 

I had been drawing floor plans since I was a kid, rearranging my parents’ furniture while they worked. There was no reason in my mind why girls wouldn’t want to build. I registered for Drafting Class, rushing home from school to tell my Dad. He gave me one of his mechanical pencils, the kind with soft lead that doesn’t make scratch marks on the paper. Someday, you can build me and your Mom a house” he said.

 

On the first day of class, I had eyes like possibility. I’d swing my feet off the edge of the metal stool because they didn’t quite touch the ground. My head on the slant-topped, wooden desk, fists clenched around my new pencil, I’d concentrate hard.

 

Drafting Class was hard. I loved to watch my ideas translate from mind to paper to reality. When I get older, I want to work with my hands. I want to make what I see real. I want to create.

 

The end of the semester came quick. I knew I’d get an ‘A.’ I turned my work in early, helping other students who didn’t get the calculations right. There were few eraser marks on my assignments.

 

I was last in line for grades, trying to get my final project exactly right. When it was my turn, the line of boy bodies, shoulder-to-shoulder, still milling around my teacher’s desk, parted to let me pass. The teacher cleared his throat, motioned me closer, and put one heavy hand on my right shoulder. “You’re good at drawing, but you’re a distraction to the boys,” he said. “Take this note to your parents. Maybe next semester you’ll listen when I tell you not to wear those tight black pants to class.”

 

His hand was fire, burning, burning. My face turned red and I was running out of that classroom, down the hall, down the stairs, burst out the hard metal school doors, and didn’t stop till I was on my front porch, hot tears, finally falling from my eyes.

 

I crumpled his note in a small, angry fist. I made it so small it barely existed. I didn’t tell my parents why I got a B+ until years later. 

 

I do create now, with words. I stack them like bricks, like defenses against the series of lessons we teach girls about their bodies, where they belong, and how to survive. If I was twelve still, I’d tell myself to let those boys see me cry. They might remember the moment and act differently in the future. I’d tell myself to keep dreaming new ideas into reality. To use my voice. To turn around, lift my chin, and tell that teacher he’s being a sexist dick.

***

F: Fantasy

Consent is a fantasy. When we live there together, tenderness has transformative potential.

 

These stories are true. I’ve taken artistic license to protect the identities of those who certainly did these queer things, and many more.

 

These fragments are stories. What the pieces offer queer rhetorical theory, what they mean, is for you to discern. 

 

You don’t need to have the same fantasy as me, to want what I want, think how I think, write how I write.

 

Just listen to my rhythm, be in the same room, mulling over this queer lyric.

 

Queerness is reaching for you. Reach back.

***

F: Feedback

Feel free to make noise, exclaim, groan, express your perspective. Feel free to move your body close, or far away. Your feedback is a gift to me. Your most tender response, in its first form, is my guidance.

***

F: Feel

the body of this essay,
unusually slim and swinging,
a poem where there ought
to be a thesis.

***

I: Initial Negotiation

In the initial negotiation of consent, which must take place again with each new encounter, two or more people collaborate on the scene. You could think of this initial negotiation like choosing possibilities from a menu, based on likes and dislikes. You could think of this as what we call in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, “invention,” the beautifully recursive process of coming up with ideas, which happens in community with other people, through comingling your ideas with new ideas.

Tina Horn writes about these initial negotiations as part of the pleasure of the process of negotiating consent, a listening moment. Narrating the story of The Gates, a community where consent is central, Horn writes, “When looking for a flexible gig to support my rock-and-roll lifestyle, I [Tina Horn] typed the word ‘dominatrix’ into the Adult Gigs section of San Francisco Craigslist” (Love Not Given Lightly 13-14). 

When you book a session at The Gates, you arrive right on
time. You ring the bell, and step through the front door to a glass-walled porch filled with
potted houseplants. The door to the house swings open, and you enter…

 

Your mistress sits opposite you on another, smaller couch. She may be in a dress, or a
robe, but she is not naked or in fetish gear. One of the rules of the house is:
negotiation is
conducted between two consenting adults with as little distraction as possible…

 

What are you in the mood for today?
What’s your fantasy? What are your turn-ons?
What are you curious about,
and what is an absolute boundary? (Horn 58-59)?

Only once the players have engaged in these initial negotiations will the person or people intended to direct the action of the scene begin.

***

L: Listening

“Rhetorical listening,” Krista Ratcliffe suggests, depends on metonymy, the places where connections do not seem to exist. Rhetorical listening means caring more about what people are saying than you do about making an argument. It means holding complexities in order to listen across cultures, knowing you don’t always get the last word.

Listening to Mia Mingus, whose work focuses on disability justice and transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse, consent fails sometimes in practice. In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love,” Mingus explains:

The weight of inaccessibility is not logistical. It is not just about ramps, ASL interpreters, straws and elevators. It is a shifting, changing wall—an ocean—between you and I.  It is just as much feeling and trauma as it is material and concrete.  It is something felt, not just talked about … It is an echoing loneliness; part shame, part guilt, part constant apology and thank you.  It is knowing that no matter how the conditions around me change, my body will still not be able to do certain things—it will still need other people, it will still signal dependence, it will still be disabled.

In a later essay, Mia Mingus goes on to write that consent can’t always work for disabled people, who so often need to participate in “forced intimacy,” meaning “a term that I have been using for years to refer to the common, daily experiences of disabled people being expected to share personal parts of ourselves to survive in an ableist world” (Everyday Feminism).

***

N: Negotiation of Power and Identities

Falcon and I sit on the edge of the mattress on the floor, lacing our boots. She wears her hair in a bisexual bob, and her boots so they fit snug under leather pants that outline her broad hips in rivets. I bet she set those rivets herself, sprawled on the floor of our shared room. 

 

We found the original, 8-hole boots I wore in the free pile, a size-and-a-half too big. When I put them on, it’s the only time I feel connected to the earth. Strays, throwaway kids, that’s what we are. We pick stuff out of the trash just like we found each other. 

 

Falcon drives us to City Club, a Detroit goth club at Cass and Bagley, in the basement of the Ramada Inn. She doesn’t drink and drive, and she doesn’t let me pre-drink because I’m kind of a lightweight. 

 

We adorn ourselves at the mirror, narrating our plans in detail—I will get a single shot from the blue-white neon-lit bar right when we get in. Then we’ll throb dance to industrial music until our bodies ache, perch on the velvet couch so she can smoke a cigarette, and I can sit enveloped in her cloud.

 

Falcon turns her back to me, fishing around in her jewelry drawer. She only speaks in commands. “Here. Put this on.” She turns, thrusting a leather collar into my palms with skillful confidence. 

 

I try to hide a smile.

 

“No one will bother you if you wear this—that’s all it means,” she says, without ceremony. Our leather means we were a pack.

 

She drives. I sit beside her.

 

We kick dance to our heart’s content. I don’t even listen to this moody ass music outside City Club. It’s the clamor and din I come for, the erratic bodies bobbing together in an underground room. I just like the way noise makes me feel bliss inside.

 

The club closes at 4am. We arrive after midnight, stay the whole night, and early into the morning. I fall asleep in the car on the drive home, wrapped in Falcon’s ratty, oversized hoodie. “Baby,” she strokes my hair to bring me gently awake at Coney Island, “do you want some French Fries?”

 

Who am I? is too concrete a question to concern me in that moment. Here is what I know: I get an electric surge of shared power from walking side-by-side with Falcon, two femmes minding our own business, but not taking any shit. The feeling is not a sexual one, but I am too new to relationships to know the difference.

 

She is magnificent, a bird of prey with talons sharp enough to protect us both. I like imagining I am safe because I am beside her.

 

Home to our shared room past 5am. Snug in separate beds, I wait until she flips the lights off to call into the dark,

 

“Falcon? I think I might be gay.”

“You’re not gay. Go to sleep!”

***

P: Personal Professional Ad

Poet and consent scholar, seeking word circus 


You: flexible about prose style, up for verbal acrobatics. Me: consent educator with a PhD in the desired disciplines, talents include foot juggling (balls, careers) and swinging (trapeze). For thirteen years, I maintained a long-term partnership with a woman so butch her gender frequently set off the “Groin Alarm” while going through airport security. I am entranced by pansexuality, chefs of all genders. That is to say, I’m drawn to gender queerness and sexual queerness. I desire to be fed and given long-term commitment. Skills include: storytelling, lyricism, power dynamics, rope work, meaning I like to tie myself in knots, intellectual contortion. I teach what I practice. Write to me at: violet@defiantcircusarts.com. Let’s get to a mutual YES.

***

P: Play is Negotiated, never Assumed

Too seldom in academia do our professional rituals and games involve a consent process. The race to seek out a tenure track position (akin, I’ve been told, to seeking out a spouse to marry), the “publish or perish” mindset (a contest about whose voices will be invited in and listened to), and even the ways crucial budgetary decisions get made at the institutional level (a hierarchical arrangement) are all deeply non-consensual in ways they don’t have to be. Power play is assumed, not negotiated.

The job market acts based on whether candidates have successfully connected with the right people, those who can help them enter the discipline. Are you the right kind of queer to have friends? It is a game of shifting boundaries, hardcore power dynamics based on being extroverted and well-liked, and unclear rules.

This is for all the quiet queers. This is for all the queers juggling multiple marginalized identities. So much of academia feels decidedly not queer, not inclusive. It’s not your fault if you don’t get let in, if you don’t feel your work is respected as central to your discipline. Participation in power games should be negotiated, never assumed.

***

P: Power (some tenets)

There is no play without power.

 

Language is powerful.

 

Practicing consent means knowing your own power, and using it well.

 

Power is always in flux, which means we need to check our own power constantly.

 

For an action to be consensual, any mental, emotional, physical, spiritual power play needs to happen within a consent framework.

 

These are adult games, with a specific context and pre-negotiated rules.

***

Q: Queer Sexual Ethics

Consent is a measure of ethics in relationships. Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy, authors of The New Topping Book and The New Bottoming Book (2001) describe consent ethics:

The games we play are marked by their ethics, by the players’ insistence on high consciousness, by the respect in which we hold consent. Power games exist in many forms in our culture, often unconscious and often unsafe … (6).

 

Consent is an active collaboration for the benefit, well-being, and pleasure of all persons concerned (9).

There are scenes of Dominance and submission all around us and within us. Queer consent discourse asks us to notice and question whether or not they are consensual. “Sexual rhetoric,” queer rhetorics scholars Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes write in their introduction to Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics, “is the self-conscious and critical engagement with discourses of sexuality that exposes both their naturalization and their queering, their torqueing to create different or counterdiscourses…” (1).

Consent is a queer discourse. You don’t have to be queer to use it. Which of the stories I’ve told so far are consensual?

***

S: Shame

One way to shame someone, to put them in their place, and arrange the power dynamics so that you have more power, is to require them to perform a repetitive, but ultimately fruitless task.

 

Please let me into the discipline.

 

Please.

 

Please let me have tenure.

 

Please!

 

Desire becomes shame because we risked wanting.

 

My Kindergarten teacher behaved this way. I really liked my teacher, who had a hollowed out television with a curtain replacing the back, so we could climb inside and imagine we were on screen. She invited us to be creative, to experiment and play.

 

That is why I’ll never forget the day I was caught as an accessory to my peers throwing Lincoln Logs in the sink. My teacher brought me aside in the hallway and asked, “Did you throw toys in the sink? Yes, or No?”

 

“NO!” I said. I had only watched the twins in my class through them in.

 

“Are you telling me you watched the twins throw the Lincoln Logs in the sink, and didn’t come tell me?” the teacher said.

 

It is hard now, not to laugh at the specificity of the offense. But my teacher had me blocked into a classic, though un-negotiated Dominant/submissive corner. We are taught teachers have authority and power.

 

I had no chance of performing a power reversal. (I was a child). I had no choice but to admit I was complicit. (I had known, and did nothing).

 

My punishment was writing “I will NOT throw Lincoln Logs into the sink” one hundred times. 

 

I was a very obedient child, so it was a rush to know I had committed a small mistake: I had indeed watched the twins throw the toys in the sink. I still remember how the shame of punishment burned in my cheeks when we got caught standing around the sink, the way it made me feel both embarrassed to be alive, and alive.

***

V: Vulnerability

So, what do you say? Queer and trans* folks are knocking on the margins of your discourse. Here are our stories, theories, poetics. Are you interested?

 

Circle: yes, or no.

***

Y: Yes, an Expression of Desire

Let queerness sing. Let queerness come through you like your spirit does. Take up the expanses of your sentences any way that serves your message. Throw away archaic rules about grammar and syntax. Throw away archaic rules about blazers and keeping your legs crossed. Your style is exquisite. Promise you won’t straighten it. If mainstream journals won’t publish your work, publish it yourself, Riot Grrrl style in zine form. Don’t beg unless you’ve negotiated it.

***

Works Cited

  • Alexander, Jonathan and Jacqueline Rhodes. Sexual Rhetorics: Methods, Identities, Publics. Routledge, 2016.
  • Bizzell, Patricia, Chris Schroeder, and Helen Fox, editors. Alt/Dis: Alternative Discourses and the Academy. Heinemann, 2002. Easton, Dossie and Janet W. Hardy. The New Topping Book. Greenery Press, 2001.
  • Hawkins, Ames, Barrie Jean Borich, K. Bradford, and Mary Cappello. “Courting the Peculiar: The Ever-Changing Queerness of Creative Nonfiction.” Slag Glass City 1 (November 2014).
  • Horn, Tina. Love Not Given Lightly: Profiles from the Edge of Sex. Three L Media, 2015.
  • Mingus, Mia. “This is Why Consent Doesn’t Exist for Disabled People.” Everyday Feminism. 20 August 2017.
  • —. “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access, and Love” Makeshift Magazine, 10. 8 May 2012.
  • Oleksiak, Timothy. “Composing in a Sling: BDSM, Power, and Non-Identification.” Pre/Text vol. 24, nos. 1-4, 2018, pp. 9-24.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Gender, Identification, and Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP: 2005.

Métis and Rhetorically Listening to #BlackLivesMatter

Six years ago, three queer Black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement in response to young Trayvon Martin’s murderer being acquitted. Co-Founder, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, narrates her outrage saying, “That’s why when I saw the phrase Black Lives Matter spelled out by Alicia Garza in a love letter towards Black people—I decided to put a hashtag on it” (Richardson and Ragland, 45). These two ingredients—love and a hashtag—are rhetorics of the body and, in this specific case, Black queer women’s bodies. 

Rhetorical Listening has been and continues to be a necessary text in our field. Ratcliffe’s theories and arguments have facilitated important progress in the way we attend to normate structures of oppression as feminist scholars. But she says it herself, “Sometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). One area in which rhetorical listening can be more developed is in its attention to embodied knowledges and, specifically, the compounded intersections of multiply oppressed peoples’ embodiment (Carlson, 2019; LeMesurier, 2016). Ratcliffe’s work continues to lend itself to this development nicely because of her sustained attention to intersectionality. One way we can integrate more holistic attention to how embodiment informs rhetorical listening is to incorporate métis

Recently there has been a “recovery” of métis, primarily in work done by disability scholars. Métis is cunning, embodied rhetorics developed from adaptive intelligences. It is a rhetorical tradition buried under “The body of history [that] has been shaped to look like an idealized human body: proportional, inviolable, autonomous, upright, forward facing (white, and masculine)” (Dolmage, 17, Disability Rhetoric). Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza—Black Lives Matters co-founders—do not embody that white masculinist rhetorical tradition. Their blackness, their femaleness, and their queerness are all embodied experiences that inform their rhetoric and movement. M. Remi Yergeau articulates “métis, then, holds multiple locational resonances, signifying the unruly unfixity of those who are racialized, disabled, and queered” showing how inseparable embodied identifications are and how they all contribute to a rhetor’s signification (41, Authoring). 

As it currently is, Rhetorical Listening advocates for a separation of identifications, encouraging a version of objectification, whereas tis deliberately resists abstraction and helps us more fully attend to the embodied humanity of rhetors. Ratcliffe writes “that identifications with gender and whiteness are inextricably intertwined—not only with each other but with a host of other cultural categories, such as class, age, religion, ethnicity, nationality, beauty, and political affiliation” (8). Notably missing from that list is sexuality, gender identity, and dis/ability. Ratcliffe does say identifications are “inextricably intertwined” and I argue that they remain inextricable because they are embodied. Adding métis to rhetorical listening facilitates a more holistic, more humane, method of listening across cultures by bringing rhetors’ full humanity into the practice. I argue that “put[ting] a hashtag on” Black Lives Matter was a deliberately cunning rhetorical move designed by queer Black women to facilitate rhetorical listening.

Black lives and their rhetoric are not ours, as white academics, to intellectualize and profit off of. Instead, what I hope to make clear here is that the rhetorical choices the Black Lives Matter movement has made, using a hashtag to mobilize a global movement—and a particular phrase—further emphasize the need for higher education and rhetorical scholars to stop objectifying Black rhetoric and histories and, instead, fully humanize the embodied, lived experiences that led to such rhetorical skills. While “standing under discourses” has been a useful analogy to imagine inseparable (intersectional) identities, a more explicit attention to the body—the Black, queer, feminized body—adds a corporeal element that urges us to more fully humanize people. I am hoping that by adding métis to rhetorical listening we will be able to do more than “hear things we cannot see”—we will also be able to hear things, or rather, people we do see (Ratcliffe, 25).

Black Lives and Métis

I am currently sitting in my Milwaukee apartment hearing a military helicopter circle my neighborhood, sometimes coming so close that it rattles my body as I write this, because thousands of protesters have been advocating in our streets that Black lives, Black bodies, mean something, that they matter. All of the trauma, pain, history, femininity, and queerness our #BLM co-founders embody informed their decision to use a hashtag on a phrase that advocates for how much their lives mean, for how much their lives matter. As I work on this contribution in the midst of ongoing national protests in the wake of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery’s murders (among too many more) during a pandemic that disproportionately affects the Black population, it is clear that hashtag has undoubtedly, inarguably facilitated “interpretive invention” (Ratcliffe, 25). These protests themselves are a representation of a “pragmatic effect” as they “invent” new alliances, proliferate demands for abolition, amplify the voices of Black activists, and effectively crowdsource for bail funds and so much more (27, Ratcliffe). In Disability Studies Quarterly’s winter special issue Jay Dolmage so clearly states, “Wherever we find the body rhetorically contested, and wherever we find rhetorical contestation about the body’s role in meaning-making, we see intensely fraught negotiations” (“What is Metis?”). This so aptly represents the rhetorical moves of the Black Lives Matter movement from both its name to the facilitation of the hashtag. Centuries before its founding, the United States has rhetorically contested the Black body, the Black female body, the Black queer and gender non-conforming body, the Black disabled body. The simple phrase affirming that their lives matter has created enormously intense fraught negotiations. 

I want to clearly distinguish how #BlackLivesMatter’s cunning ingenuity in using the hashtag is different than, say, a brand, influencer, or something of that ilk. In that same special issue, Dolmage reminds us, “Of course, métis has always been associated with trickery—those with métis can process and interpret the world slightly differently, can find opportunity to turn the tables on those with greater bie, or brute strength, than they have access to” (“What is Metis?”). In this case we can say that white supremacy, or the police state, have greater bie so in order to resist and progress, Black activists have had to be cunning, be tricky. We also know that even when Black people attempt to use bie in resistance they are even more susceptible to police violence and mortal consequences. The current protests, for example, are found and trackable by hashtags. And while that means they are trackable by the police, activists use the hashtag to amplify messages encouraging protestors to turn off their cellphone location data and to blur photos so allies and activists remain unidentifiable by the state. This facilitates a turning of the tables on those who have more access to bie. This manifests in a cunning ability to continue to make meaning—be rhetorical—in resistance to white masculinist supremacy, therefore, an ability to be rhetorically listened to in the midst of an oppressive system designed to silence Black people. 

Elaine Richardson and Alice Ragland argue that the way #BlackLivesMatter uses the hashtag is a new literacy. By mobilizing multiple arguments with hashtags, BLM “illuminate[s] intersectionality within the Black Lives Matter movement” (46). Richardson and Ragland point out that “The hashtag #AllBlackLivesMatter has also been important in acknowledging intersectionality of the movement” arguing that “It behooves queered groups to work across diverse intersectional identities to build coalition for collective empowerment. This is the goal of Black Lives Matter activism” (49, 50). They also cite Sherri Williams saying, “Black feminists’ use of hashtag activism is a unique fusion of social justice, technology, and citizen journalism. It should serve as a fertile ground for emerging news for journalists, a point of connection for white feminists, and a ripe area of study for academics” (48). Intersectionality, specifically the co-founders’ attention to Black women and queerness, is inherent in the design and amplification of #BlackLivesMatter. This specific relationship to a hashtag is “unique” because it is informed by embodied experiences and identities. Using the internet to amplify and mobilize activists in resistance to a dominating brute force is a métis rhetoric

More deeply considered, métis “unfold[s] constellated embodiments that traverse race, ethnicity, trauma, survivance, disability, and sexuality” (Yergeau, 41). Métis is not simply “embodied rhetoric” but, more specifically, embodied rhetorics informed by identities in Yergeau’s list here. It has originated in disability studies and rhetoric but remains woefully under-utilized for understanding Black rhetoric and supporting Black lives. Yergeau explains, “disability activism more broadly is not a new or emergent movement, but rather a long-standing civil rights movement whose tactics, strategies, and rhetorics are frequently modeled after black civil rights activism and social justice movements in the United States” (179). Métis rhetoric is shared among and with Black people and their continued resistance to white supremacy. However, it continues to be developed in disability rhetoric with a sustained focus on white disabled people. Engaging with rhetorical listening insists on “laying” métis next to whiteness and white supremacy (23, Ratcliffe). Karma Chávez points out, “It is only through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken, yet specified, white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual male standard that particular bodies come to matter” (242). These bodily differences “in contrast” to that “unspoken” hegemony are highlighted by developing métis more. Métis helps us notice and attend to the bodily differences that prevent cross-cultural communication. In other words, it is now (past) time to develop métis in support of Black lives, and listening to the Black queer women who built a global movement by putting a hashtag on a life-affirming phrase. Métis has always been available “through bodily difference in contrast to the unspoken…standard,” and it is time to utilize it for anti-Black racism (Chávez, 242).

Furthermore, Yergeau “link[s] the conditions that attend sexuality and gender identity to the conditions that attend rhetoric, suggesting that when we speak of rhetors, we are often speaking of (normatively configured) rhetorsexuals” (178). This is an important distinction to make. The question of what has counted as rhetoric, or who has been counted as a rhetor, has been at the core of studies in rhetoric for its entirety. Heterosexual white men are these “normatively configured rhetorsexuals” which means anyone other than a heterosexual white male rhetor is a non-normative rhetorsexual. Queerness informs rhetorical practices not just because queer rhetorics are “discursive practices that emerge at different times for different groups in order to articulate resistance to regimes of sexualized normalization,” but importantly, are also embodied (Rhodes and Alexander, “Pleasures”). As Jean Bessette points out, feminist rhetoric’s “primary focus [has been] on heterosexual women… the universal category of ‘woman’ [is] almost always implicitly heterosexual” (18, Retroactivism). In Ratcliffe’s words, the field of rhetoric (Aristotelian in her example) “can be gender blind, that is, naively blind to concerns of gender. What I was realizing in my own life was that it can also be race blind” (5). And what Yergeau, Bessette, Rhodes and Alexander show here is that it can also be sexuality and ability blind, so much so that we use ableist “ocularcentric” metaphors to show what we historically overlook. To understand a rhetor as a rhetorsexual is to understand how inextricable one’s sexuality is from their rhetoric, especially when the rhetors are queer. 

Engaging métis with rhetorical listening helps identify rhetors as rhetorsexuals; it makes explicit the implicit assumptions of heteronormativity. Drew Halladay explains, “While other ancient Greek terms prominent in the rhetorical tradition are often portrayed as immaterial qualities of discourse (e.g., logos as a synonym of ‘rationality’), métis resists abstraction from rhetoric’s material context by returning attention to the body and its role in the production of identity, knowledge, and power” (“Performing Métis Rhetorics”). These traditional practices conceive of rhetoric as disembodied. Deliberately attending to the body in #BLM’s rhetorical practices forces us to resist the objectifying abstraction our rhetorical traditions generally prioritize in “analyses,” like focusing on one aspect of a rhetor’s identity or argument. In short, the simple use of the hashtag by #BLM was and remains a rhetorical choice the co-founders’ Blackness, queerness, and femininity decided in order to proliferate and amplify their message in a predominantly white, heterosexual rhetorical space. It is not a coincidence or an accident that three queer Black women were able to mobilize a hashtag so globally. It was a decision their queerness, their femaleness, and their Blackness led them to. Opal Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza deliberately “affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum” and set #BlackLivesMatter apart from other civil rights movements by “put[ting] those with the most marginalized identities in leadership positions” (BlackLivesMatter.com, m4bl.org).

Dolmage reminds us, “And métis, I have suggested, is an embodied knowledge: one that refuses the sexist, ableist body-image of canonical rhetoric, an image that we have chosen from our (Western, Greco-Roman) versions of history. We might have chosen and canonized a history with a disabled God at the center of it. We might still” (“What is Metis?”). Choosing a rhetorical history that centers a disabled God means we can rhetorically listen to #BLM’s choices as inherently informed by the Black, queer, female bodies who founded the movement. Rather than abstracting their rhetorical moves from their lived, embodied experiences, we can rhetorically listen to their queerness, their Blackness, their femaleness—all at once—fully humanizing these skilled rhetor(sexual)s.

Love is Rhetorical

In closing, all of this has turned my attention to the rhetorical possibilities of love. Both the Black community and queer people have historically used love as both a rhetorical argument and a survival strategy. In his study focusing on the lives of Black LGBTQ people, Eric Darnell Pritchard defines love as “a radical praxis of freedom and self-care in the face of a social, political, and cultural circumstance in which you and your people are targeted for debasement, degradation, and in many cases, death” (38, Fashioning Lives). Some of the guiding principles of the Black Lives Matter movement are to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depleting” (BlackLivesMatter.com, my emphasis). It is because of the way we love, as queers, that we have been discriminated against. Yet while white queer people continue to advance into the mainstream, Black transgender people and queers of color—especially Black transgender women—are targeted by state-sanctioned violence. Pritchard discovers in his research that “love, as a centerpiece of restorative literacies, is witnessed whenever research participants ‘break through’ negative effects of literacy normativity…and pronounce their humanity, their liberation, and their right to live a life on their own terms” (38). Social media sites, and the internet more generally, are mediated by what Safiya Noble calls algorithms of oppression. White supremacy, and all the ableist, heteronormative weight it carries, informs how information is distributed in digital spaces. Khan-Cullors putting a hashtag on a phrase Garza wrote in a “love letter towards Black people” absolutely facilitated a breakthrough—that hashtag snuck, and proliferated, Black love and liberation onto newsfeeds and walls originally designed to maintain white supremacy. 

Rhetorically listening to these Black queer writers and activists, it is clear that love, itself, is rhetorical in part because it is necessary in order to listen rhetorically. Love is an area still currently overlooked in the scholarship on rhetorical listening (and rhetoric studies, more generally). We have only a few scholars over the course of 50 years who have written on it (Corder 1985; Gunn, 2008; Restaino, 2019). To deliberately queer rhetorical listening, love must also be accounted for. We are queer because of how we love and, what’s more, we are queer because of specific embodied experiences related to our genders and sexualities. And perhaps most important to my argument about love is that people do not have to be excellent or joyful to be worthy of love, therefore worthy of a movement to affirm their lives. Black Lives Matter is not only a movement named after a loving affirmation of Black life, the movement itself is guided by principles of love. So not only is the hashtag guided by rhetorsexuals, it continues to be mobilized by community and self-love. Pritchard so importantly argues that for Black LGBTQ people “…love [is] a radical praxis of freedom and care for self and community” (39). That praxis of freedom, the love Garza and Khan-Cullors were expressing in their private conversation, has turned into a phrase lining residents’ and businesses’ windows down the street, being painted in huge letters in major city intersections, and amplifying the young Black abolitionists who are in the slow—but now steady—process of defunding America’s carceral state. 

Centering queer people of color—in this case, Black Lives Matter—develops Ratcliffe’s arguments in ways that promise new ideas about activism, political rhetoric, digital rhetoric (arguing that a hashtag is embodied), feminism, Black queer feminism and métis. The extant scholarship on métis woefully underserves Black women and especially Black queer women. The field of rhetoric has much to learn from queerly rhetorically listening to the embodied rhetorics of Black Lives Matter. I believe that integrating métis with rhetorical listening is one important way of queering rhetorical listening. The more we move away from embodied experiences, the more we’re able to abstract rhetorics from the people developing and engaging in rhetoric. Adding métis to rhetorical listening brings the body back to rhetoric in ways Dolmage argues: “[I]t is not enough to re-body theory and teaching—doing so simply incorporates untroubled bodily norms in an unchallenged realm of abstraction. Our embodiment is a feeling for difference, and always references norms of gender, race, sexuality, class, citizenship” (“What is Metis?”). Adding métis to rhetorical listening both queers it and more wholly attends to the full range of identities and personhood embodied in rhetors. 

There are rhetorical moves, strategies that only people who have been forced to survive in hostile climates have moved into and embodied. We learn these moves because our bodies—therefore our rhetorics—are excluded in mainstream rhetorical conventions. And there’s also something about loving ourselves in a world that treats us as unlovable that facilitates métis—skilled, adaptable, cunning rhetorical moves in resistance to hatred and oppression. Black women are skilled métis rhetors. The cunning, adaptive, sneaky rhetorical strategies employed by #BLM take cunning and sneaky rhetorical listeners. As feminists, as queers, and as embodied rhetors, we have a responsibility to queer rhetorical listening toward the body. To métis it. We can, as white listeners, add métis to rhetorical listening strategies in order to do more justice to Black rhetor(sexual)s.

I’m finishing this draft as we’ve entered Pride month during a pandemic and increasingly widespread protests and riots fighting for Black Lives Matter. During a pandemic when most of our in-person pride parades have been cancelled we cannot forget, the first pride parade was a riot led by Black and brown trans women—queers using their bodies in resistance. And it worked. #BlackLivesMatter.

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in American Lesbian Collectives: Composing Pasts and Futures. Southern Illinois UP. 2017.
  • What We Believe.” BlackLivesMatter.com. Accessed 10 Sept. 2020.
  • Carlson, Erin Brock, “Metis as Embodied, Technofeminist Intervention: Rhetorically Listening to Periods for Pence.” Computers and Composition, vol. 51, March 2019, pp. 14-30.
  • Chávez, Karma, “The Body: An Abstract and Actual Rhetorical Construct.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, 2018, pp. 242-250.
  • Corder, Jim, “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 1985, pp. 16-32.
  • Dolmage, Jay, Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse UP, 2013.
  • —. “Metis, Mêtis, Mestiza, Medusa: Rhetorical Bodies Across Rhetorical Traditions.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 28, no. 1, 2009. pp. 1-28.
  • —. “What is Métis?” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020.
  • Gunn, Joshua, “For the Love of Rhetoric, with Continual Reference to Kenny and Dolly.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 94, no. 2, 2008, pp. 135-155.  
  • Halladay, Drew, “Performing Métis Rhetorics in Rhetoric and Composition Scholarship.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 1, 2020.
  • LeMesurier, Jennifer Lin, “Somatic Metaphors: Embodied Recognition of Rhetorical Opportunities.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 362-380.
  • Noble, Safiya Umoja, Algorithms of Oppression. How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York UP, 2018.
  • Pritchard, Eric Darnell. Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy. Southern Illinois UP, 2017.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Rhodes, Jacqueline and Jonathan Alexander. “Queer Rhetoric and the Pleasures of the Archive.” Enculturation, 2012.
  • Richardson, Elaine and Alice Ragland. “#StayWoke: The Language and Literacies of the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Community Literacy Journal, vol 12, no. 2, Spring 2018, pp 27-56.
  • Williams, Sherri. “Digital Defense: Black Feminists Resist Violence with Hashtag Activism.” Feminist Media Studies, vol. 15, no. 2, 2015, pp. 341-344.
  • Yergeau, M. Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP. 2017.

Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening

I have found Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of rhetorical listening quite generative in my own teaching, administration, and scholarship. I co-administer the First-Year Writing (FYW) program at Texas Tech, and our program has made listening—informed by Ratcliffe and others—a central value in our curriculum. In a time of hyper-partisanship, toxic rhetoric, post-truth rhetoric, violence, demagoguery, resentment, and a paucity of goodwill, curiosity, and spirit (see Duffy; Engels; McComiskey; Roberts-Miller)—a list that exhausts me—I believe that the virtue and practice of listening to and understanding others’ perspectives and arguments is incredibly important. Our FYW program has developed a curriculum that asks students to patiently and fairly listen to oppositional arguments and to use stasis theory and practices of critical reading and rhetorical listening to understand where and how various stakeholders agree and disagree on issues of public concern.

Despite this enthusiasm for rhetorical listening, I do have reservations about it as a rhetorical theory, especially as we consider how rhetoric is often a nonrational, material, embodied, and sensorial practice. I worry that Ratcliffe’s theory may privilege the rational subject that the field has too often held up as a civic and pedagogical norm but that we’ve increasingly come to question and challenge. Further, I am concerned that rhetorical listening privileges the discursive and epistemic at the expense of the embodied and material. 

I am not the first to make these observations. In Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price challenges the concept of rhetorical listening for how it privileges a rational, able-bodied subject, arguing that a pedagogy based on rhetorical listening may inadvertently marginalize students with mental disabilities who don’t “make sense” (42) or “speak well” (44) in conventional, recognizably rational ways. And Gavin P. Johnson extends Ratcliffe’s concept of eavesdropping by first observing how her conceptualization “privileges the discursive while necessarily maintaining the binary between the material (body) and the discursive (identity)” (126). Drawing upon materialist understandings of rhetoric, Johnson suggests that rhetorical listening is framed “as a wholly discursive practice [in which] the actual body is left unaccounted for across space and time” (126).

I want to turn to the material and embodied in order to explore what listening might look like when we attend to materiality, embodiment, sensations, and affect. Much of my thinking here is indebted to post-discursive turns in rhetorical studies that understand rhetoric as not solely epistemic—about meaning—but rather as a matter of affect and embodied habits (e.g., Boyle; Hawhee, Bodily Arts, “Rhetoric’s Sensorium”). Kinesthetics and embodiment have become important frameworks for rhetorical studies. For instance, Jennifer Lin LeMesurier pushes against views of bodies as purely representational and advances “an understanding of the body that also sees it as a functional, inventional actor and bearer of ideological weight, capable of producing rhetorical influence” (“Somatic Metaphors” 363). Elsewhere, she argues that the field needs to attend to kinesiologies of racial formations and practices, and she shows how “logics of racial embodiment emerge in everyday performances and interactions between bodies” (“Winking at Excess” 140). Karma R. Chávez’s discussion of performativity and spatiality shows how bodies can become ecstatic—“unravel and becoming unhinged” (2)—in moments in which undocumented migrants in detention centers encounter bodily crises, and this ecstasy can lead to new, loving, and collective relations across difference, even if those relations are short-lived (9-11).

These arguments in rhetoric have resonance with queer thinking in the field. In her introduction to the 1992 special issue of Pre/Text, Margaret Morrison calls for a queer rhetoric that attends to corporeality and discourse in ways that force us “to begin to think differently” about rhetoric (13). Morrison challenges readers to re-think rhetoric, and particularly queer rhetoric, as “perverse movement” (20). Such an understanding of rhetoric as perverse movement, in my reading of Morrison’s essay, involves disrupting traditional binaries between discursivity and materiality, challenging us to see how rhetoric is always about the intertwinement of bodies, desires, sensations, affects, materiality, and discourse.

I suggest we might understand nondiscursive listening as kinesthetic interlistening. Here I draw on Lisbeth Lipari’s concept interlistening, which she defines as a type of holistic listening that privileges full embodiment, experiences time as synchronic rather than diachronic, is intersubjective, and involves the polyphony of multiple voices (both speaking and listening) (158-174). Like Ratcliffe’s project, Lipari’s book Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement is an attempt at decentering speaking from its central role in our imaginations of communication processes. As she writes, “I use the term ‘interlistening’ to inhibit the speech-centricity of our perspectives and bring the many connotations of ‘inter-’ (i.e., interbeing, interaction, interdependence, intersubjectivity, etc.) into the foreground” (9). And like Steph Ceraso, Lipari theorizes listening as a fully embodied, multisensory practice, asking, “What if our entire body is one giant listening organ, one great resonating chamber? What if we are, in some sense, all ears?” (30). As she observes, sounds are material, and they vibrate through our bodies, meaning that “we actually touch the sound” (31). Listening is polymodal, then, meaning that it “include[s] nonauditory phenomena” (50) and includes all of our senses, not just our hearing. Further, a framework of kinesthetic interlistening affords us an understanding that listening is more of a habituated practice over time rather than isolated moments of listening. 

I draw on two examples to explore kinesthetic interlistening: voguing and an art exhibit composed of candy. I then turn to some pedagogical implications of what Lipari calls “an ethics of attunement.” I’ve titled this contribution “Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening” because I have in mind Cindy Patton’s 1992 Pre/Text article “In Vogue: The ‘Place’ of ‘Gay Theory.’” So allow me to start there.

Listening Kinesthetically: Voguing

Patton’s article is prescient in its early turn toward the nondiscursive. Patton asks “whether queer theory can think gender and sexuality from a kinesthetic standpoint” (152). Drawing on sports and dance, Patton defines kinesthesia as “the sense of tension, movement, position, proximity, etc. which goes into knowing where your body is in space. It is…a knowledge built up over time that let’s [sic] you salsa without tripping yourself or walk upstairs in the dark” (153). In many ways, Patton’s understanding of kinesthesia has much in common with recent turns in rhetoric that understand rhetoric as largely an embodied matter of habit or habitus, rather than singular, epistemic moments of persuasion (Boyle; Hawhee, Bodily Arts).

To explore the potentials for understanding gender and sexuality kinesthetically, Patton turns to voguing, the dance originating in Black and Latinx queer dance hall scenes and then made more widely popular after Madonna’s 1990 song and music video “Vogue.” While we can (and likely should) be concerned about how Madonna’s song erases difference—“makes no difference if you are black or white, if you’re a boy or girl” (quoted in Patton 155)—what’s interesting is how voguing becomes a site of memory and invention in embodied practice. Patton suggests that what is fascinating about voguing is how queer bodies enact a liberation without an explicit memory of feminist or gay rights movements:

But young gay men and women were “coming out” while imitating Madonna’s voguing: they were learning to remember their bodies in a critique of gender autonomous of gay liberation and feminism. The task of gay theory now is to find ways of articulating these special practices to a broader, if fragmentary space, of queer embodiment. (156)

I want to suggest that listening might be an embodied practice that isn’t always tied to the discursive and epistemic, but is embodied and materially practiced, involving a kinesthetic listening to oneself and others that entails remembering our bodies—and ideally, remembering our bodies differently. We can listen to ourselves, suggests Lipari, and in doing so we are engaged in multisensory practice that is intersubjective and dialogic (133). Too, we can listen to music, not solely for the logics of cultural appropriation enacted by Madonna (though this is important), but also for what it allows us to do kinesthetically. Through multisensory listening, through new kinesthetic practices, we can listen to our bodies in ways that challenge the dominant cultural logics of gender and sexuality, inventing new ways of being in the world. And these listening practices can be embodied critiques, as Patton suggests, listening to the cultural logics of gender normativity and subverting them through a habituated, embodied practice.

Listening with Candy

I was recently (late 2019) struck by a Facebook post by Rachael Eliot Barker that responded to the controversial 2019 art installation by Maurizio Cattelan titled Comedian.1 Comedian was simply a banana taped to the wall of a gallery, which sold for an astonishing $120,000. As Barker notes, after the buyer ate the banana, the installation and sale became a massive case of “trolling,” and “The saga was catnip to people who believe that conceptual art is full of shit.” But in her moving Facebook post, Barker turns to another piece of conceptual art to show that the genre is not “full of shit” and can be, when executed well, a site of nondiscursive storytelling.

The example Barker turns to is Cuban-American Félix González-Torres’s 1991 “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), an installation that simply involved a pile of candy (Fig. 1). Designed so that museum curators could reproduce his art, Untitled had a simple rule: the pile of candy had to weigh exactly 175 pounds—the weight of González-Torres’s partner Ross Laycock at the height of his health before he died of AIDS in 1991 (Barker; Rapoport 3). In her Facebook post, Barker describes González-Torres’s decision to use candy:

In 1991, public funding for the arts and public funding for AIDS research were both the hottest of hot-button issues. HIV positive gay male artists were being targeted for censorship. González-Torres was desperate to be heard, and part of the logic of “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) was that you can’t censor free candy without looking ridiculous. The replicability of the piece makes it indestructible; González-Torres had an intuitive, ahead-of-its-time understanding of virality that came from dealing with an actual virus rather than the internet.

While, like Barker, I too have great admiration of González-Torres’s inventional ingenuity, I want to turn to the embodied and sensual experiences of engaging with Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). Visitors of the exhibition are invited to partake of the candy—to actually eat part of the installation. Interactions with “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) show how such engagements can act as interlistening. For example, Sarah Rapoport describes her encounter with Untitled:

each of my five senses is activated: the sight of the pile; the feel of the cellophane against my skin and the weight of the candies upon my hand; the quiet crinkling of wrappers in my ears; the barely perceptible sweet smell released from an unwrapped candy; the taste of sugar. (2)

Rapoport describes the affectivity of Untitled as one that raises awareness of both one’s own sensorial experiences but also one’s relationship to others: “the ultimate success of a work such as this lies in the ability of the work itself to acutely heighten the viewer’s consciousness of the phenomenological conditions of a space through engagement with each of the senses” (17). Through using “one’s visual, tactile, auditory, gustatory, and olfactory organs,” a participant in the installation also becomes self-conscious about one’s relations to others: “This activation of our own bodies in relation to our environment forces us to consider the ways in which our own bodies engage with and have the potential to act upon those around us, as well as the vulnerability of our bodies to be acted upon” (17).

Photo shows a museum exhibit of colorfully wrapped candy piled into a heap in the corner of a room. A museum patron bends down to pick a piece of candy from the pile.

Fig. 1. A museum patron taking candy from “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by Félix González-Torres at the Art Institute of Chicago. Photo by Mark Mauna. Reproduced under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) License.

Barker’s point in her Facebook post is that effective conceptual art is about storytelling “without words.” But we can also conclude from this post—in conversation with other interactions with Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) like Rapoport’s—that interlistening has possibilities for revealing interconnectedness, intersubjectivities, and vulnerabilities.

Listening Pedagogically: An Ethics of Attunement

In her quite useful chapter on listening pedagogically, Ratcliffe compares teaching to jazz, noting that the improvisation of teaching (like jazz) involves “listen[ing] and respond[ing] to the other players in the room (the students)” (141). I delight in this metaphor, not only because Ratcliffe reminds us that effective teaching requires listening to our students, but also because of the affective and embodied associations of music: we hate some music (often because we’re not familiar with its genres, traditions, or styles); we cannot resist the urge to dance or sing along to some music; some songs evoke visceral memories of times past; and some music (usually in communion with others) invites us to practice and remember our bodies differently (as “Vogue” did for many queer bodies).

While I find Ratcliffe’s discussion about listening pedagogically quite useful, embodiment barely surfaces in the chapter. The chapter discusses useful discursive practices for teachers in the classroom, attending to tropes and logics without confronting sensations, affects, or embodied material experiences. Ratcliffe writes that one of her goals is “to resist our own resistance” (159) and suggests that this “resistance is not always based on an unwillingness to hear but sometimes on an incapacity to hear, an incapacity grounded in a lack of reflective lived experience or in a lack of the work necessary to understand commonalities and differences” (147).

I might suggest that this incapacity to hear also arises from our embodied trainings in how we engage with texts and with others. Like Ratcliffe, Lipari understands that we have developed habits that make it difficult to listen. She writes of this “listening habitus”: “we each develop ways of listening (or not) that are partly shaped by culture and our social location within it, and partly by our personalities and particular life experiences” (52). In another resonance with Ratcliffe’s work, Lipari describes “a politics of listening, [which…] relates to who speaks and who doesn’t, what is and is not said, how what is said is said, as well as, of course, to whom it is said and what is and is not heard, and how what is heard is heard” (53). Rather than ask students to listen solely to arguments, Lipari turns to the work of R. Murray Shafer and suggests that students engage in embodied listening activities to call attention to how their bodies have been trained to listen and move through the world in certain ways. For instance, in one activity, students “[refrain] from speaking for one day” and reflect on this silence and on how they listened differently; in another, the whole class goes on “a listening walk” in which they pay attention to sounds they might never have noticed before (54). Lipari describes her goals as “attempting to listen beyond words and meanings to the sounds and sensations of the world around us” (54).

Lipari’s suggestion to engage students in embodied experiments to listen anew and reflect on those experiences is perhaps familiar to new media rhetoricians. Ceraso suggests that “through multimodal listening practices we might retrain our bodies to be more aware, alert, and attuned to sonic events in all of their complexity” (103). Likewise, Milena Droumeva and David Murphy propose focusing on developing within students “a deep and discerning listening sensibility” (“Background”). This sensibility involves an “attunement between listener, materials, and environment” (“4. Composing with/in Media Texts”). 

We often extol our students to listen to arguments in order to understand their perspectives. I wonder if, from a queer or new media perspective, this might be a limited approach. What gets lost in such a discourse-centric understanding of listening is our embodied and sensuous engagements with texts, others, and environments. If, as Ratcliffe suggests, “rhetorical listening may precede our conscious identifications” (48), I wonder if we might back up to the initial encounter with texts or with others, attending to the material, embodied, sensuous experiences of engaging with those texts and others. Perhaps an ethics of attunement precedes rhetorical listening—a kinesthetic interlistening practice that precedes the conscious rhetorical listening of reading, interpreting, and understanding.

Lipari concludes her book by advocating for what she calls an ethics of attunement, which she describes as “an awareness of and attention to the harmonic interconnectivity of all beings” (2). As she observes, one of our biggest cultural problems is “our inability to listen to others”: “We witness and participate in obliteration of families, of the wildlife, of the earth, but we neither listen for nor hear the cries” (206). She suggests that an ethics of attunement is “the relations between resonance and temporality,” an intertwinement of kairos and akroasis (207). Lipari suggests understanding kairos “as an ethical relation enacted through an openness that cannot be anything other than listening” (213). Understanding akroasis as a form of listening that “[invokes] the idea of secret, esoteric teachings” (207) and “rooted in Pythagorean harmonics” that attend to the gestalt (27), Lipari concludes:

Thus, we might say that kairotic temporality requires harmonic attunement and thereby involves the embodied rhythmic aspects of timing, coordination, syncopation, repetition, punctuation, and so forth, as well as the tensed aspects of grammar and narrative time, and nonlinear psychological movements where “past and present lie ‘all at once’ in temporality.” Thus, kairos is an ethical virtue inextricable from akroasis, it is an attunement to others and the dance of circumstance. It is not timely in the mechanical sense of efficiency or serendipity, or as a well-timed shot into the goal, or timely as an intervention in the future “just in time.” Instead, kairos is the tangle of braided nonlinear moment choosing us—speakers and listeners—as we move rhythmically together in harmonically attuned, responsive movement. (213-214, quoting Heidegger)

Lipari’s understanding of kairos as an embodied ethical virtue resonates with Debra Hawhee’s conception of kairos, which asks us to de-center the rationality of the rhetor who assesses the timeliness of a situation: “Rather, the rhetor opens him or herself up to the immediate situation, allowing for more of an exchange than the creation or accommodation models of kairos allow” (Bodily Arts 71). An ethics of attunement, Lipari argues, involves an interconnectedness that gives rise to generosity (215), works through bodily repetition (217), “requires a kind of courage to move outside the familiar and already known” (218), and necessitates acceptance of our own humility and impermanence (220-221).

While Lipari theorizes interlistening not as an ethical imperative but rather as an actual practice we all engage in (157), her call for an ethics of attunement is an ethical call to encourage us all to be more attuned and interconnected to each other and to our environments. Such a call, in terms of listening pedagogically, might involve the sorts of retraining of bodies advocated by Lipari, Ceraso, and others. The question now becomes not how we can engage our students discursively (or solely discursively) but how to engage through embodied practice. How can we affect—encourage change—in our students’ embodied interlistening practices to encourage an ethics of attunement?

In her contribution to a forum on Bodily Arts, Hawhee speculates about the pedagogical implications of her book, asking, “can we teach the non-rational, bodily, nonverbal features of rhetoric to our students? And to what end?” (“Rhetorics, Bodies” 160). After suggesting that students engage in art and public material spaces outside of the classroom, Hawhee concludes:

Our classes can really take seriously Aristotle’s notion of rhetoric as an art of discovery. They can do so by attending to the material, mobile activities of everyday lives as lived in cities and parks, streets and museums, and yes, hallways, mailrooms, and classrooms, all of which yield something like Aristotle’s “available means” or [Wayne] Booth’s “range of resources that human beings share for producing effects.” Put another way, the discovery, use, and effects of such “available means” of rhetorical action transpires through bodies, spaces, and the visual as much as it happens through the presumed twin-media of rhetoric—the written and spoken word. (163)

Because I am a new media scholar, Hawhee’s suggestion that students engage in material and mobile activities in our rhetoric and writing classes brings to mind Anne Frances Wysocki’s discussion of sensuous training. Wysocki shows that new media critics often see the potential for new media as allowing for a new ethics through sensations: “They argue that what we know about the world through our senses (not necessarily at the level of the discursive) becomes the ground for opening up the potentials of how we live together, socially, ethically” (102-103). However, Wysocki shows that these arguments ignore how we have been trained sensuously: “our senses are trained through repetition. Sensuous training happens simply through growing up: we are raised into the sensory patterns and habits of our culture, and the training therefore seems to have never happened because it is simply part of the day-to-day of growing up” (104)—a description that should remind readers of Ratcliffe’s discussion of incapacities to hear and Lipari’s discussion of listening habitus, but also Hawhee’s discussion of rhetoric as bodily training. Wysocki’s concept of sensuous training helps us to see that our senses are socially trained through engagement with media, objects, and people, and that a retraining of ethics cannot come simply from an individualized aesthetic experience, but must instead be social: “if we want to use aesthetic experience to help us link perception to ethics—we need to learn to be bodies that somehow perceive not alone but socially” (107). 

Put differently, what makes Rapoport’s experience with Untitled” (A Portrait of Ross in L.A.) and queer bodies voguing potential sites for an ethics of attunement? It is that they’re relearning their bodies socially, not in isolation. Wysocki suggests that sensuous training cannot simply be undone through individual encounters, but likely must be repetitive—or, if not repetitive, reflected upon: “such openings are most likely to occur…with encouragement, with the sort of questioning that comes with practiced and overt instruction” (109).

Conclusion

What might this sensuous (re)training of interlistening look like in a rhetoric and writing class that values rhetorical listening? I guess I am asking what makes us affect-able by others—what makes us open to listening to others and to our environments. My guess is that many of us have been trained—sensuously, through practice—to not listen, to not even pay attention. How can we re-train ourselves through embodied, material practices? How might we introduce moments of collective re-practicing (like voguing?) or moments of embodied re-engagements with our environments (like encountering a pile of candy in a museum?) to our students? If we value rhetorical listening as a pedagogical practice (and I do), I think we need to think through the embodied practices that might encourage our students to attune differently and practice their bodies differently. Earlier, I mentioned Morrison’s call for understanding queer rhetoric as “perverse movement.” What might it look like to think of listening kinesthetically, as acts of movement? And what might it look like to think of listening practices perversely, as perverse movements? My thoughts here have been somewhat speculative, but (I hope) also generative for further thinking in the field.

Acknowledgment

I would like to acknowledge that this contribution was written within the historical territories of the Teya, Jumano, Apache, and Comanche peoples. While such a statement is only a small step toward dismantling colonial logics and practices, I believe it is a necessary step to call attention to the fact that the work of scholarship is conducted on lands taken from Indigenous peoples.

Endnote

  1. Barker’s Facebook post is, as of this writing in June 2020, public, and has been shared over 22,000 times and liked or reacted to by 18,000 users. As a new media scholar, I consider the ethics of quoting and citing social media posts, which some users might understand as private (written to friends in places online) even if they’re publicly available (see McKee and Porter 81). Given the relatively broad circulation of Barker’s post, I feel comfortable quoting and citing it here.

Works Cited

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  • Ceraso, Steph. “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” College English, vol. 77, no. 2, 2014, pp. 102-123.
  • Droumeva, Milena, and David Murphy. “A Pedagogy of Listening: Composing with/in New Media Texts.” Soundwriting Pedagogies, edited by Courtney S. Danforth, Kyle D. Stedman, and Michael J. Faris, Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State UP, 2018,
  • Duffy, John. Provocations of Virtue: Rhetoric, Ethics, and the Teaching of Writing. Utah State UP, 2019.
  • Engels, Jeremy. The Politics of Resentment: A Genealogy. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2015.
  • Hawhee, Debra. Bodily Arts: Rhetoric and Athletics in Ancient Greece. U of Texas P, 2004.
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  • Johnson, Gavin P. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay: Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 24, nos. 1-4, 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • LeMesurier, Jennifer Lin. “Somatic Metaphors: Embodied Recognition of Rhetorical Opportunities.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 33, no. 4, 2014, pp. 362-380. doi: 10.1080/07350198.2014.946868
  • —. “Winking at Excess: Racist Kinesiologies in Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America.’” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 2020, pp. 139-151. doi: 10.1080/02773945.2020.1725615
  • Lipari, Lisbeth. Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement. The Pennsylvania State UP, 2014.
  • McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Utah State UP, 2017.
  • McKee, Heidi A., and James E. Porter. The Ethics of Internet Research: A Rhetorical Case-Based Approach. Peter Lang, 2009.
  • Morrison, Margaret. “Laughing with Queers in My Eyes: Proposing ‘Queer Rhetoric(s)’ and Introducing a Queer Issue.” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 13, nos. 3-4, 1992, pp. 11-36.
  • Patton, Cindy. “In Vogue: The ‘Place’ of ‘Gay Theory.’” Pre/Text: A Journal of Rhetorical Theory, vol. 13, nos. 3-4, 1992, pp. 151-157.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. U of Michigan P, 2013.
  • Rapoport, Sarah. “‘He Kills Me’: AIDS, Activism and the Activation of the Spectatorial Body in Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), 1991.” Bowdoin Journal of Art, vol. 3, 2017, pp. 1-29.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Roberts-Miller, Patricia. Demagoguery and Democracy. The Experiment, 2017.
  • Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Unfitting Beauties of Transducing Bodies.” Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Writing and Communication, edited by Stuart A. Selber, South Carolina UP, 2010, pp. 94-112.

Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption

As accounts of unsafe responses to COVID-19 stream out of prisons, I feel troubled. 

In Massachusetts, where I’ve organized for prison abolition for several years, it becomes evident that prisoners do not have access to soap, masks, or social distancing measures. Departments of correction and state politicians appear prepared to let prisoners die rather than release them (see Becker, “Coalition Calls”). Maintaining a death grip on the lives of those most vulnerable to illness is posited as safety for others, notably by Boston Police Commissioner William Gross. Speaking alongside Mayor Marty Walsh at a press conference, Gross suggested that releasing prisoners threatened the safety of those of us outside prison, implying that releasing vulnerable prisoners would encourage harm in the community because “you can do whatever you want because there are no repercussions from the court” (“Let Them Stay”). 

Deliberate acts of disidentification are common in public rhetoric about incarcerated people, and it isn’t a surprise to have my safety pitted against theirs by cops. But Gross’s disidentification is troubling because it reveals even more starkly than usual the depth of the difference in our positions. In the name of my life, the deaths of others will be rationalized. For the many of us on the outside who share some common ground of family, friendship, or political solidarity with incarcerated people, the distortion of a complex network of community relationships to an us/them binary is disorienting. Such positioning throws into sharp relief the uneven power dynamics that characterize relationships across carceral boundaries. How is it possible to communicate, organize, and build relationships when our very lives are in competition? The efforts of free and incarcerated prison abolitionists who are committed to co-organizing practices motivate this question and, perhaps less obviously, so does a queer understanding of rhetorical listening. For queer abolitionists, like those of us in Black and Pink Boston, a prison abolition organization providing support to and community with LBGTQIA+ and/or HIV+ prisoners, relationships are powerful sites of potential social and institutional change because they offer opportunities to remake some of the stock identifications and disidentifications that structure broader impressions and general acceptances of state violence and those who are most vulnerable to it, as well as provide solidarity to incarcerated people who may, due to ever-increasing prison restrictions, have few relationships with those outside of their individual prison and small circle of supporters on the outside. 

Revisiting Krista Ratcliffe’s Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness draws out some of the potentials and limits of coalitional practice through the relational modes of individuals—Ratcliffe’s book raises multiple examples of particular relationships that deepen and exemplify rhetorical listening—beginning, of course, with her own relationship to Jacqueline Jones Royster, a prominent Black feminist scholar in the field and former chair of CCCC (in Ratcliffe’s account, Royster’s chair’s address generates the entry points into rhetorical listening). In the practice of rhetorical listening, reflection on the relationship between the individual and the institutional is a component of non-identification, a reflective “pause” where listeners might weigh divisive or oppressive cultural discourses and structures alongside the potential of individually-acted codes of cross-cultural communication that “may interrupt” them (75). What rhetorical listening offers to queer prison abolition, then, is a detailed mechanic for how and why we might simultaneously leverage these interruptions and explore their limitations in the face of a public discourse that bargains with the bodies of prisoners. In return, what queer abolition offers to rhetorical listening is an explicit rendering of how carceral logics—the frames that move us toward easy dis/identifications with others—map onto the cultural logics, the value systems that, in Ratcliffe’s view, can reveal the reasoning skills of those with whom we harbor fundamental disagreements. As I demonstrate here, the varied cultural logics that contextualize a spectrum of claims related to tropes of gender and race vary principally in terms of who and how they might exclude in order to make their claims.  As a result, I read the understanding of “simultaneous commonalities and differences,” an essential component of Ratcliffe’s conscious identification (itself a mark of successful rhetorical listening), as partially crafted by shared and unshared carceral investments in exclusion and disposability. Exclusion, as noted above, describes the terms of who, if not everyone, is included in practices of conscious identification, or in the “cultures” that create rhetorical listening’s interest in cross-cultural communication. Disposability, a correlative concept, sets the level of concern afforded to what happens to excluded subjects, or how their exclusion creates (additional) vulnerabilities. 

Identifications with others, writes Ratcliffe, are often troubled by “uneven power dynamics, oppressive history, and ignorance,” but may be revised through “conscious identifications” to better “foster cross-cultural communication on any topic” (19). A queer abolitionist reconsideration of carceral logics tests some of the radical potential of rhetorical listening—and not only in prisons or other sites of detention. Queer abolitionist readings of power uplift coalitional politics by affirming relationship building and decoding the orientations toward exclusion and disposability that inform how difference functions across what are often deeply entrenched and violent power dynamics. The negotiation of oppressive power dynamics, history, and ignorance cannot be circumvented by the efforts of personal agency alone. As Ratcliffe notes, such attempts at rhetorical listening, in which the personal attempts to interrupt the institutional, will always be partial (75). However, a fuller articulation of the trouble that “haunts” potential identifications across institutional boundaries can enable more expansive listening practices by exposing the carceral logics that delineate who may be heard.

Relationships and Coalition: How Institutional Power Sets Terms of Engagement

In Ratcliffe’s theory, rhetorical listening is rooted in a response to Jacqueline Jones Royster’s call for cross-cultural communication that enacts the coalitional, with an emphasis on sharing location or place.  In “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own,” Royster refers to the knowledges of her home community: “People in the neighborhood where I grew up would say, ‘Where is their home training?’” she writes, “Imbedded in the question is the idea that when you visit other people’s ‘home places,’ especially when you have not been invited, you simply can not go tramping around the house like you own the place […]” (32). In Royster’s illustration, a rhetorical “tramping” across cultural boundaries is a form of trespass, necessitating a “negotiator” who can “cross boundaries and serve as a guide and translator for Others” (34). It is Royster’s ability to make those crossings—cultural, physical, and linguistic—that give her insights that her white colleagues don’t yet know they don’t know. The microaggressions and racism from colleagues detailed in “When the First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own” highlight the violence of the predominately white institution. In response, Royster suggests relational transformation within the profession and the auspices of NCTE/CCCC. “Much, however, depends on the ways in which we talk and listen and talk again in crossing boundaries and creating, or not, the common ground of engagement,” she concludes (40). Ratcliffe highlights the role of negotiator in understanding identifications troubled by power divides in particular, but cross-cultural communication on an interpersonal scale is richest and most relevant when we can do the difficult work of exposing our investments in the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability and what those exposures tell us about who might be missing, cut off, or thrown out of contention. In this way, we might revise rhetorical listening itself to be more attentive to the relationships that don’t, as Royster and Ratcliffe’s do, occur within a shared institution. We might reconsider the very orientations that give access to relationships with others in the first place.

Tracing the trouble in our identifications by looking to the institutionalized sources of “uneven power dynamics” is a vital element of queering rhetorical listening because queerness itself is coalitional, and coalitions can only be built when diverse lived experiences of difference are centered. Policed, court-involved, and incarcerated people did not come by these positions by happenstance; proximity to and risk of incarceration, policing, and other forms of state violence is itself raced, gendered, and sexualized. As Cathy Cohen notes in her landmark essay, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?”, activist communities defined by “some homogenized identity” cannot be the basis for queer coalitional politics. “If there is any truly radical potential to be found in the idea of queerness and the practice of queer politics,” she writes, “it would seem to be located in its ability to create a space in opposition to dominant norms, a space where transformational political work can begin” (438). Cohen advocates for a queerness that supports identifying comrades by their relationship to heteronormative power, demonstrating the ways that raced bodies are also always sexualized, and sexualized against a privileged heteronormativity. Conscious identifications across a range of relationships to institutional power are necessary in Cohen’s theory of queer coalition.

For many queer activists and thinkers, courts, prisons, and street policing are central sites for action in part because they form the axes of dominant norms (e.g., whiteness, heteronormativity, gender conformity, middle and upper class status, and ability) by which we might measure, in Cohen’s words, our “varying relationships to power” (448). In “Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence,” Che Gossett, Tourmaline, and AJ Lewis draw on histories of queer coalitions to demonstrate that “there is, in significant respects, nothing new about making police violence central to a queer agenda,” and to note “the role of intersectionality in determining who among those communities were historically the most vulnerable to police abuse” (“Reclaiming”). These vulnerabilities reveal that much of the troubling in our identifications stems from carceral logics and their engagement with the tropes of gender, sexuality, and race. 

To that end, I posit that a framework for rhetorical listening might shift to include a deeper consideration of the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability. I argue that these logics act as barriers to the “coalition building across cultural boundaries” (77) rhetorical listening promises, as well as the institutional boundaries created by exclusion (who is already excluded from our vision? With whom are we not allowed to contemplate shared places?) and disposal (when not included, where do we imagine or place excluded subjects? Where are they allowed to go?). In part, the boundaries we are most in need of bridging are created not merely through cultural logics, but the relationships to institutionalized power that underpin them. I argue that Ratcliffe’s generative framework might make more room for the queer coalitional possibilities outlined by radical queer prison abolition and activism. To build on the coaltitional vision Ratcliffe stakes on rhetorical listening, I suggest that “proceeding from within an accountability logic” (31) necessitates a critical stance toward exclusion and disposability, two threads of carcerality resisted in transformative justice, an abolitionist practice sprouted from Black and queer feminist organizing, and apply an analysis that rethinks the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability to Ratcliffe’s tactic of listening metonymically as a lens for understanding simultaneous commonalities and differences.

Carceral Logics: Exclusion and Disposability

I use the phrase carceral logics to underscore the relationship that carcerality has to a number of the cultural logics outlined in Rhetorical Listening. For example, the history of white feminist theory engages both disposability and punishment as scenes of liberation for (frequently white, cisgender, heteronormative, and class privileged) women. In The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration, Aya Grubar calls attention to the narrative of “failure of law and legal actors to appropriately penalize male offenders” that animates prevalent feminist support for “stricter policing, prosecution, and punishment of gender crimes” (19). Such support has, over the years, expanded incarcerating measures by taking the efforts of state protection at face value. As Jennifer Nash observes, Black feminists have challenged the commitments of “governance feminism and carceral feminism” by doing “world-making work apart from, and even against, law precisely because law is imagined to be the paradigmatic space of antiblack violence” (111). Similarly, Sarah Lamble notes that “queer investments in punishment” have shifted from “older movement goals of de-criminalizing same-gender sex acts” to newer “goals of expanding criminalization through hate crime legislation” (155). Historically, punishment has set boundaries for how movements can imagine justice and, consequently, coalitions with others. A carceral logic sees exclusion from community as inherent to punishment and necessary for the safety of constituents deemed worthy.   

These exclusions, if not carefully located and articulated, prefigure the horizon of possible identifications with others. Rhetorical listening, possible in a space of “pause,” is one site where carceral logics might be probed and more radical coalitional prospects built. However, exclusion as punishment and punished/excluded subjects as disposable remain unexamined in some of the framing for rhetorical listening. Ratcliffe herself evokes incarceration (of “serial killers”) as an example of a positive social product of disidentification, a rare case wherein we are not asked to pause before engaging disidentification. Further, the example of rhetorical listening that closes her definitional chapter suggests that rhetorical listening is more suited to listening to and making discernments about discourses on incarcerated subjects, rather than engaging them in conversation. In an extended example from Ratcliffe’s text, Rachel, a student grappling with the resonances between a literature class, in which she has read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and a criminology class, in which she has listened to a lecture presenting a rationale for granting parole, is able to constellate two different discourses that “likened people to animals” (43). Rachel’s listening is important, as it enables her to draw out and recognize dehumanizing rhetorics at work in both instances. However, the work of accountability logic offered in this example is directed only toward the guest lecturer (in operating from this accountability logic, Rachel says she is “sure” the guest lecturer is a “very nice guy,” presumably despite his use of dehumanizing rhetorics to describe potential parolees). While I don’t doubt that the suspension of blame is useful in this analysis, the incarcerated people at the heart of the conversation are not offered the same consideration, demonstrating that rhetorical listening, when happening among certain subjects, can reinforce the imposed silences of incarcerated or otherwise “disappeared” people in conversations about their lives and freedoms. On one hand, Rachel maintains a stance of openness to the lecturer that, ultimately, guides her to an insight into his dehumanizing language about parolees. On the other, her act of rhetorical listening is limited by the absences of the subjects of incarceration. It is not uncommon, even today, for universities to discuss prison and policing without the input and presence of the very prisoners they reference; Rachel’s listening, as well as its conclusions, are shaped by an institutional norming (not including incarcerated people in conversations about their rights and well-being) that pre-figures who can be heard. Since Rachel has ambitions of working “within the prison system,” (43) this situation reinforces exclusions of incarcerated people along their institutional relationships to power that may actually have come to harm them—how can rhetorical listening attend to these silences and the carceral stratifications they represent? Ratcliffe suggests that the commonalities and differences Rachel surfaces between the lecturer and Morrison’s novel reflect both claims and cultural logics. The difference Ratcliffe presents centers the cultural logics recognized by her student; in Ratcliffe’s words, the difference between a logic of “an inhumane slave economy” and “reform for the prison economy in Wisconsin” (44). And yet, in recognizing these different cultural logics, the shared carceral logic (and practice) of exclusion of incarcerated voices is not presented as a commonality. If rhetorical listening is to enact radical change though the transformation of institutional power dynamics, the trouble we trace must extend beyond the institutional boundaries we share, and across those we do not. Otherwise, those transformations will always be controlled by institutional protocols, even in ways that, as queer prison abolition activism has shown us, need not be as inevitable as they are for Rachel.

As illustrated here, carceral logics imbue even the terms by which we contemplate rhetorical listening happening. In this way, carceral logics might shield us from confronting some of our most entrenched boundaries. In short, the power dynamics of incarceration call attention to some of the limits of our negotiations. If we reach for narratives of hyper-criminality as justification for incarceration (and attendant disidentification), the need for prison is further established. If we invest in rhetorical listening that engages dehumanizing language about incarcerated people without including them in the listening itself, we normalize a conversation in which their agency is suspended through representation and circulation of their politicized selves by outsiders. In these examples, incarcerated people are excluded from participating in conversation about themselves, and are, instead, excised from both free society and the communications that define and negotiate that exclusion.

Accountability Logics in Rhetorical Listening and Transformative Justice

In Ratcliffe’s analysis of bell hooks, accountability logic resists some stock unproductive moves in cross-cultural communication, often related to defusing white women’s defensiveness to Black feminist principles. In order to counter typical arguments made for disengaging racial justice, hooks notes that “more obstacles are created if we simply engage in endless debate about who put [racism]” into feminist spaces. Instead, she holds that “women, all women, are accountable for racism continuing to divide us” (157). Ratcliffe’s iteration of accountability in rhetorical listening translates to a similarly powerful simplicity: “all people necessarily have a stake in each other’s quality of life” (31). 

Since the publication of hooks’ Aint I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, in which these passages appear, Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and queer feminists have engaged varied accountability practices within transformative justice frameworks as an alternative to the carceral logic of disposability. A disposability logic holds that when people cause harm, they cause it as individuals, rather than as actors within larger cultural landscapes of injustice and vulnerability. Within disposability logic, destroying or locking up ostensibly dangerous bodies eliminates the prospect of harm in society, while accountability logics, in Ratcliffe and hooks’s accounts, hold to a much more interconnected and interdependent view of harm and healing. In Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements, Charlene Carruthers argues that “disposal” is not merely a state-organized process of punishment (locking someone up for a lifetime, moving an incarcerated person to solitary confinement, or otherwise dispensing with community members who have caused harm), but includes ways that “the carceral state has colonized our own ways of dealing with conflict” (82). In a 2019 interview, Mariame Kaba asserts that part of what makes accountability—the acknowledgement and redress of harm caused—difficult is the fact that carceral logics directly discourage people from taking responsibility for hurtful actions. Taking responsibility for harm caused, a fundamental understanding for activist work according to hooks, is figured as admission of guilt and acceptance of state punishment rather than a collective or community task.

Since accountability cannot function as merely an absence of punishment but is a consequential process by which a committed group determines willingness and responsibility to address harm, the identifications and disidentifications we make in the service of accountability are imperative considerations for movement-building. As an alternative to disposal, accountability asks that we contend with the carceral logics that shape politicized, conscious identifications and disidentifications. In her discussion of Kenneth Burke’s theory of identification, Ratcliffe claims that conscious identifications allow for commonality and difference, and that by identifying consciously with others as we are able, we avoid the “coercive force of common ground” (47), reconsidering identifications that center only the ways we are alike, subsuming critical and instructive differences. Accountability logics must include the ways in which our institutional relationships to power (for example, being incarcerated or free) implicate us in each others’ lives, offering stakes more complex and entangled than exclusion and disposal logics allow.

Exclusion and Disposal Shaping Commonalities and Differences

Exclusion and disposability logics shape our listening landscape outside prisons, as well as our relationships to the people living inside them. Indeed, asking ourselves, consistently, who is excluded or disposable in any rhetorical situation offers some insight into how carceral logics, enacted in individual behaviors and by other institutions, might be troubling the very terms under which we engage cross-cultural conversations, encouraging us to listen and speak only within the spheres that appear visible to us.  The potential of individual acts of rhetorical listening to interrupt these logics depend on accountability practices that allow for a clear articulation of the trouble that haunts identification across institutional power dynamics. In addition to speaking across these divides, we also inhabit them, and experience the material and rhetorical consequences as a result. Commonalities and differences, both essential to coalitional practice, are heavily characterized by relationships to power. 

The abilities of rhetorical listening to reveal the exclusion and disposability logics that underpin various cultural logic might transform how we consider the scope of similarities and differences within those same logics. In this spirit, I revisit an integral exchange in Ratcliffe’s analysis of commonality and difference—her analysis of exchanges between Audre Lorde and Mary Daly. By highlighting the carceral logics of exclusion and disposability within commonality and difference in these passages, I consider what rhetorical listening stands to gain from the queer abolitionist theorizing I’ve presented thus far. 

Ratcliffe explains that Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” might be read as an insistence on the racial differences between feminists, whereas Daly’s strategy, in Gyn/Ecology, is to “foreground commonalities” (87), primarily, it would seem, on gender identity and the shared category of “woman.” Rather than privilege one mode over the other, Ratcliffe challenges herself to listen to each of these renderings, distilling the cultural logics and patterns that she believes attends each one (98). By noting the similarity, but not sameness, between these distinct cultural logics of race and gender, she describes the potential for conscious identification as metonymic rather than metaphoric, that is, mutually reflective of both gendered commonalities and racialized differences. In so doing, she hopes that “a focus on simultaneous commonalities and differences may sidestep the binary opposition of who’s right and who’s wrong” (95) but instead allow “each woman’s focus […] to inform and challenge one another” (96).  

I suggest that the conflict between Lorde and Daly is not based merely on the inability to “escape history” when it comes to the racialized and racist construction of the category of “woman” (87), or to how that history shapes both Lorde and Daly’s preference for foregrounding commonalities and differences. Rather, carceral logics underpin how and why commonalities and differences function in these texts, particularly in how they are constructed by Daly. Rather than objecting to the uses of commonalities, Lorde observes how these commonalities are deployed through logics of exclusion and disposability.

To be sure, Lorde objects to Daly’s invocation of “noneuropean women” in Gyn/Ecology, and explains the need for an understanding of differences among women. Importantly, though, Lorde does not object to commonalities foregrounded between women as a necessity for understanding racial difference. Rather, she objects to the particular layout and timing of the commonalities Daly invokes between women. Initially, Lorde was enthusiastic upon reading the First Passage of Gyn/Ecology, even remarking that the focus on “white, western european” women’s histories on the “nature and function of the Godess” engaged her because it “agreed with what I myself have discovered in my searches through African myth/legend/religion […].” Upon seeing whiteness represented uniformly, Lorde first concluded that “Mary has made a conscious decision to narrow her scope and to deal only with the ecology of western european women” (Lorde 67). However, once Lorde reads the Second Passage, she realizes that noneuropean women’s experiences are engaged alongside those of european women’s, but only in the depiction of ritual victimization and exploitation. As Ratcliffe observes, Lorde then concludes that “Black women are portrayed only as perpetrators and victims of patriarchal rituals” in Gyn/Ecology (Lorde qtd. in Ratcliffe 82). And yet, Lorde’s objection to the commonalities between women does not seem to depend only on a desire for foregrounding difference, but on the disparities between when noneuropean women are present and absent in Daly’s text. In Daly’s argument, they have been excluded from the analysis of the Goddess and included “only as victims and preyers—upon each other” (Lorde 67). This conflict itself foregrounds Lorde’s conclusion that Daly is “imply[ing] that all women suffer the same oppression simply because we are women” (67). In short, Lorde insists on a foregrounding of difference because Daly has proved untrustworthy in drawing commonalities and differences between western and non-western histories, excluding Black women from histories of feminine empowerment, and drawing their purported commonalities in only as negative examples. 

I do not believe that Lorde’s insistence on foregrounding difference here is dependent only on the implicit exceptionalism Daly offers white women. But an attention to disposal asks that we explore not only what commonalities and differences are invoked, but where they position the varied subjects of queer coalition. When and how to demarcate commonalities and differences is as politically important as making these identifications (consciously, to the extent that we are able) in the first place. Indeed, Lorde names the potential possibilities for coalition between herself and Daly as a primary site of her pain in reading Gyn/Ecology: “To dismiss our Black foremothers may well be to dismiss where european women learned to love,” she writes, highlighting possible commonalities Daly might have engaged, “As an African-american woman in white patriarchy, I am used to having my archetypal experience distorted and trivialized, but it is terribly painful to feel it being done by a woman whose knowledge so much touches my own” (67-8). The precise, limited contours of the rhetorical scope Daly offers Black women is the foundation of Lorde’s objection to Daly’s analysis. Queering rhetorical listening allows for an attention to the exclusions at work in Daly’s argument; she keeps Black history out of the sacred and gestures toward it only in the delineation of the predatory. It is, perhaps, not the act of finding common ground itself that tends toward the coercive, but the uneven power dynamics engaged when Daly describes what is and isn’t in common. 

Daly’s very insistence on the shared commonality of gender, too, gestures to what Julie Kubala has described as “her commitment to a kind of feminist purity that is explicitly transphobic and implicitly racist” (119). The stability of gender and exclusion of trans women, both hallmarks of Daly’s work and general philosophy, make the gendered commonalities between herself and Lorde particularly suspect. As Kubala notes, “transexclusionary claims are fundamentally intertwined with racism, often through a protectionist narrative that universalizes ‘woman’ through shared possibilities of victimization” (130). These same protectionist narratives are at work in the hyper-criminalization of trans people, who are figured in trans-exclusive feminism as deceptive in their gender presentation and, in multiple pop culture representations, as unfeeling killers (Mogul, Ritchie, and Whitlock 30). Kubala suggests that trans women in particular are endangered by serial killer archetypes (131). In Abolition Now! Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex, Critical Resistance, a prison abolition organization, suggests that criminality constructs and enacts the disposability with which state power orients toward Black bodies (59).

A queer abolitionist reading of the Lorde-Daly debate, and Ratcliffe’s figuring of it in Rhetorical Listening, does not reject the merit of resisting a “who’s right and who’s wrong” perspective on debates, despite my interrogation of Daly here, nor does it reject the thoughtful uses of commonalities and differences engaged by metonymic and conscious identifications. However, in this essay I have sketched some of the ways that the commonalities and differences illuminated by rhetorical listening practices might retain and reify entrenched carceral boundaries. We all live in a world where people are, in the name of general survival and safety, excluded, disposed of, disappeared, forgotten, and murdered. As important, we have, as Krista Ratcliffe wrote fifteen years ago, “a stake in each other’s lives.” If rhetorical listening seeks to transform relationships and communication, it can, I believe, extend that ambition to listening along and against the very terms by which we imagine engagement with others is possible or desirable.

Works Cited

  • Becker, Deborah. “Coalition Calls on Governor Baker to Release Prisoners.” WBUR News, Web, May 12, 2020.
  • Carruthers, Charlene A. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Our Movement. Beacon Press, 2018.
  • Cohen, Cathy J. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 1997, pp. 437–465.
  • Gossett, Che et al. “Reclaiming Our Lineage: Organized Queer, Gender-Nonconforming, and Transgender Resistance to Police Violence.” The Scholar and Feminist Online, vol. 10, nos. 1-2, 2011.
  • Grubar, Aya. The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration. U of California P, 2020.
  • hooks, bell. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism. Routledge, 2015.
  • Kaba, Mariame, and Kelly Hayes. “A Jailbreak of the Imagination: Seeing Prisons for What They Are and Demanding Transformation.” Prison Legal News, vol. 30, no. 1, 2019, p. 12.
  • Kubala, Julia. “Teaching ‘Bad Feminism’: Mary Daly and the Legacy of ’70s Lesbian-Feminism” in Feminist Formations, vol. 32, no. 1, Spring 2020, pp. 117-136.
  • Lamble, Sarah. “Queer Investments in Punitiveness: Sexual Citizenship, Social Movements, and the Expanding Carceral State” in Queer Necropolitics. Edited by Jin Haritaworn, Adi Kuntsman, and Silvia Posocco. Routledge, 2014, pp.151-172.
  • Lee, Alexander et al. “Building a Trans and Queer Abolitionist Movement with Everything We’ve Got” in Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by Eric Stanleyand and Nat Smith, AK Press, 2011, pp. 15-40.
  • Let Them Stay in Your House: Boston Police Commissioner Criticizes Release of Criminals.” CBS Boston, Web, May 28, 2020.
  • Lorde, Audre. “An Open Letter to Mary Daly.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing, 1984, pp. 66-71.
  • Nash, Jennifer C. Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. “When the First Voice You Hear is Not Your Own.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb. 1996), pp. 29-40.

Bad Listeners

I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.

—Roxane Gay

The truth is that I’m a bad listener—at least, occasionally. Sometimes I’m a very good listener and will listen and listen longer and more attentively than anyone else. But other times, I won’t listen or can’t listen, and these other times make me feel guilty about being a bad listener. 

It’s not that I don’t want to listen or to keep listening. It’s not that I don’t want to engage, to learn, or to be challenged. It’s not that I am resistant to being a good listener. I simply cannot listen at some times, in some places, and for some reasons.

As a neurodivergent person, I have sensory limits that are different than those of my nondisabled peers. During those times and in those places and for those reasons that I cannot listen, it is often because I am too exhausted, overstimulated, or overwhelmed to think clearly. Other times, I will have the energy to listen, but the substance of that to which I am listening triggers memories of previous violence or trauma. If I try to push past my sensory limits—to listen despite my exhaustion, my overstimulation, or my feelings of being overwhelmed—or to sublimate my triggered memories, I could hurt myself. I don’t want to hurt myself, and that’s that.

Unfortunately, that’s not only that. Being a bad listener is not the same as being a bad knitter (something else at which I am not very good but about which few other people care). Listening comes with political, ethical, and rhetorical stakes that risk framing bad listeners as elitist, unsympathetic, and even anti-feminist. Since Krista Ratcliffe first coined “rhetorical listening” as a tool for facilitating “cross-cultural conduct” (1), the concept has been widely cited as a foundational element of feminist rhetorical praxis. Indeed, Wendy Wolters Hinshaw writes that “a pedagogy of listening” is but “feminist pedagogy…more specifically” (265). Ratcliffe’s emphases on “understanding,” “accountability, “commonalities and differences,” and “cultural logics” resonate with feminist politics more broadly, which seek to establish solidarity across lines of difference in pursuit of a more equitable world (26, emphases in original). Listening, in this feminist context, is a necessary tool. It not only “facilitate[s] cross-cultural communication,” as Ratcliffe suggests, but also demonstrates a person’s commitment to the forms of solidarity such communication is intended to bring (17). Listening is thus both part-means and part-end. Good feminists make good listeners make good feminists. 

As someone who holds themself accountable to feminist communities, I am committed to Ratcliffe’s vision for rhetorical listening. I understand it not only as a promising strategy for navigating personal and professional relationships but also as a tried-and-true strategy for coalition work in activist spaces. Nevertheless, I am wary about how rhetorical listening has been taken up in feminist rhetorical circles as a measure of a person’s feminism. Does being a bad listener make me a bad feminist? What kind of feminist can I be if I am a bad listener?

This contribution is my way of working out (or into) these questions with neuroqueerness in/on the mind. My intention is to expand Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening to include neurodivergent forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, thereby opening up feminist praxis to a more diverse array of bodymind configurations. Following M. Remi Yergeau’s description of neuroqueers as those folks who “perform the perversity of their neurotypes,” I invoke the figure of the Bad Listener as an example of neuroqueer resistance, as a person who honors their neurodivergent demand for perverse forms of listening, which regularly fall outside nondisabled norms for what is good, productive, and appropriate communication (27). Similar to Roxane Gay’s “bad feminist,” who reveals “all the ways [feminists] have room to want more, to do better,” the Bad Listener sheds light on the ways feminist rhetoricians can also want more and do better (xiv). On the one hand, Bad Listeners reveal the exclusionary nature of listening in feminist rhetorical studies, of the ways that listening can be deployed as a gatekeeping device that makes feminism inaccessible to neurodivergent people. On the other hand, Bad Listeners follow our neuroqueer and crip foreparents to reveal the counterintuitive potentialities afforded by exclusion—by failing, by being left out, by being not very good. At the same time that Bad Listeners remind feminists to do better, they also invite feminists to do worse.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Access

According to Ratcliffe, rhetorical listening is a “conscious choice,” something a person chooses to do in order “to foster conscious identifications that may, in turn, facilitate communication” (26). Unlike hearing, which might be understood as a passive response to auditory stimuli, listening is an active, “open stance in relation to any person, text, or culture” (26). One must choose to listen and to keep listening. Like with all choices, though, the act of choosing whether to listen is unavoidable; one cannot simply refuse to choose. If a person chooses not to listen, they have made as much of a choice as if they had chosen to listen. For Ratcliffe, the role of conscious choice is important because it positions rhetorical listening as part of an ethical project, one that is “motivated by accountability” (73). This “accountability logic” imbues the choice of whether to listen with “an ethical imperative” that—as Ratcliffe explains—can be fulfilled “either by listening and/or by acting upon that listening” (31, 76) In this formulation, rhetorical listening is the ethical choice, the correct choice. Ethical people choose to listen. And as Ratcliffe goes on to suggest, the stakes of this ethical choice are high: “such choosing potentially provides a means of physical, psychical, cultural, and spiritual survival” (76). Choosing to listen is choosing to survive. 

But what happens when listening is not an option? What happens to the ethics of Bad Listeners who, in the (neuro)differential interests of our own survival, do not listen? If listening is always already a choice that leads to survival, what does the absence of that choice signify? Who doesn’t survive when no one listens? Who dies?

Since the answers to all of these questions promise to fare poorly for neurodivergent folks, and since I am not particularly interested in predicting my own death, the Bad Listener in me wants to ask a different set of questions. As Margaret Price points out, rhetorical listening is an effective means of communication only when the speaker is deemed rationale, logical, and coherent—read: nondisabled. For those disabled people who cannot hear, speak, or “‘make sense’ on a neurotypical scale,” listening remains an impossible barometer of humanness (Price 44). To Ratcliffe’s credit, Rhetorical Listening preempts critiques such as Price’s by acknowledging that rhetorical listening is only “one tactic”—among others—“for attempting to negotiate troubled identifications that haunt many rhetorical exchanges” (27). In the spirit of building on both Price’s critique and Ratcliffe’s own “open stance” to other forms of rhetorical (non)engagement, what if we were to push back on the ethics of listening? What if rather than denying the ethics of people who don’t listen, which reinforces dangerous assumptions about the (in)humanity of disabled people, we work to accommodate them? What if we reimagined listening as a matter of access?

Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because it’s not the right time or not the right place. This might seem obvious. Everyone has times and places that they would rather not listen, like while they’re trying to nap or read a book. But there are also times and places that nondisabled people assume are meant for listening, that seem to invite listening to happen. In these times and places, we imagine listening occurring spontaneously, suddenly, naturally. Seminars come to mind. My class is scheduled to meet from 3 PM to 6 PM in the room next to the elevator. Someone speaks, and someone responds. Someone else speaks. They are looking at me, the instructor. It’s my turn. I heard someone ask me a question, but I wasn’t listening, not really, not actively or openly or rhetorically. It’s been a bad day, and I’m not feeling up to any of it. I’m tired; my head hurts; my body hurts. The lights—fuck them. I want to cry, but that would hurt worse. (It’s called a meltdown.) I want to cancel class and send everyone home, but here everyone is: looking at me, listening to me, as if I were listening to them. I feel bad that I’m not listening. I’d feel worse if I did listen. I make a judgement call: we’ll continue with class, but I won’t be responding to questions. Write them down, and I’ll respond via email tomorrow. Talk amongst one another. I turn on my phone’s voice recorder. I’ll listen better later.

As a matter of access, listening might be delayed, split into multiple sessions, or moved. To make listening accessible is to adopt crip time, which—to borrow from Ellen Samuels—“requires us to break in our bodies and minds to new rhythms, new patterns of thinking and feeling and moving through the world.” Operating on crip time, our listening will likewise need to be broken in to new rhythms and patterns, as well as perhaps new modes and modalities, that reflect each participant’s needs in the moment. Instead of relying on the time and place to tell us to listen, Bad Listeners turn inward, asking one another’s bodyminds when and where to listen. I might be in my office during the mid-afternoon on a Wednesday, but now is not the time, Karen. I might also be lying in bed at 2 AM on a Saturday, emailing answers to all of my students’ questions from the week before. As an access issue, listening is contingent on the listeners’ bodyminds. It happens when it happens, where it happens.

But sometimes the access issue isn’t about the when or where. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen because we can’t handle the way someone is trying to tell us whatever it is they are trying to tell us. In this case, it’s the delivery that matters. The delivery is the matter. Just as some neurodivergent folks can be triggered by physical (over)stimulation, others of us, me included, are sensitive to the affective intensities bound up with language. These intensities, typically expressed by body language, tone of voice, volume, and cadence of speech, can trigger memories of violence or trauma, regardless of the content of the message. For example, I have a tremendously difficult time processing anger or fear in another’s voice. A raised voice paired with a raised hand, even gesturally, can be utterly devastating. A person could be complaining about something unimportant and entirely unrelated to me, but if they do it in just the right (or, rather, wrong) way, I’ll be sent spiraling. My ability to listen, in many ways, depends on how I am spoken to.

This is difficult territory. Ratcliffe insists that “[d]etermining who should be given priority [in a listening event] depends on each situation,” but some situations are messier than others (98). While the Bad Listener in me insists that delivery—how I am spoken to—falls under the rubric of access, I am aware of how policing delivery can be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy. “The imposition that I be ‘civil,’” Kristiana L. Báez and Ersula Ore write, “is a strategy of white flight, a mode of deflection, mis-direction, a fleeing from responsibility or culpability” (333). Demanding that speakers, particularly those of color, filter their emotions to address my access needs risks reenacting “calls for more gracious and less ‘angry’ speech around race” that disproportionately fall on the shoulders of Black and non-Black people of color (331). Alison Kafer shares this concern, noting that “safety can too easily be deployed as a way of shutting down conversations or excluding particular populations” (12). Though it is simple to draw a categorical distinction between a call for civility rooted in white fragility and a call for access rooted in anti-ableism, both calls could result in the silence of people of color. And such silencing, regardless of the intentions behind it, enacts its own kind of violence and erasure. 

The complexity of this situation—where my very real access needs rub up against the tools of white supremacy—reminds me of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work on “cross-ability access” (65). In Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, she thinks through the challenges that emerge from people’s conflicting access needs, which make it difficult or impossible to accommodate everyone at once:

I’ve often seen crip-only spaces fill with feelings of betrayal and hopelessness when we cannot fulfill some of our friends’ needs. Instead, I believe it’s possible to build a model of experimenting and seeing how it works out, then adjusting. We can try, knowing we may fail and things may turn out to be more complicated than we expected. (65-6)

I wonder what such a model of experimentation might look like for rhetorical listening, where people’s conflicting needs are not always related to disability. While the risk of failing to accommodate everyone is real and pressing (and something I’ll return to below), might there not be ways of understanding access as an inherently imperfect solution? Might Bad Listeners reject not only listening-as-usual but also access-as-usual, moving away from the assumption that access can ever be fully given but is, instead, an ongoing praxis, “a process,” a trying that is never settled but always under revision, always changing, always a question (Sheppard)? Much like Yergeau describes neuroqueerness as the endless “striving toward being neuroqueer,” perhaps the value of access lies in its endless pursuit of accessibility, in the potentiality generated by the friction between what we need and what we can offer (76).

Gavin P. Johnson offers a way into this (neuro)queer potentiality with “rhetorical foreplay” (122). Concerned that Ratcliffe’s original formulation denies the embodiedness of rhetorical listening, Johnson introduces rhetorical foreplay as a corrective that “trace[s] the material-discursive intra-actions of theories about and bodies in spacetime” (122). Like Bad Listening, rhetorical foreplay recognizes that rhetorical listening is a deeply em-bodyminded activity that produces queer intimacies among participants. These intimacies, Johnson argues, are essential to the work of rhetorical listening, but they also expose “the possibility of coercive, dangerous, and traumatic entanglements” (133). As such, he suggests that participants in a listening event should “contemplate the rhetoricity of consent” to assist us in “work[ing] through complex situations that are invigorating, frustrating, exhausting, and orgasmic” (133). In the context of access, rhetorical foreplay throws into stark relief the potential pleasures and problems that rhetorical listening can bring to marginalized populations, and the language of consent provides a lexicon with which we can identify and prioritize participants’ needs during a listening event. 

Openly negotiating who needs what and when builds trust, helps to avoid misunderstanding, and spurs creative solutions for addressing conflicting access needs. Piepzna-Samarasinha reminds us that among the most common “pitfalls” of crip activism is “[n]ot paying attention to the gendered/raced/classed dynamics of care” (65-6). White neuroqueers need to listen to folks of color, including other neuroqueers of color. This is not to say that race trumps disability but that (1) nondisabled people can have access needs and that (2) all access needs are informed by the interweaving of race and disability, as well as other axes of power and subjection. Insisting that listeners establish consent with one another reminds us that communication, like all forms of interaction, is laced with participants’ dis/abled, gendered, racialized, and classed expectations, preferences, and prejudices. While a neoliberal approach to communication would pit marginalized listeners against one another—race against disability, need against need—this strategy both denies the existence of multiply marginalized people and sustains the systems of inequality that produce many access needs in the first place. A consent-based model allows us to create context-specific plans for addressing multiple access needs, even if they are in conflict. These plans don’t always pan out perfectly, but they also don’t absent anyone entirely from the conversation.   

These imperfect plans might seem like a disappointing payoff for the intellectual labor involved in reimagining listening as a matter of access and access as a matter of consent. But I like to think that imperfect access, including imperfect plans, cultivates a unique form of neuroqueer intimacy. This neuroqueer intimacy of access, contra Mia Mingus’s “access intimacy,” is less about the perfect pleasure from when someone “gets my access needs” than about the exhilarating rush of someone working toward my needs—the oh-so-good feeling that someone cares enough to try, that someone cares enough to ask, that someone cares enough.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Failing

…and having said all that, sometimes listening is not a matter of access. Sometimes Bad Listeners won’t listen no matter when, where, or how someone says what they want to say because it’s what they’re saying that’s the issue. Of particular relevance to trauma survivors, some listening events will necessarily be inaccessible because they involve content that will be triggering—full stop. Period. In these cases, I move away from the lens of access because the problem is not with the context of the presentation or with the delivery but with the meat of the material, the stuff of the substance. Ratcliffe concedes that “[s]ometimes rhetorical listening will fail” (27). So in cases of Bad Listening that are not a matter of access, I adopt the lens of failing, of Bad Listening as a matter of failing. 

Most neurodivergent folks have a long history and complicated relationship with failure. Many of us come to recognize our neurodivergence through failing, through being told that we are bad at something over and over and over again until either someone else pathologizes us, or until we find like-minded kin online who help us to semi-ironically pathologize ourselves. It’s hard to understand neurodivergent failure outside the violence of pathologization. It’s hard for me, even now, to write about Bad Listening without feeling that tinge of shame, that oh look at them try to wriggle out of this one. How embarrassing. But wriggle I shall because, as Yergeau says, “there is potentiality in failing” (144). 

This potentiality builds on what Jack Halberstam has called “queer failure,” when “failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, and not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” (2-3). For neuroqueers, embracing failure offers the opportunity to enjoy bowing out of able-normative logics, to resist what neurotypicals say is normal or right or good and relish our weirdness and wrongness and badness. There is a lot of joy wrapped up in not giving a shit. But neuroqueer failure is not identical to neurotypical queer failure. The costs are higher for us; the risks riskier. To embrace neuroqueer failure, such as Bad Listening, is to make oneself all the more vulnerable to the material costs of pathologization: forced medicalization, involuntary hospitalization, incarceration. To embrace neuroqueer failure is to risk losing the material affordances of playing nice with ableds, of abiding by their rules: employment, housing, healthcare, family, friends. For poor, sick, and undocumented neuroqueers and neuroqueers of color, these costs and risks are even more urgent. Bad Listening as a matter of failing is serious business that verges on the irresponsible; or, less moralistically, on the all-too-fuckin dangerous.

I turn to Sara Ahmed. In What’s The Use? she proposes “queer use as the work you have to do to be” (223). Neuroqueers work very hard to be. Being neuroqueer is hard work. “Perhaps the harder it is to be,” she says, “the more use you have for use” (223). What is the use of Bad Listening? What is the use of failing, of bowing out, of saying no more when the costs are so high? When the risks are so risky? Ahmed continues: “When we cannot make use of some things, we might find uses for other things. What is usually understood as a limit or a restriction can be an opening” (224). Neuroqueers cannot always make use of listening, and this makes us Bad Listeners. Bad Listeners might usually be understood as limited or as restricted. Our failure to listen might mark us as broken or as useless to feminists for whom successful listening is tantamount to successful feminism. And the weight of joy is so very heavy when the world sees us as broken and useless. How can we bear the weight of a future if we cannot withstand the heft of the present? “How to reorient—or disorient—our perceived and involuntary failures?” Yergeau asks, “How to invite failure when failure is read as invitation?” (144).

Maybe it’s not a matter of invitation. Maybe we don’t reorient ourselves to failure. But maybe we do trace the contours of our individual brokenness in pursuit of collective healing, a healing that does not attempt to replace what was (never) lost or to (re)build what was never built but a healing that soothes. A healing that tends to the wounds of guilt, shame, and misrecognition  that are borne by perceived brokenness and uselessness. By being told we are broken and useless. By being scolded for not listening, regardless of why we’re not listening. And maybe, just maybe, this collective healing will reveal new uses that don’t exist in spite of our failure but have, in fact, been produced by our failure. “To offer a queer way of working” writes Ahmed, “is not to start anew, with the light, the bright, the white, the upright; it is to start with the weighty, the heavy, the weary, and the worn” (227). Bad Listeners are weighty, heavy, weary, and worn. Bad Listening takes a toll on the bodymind, even if it is in our own best interest. As a queer way of working, then, Bad Listening might be understood not only as a failure to listen but as a pivoting away from failure as the end, toward failure as the beginning, as the what’s next, as the what else. We don’t have to invite failure to see failure itself as an invitation. 

In this world, neuroqueers fail. In this messy, muddy world, neuroqueers fail and fail and fail. Bad Listening looks to all that failure and says, okay. This is not acquiescence. This is not an embrace of pathologization. This is not a white flag, an admission of defeat. To say okay to failure is to write yourself one of Ahmed’s “permission notes,” to take a step back from the fight and breathe (Living a Feminist Life 244). Bad Listening is breathing, is setting boundaries, is taking a break. Bad Listening is taking a break from breaking and being broken and screaming that we’re not broken. Bad Listening is healing, is self-care, is survival. Bad Listening is going home early. It’s leaving before the movie is over. It’s being absent to your own panel at the conference. It’s missing faculty and committee meetings. It’s crying in your car in the parking lot instead of going to class. It’s having a meltdown in the middle of campus. It’s riding the wave of your panic attack in front of your crush on the second date. It’s telling your own mother that you can’t talk to her anymore if she keeps calling you those names. When she keeps using them, you block her number, and you feel like you’ve lost the only person who ever really loved you. Bad Listening is failing, and it feels like failing, and it keeps you alive.

Bad Listening as a Matter of Survival

Sometimes Bad Listening is a matter of access. Other times Bad Listening is a matter of failing. But at all times, Bad Listening is a matter of survival. In saying no—not now, not here, not that way, not at all—Bad Listeners recognize that listening in itself does not a feminist make. While still sharing in Ratcliffe’s hope for rhetorical listening as a tool to traverse difference—“to see we in they and they in we”—Bad Listeners also cling to Ratcliffe’s admission that “rhetorical listening cannot solve all the world’s problems” (26). Bad Listening sheds light on additional modes of rhetorical (non)engagement that are not given to us neuroqueers but are constructed by us. These modes are not contingent on nondisabled standards of productivity or appropriateness. They do not succumb to neoliberal hierarchies of need, nor do they blame people for needing things while we live in a world that peddles those needs for profit. The modes of Bad Listening are slow and messy and loud; they are made by bodyminds who are in pain and tired and anxious and out of breath and frozen and perseverating and crying and hitting and sleeping and altogether too much and too little. The modes of Bad Listening are all of the things feminists are told not to do, just as neuroqueers are all of the things feminists are assumed not to be. 

But Bad Listening and its composite modes offer neuroqueers ways to stick around. Bad Listening offers us strategies for being in it for the long haul—“it” being feminism, being a commitment to communicating across difference, being a movement to dismantle the very institutions designed to call us bad in the first place. Bad Listening offers me the tools to email my class from bed that today was hard. Let’s try again on Wednesday; to text my date from the bathroom that this restaurant is too loud and crowded. Let’s go somewhere else; and to tell my mom in a handwritten letter that I love you, but you’re hurting me. Let’s take some time apart.  

I am a Bad Listener. I would rather be a Bad Listener than no listener at all. 

Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
  • —. What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. Duke UP, 2019.
  • Báez, Kristiana L. and Ersula Ore. “The Moral Imperative of Race for Rhetorical Studies: On Civility and Walking-in-White in Academe.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 4, 2018, pp. 331-336.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hinshaw, Wendy Wolters. “Making Ourselves Vulnerable: A Feminist Pedagogy of Listening.” Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Cheryl Glenn and Krista Ratcliffe, editors. Southern Illinois UP, 2011, pp. 264-277.
  • Johnson, Gavin P. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay; Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • Kafer, Alison. “Un/Safe Disclosures: Scenes of Disability and Trauma.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-20.
  • Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” Leaving Evidence, 2011. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp, 2019.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. U of Michigan P. 2011.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Samuels, Ellen. “Six Ways of Looking at Crip Time.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 3, 2017.
  • Sheppard, Alice. “I Dance Because I Can.” The New York Times, 27 Feb. 2019. Accessed 16 March 2019.
  • Yergeau, M. Remi. Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness. Duke UP, 2018.

Queering Rhetorical Listening: An Introduction to a Cluster Conversation

Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness is a postmodern feminist reclamation of what the ear has to offer rhetorical theory. Krista Ratcliffe defines the practices as “a stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in cross-cultural exchanges” (1). To rhetorical theory, Ratcliffe offers the idea of non-identification as the location where rhetorical listening takes place. In this abstract space of non-identificaiton, rhetors may interrogate their gendered and racialized identifications (who they are and their processes of attachment to that sense of self) and disidenfications (those things they are not or are actively working against). This interrogation seeks to trouble (un)conscious identifications that prohibit deep understanding of the ways similarities and differences operate in cross-cultural rhetorical negotiation of meaning and the ways whiteness haunts our interactions.

Ratcliffe’s theorizing of the relationships between gender and whiteness inspired two edited collections–Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts (co-edited with Cheryl Glenn) and Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education (co-edited with Tammy Kennedy and Joyce Irene Middleton). However, in Rhetorical Listening, Silence and Listening, and Rhetorics of Whiteness, little space is given to the way sex and sexuality shape or are shaped by rhetorical listening or how rhetorical listening shifts the way we think about sex, sexuality, and transgender issues.1 This is not to suggest that queer or trans* scholars are absent from these works. Nevertheless, in these works the categories of sexuality and gender are stabilized into normative notions of cisheterosexuality. In “Queering Feminist Rhetorical Canonization,” K.J. Rawson sounded a powerful call for greater attention to the cisgender assumptions embedded within Rhetorical Listening. This cluster conversation similarly invites deeper consideration of the heteronormative assumptions undergirding the project of rhetorical listening. Contributors to this cluster conversation provide provisional answers to the following related questions: 1) What can queer work and rhetorical listening do for each other? 2) What is queer rhetorical listening and what it can do?

Generally, queer rhetorical listening grounds the lived, learned, and studied experiences of queer people in order to demonstrate the reciprocal transformation that comes from placing queer theories alongside rhetorical listening. Such an approach can be understood in two ways. One project for queer rhetorical listening attends to the specific embodied experiences of queer people and the unique forms of listening that they engage. For example, the practices of “reading” and “throwing shade,” I (“When Queers Listen”) suggest, are unique forms of queer listening where rhetors attempt to “crack open” another to hear tough love. To get a good read or throw some good shade, you have to attend to the other’s insecurities and desires for belonging.2 

A second way to apprehend queer rhetorical listening is to think through the theoretical concerns that rhetorical listening advances but without its heteronormative (Oleksiak, “Composing in a Sling”), normate (Price), and/or cisnormative (Rawson) assumptions. More specifically, queer rhetorical listening embraces what Karen Barad calls “a desiring radical openness” (29). A desiring radical is a person who longs toward, moves forward and backward for change. A radical openness is a receptivity, a drawing into because we are open to it. Queer listeners use the texts we receive as transformation points that allow us to demonstrate how others influence and change us. Queer rhetorical listening is a worldmaking practice based on the longing for kinship and community. Queer listening is a demonstration of what my consent does to me, to you, to our relationship, and the ecologies in which I, you, and our relationship exist.3 It is a taking in of what we have and sending it back out toward you. As such, it is not what I say that matters to me or to you but how you react to the saying. It does not matter if I speak or write first or you do. It only matters that we catch ourselves in an unending stream of response and transformation. Response and transformation. An unending commitment to be transforming. Queer listeners embrace the tension between this longing for kinship and the continuous transformations necessary for inventing meaningful responses.

***

How can we honor Krista Ratcliffe’s contributions to rhetorical theory and practice with a critical generosity that comes from a deep respect for what thoughts and practices she allows us to think while honoring our own scholarly commitments as queer feminist teachers, scholars, and activists?

Feminist scholars like Becky Thompson, Lisa Blankenship, and Jessica Restaino sound the ever clearer call for more kindness and generosity of spirit as we reach toward each other. I encouraged each contributor to write with a generosity of spirit that acknowledges the good work in Rhetorical Listening. Generosity, however, can sometimes look like the kind of tough love that cracks open others to better, more resilient ways of being.

What would scholarship look like when it ethically and responsibly engages marginalized voices and communities in ways that illuminate possibilities for transformation and change?

I invited contributors to explore what it means to center silenced and marginalized voices, their own or others. One way to do such work is to more carefully and purposefully attend to our citational practices. That is, we need to cite more Black feminists, disability scholars, and queer people of color.4 However, I encouraged contributors to go beyond politics of citationality. While it is important to acknowledge the contributions of these voices, it is equally important to demonstrate the way these scholars influence how we might do queer feminist work.

How can we write passionately and with emotional abandon? Where would our urges and longings take us? How might we respond to such passion?

I invited contributors to write with academic lyricism. I understand academic lyricism to be writing that moves the mind, body, and heart. Here, think with Toni Morrison’s distinction between being touched and being moved by prose. To be touched is to feel the joys and horrors of the world deeply. To be moved is to allow what touches us to transform the ways we act in the world (“Foreword”). Genre alone cannot dictate academic lyricism. A lyrical, thesis-driven essay can move us deeply. The rules of academic lyricism cannot be dictated, only encouraged and given space. The power to move others to believe and act in different ways is not solely the responsibility of the contributors. These contributors offer a way to move us. Will we be moved?

***

As I reflect on the work of queering rhetorical listening presented here, I keep returning to a single word: survival. Queers are not supposed to survive. And yet we do. Survival, though, is complicated work, as the contributors throughout attest, and can take many forms: neurodivergent, institutional, embodied, digital, social, and emotional. The blurriness of these forms and their boundaries complicates survival even more. Jonathan Smilges’ “Bad Listeners” offers the figure of the Bad Listener that not only challenges feminist gatekeeping but illustrates how “Bad Listening is healing, is self-care, is survival.” In “Troubling the Terms of Engagement: Queer Rhetorical Listening as Carceral Interruption,” Rachel Lewis challenges notions of personal agency in Rhetorical Listening to “make more room for the queer coalitional possibilities outlined by radical queer prison abolition and activism.” Michael J. Faris’s “Queer Kinesthetic Interlistening” argues that “through kinesthetic practices, we can listen to our bodies in ways that challenge the dominant cultural logics of gender and sexuality, inventing new ways of being in the world.”  In “Métis and Rhetorically Listening to #BlackLivesMatter” Storm Christine Pilloff illustrates how métis rhetoric helps us understand not only the rhetorical sophistication of Black queer women’s digital activism but also how to “fully humanize the embodied, lived experiences that led to such rhetorical skill.” Violet Livingston’s prose poem—“Excerpts from Terms of Play: Poetics on Consent as Method”—poses some house rules for engaging consent. As Livingston notes, within this queer house “tenderness has transformative potential.” Finally, in “A Fullness of Feeling: Queer Rhetorical Listening and Emotional Receptivity,” I suggest that we cannot engage the risks demanded by Rhetorical Listening unless and until we are “equipped with a powerful sense of the erotic.” 

Let this cluster conversation be a kind of beginning. Welcome to this space. May we hear from you soon.

I am grateful to Jen Wingard for saying “yes” to this cluster conversation and for her patient, thoughtful, and enlivening mentorship during this process. Special thanks go to Rachelle Joplin for her excellent attention to detail during final copy edits. I am grateful for Lisa Blankenship and the other anonymous reviewer for their important responses. Their labor improved the richness of this cluster. I am grateful to Cheryl Glenn for writing the foreword and for being kind to me and gracious enough to say “yes.” I thank A. Abby Knoblauch, Jonathan Alexander, Brigitte Mussack, Matt Davis, Jackie Rhodes, Lauren Bowen, Edward Hahn, Hadi Banat, and Andrea Putala for their attention during this process. Kyéra Sterling has made me a better and more careful thinker and I value her ways of thinking. Thank you to the contributors—Michael J. Faris, Johnathan Smilges, Rachel Lewis, Storm Pilloff, and Violet Livingston—for trusting me and for working so thoughtfully on your ideas. 

I asked the contributors to offer names of those that have been supportive to them during the development of their ideas. 

Rachel Lewis: I thank Charlie Lesh, and the reviewers for Peitho for their feedback. Gratitude also to Beth Britt, for her gender and rhetoric class, and to Chris Gallagher for pointing me to the affordances of identification in my work.

Storm Christine Pilloff: I’m grateful for the productive feedback and conversations Shevaun Watson and Rachel Bloom-Pojar provided and know that this project would’ve been significantly harder, or impossible, without the love and support I received from Jenni Moody and Lindsay Daigle during this pandemic and (hopeful) revolution.

Violet Livingston: I dedicate my lyric essay on consent to my writing teachers, who patiently waited for these stories—Margaret Willard-Traub, whose undergraduate feminist writing class, Women Writing Autobiography, brought many of these fragments to the surface. Laura Julier, who took me to the AWP conference as an editorial assistant for Fourth Genre, encouraging me in every way to write creative nonfiction. She also dedicate this work to the young survivors served by Tashmica Firecracker Torok’s nationally known organization, The Firecracker Foundation. May our changing knowledge on consent create a world in which you are safe, supported, and whole.

If you are reading this and intend to continue, thank you. There are a million things vying for your attention right now. I understand you’re reading these words as a choice to be present with us. Thank you for taking and giving time.

Thank you, Kris. For your words, your kindness, and your work.

Endnotes

  1. Only DeRouen and Grant’s contribution in Rhetorics of Whiteness explores the complex relationship between sexuality, race, and gender in the fictional characters of Jessica Pearson and Oliva Pope.
  2. Though not conceptualized as queer listening practices, Seth E. Davis’ development of reading and throwing shade contributes powerfully to our collective understanding of what he calls “fierce literacy” practices of Black queer people.
  3. For more on this, see Gavin Johnson’s “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay.”
  4. There are queer people of color who are both disabled and Black feminists. But also queers of color who do not take a feminist stance toward their objects of study. This is not simply a matter of intersectionality (an approach to critical analysis) but also one of identity, of living and being in the world. The point is to resist seeing any three, four, five…sets of identity as exclusive or exhaustive.

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. “Nature’s Queer Performativity.” In Kvinder, Køn og forskning / Women, Gender and Research, nos. 1-2, 2012, pp. 25-53.
  • Blankenship, Lisa. Changing the Subject: A Theory of Rhetorical Empathy. Utah State UP, 2019.
  • Davis, Seth E. “Sade: Literacy Narrative at Black Gay Pride.” Literacy in Composition Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2019, pp. 56-89.
  • DeRouen, Anita M., and M. Shane Grant. “Must(n’t) See TV: Hidden Whiteness in Representations of Women of Color.” Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education, edited by Tammie M. Kennedy, Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe, Southern Illinois UP, 2017, pp. 54-70.
  • Glenn, Cheryl, and Krista Ratcliffe, eds. Silence and Listening as Rhetorical Arts. Southern Illinois UP, 2011.
  • Johnson, Gavin. “From Rhetorical Eavesdropping to Rhetorical Foreplay: Orientations, Spacetimes, and the Emergence of a Queer Embodied Tactic.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 119-138.
  • Kennedy, Tammie M., Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe, eds. Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education, Southern Illinois UP, 2017.
  • Morrison, Toni. “Foreword” The Bluest Eye. First Vintage International Edition, Vintage Books: 2007, pp. vii-xiii.
  • Oleksiak, Timothy. “Composing in a Sling: BDSM, Power, and Non-identification.” Queer Rhetorics: DirtySexy special issue of Pre/Text, vol. 24, no. 1-4, Spring-Winter 2018, pp. 9-24.
  • —. “When Queers Listen.” Reinventing (with) Theory in Rhetoric and Writing Studies: Essays in Honor of Sharon Crowley, edited by Andrea Alden, Kendall Gerdes, Judy Holiday, and Ryan Skinnell, Utah State UP, 2019, pp. 256-268.
  • Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. The U of Michigan P, 2014.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
  • Rawson, K.J. “Queering Feminist Rhetorical Canonization.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies, edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010, pp. 39-52.
  • Restaino, Jessica. Surrender: Feminist Rhetoric and Ethics in Love and Illness. Southern Illinois UP, 2019.
  • Thompson, Becky. Teaching with Tenderness: Toward an Embodied Practice, U of Illinois P, 2017.

Foreword to Queer Rhetorical Listening

September 18, 2020

I’ve just finished watching a terrific documentary-music-video of 2Fik, a French-Moroccan multimedia artist who lives in Quebec. 2Fik’s provocative art includes embodying various contemporary identities, from that of a devout Muslim man and an haute couture feminine runway model to all the characters (men and women) in iconic paintings by Edgar Degas, Edvard Munch, and Benjamin West. In the manner of U.S. photographer Cindy Sherman, 2Fik explores the concept of identity by representing each character as having a full back story. In the video, 2Fik sometimes presents as a long-haired woman, other times as a clean-shaven man, and still other times, 2Fik complicates these presentations as trans, sporting a full beard, stiletto booties, a poofy skirt, and what looks to be a waterproof fisherman’s hijab—all the while opera, classical music, electronica, and rap play in the background. 

Self-identified as an agnostic, former Muslim, homosexual fashionista, 2Fik represents an artistic movement known as S.A.P.E. (The Societé des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Elégantes or The Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People). As part of this movement, 2Fik disturbs traditional notions of identity, whether ascribed by others or by the self, asking, “When you see a bearded Muslim, why do you immediately think ‘danger’?” “When you see a woman in a short skirt, why do you think ‘easy’?” 2Fik wonders why we  judge so quickly, especially when, if we take the time, we realize we are often wrong (rather than right, as Malcolm Gladwell argues in Blink).

Thus, 2Fik’s artistic goal is to complicate our notions of identity, our own as well as that of others. 2Fik induces us to realize that our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs, and pushes the envelope of identity until we must admit that we are all humans whose identities are open to many interpretations. It is our humanness that 2Fik leverages, admonishing us to embrace and respect other humans, reminding us that identities scare people, even (maybe even especially) those people who strongly embrace an allegedly stable identity for themselves. These same people seem to be afraid of those identities heralded by notions of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic class, phenotype, clothing, and religion. 2Fik is not afraid. 

Like the authors of the following essays, 2Fik launches an intellectual project at the intersection of race, gender, and public power, that same intersection that legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw mapped out for us in 1989. Her map guides 2Fik into deeper territory—just short of the point where identity meets disability, the specific disability called aging, and rhetorical power (though, to be sure, 2Fik demonstrates incalculable rhetorical power). When I watched 2Fik in action, I thought of Timothy Oleksiak and his intellectual project, which lies at the nexus of identities and rhetorical power, and the ways Timothy has found purchase in his own identities to that end. 

I first met Timothy at the 2013 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), when I served as a panelist on how best to become active in the organization. Although the room was filled with interested, questioning people, Timothy is the only one I remember, for he easily distinguished himself with his insightful questions, obvious brilliance, good humor, and already-in-place sense of activism. I feel sure that he didn’t need our advice so much as he needed reassurance that he was headed in the right direction—which he so obviously is, as he serves or has served on the CCCC Executive Committee, the Lavender Rhetoric Award Committee, the Newcomers Welcoming Committee, the Stonewall Service Award Committee, and the Queer Caucus Standing Group. 

So it comes as no surprise to me that Timothy would recruit some of the best minds in his academic cohort to interrogate the ways multiple, sometimes overlapping identities, intersect with rhetorical power and weakness, with the grammar of who speaks, who remains silent, who listens, who refuses to listen, who is discounted or ignored, what can/must/cannot be said, and what those listeners can/not do. Timothy (University of Massachusetts Boston) and Violet Livingston (Michigan State University) have been working at this intersection since at least 2014, when they presented a forward-looking CCCC panel on listening and love in Indianapolis. Together, these two scholars, along with Johnathan Smilges (Texas Woman’s University), Rachel Lewis (Northeastern University), Michael Faris (Texas Tech University), and Storm Christine Pilloff (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)—feminist killjoys all—profess their opposition to systems and regulations that marginalize groups of people due to their identities, in the manner of all good feminist killjoys (Ahmed).

Back last century when Kris Ratcliffe (who has written the Afterword) and I were graduate students, sitting together in the rhetoric seminars of Edward P.J. Corbett, we shared the challenge of writing women into the history of rhetoric. After all, we had been told point blank that “there weren’t any.” We might have been proto-killjoy-feminists (uncomfortable with the status quo), but we hadn’t been forged in the crucible of intersectionality like the scholars in this collection who are blasting off from Cape Crenshaw to take up and queer up Kris’s theory of rhetorical listening. In a cascade of cogent essays, they help us appreciate “bad” listeners (à la Roxane Gay’s “bad” feminists), the terms of engagement for listening, the kinesthetics and attunement of listening, the failure of rhetorical listening, the grammar of consent (of being listened to), and the emotional receptivity of queer rhetorical listening. 

Each of these essays complicates, builds on, and extends Kris’s ground-breaking theory to the point that they break the barrier of the speaker-listener dyad itself. When rhetorical listening is in play, who is actually the rhetor, and who is the audience? Is it the rhetor or the listener who is controlling the artistic appeals? Whose ethos is more important here? Which participant is establishing good will, good sense, good moral character? Who is actually devising the stasis, the foundation of common ground?  Who is making sense of the cultural logics that divide them? Who holds the power? How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us? All these essays overlap at the convergence of these questions. And it is that final question (“How can rhetorical listening bridge the identity-based chasms that divide us?”) that will challenge our discipline for at least a generation. 

When rhetorical listening is placed in the foreground (Daly), I wonder what is happening in the background—which brings me back to 2Fik. Underscoring 2Fik’s social media platforms, transmedia performances, and interviews is a backbeat of humanness that propels 2Fik’s thesis: we are human. Our basic needs are human needs, not identity-specific needs. Our identities are not our humanity. Our humanity is not our identities. 

2Fik is not afraid—not of identities, homophobes, or fundamentalists. 2Fik respects the humanness of all human beings. Although he describes himself as homosexual and agnostic, he speaks of loving respect for his human parents, his heterosexual, fundamentalist, devout Muslim parents. How hard would it be for us to think along the same terms, to listen rhetorically to those whose identities are unlike ours in order to establish, remember, and honor what he have in common: our humanness, theirs as well as our own?

Works Cited

  • 2Fik.  “L’identité: sélon 2Fik.” Second Regard. TV Hebdo. ICI Radio-Canada.ca.Télé. 2 December 2018.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique. of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, vol. 1989, article 1989, pp. 139-67.
  • Daly, Mary, in cahoots with Jane Caputi. Websters’ First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Beacon, 1987.
  • Gay, Roxane. Bad Feminist. Harper, 2014.
  • Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Back Bay, 2007.
  • Ratcliffe, Krista. Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Call for Peitho Editor/Co-Editors

The Coalition of Feminist Scholars in the History of Rhetoric and Composition (CFSHRC) is seeking an editor (or co-editors) for Peitho, our quarterly peer-reviewed online journal, beginning June 1, 2021.

In supporting the Coalition’s mission, Peitho seeks to publish research that advances the feminist study of our profession, including

  • Peer-reviewed scholarly texts (i.e., essays, webtexts, standalone videos);
  • Book reviews;
  • Special edited content, including, but not limited to, occasional themed sections or materials related to Coalition activities.

In cooperation with an associate editor (Temptaous McKoy will hold this position until 2024) and Peitho’s editorial team, the editor has purview over the editorial content and production process of the journal, including managing the editorial board, issuing calls for papers, refining the journal’s submission process, and publishing the journal. The editor has the support of the Coalition’s Executive Board for all matters requiring approval.

Qualifications: A strong candidate will have:

  • A strong record of feminist academic work, including research and scholarship, teaching, mentoring, and service;
  • A strong record of affiliation with the Coalition (i.e., membership, Coalition-related service work, participation in Feminisms and Rhetorics conferences, involvement in Peitho);
  • Working knowledge of available resources for digital scholarship and digital publication;
  • Relevant editorial experience and a vision for the future of the journal;
  • A career record of collegiality as well as outstanding planning and communication skills;
  • A firm commitment of support from their home institutions (i.e., release time, interns or research assistants).

Responsibilities:

  • Serve as editor for four years, assuming responsibility for Peitho 24.1 (Fall 2021) through Peitho 26.4 (Summer 2025);
  • Manage the submission, editorial, and online publication process for four issues of Peitho per year (Fall launched in September; Winter launched in January; Spring launched in March; and Summer launched in June) in coordination with the Associate Editor;
  • Participate in the search for a new Associate Editor when needed;
  • Participate in the search for a new Web Coordinator when needed;
  • Serve as an ex officio (nonvoting) member of the CFSHRC Advisory Board and attend regular Board meetings and provide reports on Peitho on Wednesday afternoons at CCCC and during the biennial Feminisms and Rhetorics conference.

Compensation
The Coalition provides a $250 stipend for each year of the editors’ 2-year term (April to April) and 1 complimentary conference registration for each year of their 2-year term (April to April) where the Coalition has a strong presence.

Financial arrangements regarding the Coalition’s funding for software and technology, training, interns, stipends, and other items related to the journal will be negotiated at the beginning of the editor’s term.

For full consideration, please submit the following materials in a single PDF file (with your name in the filename) to Suzanne Bordelon (bordelon@sdsu.edu) no later than February 15, 2021:

  • Letter of application that addresses qualifications for the position,
  • Statement of institutional support,
  • List of three references,
  • Current vita.

Living and Dying as a Gay Trans Man: Lou Sullivan’s Rhetorical Legacy

Over the course of three years, from 1988–1990, activist Louis (“Lou”) G. Sullivan engaged in a four-part series of videotaped interviews with psychiatrist Dr. Ira B. Pauly. Titled Female to Gay Male Transsexualism, the tapes of the interviews were used for many years after they were created, including by Pauly at academic conferences and by Jamison Green in college classes (Smith, Personal Interview).1 The full recordings of these interview are now held by the GLBT Historical Society and have been recently made available on the Internet Archive and linked to on the Digital Transgender Archive. In addition to the full videos available on the Internet Archive, Reverend Megan Rohrer has made twelve short excerpts from these videos available on YouTube (see Appendix A). The twelve video clips are brief, thematic excerpts taken from the hours of original conversations and they provide a helpful starting point for those interested in beginning to explore Sullivan’s rhetoric. In this short essay primarily focused on one of those clips—“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” (see Fig. 1), which is an excerpt taken from Pauly’s third interview with Sullivan in 1989–my aim is to offer a preliminary introduction to the rhetorical approach that Sullivan used to advocate on behalf of trans people.2 Throughout his conversations with Pauly, Sullivan exercised impressive rhetorical savvy as he worked to educate doctors about trans issues, and in particular, as he argued for the viability of being a gay trans man.

When Sullivan and Pauly came together for these one-on-one conversations, they seemed to be at once meeting as like-minded allies of trans people and facing off in their respective roles as patient versus doctor. From the late-1950s through his retirement in 2010, Pauly had a long and prolific career focused on researching and treating transsexual clients, serving as the president of what is now the World Professional Association for Transgender Health from 1985-1987 and often working alongside Dr. Harry Benjamin (Devor; Zagria). Though Sullivan’s life was cut short in 1991 at the age of 39, he was a highly influential white, gay, trans activist who is particularly known for his creation of peer support networks for trans men and his passionate advocacy for gay and lesbian trans people. Biographer Brice Smith explains that by the end of his life, Sullivan was “credited for the role he played in fostering the trans movement” (231). Sullivan’s legacy has only continued to gain recognition in the decades since. Pauly and Sullivan were thus well-positioned to conduct these conversations, with the one-on-one format casting Sullivan as a spokesperson for trans people while Pauly represented the field of psychiatry and, more broadly, medical professionals who worked with trans patients.

These conversations occurred during a kairotic historical moment when tensions concerning medical treatment for trans people mounted as increasing numbers of trans people sought transition-related medical care and medical professionals rapidly tried to determine standards of care for treatment. Tensions arose as medical professionals determined who was eligible for treatment and what criteria must first be met, often resulting in gatekeeping practices and outright refusals of care. Sullivan himself faced this problem time and again when he sought medical support for his transition from female to male beginning in 1976 and continuing through the 1980s. Sullivan repeatedly experienced discrimination when gender clinics would not take him on as a client and doctors refused to operate on him solely because of his sexuality, because they could not comprehend or support a trans person who was also gay (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”).

In speaking with Pauly, Sullivan uses his personal testimony as a rhetorical strategy, frequently drawing upon his own experiences to explain what it is like for a trans person struggling to navigate the medical establishment. As he explains in the 1989 interview, “I had a lot of problems with the gender professionals saying there was no such thing as a female-to-gay-male and you can’t live like this and we’ve never heard of that” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:04-00:14; Figure 1). Here, Sullivan adeptly sums up three common arguments made by “gender professionals” to prevent his transition:

  1. gay female-to-male people do not exist (“there was no such thing”);
  2. only heterosexual people are worthy of treatment (“you can’t live like this”); and
  3. expertise on this issue was owned by the professionals (“we’ve never heard of that”). Sullivan’s very existence, coupled with his willingness to publicly and articulately testify about being a “female-to-gay-male,” offered a compelling counter-point to all three of these arguments.


Fig. 1. Youtube Video. “Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989.” https://youtu.be/SxgZNNX-v2g
 

Sullivan’s use of personal testimony is all the more striking in moments when he discusses the impact his embodied experiences have had on his activism. He recounts, “when I got diagnosed [with AIDS] and I thought I’ve got ten months to live…and they’re going to hear about this before I kick off. And I don’t want, you know, other people coming into their clinics in two years saying they feel that way [gay] and getting the same line that I did that they never heard of this [a gay trans person] and this isn’t an authentic thing” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:15-00:30).3 Sharing an AIDS diagnosis—an uncommon public disclosure in 1989—allows Sullivan to underscore the urgency of his message. What better claim to exigency than a person with ten months to live spending his remaining time advocating for this issue? Sullivan circles back to his AIDS diagnosis again and again throughout his conversations with Pauly and as he does so, Sullivan forfeits his own privacy in the face of tremendous public stigma for those with an AIDS diagnosis. Despite the personal costs, Sullivan prioritizes his rhetorical aims with precision and focus—his goal is to educate gender professionals in order to enable future gay trans people to receive medical care.

In order to combat the discrimination that gay trans people faced, Sullivan needed to make a logical argument that distinguished gender identity and sexuality, which was not a widely held understanding at the time. As he explains, “I guess even in the gender professionals that this is still kind of a new angle that sexual identity…and sexual preference of a partner are two separate issues. That my gender identity, who I think I am, has nothing to do with what I am looking for in a sexual partner. And I think that these two things have been equated. That, well, it’s normal to be heterosexual and if we’re going to make somebody better, that means that we have to make them heterosexual” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 00:46-01:22). With straightforward language and a casual style, Sullivan continues to use his own experience in the first person to advance his argument. He then shifts to using “we” to speak with his audience in order to make explicit the implicit assumption that heterosexual is “normal” and “better.” For gender professionals who would object to being seen as homophobic, this argument would likely be quite persuasive.

Pauly acknowledges the impact of Sullivan’s approach, shifting to first person to speak on behalf of Sullivan; “I think coming forward as you have and saying, ‘hey, you know, maybe my lifestyle and my sexual preference is different than most of these other folks, but I believe I’m as deserving a candidate to live my life the way I wish to, as these other people, and I’m willing to come forward and be counted.’ And I think that’s, I know that’s going to be helpful” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 05:01-05:24). Using the first person to speak from Sullivan’s position, Pauly models the very same empathy and acceptance by a medical professional that is the intended outcome for these conversations. He recognizes the power of Sullivan’s willingness to “come forward and be counted,” of using personal testimony as an argument against the narrow parameters of “normal,” of who was allowed to receive medical treatment.

While Sullivan’s personal testimony is the central focus of these conversations, he still subtly creates space for others in his community. The following exchange offers an illustrative example:

Pauly: In the short period of time since I’ve met you, I’ve heard now of several other cases of female-to-male transsexuals who, in their male role, want a relationship with a man and a gay relationship. So it’s interesting, as you define a new syndrome, certainly at the point where it becomes reported or published, then everybody starts looking and these folks seem to come out of the woodwork.

Sullivan: Right, right. I know just from my contact with other female-to-gay-males that they’ve been afraid to say anything, and especially to any of the doctors that have been helping them because they know that they are up for prejudices and that this is not part of the textbook definition and they don’t want to throw their chances off of getting treatment. (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 03:29–04:16)

Pauly’s use of “syndrome” and reference to “reported or published” information lends an obviously clinical tone to his comments. But rather than arguing against Pauly directly and with equally clinical language, Sullivan first agrees (“right, right”) that there are gay trans people. Then, he invokes a larger community that he refers to as “female-to-gay-males,” which is an important revision of “female-to-male” (also shortened to “FTM”), the then-common phrase that Pauly uses repeatedly. Sullivan’s addition of “gay” in FTM inserts a sexual identity where there wasn’t one before. He leaves unspoken that a corollary phrase—“female-to-straight-males”—may seem strange (as naming a dominant position can often be), but it is precisely the unstated precondition for care required by most medical professionals working with trans patients at the time. Sullivan’s use of the new identity term “female-to-gay-male” is one part of his larger effort to explain that there is a broader community of gay trans men whom Pauly, and other gender professionals by extension, are admittedly unaware of. While Pauly may have the sense that gay trans men were “com[ing] out of the woodwork,” Sullivan gently rebuts that by explaining that others have been forced into silence because of the power that doctors wield to withhold treatment.

Given this power imbalance, it makes sense that Sullivan’s target audience in these conversations is the “gender profession,” as he refers to it throughout the interviews. As an advocate for trans people, Pauly helpfully becomes a surrogate for the “gender profession” writ large, modeling for other professionals how to treat trans people as experts by respecting their lived experiences. By casting Sullivan as a subject with knowledge to share (rather than an object of study), Pauly models how gender professionals can learn from trans people as part of their academic and clinical research. Within this framework, Pauly lends a great deal of credibility to Sullivan’s testimony and arguments.

Yet while Pauly is generally sympathetic toward Sullivan and supportive of his aims, there are moments of rupture where he states overtly that he is “a bit defensive about the gender profession” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:16–04:19). As Pauly explains, “we have stuck our necks out a bit in even allowing the classic case to be operated on and giving it our good housekeeping seal of approval” (“Lou Sullivan: Battling”, 04:23–04:36). Notably, Pauly speaks for the gender profession with a collective “we,” yet trans people have no subjecthood in this framing as he refers to the “classic case” rather than people. After noting that, “there have been some instances in which the people that have been screened did change their mind after surgery and some of us have been involved in legal suits,” Pauly does begin to refer to patients as people and he switches gears to compliment Sullivan and support his arguments (“Lou Sullivan: Battling,” 04:39–04:49). While many trans people and contemporary viewers of these videos might object to Pauly’s characterization of gender professionals as both courageous trendsetters and sympathetic victims of litigious patients, it’s interesting to consider how effective this approach would have been to the gender professionals in their audience at the time. Indeed, I would argue that Pauly’s position as a representative of gender professionals allowed him to air beliefs that many of his colleagues may have shared, which ultimately may have furthered Sullivan’s advocacy for gay trans men.

In addition to potentially objecting to the content of Pauly’s arguments, contemporary viewers might also struggle to understand how a highly mediated and staged conversation with a trans person could qualify as cutting-edge advocacy work. This distinction in historical context becomes quite apparent within the context of YouTube, an online platform where easy access to vlogging has empowered a generation of trans people to author their own narratives and forge community in ways that were unfathomable in the late 1980s (Raun). While contemporary trans vloggers may take for granted that they are experts on trans experiences and they are able to share those experiences with few barriers, Smith explains that it required a notable amount of resources to videotape the Sullivan/Pauly conversations and it was “unheard of” for a medical professional to position a trans person as an expert at the time (Smith, Personal Interview). Without any other options for spreading his message, Sullivan needed to collaborate with someone like Pauly in order to pursue his rhetorical goals.4

As the two sat together, Sullivan and Pauly not only appear to be allied in their rhetorical aims, but they were also visually aligned as well. In all of the interviews, the two white men sit facing one another, leaning back in their chairs and seemingly very comfortable together. Sullivan wears a shirt and tie in every interview—sometimes also donning a jacket or sweater as well—conveying sartorial ethos that would make him relatable with an audience of medical practitioners who were also, we might safely assume, predominantly white and male. Pauly, while also dressed professionally in button down shirts and sometimes a jacket or sweater, opts not to wear ties. The comparative effect is subtle, but may lend extra credibility to Sullivan, who is clearly comfortable and confident in this situation as he converses with one doctor while trying to change the practices of countless others. Their shared traits—whiteness and maleness, for starters—certainly contributed to their ease with one another and, for contemporary viewers, also offers a helpful reminder that other trans activists seeking a stage for their trans advocacy work would have faced significant barriers the further they were from positions of (relative) power and privilege.

A comparison of Sullivan’s visual presentation across the three-year sequence of videos provides a striking testament to the impacts of disease on his body (Fig. 2). The juxtaposition of video stills taken from across the years shows Sullivan adopting glasses by the second clip, and then becoming increasingly gaunt by the third. His posture, confidence, and professionalism remain consistent throughout the years, but his voice gets softer and his energy is seemingly weakened. It is as if his body is vanishing as the strength of his message is amplified.

This figure shows three images stacked vertically, all of Lou Sullivan. They appear to be still images taken from interviews Sullivan gave from 1988, 1989, and 1990. Sullivan is smiling in each image, but he looks less healthy in each one. In the 1990 image, he his visibly thinner, wearing glasses, and looks paler.

Fig. 2. Still images. Sullivan from 1988, 1989, and 1990, top to bottom.

Sullivan’s experience of AIDS was a complicated, if mournful, terminal illness. As he recounts,

“I feel like, in a way, this AIDS diagnosis, because AIDS is still seen at this point as a gay man’s disease, that it kind of proves that I did do it, and that I was successful. And I kind of took a perverse pleasure in contacting the gender clinics that rejected me and said that, you know, they’ve told me so many years that it was impossible for me to live as a gay man but it looks like I’m going to die like one.” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II”, 26:45–27:12)

Combining his rhetorical strategies of personal narrative and embodiment, Sullivan argues here in the strongest terms for the authenticity of being a gay trans man. While gender clinics may have disavowed his identity, he regains the power of self-identification through his association with a broader community of gay people. Sullivan’s terminal diagnosis provides not only exigency for his activism, but an incredible emotional appeal that underscores the importance of this cause.

Sullivan’s powerful testimony throughout these interviews is not lost on Pauly and he vows to Sullivan, “rest assured that the story will be told and the tape will be shown to the gender profession, as you refer to it” (“Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I”, 59:36–59:47). As it turns out, Pauly’s reassurances were accurate and Sullivan’s story continues to be told, perhaps more frequently than either of them could have ever imagined and to a far broader audience than the gender profession. As Susan Stryker discusses in her introduction to a recently published collection of Sullivan’s diaries, Sullivan’s story has indeed found “its way to audiences hungry to hear it,” not only through that book, but through Smith’s biography, a dance company production, several films, and increasing publications (viii).

As a rhetor, Sullivan left a legacy of impactful activism that can be rightfully studied under the emergent framework of Transgender Rhetorics. He spent much of his life advocating as a trans person on behalf of trans people, ultimately leaving a notable imprint on both trans community formation and access to medical care. Even in these interviews that are merely brief excerpts from a lifetime of activist work, we gain a meaningful glimpse into the rhetorical savvy that Sullivan exercised, particularly through strategic deployments of personal narrative, logical argumentation, and embodiment. Ultimately, Sullivan offers us profound lessons, in life and rhetoric, about the incredible power of devoting one’s life to helping make trans lives more livable.

Endnotes

  1. The historical materials referenced throughout this essay use language that has become dated (such as “female-to-male”) or is now considered offensive (such as “transsexualism” and “transvestite”). For the purposes of this essay, I will preserve all historical uses of terminology for accuracy, though I will use “trans” to broadly refer to people who do not conform to the gender they were assigned at birth and I will refer to Sullivan as a gay trans man.
  2. The titles of these video clips were given by Rohrer, not Pauly. Rohrer digitized the videos as part of a project for outhistory.org called Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976-2009, available at http://www.outhistory.org/exhibits/show/man-i-fest.
  3. Our current understanding of HIV/AIDS makes an important distinction between HIV and AIDS diagnoses. However, for historical accuracy, I follow Sullivan’s lead in referring to his AIDS diagnosis.
  4. I am grateful to Brice Smith for pointing out the tremendous differences in historical context that YouTube inadvertently flattens.

Appendix: List of Sullivan/Pauly Interviews Currently Available Online

Title
(Provided in Video)
Date Length Link Notes
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I— Gender & Sexual Orientation 1988 1h1m56s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/4x51hj25d Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II— Living with AIDS [1988] 1988 28m58s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/fx719m69c Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: III [1989] 1989 40m57s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/00000030q Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Trans-sexualism Part IV (One Year Later) [1990] 1990 34m22s https://www.digitaltransgenderarchive.net/files/8336h219b Full-length interview
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1988” 1988 2m52s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGVDPhGIA7g Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1990” 1990 7m18s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hpv7Q9Evc8 Excerpt from
part IV
“Lou Sullivan: Honesty, AIDS, and Transition 1988-1990” 1988–1990 5m09s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j_Zqes8Q8Q Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: AIDS and Sex 1988-1990” 1988–1990 8m29s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xggb5naOppo Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1989” 1989 6m51s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbK5Ye7aSIY Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: ‘Genitalplasty’ 1988” 1988 3m52s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ki_p_CyGv4U Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” 1989 6m13s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxgZNNX-v2g Excerpt from
part III
“Lou Sullivan: Top Surgery 1988” 1988 4m51s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L2j-LOYuHSc Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: DSM 1989” 1989–1990 1m36s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9A-6g0f3nXk Excerpts from
parts III and IV
“Lou Sullivan: Rejected by Gender Clinics 1988” 1988 5m58s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGmD7F0bmu8 Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Changing Standards 1989-1990” 1988–1990 4m23s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw7xOrLBOic Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: No Regrets 1988” 1988 1m31s https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epnOWVrGyQU Excerpt from
part 1

Works Cited

“There is No Question About This and There Never Has Been for Eight Years”: The Public Reception of Christine Jorgensen

On December 1st, 1952, the story of Christine Jorgensen—the first American to become widely known for undergoing medical transition—hit multiple news outlets, reporting that she had a series of surgeries in Denmark, had chosen the name Christine, and would soon be returning home to the US. While Jorgensen was not the only transgender figure to receive media coverage during this time period, the attention she received was unprecedented and remained unique, even as other trans people received mainstream news coverage in the following months (Skidmore). She published an autobiography in 1968 (Jorgensen), which was followed by a fictionalized biographic film about her life in 1970 (Kent et al.), both of which also received a lot of media attention. She remained famous until her death in 1989.

Jorgensen has already received considerable attention in trans studies (e.g. Ames; Meyerowitz; Rawson and Williams; Skidmore; Snorton), but because of her unprecedented mainstream popularity, she still provides an opportunity to examine how transgender subjects were attempting to construct narratives of themselves in the middle of the twentieth century and how those narratives were received by the larger public. I find the historical news articles about Jorgensen especially useful for such a consideration, as her mainstream popularity pushes back against contemporary narratives that transgender people are a new “fad.” Because of the sheer amount of media attention Christine Jorgensen received throughout her life, she remains an important figure for considering how ideas about transgender people have circulated.

Despite the media’s fascination with Jorgensen, she was not the first trans person to receive media coverage in the US. In fact, Joanne Meyerowitz explains that the 1930s and ‘40s saw a surprising number of stories about “sex changes;” however, “Such stories often appeared on the margins of the mainstream press, in sensational magazines, tabloid newspapers, or publications like Sexology that presented the science of sex to a popular audience” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 164). Jorgensen’s extensive coverage in the mainstream press is important, then, because while some scholars have argued that the medical discourse of sexology helped to give a name to a preexisting identity and allowed trans people to identify new medical possibilities for constructing their own lives and bodies (Meyerowitz; Prosser), Emily Skidmore notes that “it was through the mass circulation press—not medical literature—that most Americans learned about transsexuality” (272). Therefore, because she received an unprecedented amount of publicity, particularly in the US, Jorgensen became the first exposure to such possibilities for a wider American audience. In fact, her autobiography refers to the sheer amount of mail she received from people, and states that “[b]ecause of her celebrity, letters addressed simply to ‘Christine Jorgensen. United States of America’ reached their destination” (Meyerowitz, “Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 175).

Meyerowitz argues that “While occasional reports portrayed [Jorgensen] as an oddity or a joke, in general the press continued to treat her as a woman and a star” (“Sex Change and the Popular Press,” 174). Skidmore reaches a similar conclusion, suggesting that “Jorgensen was able to present herself as a respectable woman and continued to be represented positively in newspapers around the country” (278), a privilege Skidmore argues was denied the trans women of color she studies (see also Snorton). The news articles I consider in this essay, however, suggest the public reception of Jorgensen is not as simple as either of these scholars contend. While the news often does present Jorgensen’s own accounting of her life and her experiences, the commentary from the reporters often undermines or casts doubt on those experiences.

To demonstrate the ways in which Jorgensen attempts to construct a narrative of her gendered experiences and the news media’s responses to those attempts, I will examine three news articles about Jorgensen from the Digital Transgender Archive. I chose these three articles after reading every news clipping in the archive’s Jorgensen collection. After setting aside any that did not mention her transition (these were rare), I analyzed the remaining articles for recurring themes around the discussion of her gender identity. In this analysis, I noticed that reporters were relying on similar rhetorical moves to question the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood throughout her life. The three articles I have chosen for this essay provide what I see as some of the clearest examples of the cissexist rhetoric used in the coverage on Jorgensen. By putting these particular news articles in conversation with some of the existing scholarship on Jorgensen, I hope to provide insight into how her attempts at self-narrative were constrained by the popular circulation of her story.

“A New Girl, Blonde, Attractive, and 26:” Jorgensen’s Transition as Rebirth

The December 1, 1952 article “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty: Operations Transform Bronx Youth,” which appeared on the front page of the New York Daily News, is often cited as being the first article to announce Jorgensen’s transition. The article included “before” and “after” pictures of Jorgensen and the letter she wrote to her parents the previous June. Meyerowitz suggests that it was not initially clear that this story would become the breaking news it did, but that many other journalists “jumped” at the story and “created Jorgensen’s instant celebrity and then reported on its progress, announcing, for example, the offers she received from ‘night clubs for appearances’ and the ‘bids for a lecture tour, jobs as a fashion model and photographic and magazine articles’” (How Sex Changed, 63). Despite Meyerowitz’s focus on this particular article, however, the New York Daily News was not the only publication to report on Jorgensen’s transition as early as December 1st. On this same day, the Boston American ran a briefer article, titled “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” While less conspicuous (it was not on the front page), and thus probably playing a smaller role in Jorgensen’s quick rise to fame, I am interested in this article because I have not seen it discussed before, despite its release on the same day as the oft-cited New York Daily News article.

Moreover, I find this Boston American article a more interesting response to Jorgensen’s transition because of its framing as a birth announcement, as the article opens by stating “A New York carpenter and his wife said today they were delighted at the news they had become parents of a new girl, blonde, attractive, 26.” By framing Jorgensen’s transition as a birth in this way, the article suggests a “break” between her former and current selves. That is, rather than focusing on her transition from “’ex-GI,’ the quintessential postwar masculine representation, to ‘blonde beauty,’ the hallmark of 1950s white feminine glamour” (How Sex Changed, 62) as Meyerowitz suggests the Daily News headline does, the opening of this Boston American article instead focuses on the joy her parents felt at learning they had a daughter. Throughout this article, Jorgensen is framed as a man whose body was “reborn” through surgical intervention, such as when the second paragraph of the article announces the “new daughter—Christine.”

However, despite framing her as being “reborn” as a woman, the article also frequently casts doubt on her womanhood. It begins with a picture of Jorgensen, post-transition, with the caption, “Ex-GI George Jorgensen As Pretty Woman: Six Operations Change Him To Beautiful Female” (Boston American). While still referencing her “ex-GI” past in the photo caption, and thus invoking her “masculine” past, by only including a post-transition photo, this article visually centers Jorgensen’s femininity in ways the New York Daily News’ before and after photos do not. Nevertheless, because the caption references “George Jorgensen as pretty woman” (emphasis mine) rather than by her correct name, the article suggests she is simply a man playing a role as a woman. The article also immediately follows the statement that the parents welcomed a new daughter with the phrase, “who until recently had been George Jr., a former soldier” (Boston American), again emphasizing her former name and masculine ex-GI role immediately after acknowledging her womanhood.

While the article does switch to the use of “Christine” after this, it rarely uses pronouns, and when it does it uses “he” or “him.” Moreover, most of the article quotes from Jorgensen’s parents and Jorgensen is simply referred to as their “son,” despite a few references to her as their daughter in the first two paragraphs. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when the article states that “The Jorgensens said their son had all of his past Army records officially changed to Christine” (Boston American), thus refusing to continue to acknowledge her as their daughter, even while noting aspects of her legal transition. While Meyerowitz suggests that many early articles on Jorgensen “searched her past for clues to her condition” (How Sex Changed, 63) by referencing how effeminate she was as a child, this article seems to do the opposite, as her father is quoted as saying, “as a young man, his son was ‘all masculine’” (Boston American). Julia Serano notes the way depictions of trans women often frame their femininity as “fake” or constructed, thereby underscoring a perceived essential difference between people assigned male at birth and those assigned female at birth (41-42). This emphasis on Jorgensen’s supposed masculinity, then, works similarly, especially among the frequent references to her as a “son,” as it suggests a “natural” masculinity that has been cast aside for a newfound femininity, thus casting doubt on Jorgensen’s status as a woman.

Despite the framing around her parents’ opinions about her transition throughout most of the article, the reporter does turn to Jorgensen’s own account of her own identity near the end. In a quote from the coming out letter she sent to her parents, Jorgensen says, “Nature made a mistake which I have had corrected and I am your daughter” (Boston American). Despite the break between her previous life and her new one the reporter keeps trying to draw through references to a surgical “transformation,” Jorgensen’s statement here works to draw a continuity between her pre-transition and post-transition self through her simple statement that she is her parents’ daughter (not that she has become their daughter, as the reporters frequently state) and that she has simply sought treatment for a pre-existing condition.

To emphasize these points, her letter then turns to a medical explanation of her “condition” which “has now been cleared” because of her surgery, as she explains how hormones work to her parents, states she had a hormonal imbalance “along with millions of other people,” and that gender confirmation surgery has corrected this imbalance. Meyerowitz notes that Jorgensen frequently frames her trans identity as a result of a hormonal balance (How Sex Changed), but importantly, Jorgensen does not present herself as what Jay Prosser calls “medicine’s passive effect” (7), a depiction he claims is common in trans narratives that “emphasize the transsexual’s construction by the medical establishment” (7). Rather, by emphasizing that she has corrected this mistake in her letter, Jorgensen draws on that medical discourse in order present her gender identity as natural, and something that she has authored herself, albeit with the help of medical technology.

The tension around her gender identity remains, however, because the reporter often editorializes in a way that undermines Jorgensen’s agency to craft her own narrative, as shown above by the continued references to her with masculine pronouns. Moreover, the reporter suggests that, despite Jorgensen’s own insistence, she was transformed by the surgeries. For example, before her explanation, the article states she was “transformed through a series of six surgical operations” (Boston American), emphasizing her medical construction, as Prosser would argue, by suggesting she was a passive recipient of a surgical procedure. While turning to Jorgensen’s own account of her identity near the end of the article in some ways validates her own experiences and explanations, the reporter again draws attention to the surgeon by concluding this account by noting that her “long letter” refers to her surgeon as “a great man and a brilliant scientist” (Boston American). Thus, the reporter again undermines Jorgensen’s own account by ending the article with another reference to the surgeon’s achievements. The reference to her surgeon as a “great man” is especially interesting, as it represents another trend in this article of deferring to men and masculinity, much like the reporter was more interested in Jorgensen’s father’s account of her childhood rather than Jorgensen’s own. Moreover, the fact that her account of her transition follows her father’s assertion that she was “all masculine” and the repeated references to her as “their son” destabilizes her own narrative as the reporter grapples with normative understandings about sex and gender and the ways Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own self-narrative outside of these cultural scripts unsettles those understandings.

“There is Nothing to Refuse:” Questions about Legal Gender and Gender Identity

About seven years after the news about her transition broke, Jorgensen attempted to get married. Despite the passage of these seven years, the media continued to report on Jorgensen in similar ways as when she first hit the news, as reports remained preoccupied with her transition and identifying the “truth” of her gender identity. I find the articles about her attempted marriage especially interesting because of the prominent role marriage plays in cisheteronormativity. Were the public media to wholly view Jorgensen as a woman, her marriage to a man would be of no more interest than that of any other minor celebrity. However, it is clear that the media’s interest in her attempted marriage clearly derived from larger questions about the “truth” of her womanhood, for in the Omaha World-Herald’s article “License Next for Christine,” Jorgensen is referred to as a “boy turned girl” in both the subtitle and the first sentence of the article. The Boston Record American, while slightly more respectful, also begins the article “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans” by describing her as “Christine Jorgensen, who was ex-GI George Jorgensen, Jr., until a sex change operation in Denmark in 1952.” I have chosen these two articles about her marriage to analyze, then, because the anxiety about gender and sexuality that reoccurs throughout reporting on Jorgensen becomes much more explicit through these questions of marriage and what that means for a woman like Jorgensen.

While both articles note that the delay in Jorgensen’s ability to obtain a marriage license is due to her fiancé’s lack of proper documentation of his divorce, and not actually about Jorgensen’s gender identity, they also raise questions about Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman and how that may affect the marriage. The Omaha World-Herald, for instance, states that once her fiancé receives the proper documentation, “City Clerk Herman Katz said a blood test certificate in which a physician certifies Miss Jorgensen is a woman should be sufficient.” Similarly, the Boston Record American, after providing a detailed description of her feminine outfit, states that “One reporter wanted to know if she was apprehensive that she might be refused a marriage license because of the sex change surgery.” Therefore, despite Meyerowitz’s claim that Jorgensen’s authenticity as a woman relied on her appearance “in parts because her sexual organs were neither visible nor mentionable” (How Sex Changed, 63), this article questions the validity of her womanhood despite the fact that she was “dressed in a beige wool coat and a beige knitted dress, [and] was every inch the beaming bride-to-be” (Associated Press). Jorgensen’s response to this question of whether or not the marriage license will be denied because of her transition, quoted in the article, was that “There is nothing to refuse…There is no question about this and there never has been for eight years.” After noting that this timeline of “eight years” refers back to the date of her surgery, the reporter then notes that “She said the U.S. State Dept. had altered her passport shortly after her sex was altered to read ‘female instead of male,’” underscoring Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman.

While Jorgensen’s brief response is direct and suggests there is no question about her status as a woman, it’s interesting that she ties the date that her identity has been settled to her surgery. By doing so, Jorgensen uses that surgery to stabilize her identity as a woman by suggesting the medical interventions are what made her a woman, despite her suggestions earlier that she had always been a woman and simply used surgery to correct a biological mistake. Of course, the fact that both articles are raising questions about how the fact that she was “a boy turned girl” will affect her marriage suggests that, to the media, her status as a woman was not as settled as Jorgensen has claimed. The details this article includes about her passport have a similarly ambiguous effect. While, again, the reference to her passport serves to validate Jorgensen’s legal status as a woman, the fact that the article states her passport reads “female instead of male” suggests it’s not that simple, as it’s tying her current recognized gender identity to that which she was assigned at birth—that is, she’s not just “female” but “female instead of male.”

While I do not take this statement that her passport read “female instead of male” to mean the State Department did, at the time, literally write “female instead of male,” the fact the reporter refers to what her passport says in this way highlights the ambiguity around her status as a woman after she has asserted it is settled—that is, there is at least an implicit suggestion one would expect it to read “male.” Moreover, referring to the gender listed on her passport in this way is a rhetorical act that Serano refers to as “third-gendering” (174-176). Serano describes third-gendering as a statement in which binary trans people are relegated to a separate category rather than the categories of “man” or “woman” that they belong, by using terms such as “male-to-female” for trans women, rather than just women. As Serano explains, this act of third-gendering denies the trans person’s identified gender, even when it’s not meant to be derogatory, as it necessarily makes a distinction between them and their cis counterparts. Thus, like the early article announcing her transition, Jorgensen’s attempts to author her own gendered experiences are consistently undermined by this reporter through such third-gendering and questions about her ability to get married, despite her apparent legal status as female.

Unfortunately, questions about legal gender are never as simple as Jorgensen presents them when she says there is nothing to refuse, a fact that many trans people understand too clearly due to the different requirements around changing gender markers on different identity documents.  As Meyerowitz explains, Jorgensen was eventually denied the marriage license. Despite the fact that she presented her passport, which listed her as female, and a letter from her surgeon stating “she must be considered female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51), the marriage license was denied because her birth certificate listed her as male. The news media, of course, took interest in this ambiguity around her legal gender status, and Meyerowitz reports that a front-page headline in the New York Mirror read that she “was denied a marriage license yesterday on the ground of inadequate proof of being a female” (qtd. in Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed, 51). This reporting on the lack of “proof” of her gender identity highlights that questions about the authenticity of Jorgensen’s womanhood remained several years after the initial reporting on her transition.

Conclusion

The news articles I have considered in this brief essay demonstrate the ways that, despite both Meyerowitz’s and Skidmore’s critiques that Jorgensen was often portrayed positively because of her ability to reinscribe notions of white heteronormative womanhood, her accounts of her identity and her experiences were still often reframed by doubting or dismissive reporters. It is for this reason that I still find the circulation of news articles about her as a valuable source for considering how transgender people are about to find a language for our own experiences. Prosser notes the tendency to read trans narratives as either literalizing essentialist notions of gender and sexuality or deliteralizing those same notions. He suggests this creates an easy binary in which some trans narratives (those that are antiessentialist) are “good” and those that are essentialist are “bad” (15). Attempting to move past this binary, he suggests we attend instead to how trans narratives “rupture the identity between the binaries, opening up a transitional space between them” by considering how these texts “engage with the feelings of embodiment” (16). Following Prosser, then, I think it is necessary to consider how Jorgensen attempted to express her own feelings of gendered embodiment, despite a doubting and dismissive public while drawing on the language available to her (even if at times essentialist or normative). As the articles about Jorgensen discussed above show, this requires a variety of sometimes contradictory strategies—sometimes, for example, resisting the dominant medical narratives, yet, at other times, using them when helpful to legitimatize her own experiences.

Despite Jorgensen’s insistence that “there was nothing to refuse,” my reading of the available news articles about her suggest the questions about the legitimacy of her womanhood persisted throughout her life, despite the varying strategies she used to explain her experiences to a cisgender public. I remain hopeful, however, that the media will eventually be able to move past this constant doubting and dismissiveness of trans people’s experiences. Avery Everhart argues that the “theme of unreliable narration is one that has haunted both the clinical archives of transsexuality and the genres of trans life writing,” an outgrowth from the ways “clinicians may have been trained to, at least historically, be suspicious of the transgender life as narrated by the person living it” (Everhart). Casey Plett, while also acknowledging that “media gatekeepers insisted for decades on a very specific trans story,” one which often “attempts to explain trans existence to an unforgiving world” (Plett), notes in her review of the current state of trans memoirs that there is evidence of a move past such limited possibilities for narratives of trans experiences. To Plett’s surprise, she found there is much more variety in the types of stories that are told in current trans memoirs when compared to what was available a decade ago. This leads her to conclude that it’s hard to discuss patterns among them because “there are so many of us now with more platforms than what we were once allowed” (Plett). While there are certainly those who still doubt trans people’s own accounts of our experiences, there has undoubtedly been an increase in opportunities and platforms for trans people to share our stories on our own terms. This increase has allowed us to maintain at least some control over our narratives, rather than having to rely on news reporters and publishers who are doubtful of our experiences to frame the ways in which they are told.

Works Cited

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  • Everhart, Avery. “A New Anti-Heroine of Transgender Literature Emerges, Or, Why Everyone Should Read Kai Cheng Thom’s ‘Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir.’” Michigan Quarterly Review, Jan. 27, 2020. Accessed March 15, 2020.
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  • —. “License Next for Christine.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.