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. J. Logan 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.


  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. ICIélé. 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).


  • 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.

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 ( 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.”

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.


  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 called Man-i-fest: FTM Mentorship in San Francisco from 1976-2009, available at
  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

(Provided in Video)
Date Length Link Notes
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: I— Gender & Sexual Orientation 1988 1h1m56s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: II— Living with AIDS [1988] 1988 28m58s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Transsexualism: III [1989] 1989 40m57s Full-length interview
Female to Gay Male Trans-sexualism Part IV (One Year Later) [1990] 1990 34m22s Full-length interview
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1988” 1988 2m52s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1990” 1990 7m18s Excerpt from
part IV
“Lou Sullivan: Honesty, AIDS, and Transition 1988-1990” 1988–1990 5m09s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: AIDS and Sex 1988-1990” 1988–1990 8m29s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan on AIDS 1989” 1989 6m51s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: ‘Genitalplasty’ 1988” 1988 3m52s Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Battling the Gender Specialists 1989” 1989 6m13s Excerpt from
part III
“Lou Sullivan: Top Surgery 1988” 1988 4m51s Excerpt from
part II
“Lou Sullivan: DSM 1989” 1989–1990 1m36s Excerpts from
parts III and IV
“Lou Sullivan: Rejected by Gender Clinics 1988” 1988 5m58s Excerpt from
part I
“Lou Sullivan: Changing Standards 1989-1990” 1988–1990 4m23s Excerpts from
all four parts
“Lou Sullivan: No Regrets 1988” 1988 1m31s 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.


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

  • Ames, Jonathan. Sexual Metamorphosis: An Anthology of Transsexual Memoirs. Vintage, 2005.
  • Boston American.  “N.Y. Couple Joyous Son Now Daughter.” Clipping. 1952. Digital Transgender Archive,  Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • 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.
  • Jorgensen, Christine. Christine Jorgensen: Personal Autobiography. Bantam Books, 1968.
  • Kent, Robert E, et al., directors. The Christine Jorgensen Story. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 2011.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Meyerowitz, Joanne. “Sex Change and the Popular Press: Historical Notes on Transsexuality in the United States, 1930-1955.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1998, pp. 159-187
  • Plett, Casey. “The Evolution of the Trans Memoir.” Xtra Magazine, Nov. 21, 2019. Accessed March 15, 2020.
  • Prosser, Jay. Second Skins: The Body Narratives of Transsexuality. Columbia University Press, 1998.
  • Rawson, K.J. and Williams, Cristan. “Transgender*: The Rhetorical Landscape of a Term.” Present Tense: A Journal of Rhetoric in Society, vol. 3, no. 2, 2014.
  • Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Seal Press, 2007.
  • Skidmore, Emily. “Constructing the ‘Good Transsexual’: Christine Jorgensen, Whiteness, and Heteronormativity in the Mid-Twentieth-Century Press.” Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2011, pp. 270-300.
  • Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity. University of Minnesota Press, 2018.
  • The Associated Press. “Christine’s Fiancé Acts to Unsnarl Bridal Plans.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.
  • —. “License Next for Christine.” Clipping. 1959. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed August 15, 2019.

Revisiting Transvestite Sexualities through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s

“This period of assault by Anita Bryant raises the question of whether or not it is time for greater cooperation between the Male Women’s Liberation and the Gay Liberation movements. As Anita Bryant wins, we both lose. Cooperation does not mean we have to become gay, nor does it mean they have to become ‘transvestites’. It does mean we should unashamedly explore all areas of joint cooperation in pursuit of mutually beneficial objectives.”

(Linda Ann Stephens 3)

In June of 1977, residents in Florida’s Dade County, spurred on by Anita Bryant, voted to repeal the county’s anti-discrimination legislation, which had previously protected gay and lesbian people. Soon after the Dade County vote, the Journal of Male Feminism (hereafter Male Feminism1), the publication of the North American transvestite organization The International Alliance for Male Feminism (hereafter the Alliance), ran a range of reprinted news reports about Anita Bryant, Dade County, and gay liberation. Linda Ann Stephens, the editor of Male Feminism at the time, framed the reprinted stories in her article, “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?” which is excerpted above.

Stephens’s discussion of cooperation between transvestite2 and gay communities served as both a call to action for and a framing of tensions between each group. As Stephens indicates, gay liberationists frequently disavowed transvestites “in a misdirected effort to avoid or overcome the false popular stereotype of gay men as effete, effeminate sissies” and transvestites distanced themselves from gay and lesbian people because “most of us are not gay” (3). While Stephens suggests that there was mutual animosity between gay and trans3 organizations and individuals in the late 1970s, she focuses on the normative investments, concerns about being aligned with stereotypes of effeminacy, that led many gay people to distance themselves from transvestites. Although Stephens notes that transvestites also distanced themselves from gay liberationists, she leaves this as a question of identification. That is, she argues, since most transvestites are straight, they saw little need to be involved in gay liberation. This essay revisits the question of “greater cooperation” between gay and trans movements posed in Stephens’s title with particular attention to the internal sexual norms of transvestite organizations and trans rhetors’ internal and public responses to these norms through Anita Bryant in the late 1970s.

Out of materials in the Digital Transgender Archive, issues of Male Feminism and Drag4 published between 1977 and 1980, I take up the call for this special issue to consider how trans rhetors challenged internal norms of (hetero)sexuality towards a goal of publicly supporting activism around non-normative sexualities in conjunction with non-normative genders. First, this essay addresses rhetorical constructions of the sexually normative transvestite, the “dull hetero TV [(transvestite)],” in issues of Male Feminism concurrent with Anita Bryant’s rise. Then, this essay turns to articles from both Male Feminism and Drag wherein trans rhetors sought to revisit and reframe the terms of normative sexuality within and beyond their communities in response to the exigence of Anita Bryant’s campaign. In this case, trans rhetors’ metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant functioned as an inventional resource allowing them to appropriate the terms of Bryant’s homophobic campaign towards redefining intra-communal norms of respectable trans sexuality and the terms of trans solidarity with gay liberationist movements.

The “plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV”

This section takes up internal discussions in Male Feminism about expectations of sexual normativity to lay the terrain for internal and public challenges to these norms. As Robert Hill shows, through his reading of trans identities in the magazine Transvestia between 1960 and 1980, questions of trans sexuality did not begin with Anita Bryant. For example, Virginia Prince, founder of Transvestia and founder of the heterosexual transvestite sorority the Society for the Second Self (Tri Sigma or Tri Sig5), argued since the 1950s that “true transvestites are 4 exclusively heterosexual” (17). In Hill’s work with Transvestia, he uses “the terms ‘crossdresser’ and ‘transvestite’ interchangeably to refer to genetic males who identify as heterosexual and who enjoy periodically dressing in clothing that their society views as socially and culturally belonging to women” (378). In partial contrast, here I address transvestites who did not identify as heterosexual or who advocated on behalf of non-straight trans people.

In early 1977, the publisher of Male Feminism, the journal known until this point as Hose & Heels, would change its name from the National Alliance for Heterosexual Male Feminism to the International Alliance for Male Feminism. Male Feminism’s organizational and journal name changes were discussed by the journal’s editors on two terms. First, the editors note the turn to “international” to acknowledge a growing Canadian membership, and second, they discuss the removal of “heterosexual” from their name for a variety of reasons. Beyond shortening the length of the group’s name, they state that another factor,

was to reduce what some have felt was an overemphasis on the heterosexual dimension of the Alliance. Although from the formation and foundation of our Alliance, we have always made clear that we had no sexual orientation restriction on membership, some have perceived an overemphasis on the heterosexual component. As with the general population, the major component of our membership is likely to continue to be heterosexually oriented. The Board believed, however, that we had been giving somewhat undue emphasis to this dimension. (3)

As an organization that grew out of and separated from Prince’s Tri Sigma, the Alliance further distinguishes itself from Tri Sigma by explicitly approaching the category of transvestite as inclusive of any sexual orientation.

Although the Alliance’s name change was intended to welcome a wider range of transvestites, in particular those who were not straight or were from outside the United States, in the same statement, they temper an embrace of all sexualities, “the Board was unanimous in believing the International Alliance for Male Feminism should continue to take all reasonable measures to avoid developing even the appearance of a ‘swinger’ or ‘drag queen’ type of image. Persons into that, or into other unrelated areas such as S&M and B&D, should look to other groups to satisfy those interests” (3). In this statement, the editors distinguish certain sexual practices as “unrelated” to their work as a transvestite organization. Thus, while the Alliance sought to open its membership in terms of homosexuality, they maintained that respectable sexual practices—vanilla and coupled sex in this instance—remained a necessity for all in the organization.

Two years later, in a 1979 issue of Male Feminism, both the journal’s editor and a reader, Connie, speak to the terms of sexual normativity within the Alliance as part of a discussion about a possible merger with Prince’s sorority. Connie, a reader from New York wrote, “We should not open our doors to those who wish to practice the ‘oral’ or anal’ bit, the enema thing, extreme bondage or other far from the ordinary sexual processes” (23). As articulated by Connie, “ordinary sexual processes” are re-figured through a trans politic.

In response to Connie, Male Feminism’s editor, Glenda Renee Jones, provides a hierarchy of fetishes that affirms the terms of Connie’s letter, “Most all of the members of both organizations have some sort of ‘hang-up’, quite inoffensive such as undies, high heels, which are parts of the plain, ordinary, basic, dull hetero TV” (24). These comments make apparent the normative attachments that undergird this debate, the “dull hetero TV” offers a center from which deviations can be measured. Jones concludes her comments by noting, “There are a few bi’s in both Tri Sig and the Alliance…I would say the two groups are virtually identical in policy and membership composition.” Apparent here, in contrast to the editorial board’s 1977 statement and the anonymous submission I consider in the next section, Jones asserts that the Alliance remained quite straight, much like the members of Tri Sigma. In sum, Connie and Jones delineate the terms of a normative trans sexuality, indicating that, at best, only “plain, ordinary, basic, dull” homosexual or bisexual transvestites would be welcome in the Alliance.

Responding to the “dull hetero TV”

As the previous section shows how trans rhetors began to make space for homosexual transvestites in their organization by recentering normative—vanilla and coupled—sexual practices as necessary for homosexual and heterosexual members alike, I turn now to how trans rhetors sought to challenge the public and internal terms of normative transvestite sexuality through metonymic invocations of Anita Bryant. In a 1977 issue of Drag, an unidentified author points to Anita Bryant as the “unifying factor” that allowed for record crowds at New York City’s 1977 pride march (“Gay” 18). The author adds that 1977 marked the first time the pride planning committee invited a transvestite, Cocoa, to speak at New York City’s Pride. Susan Stryker describes the birth of Drag and its publisher, the Queens Liberation Front which was founded by “drag queen Lee Brewster and heterosexual transvestite Bunny Eisenhower,” as a response to “how quickly the gay liberation movement started to push aside some of the very people who had the greatest stake in militant resistance at Stonewall” (87).

As the Drag author notes regarding Cocoa’s invitation, “one person moved that she be stricken because only 25% of TVs are Gay, and therefore not deserving of representation” (22). The author argues that these efforts to deny connections between sexuality and trans identity were also apparent intra-communally, the “insidiousness of this blacklisting is actually encouraged by some TVs. Those who deny the gay aspects of some transvestites play right into the hands of those gay militants who detest the concept of Drag” (22). Here, the author links anti-trans gay people to anti-gay trans people who argue that their gender is respectable while decrying transgressive sexualities. Beyond acknowledging that many transvestites are gay, the author also argues that some transvestites not only stayed away from gay liberation because they were not gay, but also because they maintained investments in upholding normative sexual practices in their communities.

The author then invokes Anita Bryant to account for the issue with these positions, “One wonders that if the Gotterdamerung does occur, and all Gays fall victims to Anita Bryant, will a distinction be made to exclude those TVs who don’t suck cock? We think not” (“Gay” 22). The author’s rhetorical question calls for understanding that Bryant’s campaign sought a totalizing response to those considered sexually or gender deviant. The author links Bryant’s positions to homophobia and anti-trans sentiments as articulated within each community.

Similarly, in the same 1979 issue of Male Feminism I previously discussed, one bisexual member of both Tri Sigma and the Alliance, who advocated against the Alliance’s merger with Tri Sigma, addresses the limits of normative sexualities in the organization by articulating normativity with social myths and stereotypes. The author asked to have her name withheld, presumably out of concern about possible repercussions as a result of her views. She wrote,

The Alliance is receptive to this [bisexual] orientation—as it is to all orientations across the gender spectrum. Unfortunately, when I am in the company of my Tri Sig sisters, it’s strictly “Mums a word”…I believe [my Tri Sig sisters] are slighting themselves with their homophobia (Anita Bryant couldn’t be happier)…The issue is freedom from sex role stereotypes…Homosexuals, bisexuals—and, realistically—the entire issue of humanistic sexuality—rely on openness. If the doors are open, society’s myths soon perish. (22)

This narrative positions the Alliance as a more open organization than Prince’s Tri Sigma, and suggests the Alliance should center a fight against all of “society’s myths,” including both gendered and sexual norms. The author’s mention of Bryant’s happiness, in contrast to the silences the author experiences regarding her bisexuality, aligns the leadership of Tri Sigma and the Alliance with Anita Bryant as all seek to restrict sexual freedom. Under the rubric of “freedom from sex role stereotypes” produced through denying “society’s myths” the author identifies a common political struggle for transvestites and gay people, against Anita Bryant, regardless of sexual practices.

While the previous two examples invoke Anita Bryant as an external threat and as a stand-in for homophobic and transphobic beliefs, Bebe Scarpie, editor of Drag, invokes Bryant to address the problem with normative sexual attachments as held by trans people themselves. In her 1980 article, Scarpie challenges the homophobia of trans readers by arguing that guilt is the primary motivation for their anti-gay views. Scarpie writes, “an overt hatred of gayness…would primarily set up a clear demarcation between crossdressers—those whose drag is a prelude to normal sex—and those who crossdress for homosexual reasons, that is, a prelude to ‘abnormal’ sex” (33). Scarpie argues that homophobia, and efforts by transvestites to distance themselves from gay people, relies on an untenable distinction between normal and abnormal sex, allowing heterosexual transvestites to assuage their felt gender deviance through their “normal” sex. Indeed, Scarpie dismisses even the possibility of a normative sexual practice for transvestites

anti-gayness offers proof to the normalcy of the heterosexual TV in terms of our culture. It classifies you in the same corner as Mom, Apple Pie and the American flag—all the same syndrome. Your church will pray for you. The politicians will endorse you. Maybe even Anita Bryant will come to your town to lead an anti-gay rally with you…He cannot deny his crossdressing, yet he must somehow atone for this faggot-type thing. Everything is freakish about transvestites; from masturbating with satin around the penis, to being submissive to a dominant woman. (34)

Scarpie’s invocation of Anita Bryant, as a symbol alongside apple pie and the flag, marks Bryant a source of legitimation and normativity for transvestites seeking to alleviate their own “freakishness.” In Scarpie’s view, the “dull hetero TV” becomes an impossibility, a fantasy of self-hating trans people, like being supported by Bryant, that is only produced in the minds of trans people who fail to come to terms with their own desires. Further, Scarpie calls for an embrace of transvestites as “freakish,” a recognition that a conservative straight world would find little to celebrate in trans people, regardless of their “normal” sex.

Across this essay I show how the rise of Anita Bryant in the late 1970s provided trans rhetors with an opportunity to contest the norms of sexual respectability within and outside of their communities. In the context of discussions around normative expectations of transvestite sexuality, trans rhetors invoked Bryant as a stand-in for a threat to not only gay and lesbian people but also to all trans people. For the trans rhetors considered here, joining gay liberationists and advocating for pro-gay stances within trans organizations was necessary for the survival of all trans people. They challenged trans community members to face the terms of their own normative sexual attachments and recognize that Bryant, and a larger straight world, would view trans people with the same scrutiny as “militant homosexuals.” Linda Ann Stephens concludes her article, which opened this essay, by calling for transvestites to “take a stand” alongside gay liberationists against the homophobia and transphobia of Anita Bryant’s campaign (3). Her conclusion sums up the calls of the trans rhetors I have addressed here, “Societal attitudes do change! The direction of that change is determined, in part, by your actions or lack thereof. What is your responsibility and how well are you carrying it out?” (Stephens 3).


  1. The term “feminism” in the journal’s title refers to femininity rather than the feminist political movement.
  2. The rhetors considered here use the terms transvestite, crossdresser, and male woman, at times interchangeably, to generally refer to assigned-male individuals who cross-dress some or most of the time for a variety of reasons including, for some, sexual pleasure. While these terms are often considered offensive today, I maintain the original terms used by each rhetor I consider.
  3. While this use of trans is anachronistic in relation to the late 1970s, the term’s contemporary, if contested, usage as an “umbrella” for a range of non-normative gender identities allows for a consideration of the authors in Male Feminism and Drag without making wider assumptions about their particular unstated identities.
  4. These two publications represent the bulk of original indexed references to Anita Bryant available in the Digital Transgender Archive (DTA) from 1977 through 1980. While Bryant is also mentioned in DTA-held publications such as Gender Review and Les Girls, she is referred to tangentially as part of news reporting or in republished news stories.
  5. Although Virginia Prince’s Society for the Second Self is most frequently remembered as Tri-Ess, the documents I address here exclusively refer to her organization as Tri Sigma or Tri Sig.

Works Cited

  • Anonymous. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Connie. “Letter to the Editor.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, pp. 23-24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Gay Pride March ’77.” Drag, vol. 7, no. 25, 1977, pp. 18-22. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Hill, Robert. “Before Transgender: Transvestia’s Spectrum of Gender Variance, 1960-1980.” The Transgender Studies Reader 2, edited by Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura, 1st ed., Routledge, 2013, pp. 364-79.
  • International Alliance Board. “Alliance Modifies Name, Broadens Base, Makes Other Changes.” Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 1, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Jones, Glenda Rene. “Editor’s Note.” Journal of Male Feminism, no. 4, 1979, p. 24. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019. Prince, C. V. “Homosexuality, Transvestism and Transsexuality: Reflections on Their Etiology and Differentiation.” International Journal of Transgenderism, vol. 8, no. 4, 2005, pp. 17-20.
  • Scarpie, Bebe. “HOMOPHOBIA: Fear of Homosexuality.” Drag, vol. 8, no. 27, 1980, pp. 33–34. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stephens, Linda Ann. “Anita Bryant’s Assault: A time for greater cooperation between the male women’s liberation and the gay liberation movement?Journal of Male Feminism, vol. 77, no. 3, 1977, p. 3. Digital Transgender Archive, Accessed 12 Sept. 2019.
  • Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Seal Press, 2008.

Navigating Disclosure in a Critical Trans Pedagogy

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

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

Theorizing Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experience into Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Out in the Classroom: A Transgender Pedagogical Narrative

I first stepped into a classroom as an openly transgender instructor in the spring of 2015. I was teaching a section of Freshman Composition, it was my second year as a Masters student, and trying to navigate how to address my change in gender with students and colleagues alike was harrowing. I was teaching at a state college in northern Alabama, and the student population of my Composition I course was almost entirely white male cisgender engineering students. Despite the open acceptance I received from my colleagues, I was unsure how my students would respond, and staying in the closet was out of the question if I wanted to avoid the emotional distress and dysphoria-inducing situation of being misgendered. How, then, did I tell a room full of largely conservative students from the rural deep south that despite my appearance at the time,1 I was a man, used he/him pronouns, and wanted to be referred to by a masculine name? How could I engage with them authentically and trust there would be respect, acknowledgement, and acceptance of my gender identity? Could I teach effectively in an environment where I would open myself up to a multitude of dangers? Would it be safer to stay in the closet? Could I survive if I stayed in the closet? How would I address this again in six months when I had to come out all over again to a new group of students? Now in my seventh year teaching writing, these questions still follow me as I navigate interacting with my students, especially as my gender identity continues to shift and move from simply “male” to “non-binary” and “masculine.” Acknowledging this shift opens a whole other host of gender identity disclosures and complexities and further requires me to look beyond the binary notion of being “in” or “out” of the closet in the classroom, instead coming out again and again to new students and new groups of people.

The fact that these questions evade definitive conclusion and must be asked repeatedly speaks to the very nature of my gender and my experiences engaging with my gender in the context of my pedagogy. As I have taught in different classrooms at different institutions, with different student populations, I have had to adjust and shift how I address my gender and doing so has led to me constantly interrogating, considering, and confronting my identity, to the point that even writing this piece has led me down new and complex paths in both the classroom and my personal transgender journey. In this fashion, I draw upon work done by scholars engaged in critical examinations of the interplay of transgender identities and pedagogy (Patterson 2016; Keenan 2017) and see value in sharing my journey as a transgender instructor from the start of my teaching career to my current engagement with both my gender and my pedagogy. I also see the value in going a step further into this process by interrogating how my positionality as a white and male-perceived instructor impacts how my transness and pedagogy remain in conversation with each other as I meet new student populations and come out at the beginning of each semester. I am therefore sharing this pedagogical coming out narrative with two major goals in mind: the first is to provide an example of the complex interplay between identity and pedagogy in the classroom from one transgender instructor’s perspective. The second is to extend this example beyond my own experience and extrapolate concepts that could be useful to other instructors (transgender and otherwise) as they interrogate and unpack how their own positionalities, disclosures, and identities intersect with their pedagogies.

Identity Disclosure: Coming Out as Trans in the Classroom

My disclosure of my gender identity always occurs on the first day of the semester, and is integrated into my overall introductions to the course. I craft a slideshow that includes course policies, syllabus information, and personal items to give my students the opportunity to get to know who will be teaching them for the next sixteen weeks. My introductory slide has traditionally included my name, my number of years into graduate study, my gender identity and pronouns, and my research interests (for a recent iteration, see Fig. 1 below). This has shifted minimally in the time I have taught, and is always something I address in a matter-of-fact tone with my students in a single sentence: “I’m a transgender man, please use he/him pronouns, and I answer to Mister Lee, or just Lee.”

Image is of a presentation slide titled "Who Am I?" The slide background is dark blue and the text is in white and light grey. The slide lists Hibbard's name, program, gender identity, areas of study, and other roles on campus.

Fig. 1. Introductory slide. This is the information I typically share with students on the first day of class as part of overall introductions to the course.

The first time I put this method into practice, the Spring of 2015, I received no pushback, comments, or negativity from students in my section, including those that had worked with me the previous year when I was still female-identifying and using she/her pronouns. This became my method of choice for the next year and a half while I worked as an adjunct at the same institution, disclosing my gender identity to my students on the first day and leaving it at that. This method changed minimally as I entered my PhD program, though the circumstances were different: my students and my colleagues knew me only as Lee, and though I still did not fully pass,2 I faced fewer instances of being called by the wrong name. My template and my method therefore had minimal need for changes and I proceeded with teaching as before.

My interrogation of my need for disclosure arose once more within the last year, as my regimen of hormone replacement therapy allowed me to regularly pass as male. This brought with it a new host of questions and complications, as I realized that my goal, not that any transgender person necessarily needs a transition goal, was not necessarily to go “stealth,” or to present outwardly as my actual gender rather than the one I was assigned at birth (Johnson 2017). Doing so not only felt like it erased my lived experience as a transgender individual, but placed me in a binary gender category that failed to fit the way my gender truly felt. My identity, more complex and not fully aligned with ‘male’ and not at all “female,” occupied a different space in both my mind and in the material world to the point that I felt that no longer disclosing my transness reflected a lack of authenticity to myself and the core of my personal pedagogy—that the material, technological, and discursive aspects of identity impact the way that people live and derive meaning in the world (Hekman 106).

While the method I have chosen to disclose —using the slide on the first day of class—has remained largely the same over the years, the subject of that disclosure has shifted. On the surface, the need to disclose my trans identity has lessened with my ability to pass as male, but the shift in my gender identity along with my desire for authenticity has kept the contents of my introductory slide the same over the years, and though the pronouns have shifted to include “they” as well as “he,” my method of disclosure remains the same, and reflects my teaching philosophy.

Disclosure in the Material World: Positionality and Context

My ability to be out as transgender in the classroom is heavily influenced by my own unique circumstances and positionality in the world and at my current institution. While sharing my own coming out experiences as a transgender instructor has value, so too does a thorough interrogation of the factors that allow me to be out in my classrooms. Every transgender person has a unique experience and relationship with gender, identity, and coming out, and these experiences are all the more unique to different classroom experiences. As noted by Keenan, queer and trans experiences defy static definition, and are deeply tied to personal experience and transgender pedagogues cannot speak to any transgender experience but their own (539-540).

My positionality at a largely white, midwestern institution impacts my ability to be openly queer and transgender, as does my own whiteness and access to medical and social resources as a university employee. My mentors and colleagues respect my gender identity and my pronouns, and I am not the only transgender graduate student in the program, or indeed in my cohort. The language and knowledge to work with transgender instructors is therefore an integrated part of the departmental climate in which I currently exist, something that is far from a universal transgender experience. I also have access to trans-inclusive healthcare, with my graduate staff insurance covering my hormone treatments, making it possible for me to medically transition.

In the classroom itself, I have received little pushback from students or instructors concerning my gender identity, with all but one or two incidents being accidental misgenderings or outdated understandings of how to address transgender individuals. Examples of outdated or incorrect modes of address include using “preferred pronouns,” which centers that the pronouns are optional and not required in order to respect the person, or “male-identifying,” which implies the person’s maleness is artificial and inauthentic and serves to perpetuate cissexism, or the notion that trans people’s genders are inferior to or less authentic than cisgender people’s genders (Serano 12). This environment, which has been largely free of any harassment or trouble due to my gender, gives me a position of privilege and a place in which it is relatively safe to express and develop my gender identity. This is not something universally experienced by transgender instructors.

Discussions of being LGBTQ+ and out in the classroom shift depending on the institution and political climate of that institution, where less-welcoming environments lead to instructors who come out being viewed as bringing their own political views into the classroom in a disruptive or unnecessary manner (L. Allen 85). This notion, which Patterson notes is often tied to the insistence of neutrality as pedagogical best practice (134), continues to frame LGBTQ+ identities and their existence as unnecessarily political and therefore not suited to a classroom. The consequences of this neutrality, however, can consolidate vectors of oppression in the classroom through appealing to this idea of the student-as-everyman (Patterson 145) and serves only to further separate the classroom from the material consequences of reality. As a student of rhetoric and composition, I seek to reflect upon the assertion Patterson makes that writing pedagogies should be rooted in social justice and that while multiply minoritized teachers can adopt neutrality for the sake of survival, this “does not give the rest of us an alibi” (145). My positionality as a disabled, queer-identifying, transgender instructor remains in interplay with other aspects of my identity, such as my whiteness, my ability to attend graduate school, and my ability to pass as male: things that give me the ability to move through the world via different vectors than my multiply-marginalized colleagues. The labor of spreading awareness and knowledge related to social justice issues such as gender and sexuality is therefore something that I am well suited to address from the position I inhabit, where I can be visibly out and disclose myself authentically in a way that has the potential to help those with fewer options and vectors of access.

Transgender Teachers, Transgender Students: The Risks of Disclosure

Navigating my positionality within my institution requires my consideration of not only my own safety, but the safety of the students under my instruction. While my identity and association with a marginalized group has the potential to place me in harm’s way when in a classroom, the identities of my students are just as important and worthy of consideration when examining how my identity and pedagogy interact in the classroom. Transgender students face risks and anxieties surrounding disclosure just as instructors do, and accommodating their ability to choose how and when to disclose their identities to me and to their classmates has led me to adopt specific pedagogical approaches towards gender identity that extend beyond my own coming out.

In my classrooms, pronoun and identity sharing are always opt-in practices I encourage partially by being open about my own identity while providing private avenues for students to choose to disclose to me if they feel comfortable. These private avenues vary but are also integrated into first day/first week icebreaker activities, where I make use of a Google Form survey or a simple notecard system to give students a private way to share information about themselves with me. The questions associated with this form include asking about a student’s name if it differs from what appears on my roster, pronouns, and other course-related questions about comfort with technology, past experience with writing courses, and food allergies (see Fig. 2 for the most recent version of the Google Form used in my classrooms). I try to be cognizant of my student’s comfort in disclosing their identities, mainly due to how much my own identity has shifted and changed over the years as both a student and an instructor.

Image is a screenshot of a Google Form survey. The first question asks students to provide their name, and the second question asks students what pronouns they use. Pronoun options are provided as checkboxes with the option to type in a response under "Other."

Fig. 2. Screenshot of Google survey. I use a Google Form as a space where  students can disclose information about their identities to me privately.

Being transgender in my experience is not a binary state of being/not being, but rather a continuum that requires consideration of different material circumstances of disclosure. Scholarship into the language and culture surrounding transgender identities reflects this, with Rawson and Williams noting the complex language development surrounding the term and the shifting definitions, use by influential figures, and activism related to the term’s use (p. 6). There is no one monolithic transgender experience, and this impacts both myself and any transgender students who enter my classroom. Some transgender students may not yet be comfortable disclosing to a group of strangers, others may not be certain of their gender identity, and still more may feel pressure to remain in the closet to avoid harassment or danger that I do not face as an instructor. I work hard to avoid “one size fits all” approaches, such as mandatory public pronoun sharing during introductory activities, which can unnecessarily out students before they are ready, or place them in the position of being forced into the closet (Haimson and Airton 2019). Thus far the private disclosure approach has given students in my classes a comfortable space to share their identity with me before deciding if they feel comfortable coming out to their peers. I have been fortunate enough to not receive pushback from students in the class regarding the correct use of pronouns for a transgender classmate, but as I have experienced misgendering as an instructor, I would feel comfortable implementing the same strategy for dealing with the situation, which involves correcting the student in question and reminding them to be respectful of other people’s identities. Thus far, this has sufficed in halting any incidents, but I would feel comfortable reaching out to my supervisor or other senior faculty to defuse the situation if it escalated.

My first experience with a transgender student who wanted to be out in my classroom was in the Fall of 2019, in a section of Multimedia Writing, an upper level course housed in the Professional Writing course track. Jane3 was a computer science student who signed up for the course at the recommendation of her roommate, who had not taken a class with me himself but knew of me through other avenues. Jane’s first day survey contained no indication of her identity beyond she/her pronouns, and my roster reflected her real name, and other than mentioning to me that I knew her roommate, she didn’t share anything about herself privately with me. Instead, she was among the first to participate in the Unit 1 presentations, which involved a curatorial review and rhetorical analysis of social media habits. Jane presented the class with her Instagram, which chronicled her transition journey, including her posts before she came out as transgender, her coming out post, and her various celebrations of pride thereafter. I have no doubt in my mind that she could have chosen any other social media account or experience to share, but her willingness to disclose her trans identity in an environment in which I as the instructor had previously come out was not lost on me. Disclosure of transness, on the part of students or instructors, should never be mandatory in a classroom environment, and based heavily on the needs and comfort of the individual, but I am, particularly after this experience, aware of how my own disclosure can help create a safe space for transgender students, and how my positionality gives me the opportunity and institutional safety to create that space for those students. Not every student who takes a class with me will feel comfortable sharing their identity with me, and they shouldn’t feel that they need to in order to succeed. My willingness to share is something I try to put forth as part of an open environment, so other students, whether they’re like Jane or the students who choose not to share their identity with the class, know that they are in a safe and respectful environment. I cannot minimize all of the risks for these students, but I can at the very least make it clear that if they choose to disclose their identities, they will have me on their side as a strong advocate for their choice. This advocacy need not be tied directly to the experience of transness, and rather stands as a potential best practice for instructors looking to create a safe and positive space for their trans students. Non-trans instructors can achieve this in as simple a manner as respecting a trans student’s pronouns and identity and speaking up against any pushback or negativity from other students. Support of transgender students involves cultivating a classroom of respect that can be enacted by non-trans instructors as readily as trans instructors.

Narratives of Disclosure: Some Current Conclusions

I will never think that identity disclosure should be mandatory in the classroom. Instructors and students both have reasons to keep their identities to themselves, most significantly safety and comfort, and my goal in sharing my tactics and methods is not to suggest that disclosure is the best pedagogical practice for anyone. I engage in disclosure first and foremost because of my positionality: I am able to, I have the opportunity, and I have the safety to do so. This may change over time: I am very aware that my time as a PhD student is drawing to a close and things are likely to be different wherever my journey takes me in the future. At this point in time, I am able to use my own disclosure as a tool to create a classroom that is more inclusive and safe for my students, as well as create avenues for education and learning about new experiences. In my own experience, engaging in an openness with my students has led to an environment of mutual creativity and sharing of ideas that operates from a foundation of respect, and while not every classroom falls into these somewhat idealistic circumstances, the potential for those environments to exist and my ability to cultivate them as an instructor serves as an example of what disclosure can do in a pedagogical context.

Teaching should never be static, and how we engage with our students, classrooms, and material, is inextricably tied to our identities, circumstances, and disclosures. My creation of this coming out narrative has given me the opportunity to further interrogate the circumstances in which I—a transgender instructor—operate at an institutional and a personal level. Engaging with and writing about identity in this case has given me yet another opportunity to see a shift in how I view my gender, which I spent many years trying to center firmly in a masculine context in order to escape the strongly visible feminine presence I had been born with. My return, again and again, to the need to come out in each classroom I enter, each institution I attend and operate within, leads me to retread avenues of self-discovery, to continuously decenter and destabilize my view of who I am, to re-contextualize myself as a person and an instructor with every new experience. My transgender identity, which currently falls somewhere beyond the binary, will likely continue to shift and grow and evolve as I repeatedly return to the questions that face me at the beginning of every semester. My findings, particularly after the writing of this narrative, indicate the value of this practice, and reflect my views of pedagogy. It is my hope that sharing this narrative of how my transgender identity interplays with my pedagogy offers some insight into the opportunities and affordances instructors can find if they similarly interrogate their identities and see where their pedagogy and their material ways of being and seeming in the world intersect.


  1. While there is no one way to look “like a man”, my features at that point in my transition journey still read as traditionally feminine in most public contexts, leading to people most commonly perceiving me and (mis)gendering me as a woman.
  2. Passing in this context meaning I would be perceived as the gender I more closely align with (male) rather than the one I was assigned at birth (female) (Ginsberg 1996). The notion of passing is one problematized by its implication that a trans person who ‘passes’ is “getting away with something” by being perceived as their gender and serves to often center cisgender experiences of transness (Serano 176-179).
  3. Name changed for the sake of privacy.

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