Queerness in the Classroom

This is a guest post by Sarah M. Bess. Sarah is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Oklahoma, where her research focuses on human-plant interrelationships in Middle Holocene Florida. Sarah is an openly trans woman who self-identifies as queer. She also blogs about queerness and anthropology at Binary Opposition.

Assumptions of cultural normativity, deeply ingrained in anthropological theory and practice, actively limit the participation of queer voices in anthropological discourse. When applied to ethnographic interpretations, normative assumptions deny queer identities. When adopted into archaeological practice, normative assumptions erase queer histories. When taught in the classroom, normative assumptions deter queer students from pursuing careers in the field. The very idea of queerness is antithetical to that of culture as a set of shared norms. Queer existence is existence outside those norms, revealing what has been interpreted as an impassible barrier to be little more than a waist high fence constructed of knotty two-by-fours. Queerness thus stands at odds with the traditional practice and teaching of anthropology.

My first year at a four-year university, I took an introductory course in cultural anthropology. At the time, I was considering a career in that particular subfield. I was coming from a background in electronic media, and I had been researching the emerging role of virtual spaces in the expression of queer identities, something I thought might be a pretty good thesis topic down the road. I was excited and nervous for the unit on gender and sexuality marked on the syllabus. I had strong views on the subject, but living as a mostly-closeted trans woman in a conservative town meant I was wary of saying too much. My stomach tied itself in knots when I came into class that day and sat in the far back corner of the room.

The professor handed out a worksheet with two columns of short blank lines. One column was labeled with a capital M, the other with an F. I swallowed hard, struggling to keep my lunch down. He showed a series of slides with images of trans women, interspersed with images of cis women. I really think he meant well. He asked the class to mark the biological sex of each woman on the worksheet, to turn it in anonymously. Explicitly, he wanted to make the point that trans women could “pass,” that no one could really tell biological sex or gender, that these were cultural constructs and performances. Implicitly, he made another point. He made the point that though trans women were ultimately only men in dresses, indicated by that bold capital M on the worksheet, we could aspire to cultural and personal invisibility. We could choose an outward existence that did not challenge the bounds of normativity. I checked the F column on every slide. I never spoke up. I don’t even think I told my girlfriend about the experience at the time. I didn’t throw up though. I considered it a victory, on the whole.

This narrative of being trans, implicitly constructed in the anthropology classroom, remains explicit in our popular discourse on trans women. Trans experiences are narrated by cis creators for cis audiences in works like Transparent and The Danish Girl, where trans women are played by cis men in dresses. Inspired by the popularity of these works, tabloids ask questions like “how easy is it for men to pass as women?” My cis friends and colleagues seem fascinated by stories about trans women, but I hear nothing from them about shows like Sense8, which features a trans woman protagonist played by a trans woman, written and directed by a trans woman. I hear nothing about the works of Casey Plett or Imogen Binnie, trans women who write powerful fiction featuring real and relatable trans characters. Outside of queer circles, I hear no discussion of Morgan M. Page’s recent podcast on trans history, One From the Vaults. As far as I know, none of my cis friends have ever played Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, an interactive journal about her experiences on hormone replacement therapy. Trans people are speaking, but cis people don’t seem to be listening. Real narratives of trans experience are made invisible by a normative discourse, shaped by cis-heterosexual men, that focuses on passing. Even as my liberal cis friends celebrate what they see as triumphs of trans representation, I feel that my own queerness is being erased.

Passing is not something most of my cis friends probably think about, but I think about it every day. I don’t have a choice. For me, passing means safety. It means the ability to use a public restroom without being assaulted or arrested. It means worrying a little less about the risk of violence when I walk to class in the evening. It also means the erasure of my identity as a trans woman. If I pass, I am safe only because I cease to be publicly queer. I cease to openly violate cisheteropatriarchal sex and gender norms. In order to exist within these norms, I deny my own history, my own voice, my own existence as a trans woman. I sit in the back corner of the room, silently struggling not to vomit, marking the F column on every slide. Of course the point may be moot. For myself, and for many trans women, passing is not so easily achieved.

My bodyscape is everywhere inscribed with the landmarks of my queerness. Male puberty left me with a wide skeletal frame, broad shoulders. My skull is long, chin too square, chiseled by testosterone. I’ve had enough classes in physical anthropology to know all the skeletal markers, to know that some future bioarchaeologist or forensic examiner will read me as male. But the process of medical transition actively reconfigures and reinscribes the surface of my bodyscape. Hormone replacement therapy moves fat and muscle, albeit at a glacial pace, forming new terrain over those deeper strata that I cannot change. Monthly sessions of laser radiation burn the hair from my face, leaving behind only red swollen patches and the lingering memory of pain. I am left with an outward appearance for which there is no column on the worksheet. I am visibly trans.

In Sandy Stone’s The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttransexual Manifesto she writes that “To deconstruct the necessity for passing implies that transsexuals must take responsibility for all of their history, to begin to rearticulate their lives not as a series of erasures in the service of a species of feminism conceived from within a traditional frame, but as a political action begun by reappropriating difference and reclaiming the power of the refigured and reinscribed body.” We’ve come a long way since those words were first written in 1987, but they still resonate with me. While I have nothing but respect for trans women and trans men who choose to remain silent, to live in the safety offered by stealth, to work within the limitations of structures that are actively hostile to their existence, I see a desperate need for openly trans voices in our disciplinary discourse. We all have a responsibility to make room for those voices. This means questioning our assumptions of cultural normativity and deconstructing the traditional models in which our discipline is rooted, but I don’t think this begins with high-level theoretical work. It needs to begin in the classroom.

As anthropologists, as archaeologists, we all need to closely examine the assumptions about gender, sex, and sexuality that are both explicit and implicit in our work and in our teaching. We need to deconstruct and reconstruct the ways in which we talk about these things not only to colleagues but to students. We need to allow queer voices to narrate queer identities and experiences in their own words and on their own terms. Most students who take an anthropology course will never go on to the sort of graduate level theory seminar where these things can be actively deconstructed. They will take one or two introductory courses, and they will internalize and retain what they are taught in those courses. They will remember worksheets with two columns labeled M and F. They will remember a definition of culture as shared sets of norms. They will remember broad-scale culture histories constructed as normal distributions of shared traits and evolutionary processes to which only general trends are relevant. They will remember an anthropology where queerness is invisible, and for queer students this means an anthropology where their voices are not welcome, where they are not given the platform to define their own existence, where they are read by others but cannot read themselves to others, where they sit silently in the back corner of the classroom, checking the column marked F and trying not to vomit.

If you are teaching a unit on gender and sexuality this semester, please include queer voices in their own words. Allow trans women, trans men, and those otherwise existing outside the boundaries of cis-heteronormativity to speak for themselves. At the same time, please be careful to acknowledge that queer experiences are diverse in their own right, that no one voice can represent the whole of queer experience.

It is so important to make room for trans voices in anthropological discourse, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to share my own voice here on Unstratified.

Queer Horizons

by Jamie Arjona

Social Media Rainbow

Last Friday, following the Supreme Court ruling on “same-sex marriage”, I opened my browser and started scrolling through a glitter-bombed version of my usual newsfeeds. Social media, news broadcasts, and even the White House all looked like they were reeling in the aftermath of a Pride parade. Aside from a few disgruntled posts, rainbows had overtaken the internet. Yet, I found myself feeling conflicted. I was at once elated and disheartened. As a queer person, the excitement was effervescent. Putting aside my critical stance on marriage for a few moments, I relived my own experiences of oppression – being harassed on the street, hearing homophobic jokes, receiving disgusted looks – and felt vindicated. I applauded allies for making their support public and cheered for friends who denounced homophobic responses on social media.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: a.b.w.7 through creative commons attribution license.

My cynicism reemerged when I realized that my vision of a radical queer politics faded into the background of assimilation. A whitewashed image of gay marriage had all the markings of homonormativity. Celebratory photos of white queers embracing each other on sidewalks overshadowed somber broadcasts from the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pickney, murdered in a terrorist attack on his Charleston church. A suite of corporations, including Twitter, Coca-Cola, and MasterCard, draped rainbow filters over brand logos to celebrate the landmark court ruling. Was this the type of change trans protesters at Compton’s cafeteria had imagined in 1966? Was this the future anticipated in the 1969 Stonewall riots?

Like many queer researchers, I’m critical of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) political organizations for their role in marginalizing minority community members. The fight for marriage equality has been a success because of its alignment with capitalism, globalization, and white middle class interests. Assimilating into the fabric of marriage strengthens the institutions queerness once stood against. Somehow discourses on marriage equality have eclipsed everyday forms of violence targeting queer groups. As Dean Spade (2011: 50) notes, the rhetoric of equality “turn[s] social movements toward goals of inclusion and incorporation and away from demands for redistribution and structural transformation”. Marriage equality has compromised a queer dismantling of the State. My criticism, however, isn’t meant to diminish what marriage means for many other queers – queers who spent lifetimes banned from hospital rooms, adoption centers, and probate courts. Instead, I want to channel the unruly energy of queerness, which agitates a docile queer integration.

This post attempts to share my ambivalence and take a moment to reflect on archaeology’s shortcomings in the realm of queer research. While I remain critical of these issues, my experiences in archaeology clarify how out of touch with queer studies the discipline remains. It’s difficult to articulate a critical queer perspective without a basic queer vocabulary. Archaeology needs to be queered, but to cultivate this disciplinary perversion we need to begin by veering outside the comforts of our Endnote libraries.

Perhaps beginning with a brief genealogy will help get the ball rolling. Although originally derived from Gay and Lesbian Studies, queer studies in the social sciences outgrew the confining boundaries of sex and sexuality . Recent queer scholarship embraces the boundless and ever-shifting essence of nonnormativity that renders queerness messy, unstable, and fluid (Boellstorff, 2007; Nash and Browne, 2012). According to Ahmed (2006) queer things and bodies “disturb the order of things” underlying Anglo American configurations of normalcy. Queer, in effect, disrupts heteropatriarchal structures that define what constitutes “normal”. Disorienting taken-for-granted values includes, but is not limited to understanding the social architecture regulating sex, desire, and intimacy. Contemporary scholarship in queer theory embraces a range of perverse intimacies existing outside social norms. The messiness of queerness makes it averse to definition. It operates against the familiar. As a vehicle for perversion, queer intimacies include things like disjointed temporalities, non-normative configurations of space, unsettling feelings, and uncomfortable proximities to pathologized bodies. Critical queer politics is about allowing ourselves to be seduced and transformed by these intimacies. Queerness messes up social arrangements rather than cleaning up to fit into an ever-expanding State apparatus.

As a queer researcher, I recognize the conflict between archaeology’s willingness to entertain queer perspectives and its reluctance to actually being queered. I’m deeply indebted to voices like Barbara Voss who pioneered a set of “queer archaeologies” (Blackmore, 2011; Dowson, 2000; Schmidt and Voss, 2000; Voss, 2012). Queer and feminist scholars stimulated my own interest in archaeology. Unfortunately, in spite of these foundational works, archaeology refuses perversion.
From my experiences in academic settings, I get the sense that archaeologists writ large relegate queer archaeological studies to a niche disciplinary interest. At academic conferences, queer presenters speak to sympathetically queer audiences. We end up talking to ourselves. This isolation likely stems from a lack of understanding about queer analytics. Part of the problem comes from a perception that queer is synonymous with sexuality. Modern conceptions of sexual identities obscure the mutability of queerness. I’m often puzzled by the absence of queer theory in academic circles.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Photo Credit: Micheal Kan through Creative Commons attribution license.

Aversion to queer frameworks is demonstrated in case studies where its connections seem glaringly obvious. We acknowledge brothels, feminine hygiene products, dildos, and sensual artifacts without admitting their relationship to queer experiences. Archaeological finds like these go viral because sex sells. But it sells a history of “erotica” or “taboo” practices rather than queering modern conventions.
When I shift gears from academic spheres to field settings or department happy hours, hetero-patriarchal attitudes are harder to escape. As an archaeologist, I’ve been let down by peers, colleagues, and friends who claim to be liberal allies. I’ve seen men assume an effeminate gait for a few laughs. I once heard a colleague question the “manliness” of trans men. In the field, subtle forms of homophobia surface in microaggressions. Field housing assignments and a dearth of gender neutral bathrooms at conferences unwittingly ostracize trans and gender queer archaeologists. Over time, all the little things start to add up. And we’re all guilty of perpetuating these mundane traumas – myself included – because we’ve been indoctrinated into a hetero-patriarchal social landscape. A landscape where feminists and queers are killjoys. A landscape where a swishy affect still betrays the codes of masculinity. Refusing to laugh at the joke or being too confrontational comes with the threat of being a social pariah. The difference between speaking up and “knowing your place” can mean the difference between landing an optimal job and being pushed to the sidelines by a revolving consortium of white men.

Oddly enough archaeology seems oblivious to its very queerness. When I take a step back to reflect on archaeological practice, I see fetishism. I see a perverse intimacy with things. I recognize the queerness of our own anachronistic tendencies to get stuck in the past. Archaeology’s trans-temporal roots makes it an ideal conduit for transmitting queer histories. Past intimacies can disrupt the boundaries between people and things taken for granted in modern social assemblages. But to do so, we need to start confronting our own privilege. We need to probe our imaginaries for scenes that mess up the order of things.

Photo Credit: When Things Go Up in Smoke by Janina Peters

The same holds true for queer communities as we gain access to privilege. We need to remain attentive to the fact that queer people of color straddle precarious worlds. In 2014, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs reported the consistently alarming rates of hate violence and homicides perpetrated against LGBTQ people in 13 U.S. states and Puerto Rico over the previous year. The report, which documented 2,001 incidents of hate violence, found that queer people of color were 1.5 times more likely to experience physical violence than white victims (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 2014). Furthermore, the report indicated that almost 90% of anti-LGBTQ homicide victims were people of color.These statistics indicate the tragic violence disproportionately affecting minority queer communities in the United States today. As many critical queer scholars point out, the majority of LGBT political groups in the United States addressing these issues include a predominance of white advocates that frequently fail to recognize how race and racism amplify marginality (Ferguson, 2004; Lorde, 1993; Nash, 2014). So, as we celebrate national and endemic victories, we need to stay focused on how far we still need to go. We need to reflect on our own experiences of oppression and confront our privileges. Maybe then we’ll get back to a radical queer politics that cringed at the thought of assimilation and found hope in bonds formed in the margins.


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