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.