On “Teaching While Gay”

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an interesting article by Domenick Scudera on “teaching while gay.”  Scudera raises the question (or concern, really) to queer professors how to navigate one’s own experiences and views and those of students who may “oppose” homosexuality:

If there are students who oppose homosexuality, those students should feel safe within the confines of our classroom to express their opinions in a respectful way. But how would that make me feel? Would I feel safe?

Further:

More important, am I harming my gay students? I believe it is helpful to them, in a safe environment, to hear the arguments against homosexuality. They will encounter those same arguments in the “real” world, as I have. I want them to be prepared. Polls tell us that homophobia persists in our country. It is reasonable to assume that some students in my classroom hold such negative beliefs about homosexuality. They might be reticent to express their feelings in the classroom. Do I have a responsibility to create an atmosphere to bring those thoughts forward?

He suggests that, unlike racist, misogynistic, or anti-Semitic views that students may express — which he would shut down immediately, without question — he tends to entertain homophobic views expressed by students.  He even plays “devil’s advocate” when students raise pro-LGBT views in class discussions.  But, there are lingering questions of a responsibility to create a safe classroom environment, which seems to push against the responsibility to respect free speech (and thought).

My Take

My initial thought on this is when are there debates in college classrooms on homosexuality — I suppose simply on how students feel about it, the morality of same-sex sexuality and relationships, etc?  Because the debates are so wrapped up in religious doctrine, I cannot think of any non-theology classrooms where a comment such as, “well, I’m against homosexuality” is relevant to a class discussion.

If my read is accurate, then this should not be much of a dilemma.  Students’ comments that are either tangential or irrelevant to the class discussion, particularly that are simply expressions of prejudice or hatred, should not be tolerated.  We, as educators, have a responsibility to create classroom spaces that are free from intolerance.  Yes, even though students are exposed still in the “real world,” our responsibility is just the classroom; and, why not provide at least that one space as a place where students, queer and straight alike, do not have to hear, “the Bible says it’s a sin”?

My view is, in general, if it does not draw on course materials, or challenge them, the comment is a tangent at best.  This goes, too, for thinly veiled expressions of bias that give a passing reference to course materials.  For example, once, on an exam, a student of mine lost points and asked me why.  The provided answer briefly noted what an article covered, and then went on to oppose homosexuality.  The question, I believe, asked to draw on queer theory to either make sense of the article, or explain why it does not fit with the theory.   So, there was no room for students to weigh the merits of same-sex relationships!

A second question is why homosexuality is even addressed as something to be debated.  Why treat it as an issue by which no one is personally affected?  Why, in light of pro-LGBT views, play “devil’s advocate”?  (Again, simply saying, “I’m all for gay marriage,” is still likely tangential at best, unless professors are holding debates on whether to legalize it.)

This is a component of my larger concern of what is lost by approaching teaching from a distance, as though one is merely an “objective” professor with no personal ties to the course content.  What is missed by letting the course texts discuss the lives of LGBT people, but essentially keeping the professor’s sexual identity and experiences as a gay person in the closet?  Certainly, I am aware of the presumption of bias, that students tend to misread queer professors as advancing “the gay agenda” in the classroom; and “real” activism by LGB professors comes at a cost in academia in general.  And, it may be the case that they, like women and people of color, are assumed to be less competent by students, as well.  And, there may be concerns for one’s safety and job security.  This should not be read as encouragement to express one’s own ideology.  But, I still struggle with understanding why so many professors teach as though they are robots with no present, no future, no sort of personal history and experiences.

There are no easy answers.  And, of course, much of this varies based on the particular institution (especially religious vs. secular), type of course, and the professors own level of comfort.  But, even short of outing oneself, there are ways to minimize the expression of homophobia and transphobia in the classroom.  And, these strategies may even challenge students’ views in general.  Maybe “debates about homosexuality” should be avoid to get away from explicitly inviting opposition.  Offer, or create (with one’s students), a set of guidelines for classroom discussion that makes clear that prejudice and mean-spiritedness will not be tolerated.  Encourage students to exercise their skills to use, extend, or challenge course material, sprinkled with other forms of knowledge, in a way that their own personal opinion does not serve as their primary point in speaking during discussion.

Either way, I hope that Scudera is right in his hope for the future:

Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.

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