Not another special guest: transgender inclusivity in a human sexuality course.

Author:Preston, Marilyn
Position:Viewpoint essay

It is the first day of class in my undergraduate course on Human Sexuality at the University of Missouri. The course is listed in the Human Development and Family Studies department, a discipline that attracts students interested in careers in early childhood education, family mediation, and social services. The first lecture is on how culture provides a "lens" through which we understand sexuality. I give examples--The Dani and sexual interest, Ancient Greece and sexual orientation, and finally Modern Western nations' and Fourth World nations' interpretations of gender, particularly transgender identities and performance. This is the first time I will bring trans identities into our classroom discourse, but it is not the only time. Over the course of the semester I will work to incorporate trans identities, voices, bodies, and knowledge into discussions of sex, sexuality, gender, and behavior.

My pedagogical background is influenced by the progressive colleges that I attended, which were steeped in gender studies, critical theories, queer theory and sociology. Most of the students at the university where I teach are young adults, the vast majority of whom are from middle class families, white, and Christian. In addition, this university has a large Greek system: over 30% of students are involved in fraternities and sororities. The makeup of my courses mostly mirrors the demographics of the university at large--the majority are white, middle class, heterosexual, and many are involved in service-learning or Greek organizations. However, because I have taught in the Women's and Gender Studies department as well, I have some carryover of students who are queer-identified, explicitly interested in social justice, and have a background in critical studies related to race, gender, class and sexuality. I struggle to make a space for myself in a discipline that still utilizes structural functionalism, a theory that suggests that each family member's gendered role must be met in order to have a "successful family." The department requires I teach human sexuality in a particular way, focusing on the psychological, social, and developmental processes of sexuality. My own understanding of sexuality is heavily influenced by queer feminist understandings of sex and sexuality that promote a libratory perspective--one that focuses on pleasure and agency. Combining my own focus with the requirements of my department is no small task, and presents a significant tension for both me and my students. One colleague has framed efforts to address this tension directly through teaching as those of a "rebel without a cause." In class I encourage students to confront discomfort regarding privilege, race, gender, class, and sexuality as ways to examine the world and their own place and responsibility within it. My students and my discipline, however, are expecting a cut-and-dry empirical lesson on the what's, how's, and when's of sexuality--not the why's that I seek to explore. This dissonance can lead to resistance, adaptation, and growth, as I will detail below.

In this essay I discuss my teaching of trans material as it is shaped by the tension between the dominant expectations of Human Development and my aspiration to pull the classroom conversations to these new locations. As I discuss, integrating transgender experiences and voices into any class, but particularly a class on sexuality, broadens the meaning that is assigned to sex and sexuality, allows for an exploration of the ways in which systemic oppressions intersect and impact individuals, and provides a space for individual and collective reflexivity and praxis.

The issue of how to include transgender identities and experiences is one that I constantly negotiate. I find myself working against the textbook, which only devotes three paragraphs to trans bodies and experiences and only within the chapter on female anatomy. I have to recognize spaces within the discussions and readings to include trans voices without making it an "add transgender and stir" day. I do not bring in a panel of transfolk. I feel this method reinforces the boundary between cisgender and transgender individuals, and the questions that get asked are particularly othering--focused on individual bodies and sexual interactions that serve less to engage and more to intrigue. However, for many of my students, transgender identities remain a fuzzy, complicated, and wrought-with-stereotypes construct that causes cognitive dissonance. I want the students to see how complex sexuality and bodies are, but rather than see "typical" and "atypical" I want them to see points on a prism of experience and identities--to realize the shared experiences of gender and sexual oppression. To do so, trans texts and voices need to be part of every topic and conversation we share. I am sometimes reminded that this might raise the concern that these classes are biased, and so focus on finding ways to utilize trans voices to expand knowledge without sounding like an...

To continue reading