Identity matters: teaching transgender in the women's studies classroom.

Author:Drabinski, Kate
Position:Essay
 
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Teaching transgender studies is often assumed to fall under the purview of gender and women's studies programs and the GLBT studies programs often nested there where claims have been made on the territories of gender and sexuality. The questions that have long plagued these programs persist: Is our subject matter women and men, gays and lesbians, transgender people? Or is it rather the production of those categories and how they come to matter? What, exactly, is the object of our study, when that object is so often our own subjectivities and a necessarily moving target? Identities are historical artifacts rather than static realities, so to teach identity-based programs is to risk further calcifying the very categories that operate to oppress those of us who live on the margins of them. At the same time, those categories are necessary to our understanding of very real material histories of oppression and resistance; to teach as if identity is mere figment would render invisible the very real legacies of domination that must be understood if they are to be undone.

Teaching transgender studies in a women's studies curriculum runs up against this old problem that scholars like to imagine we have solved. Transgender issues tend to be taught in the "special guest" model, never central in their own right and always interesting only insofar as they illuminate more clearly "women's" issues. This is evidenced in the literature, awash in tomes that open with anecdotes about individual transgender people and only then widen out, in syllabi that reserve a day for transgender issues, and in classrooms where "transgender" is reduced to a vocabulary word or an example to illuminate some other issue. As a result, transgender studies risks being ghettoized in a women's studies curriculum that is historically hostile to the field, if not the people, (1) and the great potential of teaching and learning from transgender is reduced to a freakish footnote in our students' notebooks to be trotted out at the next party as a crazy example of what they are teaching over in gender studies. Teaching transgender is thus particularly challenging given the lack of complicated public discourse about transgender people, identities, and movements, but this teaching has the potential to open up radical new pathways for thinking about gender, sexuality, and identity more generally. In what follows, I argue that teaching transgender as a set of practices rather than only or always an extension of identity logics offers an important challenge to the dangerous assumptions most of my students have absorbed through popular discourses about transgender people. This teaching expands the purview of transgender studies beyond the study of individual transgender people to show students how transgender studies in this broader sense can help them think more generally through the social, cultural, and political issues at the heart of women's and gender studies.

In order to accomplish these goals, I center rather than marginalize transgender as a conceptual category in the women's and gender studies classroom, resisting the logic of identity inherent in what this issue of Radical Teacher so rightly identifies as the problem of the "special guest." More specifically, I begin my introductory course in gender and women's studies with Susan Stryker's work on transgender feminism to center transgender as fundamental to understanding gender as practice rather than identity, even as those practices tend to congeal into identities that we experience as natural. I then organize class discussions and activities to get students to see how they too are implicated in social practices of gender, no matter how "natural" gender might feel to them. These exercises risk falling back into the logic of gender as personal identity, so my first written assignment asks students to think about gender and sex without thinking about human bodies at all. This layered approach to the texts we read, the classroom activities we engage, and the assignments we write radicalizes our teaching of not only transgender studies, but of women's and gender studies more generally.

Reading Transgender

How we teach is fundamentally tied up with who we teach. Students enroll in introductory gender and women's studies courses for all kinds of reasons: it fits their schedule, it fulfills a university diversity requirement, they want to learn about themselves, it is supposed to be easy or fun, and the list goes on. The introductory classroom is thus a real mix of students, some of whom have deep personal knowledge of the issues raised, others with some general interest but no expectation of being reflected back to themselves, and of course the occasional student who enrolls in order to play "devil's advocate" and fight against the perceived takeover by liberals of their university. (That bait must not be taken, but that is the subject of another article entirely.) This article draws on my experiences teaching at Tulane University, a large private research institution in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Tulane undergraduate population is over 80% white and largely economically privileged, with only 38% of this year's entering freshman class offered any amount of need-based financial aid. (2) The school has also been in the midst of a massive rebuilding project after the levee breaches of 2005. This rebuilding has taken the form of repairing and upgrading the physical plant, but also recasting Tulane as a school for students interested in civic engagement, pumping significant resources into service learning initiatives and public/private partnerships with K-12 schools in the city. Tulane's Gender and Sexuality Studies program has also undergone significant rebuilding, converting from a Women's Studies program serving a relatively small number of students in a truncated curriculum without dedicated courses in LGBT studies to one serving upwards of 200 students a term in introductory courses alone and a dedicated curricular track in sexuality studies.

That growth has been accompanied by a change in the students enrolling in program courses; increasingly students identify as queer or feminist and expect the course to speak to them. When I began teaching at Tulane in Fall 2007, courses attracted a comparatively narrow student type: white women, many of whom were active participants in the Greek system, few of whom identified, publicly, at least, as GLBT. In my first year I taught only one self-identified male student across six courses. My Spring 2007 course in queer theory, titled "Sexual Politics" by a somewhat nervous program chair, drew a similar crowd. By the time of my last semester at Tulane, my classrooms were far more diverse in terms of gender identity, sexuality, and race, and I think this was largely a response to syllabi that focused on diverse experiences and course titles that signaled that approach to students, including Narratives of Race and Gender and Advanced Sexuality and Queer Theory...

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