A post World War II history of U.S. education would find one of the most important and un-ignorable themes to be the slow and fitful, but progressive, movement of marginalized people and their experiences into the mainstream of our classrooms. While this work is at different stages for different peoples, just now, trans topics have been gaining attention because of a combination of students, politics, and opportunities for new and complex thinking about gender. I have been part of this integration effort for over 15 years. My work has included teaching at conferences, training nonprofits, researching trans experiences of violence, contributing to journals and books, and speaking in classrooms. During this time, I wrote an essay called "Strip!" that is commonly used in college classrooms seeking to teach on trans topics, experiences, and lives.
This essay focuses on teaching trans in higher education and explores my experience in relation to that project: as a guest speaker invited to tell personal stories, mainly coming out stories; as a guest lecturer elaborating on research and analysis; as an instructor developing and teaching full-term courses at a major public university; as a participant at the conference that led to writing "Strip!"; and, especially, as the writer interacting with editors who affected the content of the published essay. These inform my critique of how trans is currently taught. Current pedagogy relies heavily on autobiography, oral and written. This strategy is intended to bypass the forces that marginalize trans people by deriving information directly from trans sources. But, as my experiences with "Strip!" and classroom speaking demonstrate, non-trans perspectives still control who is selected to speak or write and what stories are encouraged or accepted. Marginalizing forces, then, are not bypassed. I hope to provide insight into the work that must be done to create classrooms that truly integrate trans lives into current curricula and classrooms.
To be trans in modern U.S. society is to be misunderstood. While a number of educators have taken step,; to attempt to overcome the pervasive lack of understanding about trans people, their approaches are undercut by two common, problematic dynamics. The first is a non-trans view that marginalizes trans lives as "different." Second is a problem this essay will name diversity pedagogy. This is a theory of multiculturalism, first flourishing in the 1990s, which asserts that exposing persons/students to information about different experiences and perspectives is academically valuable. The problem critiqued here as "diversity pedagogy" is teaching that values marginalized perspectives for the sake of difference, not because of a priority placed on dismantling marginalization. Difference is a commodity in diversity pedagogy, a mother lode of "new facts" that provide value to normalized students. The focus is on how the marginalized can serve the needs of the normative student. The solution to both these problems? We must create a specific trans pedagogy. We can no longer assume trans inclusion is valuable merely because trans people and experiences will be "new" to most students. Nor can we assume that all trans experiences, perspectives, writings and speakers are equally valuable. In developing this new pedagogy, we must challenge ourselves to evaluate our curricula to determine what should be taught, and then to find not merely guest speakers or trans voices, but actual experts in the material being covered in relationship to trans "matters." This means, for instance, that teaching about trans people in a course on the psychology of gender requires not a single personal story that may or may not reveal something psychologically, but someone with both broad enough experiences in or data from different trans communities so that a personal story is not mistaken as universal, and that the speaker brings sufficient expertise within psychology to import that knowledge into the framework of the class. In other words, this requires far more than the ability to tell a coming out story.
When trans people are marginalized, their ability to communicate is curtailed. In the United States, this produces both silences and stereotypes that together render trans lives twisted and unrecognizable. Both also privilege a non-trans view. In this view, being trans is something fundamentally different. Assumed difference leads to the conclusion that it is difficult or impossible for non-trans people to understand trans voices. In response, some educators seek out opportunities for inclusion. However, while assumed difference may bring new attention, the types of attention that result are not necessarily positive. Instead, attention can emerge from styles and strategies that continue trans marginalization through emphasizing difference more than warranted.
Assumed difference can so easily be embraced because difference is valued in what I am calling "Diversity Pedagogy." This pedagogy spread with multiculturalism, and most U.S. educators were familiar with it by the mid-1990s. The problem with the values and strategies of diversity pedagogy is that on its own it provides no guidance about which experiences should be prioritized in classrooms. If it were true that trans folk wear more teal than non-trans folk, diversity pedagogy would find that fact as useful to students as the difficulties trans people face in finding safe public restrooms. Yet one of these teaches non-trans students about power relationships between themselves and trans persons and one does not.
"Strip!" is an example of how non-trans perspectives and...