On (Re-)Reading “The Queer Sounds of Teacher Talk”

I was invited to write 4-book review essay for the The Lesbian Review of Books. This post reflects on my right-now-in-2021 re-reading of that 31 January 1996 essay, which is one of the several 1990s pieces I wrote that identified lesbian as my identity – more correctly, as the public identity that I let exist even as the personal, pedagogical, and gene-particled parts of me screamed queer. This is the generative start of a longer essay about closeting my queer self in bi-ignoring, biphobic lesbian communities, and an Alexander family community that saw my queerness in another ways (“My, you are a queer one,” said Gram often), and was catching up to this as sexuality as well as attitude.

In primarily white feminist lesbian communities the false choice in between lesbian or heterosexual felt duplicitous alongside talk of intersectionality and encouragement to claim identities we were taught to despise. It was in thes primarily white straight and lesbian spaces where I ducked into the lesbian label – and in spaces created in friendships with men and women of color that I let my own queer self be present. The thing I’m working to understand is this: what are the cultural, psychological, social, and interpersonal factors that kept me quiet in the company of my women’s studies and lesbian feminist, lesbian or not, friends? And why haven’t I discussed this with those same people, women I’ve loved for 20-40 years?

The opening two paragraphs, 1996:

I write this review essay as someone who quietly dropped an undergraduate journalism and English major the very quarter I was to begin teacher education courses; instead, I began my final undergraduate year with a new major in political science. In the transfer, I quietly acknowledged my fear of student teaching in the company of my own former high school teachers — specifically my fear of “learning to teach” in the company of teachers who were kind but closeted gay men and lesbians, kind but cautious allies to gay and lesbian colleagues, kind but righteous homophobes.

Like many “queer” people wanting to embark on a career in education, I found myself afraid of “returning to the scene of the crime.” Not afraid of students, of advising the newspaper or drama groups, but of filling student teacher/supervising teacher conversations with silences. Afraid, too, of walking into the classroom and learning how to become another one of the “kind but” teachers who had quietly stopped us — varied groupings of white, sometimes activist, southern Minnesota high school students in the 1970s — from pursuing questions related to race, to sexuality, to gender. I was afraid, most of all, that the young adult woman slowly uncloseting herself would hear and heed advice to pull the door back toward the jamb and lock it.  

This is the first of three review essays I wrote for The Lesbian Review of Books, a periodical described in various library catelog entries as “review[ing] books authored by lesbians with an audience of readers of lesbian literature,” and as an “international quarterly review of books by, for, and about lesbians.” In this essay, as in all three, I invoke queer in talking about lives and literature, and lesbian when I refer to myself. Yet, my internalised self-definition during this period of writing remained, as it had since that 6th grade moment when I recognized that my crushes were equally on girls and boys, that the person characteristic I valued in myself were gendered as male or female but not both, and that this was neither accidental nor passing – this was who I knew myself to be: As queer as my own lovely fairy godfather, the gay uncle who introduced me to the word and all the power it carried when I met Karl – his partner, his husband, actually – around that same 1960s timing. I’d write the essay during what was the last year of a relationship that spanned 15 years of becoming, being in, and ending a relationship with Lark, a comfortably self-identified lesbian. At that point acepting – acquesing to – lesbian naming wasn’t entirely new to me. I’d accepted this naming as part of being within Women’s Studies and women’s community spaces while a graduate student in both Mankato and Iowa City. As I read this piece now – and others from that era – I feel compliant, complicit in accepting this self-naming as part of acceptance, of passing, in highly politicised contexts.

In contexts where a bisexual was taken to identify women either in a phase or state of denial, former lesbians who had become heterosexual or bisexual, women who once identified as a lesbian but no longer did. The word I knew for this – hasbian – was meant to be demeaning, derogatory. It was, along with other naming, openly biphobic, generally based on a belief that bisexual women were opportunistically with women while waiting for a heterosexaul relationship with a man.

In those academic and community contexts queer was taken as a mark of gay male advantage in academic and community circles – in what one of my friends calls “the alphabet mafia” that long placed Gay at the start of group identity acronyms (GL → GLB → GLBTQ → LGBTQIA2S+ ), and heard as a derogatory categorisation across generations of lesbian and gay communities. In my personal context, queer was a whole a welcome internalised self-naming: It reflected my own indifference (not yet disdain) toward external gender norms, roles,  expectations for a body – my body – carrying biologically female chromosomes and hormones, while also acknowledging that I did identify with the semantics of female if not that of woman as an identity component. My internalised queer was a genetic female who opted for her own gender-norms-crossing-and-crossing-out behaviours and characteristics, thank you very much.

In those 20- to nearly-40-something years, the identity I carried, and the one I projected were not in alignment. Great.

Within those brain-body, personal-political, public-pedagogical duality conundrums, the slowly uncloseting found me standing at that liminal doorway: At home with my queer self, crossing the threshold in public spaces as GLBT ally, advocate, activist – and in family spaces as well as public space, not at all uncloseted as Ilene whose being was being in that lesbian, much less queer space. In somatic and psychological space I was that queer human without fears about what I felt, read, and thought, in how I agitated and taught in that space. Not crossing the threshold for community and family spaces, I left most of myself at home. No wonder I so resonate with Pat Parker’s words in “Movement in Black” (1978) on wanting to take all of me into the party that could have been high school teaching:

If I could take all my parts with me when I go somewhere, and not have to say to one of them, ‘No, you stay home tonight, you won’t be welcome’…in thousands of situations where something of what I am cannot come with me. The day all the different parts of me can come along, we would have what I would call a revolution. 

The 4th paragraph:

The individuals I met during that year [when I switched away from high school journalism and English teaching to the political science major] were engaged in what feminist education theorist Deborah Britzman called “the significant albeit hidden work of learning to teach,” while also “negotiating with conflicting representations and desires” of becoming a teacher (24). Learning and watching teaching in that year produced a series of “Click!” moments, reflected in these lines I would select from Britzman for the 1996 review:

teaching was more than a role to be practiced unto perfection; teaching involves identity, involves ferret[ing] out how multiple interpretations of the meanings of social experience come to position one’s identity as a teacher. This involves scrutiny into how we come to know ourselves when we are trying to become teacher. (Britzman 24)  Considering teaching in this way, Britzman points out, refuses the singularity of the term, the role, of ‘teacher” and makes way for “concentrating instead on how we come to take up positions, make alliances, and weave the justifications of the things we do” as teachers (28).

In this teacher-education-by-way-of-political-science-major, I came to understand “what it would mean to enter a classroom and teach in a different way” and do consider how other identities – lesbian, working class, white, white, anti-racist, activist – interacted with my persona(lity) and identity formation generally to shape the ways I could be(come) a teacher.  My pedagogical education continues to be built on dialogue, on conversation with teaching peers – by this I mean K-12 teachers, college instructors, adult education specialists, and community activists who openly identify not only as teachers but also as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or as allies to people like us — through e-mail, discussion groups, between-class chats, and reading of the many books now being published. Most important of these, for the lesbian who finally touched that closet door handle only to fling the door wide open, are those books written by and about queer folks involved in education.

Wait – “teaching involves identity”?! Better still – “multiple interpretations of the meanings of social experience come to position one’s identity as a teacher”?!  Most of all, this involves – no requires – “scrutiny into how we come to know ourselves when we are trying to become teacher.” Yes. Yes!

And yet, in many ways my hand still hovered above the door handle, and my words like my hand hesitated in making that next, necessary push. Lark and I were public about our relationship in all of our spaces, and simultaneously I would stay closeted as queer until just months before the ending that long-term lesbian relationship happened. (Moving away from Iowa City helped, as that was the community where I heard biphobia in the general din, and in the circle of Lark’s friends.) Knowing the relationship was ending, I worked to catch my personal self up with my pedagogical self, the self who taught the UIowa course Lesbian Lives, and invented the Feminist Literature and Theory, and Introduction to Sexuality Studies courses with lesbian, bisexual, and trans folx at the center of all we considered in reading, talking, creating, and interacting. Finally, 30 years of learning queer worlds and words as part of the wonderfully intersectional thinking my brain pursued in life and literature, I lived as openly personally queer as I had lived pedagogically queer for 20 years. These four books – and the four hundred more that had come before them, these are the books I held in the crook of my arm as my hand turned that door knob.

On Re-Reading

I bought a copy of Diana: A Strange Biography after reading the issue containing my “Queer Sounds” review essay, and I discovered Emma Donoghue with the review of her first novel, and Val McDermid via a book that would come out just as her Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series would make its way to US bookstores, and borrowed from that same bookstore copies of new works by Pat Califia and Karla Jay. For the discoveries this publication offered, I read each issue from 1994 to 2002 – handily it was a periodical on the shelves of the same feminist bookstore were I worked part-time throughout that span. The books I’d read since age 10, as well as tjose on the stores shelves made clear for me what the Review was missing: voices of color; openly queer and bisexual voices; writers across identities who identified as working class or disabled. The Review remained part of my reading for thinking about lesbian literature, theory, and scholarship, and like the word lesbian, it was not enough for the queer teaching and living, alliance and accomplice, writing and mentoring, acting and creating in the world where I live.

In sorting through this, I recognize so much of the unlearning diagrammed below – external validation, distracting from hard feelings, making self smaller, sacrificing voice to avoid conflict.

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