Theory and Pedagogy: Working with Diverse Queer and Trans Youth

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

“Do not ask me who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. Leave it to the bureaucrats and police to make sure our papers are in order; at least spare us their morality when we write” – Michel Foucault, Introduction to Archaeology of Knowledge

I’ve been asked by friends and colleagues, on more than one occasion, to share some of my reflections on the deep, theoretical explorations I engage through books, music, film, and more. Specifically, these folks have asked me to help illuminate for them and for others how those explorations make their way into my pedagogical practice with diverse youth in the Bay Area and Central Valley of California. My work with youth generally centers around anti-violence, social justice, and healthy relationships.

Before jumping right into my process of moving from theory to pedagogy, I want to share a bit about how I’ve been taught to approach reading. In particular, I want to share how I read texts that are difficult, dense, opaque, or philosophical. What many might not know is that our modern university system is descended from Christian seminary colleges, where aspiring theologians and spiritual practitioners would engage in deep reading of the Bible. While many spiritual traditions – including sects of Christianity – have held space for diverse interpretations of religious texts, the puritanical forms of Christianity that took root in the United States, and that form many of our social institutions, focus on a “one truth” reading of the Bible. Consequently, this form of reading is the one that has taken root in U.S. universities: one author, one text, one interpretation, one truth. We know that even though the Bible doesn’t have one author (or even one version or translation), we have been taught to see the word of G-d as definitive and singular.

This is not how I’ve been taught to read. My critical reading skills were forged through the intellectual traditions of radical Jewish thought and feminist Bengali scholarship, two traditions that foreground spirited debate, hospitality toward difference, interpretation-as-agency, and a respect for complex legacies of social thought and activism. It is my responsibility as a reader to not approach every text like the Bible, or to see it as an Oedipal father to overcome by only pointing to its lack, its gaps, its irrelevance due to its emergence in a prior historical moment. I have to put in the work to keep texts alive and dynamic by putting them to work in the real world. A myth we have been told is how quickly and immensely the world changes across decades; what I’ve come to discover is that deep, underlying social norms are very slow to change, even as how we experience our social worlds is constantly reinterpreted and in flux.

Given this reality, texts from ten, twenty, thirty, even forty or more years ago continue to have relevance to our present moment because they help me to chart out debates, foreclosures, and other possibilities that we have long-since abandoned, but that help to animate my imagination with curiosity and creativity. What might things look like otherwise? For me, reading is daring to dream, with wakefulness of the particularities of our present moment. I am always searching for openings, rather than simply identifying (or creating) foreclosures through careless, reactive, or facile interpretation of texts.

I approach pedagogy in a similar way that I do reading – through openness, curiosity, and acute attentiveness to the group, the context, and the goals we set together. I am obsessively student-centered, but I approach this in a way that is somewhat different than others do. I believe that centering student learning doesn’t always mean students make decisions or lead the discussion. Sometimes there are important interventions that need to be made and sometimes they just need to listen to me talk to them. I like to think of it as storytelling, an art form in current pedagogical approaches that is unfortunately dying out in mainstream (including liberal and progressive) cultures. Before diving into this kind of teaching, I take time to “learn from below,” a strategy elaborated by Gayatri C. Spivak, wherein the educator becomes intimately aware of the struggles and lived realities of their students in order to craft meaningful learning experiences that are relevant to students’ lives. Even when I lecture (or story-tell, as I like to think of it), I have taken the time to ensure that it will land with each and every one of my youth. With this approach, I’m able to give them a lot to discuss, reflect upon, and question.

I have also learned that students don’t operate very well with conceptual voids. We can problematize the world all we want, but it can be incredibly challenging for them to unlearn if I’m not also sharing new ways to make sense of all that they see; however, I don’t want to simply gloss over the importance of unlearning. This process is not as simple as “don’t do this/don’t think that” – it involves what historian, philosopher, and human rights activist Michel Foucault called genealogy, which is the union of erudite and local knowledges. These forms of knowledge come together when rigorously trained scholar-activists dig through the messy and layered archives of historical information to learn how our current cultural ideas and practices came to be, and they also highly value the lived experiences of those who are harmed by those oppressive ideas and practices in order to see how domination and resistance operate in complex and particular ways. I approach youth development work from an explicitly genealogical focus, on a number of fronts – deconstructing binaries of adult/child, queer/straight, white/not-white, trans/cis, disabled/abled – in order to help usher youth into an understanding of the historical and legal production of identity categories, without dismissing the political usefulness of these categories. This is recognizing what Spivak calls “strategic essentialism,” wherein individuals acknowledge the problematics of identity but find it useful to organize around assumptions of at least some shared experience.

Why am I approaching youth development work in this way, when ostensibly I’m focusing on healthy relationships education at a domestic violence non-profit? I do this because issues of identity are often incredible sources of tension in relationships with queer and trans people. How “out” are the partners involved? Is it politically important to the individuals involved to engage in experimental and radical forms of relationships, including types of non-monogamy? Are people falling in love or dating interracially? Queer communities are often much more mixed-class than many other communities as well. The forms of difference that are concentrated in cultural settings with queer and trans people are immense, and how these differences shape queerness and trans-ness can often bring folks into conflict with one another. Getting to the root of violence in relationships often involves helping the parties involved differently consider one another’s life experiences, including traumas connected to membership in a social identity group.

Before sharing with you exactly how I take rich, theoretical texts and translate them into pedagogical tools, I want to note a few problematics in how I’m presenting this work. I want to put an accent over the hesitation with which I demarcate this dualism of theory/pedagogy, or the “theoretical” and “practical” realms. For me, the two are intimately woven together, and when I’m reading, I’m taking time to both dive into complex works as an opportunity to be imaginative and curious, and at other times I’m reading with the explicit intent of looking for ideas I can bring to my young leaders. I also want to say that theoretical texts can’t just be read in isolation, but they require ongoing engagement and embedded-ness in community reflection. Interpreting theoretical texts is not about an individual’s intelligence or capacity-in-isolation; this kind of work is always connected to long-standing legacies of critical social thought, which often foregrounds the importance of cooperation, relationality, and holding tensions across difference.

Having given a number of caveats, you may be wondering how any of this comes to life in the work I do with youth. How is Michel Foucault, a French scholar-activist who was most active during the 1960s-1980s, relevant to queer and trans youth in Oakland, California in the 2010s? First of all, he dedicated his life to activism and ongoing learning. He was deeply involved in multiple social movements across the course of his life, which ended much too early from AIDS-related complications in 1984. Michel might disagree with my labeling him as such, but I perceive him to have been a queer man who disliked being put in a box. There is much in this European man’s life that resonates with the aims of my youth, particularly the way his existence and thought challenged (and continue to challenge) many underlying assumptions of “identity.”

Firstly, Foucault challenged the idea that identities are universal across time and place. Working with queer and trans youth from immigrant, diasporic, and low-income communities, they are intimately aware that dominant representations of queer and trans people often do not reflect their experiences. Secondly, Foucault questioned our confessional impulses that portray identity as stable, knowable, and important to decipher and share with others. The young people I work with are excited to explore, question, grow, and change, bringing their queerness or trans-ness with them through these explorations, inevitably reshaping those identities along the way. And thirdly, Foucault questioned the idea that identity is the single best tool for political organizing. Youth today are often feeling suffocated by the popularized and reductive interpretations of critical social thought and identity politics that have proliferated across the internet. Youth want to learn how to build alliances across difference in meaningful and sustainable ways, and don’t want to feel pressured to reduce diverse experiences to hierarchies of oppression. They see adults do it and they want more, they want better. I’m trying to do better for them, and for all of us.

Foucault helps us challenge these three oppressive ideas (identities are universal, identities are stable/knowable, and identity is the only basis for political resistance). Why is this important? It’s important because concepts of sexuality and gender were crafted in Euro-American clinical settings that pathologized the queering of sexuality and gender. These youth come from communities that have been pathologized for these and other reasons, and significant tensions exist between queer and trans youth and their families or communities who often say that queer and trans identities are a “white thing” – which I take to mean many things, possibly. It could be a refusal of individualistic identity, assumptions of distance from family, concerns about social rejection, denying clinical narratives of illness, and much more. These concerns need to be taken seriously, and queer and trans youth from diverse communities need thought-tools to help address and reduce acute tensions across generations.

To respond to the call-to-action that I take from critical theory, I’ve created a few exercises to begin to loosen the grip that rigid framings of identity have on youth’s self-understandings and how they learn to police themselves and others: 1) an intersectional gender history timeline, 2) an identity map, and 3) an identity Q&A gallery walk.

The first exercise explores the ways that law and social norms in the United States were often crafted to target diverse forms of gender and sexuality and immigrant groups simultaneously, so that looking at the production of queer and trans identities requires looking at the project of whiteness and American-ness over the past couple hundred years. Youth learn ten moments in history where gender, sexuality, race, and nationality were being crafted simultaneously, and that in the U.S. it’s impossible to address homophobia and transphobia without also addressing xenophobia. Historically, what has been defined as “queer” has also been seen as “other,” and what is portrayed as “other” has also been described as “queer” or not properly heterosexual. This helps youth understand that our dominant ideas of queer and trans identities are culturally and historically particular.

The second activity allows youth to explore their multiple identities and how they shape one another. We give each young person a giant poster paper and ask them to draw themselves in the center. Around that center drawing, we have them list identities that feel important to them. While encouraging them to think about race, place of birth, gender, sexuality, and more, we also give them space to think through non-politicized identities such as introversion/extroversion, affiliation with musical or athletic groups (formal or informal), and other activities (reader? artist? cook? storyteller? spiritual practitioner?). After they’ve listed these identities, we ask them to explore the people, places, and ideas that have impacted how they relate to those identities so that we aren’t perpetually forcing them to obsess over individualistic self-discovery, but to embed those coming-of-age processes within a cultural, community, or family legacy that predates them, and will continue after them. Youth then share their posters with the rest of the group, and it is during this activity that we have the opportunity to learn a lot about one another as individuals, as well as the worlds that we bring with us into that space of learning.

The third activity, the identity Q&A gallery walk, provides youth with the opportunity to respond directly to complex questions about identity. Each of the following questions is put on a large sheet of poster paper and stuck up on the wall: How do you define “identity? Why do you think we focus on visible identities? How can our identities make us feel safe? How can our identities make us feel unsafe? Have any of your identities stayed the same over time? Have any of your identities changed over time? Why do you think identities might change? Does everyone with the same identity relate to it in the same way? Why or why not?

Youth are given post-its to write their responses on and then stick up on the larger sheets of poster paper. After everyone has responded to all the different questions, we go around and review youth’s responses. They often respond to our questions with questions, and some respond with open and frank statements that push the conversation in fruitful – if not sometimes uncomfortable – places. It’s my job as the facilitator to ensure the safety of participants, and with a solid set of group agreements we craft together on Day One, this isn’t as hard as some might think.

If folks are curious to lear more about the specifics of facilitating these activities, please feel free to comment here or message me elsewhere. I’m always happy to share materials. Because I’m employed full-time and don’t need additional sources of income, I have the luxury of not having to worry about intellectual property rights and am happy to see these tools make their way into the lives of more young people who are yearning for alternative, nuanced, and critical ways to think through questions of identity, self-determination, and belonging.

Genetics, Gender Identity, and Youth Transitions: Context and Questions for Reflection

by Mauro Sifuentes, doctoral candidate in Education & community-based educator

During late July this past summer, Stephen Rosenthal, M.D., medical director of the UCSF Child and Adolescent Gender Center, a professional collaborative of medical and advocacy experts, presented recommendations to a group of over a hundred parents of transgender youth who showed up to hear the most recent findings from a field of research that seeks to identify a biological basis for transgender identities; most of the adults present were parents of children or youth who receive clinical care from this center. Dr. Rosenthal is a professor of pediatrics at UCSF who specializes in pediatric endocrinology and who has served as a consultant for pharmaceutical corporations who develop and market hormones and hormone blockers. On this particular day, he was attempting to address parents’ concerns regarding difficult decisions they may have to make, or have already made: the choice to give consent for their children’s bodies to be altered through puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

The presentation was part of a weekend-long conference hosted by Gender Spectrum, a Bay Area-based education and advocacy non-profit, that prioritizes “gender sensitive and inclusive environments for all children and teens.” The conference, which attracts families, presenters, and participants from all over the Bay Area (and some traveling much longer distances to attend), provides a unique meeting place for medical and mental health professionals, educators, advocates, youth, and parents. For some participants, including youth, this conference is their first time speaking openly with others who may have similar experiences navigating the terrain of transgender identities, and the challenges that come with it. The annual Gender Spectrum conference grew out of a need to break the isolation of parents who are made to face difficult decisions in a world that is only growing incrementally more hospitable for transgender children and youth, and hardly so for those who appear more androgynous or do not live in supportive communities or families.

One of these particular challenges falls on parents, and their decision-making power over their children. While it is still portrayed as a controversial choice for an adult to decide to medically transition genders, often through hormones and surgeries, it is an even more contentious choice when parents are making life-changing decisions about their children’s access to hormones or surgeries. Because of the stigma often attached to making such a choice, Dr. Rosenthal’s presentation may help lessen parents’ concerns about whether or not they are making the right choice in moving ahead with either puberty blockers (which block the hormones that will lead to the puberty of sex-assigned-at-birth) or so-called cross-sex hormones (which promote the development of secondary sex characteristics associated with the gender with which a child identifies or resonates). However, presenting research in an attempt to prove a biological basis for transgender identities has been met with mixed responses.

Dr. Rosenthal is one of the pioneers in this controversial field of transgender pediatric and adolescent health, and work like his has come under criticism from peers in the medical field, as well as from another unlikely group of critics – transgender people themselves, in addition to intersex, de-transitioned adults, and non-binary people who identify as neither male nor female. These groups of people worry that hormones and surgeries will be used to mask young people’s queer and transgender identities, and gender diversity more broadly. Many transgender people choose to live without medical interventions on their bodies. Intersex adults – people who cannot or should not be classified as male or female – often have experienced the long-term consequences of adult decision-making power over their bodies and genders, and do not want others to have that choice taken away. There is also a growing movement of adults who medically transitioned genders before the age of eighteen who now call themselves “de-trans” and believe they were coerced into making decisions that were not appropriate for them, while others believe that medical gender transition was appropriate for them at the time, but that their gender identity has shifted again in late adolescence or adulthood. Non-binary adults are people who may pursue medical gender transition, but who do not necessarily identify as either male or female. These diverse stakeholders are often skeptical of early medical interventions on children’s bodies and identities, particularly when the primary goal is to secure a “normal” life, a goal that often feeds unrealistic expectations resulting in long-term negative consequences, such as depression, or, a lack of connection to queer communities as an adolescent or adult.

These groups have voiced concerns about the drive behind the search for a genetic basis for transgender identities, drawing upon lessons learned from the now-discredited “reparative” therapies for intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and queer youth and adults that sought to “correct” and erase queer genders and sexualities during times of intense stigma, including today. In addition to stigma, laws were crafted in the 19th and early 20th centuries that made it illegal to wear clothes of “another sex” or to engage in homosexuality. Interestingly, and of concern to those who have studied the covert reinventions of eugenics, California reformers who were interested in white racial purity also became interested in how mothers and fathers, in their portrayals of polarized masculinity and femininity, could craft “fitter” children that would prevent the degeneracy of the white race.

Lewis Terman was a leading figure in the California eugenics movement who invented and popularized the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, a tool used to assess “feeblemindedness” and identify young people for forced sterilization. Terman also developed the “M-F” test, which was used – and to some extent is still used – to predict homosexuality and gender diversity in youth and young adults, and to channel them into so-called reparative therapies to prevent the further development of diverse genders and sexualities. Here, we can see that the impulse to draw clear lines around racial groupings is intimately linked to the desire to have clear lines between male/female, even as standards for men and woman are often in flux, changing across time and place. Many advocates for transgender youth – including transgender adults – feel pressure to justify challenging and controversial decisions, often relying on research that reproduces a certain logic known to harm the very interests of people they seek to support.

And yet, the research seeking a genetic basis for transgender identities is forging ahead. A team of international researchers from the U.S. and Europe have already begun to collect DNA samples from thousands of transgender people in an effort to identify genomic markers that could be used to predict the development of transgender identities, something researchers themselves have inadequately defined because they are not trained in gender or cultural studies. As this work develops, we must continue to ask ourselves questions about what ethics and understandings are driving this research, as well as all the potential outcomes and consequences for transgender children and youth, many of whom are often making decisions in a crucible of medical and psychological experimentation, binary gender coercion, inconclusive data, misinformation, and immense discrimination. Even with the good intentions of parents, and physicians like Dr. Rosenthal, without a more robust discussion that puts the interests of transgender children, youth, and adults in a larger social and historical context, we may be repeating missteps of the past. These important deliberations would benefit from refusing simplistic resolutions, and instead, foregrounding the priorities and needs of diverse children, youth, and families, rather than physicians and researchers.

I am someone who made the difficult and complex choice to pursue medical gender transition as an adult. As a youth advocate who has been blessed to know many self-actualized young people who are intelligent and capable enough to make decisions about their own bodily self-determination, I am also not advocating that these options be taken away from youth. Instead, I would ask that we ask under what circumstances, in which kinds of communities, and with what support are young people seeking clinical psychological and medical care that helps them explore new possibilities for gender? They are not sick, unfortunate, helpless victims of a psychiatric condition. How do we come to see youth not as overly genetically pre-determined, but as creative individuals embedded within cultural contexts that shape life’s possibilities, and that many of these possibilities – or constraints – warrant expansion or resistance? So much of my process was shaped by the ways I’ve grown through queer communities, and how I’ve been supported in making sense of gender, sexuality, family, and community in queered ways because of this cultural embeddedness. All youth, regardless of whether or not they identify as both trans and queer, deserve to know about alternative ways to craft a sustainable, meaningful, and supported life, beyond clinical diagnoses and solutions. Our world today needs more creativity around gender, not less.