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.

Trans Moral Panic: Let My People Go (Pee)

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Every movement has its moments of backlash. The current reactions to the increased visibility of transgender and gender non-conforming people include presidential campaign platforms that advise against allowing transgender women to use women’s public restrooms legally and safely in some states. These stances also make it potentially illegal and dangerous for an entire spectrum of people read as gender non-conforming to use public restrooms. While laws regulating the mandatory consonance of sex-on-birth-certificate and perceived gender will endanger anyone who becomes the target of gendered suspicion while using restroom facilities, transgender women (described by opponents of gender diversity as “men dressed as women”) are the focus of the current right-wing outcry.

Before writing any further, I do need to take a moment to situate the perspectives and analyses that will follow. I will be making reference to issues of sexual violence. As someone who has committed their life’s work to intervening on gendered violence – of which I believe sexual violence is a part – I offer these reflections in contribution to ongoing public discourse that will hopefully bring us to different moment of agency in better unravelling the ideas, beliefs, laws, relations, and institutions that have locked pervasive forms of gendered and sexual violence in place.

For years, I have discussed issues of sexual agency and sexual violence with middle school and high school students on a weekly basis, and their struggles and triumphs additionally inform my thoughts. I have spent time with dear friends, respected colleagues, and former partners who have survived physically, spiritually, and psychically, with strength, with struggle, with rage, with pain, with shame, with persistence, with silence, with the weight of worlds and histories. All I can say is that I hope my words do not re-injure, and that if they do cause any discomfort, I will do my best to live up to the responsibility of inciting this difficulty. I tread steadily yet cautiously through mine-filled terrain in the interest of demanding more space for collective healing and accountability.

My hopes in today’s writing are twofold: 1) to demonstrate the increasing interconnection of two storied figures: the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’* and 2) to illuminate the ways that discussing our national anxieties around pervasive sexual violence are co-opted through the fear-baiting, transphobic rhetoric of right-wing politicians and organizations.

To elaborate on the increasing proximity of the two images of the ‘heterosexual male pedophile’ and the ‘homosexual cross-dressing pervert’ (both images having their own history and production), I want to point to the ambiguity of this hybrid figure, whose reality is thought to materialize in the personhood of a transgender woman, within the current public debates regarding restroom access. This new, combined image is that of a bisexual/queer ‘monster’ of gender and sexuality, able to absorb any and all cultural anxieties and fears of sexual predation, simultaneously dangerous to women, men, boys, and girls, adults and children alike. The right-wing agenda of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia would have us hear this narrative uncritically, to the detriment of building alliances across genders and developing accurate representations of transgender people.

This hybrid, fictional figure – who, I must reiterate, is often confused with actual persons who live as transgender women or other gender non-conforming people – is the ultimate scapegoat of the moment, especially in this presidential election season that is so very much about gender, in so many ways, regardless of whether or not we name those undercurrents explicitly. I am afraid of how difficult this storied image might be to undo in the long-run, and I hope that naming the harm of this fictional figure and teasing apart its component parts might help us to more actively and forcefully intervene on it and name it as the lie and slander that it is, criminalizing and demonizing entire genders in one fell swoop.

Furthermore, current political rhetoric is making strategic use of pervasive anxieties and fears of sexual violence. This “weaponizes” sexual discourse in order to instill (sometimes, or often, understandable) fears and anxieties in a public collective psyche, in which many members are survivors of sexual violence or know people who have been immensely impacted by sexual violence. Politicians, like Ted Cruz, use the threat of future sexual assault to galvanize discrimination against scapegoated transgender women. The creation and manipulation of the conflated images of the pedophile and the cross-dresser (which have appeared together before in the image of the gay male who may both cross-dress and seduce young boys and men – a figure of moral panic that predominated in a past era) are specifically used to harness collective emotional states of pain, anxiety, fear, distress, and trauma around sexual violence for political and financial gain.

All politicians making use of this new moral panic of trans women in restrooms are harming people through this “weaponization” of sex, a term used in Joseph J. Fischel’s recently released Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent. I am arguing that when sex is “weaponized,” or put to violent uses, the speaker is performing an act of sexual violence. Politicians, including presidential candidate Ted Cruz, is performing an act of collective sexual violence through speech. I say this understanding that what I am outlining here cannot be compared with individual experiences of sexual violence that are physical in nature. I would not be so careless as to draw comparisons of this kind, nor to describe these actions as sexual violence in order to lessen the gravity with which we approach the work of working to mitigate sexual harm as it occurs in person, physically.

When looked at this way, we can see just how normalized this form of sexualized rhetorical torture is, en masse. Because of the manner in which this debate came to articulate itself, many working for gender justice struggle to engage in productive discussions across diverse communities of survivors and non-survivors. This occurs because the originating framework and terms of debate incite painful and understandable reactivity. Pain, upset, and anger must have space, and we will continue to work for moments when we can engage in the forms of collective healing that include thoughtful, calm reflection and discussion as well.

As an educator with youth on issues of gendered and sexual violence, these analyses are seen and felt on a weekly basis as I struggle to discuss issues of sexual agency and autonomy, consent and coercion, communication, interpersonal and institutional violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and so much more with my students. I want to provide them with useful tools and I know that as hard as I try to stitch together some narrative that might sound cohesive, that might make sense, I know I’m also speaking against and alongside all these other overt and covert messages that shape young people’s expectations and tolerance of sexual violence. Back to work it is…

*Special thanks to C.S. for providing me with thoughts and reflections on these important issues. This blog would not have been possible without your valuable insights on gender, sexuality, identity, and violence.