Over the last five years, my teaching increasingly has been called toward two themes: sustainability and Queer theory. These are topics about which I’ve always cared, but not topics around which I expected to frame my teaching practice. My calling to these lines of inquiry came by listening to students, hungry to understand crises of our historical moment and eager to connect their learning to the truth of their experience of the world. Over the last year, with my friend Rick Benjamin, I’ve been exploring the idea of Queer Ecology – a hybrid inquiry, connecting the discourses of Queer Theory and Environmental Studies. This past year we’ve lead two workshops on Queer Ecology at Goddard College and taught a semester-long course on the topic at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).
In the RISD course I was especially struck by the inability of heterosexually-identified students to understand that the basic idea that Queer identity transgresses the narrow confines of sexual behavior and orientation. Indeed, we took great pains to elaborate an understanding of queerness as a modality of transgression – emphasizing the ways that Queer Theory asks us to interrogate and disrupt unnecessarily limiting and destructive assumptions (or impositions) of normality. In terms of ecology, we might think about this regarding American assumptions about the normality of fossil fuels or electrical technology. In the history of our species, these technologies are profoundly abnormal. Indeed, most of our assumptions about the normality of culture in relation to the natural world – food production and distribution systems, our use of pharmaceuticals, energy, to name a few – defy the simplest of logic. Juxtaposing this ecological inquiry in relation to human sexuality, we find similar contradictions. The cultural knowledge imposed upon our understanding of sexuality has little to do with behaviors observed in the animal kingdom.
Regardless of our efforts to frame a broad definition for Queer analysis, once the class ended, several students who received grades lower than they wanted – generally on the basis of our “tough assessment” that took points for sleeping in class, missing class, not speaking in class, simplistic analysis of the writing, and not fully completing the assigned projects – wrote asking for reassessment of their grades. In two cases they were heterosexually self-identified students who claimed that they were unable to fully and meaningfully connect with the material because they were not Gay or Lesbian. On the basis of their phenomenological distance from the course’s subject matter, they thought they deserved a higher grade.
While it’s disheartening to realize through this bit of student self-disclosure that they’d read and understood even less than I suspected when I submitted their grade, it’s not a surprise. Indeed, nearly half of the students enrolled in the class indicated on the first day that they were unaware that the word queer referred to the disruption of discourses related to sexuality and culture, regardless of the fact that the first sentence of the course description referred to this fact. I came to understand this phenomenon in two ways: 1.) Students choose their courses not on their interest in the subject, but in relation to the convenience of scheduling; and 2.) An alarming number of students in this class lacked the curiosity to make sense of the ideas that grounded our inquiry. The experience reminds me that education, for so many people, has become a checklist of tasks to be accomplished and, for many students enrolled, our course was simply a course that offered a credit they were required to collect.
Although I have less evidence of this, I also suspect that for a number of students resistance to considering sexual complexity and variation is based in an inability to defy the discourses of heterosexual supremacy that frame their experience of self. Embedded in this, setting aside for a moment the potential for extending oppressive discourses toward LGBTQIA* people, is inability or unwillingness to reflect upon their own, self-reported, heterosexuality – and to consider that their desires may defy normality or have been constructed for them to conform to someone else’s conceptualization of normality. While I’m sympathetic to the fact that many of the students, especially those who were unable to engage fully with the course, are quite young and quite possibly sexually inexperienced, it again strikes me that my suspicions point to a profound damping or suppression of curiosity in one’s lived experience. If nothing else, this course offered an opportunity to reflect upon the ways that human sexuality is used metaphorically to both reveal and obscure the ways we frame and convey knowledge about the world.
While these reflections convey my considerable frustration about the course, there were bright spots and moments when many other students made new connections and came to understand themselves and their relation to the natural world in profound ways. One place of breakthrough occurred when were read an interview with Alex Johnson in Grist. This interview follows up on an essay he wrote in Orion. Johnson builds upon Bruce Bagemihl’s groundbreaking book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, in which scientific documentation of non-heteronormative behavior in 450 species is made accessible to a wide audience. If we remove the assumption of heterosexuality from the animal kingdom, we also relieve the culture of the burden of understanding sexuality and affective relationships as being confined to a narrow and deterministic framework. We also expand the definition of natural – as problematic as that concept is – to be more reflective of observable phenomenon and unshackled from the limitations of cultural supposition. This isn’t just good for LGBTQIA people, it’s good for everyone.
In Grist, Johnson is quoted as saying: Queer ecology begins by questioning our understanding of sexuality in relation to Nature, but it certainly does not end there. As I suggest in my essay, if straight identity means “I am,” and gay identity means “I am not,” then queer can mean “I am also.”
This framework proved to be particularly useful to the class because it illustrates the social limits and opportunities of sexual identity in the ways that we’ve constructed them. Indeed, our conversation revealed a sense of deep limitation in the narrow singularity of straight identity, the frustration of the perpetual resistance implied through the analogy to gay identity, and an exciting opportunity and potential in the multiplicity of this framing of queerness.
In my own experience I’ve struggled with my penchant to understand myself in multiple ways. I’ve been required to learn how to navigate heterosexual supremacy and the assumptions of heterosexuality imposed on me by the culture. I’ve also had to learn to understand and navigate my own affective sexuality in ways that reveal meaning. Beyond the cultural conflict between heterosexual supremacy and gay civil rights, I’ve also had to learn to navigate the limitations, excess, and problematic parochialisms of gay male culture. As a result, I’ve had to cultivate my ability to hold spaces of contradiction. I’ve learned that these spaces, although they may defy ideas of integration, are fertile sites for discovery. They force me to consider how the tension between opposites can create something new. This state of being strikes me as an admirable framework for the classroom.
Education should not simple affirm what we already know, as inferred by the students who argued that their disconnection from LGBTQIA experience entitled them to a break in grading. It must always call us toward an understanding of what we might also know and be. The educated person must, almost certainly, be queer in this sense: they must be curious enough to consider what else they can know and who else they may become.
I am also.
*LGBTQIA = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual.