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Being Out, Being Silent, Being Strategic,
Troubling the Difference

Mara Sapon-Shevin

 

   Maughn Rollins Gregory writes eloquently and passionately about the critical role his openness, self-exposure, and vulnerability play in creating classroom spaces for genuine discourse and growth. Asked to write a response to Gregory’s compelling essay, I ask myself a similar question: What role will my openness, self-exposure, and vulnerability in constructing this response play in opportunities for discourse and growth?

Shall I write an academic response addressing issues of voice, pedagogy, and power? Or should I respond to his essay in kind, naming myself and my struggles, the decision points about my openness and vulnerability? And which identities and struggles do I name? Do I talk about being a peace activist who pickets and leads singing on street corners and anti-war rallies? About being a Jewish/Buddhist/Pagan who chants haftorahs, meditates regularly, and leads Wiccan rituals? Do I attempt to discuss my sexual identity, realizing the complex, shifting, and limiting nature of that naming? This “moment of “decision,” of course, is but one of hundreds of decisions, embedded, contextualized, and complex decisions. It does not occur in isolation, but in constellation with many others.

 

FOUR EPISODES

Since Gregory has shared four episodes from his life, I respond with four of my own.

 

But No One Here Is Gay

I am teaching a graduate course for preservice teachers. One of the class members enacts a gay stereotype as part of a community building activity, mimicking a limp-wrist, mincing walk, and a falsetto voice to depict a gay man. I call the class on the stereotype, telling them how uncomfortable it made me. I challenge them to consider the effects of this behavior on the safety of the class members to be honest about who they are and the kind of community it creates. They argue with me. They tell me that it’s my problem and that they didn’t mean anything by it. During the break, the “offending” student approaches me: “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” he says. “It’s not about hurting my feelings,” I respond. “It’s about how we learn to create safe communities for our students and the need to think about how comfortable all class members feel to be fully themselves.” “Oh, it’s okay,” he answers, “we know everyone in here and no one in this class is gay.” I respond quickly. “Really? You mean you know the sexual histories of 35 people in here well enough to say that?” He acknowledges he may be over-stepping his knowledge base and nods.

Decision Point: How will it change our interaction at that moment and in the future, how will it expand or constrict his learning if I add, “Are you that sure about my sexual identity and my sexual history?”

 

We Just Can’t Bring Up Gay Issues in Schools

I have been invited by the local PBS affiliate to be part of a television show during Gay Pride week that will include a broadcast of the video “It’s Elementary” (a documentary about LGBT issues in schools) and a panel of responders. When I appear at the studio, I find that the panel is just me and a man they identify to me as “from the other side.” I am, in fact, the only woman in the whole studio. During the question and answer with the program’s male moderator, I speak passionately about the need for schools to be vigilant and proactive in making schools safe spaces for LGBT students and for students whose parents are gay and lesbian. The other panelist argues that while he believes students should be “safe” in schools, we just can’t talk about the issue explicitly. Further, he asserts that there are no such students or parents in his school.

Decision Point: How will it strengthen my argument or my credibility with viewers if I name my own sexual identity or leave it unspoken?  What power, agency or credibility do I gain or lose if I am seen as (just?) a concerned educator committed to social justice and student diversity?

 

In Terms of Heterosexual Privilege, I am Positioned–Where?

I am teaching about oppression issues with my undergraduate students. I have drawn the chart of oppressions on the board: sexism, racism, classism, ageism, homophobia, ableism. Together we fill in the cells: Who is in the group with power? Who is a target of the oppression? And then, I ask them to look at the categories and recognize that most of us stand in multiple positions, as agents of oppression and as targets. I encourage them to think about their multiple identities and their positionality, the ways they need to challenge their behavior and/or can be allies to others. I model: “As a white person,” I say, “I am in the power group relative to race issues. As a Jew, I have been the target of anti-Semitism. As a woman, I have experienced sexism. As a person who is middle class, I have more economic power than those who are poor or working class.” My finger is now pointing to the row labeled “homophobia or heterosexism—oppression based on sexual orientation.” For every other row, I have pointed either to the “power/dominant group” column or to the “target” column.

Decision Point: Where do I point for this row? Do I name myself as “other than heterosexual”? Whom will I silence if I name myself in a way that makes them uncomfortable? Whom might I empower? Will they be able to hear anything else I’ve said or will say about social justice, diversity education or teaching strategies? Will my sexual orientation become the dominant text for the group in a distracting way or provide a powerful moment of honesty and self-disclosure that invites the same from them?

 

As a Teacher Educator, I’m Deeply Troubled

At a conference of teacher educators, I learn that the person staffing the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Educators Network booth experienced people who skirted the booth and remarked audibly, “That’s disgusting.” I am outraged, stunned, offended, and deeply concerned about the implications of this behavior for future teachers being prepared by these individuals. I talk to the conference organizers, members of the standing committees, and the administrative staff of the organization. I tell them that, at a minimum, I am alarmed by the unprofessional nature of this behavior. But more than that, I am shocked that this kind of hate speech is considered acceptable and that it bodes very ill for the ability of schools to create safe spaces for all students.

Decision Point: Is my voice more or less likely to be heard, my impact larger or smaller, if I am identified or identify myself as a member of the targeted group? Does everyone assume they know my sexual identity from my strong advocacy anyway, making self-naming superfluous or redundant? Will my strong insistence that this is a matter of social justice and diversity be reduced, somehow, to identity politics and an area of “over sensitivity” if I self identify?

 

HOW LOUD IS SILENCE? CHALLENGING OUR PEDAGOGICAL DECISIONS

My stories as well as Gregory’s essay invite us to wrestle with these questions and many more. I wonder how many of the questions I’ve raised are similar to those elicited by bigger issues of unequal power and voice in the classroom, by broader questions of silencing and empowerment. 

One can certainly argue, as Gregory does, that by being “out” about who we are, we enable others to bring this same level of honesty to the table, facilitating a richer, more authentic learning community. This is a powerful argument and not to be dismissed. But he is also aware that faculty and students are not equally positioned in the classroom, and that it is challenging to both have a voice as the “professor” and to not have “the” voice. I ask myself, when I am out about any of my identities or opinions, whom have I silenced? And when I am silent, whom else have I silenced by allowing other voices to dominate, other assumptions to remain unshaken? When the answers to these questions compete, how do I decide? Is it a mathematical decision: “Let’s see, if I come out, then two students who are traditionally silenced feel safer and twenty others simply withdraw, so twenty is more than two….” Or are there other factors to consider? Perhaps one might argue that lifting the two silenced voices is worth the price of silencing or disquieting the others. Or one might argue that silencing easily leads to underground resistance and a hardening of attitudes and is always poor pedagogy. What is good teaching and where do my stories, my identities, and my voice belong in that process?

After a powerful session on race and racism in America, several students in my class complain that I haven’t offered “the other side of racism.” What exactly does that mean? Is it an opportunity for members of the Klan to address the class? Should a Holocaust survivor only be given time if there is space for a white supremacist to speak? What does it mean to be a teacher who has a strong commitment to social justice, or, in particular in my case, to prepare teachers who will bring a passion for equity and democracy into their classrooms? Does it mean that all voices are equal and that one should avoid proselytizing or being “impositional” at all costs? Are classrooms really free marketplaces of ideas and are our roles as teachers to make sure students have equal access to all opinions? If I know that students are inundated by ideologies of war and U.S. supremacy, then can I talk about the “peace position” without being accused of recruiting or silencing? Are certain belief systems so dominant and hegemonic that raising an “alternative view” will always be viewed as “too much”–the problem of hyper-visibility or surplus visibility: when I mention being Jewish in class as part of an example of prejudice, several students write on my course evaluation that “All she ever talked about was being Jewish.” Is it ethical for me as a teacher educator to credential students who espouse racist or homophobic beliefs and proclaim, “This is a democracy and I’m entitled to my opinion”? Are classrooms really democracies? Should they be?  

These are questions worthy of struggle. Our task as teachers is to create as many forums for this struggle as possible, as many opportunities for good listening, debate, argument, and challenge. That is, perhaps, our only hope for a just world. It is a commitment I share with Maughan Gregory, a commitment to self-interrogation and honesty in the service of social justice.

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