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Kate Bornstein’s memoir, A Queer and Pleasant Danger, hereafter QPD, featured as the capstone of my “American Literature” course last spring semester. James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and Kate Bornstein—these were the writers whose “autobiographical” texts comprised my syllabus. These are the writers I felt best encapsulated a very specific frame of “American Literature” as a field founded upon the idea of “the revolutionary.”
These writers are queer in their own way. All experienced the sights and sounds of New York City at one time or another in their lives. The syllabus also was invested with a second intentionality: to shake up my students. To make their minds pop. In this class I had approximately three dozen racial and ethnic minority students at a New York City criminal justice college. They all aspire to serve in the criminal justice system—a system whose laws they are taught but are rarely allowed to question without being deemed violent aggressors of the state. The intention, then, was to provide them with the tools to being interrogating both the ideological apparatus of the police state and their own complicity with the system.
I had taught Bornstein’s QPD before, in an “Autobiography and Memoir” literary writing course at a state university in New Jersey. The parameters of the course, the college environment, and the demographics of the student body were profoundly different than those at a metropolitan criminal justice college. My “American Lit” students were largely of Jamaican descent; there were also a handful of Dominican and African-American students. All were heterosexual, or, at least I had made that assumption, as none had set off my “Gaydar.” How was I going to teach them, to quote the tagline of QPD, about “[t]he true story of a nice Jewish boy who joins the Church of Scientology and leaves twelve years later to become the lovely lady she is today”? How was I going to approach Bornstein’s experiences in QPD in a literary way? In a way that did not get hung up on the sensational aspects of these experiences (the BDSM ones specifically) in order to talk about the literary and rhetorical aspects of the text?
From the three weeks of class I dedicated to QPD, I have outlined a handful of “notes” about this experience, and about how to teach Kate Bornstein.
NUMBER 1: Political Correctness Must be Overcome
“Political correctness” arguably has been the guilt-ridden, usually blanket answer to hate speech via the logic of erasure and the willful overlooking of its traces. The impetus—to curb injurious speech—is not the problem. Yet the tentacles of political correctness—a saccharine kind of disciplinary power—have undeniably foreclosed the possibility of working through delicate issues around nodes of identity. People cannot be expected to participate in conversations about issues when they are prohibited from using the only language they know. Consequently, people avoid cross-cultural communication out of apprehension and even fear.
The very first day of class I always tell my students that my classrooms are safe spaces. They can say what they will, using the language they possess without fear of intimidation or censure. At the same time, they should understand that their language may be interrogated or “worked through” by a peer who desires clarity of intent or meaning, or by a peer who holds an opposing view.
QPD is a brilliant text to use when working to expose and navigate the heady waters of political correctness, in large part because Bornstein herself tries to circumvent the limitations of language largely established by forms of identity and imposed by the unintended strictures of political correctness. On the second page of the prologue she sets out to identify herself while at the same time showing the very conscientious crafting of her identity:
“I call myself trans, or a tranny—and the latter angers a small but vocal group of trannsexual women who see tranny as the equivalent of kike to a Jew.”
The looks on my students’ faces, after reading this sentence were revealing. Most looked horrified; many kept their heads buried in their books to avoid making eye contact with me. The challenge in this moment is to teach how this text, or any text for that matter, presents a voice rather than representing the voice of a community. Bornstein’s deliberate use of “tranny” to self-identify is different than, say, a non-trans person using the term to identify a community.
Here’s the catch: I don’t think that every time a heteronormative, cis-gendered person uses the term “tranny” they know the negative connotations of the word. A handful of students in my class initially used the term because it was the only one in their arsenal. The word choice, therefore, was not so much a choice as their only option. The word here signifies not an intentional act of hate speech but an effect of a dearth of cross-community dialogue. As one student replied to my question about why she used that word: “We just don’t talk about this stuff in our community.”
The point is that, as teachers, we need to allow speech to happen—this is why humanities classrooms are crucial—so that politically-incorrect or injurious speech can be addressed and analyzed in both micro and macro contexts. So, when a student asked, “Professor, how do I refer to she…? him…? It…? Can I use tranny?,” the question can be telescoped outward to questions about language, discourse, and political correctness. Questions like, “Why can Bornstein use ‘tranny’?” “Why is ‘tranny’ derogatory?” “Why don’t people like this word?” “What is a non-offensive, respectful word to use in its place?”
NUMBER 2: The Pedagogy of Confession
Understanding the knowledge differential between you and your students is critical to apprehending not just where you need to begin discussion in terms of content, it is also critical to determining how to communicate with your students. Despite my rule never to divulge anything personal about myself, I felt it necessary to explicitly tell my students that the LGBT community was my community, and that, as a result, my subjective position and correlative knowledge base emerged out of this particular mileu, because they needed to see the differential, too. I revealed this part of my personal self so they became responsible for their ignorance. By that I mean my confession created an imperative that they speak up honestly and without hesitation when they were unfamiliar with or confused by the reading material or my comments.
This pedagogy of self-exposure or confession was an intentional reworking of my positionality in relation to my students not just so that they would have a “face” to put to this “alien” community, but primarily so that they understood that I was not pedantically lecturing them about LGBT issues. This confessional, in other words, was an attempt to bridge the knowledge differential by personally creating a dialogue in the chasm of ignorance about issues of sex, gender, and sexuality—issues that lie at the heart of daily discussions within the queer community, but not so much their own.
This confession, abetted by the safe space designation of my classroom, also had unintended effects: after every class students would pull me aside and confess their own lesbianism, or sexual kinks, or frustration at not understanding why their lesbian aunt “dresses like a man but says she’s a woman.” My confession, it seems, was a catalyst for others.
NUMBER 3: The Humanity of Literature
Teaching a text by a living author, and especially one you know, can be a tricky enterprise for a teacher who abides the Derridean doctrine of nothing existing outside of a text (il n’y a pas de hors-texte). While I didn’t want “Kate Bornstein” the person to overshadow the text, or the protagonist of “Kate Bornstein,” I wanted to reinforce the relevance and “realness” of literature by placing my students in direct conversation with her. For those of us who believe texts are alive, what better way to supplement this belief than by breathing actual life into the text? By revealing that, indeed, there is a human being connected to the text that you are reading? Given the foreignness of the subject matter to my students, I felt it particularly important to show the “proximity” of literature, as well as the “proximity” of queerness, to them. Too often students feel disconnected from the humanity of literature, especially when they are usually exposed onto to syllabi full of Dead White Guys. Reconnecting students with the materialities of literature, I believe, makes it palpable for them.
Thankfully, and true to her amazingly generous nature, Kate was game for interaction with my students. We spent a portion of one class pinging her with questions about QPD via Twitter. Questions like, “Is there anything you omitted from QPD that you wish you could have included?,” and a handful of others that effectively connected the human to the text.
NUMBER 4: Reading as a Public Act
I prohibit the use of electronic texts in my classroom because I believe engagement with physical texts creates and demands a certain type of rigor impossible from electronic ones. I also believe using electronic texts limits cultural exchange and engagement with other people—yes, in the flesh. You can’t quite strike up a conversation about a book someone’s reading if they are reading it on their Kindle—unless, that is, you are sitting awkwardly close to them on the subway.
I was hoping that my students would recount tales of reading Bornstein’s book throughout both the halls of the college and the streets of New York City. And they did, much to my delight. One of my most promising students, a young, straight woman of Jamaican descent, opened our third class with some “uncomfortable” news: “Professor, I have to tell you that when I was reading this book on the bus people kept giving me really dirty looks; totally rude looks. They kept staring. I was uncomfortable reading this on the bus!” To this, some of her peers nodded and tittered anxiously. The moment before I could ask her how that made her feel and how she responded to those glowering looks, another student chimed in with her experience of reading in public, which completely caught me off guard: “Well, I had the opposite reaction. Two people who saw me reading this book came up to me and smiled, and told me they were males and changed to females.”
The material book out in the world was a vehicle for communication, some hostile, some friendly, but a vehicle nonetheless. What is too easily forgotten in this quickly evolving tech age is that reading is a public act, even a radical act. Discussion of this text transcended the classroom in a multitude of unknown ways with unknown effects save one: one definitive effect was visibility, visibility in large part resulting from QPD’s glossy, bright yellow cover with the word “Queer” in bold, unapologetic, red type across the cover.
NUMBER 5: “The Queer Art of Failure”
I have reservations about using Jack Halberstam’s much celebrated phrase here, of the eponymous book, but I think in terms of pedagogical objectives there is no other phrase that best counteracts the shallow and reductive, positivist pedagogical desire that might be attached to teaching a minoritarian text in a learning environment shaped by the dominant narrative arc of a Cultural Imaginary guided by the mantra, “It Gets Better.”
Thankfully, again, QPD is a complex text that refuses simple categorization and relishes the atemporal, alogical messiness of life. Bornstein unrepentantly dives into facets of her existence that negate the shiny, illusory idea of the safe, socially approved, trans narrative. My students finished the text with more questions than they had prior to reading it—and this is a good thing in terms of shaking up their worldview and problematizing aspects of their own lives, specifically their assumptions about their own gender and sexuality that they’ve taken as ontological fact.
Reading is full of potentiality. To want to force a specific reading or a specific worldview is, I think, unethical. This is where the teacher has to step back and keep her faith in Paulo Friere and the idea that education both demands and creates freedom. Sure, I delimited the parameters of this experience by the simple fact that I selected the text, placed my students in direct contact with the author, and integrated new media, including clips from the upcoming QPD documentary and Melissa Harris Perry’s award winning segment on “Transgender in America.” But what my students did with these resources and how they engaged with them are beyond my control. I even had one student who candidly wrote on his written exam, “I can honestly say, I’m stumped!! I didn’t read much of this book, so I can’t BS too much.”
Did he miss an opportunity? Sure. Do I want to wring his neck? Yeah, just a little. But the effects of exposure cannot be underestimated, and I am certain that the three weeks we spent discussing QPD, regardless of how much of it he read, affected him, and will continue to affect him, a muscle-built, heterosexual, Chinese guy, in unforeseen ways. In fact, after he submitted the exam he pulled me aside to show me some of his personal writing—a poem—about the fluidity of emotions during a sexual experience. He said it wrote the piece that morning before class. I’d argue that this piece of writing is one of those unforeseen and unfathomed effects.
This student’s experience of reading—ok, of not quite “reading”—Bornstein’s text epitomizes the “queer art of failure.” QPD is not a politically correct text and does not prescribe students a simplistic, universal transgender narrative—because a universal narrative does not exist and cannot exist if there is to be a respect for the individual and her freedoms. Bornstein ends her books with a few lessons to her daughter, including this one: “For all the traveling I’ve done, I found that all roads in life lead nowhere. So you might as well choose the road that has the most heart, and is the most fun.”
The “road that has the most heart and is the most fun” is going to be full of failure because failure is inevitable when a person tosses all expectation out the window. QPD refuses to meet expectations, just as Bornstein refuses to meet expectations placed on her as a “trans activist,” especially when she just wants to be a “pretty girl.”
And teaching QPD—from the confessions to the questions—was nothing short of a spectacular failure.