Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why I Never Use the Word Homophobia in the Classroom (Part Two of a Series on the Pedagogy of Creative Writing)

In a creative writing class I taught in Utah, one of my students wrote a narrative poem about a gay man who abuses a child and then celebrates the “conquest” with his ugly male lover.

It was the best student work I had read that semester.


This student possessed excellent writing skills: sentence variation, active sentences, no pronoun confusion, etc. etc. You could not fail to be impressed.

Some scholars consider it dumb to talk about form and content as separate entities. How can you reinforce an inaccurate dichotomy? Point well-taken.

But as a teacher, sometimes it works to pretend their opposites.

You can praise one and question the other. For whatever reason, if class discussion becomes too intense about form, you can move to content, and vice versa. It will be less likely someone will notice you're guarding someone from something.

For the most part, these are sensitive, aspiring young artists in our classes. They deserve that respect.


Homophobia is a word I never use in a creative writing class. Here are other words I don’t say: representation, activism, liberal, conservative, queer, political. Once a student invokes them, then fine; I’ll go with it. Otherwise they’re off-limits.

In some ways, at some times, I feel most protective of my heterosexual students. I’ll even strategically joke that I’m a failed homosexual—can’t dance and have no sense of style (both horribly true). My goal: to make them feel free, allow them to ask questions, make comments that would make gay activists cringe.

Why shouldn’t a student say, as one did in conference, I’m trying to write a story about gay men. How do I make one the male and the other female?

That’s the sort of talk I want to happen. I’ve made choices in my life. I don’t always know what ones are good, what ones are bad. But I’ve made choices. One of those includes creating a classroom which is full of useful conflict, a decent amount of tension, and the freedom, as long as its done with tact and sincerity, to say what we feel we shouldn’t. To hell with safe spaces!

(BTW-I’m the woman in the relationship, as one of my best lesbian friends tells me. “Of course, you’re the female,” she said. “Who is more shrill and hysterical than you?”

I’m not an activist. I’m a teacher. Both require some manipulation to yield the desired results. One of those things necessitates an avoidance of a perfunctory embrace of good manners.

Good manners ruin discussion. It ruins our creative writing. Worst of all, good manners are boring.


Through ostensibly innocuous words, you can better convince students of their questionable political stances .

Nothing represents anything else. That makes students nervous. “These are just ideas that came from my soul,” they will charmingly say.

But every student fiction writer or narrative poet knows the important of making good characters.

(As often as I remember, I assign Stephen King’s On Writing. The best book on the creative process. I’ve never read any of his novels. Only seen every single movie. Deloris Claiborne is my favorite. Who can resist the paring of Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh?)

This is what I did with the Utah student’s character. We, as a class, listed all the qualities of this queer protagonist: murderer, evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly rapist.

(I loved that last one! I’ve always wanted to be a dastardly homosexual!)

I asked: Are there any characteristics here that we wouldn’t expect from an evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly rapist homosexual surprise you? Where is that idiosyncratic detail that we wouldn’t expect such a character to possess?

That was my goal. To make students realize that they needed to create nuance. Their character could be types as long as they were individuals, too. It could be as small of a detail as you wanted.

But it needed to be something. Something that would make him distinct. Something that would make us remember him. Something that would make him more than a stereotype.

(I hate that overused, dangerous word stereotype, but I’ll save my explanation for another post.)

That detail would make all the difference in the world, I told them. In a way, that statement was an exaggeration; there is a pattern of representations that are insidious, need to be challenged, and rewritten. At the same time, you have to start small. Very few students want to hurt anybody in their writing; they just don't know how to get around it. As a lot of us don't.

Remember, I said: evil, slimy, ugly, dastardly homosexual rapists are people, too. You shouldn’t think of characters as completely good or bad. Everyone contains tenderness or cruelty, no matter how tiny the performances. If the writing forces you to see your characters as one or the other, the writing isn’t as engaged as it should be.

During that class, it was all I really said.

By making them aware of what they choose to ignore, they could realize, without much pressure, what they owed their characters (and by extension, all of us gay men.)

“How can we do to make this homosexual rapist be more complex?” I asked.

“Have him work at a florist shop,” one of my students said.

This series will be continued in the next post.


  1. This is right on the mark--what you actually end up arguing is that nuance is form and that's the only way such content can possible work.

  2. One of my colleagues told me, via dramatic theory, that people don't ever consider themselves to be "evil." In order to commit acts considered by the majority to be "evil," all of us must feel both entitled and justified in committing thea act. For example, many people believe they would not steal. But then they steal Post-It Notes from their office. Why? Because they feel undercompensated--therefore entitled and justified in making the trade...

    Thinking about this has given me an exceptional amount of wisdom in understanding people, and understanding literature.

  3. Charles,

    I love the bit about post-It-Notes. That's something I'll prolly steal for my own classes.