Wednesday, February 10, 2010

On Self-Censorship (Part One)

As a queer teacher, you can't help but wonder through the constant defeats of gay marriage, how this impacts our students' views of homosexual teachers? Do we look as vulnerable as the unsuccessful gay activists? And how do those of us who have been activists against Proposition 8 internalize our political failure in misdirected ways in the classroom?

When five years ago, I went on job interviews for tenure-track jobs, I felt the need to convince my potential employers that my intellectual projects were about more than being gay. Of course, this might have been an attempt to combat an imaginary homophobia, but some paranoia is justified. To interview, an expression of wanting to become a part of an institution, how I could not prepare to shield myself from discriminatory programs like ROTC that populate campuses. On one level, I have nothing but respect for my students who are part of that organization, but at the same time, I can't help but acknowledge the fact that the institution does discriminate against gays and lesbians. In this particular instance, my own self-censorship, necessary or not, was what caused my own erasure.

Self-censorship is something that I've never been very good at. At least not on an unconscious level. When I first started working at SUNY Brockport, I always commended myself on the fact that I never taught a single gay and lesbian book and/or poem in one of my creative writing classes. "I'm about so much more than being gay," I'd say to my friends. And I'd further rationalize: I don't want my students to think that I want them to write like me. One of my heterosexual colleagues said, "Isn't that going a bit too far? Aren't they going to expect you to introduce at least some queer material."

In my advanced creative non-fiction course, I assigned this semester six books, probably too much. These are the books I assigned: Joe Brainard's "I Remember," Rigoberto Gonzalez's "Butterfly Boy," S.L. Wisenberg's "The Adventures of Cancer Bitch," Kay Redfield Jameson's "Manic Depression and the Artistic Temperament," Jane Gallop's "Feminist Accused of Sexual Harrassment," and Elaine Scarry's "On Beauty and Being Just."

I have my own rationale for teaching them and in that order. At whatever undergraduate level, students have difficulties creating their own idiosyncratic details in prose. I wanted "I Remember" to see how details, or "stuff" as I put it, accumulate, and create something, even if that something is not necessarily a conventional story with an arc. "Butterfly Boy" I choose because it does represent --and I mean this descriptively, not critically -- the more conventional memoir: father-son relationship, the road trip, the psychoanalysis of the conflation of identities between lover and father, the juxtaposition of showing versus telling. "Cancerbitch" follows that scheme and possesses an admirably overdetermined desire to shatter the idea of ill woman as victim. "Butterfly Boy" and "Cancerbitch" both pretty much embrace the established formal strategies of the popular memoir. It was my responsibility, to show them that non-fiction can be other things, say, an explicit rhetorical argument, as in the case of Gallop and Scarry. You don't always need to show. Showing can hinder things, or be completely beside the point. Sometimes, especially in this tragic world of ours, it's important to tell and tell and tell. And then tell some more.

At the same time, completely unprovoked, last night I felt the need to justify why I choose the books, that they had nothing to do with homosexuality--a bit too emphatically. With Brainard's "I Remember" I wanted in class discussion to erase the queerness of the book: the gay sex and confessed urges. With "Butterfly Boy" I kept moving away from the issue of sexuality and its interconnected with race and class. All I wanted to stress was race and class. It was the pressure I felt (I balk at calling it completely self-inflicted) to "prove" that I was about more than homosexuality.

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