I’ve never come out to my students. I’ve never stood at the front of a classroom and told my students that I’m gay, and I’ve never told them witty anecdotes about my husband. That isn’t to say that I’m not completely out both professionally and personally (as google will immediately tell anyone). All of my academic bio pages highlight my work in queer history, and when introducing myself to new classes I describe my research on homosexuality and capitalism. Few students would be surprised to know I’m gay.
Still, I’ve wondered what impact explicitly identifying my sexuality would have on teaching, learning, discussions and the overall atmosphere of the classroom. That being said, my teaching so far has mostly included broad surveys of traditional European political history, courses whose structure and content was largely already determined for me. While I had the freedom to reorganize some lectures to explore topics in gender and sexuality, my own sexual identity has had little overlap with what I teach, at least so far. But looking ahead, I wanted to know how others navigate this potentially challenging terrain. So, I put the word out to friends, colleagues and mentors whose sexual identities are various and not always static. Each has chosen either to come out or withhold identifying their sexuality in the classroom for a variety of reasons, personal, pedagogical and political.
Brian Lewis, a professor of British history at McGill University actively comes out in his History of Sexuality survey course and British Queer History seminar. “When I first taught the BQH seminar,” Brian relates, “it was part of my (belated) coming out, so there was a liberating feeling of flinging open the closet door when I proclaimed on the syllabus and in my introductory ramble that ‘I identify as a gay man’.” Brian is also motivated by a commitment to creating a “comfortable, safe space for young marginalized students” in his classroom, and to “provide opportunities for self-expression and self-understanding” that were unavailable to him. And in his larger introductory lecture to 175 students, Brian casually and playfully comes out to students by deliberately building up (before partially demolishing) the progress narrative of queer history, telling students,
we have come so far that it is now routine for classes like this to be offered, and taught by openly gay professors such as myself, without anyone batting an eye.
Jennifer Evans, an associate professor of German history at Carleton University teaches LGBT history but does not make direct reference to her own sexual identity in the classroom. “I do this strategically,” she describes, “to call into question the usefulness of such practices and to problematize ‘identity’ itself as a category of knowing and experience.” While Jennifer recognizes the importance of visibility and living one’s politics, which she remains committed to in her own life,
it is also about challenging norms, all norms, including those which might suggest that true insight into an issue or culture can only come by being part of it (however we wish to define that as well!).
Sheila McManus, an associate professor of North American borderlands history at the University of Lethbridge is particularly conscious of herself as a historical actor, using her own identity journey and relationship with feminist politics to illuminate these subjects to students. When teaching ‘Queer Feminisms’ to senior Women and Gender Studies students, Sheila always explicitly identifies as a bisexual female in the first class. “I position myself in relation to the word ‘queer’ by talking about being out for more than 20 years and being a feminist for more than 20 years, about identifying as a lesbian for more than a decade, my current set of identities, etc.” Sheila feels it is absolutely necessary to identify herself, given the “material which problematizes ‘feminism’ and ‘feminists’ as a cohesive category” that she teaches.
[I]t is the very least I do for them on the first day to speak briefly but honestly about my own journey and my own changing relationships to the categories and infighting that we will be reading about.
Sheila historicizes her own sexual and political identity for students. She makes it clear when discussing these issues that she has been on different sides of these fraught debates depending on where she was and who she was at different stages in her life. Relating her own history has a further impact on teaching. “I want to make it clear on the very first day that that level of honesty is ok (and, more subtly, expected).” The next time she teaches the course, she intends explicitly to identify as a cisgendered female, further using her own life and identity to open other conversations.
All three of the professors I spoke to make active decisions either to identify their sexuality or not based on clear personal, pedagogical and political goals and motivations. Still others have written about coming out as trans* in the classroom, or the challenges of coming out to their students. In my own future teaching I can see more clearly the utility and importance of using my own life and identity, as someone students might more easily relate to, to encourage critical thought and conversation.
I can name my multiple identities in the classroom with a clearer purpose. I am a white, Canadian, cisgendered gay man. I was raised working class, but my education obscures my origins. My education also created a space where I could first explore my sexuality. I haven’t experienced the same societal transformations that Brian has, or participated in the same movements that Sheila has. But publicly naming the intersections of my identities and histories in the classroom can open up opportunities to think about less privileged gender and sexuality positions that might have powerful reverberations throughout the course. When we teach the history of sexuality, the personal and the pedagogical really are political.
Justin Bengry is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the project Queer Beyond London at Birkbeck College, University of London and researcher on the Historic England LGBTQ heritage and mapping project, Pride of Place: England’s LGBTQ Heritage. Justin’s research focuses on the intersection of homosexuality and consumer capitalism in twentieth-century Britain, and he is currently revising a book manuscript titled The Pink Pound: Capitalism and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Britain. He tweets from @justinbengry
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