Sunday, November 2, 2008

The "Coming Out... as What?" Question

So far this year I’ve been occupying the role of a cisgender, straight male LGBTQ ally in my classroom. It feels completely bizarre since I don’t think of myself or aim to mark myself as “straight” in my everyday life. But even though being perceived and treated as a heterosexual male is still foreign to me, I’ve been surprised by how comfortable and effective I’ve felt broaching issues of social justice with my students from this subject-position. Having been immersed in particular queer communities that tend to valorize “outness” and equate it – problematically – with radicalism, I’m currently fighting against an ingrained impulse to self-flagellate for being “closeted.”

But what closet am I in, really? “Coming out” as trans is different from, and often does not parallel, queer “coming out” narratives. In terms of gender, my “passing anxiety” has heightened considerably since I began physically transitioning and living as male in my work life. (I imagine this is not an uncommon trans experience.) I’m still dreading the day when I am outed as trans to all of my students. I dread, both at work and in my personal life, having to justify my presentation as though I am somehow “deceiving” people by “masquerading” as a straight man. Self-identifying as queer” seems like it could be a helpful and defensive buffer now, in the sense that it could ease some of that tension in the moment I become out as trans to my students.

But what would it mean for me to come out as a queer man to my students right at this moment in time, when they are not aware that I am trans? Throughout my past I have been sexually and romantically involved with men, but I’m currently in a relationship with a woman and have always been more interested in women. In my social life I am inclined to identify as queer, but even that is complicated at this point – what makes me queer, now? I get uncomfortable when people rely on trans identity to prove or authenticate queerness, because a person’s trans history does not necessarily mean that he or she is queer or queer-identified. Assuming an inherent connection between “trans” and “queer” identities feels like Step One in invalidating many trans people’s genders. The suggestion that my designation as female at birth automatically makes me queer just perpetuates the faulty notion that I am not really a man.

Ultimately, my point is that the “what does it mean to be queer?” question is something I need to grapple with in my personal sphere, not in my professional life or with my students. As “Ms. K” the past two years, I happily and openly identified as “queer” with my students - often in response to the constant questions that arose because of my visible gender non-normativity. I’ve learned first-hand that it can be extremely valuable for students to see queer teachers out and visible in their schools. But there is no need for me to get into the complicated inner workings of my sexuality and desires with my students; and if I were to do open that door it would be coming from a place of self-absorption. It would be more about me than about my students.

I choose to look at it this way: Straight male LGBTQ advocates are often hard to come by, and they – we? – can play an important role in any push for LGBTQ-awareness. So I’m resolved to be happy where I am for the time being.

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