Thursday, April 14, 2011

Teaching on the Edge

I teach undergraduate history of education at my university, and I really love it. My students are smart, engaged, and interesting. They have a lot to say about just about anything that comes up, and I'm very lucky, every semester, to get to work with the students here.

One thing we do in my class is talk about queer issues. I refuse to participate in my own invisibility by never bringing up queer history out of fear. I don't raise my own queer identity on the first day of class or anything, but if (when) it comes up, it comes up. I believe in being my authentic self, and that this is doing the work of creating space for other queer people in my classroom. Other people have done the work to create that space for me. I hope I tell those people this enough, that I'm not sure I could really exist here without them. The only thing I can really do is pay it forward.

Today, we talked about the Johns Committee. Briefly, this was a committee started by Florida State Senator Charlie Johns in 1956. It rode the coattails of McCarthyism and focused on ridding the state government of queer people. Johns went after K-12 teachers first, as they are meant to be the standard-bearers of morality in US society.* Hundreds lost their jobs, their families, their lives. Before long, Johns came to the University of Florida, and was welcomed by the administration with open arms. Queer professors were fired, students expelled. It only took an accusation of homosexuality to ruin everything.

I think this was challenging for some of my students to think about, that this kind of thing happened in their own back yard. I understand why. I thought it was important to emphasize that persecution and discrimination are real problems for the queer community today. Marriage rights are a fine goal, but when we have something like 50% of homeless youth in some areas identifying as LGBTQ, we need to address matters of life and death. You know? So I'm out to my class, though we don't talk about me. They're here to learn history, and that's what they need to do, I keep the focus steadily on that. Honestly, I think students like that I'm not lying to them, or at least, that's what they tell me. But being out to them means relinquishing some power. They can use that as ammunition if they ever want to.

My beautiful friend Dierdre told me a story a couple of days ago, from When Things Fall Apart, which I have not read, about a little girl who had to fight Fear. She didn't want to fight Fear, but she had to. So she went to Fear, prostrated herself, and said, "How do I beat you?" Fear thanked her for showing that respect, and said, "I will yell and get in your face and do everything I can to be loud, and you can acknowledge me, but if you never do what I tell you to do, you will win."

Fear tells people, I think, to avoid talking about issues of queer identity and queer history in their classes. It's hard to point to your own institution and say, "This is what has gone wrong here, this is what is still going wrong," because it could so easily come back to get you.

This creating-spaces project is not easy to do. I know some of you have dealt with this, too - not necessarily just with queer issues - and I want to know what your strategies are. Can we talk about this?

I really need to write something about queer teachers in K-12 classrooms. It's coming. I think I just had to get this out of my system first, and I want to talk to some people about their experiences before I post. Please do volunteer if you have something to say about that.

* If this interests you, go read Karen Graves's marvelous And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida's Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers. Karen is one of those space-making mentors of mine, and I have so much still to learn from her for as long as she's willing to teach me. Also, check out Jackie Blount's Fit to Teach: Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century. Jackie, too, is someone I deeply admire as a human being and is quite an inspiration to me.


  1. Bob Dahlgren has done a great deal of work on the Johns Committee. He is a definite resource if that is something you are looking for.

  2. I have too, actually, but I'm always looking for more insights, especially from smart people like Bob. You reading this, Dr. Dahlgren?

    It's amazing to me how many people have never heard of it around here.

  3. I really appreciate Steve's citing my humble work in this area but Karen's book that you referenced is really the definitive work on the Johns Committee. My focus was more on the McCarthyite witchhunt campaigns initiated against Florida K-12 teachers by the likes of the DAR and Chambers of Commerce. What I noted in my HES paper was the interesting dovetailing of racist, anti-communist, and anti-gay forces during the period. It seems to me that Johns and his ilk came very close to a fascist presumption of a link between "the other" and a generalized weakness in American society.

  4. I'd like to see the paper, if you don't mind. I got a copy of that movie "Behind Closed Doors" from the filmmaker but have run out of time to show it to my students this semester. I'll set up a screening at the Civic Media Center soon. Steve, have you seen it?