Being pretty queer – a disidentification enactment
Icebreakers remain a staple of life inside a classroom whether the class meets “in-person” or “online.” Ice breaking activities in “in-person” classes involve little disclosure not only because of restraints on the limited amount of class “time,” but because of visible identity differences that allow classmates to consciously or subconsciously make assumptions about the “other’s” identity. I have noticed that during introductions in my in-person classes that in speaking about “who I am” people rarely verbalize identifiers indicating religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, familial status, disability/ability or gender. Someone might admit to being married, but doesn’t indicate the gender of the spouse. Someone might admit to having a family, but doesn’t indicate an identity as a single mom, single dad, one of two moms, one of two dads, or “hey everyone, I’m heterosexual!”
However, icebreakers online become a different animal altogether. Perhaps, because we don’t have visual cues (no photos, no avatars), or/and because verbal expression is the only way to express identity online, the icebreakers become more complicated. I have noticed people tend to assert their heterosexuality immediately by declaring themselves wife or husband or referring to their wife or husband, and using an opposite pronoun in their description, perhaps to make sure we don’t assume wife/wife or husband/husband. Even if engaged, or in a relationship the pronouns tend to work to emphasize the gender difference, so that the heterosexual nature of the relationship is emphasized. I have observed that those who do not fall within typical heterosexual norm do not come out of the closet, so to speak, during icebreakers, but later in class. If the student does not have a relationship status in which to couch gender, gender is usually expressed alongside another identifier such as age or occupation.
Once the heterosexuals have asserted their heteronormativity, racial and ethnic identifiers begin to emerge in the icebreaker narrative. However, no one ever declares to the class, “I’m white!” No one ever declares ability status, so absent is any acknowledgment, “I’m temporarily-able bodied.” Like sexuality, disability is usually not revealed until later in class.
The most striking self-identification I’ve found in online icebreakers is the self-identified Christian, typically evangelical. The declarations are bold: “I’m Christian, I was born again in 19XX, I am a follower of Christ, etc.”
I personally always find icebreakers difficult because what you write sets up how your comments are perceived the rest of the semester. I prefer to hold my cards close and not reveal it all online. However, I can’t stop thinking about why most people feel the need to assert gender couched in heterosexual terms and Christian faith so strongly online. We live in a culture dominated by heterosexuality and Christians, so perhaps it is an assertion of power, or perhaps it is a fear that someone might assume them the “other.”
For my enactment I wanted to combine two related ideas, one from our readings this semester and one from a reading I did last semester.
The first stems from the idea of disidentification in Leila Villaverde’s Feminist Theories and Education (2008). She writes, “The schism created between sex, gender roles, and identities affords a rich space for disidentification from traditional scripts and restrictions on living a full and equitable life as defined by the person living it” (p. 71). She further defines the term disidentification as “the questioning of and distancing from, in order to transform, traditional identification practices and culture.”
My enactment involved disidentifying myself not only in an online icebreaker, but throughout an online class. I began this in Dr. C.P. Gause’s ELC online class Urban Education, Social Justice, and School Leadership, which I am taking concurrently with Dr. Villaverde’s Feminist Pedagogy class.
In this class the icebreakers followed the same lines as I described above with all, but one person couching their gender in terms of a heterosexual relationship, and about half the students identifying as Christians.
The process of my enactment meant purposefully avoiding any identification of my gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, or religious views.
This quickly became problematic in the execution of my enactment. I found myself needing to identify in order to interact. One of the first issues to address was my name – William. I tried to find a function in blackboard to change my distinctly traditional male name to something else, Willie, Willamina, W.H., but found myself stuck. This brought in a second reading from last semester. In Queer (v.) Pedagogy (2005) G.D. Shlasko relates “queer pedagogical performance” (p. 131) that emphasizes blurring the lines of identity, which is inline with disidentification. Shlasko writes, “…a performative acknowledgement of queer possibility can generate ambiguity that is more pedagogically useful than claiming a category…any teacher can bring multiple, fluid identities and knowledges into the classroom, and that is pretty queer.”
Being pretty queer myself, queering my performance in class as a co-learner seemed a good tool to compliment my disidentification efforts.
So, I let my name stand, but refused to use a gender identifier in relation to my wife or myself. Instead I wrote around pronouns and used the term “partner.” Let me be clear I did not lie. I simply changed my language. Instead of writing I have been married 13 years, I stated I have been in an 18-year relationship with the same partner. I also queered the gender status of my name, by focusing my self-description as my true-to-life queer gender performance, focusing on my life as the stay-at-home partner cleaning, cooking, changing diapers, performing most of the caring activities in the home, and managing the household financed by my breadwinning partner. If not queering my performance, I focused on distancing myself from any identity marker. I did not mention my race, but wrote both of my experiences in white culture and my experiences in black culture from attending a97% black elementary school to pledging a historically black Greek organization. By leaving out essential details I did not identify as white nor black, male nor female.
I also left purposefully ambiguous my own identity as experiencing disability or being temporarily able-bodied. Ethnicity perhaps was the easiest to disindentificate, perhaps because our class discussions have not centered on ethnicity, yet.
I had coconspirators in this enactment, because I had fellow students who knew me. I emailed them asking for their participation in the enactment and to protect my queering and disidentification efforts.
There were many inspirations for this enactment including Haywood and Mac an Ghaill’s description of identity formation, multiplicity and inversion in Education and gender identity (2006). They write, “As an individual can be located in a range of social relations at one time, the formation of identities through a range of discursive positions is a highly complex, ambivalent and unfinished process…subjectivity is conceptualised as a process of becoming, characterized by fluidity…” (p. 53). I’ve come to understand my identity not as static and unchanging, but as a fluid position in time. My identity, like others, is complex wrapped up in a complex web of personal performances that continue to grow and adapt to my changing life experiences. Disidentification allows me to be true to the dynamic nature of my identity by not giving others a peg to hang me on. Queering my performance in class and in life not only opens my own doors to possibility, but opens the world to greater possibility because I can model multiple ways of being in the world.
I can never know the impact of my enactment. I can try to draw conclusions based on my perceived interpretations. At first it seemed people were reluctant to respond to my posts compared to other people’s posts. I wonder if this is because of an uncomfortableness with not being able to put me in an identity box and therefore qualify my statements. As I began to reveal identity markers, it seemed people became more willing to interact. The first I revealed was my identity as an atheist, though truthfully that label is not queer enough to do my beliefs justice. However, in response to a strong Christian normative discourse occurring in class, I felt compelled to come out an join the fray, to invoke Betty Sasaki’s paraphrase of Gloria Anzaldua in Feminist Reflections on the Pedagogical Relevance of Identity, not to stand “on opposite sides of the river throwing rocks at one another” (p. 37), but to engage in coalition over consensus.
Still reluctant to respond to me, once I revealed my whiteness in a post about white privilege, it seemed everyone became more comfortable with responding to me and began to do so frequently. Ironically, a fellow student, and good friend, who is African-American has told me, and I have observed, a reluctance to interact with his posts – he self-identified as African-American throughout the class including the icebreaker.
I’ve been waiting for a fellow student to make an assumption about my identity in any way, but it has not happened. I continue to use the word partner, avoid pronouns, and continue to attempt to leave my gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and ability status unknown. Perhaps in these areas people have not responded to me because they are unsure of what to call me or how to refer to me or what might be important to me.
As the need arises to engage in frank discussions of privilege I feel I will come out of all my identity closets in time. Being pretty queer is pretty easy online because of the lack of visual markers for people to make assumptions about you.
Arnot, M. (2006). The Routledgefalmer Reader in Gender and Education (Readers in Education) (1 ed.). New York: Routledge.
Twenty-First-Century Feminist Classrooms: Pedagogies of Identity and Difference. (2002). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Villaverde, L. E. (2007). Feminist Theories and Education Primer. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.