Queer-Decolonial Pedagogies for Trans Youth and Adults

The following has been adapted from a paper presented at the American Educational Research Association’s April 2019 Annual Conference in Toronto. 

Today,  I put my thoughts forward complexly, as both a young person speaking out of turn and as a pedagogue with nearly twenty years of experience. I say this because context matters. Specifically, with regard to the topic at hand, historical context matters, especially in a political moment when so many revisions of history have been undertaken to produce archives that resemble what Foucault described as “a field of tangled and confused parchments [,] documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.” In this moment, I am addressing the history of our concepts of gender identity and dysphoria, clinical terminology that presumes to describe our experiences.

As a community-based educator, when working with youth and adults across race, language, culture, class, gender, and sexuality, I’m often responded to with resistance from many fronts when discussing queer and trans issues: “People of color are more homophobic and less accepting than white people”; “queer and trans is a white thing”; and “gender is just a social construct” or “biological fact.” In an effort to stand strong in my responses, I’ve had to enter into people’s lives and legacies, as a guest in their worlds, while simultaneously attempting to be a hospitable host, by making them as comfortable as possible in what is likely to be quite an uncomfortable learning experience. This is the sacred role of the host-guest, an educator that  enters the worlds of others, to learn how to teach, across difference.

As an educator and a body-mind-spirit committed to what I call “queer-decolonial pedagogy,” I know how important it is to turn to history so that we can begin to understand the appearance of concepts we often rely on to justify our very existence. In taking such an approach, I have discovered that the concepts we draw upon most frequently to justify gender and sexual difference have been shaped, in part, through forms of clinical violence. In the absence of any biological markers that could inform researchers on how to categorize intersex and androgynous people within a gender binary, intersex and transgender clinics from the 1950s to the 1970s began coercing individuals into articulating an internal, felt sense of their “true sex,” a concept named “gender role,” and later “gender identity.”

Dr. Robert Stoller first uttered the phrase “gender identity” in the 1960s, and it was a concept he cautioned against popularizing because he didn’t quite know what he meant by “gender” or by “identity.” This research took place in suburban Southern California, where the military industrial complex was on the rise, drawing massive waves of middle-class white people from across the U.S. who quickly assimilated into the California Dream, developing the fitness and leisure culture that was representative of white racial superiority. Populating California post-WWII with so-called genetic desirables was part of fulfilling Manifest Destiny, and this legacy links U.S. military fantasies of dominance with cultural assimilation, racism, eugenics, and gender and sexual disciplining. Place matters in the development of our systems of belief.

In this process, Dr. Stoller drew upon Dr. John Money’s work at Johns Hopkins from the 1950s, as the latter had suggested it would be easier to fit intersex and androgynous people into heterosexual binary gender roles than it would be to change society to be able to accept people for who and how they were. Creating individual cures for gender and sexual difference was seen as much quicker, more rational. The intersex and transgender clinics were also part of a longer legacy in the U.S. (and particularly, in California) of racial eugenics that were more common pre-WWII, which included medical imprisonment and forced sterilization of those suspected of queerness, of women who were sexually active out of wedlock, of people with different mental and physical abilities, of poor people, Mexican-Americans, Indigenous Peoples, immigrants, and more.

A key figure in this shift from focusing on the eugenics of race to fixating on the eugenics of gender was Lewis Terman, the man who popularized the Stanford-Binet intelligence test (the IQ test) that was commonly used to assess “feeblemindedness.” This diagnosis was used as a justification for forced sterilization. Terman was also the man who developed the “Masculine-Feminine Test” (or, “M-F” Test), a word association quiz designed to assess the likelihood of a child’s future queerness. This possibility was broadly evaluated through behaviors and preferences he associated with either one or the other gender, always assuming only two. Here, we can see that nationalist, Christian, colonial culture has had heavy investments in heterosexual binary genders, dating even further back to the colonial missionary targeting of third gender and two-spirit people across the Americas.

Placing our concepts in historical context, carefully dusting off those parchments that have been scratched over – choking and disorienting as this task may be – is important. History matters. Various peoples, for different reasons, have had diverse investments in heterosexuality and binary gender. People who are not-white have complex investments in heterosexuality and binary gender, and so homophobia and transphobia that circulate in people of color, immigrant, and Indigenous communities must also be placed within a historical context that understands how accusations of “racial degeneracy” have also been used to bring up accusations of “sexual degeneracy,” or queerness of body, desire, and kinship. Proving oneself worthy as fully-human under colonial occupation has often involved presenting oneself as Christian, as civilized, as heterosexual, and as appropriately gendered. Simply to not be killed or imprisoned or experimented upon.

A queer-decolonial pedagogy for working with youth and adults within communities of color, immigrant communities, as well as Indigenous communities, must respond to this history in developing educational experiences that seek to explore the roots of homophobia and transphobia in each particular community. This must include placing these roots alongside violent histories of genocide and enslavement. For me, this history is not merely theoretical. I have drawn upon life experience and family legacy in crafting my resistance to individual, clinical concepts and cures.

Such an intergenerational suspicion of clinical cures means that conversations about pronouns, about bathroom access, about identity affirmation, while immensely important for so many, feel – to me – like part of an effort to erase history. Bathroom access, pronoun use, and affirmation of identity will not cure homophobia, transphobia, racism, attempted genocide, the pains of assimilation-as-survival, or addictions that develop from the trauma of barely surviving the near-decimation of spirituality, land, culture, language, and more. An uncritical faith in psycho-medical, clinical, individualistic cures illuminates the reality that most of us who foreground these solutions in our educational and advocacy work are implicated in the historical revisionism that is a dark mark of our times – even if and when we access these cures as a part of our own healing. Instead of seeking innocence, we ought to be seeking painful yet honest solidarity.

What is the persisting legacy of this history? And what are alternatives for pedagogy, and more precisely, for a queer-decolonial pedagogy that is accountable to intergenerational and cross-cultural healing? We often lean too heavily into mind-body splits, identity as individually determined, and the “curing” of bodies to quell a collective dysphoria around gender. In many practices of Indigenous healing, individual ailments are viewed as symptoms of a larger social or community illness; within this frame, we see that everyone experiences gender dysphoria, yet intersex, third gender, and transgender people are given particular language and technologies for holding and resolving that dysphoria for everyone, for naturalizing a universal, clear, and consistent sense of binary sex and gender across time and place.

Congruently, in Western complementary medicine, as well as in other healing practices, mind, body, spirit, family, and community must be healed simultaneously. Viewing the body as the site of the problem reminds us of the Christian roots of many of our pseudo-scientific concepts, as the sexualized body – or flesh – is often believed to be the site of sin for Christians, and the site of sickness for doctors or psychiatrists. Medical professionals currently serve as our modern-day secular priests, whose authority often goes unchallenged, in large part due to the fact that they are the only ones with access to the dogmatic language of Western science.

Queer-decolonial pedagogies focus on forms of psycho-social, collective, intergenerational healing, and require an immersion in the history of a given place and people. This work also involves creating holistic senses of self that do not require youth and others to splice themselves into minds separated from bodies separated from spirits and legacies, ancestors and history, land and place. Who requires scientific knowledge and clinical research to justify gender and sexual difference? For whom are these frameworks and language even accessible or meaningful? A queer-decolonial pedagogy requires that we reckon with these questions. It is essential that we not revise history for personal, political, or pedagogical simplicity. There is too much at stake.

And, perhaps this is too much to ask. Some may think this is far too complicated, far too abstract. On the contrary, I’ve come to these reflections through working with people for whom these histories are still very much alive, including those who do not speak English, those without much experience in formal learning, as well as those who have experienced education as a primary site of harm. For many of us with family legacies of attempted genocide, and the clinical violence that served as genocide’s workhorse during much of the 20th century, we know the stories of medical imprisonment, of forced sterilization, of experimentation, of pathologization, of addiction that masks intergenerational trauma, and of cultural assimilation that injures as much as it protects.

It is essential that we uncover history to help ease the tensions across our diverse adaptations to living under a biologically and culturally homogenizing regime of militarized, colonial, eugenic, heterosexual, and binary gendered regulation. History can heal, and when we collectively take responsibility for our complicity within it, we can begin to craft pedagogies that simultaneously queer and decolonize our relationships to ourselves, to one another, and to past and future generations.

Thank you.

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