Queerer things are yet to come

The main way I encounter issues of inclusive pedagogy in my teaching is in gender diversity (or the lack thereof). I teach to engineers and specifically metal casting students, which is a heavily male-dominated field (even more so than engineering at large). I worked at a foundry for the past two summers which had, out of a total of around 300 employees, probably 10-15 women employed. The introductory foundry classes I helped with last semester had, out of 35 students, about seven women (which is a much higher percentage than in past years). The class I currently teach has one female student out of 11.

I’m keeping these comparisons to a purely binary perspective; I’m not counting myself in these numbers. As a masculine-presenting, male-assigned, genderqueer bisexual, I break the molds (pun intended) and assumptions that people people make about me (not to mention stereotypes about people in casting and manufacturing at large). Now, in most if not all engineering classes I’ve taken, identity is not mentioned at all, so we’ll save the discussion about me for later.

Because women are often stigmatized in engineering and metal casting, I do put specific effort into making the female students, whether at the foundry or in my class, feel welcome and that they are capable of just as much as the men are (if not more, just for that extra encouragement). I make a conscious effort to recognize the one female student in my class when she does speak up and join in the class discussions, making sure she doesn’t get talked over by the rest of the class. At the foundry, I make sure not to snub the female students for attention or assistance in favor of the male students, but to instead give appropriate levels of assistance and instruction to all of the students (within the limits of my abilities).

 

Alrighty, let’s get into my experiences. I am white, and that has afforded me a great many privileges; my girlfriend is Indian, with a very distinctive non-English name, and I have seen a number of ways in which they have held her back or closed off opportunities that may have been available otherwise. I do my best to be aware of my privilege on that axis and to use it to give voice and space to those without.

I am perceived as male, which is a hell of a double-edged sword. As someone in engineering and metal casting/manufacturing, being seen as a man protects me from experiencing sex-based discrimination, but it stings me harshly because that’s not how I want to be seen. It’s an invalidation and erasure of my identity as a nonbinary (and bisexual, since everyone is assumed to be straight) person, and I don’t want to experience that. I want to live in a world where I can be seen and known as my authentic, out, queer self, but fear of social, physical, and employment-based reprisal and backlash keep the majority of my true expression restrained and “closeted”. I am publicly out, but I know that the majority of people who know that have no idea what it means, and I definitely don’t present the way I want–far too masculine.

In last week’s discussion, my hackles got a little raised when a question was asked about whether we should make a big deal out of these things, if we keep being told they’re not a big deal. It was a genuine and well-intentioned question, and I took no personal offense, but I had to immediately respond and say that yes, we should provide opportunities for students to make a big deal of their identities if they so choose. This is crucial for me because this space was never made available to me while I was figuring out that I was queer and especially when I had made the decision to come out publicly with a new name and pronouns but had no idea how. I was the one who had to start the conversation, every time. I was the one who had to bring these things up, out of the blue, with no idea if I’d get an accepting response or get kicked out of class for simply being who I am.

As a bisexual male-assigned nonbinary, both my gender and my sexuality face a tremendous amount of erasure from all over society, from both straight and gay people saying that “bisexuality isn’t real” or it’s “just a phase”, to cis people of all kinds and even some binary trans folks saying that nonbinary genders are made-up and don’t exist. Even within many nonbinary communities, nearly everyone is assumed to be female-assigned because every resource that’s labeled as being for Nonbinary Folk is all about binding or how to appear more masculine or how to find “gender-neutral” (read: masculine) clothing.

I apologize, this turned in to a rant. They…occur easily when I talk about these subjects because, go figure, I have strong feelings about them.

Okay, summary time! In my past schooling, I wish there had been a more visible presence of resources and guidance and education for young queer folk struggling to figure themselves out, and for professors to open up opportunities to talk about queerness in some capacity. It took me until my junior year of college to even consider the possibility that my gender may not be what I had assumed for over two decades because I never knew it was even an option until I met an openly trans person. Nobody talked to me about gender or sexuality or how there were more possibilities than being a straight boy. Had I learned about gender earlier, my life could’ve been entirely different. In my own teaching, I plan to create those opportunities I wish I’d had, in the hopes that I can help a younger generation to discover their true selves, unburdened by enforced ignorance.

14 thoughts on “Queerer things are yet to come”

  1. Thanks for your post. I really appreciated what you had to say, and it made me think about my own field. In Political Science I think that there are certainly still biases. I haven’t seen them as much in the classroom as in the actual real world practitioners.
    One example that came to mind was in how black conservatives are treated. There is an unspoken assumption, too often, that if you are African American you have to be a liberal. If you are African American and conservative you are treated as a “race traitor” or as some type of “token minority”. I don’t have research about how widespread this bias is, but anecdotally, I have heard these types of comments from both black and white members of our community.
    Saying that a person “should” do a certain type of research because of his background is certainly an example of where we are failing. It pigeon holes a whole new generation of researchers into specific policy areas and political identification.
    I hope that classes like this, discussions like the ones we are having helps to make us more aware of these biases and strengthens our resolve to destroy them.

  2. So dodging the political science elephant in the room, how do you feel about how engineering reaches out to women or minorities? Or has anyone talked to you about it?

    I know that is really broad, but a friend of mine freshman year was Hispanic. Because of this he received “minority engineer” which is either a magazine of journal (I do not remember). Every time he got one he would promptly put it in the trash. I asked him about it and it turns out that he was rather offended by it. “I am an engineer, nothing else.”

    Just curious.

    1. I think that a number of organizations are making decent outreach to women, but that comes from my own perspective, seeing the prevalence of societies such as Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) and the Society for Women Engineers (SWE) [I think that’s the official name, I could be wrong.], as well as the membership and enthusiasm of, at least, Tech’s Alpha Omega Epsilon engineering sorority. I haven’t yet talked to anyone about how they actually feel about them–probably a good idea to do so. As far as racial minorities, I can’t say.

  3. Erin,

    Thank you so much for sharing. I’m happy that you are in your field and are making things better. I’m also pretty sure of how much impact you are making to that one student that otherwise would be probably shut down, just for being in that environment. I’m positive that what you do not only make her feel better in the classroom but is also having an impact on her learning process, she probably will recognize how feeling included is changing the metacognition of her thinking. Therefore, by being more reflective about it probably you help her improve the way she understand her learning.

    Looking forward to the moment that you think is right to talk about your experiences, again thanks for sharing!

    1. Homero,

      I’ve updated the post with a long-ish rant about my experiences with gender and sexuality, if you’d like to read more.

      1. I really enjoyed reading it.

        Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences I really appreciate to learn more, and become more educated to try to make things better every time.

        1. Ditto that. I’m very grateful that you shared this with us, and that you spoke up in class last week. I’m sorry you were put in the position to feel like you had to speak up. I do think many people want to “do the right thing” and are confused and unsure about what it is (self included here, so I’m super relieved and happy that the syllabus statement and callout was helpful). I hope that hearing (from a masculine-presenting, male-assigned, genderqueer bisexuals who is not the instructor) that these things matter — that they are real, personal, political and all-the-time-everywhere will help us all think about how we can create more inclusive spaces in our classes. Also, I love the “breaking the mold” pun and think your students are really lucky to have you.

  4. I completely agree with you that more opportunities and resources should be available for people to talk about things like gender or sexuality. I just don’t know how to help make that happen. I’m in the ISE department, and I don’t know how I could even bring the topic up. I mean, my sexual orientation doesn’t exactly come up naturally in a class about databases (surprising, I know). Any thoughts on how you would have liked your professors to broach the topic? If one of them had the “Safe Zone” paragraph in their syllabus, like Dr. Nelson does, would you have gone to talk to them?

    1. Honestly, yeah. That was a big factor in my comfort to talk so openly in this class about my identity and experiences. The fact that she not only had the Safe Zone approval, not only put it on her syllabus, but specifically called it out when she was going over it at the start of class, rather than relegating it to the “other” section of syllabus coverage, signaled to me that she actively engages in these issues and has made a deliberate effort to make that known. That meant a lot to me. If I had professors who did the same in engineering, I would’ve felt much more comfortable and much less panicked about talking to them about a new name and pronouns.

      1. Your story overall and this specific piece of insight are so helpful to hear. Thank you so much for sharing.

        Your perspective has helped inspire me to take the extra effort to make everyone feel comfortable in my future classrooms.

        Our experiences in life are made better when we hear one another’s experiences. Thank you for being you. Thank you for sharing your story.

      2. That is very good to know, and something I’ll definitely have to look into. I’ve always struggled with how to bring up topics like that, that just don’t fit into most engineering classes.

  5. Erin,
    I really appreciate your openness, authenticity, and straight talk! Your experiences and passion will help others immensely. I remember a time when you would see almost only straight and binary White people on television. Tonight, I watched American Crime, which this season is about bullying over sexual identity and the tragic ramifications intolerance can have on not only individuals and families, but society. They interspersed their fiction with real interviews from victims and families.

    While a heartbreaking story, the fact that it is being shown at all much less on a network shows how much you and others have done to change our world for the better. I am sure your female students are so appreciative of the efforts you take on their behalf. I continually feel lucky to be in my profession, in which most of the people I meet are accepting and encouraging of diversity and inclusion–walking their talk.

  6. Great post! Thank you so much for sharing Erin! Your post has definitely given me a lot to think about…

    I very much like how your moderating the interactions in your class and creating a healthy learning environment….

    I guess my main question is how can we create an environment where we can discus some of these issues and how should we frame these discussions…?

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences and perspectives! And also thank you for being so caring to your students. Speaking from experience as a woman, it can sometimes be intimidating or uncomfortable to be in an all (or mostly)-male setting and I’m sure that your efforts to make everyone feel included are appreciated by your students! As teachers, it is our job to educate ALL of our students to the best of our ability, and being totally blind to things that may be affecting their learning isn’t helpful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *