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“What We’ve Always Done”: Trans Pedagogies for Pandemics

It seems that we are learning a lot about ourselves, our institutions, and our communities right now. Covid-19 is full of lessons, many of which merely highlight the health risks of U.S exceptionalism and its racist and settler colonial comorbidities. And for many teachers, we are being forced to learn new skills, including how to teach online and via distance learning modalities. In this moment of chaos and uncertainty, I found myself deeply immersed in the lesson my transgender studies class was teaching me. Upon reflection, I understand not only what we can all learn from transgender studies during this prolonged pandemic moment, but the pedagogical power of transgender studies in general. Pedagogy, while more generally understood as the theory and practice of teaching and learning, is as much about social consciousness and transformative politics. Transgender pedagogies are instilled not only within the classroom, but through the moral and ethical priorities of past, present and future trans and gender non-conforming activist-intellectuals. It is here, then, that I offer a much more expansive, and far more appropriate, understanding of what exactly trans pedagogies entail.


Trans and Now


The initial onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic happened to land in the middle of one of my favorite classes. For the third time at the University of New Mexico, I was able to offer Transgender Studies as an upper division undergraduate course. Offering a course on transgender studies was long overdue, as many of our Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies students identify as trans and/or gender nonconforming. The first two incarnations of the class seemed to be dominated by well-meaning social science types, cisgender (cis) students interested in learning more about trans folk for their future professions. But this time was different; this time we had a critical mass of trans and gender-nonconforming students of color. Even having only one-third of the class identifying on the spectrum of trans and gender nonconforming created a sea change for our classroom atmosphere. This was their class; they were the center, their needs, experiences, and intellectual growth were our priority.


In “Queer and Now,” Eve Sedgwick reflects on a controversy from her early attempt at offering a lesbian and gay studies course in the 1980’s. The controversy stems from an interview Sedgwick gave to the Amherst College newspaper when she confesses that she designed the class to focus on her queer students’ needs, regardless of how many straight-identified students continued to enroll or dominate the course. As a result of her interview/confession, straight students were incensed and outraged. As Sedgwick describes it, they were affronted by the sheer audacity of prioritizing non-straight students in a course. Straight students’ privileged perspective suggested that the course should be more anthropological than experiential, offering insights into the natural habitats of lesbian and gay peoples rather than the tactics for “surviving into threat, stigma, the spiraling violence of gay- and lesbian-bashing, and (in the AIDS emergency) the omnipresence of somatic fear and wrenching loss” (1994:3). As she states, straight students could not imagine a course, not to mention a whole field of study, “where the actual survival of other people in the class might at the very moment be at stake” (4).


I have always tried to prioritize my queer and trans students’ subject positions, and start my courses from the presumption of queer and trans perspectives. For example, in my lectures, I place serious effort towards centering queerness and gender non-conforming practices, and openly use my own queerness in order to expose and make manifest the curious ways of heterosexuality and cis social structures. To center queerness or transness in our own pedagogical approach is one thing, but I would argue that only a mass presence of queer and trans students can create a pedagogical affect that permeates a class. The affective quality is exhilarating as the mass of queer and trans create an atmosphere of acceptance, love, support, and thoughtfulness. In this space, students did the work of creating this energy for each other; through flirting glances, twinkling eyes, smirks and smiles, students nodded incessantly as they related to each other. And in this type of classroom, energy builds throughout the semester as students connect and build off of each other’s commentaries, experiences, and their engagement with the course material. As much as I try to center queerness and transness in my classes, it is the students themselves that radically transform that atmosphere and create affective change. I have had the pleasure of seeing this movement in queer studies courses over the years, but this semester was the first time I had the honor of seeing trans and gender-nonconforming students look around a room and see themselves and their community members dominate that space. And it is from within that sheer mass of trans and gender nonconforming students that we were able to experience transgender studies from experiential, intellectual, theoretical, and emotional perspectives. The centrifugal force of trans and gnc students in the classroom moved all of us to acknowledge the affect, as cis students consistently commented on how grateful and honored they were to be able to learn from trans and gender non-conforming folks taking up space that is their own.


Before the pandemic, many of my students were already fighting for survival. Our readings always had an urgency, even if they were about historical events or political climates long past. Students combed the readings not just to find remnants of themselves, but life lessons on how to survive, how to create collectivities under the worst of circumstances, and how to maneuver within and across medical, legal, and familial institutions in order to strategically and ingeniously beg, plead, or steal for what should be rightfully theirs in the first place. Students connected to the readings, not just because they might also identify as trans, but because they too experience poverty, homelessness, food scarcity, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and more. As much as the ability to “relate” can become a burden to learning environments, such as when students can feel disconnected to a course due to the lack of a “relational” feeling, transgender studies offers a bounty of possible associations and attachments for so many students. It was never hard to create a connection to our reading, even when students were intimidated by some of the denseness of transgender theory, because once they broke it down together there was always at least one student in the room who could explain what our topic of the day feels like.


Trans Pedagogies

Scholarship on trans pedagogies is an exciting and proliferating field, one that I think will be radically transformed the more transgender studies is established as its own program of study across universities. Before the pandemic, I would have readily agreed with most scholarship on trans pedagogies, or transpedagogies, that situates the practice as necessarily destabilizing gender ideologies and systems. [1] As Hilary Malatino observes, trans pedagogy creates a “disruption of hegemonic certitudes about corporeal stability, sex determination, gender dimorphism, and naturalized linkages between gender enactment and sexuality” (2015:408). Transgender studies classrooms not only attract students interested in exploring (and sometimes fixating on) gender identities, but these classes also allow students to engage with trans and gender nonconforming experiences, histories, and more (Beauchamp, 2018; Malatino, 2015). This might explain the emphasis on “gender” as the focus of trans pedagogies. But other scholars, such as Francisco J. Galarte, remind us that transpedagogies are forged outside of our classrooms. In his keyword on “pedagogies,” Galarte argues that we must start with the acknowledgment “that teaching and learning about transgender phenomena take place across a spectrum of social practices and locations and that transpedagogies are part of a broader public politics not solely limited to what goes on in schools” (2014:146).

Granted the gift of the pandemic perspective, my understanding of trans pedagogies is radically altered. As I slowly recognized the vulnerabilities and changing nature of our classroom under Covid-19 conditions, I also realized that the students in my transgender studies class were more than prepared for what came next. My first email to the students that acknowledged we were about to be forced into “distance learning” also included directions on how to participate in our classwide “mutual aid” network as well as an extensive survey from me to assess their basic needs, safety, and online access. And this email started with the following observation: “If we’ve learned one thing from the brilliant transgender and gender-nonconforming activists of the past and the present, it’s that our survival and success depends on how much we support and take care of each other. We will work to help each other find ways to cope and survive, together.”


My students knew exactly what I meant. We already learned from the trans pedagogies of the past and present that survival requires an ethic of collective care, one that begins with our most vulnerable members of our community and moves from there. Trans folk like Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy are just some of the many intellectuals who can also serve as role models for my students and myself as we grapple with and think about how to maneuver through the coronavirus pandemic. Practicing radical selflessness and genuine collective care, these gorgeously flawed trans folk taught us how to refuse moralizing discourses of deserving wards and worthy benefactors. And they are the most readily available examples, three role models among many that my students have learned from.


We might easily think expansively about what trans pedagogies might mean, understanding, as Laura Broom reminds us, that as of 2019 transpedagogies is not yet defined (2019: 83). But we can also turn back to a question posed in 2008 by Vic Muñoz, who asked, “If feminist pedagogies emerge from and with women’s studies, then how do transpedagogies emerge from and with transgender studies?” The answer is easy: trans pedagogies emerge from an avowedly radical ethic of collective care. Trans pedagogies is more expansive, more generous, more pedagogical (dare I say) than any of us could have dreamed.


In the first “community call” sponsored by the Transgender Law Center (TLC), participants in the video call acknowledged the likelihood that members of the transgender and gender nonconforming community are experiencing increased suffering and vulnerabilities due to the pandemic. As Kris Hayashi, Executive Director of TLC reminded us, the trans community is always-already the most vulnerable; from black and brown trans women and femmes, sex workers, migrants, people who are incarcerated, trans folk living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, people living with HIV, homeless trans folk, and Native trans and two spirit peoples, the trans community is directly harmed by failed institutions, or, as Hayashi states it, “failures we are already too familiar with.” And despite these realities, Hayashi observes,

"we know how to do this, right? Like we know how to take care of each other, how to keep each other alive, how to make sure our folks have places to sleep, have food, have protection, and ways to live and thrive and be in community together. This is what we have always done for each other…."

The scholarship we have read in my course merely confirms this sentiment: this is what we have always done. Histories and contemporary practices of transgender social networking taught us how trans communities found ways to offer solace, care, information, and more, whether through online support groups or via ancient communication techniques called “the postal service.” Transgender studies scholarship on how gender nonconforming people have navigated around and through medical and legal institutions offer tools and tips on how students can maneuver and use disciplinary apparatuses to receive necessary means of survival. And the burgeoning Marxist transgender studies scholarship readied my students for the failures of neoliberal capitalisms and the bare existence of any so-called “safety net,” while our transnational critiques of the applicability of “transgender” as a global identity prepared us for the near complete obliteration of any possible U.S. exceptionalist discourse in our current moment. These are just some of the many trans pedagogies that prepared us for this moment, and made my transition to a transgender studies course within a pandemic as smooth and effortless as it gets.


And, of course, trans pedagogies are not created within a vacuum. Rather, trans pedagogies connects to long histories of mutual aid within radical social movements, queer and disabled community kinship practices, and women of color coalitional politics. To operationalize these calls for mutual aid, coalitional survivability, and care work within the virtual classroom requires a radical restructuring of our roles as teachers. This restructuring includes role modeling care and attentiveness towards our students’ and our communities’ experiences of the myriad forms of violence all around us, rethinking the relationship between our course materials and the everyday, and taking advantage of our students’ savviness in online community building. Even if you are not as lucky as I am to teach transgender studies during a pandemic, you can actualize the care work that has sustained trans/queer/poc communities.


Living Audaciously: “Is That All There Is?”


I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire I'll never forget the look on my father's face as he gathered me up in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames And when it was all over I said to myself, is that all there is to a fire

Is that all there is, is that all there is If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing Let's break out the booze and have a ball If that's all there is

- Peggy Lee, 1969


Trans pedagogies are serious matters, but are always served with a side of audacious humor. Survival has refined trans flippancy to an art form, and only the brave would dare to play. But in the hopes of embodying trans pedagogy for my students, I racked my brain for ways I could create levity for us all. And knowing how savvy most of my students were with trans and queer camp humor, I knew the stakes were high. For some reason, I decided videotaping lectures from my chicken coop would do the trick. With my chickens cooing in the background, I created videos that started with a catchy “lectures from the coop” theme song, and then moved into a series of lectures on S.T.A.R. House and other brilliant examples of mutual aid from trans women of color, Indigenous trans and two-spirit activisms, and more. And as I sat on a bucket in the middle of my chicken coop, surrounded by very obnoxious and overly confident chickens clucking away, I couldn’t help but notice that not only does my access to campy humor have a lot to be desired, but that I was literally demonstrating to my students how to survive and thrive in the middle of a shitstorm. A chicken shit shitstorm, but shit nonetheless. The pandemic requires our immersion in a lot of shit, metaphorical and otherwise. And finding resilience and humor in midst of that shit is one of the most vital lessons to learn from trans survival, past and present.


But every time I tried to think of something else, anything else, other than lecturing from a crappy chicken coop as a means to perform trans pedagogies for my students, I kept fantasizing the ultimate Zoom bomb. For me, it would be Peggy Lee. Or maybe to be more honest, it would be my trans fantasy version of Peggy Lee. She’d be singing her late 1960’s hit, “Is That All There Is?” in a lounge with an audience of mask-wearing, white, middle-class folks. Her soulful and dry tone would sound even more sarcastic than usual, as she’s clearly already bored with the pandemic and her audience. In a flippant and callous tone she’d ask her panic-stricken audience, “Is that all there is, is that all there is/If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing….” And then, finally, she would redirect her gaze towards her webcam and my students, smile and wink. “Is that all there is? Because, quite frankly my dears, this is what we’ve always done.”


Some More Resources on Mutual Aid and Trans Pedagogies for Pandemics






Notes


  1. Authors on trans pedagogies/transpedagogies describe the focus on gender in different ways, including “destabilizing gender identity” (Muñoz and Garrison, 2008: 289), “unscripting of gender” (Keenan, 2017: 538), radical rethinking about gendered subjectivity (Malitino, 2015:408), or as “a practice of freedom” that “challenge[s] the oppressive aspects of the binary gender system” (Nicolazzo et al, 2015: 368).


References


Beauchamp, Toby. 2018. “Clutching On: Teaching Identity and Terminology in Transgender Studies.” Feminist Formations 30, no. 3: 25-33.


Broom, Laura. 2019. “Transpedagogy: Connecting and Crossing Identity Categories in the Classroom.” CEA Critic 81, no. 2: 81-99.


Galarte, Francisco J. 2014. “Pedagogy.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, no. 1-2: 145-148.


Hobart, Hi‘ilei Julia Kawehipuaakahaopulani, and Tamara Kneese. “Radical Care: Survival Strategies for Uncertain Times.” Social Text 38, no. 1 (2020): 1-16.


Keenan, Harper Benjamin. 2017. “Unscripting Curriculum: Toward A Critical Trans Pedagogy.” Harvard Educational Review 87, no. 4: 538-556.


Malatino, Hilary. 2015. “Pedagogies of Becoming: Trans Inclusivity and the Crafting of Being.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 2, no. 3: 395-410.


Malatino, Hil. 2020. Trans Care (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press).


Nicolazzo, Z., Susan B. Marine, and Francisco J. Galarte. 2015. “Introduction.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 2, no. 3: 367–375.


Muñoz, Vic, and Ednie Kaeh Garrison, moderators. 2008. “Transpedagogies: A Roundtable Dialogue.” WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly 36, no. 3: 288-308.


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1994. “Queer and Now” In Tendencies, pp. 13-34. Routledge, 1994.


Transgender Law Center. 2020. “The Big Picture: 1st Community Call with Kris Hayashi, Bran Fenner, Deesha Narichaniam, and Xoai Pham.” March 20.


Amy L. Brandzel is an Associate Professor of American Studies and Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of New Mexico. Brandzel is the author of Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative (University of Illinois Press, 2016) and currently working on their next project, Queer Knowledge: The Law of Difference in Academe.

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