Friday, June 14, 2013

Pride In Arkansas

It was 95 degrees here Wednesday afternoon, a clear and brilliant sunny day. The coffee house is right next to Creekmore Park, which is right across Rogers Avenue from the main branch of the Fort Smith Public Library.  Sitting on the terrace of the coffee shop, sweltering in the heat, we watched the breeze ripple through the ash trees in the rock garden outside and listened to the speakers in between the frequent squalling ambulances or the intermittent rolling grind and whistle of the miniature railroad running past in the park.

Most of my life in Fort Smith is tied up in this little patch of real estate.  When we first arrived in Fort Smith, we lived a few blocks from that park, and would bring the kid (then five and six) to its playground, and to the library).  The main branch of the Public Library was what convinced Dr. Skull he could bear to live here. The university where I teach is only a mile or so northeast of here.  Rogers Avenue is the highway I hate worst of all roads in Fort Smith -- I'll drive miles to avoid it.  "Any road but Rogers" is my motto.

We were there for a Pride Event -- "Presenters and Poets" -- a kind of eclectic scheduling, poets mixed in with informative speakers. A local lawyer talked about what rights LGBT people had in Arkansas (some, but not many) and what you might do to protect yourself in spite of your lack of protection under the law; also, how to gain more legal rights; the Chair of our department (whom, as I have said, we love to bits) spoke about what straight allies might do to be more supportive; various local poets (all of whom are my ex-students, by the way, though I did not teach them to be poets, since I teach fiction writing, so their skills there  do not come from me!) read their amazing poetry.

(Only one has poetry you can get online, sadly, as far as I can tell.  Here. She's also a brilliant fiction writer, which I also did not teach her.  She came that way.)

I was there to talk about teaching queer lit in the Bible Belt.

As our Chair said, it was kind of the wrong audience for the speech -- preaching to the choir in a big way.  The terrace was full, every seat taken despite the heat (by the time I got up to speak it was late, nearly eight o'clock, the sun finally on the horizon, the worst of the heat broken, the train stopped running, the traffic on Rogers slowed), but they were mostly all members of RVEC, or friends & family of members of RVEC -- so they needed very little convincing.

Nevertheless, I talked about my history of teaching LGBT literature in Arkansas, which I've been doing since 2005, how it's changed/changing, what I teach, what good it might do, how I do it, my theory of doing it, what happens in the classroom when I do it.

I told them how when I first taught this class, back in 2005, one of my best students had believed (had refused to stop believing) that gayness was caused by childhood sexual abuse. I told them how when we showed Hedwig & the Angry Inch in the class, many of the students didn't even know what transgender was -- that it was a thing that existed, I mean -- much less that any controversy about it existed. I told them how, previous to taking the class, most of the students had not known that being homosexual had until recently been a crime, that committing homosexual acts -- in private, in your own home -- had until recently been something people could be jailed for, sent to mental asylums for, submitted to medical and physical tortured for, castrated and sterilized for; that they had not realized how severe gender policing in America had been, only a few decades earlier (I showed my students a documentary, Before Stonewall, and one on the Stonewall riots themselves, Stonewall Uprising, which utterly shocked them).

And I talked about how important it was to let students direct the class to some extent. "They'll tell you what they need to know," I said.  "I give them the texts -- although I also let students make suggestions, let them tell me if they want to add something to the reading list -- but then I leave a lot of room in class discussion for them to tell me what they need to know about those texts.  It's like with kids.

(Here I told one of my favorite stories about my kid, how when she was five and her charming little friends on the playground had been using lesbian as an insult, how she came home from school and asked, "Mama, what is a lesbian?" and after I explained well it was like how Mama and Daddy loved each other, right?  Except sometimes two women loved each other like that, and that was lesbians, or two men did, and that was gay. After which she said, "Oh, well, I think I'm a lesbian then.  Because I love Emma, she's my best friend.")

As with kids, you listen to what they want to know, you answer the questions they ask, you listen to what they say after that, and clarify if necessary.

And I explained why I thought it was so important to teach LGBT literature on the university level: many of my students in that class were, themselves, going to be teachers in the local school system.  Very few of them had known anything about LGBT history or LGBT culture or LGBT rights or LGBT literature before they took this class.  Now they know something. Now, when they're in the local high schools and middle schools, when they encounter a transgender kid or a lesbian kid or a gay or bi kid; or when it comes time to choose a reading list; now they have options.

Oh -- and I also distributed a reading list.  Here it is.

This is by no means exhaustive, by the way.  It was all I could fit on two printed pages, and as you will see it leans heavily toward SF, because so do I.  Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!

QUILTBAG* Lit: A Reading List
Kids under 10
Eileen Keirnan-Johnson.  Ronald Humphery Is Wearing a WHAT?  A book for ages 3-7 about a boy who likes to wear sparkles, pretty colors, and “girly” clothes. A child-level look at gender policing (with a happy ending!).  Available on Amazon.  ISBN 0615666558

Leslea Newman.  Daddy, Papa, and Me.  A board book about a same-sex couple and their baby. Rhyming, adorable, and challenges gender stereotypes (Dads are shown doing all sorts of jobs.)  Available on Amazon. ISBN 1582462623

Vanita Oelschlanger.  A Tale of Two Mommies.  A book for ages 3-7, about a family of two women and their adopted son (a multicultural family, in other words). Rhyming, examines gender stereotypes.  Available on Amazon. ISBN 0982636660

Jennifer Bryan. A Different Dragon.  Ages 4-10.  This one I like because it just has characters who are lesbians – that’s not the focus of the book, but part of the normal background of our character, Noah, who meets a dragon who doesn’t want to be fierce anymore.  Also, wonderful illustrations. (Kids older than 10 will like this one too, probably!) Available on Amazon.  ISBN 0967446864

Kid 10-14
James Howe, Totally Joe.  Joe is a character from Howe’s popular series The Misfits.  Here, he writes his autobiography for a school assignment, and we get an inside look at what being gay is like for a 13 year old.  If you know Howe’s books, you know how good this is. Available at Amazon. ISBN: 0689839588

Alex Sanchez, So Hard to Say. “Will & Grace for the middle-school set.” Available at Amazon. ISBN 1416911898

Young Adult:
M.E. Kerr, Deliver us from Evie. Told through her brother, the story of Evie, who comes out to her conservative rural Missouri farm community. You’ll have to buy this one via Alibris or some other used bookstore, sadly.  Worth it, though.

John Green, David Levithan. Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  The story of two Will Graysons, and Tiny Cooper, best friend to one of the Will’s, and all their friends. Tiny’s gay, and this is presented as just a one of the things your friend might be – just normal background for the story, not a major plot point, in other words.  Also, a great YA story for other reasons. Available on Amazon. ISBN 0142418471

David Levithan.  Every Day. Reviewed here.  This…being, which calls itself A, wakes up in a different body each day…and stuff happens.  Inevitably some of the stuff is gender related.  And a cracking good plot. (Adults will like this one too!)  Available on Amazon. ISBN 0307931889

Benjamin Alire Saenez. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Two Latino kids in the 80s, one openly gay, one in denial, meet and develop a friendship.  Deals with issues of Mexican identity, gives an authentic look at Latino culture. Available on Amazon. Isbn 1442408928

Tony Kushner, Angels in America.  It’s a play, so you should really see it; but if you can’t, reading it is better than nothing. ISBN: 1559362316

Ethan Mordden, The Buddies Cycle.  Starts with I’ve A Feeling We’re Not In Kansas Anymore: Tales From Gay Manhattan. A bit twee, but some good stories. Available on Amazon. ISBN 0312141122

Jeffery Eugenides, Middlesex.  About an intersexed person growing up in a Greek household in the 1960s. Wonderful writing, an amazing book.  Available everywhere, I believe.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. All of Bechdel’s works are worth reading.  But you can start with this one. It covers her childhood and young adult life, and her father’s life. (It’s a graphic novel.)  See also Dykes To Watch Out For, which I also highly recommend.  ISBN for Fun Home: 0618871713

Maureen McHugh, China Mountain Zhang.  SF. A near-future/alt.history.  LG characters and lovely writing. Reviewed here, kind of.

Dorothy Allison.  Bastard out of Carolina.  A rough read, but wonderful.

Joanna Russ, The Female Man.  SF.  Also a tough read, but also essential. I talk about it here.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Ethan of Athos. SF with a main character who is from a culture where everyone is gay.  This is just a fun read, by the way.  Bujold’s other books contain bisexual, lesbian, and transsexual characters.

Eleanor Arnason, Ring of Swords.  Also, Women of the Iron People. Both excellent SF novels with gay/lesbian characters in each (alien and human). (I review Arnason here; an interview with her is here.)

Suzy McKee Charnas, The Holdfast Chronicles. Post-Apocalyptic SF. Major characters who are lesbian, gay, and bisexual.

Mark Merlis, The Arrow’s Flight.  A modern retelling of the Philoctetes myth.

Geoff Ryman, Was. Ryman is one of the best writers working in SF today.  This is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz – sort of.  It’s won a billion awards and is considered by many as “the” book for gay men to read.


Bardiac said...

What an excellent event!

You're doing such good and important work!

(You could also add Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are not the Only Fruit.)

Anonymous said...

#2 and I both love Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. It's a light romance set in a fantasy town at a fantasy high school. If only the world worked that way. (The protagonist's love interest is new in town.)

dorki said...

This insight about what you actually teach (and where) has really amped up my respect for your teaching skills!

It is good to see that some may understand humanity as it really is (and always has been).

delagar said...

Bardiac -- I love Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit! I'd forgotten about that one. A definite great addition.

N&M -- I haven't read Boy Meets Boy yet. But I love all of Levithan's other works so far, so it's going on the list.

Dorki -- Aw, thanks! We have a strong community working here, despite some real pushback from religious groups in the area.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I think about Gilbert & Sullivan, which I adore, and which doesn't seem to have any relevance to your topic. But it's a fantastic send up and snapshot of latter Victorian-era Brit culture. Clearly Brit culture has come a long way since the 1880s. Someday people will look back on the 2010s in a similar way, but I wonder what art form will represent us so vividly. --L

lfconrad said...

RVEC was SO pleased to have all of the presenters. It was the highlight of Pride Week for me!!!