By Spencer Cawein Pate
[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Education in a Democratic Society.”]
We have seen the city; it is the gibbous
Mirrored eye of an insect. All things happen
On its balcony and are resumed within,
But the action is the cold, syrupy flow
Of a pageant. One feels too confined,
Sifting the April sunlight for clues,
In the mere stillness of the ease of its
Parameter. The hand holds no chalk
And each part of the whole falls off
And cannot know it knew, except
Here and there, in cold pockets
Of remembrance, whispers out of time.
—from “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery
As a male student turned male educator, I’m fascinated by the manner in which my entire life and career have been conditioned by cultural expectations of sex and gender. In middle school, I was bullied and socially excluded (e.g., I ate lunch by myself for the better part of seventh grade) because my peers merely thought I was gay, as it was rumored. This should not come as a surprise: boys who succeed academically are often faced with social exclusion and bullying for their intellectual inclinations, which is why so many feel forced to conceal, downplay, or otherwise attempt to compensate for their academic abilities in order to avoid having their masculinity called into question—in order to better conform to those patriarchal expectations from which they are perceived to deviate. In the long term, the experience left me with a sense of unbreakable solidarity with anyone who is oppressed for their gender identity or sexual orientation, since I have suffered only a fraction of the misery that is often inflicted on this community.
But as a teacher, I am hardly free from these attitudes and ideologies either. Despite being 6’1″ in height, broad-shouldered, and possessive of a deep voice that has been compared to Alan Rickman as Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies, the mere fact that I am a teacher means that I get coded as somehow effeminate. And because I am also emotionally sensitive (or “penetrable,” to use a word favored by the queer writer Henry James) and passionately intellectual and artistic, it is still sometimes assumed or suspected that I am gay. (Not that I necessarily mind. Whether I am or not I increasingly prefer to leave ambiguous, so as to make others question their own investment in categorizing others.) Thus, I have gone from being gossiped about in middle school to being whispered about in much the same way as a teacher of middle school students. There is an unfortunate belief I have run up against that male teachers should project a certain degree of masculine or patriarchal authority. I have never been able (or interested, really) in acting, speaking, or teaching like a football coach or a military drill sergeant, but the project of progressive education conflicts with the sociocultural script for male teachers. And when those deviations and conflicts between expectations and reality do occur, one’s status as a man once again becomes called into question, regardless of one’s age.
In many ways, this essay is an attempt to make sense of my experiences, to explore the way male teachers find themselves raveled up with gender transgression and the theoretical concept of “queer time.” I will begin with a philosophical review of precisely this idea, which sheds light on the relationships of gender-nonconforming men to educational practices and institutions, and on the political-economic and sociocultural fault lines between separatism, assimilation, and cosmopolitanism. I will then proceed to a historical review of male teachers as gender transgressors (and vice versa)—which is severely underdeveloped as a category of historical analysis—over the course of the twentieth century. Finally, I will conclude by drawing together these two strands of thinking in order to argue for the power of queer male educators as political actors.
II. Philosophical Review
Back in 2011, I attended a rather dull undergraduate thesis presentation on the topic of “queer time.” An obscurantist concept cloaked in obfuscatory language, I was hard-pressed to determine exactly what this term was supposed to mean. The student seemed to suggest that because the traditional temporal markers of marriage and parenthood may not be present, a gay man’s subjective experience of the passage of time through his lifespan is ostensibly different from that of a straight man. This definition, though, seems so obvious as to be both trivial and tautological. After all, a gay man isn’t necessarily going to perceive his subjective experience of time as “queer,” because to him it will simply remain normal and expected; it is only from the position of a straight person that it will appear “queer” against the background of social consensus—which rather defeats the purpose of the concept to begin with. And when a childfree person like myself can also partake in queer time for lack of reproduction, this exception also serves to stretch the idea rather too thin to be useful.
But the concept of “queer time” has nevertheless intrigued me for years after that encounter, as it resonates with my own interests in what I’ve termed “temporal economy”—“the production, circulation, and consumption of affective states of temporal perception” (Pate 2013). I have made it my aim to learn more about queer time as it is discussed in philosophy and the social sciences, but like many concepts in queer theory and deconstruction (such as Derrida’s différance, for instance), it is an extraordinarily slippery idea that resists positive definitions, lacking a stable referent and perhaps even denoting this very absence of one. Queerness not only upsets our established notions of normality, it also works to destabilize all dichotomies, such as the binary opposition between normality and transgression. To my view, queer time is perhaps best grasped not in philosophy but rather through the arts, as a kind of “time out of joint.” Queer time is the temporal space of introspection and retrospection in the novels and stories of Henry James; the involuntary memory of the past as it haunts the present in Marcel Proust’s novel sequence; the elliptical epiphanies of Virginia Woolf’s fictional and real-life “moments of being”; and finally the quizzical, quixotic lyricism of John Ashbery. (Not coincidentally, all four of these writers were LGBTQA.) Indeed, it is from Ashbery’s moving final lines to “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”—“pockets of remembrance, whispers out of time”—from which I drew the title of this paper, as his words best capture the spectral / hauntological nature of queer time, suspended between presence and absence.
If one follows the genealogy of “queer time” backwards through history, we might begin by connecting it to Nietzsche’s concept of “untimeliness.” Amusingly, Nietzsche himself never gave a satisfactory definition of this term either, but following deconstruction’s critique of phenomenology, we might consider it in relation to a moment of time that is split from within, haunted by the traces of the past and the ghosts of the future (Nietzsche 1997). Untimeliness is the spectral presence of anachronism—the “eternal return”—that queers our linear sense of historical progression.
There are as yet few academic works on the subject of queer time, although Judith / Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (2005) is probably the definitive treatment, and it also constitutes a major (if implicit) theoretical category in José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (2009) and Elizabeth Freeman’s Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories (2010). In order to guide our further enquiries, we will begin by examining Halberstam’s subtle discussion of “queer time” in the introduction to the aforementioned book:
This book makes the perhaps overly ambitious claim that there is such a thing as “queer time” and “queer space.” Queer uses of time and space develop, at least in part, in opposition to the institutions of family, heterosexuality, and reproduction. They also develop according to other logics of location, movement, and identification. If we try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices, we detach queerness from sexual identity and come closer to understanding Foucault’s comment in “Friendship as a Way of Life” that “homosexuality threatens people as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a way of having sex.” In Foucault’s radical formulation, queer friendships, queer networks, and the existence of these relations in space and in relation to the use of time mark out the particularity and indeed the perceived menace of homosexual life. In this book, the queer “way of life” will encompass subcultural practices, alternative methods of alliance, forms of transgender embodiment, and those forms of representation dedicated to capturing these willfully eccentric modes of being. Obviously not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts, but part of what has made queerness compelling as a form of self-description in the past decade or so has to do with the way it has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space.
[…] And yet queer time, even as it emerges from the AIDS crisis, is not only about compression and annihilation; it is also about the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing. In the sections on subcultures in this book, I will examine the queer temporalities that are proper to subcultural activities, and will propose that we rethink the adult / youth binary in relation to an “epistemology of youth” that disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity. Queer subcultures produce alternative temporalities by allowing their participants to believe that their futures can be imagined according to logics that lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience—namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death. (Halberstam 2005)
Although Halberstam places his emphasis on how queerness “has the potential to open up new life narratives and alternative relations to time and space”—“a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing,” he openly acknowledges that “not all gay, lesbian, and transgender people live their lives in radically different ways from their heterosexual counterparts.” Most crucially of all, Halberstam links queer time to subcultural activities and economic practices, and it is this political-economic dimension of queer time that this paper will explore in relation to male educators as gender transgressors. Following his work, we will “detach queerness from sexual identity” and “try to think about queerness as an outcome of strange temporalities, imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices.” But instead of discussing, as Halberstam does, queer men who “opt to live […] on the edges of logics of labor and production” and “outside the logic of capital accumulation,” those who “could productively be called ‘queer subjects’ in terms of the ways they live (deliberately, accidentally, or of necessity) during the hours when others sleep and in the spaces (physical, metaphysical, and economic) that others have abandoned, and in terms of the ways they might work in the domains that other people assign to privacy and family,” I intend to emphasize the very mundaneity of queer time (which, perhaps, renders it not very queer at all) in educational settings.
Before we delve into the relationship between male teachers, gender transgression, and queer time, we must first define a few other terms. This essay is concerned with gay, bisexual, transgender, asexual, or otherwise queer / questioning men in public K-12 schools, and we will use the acronym LGBTQA as a catch-all category to describe this disparate group united by their common status as “gender transgressors.” According to Jackie Blount, a gender transgressor is anyone who challenges traditional, accepted norms of “masculinity” and “femininity” and their attendant expectations of behavior (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000). This includes bachelors, men who are perceived as effeminate and sensitive, and LGBTQA individuals of all stripes. Indeed, even outliers like men in a female-dominated profession or role (such as an elementary school teacher) could be considered to rebel against gender roles at certain historical junctures. In the academic field of cultural studies, we hold these gendered norms of behavior to be culturally constructed categories, constellations of meanings and affects that are attached to the ostensible dichotomy of biological sex, and furthermore that these roles are built over time through iterated performances and presentations of the self (Butler 1990). (And it’s important to point out that this concept is not just hypothetical or theoretical; there is an abundance of empirical support stacked against the essentialist ideas that sex and gender are monolithic, totalizing, and immutable black boxes, instead of being fluid, contingent, and socially-constructed articulations [Fine 2011].) While the base of cultural categories (definitions of what constitutes masculine and feminine) remains relatively stable and changes only slowly, the superstructure of societal configurations evolves more rapidly, accreting and sedimenting around the shifting material conditions of life.
What cultural studies cannot explain alone, however, are political-economic-historical questions, like why many gay men have such a close relationship to the arts—whether that takes the form of restoring buildings, preserving neighborhoods, collecting antiques, curating galleries, or creating art oneself. Fortunately, there is a small but intriguing body of scholarship (such as Will Fellows’ A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture ) that explores precisely this question. One possible explanation for this curiosity might be that gay culture, which cannot automatically reproduce itself socially in the manner of race or ethnicity (because gay men in the past typically did not raise families of their own, and their children in all likelihood would not share the same sexual orientation anyway), must be transmitted through different vectors—oral and textual and performative traditions of affiliation and affinity. Clearly, we are once again dealing with the experience of queer time. It is through this temporal dimension that gay men become custodians or guardians of high culture; a life devoted to antiquity augurs a separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity (Halberstam 2005, 2011; Freeman 2010; Munoz 2009). As Simon Reynolds puts it, “a life dedicated to aestheticism […] held out the prospect of a life apart from the more traditionally macho work cultures in industry or finance, promising a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women” (Reynolds 2011). Perhaps the status of gay teachers is homologous; perhaps the untimely anachronisms (in the Nietzschian sense) of queer life lead to a heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations. And, of course, the gender balance of the teaching profession also promises “a daily existence in which a lot of the people you dealt with would be women.” (While the practice of teaching initially might not seem to fit in with the arts, antiquity, and high culture, I would submit that teaching is a creative act closer to improvisatory, performative art than it is to an objective science.) Just as colleges and universities can function as semi-safe spaces for political radicals and eccentrics of all stripes, the public school system allows, to an extent, for the conscious and relatively unconstrained construction and performance of alternative gender and sexual identities. Indeed, Kevin Jennings and Jackie Blount both claim that there is a higher percentage of LGBTQA individuals in teaching than there is in the population as a whole (Blount 2006; Jennings 2005). Even though gay male educators may still face prejudice and outright discrimination and harassment, there are strong legal and judicial precedents stating that public school teachers have the “right to be out” of the closet with regard to their sexual orientations, and many attempts to fire gay teachers have ended with their reinstatement (Biegel 2010; Harbeck 1992). Clearly, this statistic indicates that there must be some kind of incentive for so many gay men to enter teaching, some new form of Deleuzian desiring-production (or libidinal investment in the traditional psychoanalytic sense), or else this would not be the case.
There is, however, one salient difference between gender transgressors in the arts and gender transgressors in education, in that the latter do not have the privilege of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity.” Privilege is correlated with class power; gender transgressors in the arts will most likely have a higher socieoeconomic status than working-class gender transgressors in public education, who must contend with issues of intersectionality. Gender transgressors employed by schools are working in the public sphere, and as such they are held to a different standard of behavior than those who work in the private sphere—such as the arts, which can amount to a social sorting mechanism that deliberately keeps gay men isolated from the rest of society and thus neutered and marginalized from democratic voice and political power. There is nothing inherently radical about queerness; it does not, for example, solve problems of the relationship of labor to capital. As public spaces of social reproduction, schools are veritably saturated in hegemonic masculinity, because it is traditionally held that one of the implicit aims of education is to model gender-appropriate behavior for children as they grow up and become adults (Blount 2006; Blount & Anahita 2004). As I have been told several times throughout my life, male teachers are expected to serve as “father figures” for male children; conversely, female teachers are supposed to act nurturing and “mothering” as they provide care and instruction. It is in this manner that what Gilles Deleuze called the “Oedipal triangle” of the family is transposed onto the field of pedagogy (Deleuze & Guattari 1972). Jackie Blount argues that society considers gender-appropriate behavior to be so important in the first instance due to political economy (with regard to the forces of production and the division of labor between men and women) and, in turn, entrenched sexism—the oppression of women—and heteronormativity / compulsory heterosexuality—the oppression of non-heterosexuals. The unconscious hidden curriculum, of course, is very efficient at maintaining these boundaries of sex and gender in both students and teachers. Historically, in the not-so-distant past, teachers exhibiting the wrong “demeanor” have been punished or removed from school altogether, and at some extremes of social hysteria, they have been subject to “witch hunts” roughly parallel or even coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists.
As a result of this prejudice, discrimination, and harassment, many radical queer theorists (including many of those we relied upon earlier to limn the concept of queer time) favor a certain critical distance or separation from the structures of mainstream culture; they mourn the loss of some of the more distinctive institutions, practices, and transactions of gay culture (namely, anonymous and / or public sex) in favor of greater integration into capitalist markets and monogamous familial units. Separatism presents itself as a kind of Nietzschian affirmation—variously identifying queerness with antisocial refusal, a counter to childhood innocence, a (non)dialectical force of negativity, or the Freudian death drive—although in practice it often collapses into a reveling in one’s own state of abjection (Edelman 2004; Love 2009). But separatism is, to my view, neither possible nor desirable for the majority of gay men, those who do not have the luxury to live in an individual sphere of private privilege. It is our responsibility as citizens of a democratic society to collectively figure out how to live together and tolerate one another, and separatism works against this pressing public need.
Other, more pragmatic or moderate liberal thinkers celebrate the reciprocity of assimilation—they observe not only how queerness has been domesticated and come to be seen as inherently normal, even mundane, but also how our very sense of mainstream normality has been queered by gay culture, allowing for the proliferation of a greater variety of publicly acceptable gender identities and sexual orientations. And while schools are indeed still in the grip of hegemonic masculinity, assimilationists might point out that they are also fungible and penetrable, allowing for the development of counternarratives and countercultures. Far from the sense of resignation and the gloomy pronouncements of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose proffered by historians of sex education, the situation for gender nonconforming students and teachers has improved over the past decade, perhaps especially because other students are increasingly willing to stand up for their friends and act as allies. The condition of homosexuality is no longer as lonely, isolating, and alienating as it once was.
So one of the central tensions within any minority, such as LGBTQA adults, in a democratic society is between cultural separatism and assimilation. For example, assimilationists and separatists might disagree on the extent that LGBTQA teachers can or should be out of the closet about their identities at particular grade levels. I hope to demonstrate that a middle course between these positions is not only possible, but also necessary. I follow philosopher Baruch Spinoza in arguing that there is nothing intrinsically transgressive about gender transgression, insofar as “transgression” always-already remains within the horizon of what is natural and human(e) (Spinoza 2005). In the following sections, I will argue that one of the most important values of a liberal democratic society is cosmopolitanism, which, in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, is “universality plus difference,” rather like the intersectional union of a Venn Diagram (Appiah 2007). Cosmopolitans believe in the inherent value of diversity, and as spaces of cultural (re)production and reproduction, public schools are ideal sites to cultivate cosmopolitanism, to learn about both individual and group similarity and uniqueness (Biegel 2010; Brighouse 2005; Jennings 2005). Exposure to a diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities helps us to develop a sense of social justice and advocate for it inside and outside of the classroom, and having an openly gender-transgressing male teacher will allow students to accept the normality and mundaneity of queerness as an affect and an identity. Over time, hopefully, both students and teachers can come to be free of prescribed cultural expectations and see queerness and gender transgression for what they really are—possibilities on the spectrum of natural human diversity.
One of the most inspiring examples of liberal democratic cosmopolitanism in educational settings is that of the gay-straight alliances that have sprung up across high schools and even some middle schools in the United States. (The main parent organization of these groups, GLSEN—the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network—was in fact founded by the aforementioned activist and author Kevin Jennings.) Gay-straight alliances help to combat the routine bullying of gender transgressing students and the harmful stereotypes that contribute to the pervasive atmosphere of hegemonic masculinity / heteronormativity in school settings. They give LGBTQA students a safe space to talk about their experiences, identities, and struggles, while both gay and straight students gain an education in how to be effective allies, activists, and peer mediators. Such alliances serve to introduce students to themes of social justice and a theory-praxis of activism that they might not otherwise receive in the course of their schooling. Moreover, gay-straight alliances are often spearheaded by LGBTQA teachers who serve as faculty advisors for the groups and, perhaps, as informal mentors to gender nonconforming students. Gay male teachers can take on leadership positions and help to batter down the closet walls that keep themselves and others separated from each other. By putting an end to shame and fear, they can perform their authentic identities and form new collective affinities and affiliations. As adults who have made it through the gauntlet of middle school and high school, they can also deliver the crucial message to students that they are not alone and that it does, in fact, get better. Gay-straight alliances allow gender-transgressing students and teachers to work together and learn from each other in a classically democratic fashion, to put into practice the cultivation of cosmopolitanism in educational settings.
Social reproduction is never perfect and totalizing, and there is never repetition without difference, so educators and political activists have access to spaces and discourses of critical resistance—pockets and whispers, as it were—in which they can work to interrupt these cycles. In a deconstructive sense, queer time challenges the repetitions of history; it has the power to open up possibilities for new affiliations and affinities between the self and others. Paradoxically, public schools allow gender transgressing male educators the chance to “negotiate the self,” perform their identities, and practice the radical “politics of authenticity” (Berman 2009; Evans 2002; Jackson 2007).
III. Historical Review
This historical review will concentrate on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with some discussion of nineteenth century for additional context. While there is still a great deal of academic work to be done on gay male educators, there is actually much scholarship of interest concerning gay male students, particularly at single-sex institutions like private or boarding schools. This should probably not be surprising: because educational environments are more unwelcoming to LGBTQA students than to LGBTQA teachers, it has typically been students who have taken the initiative to form affinity groups and mobilize for collective action rather than educators. Furthermore, gay teachers had a disincentive to organize because they had more to lose—when one’s employment and livelihood are at stake in addition to one’s reputation, caution is the order of the day. (That said, openly gay college students or closeted students caught in undercover “sting” operations also faced serious consequences like expulsion, and university administrations frequently tried to prevent them from organizing politically or socially.)
When one examines the historical record, one is often surprised to find that gay rights movements existed in and out of schools years before the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (Beemyn 2003; D’Emilio 1992). There were continuous moral panics about the danger that boarding schools and college dormitories would lead to overly close, romantic, or erotic same-sex friendships / relationships that, in turn, would work to feminize men and masculize women. Before the rise of gay-straight alliances in the 1990s, which serve to link together student and teacher activism against homophobia, LGBTQA teachers who wanted to support LGBTQA students had to do so privately, sub rosa (Mayo 2008). In this sense, gender transgressing male educators could become informal mentors or counselors to students who were struggling with the same issues. The obvious downside of these pre-GSA relationships, however, is that they invited charges of impropriety and that perennial hysteria of the religious right, “homosexual recruitment” or seduction. Students in the 1960s combated this, however, by forming what was at the time called “homophile leagues.” Although the desire to remain safely anonymous meant that these groups had to exercise great discretion and secrecy, the student leagues were actually more militant than the “mainstream” gay rights organizations, serving to build alliances with other activist movements and to construct the foundation for gay liberation in the ensuing decades:
The story sounds familiar: following a 1969 confrontation in New York, a small group of self-identified lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and their supporters created a militant gay rights organization in the United States, one that would help foster the gay liberation movement. However, the individuals involved in this group were not residents of New York City but students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and the confrontation was not the riot of working-class black and Latino drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village but the takeover by African American students of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell’s campus union. Nor did the group, the Student Homophile League, begin in the wake of Stonewall; rather, it was formed in 1968, making it the second gay rights group to be organized on a college campus, after Columbia University’s Student Homophile League, of which the Cornell group was initially a chapter.
While Stonewall served as a main catalyst for the rise of a new era in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, the preceding gay activism at Columbia, Cornell, and a handful of other universities played a critical role in laying the groundwork that would enable a militant movement to emerge following the riots. Not only did the student groups take the lead in asserting a sense of pride in being gay, but, through speaking unabashedly to others about their personal experiences (what the Cornell group called “zaps”) and developing alliances with those engaged in other struggles, especially the antiwar movement, they made gay liberation an important concern for many nongay people. As a result, in the late 1960s and early 1970s gay politics moved from the relatively insular environment of homophile organizations onto the agendas of many radical student activists. These nongay activists, some of whom subsequently recognized their attraction to others of the same gender and began to identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, helped broaden the base of support for gay liberation at Cornell and other schools in the years following Stonewall.
Yet the importance of college groups to gay liberation has been largely overlooked by LGBT historians, who either assume that the movement was born literally overnight following the riots or give too much credit to the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and other mainline homophile organizations, many of whose members were actually opposed to the greater militancy represented by Stonewall. In order to sharpen our understanding of the emergence of the gay liberation movement, I will trace the development of the gay rights groups at Columbia and particularly at Cornell, where the militant tactics of the campus antiwar and Black Power movements encouraged the university’s Student Homophile League to become more visible and more confrontational. The transition of Cornell’s SHL from focusing on civil liberties to advocating social and political liberation both reflected and contributed to the growing radicalism of the LGBT movement. (Beemyn 2003)
In this excerpt, we can clearly see the tensions between assimilation and separatism that existed in early activist groups; there was as yet no consensus regarding strategy. The separatist radicalism on display eventually became tempered with the desire for mainstream respectability, leading to the assimilationism of the latter twentieth century. Cosmopolitanism is always a work in progress, something that is held and constructed in common rather than conforming neatly to a public-private (false) dichotomy.
We will begin to discuss the history of male gender transgressors in public K-12 schools by surveying the large-scale sociocultural and political-economic trends in educational employment, with special reference to the seminal work of Jackie Blount in this field (Blount 1996, 1999, 2000, 2006). (We should also note that Blount cautions us that public discussion of homosexuality has traditionally been surrounded by silence and warded off by taboos, so the public record about the gender and sexual identity of teachers is highly fragmentary and elliptical as a result, leaving us with traces and palimpsests—here and there in pockets of remembrance and whispers out of time, as it were—to interpret.) Her compelling and convincing historical narrative seems to consist of three moments in a dialectic of sorts. The first period covers both the era in which the teaching profession was almost exclusively dominated by men (roughly 1800-1850) and the era when the gender balance of the field became almost entirely inverted from what it was before (about 1850-1910). During the mid-nineteenth century, the common school movement led to an expansion of the education profession, and when schools found themselves in need of an inexpensive labor supply, they turned to women as a source of cheap prospective employees (because, unfortunately, they could get away with paying women less). In this latter time period, the number of men in the profession decreased dramatically. As a result, new administrative positions, such as principals and superintendents, were created in order to attract men and retain them in the education profession with the promise of more money, lest they leave and join a more actively masculine line of work, one offering greater independence, social standing, and opportunities for promotion. It was mandated that the women who were to serve as teachers remain unmarried, because it was assumed that married women would be less loyal to their employer and their school because they would naturally devote more time and energy to their own children and families. “Old maids” and “spinsters” quickly began to dominate the profession to such a degree that the remaining men were gendered as effeminate in the popular imagination. Moreover, it was believed that even ostensibly masculine male teachers would be made effeminate by the proximity of women in school contexts.
In the second phase (about 1900-1930), education remained a feminine field, but younger unmarried women began to enter in much greater numbers. Interestingly, Blount refers to evidence indicating that a surprisingly large proportion of these teachers may have been (at least latent) lesbians, so education might have felt to them as something of a safe space. In the Depression / WWII era (1930-1945), however, the preference shifted to married teachers; schools both opened up the profession to married women and attempted to purge single women from their ranks precisely because of those fears of lesbianism surrounding “spinster” teachers. In the third phase (1945-2000), when anxieties that the preponderance of women teachers would lead to a generation of “sissy” boys, public opinion encouraged men to enter education once again so as to reassert masculine values and reinscribe traditional gender roles and norms. Blount notes the following conditions for male teachers during this period:
While the proportion of single to married women teachers drastically declined after WWII, conditions for male educators changed as well. Codes of properly masculine conduct and demeanor became tougher and narrower. Earlier in the twentieth century, somewhat effeminate men were considered undesirable for teaching positions in part because they were thought to provide poor role-modeling for young males. On the other hand, G. Stanley Hall argued in his widely read book, Adolescence, that properly masculine men hired to become teachers often became effeminate by working alongside women because such colleagues would cause them to “suffer some deterioration in the moral tone of their virility and lose in the power to cope successfully with men” (p. 623).
However, by mid-century effeminate men were also broadly considered to be homosexual, making matters even more complicated for male school workers. […] The possible presence of effeminate male teachers in schools, then, became a matter of public concern, it was argued because such teachers “carry sex problems into the schools, and transmit abnormal attitudes to their pupils” (Waller, 1932, pp. 147-149).
Making this situation potentially even more dire, conventional wisdom of the time also held that homosexual males were particularly drawn to a few professions, including teaching. Alfred Gross, author of the Strangers in Our Midst (1962), argued that:
Denied, through lack of wife and family, the satisfaction of home life, the homosexual must look more and more to his work to bring him what might in some sort compensate him for this deprivation. This may be a reason why some homosexuals, consciously or unconsciously, gravitate to professions that can give emotional satisfaction—teaching, social work, the ministry, and the like (p. 151).
Because homosexual men were thought to be particularly drawn to professions such as teaching, because conventional wisdom held that homosexual men could be identified by effeminate characteristics, and because one important role teachers were required to fulfill was to provide correct gender modeling for the children they taught, the 1950s and 1960s brought national campaigns to find the men to work in schools who reflected the most proper, respectable standards of masculinity for the time, i.e., seemingly heterosexual men. (Blount 2000)
As such, LGBTQA teachers constantly had to worry about the suspicion of the public and the state of their reputations (sometimes even going so far as to enter into so-called “lavender marriages” with other LGBTQA individuals), which were threatened by the aforementioned periodic moral panics. These panics sometimes expanded into full-blown witch hunts similar to or coextensive with those directed toward suspected communists in public employment. The most infamous of these campaigns was the Johns Committee in Florida during the 1950s and 1960s, which Karen Graves documented in her stunning book And They Were Wonderful Teachers (2009). This Florida Legislative Investigative Committee—named after Charley Eugene Johns, a state senator and former governor obsessed with rooting out supposed perverts—used covert informants (which often amounted to gossip or rumors from student testimonials), forced interrogations, and outright entrapment to publicly dismiss suspected or admitted LGBTQA educators on the flimsiest of evidence. By the end of the Committee’s reign of terror in 1965, over 39 college professors and deans were fired, and 71 public school teachers had their certificates revoked (Graves 2009). Of course, this is hardly the only such instance of the so-called Lavender Scare in the United States, and Graves actually suggests that more men and women lost their job for ostensible sexual deviance or perversion than for communist associations. Joseph McCarthy often reflexively associated communists with homosexuals during the Second Red Scare, attempting to smear his targets and enemies with guilt by association. And as late as the 1970s, the (resounding failure of the) Briggs Initiative in California—which was in turn inspired by Anita Bryant’s successfully “Save Our Children” campaign that repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida and other states—attempted to pass legislation that would have prevented LGBTQA educators from being employed in public schools, or for other teachers to make positive or even neutral statements about gay rights in school settings (Graves 2013). Indeed, if recent history teaches us anything, the principal result of a climate in which teachers cannot privately or publicly support LGBTQA students is bullying and ostracism so severe that some teens are driven to contemplate or commit suicide (Erdely 2012).
What also intrigues me, however, is that the pseudoscientific psychological arguments proffered by Alfred Gross in the above quote—in which gender transgressing men are figured as deprived deviants who lack emotional satisfaction and the fulfillment of family life, and who thus turn to and immerse themselves in the work of teaching as a compensatory measure—actually contain a grain of philosophical truth. As I argued with regard to the concept of queer time, schools very likely did afford in the past (and continue to provide in the present and future) male LGBTQA teachers with something of a “separatist existence away from cultures of hegemonic masculinity” in which they can “become custodians or guardians of high culture” with a “heightened appreciation for art, music, history, science, and literature and a concern for preserving and providing it for future generations.” The salient differences between my position and that of midcentury psychologists are that a) Gross depicts gay men as inherently isolated and lonely, whereas we are now well aware of the existence of thriving gay communities (at least in urban areas) and networks of sociality, and b) Gross places a negative spin on the lack of a traditional family structure, which I have attempted to present neutrally or give a positive twist, since this apparent lack can be transformed into a new form of desiring-production in educational theory and practice. Nonetheless, Gross’ argument may ring truer for gender transgressing men in rural or suburban settings, which are traditionally less tolerant—less cosmopolitan, as the word root of this adjective (polis) actually means “city”—than urban areas. Indeed, schools may well have served as surrogate families for gay men in the sprawling seclusion of the American Midwest.
Most of the available ethnographies, oral histories, monographs, and memoirs about gay male educators discuss this paradoxical tension between isolation and companionship. (Unfortunately, most of them fail to ask, or to answer, a very basic yet very important question: “What drew you to teaching as a career or as a calling?” This omission renders these studies far less useful than I had hoped.) On the one hand, some teachers feel forced to consciously switch the gender of their life partner when that person comes up in teachers’ lounge or classroom conversations; the effort of doing so becomes exhausting and induces anxiety over the possible price of slipping up. Some go so far as to withdraw from community life as much as possible in order to avoid being seen by students outside of school. On the other hand, such teachers feel that they are able to form stronger bonds with students—albeit still professional ones—because of the solidarity they feel with anyone else who is struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity. As a result, one of the common (if implicit and unspoken) themes running through all of their testimonials is that of vulnerability, which has both positive and negative effects. Vulnerability can be converted from a negative into a positive, however, by openly acknowledging it—essentially, by coming out of the closet. Publically sharing our vulnerabilities unites us, bringing us closer together rather than isolating us through private shame and fear.
In recent years, I have often heard authority figures, such as politicians and school administrators, urge men to enter the teaching profession so as to serve as positive role models or father figures for male students. Taken at literal or face value, I actually find this ideal to be fairly innocuous. After all, many male children do indeed lack alternative real-life models for adult masculinity—models in which masculinity is not opposed to the intellect or to emotional sensitivity and caring—outside of the reductive images proffered by popular culture, i.e., professional athletes, rappers, action heroes, etc. More problematic, however, is the idea that male teachers need to be ultra-masculine in order to serve as a bulwark against the creeping feminization of education and, indeed, against the supposed encroaching feminization of society as a whole. What this really amounts to is the equation of femininity with weakness. For example, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, conservative commentators in the media made the (unbelievably disgusting) argument that if there were more “traditionally masculine” male teachers present at the school (and especially at elementary schools in general instead of just middle and high schools), such as former athletes and members of the armed services, then they could have saved more lives or even stopped the shooter before he murdered more innocents. According to Charlotte Allen in the pages of the National Review,
There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K-6 school), all the personnel—the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist”—were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers. […] But in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm. Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak—but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza. (Allen 2012)
This is, of course, a totally vile and insulting line of “thinking,” but it many ways it remains sadly typical of hyper-masculinization as the flipside of the feminization of the teaching profession. In the eyes of too many adults, male gender transgressors have no place in schools or in society.
Similarly, this masculinist ideology was also made manifest on a local level post-Newtown when Butler County sheriff Richard K. Jones publicly proposed hiring retired police officers as armed substitute teachers for local school districts (Pack 2013). These veteran officers would be made exempt from school regulations concerning firearms—concealed or otherwise—and could thus serve to protect students and staff should an attempted school shooting occur. Notwithstanding that armed school resource officers have failed to prevent violence in the past (such as Columbine), this idea managed to insult me, a former substitute teacher, on two separate levels. First, Jones implied that absolutely anyone could do my job—presumably, he pictured it as consisting of showing videos and running study halls. As an experienced educator who led the instruction of regularly scheduled lessons most days as a substitute, I was genuinely offended by this suggestion. Second, Jones also insinuated that substitute teachers as a profession—most of whom are women, and many of whom are themselves retired educators—are insufficiently masculine to protect our students. When placed side by side, these arguments create an image of a world in which violence is inevitable, and only “manly men” have the power to combat it through further acts of violence. The deleterious effect on school culture and climate that would result from the implementation of Jones’ proposal should be obvious.
One of the most damaging consequences of this attitude is the pervasive silence surrounding LGBTQA educators. As noted above, those educators themselves feel compelled to maintain that silence by, essentially, denying their true identities and constructing / performing a false one for the public. The steep price of maintaining this facade is anxiety, depression, and a loss of satisfaction in one’s job (Sanlo 1999). Silence, then, is something we must loudly transgress against. As the AIDS awareness activist group ACT-UP put it so succinctly and eloquently in the 1980s, if “silence = death,” then “action = life.” In this context of escalating masculinization, gender-transgressing male educators are transgressors in the purest sense: these teachers subvert notions of manhood that equate it with strength and domination and replace them with an ethic of care.
Queer time belongs neither entirely to the private nor wholly to the public. Rather, queer time is a liminal state of being that ironizes this very separation between public and private spheres, as it binds together private, marginalized, and isolated individuals in the formation of new oppositional countercultures and counterpublics (a term coined by queer theorist Michael Warner)—which is something LGBTQA culture has always excelled at, at least with regard to sexual cultures (Warner 2005). Gender-transgressing male educators are one such counterpublic-in-becoming, one that has the potential to redefine our notions of what constitutes masculinity and the concept of a fulfilling life. LGBTQA teachers have abundantly demonstrated that one does not need to be married or have children to seek and find fulfillment; the surplus-enjoyment and desiring-production of education as a form of care and as a kind of cultural labor is satisfaction enough. More than a mere surrogate family, the classroom is a “queer space” in which “queer time” disrupts social reproduction, opening up instead possibilities of teacher-student activism for social justice.
I would like to suggest, tentatively and provisionally, that the subjective experience of queer time is in many ways synonymous with the subjective experience of learning as such. In 2013, I wrote the following:
If education as an institution is to avoid becoming an anachronism, then our pedagogy must become actively, deliberately anachronistic in its essence.
[…] I mean the word anachronism very literally—“against time,” as in the “untimeliness” suggested by Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy. This kind of anachronism can be seen in the time-less anachronism of literary modernism (such as T.S. Eliot’s “still point of the turning world”), the deep arche-time of the sciences, or perhaps the contemplative time-zone of the monastic tradition. It is akin to a Platonic archetypal form or the Hegelian absolute—a truth or “eternal idea” that is orthogonal, not retrograde, to the passing of time, and which can only be uncovered through a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation. (Pate 2013)
Queer time is exactly this: “a clockless, analogue suspension of time’s flow, a dissolution of it in the moment of contemplation.” Gender-transgressing men are thus “keepers of culture” in the purest sense, acting as guardians of art and antiquity. But ironically, although schools have never been friendlier (or at least less hostile) to LGBTQA teachers and students, the walls are closing in on queer time. This Deleuzian “intensive space” is being encroached upon by the (re)territorializing forces of standardization, high-stakes testing, and educational technology, turning it into a “metric space” in which a factory model of education—lean production plus Frederick Taylor’s scientific management—can be fully implemented (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). The relentless digital quantification of time in schools militates against queer time, against the suspension and dissolution of time that is at the heart of learning as such.
So what is to be done if we wish to halt this capitalist enclosure of education? I would argue that gender transgressing male teachers not only need to be as open and uncloseted as possible, but also should work to connect their own struggles—against heterosexism—to broader movements of social justice activism: labor politics, feminism, racial equality, etc. As E.M. Forster—another gay writer well-versed in aesthetic queer time—famously wrote, we must “only connect” with each other. And in John Ashbery’s words, we feel “too confined, / Sifting the April sunlight for clues, / In the mere stillness of the ease of its / Parameter” if we allow ourselves to be socially isolated from our communities. Gender transgressors must return to the public, cosmopolitan, celebratory “balconies”—the kind of vantage, for instance, from which one might watch and cheer on a gay pride parade—wherein “all things happen,” rather than resume our actions within alienated, separatist private spheres in which “the action is the cold, syrupy flow / Of a pageant.” LGBTQA teachers must embrace the negative capability—the contingency, uncertainty, and doubt—that is at the heart of teaching and learning: “The hand holds no chalk / And each part of the whole falls off / And cannot know it knew” (Ashbery 2008). It is a queer time, a queer space, a point at which the private, individual politics of authenticity transform into a radical public dimension of collective joy.
Thank you to Dr. Karen L. Graves for sharing with me the fruits of her extensive bibliographic research, and to Dr. Kate Rousmaniere for her thoughtful advice and continual support of my graduate studies and career.
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