Queering the Classroom

by Ari X

I first encountered queer theory when I was 16 and the only trans student on my competitive
debate team. By the time I graduated high school, I had drilled hours of scholarship from Judith Butler to
José Esteban Muñoz into rote memory. Queer theory became an introduction to the boundless worlds
shaped by queer artists and performance as Vaginal Davis and Lauren Berlant both became household
names. My love for queer scholarship let me foster a home in an institution where I felt ever-isolated by
my queerness and my transness. By the time I started teaching queer and trans studies in the curricular
margins of education, the high school students I worked with found solace in these same authors.
It is one arduous, hair-pulling task to navigate hundreds of pages of dense critical literature as a
high school student, but to teach queer theory at a time where queerness in education hangs in legislative
limbo is another world of transformation. For high school students interested in exploring queer theory,
the dense and comparatively-radical nature of these texts is a significant barrier to accessibility. For queer
students particularly, the exhaustion of reading scholarship that feels so personal is attritional. This
exhaustion gnaws at your bones over late nights spent annotating pessimistic literature. Each conclusion
you reach at the end of another paragraph-long rhetorical question seemingly disappears at the flip of a

It can be an isolating experience for queer students without institutional academic support to
navigate critical queer literature, which is why I write this reflection-guide in an attempt to help educators
and students alike in their work with queer theory. With support and encouragement, queer theory can
inspire engagement from students and provide a source of critical thought as students meditate on their
own journeys of queerness.

1. There may be crying. Happy and sad tears alike. A student I worked with in the fall cried because they
struggled with Lee Edelman. Later, in the spring, the same student confidently analyzed a series of
feminist anti-colonial texts they selected from their independent research. In my experience, emotion is a
cornerstone of education that is too-frequently stigmatized in the traditional classroom. The crying student
is stigmatized, chastised, and failed in a classroom that does not make space for their reactions. In
working with literature that is proximate to the everyday traumas and violences queer youth face,
educators should broaden students’ application of learning beyond their teacher. Optimally, students will
feel comfortable enough sharing their emotions in the classroom. However, in instances where students
need to leave the room after reaching emotional conclusions or reconciling with traumatic experiences in
their reading, the teacher, as the traditional arbiter of grading, should be able to identify at least one other
adult queer youth can work through their lessons with. Especially for queer youth without parental or
familial support, inviting the support of other educators, counselors, or coaches de-centers the power
dynamic of the educator and the student in learning queer theory.

Similarly, teachers can incorporate personal conversations and emotional response as part of
understanding queer theory. Educators can create a more flexible curriculum for queer youth by
incorporating shorter texts, manifestos, or excerpts from poets and secondary authors that center the
emotional and analytical critiques and interpretations of queer theorists. For example, pairing a chapter of
Marquis Bey’s Black Trans Feminism with Cameron Awkward-Rich’s “Essay on the Theory of Motion”
provides an analytical groundwork in the former for students to approach and process their emotions
while reading the latter. Inviting spaces of quiet in discussion, meaningful pauses, and leaving the room
without needing permission are all community norms students can develop with an educator to
destigmatize and celebrate the emotional labor of queering the learning from queer theory.

2. Invite the organic. At the start of teaching a course on gender performance, I expected students to dive
through pages of studies and critique while also working on an original work of performance art for their
final evaluation. Students often instead drew from what they had seen on social media last night, or
conversations with their parents at home about their readings – subjects that were unexpected, but still
connected to what they were learning. Queer theory invites a fluidity to assessment that rarely appears in
traditional education – lectures and quizzes reinforce rote memorization of names and concepts, reducing
theory to abstract without inviting students to discuss applications of their learning. I invited each student
to bring in a “gender journal” each class, where they could write (or draw) an experience with gender
performativity that they reflected on while doing their assigned reading the night prior. Students often
spent over a quarter of class time each day talking about their gender journals. I struggled at first with the
urge to dismiss these conversations as the banal chatter before “real class” – but as Fred Moten and
Stefano Harney write in The Undercommons, “when we enter a classroom and we refuse to call it to order,
we are allowing study to continue, dissonant study perhaps, disorganized study, but study that precedes
our call and will continue after we have left the room.”1

This is the “real class.” Their organic conversations shaped my assessment as I invited students to
perform camp as an assignment, draw a queer family tree, and play nuclear-family-musical-chairs. Their
discussions always shifted to the assigned texts eventually, drawing on page numbers and quotes without
being prompted. When a student was harmed, whether by an educator or another student, solutions were
similarly organic. “This class is my family,” one student told me while working to reconcile another
student’s actions. Rather than competition in graded marks, discussion-based learning invites educators to
rethink how students learn best, and similarly, how students can teach others. By the end of the course,
students had used these organic conversations to reimagine their gender identities and begin difficult
conversations with family about generational trauma and healing. Their application of queer theory had
reached far beyond the scope of the classroom, because they had begun their learning outside of what they considered “the classroom.”

3. Find joy in teaching – and learning. Burnout is the specter of education. It is an awful feeling, as a
queer student, and a queer educator, to wake up and realize that I do not want to learn about something
that interests me. I felt ashamed of my burnout because I could not continue to produce or to find merit in
my work. I found myself watching the clock instead of my students at times. In these moments of friction,
I find that the joy of students is a wonderful way to ground myself and learn from those I have had the
honor and pleasure to share a classroom with. I invited students to correct me, introduce alternate
interpretations, and share related videos, conversations, or even memes they found outside of class. Those
moments of laughter, where the classroom lights up with queer learning – these are moments where I am
a student, learning how to find joy in the classroom. We need to treasure these brief, fleeting dashes of
queer joy: the laughter and learning of queer youth is queer theory in motion.

1 Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York:
Minor Compositions: 2013), 8.