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Pedagogy 2.3 (2002) 311-335

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Coming-Out Pedagogy:
Risking Identity in Language and Literature Classrooms

Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Debra A. Moddelmog

Most scholarship about coming out in the classroom has focused on the act of making visible an identity that has been largely invisible, discredited, or ignored in the academy. For example, gay and lesbian teachers have talked about how, when, and why they come out to students, arguing that such disclosures are necessary for pedagogical as well as political reasons. 1 As Harriet Malinowitz puts it, "By coming out to my students and inserting a lesbian and gay discourse into the class, I am divesting those students of their ignorance and their entitlement to prejudice, and am investing them with responsibility to negotiate meanings" (qtd. in Elliott 1996: 706). In the field of disability studies, too, scholar-teachers have begun to talk about how and why to claim a disability identity rather than remain silent about one's body and ability in the classroom. 2 Although the coming-out conversations in gay and lesbian studies and disability studies have obvious differences (a gay identity and a disability identity are not ultimately analogous), they share a number of points, not the least of which is their interest in exploring the connection of traditionally discredited identities to a larger historical and political picture of the fit citizen and thus the fit teacher. Besides affording teachers an opportunity to reverse the societal process of silencing and shaming that often haunts gays, lesbians, and disabled people, these two conversations reveal a reciprocal relationship between the bodies of scholarship and the body of the teacher. In other words, these conversations demonstrate how a field of study provides knowledge, discourse, recognition, and a political context for expressing [End Page 311] particular identities in the classroom; at the same time, the expression of these identities produces knowledge, discourse, recognition, and a political context for a field of study.

The act of disclosing a historically abject identity in the classroom has had significant pedagogical consequences as well. It has called into question traditional expectations of the kind of knowledge that can be shared with students, thereby redrawing the lines between the intellectual and the personal, the sanctioned and the taboo, the academic and the experiential. It has also given the teacher a body, and not only a performing body but one that functions (or does not function) in physical, erotic, passionate, and sensual ways. Of course, teachers have always had bodies; with the advent of feminist, ethnic, and race studies, it has been increasingly easy to acknowledge and discuss the teacher's body in the classroom. The work of gay and lesbian studies and of disability studies in connection with the body has obviously benefited from the work of feminism, critical race studies, ethnic studies, and multiculturalism. However, the work of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and now queer studies and the work of disability studies have also extended and complicated the ways that we now think about bodies, including the teacher's body.

For instance, both queer theory and disability studies have enriched thinking about teachers' bodies by challenging essentialist notions of the body and identity. Drawing on poststructuralist ideas about subject formation, queer theory and disability studies propose that the body and identity are not synonymous and that both are socially constructed. Such an approach consequently confounds the act of coming out in the classroom. Without a coherent, foundational, permanent sense of identity, how does one come out? What exactly does one come out as? In other words, how does one disclose an identity that is always conditional and that exists only in relation to other conditional identities? It is this troubling of identity, and the conditional body onto which identity is read, that we focus on in this essay as we attempt to explain how we simultaneously come out and "pass," how we present and perform our identities in the classroom. That is, we are concerned with how identities that we have been socially assigned but that are, paradoxically, largely invisible...