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  • "(Un)Covering" in the Classroom:Managing Stigma Beyond the Closet
  • Jonathan Branfman (bio)


"covering" stigmatized identities

While many instructors closet stigmatized identities, others downplay them—a tactic that sociologist Erving Goffman terms "covering." What are the personal, ethical, and pedagogical costs of covering? What are the gains? How can feminist university instructors cover stigmatized identities without fueling oppressive respectability politics against their own communities?

These are the questions that confront me as an openly gay university instructor, as well as nearly all teachers who do not fit what Audre Lorde calls "the mythical norm": "white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure" (11). Any instructor outside this narrow norm, as well as those who are not able-bodied and neurotypical, cisgender, and native-born citizens of the countries where they teach, may face pressures to cover in the classroom. To help navigate these challenges, I propose a "pedagogy of uncovering": strategically covering to gain students' respect, and later explicitly "uncovering" to help students deconstruct the very respectability politics that make covering exigent.

I am fortunate to teach in a progressive setting where coming out as gay does not instantly discredit me in the eyes of most students. However, even once I am "out," I find that students take me more seriously when I pitch my voice in a deeper register, minimize my hand gestures, and avoid gay buzzwords like "fabulous." In other words, covering has pedagogical value for me: Even when I state my gay identity, and even when I specifically teach about LGBTQIA1 topics, I find that students take me most seriously when I censor my speech and behavior to avoid culturally constructed markers of gayness. I worry that if I let myself come off as more stereotypically gay, students will interpret me as a trivial amusement rather than a real person with real knowledge to share. And if students dismiss me this way, how can I effectively challenge their stereotypes about LGBTQIA people or encourage them to critically analyze the notion of essentialist gender, sexuality, race, class, and ability categories? From this perspective, [End Page 72] I often find that my ability to effectively teach about these topics rests paradoxically on my ability not to seem "too gay"—that is, too stereotypically "flamboyant." Below, I explore this contradiction and possible pedagogical solutions, drawing on Erving Goffman and Kenji Yoshino's analyses of "covering," Evelyn Higginbotham's work on respectability politics, and Karen Yescavage and Jonathan Alexander's "pedagogy of marking."

I believe the "pedagogy of uncovering" may serve teachers who experience any and all forms of oppression, not only gay men like myself who access white privilege. Though teachers of many different stigmatized identities may experience the pressures and losses of covering, it is vital to avoid simplistic analogies between social categories like sexual orientation, race, gender, disability, class, or religion. As women of color feminists like Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Chela Sandoval have argued since at least the 1970s, such analogies risk erasing the voices and struggles of people who simultaneously experience multiple oppressions. In bell hooks's words, "to make synonymous the experience of homophobic aggression with racial oppression deflects attention away from the particular dual dilemma that non-white gay people face, as individuals who confront both racism and homophobia" (25). Furthermore, the common twenty-first century slogan that "gay rights is the new civil rights" feeds the harmful and false believe that the racial civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s actually ended structural or interpersonal racism in the United States. Additionally, scholars like Siobhan Somerville, Sander Gilman, and Scott Morgensen have demonstrated how the very notion of sexual orientation emerged from racializing discourses, especially discourses on Indigenous Americans, African women, and Ashkenazi Jewish men.

Therefore, when I argue that teachers from many oppressed communities may find the pedagogy of uncovering useful, I am not implying that being gay is separate from or parallel to experiences like being Native American and/or Muslim and/or deaf. Rather, I am arguing that teachers who belong to one or more such marginalized communities may face similar pressures to strategically...


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pp. 72-82
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