Teaching Trans Vocation

In the final chapter of Leslie Feinberg‘s 1993 novel, Stone Butch Blues, Jess Goldberg, the novel’s trans protagonist, attends a lesbian and gay political rally in New York City. As Jess listens to the speakers testify to the oppression they have experienced, she realizes, “This is what courage is. It’s not just living through the nightmare, it’s doing something with it afterward. It’s being brave enough to talk about it to other people. It’s trying to organize to change things.” This encounter sparks Jess’s queer calling, one that allows students who read the novel to see their gender and sexual identities as playing important roles in the discernment of their vocations.

As this scene unfolds, the speakers embolden Jess. “I felt so sick to death of my own silence that I needed to speak too,” she admits. “I just needed to open my throat for once, and hear my own voice.” Overcoming years of shame and isolation, she climbs to the stage and shares her story. In her desire to be part of something larger than herself, Jess voices her fear that the lesbian and gay community won’t accept her as transgender, and feels a rush of relief when they do.

To say this scene represents a dramatic unfolding of trans vocation is an understatement. As she breaks her silence, Jess articulates her identity and sense of purpose within a communal context, cultivating agency in her emerging commitment to political transformation. When she later accepts a friend’s invitation to work as a union organizer, Jess further integrates her trans identity into a professional calling, one that the novel posits will set the stage for Jess’s thriving.

Teaching this novel is just one way in which I’ve sought to support the vocational exploration of trans students. As it traces Jess’s discoveries about trans identity and queer community, often in spite of the larger world’s indifference and hostility, Stone Butch Blues affirms the particularities of students’ own queerness—the questions they have about their own identities and embodiments, their hopes and desires, and their emerging commitments and obligations to community—even as it also complicates any simple understanding of these issues. By teaching this novel and others, we can expand our pedagogical repertoire in the teaching of vocation to better support the flourishing of our trans students.

First and foremost, our trans students must experience our classrooms as hospitable spaces that integrate their entire selves, explicitly embracing their gender and sexual identities as meaningful sites of knowledge. Central to this embrace is the respectful use of language to support their self-understanding and membership in our campus and classroom communities. As trans studies scholar Z Nicolazzo suggests, professors can take steps like not calling roll from the official roster but rather allowing students to introduce and name themselves and identify their pronouns. We must then respect and use their language, and we must not only interrupt, respond to, and redirect trans- and queer-phobic antagonisms, but also work to highlight trans knowledge and content in ways appropriate to the contexts in which we teach.

This radical hospitality and integration of content is especially important in courses fostering vocational exploration. It’s essential to give trans students space to reflect on and affirm their own identity formations as embodied queer people. One of my favorite assignments asks students to read a variety of LGBTQIA+ coming out stories and then write a version of their own. Students narrate a key moment in which they came to understand some facet of their sexuality or gender identity, or disclosed this understanding to other people in their lives. (This assignment also works for non-queer students, who can write about an identity that might be similarly shrouded in secrecy and shame, or reflect critically on when and how they came into their own understanding of their non-queer sexual or gender identities and how they relate to their life’s purpose.)

As trans identities have become more visible and salient, this assignment has necessarily evolved in relation to the particularities of trans experience that are distinct from those of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or other queer sexualities. Many trans students often do experience significant moments in which they discover or realize a gender identity that might not match the sex or gender they were assigned at birth, yet as they live out their gender identities, they navigate the disclosure of these identities differently. Since many trans students may transition and modify their gender expression, they may not desire to come out and visibly identify as trans. Their desire may be to simply live purposefully as the man or woman that they are.

The emergence of trans identities that defy our more rigid binaries—like non-binary, genderqueer, or genderfluid identities—also require us to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to be transgender and how students explore and manifest their gender and sexuality identities in different ways. Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic memoir, Gender Queer, for example, relates Kobabe’s personal journey to identify as non-binary and asexual, offering poignant insight into these identities and their relation to larger questions of vocation.

Regardless of the identities that our trans students embrace, these readings and assignments invite all students to reflect more fully on their journeys to understand these intimate facets of themselves. They let students know that we take their gender and sexual identities seriously in connection with their emerging sense of life’s purpose and community commitments.

Telling these stories is just the first step, though. In a course I teach on “Queer Justice,” I move students out from their own narratives of identity formation into the history of queer resistance, much of which is rooted in trans or gender nonconforming queer embodiment and experience. Martin Duberman’s narrative history of the Stonewall Riots provides students with often startling insight into the role that trans people, especially drag queens, played in confronting police brutality, and the impact such action had on them. Trans activist Sylvia Rivera felt that the riots liberated her. “Something lifted off my shoulders,” she reflected afterwards, unleashing her activism to support trans youth and make the world a safer, more welcoming space for them.

As I write this post from where I live and teach in Colorado—in the immediate aftermath of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs and the Denver Archdiocese’s discriminatory targeting of trans students and same-sex parents—Rivera’s call to such work remains painfully urgent fifty years later. “To be trans in America in 2022,” a reporter from the Denver Post reminds us, “is to wake up each day thrust into activism, voluntary or not, to fight for your right to exist—to fight for your life.”

For the trans and queer students in our classrooms, what we teach and how we teach it in our courses on vocation matter greatly in this fight. As educators, how can we not support their struggle to survive and thrive, to flourish and cultivate lives of purpose and meaning? Creating courses and classroom environments that are hospitable to these forms of queer difference is essential to this fight and to our collective well-being.

For further reading: On queerness and vocation, see Queer Embodiment and Coming Out into Vocation. See also Hannah Schell’s interview with Jonathan Coley, author of Gay on God’s Campus.

Geoffrey W. Bateman is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University. In 2017, he participated in NetVUE’s inaugural faculty seminar on “Teaching Vocational Exploration.” His scholarship on vocation includes “Queer Callings: LGBTQ Literature and Vocation” in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies and a forthcoming essay, “Queer Vocation and the Uncommon Good.” To read more blog posts by Geoffrey, click here.

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