Coming Out, Crossing Over to the internet

Posted: September 24, 2010 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Today I’d like to talk about two articles I have read. The first is “Coming out and Crossing over: Identity Formation and Proclamation in a Transgender Community” by Patricia Gagne, Richard Tewksbury, and Deanna McGaughy. The second is “Out of the Closet and Into the Network: Sexual Orientation and the Computerized Classroom” by Jonathan Alexander. I chose to do these two together because they seem to have pretty obvious similarities. Also, coincidentally, they were both published in 1997.

But let’s talk about Gagne’s article first. They very quickly get to the point, telling us that “The dominant Western system of gender has made it difficult for those whose gender falls somewhere between or outside the binary system to understand and accept themselves or to be recognized as socially legitimate” (479). This seems pretty obvious. It’s hard to handle it when you don’t identify as male or female, but rather as some third (or fourth or fifth) category, one that is either some combination of the two or is a distinct departure from both.Gender identity is a tough thing to handle. It’s also one of the most important parts of personal identity. And for those who find themselves outside the binary, it’s a very difficult thing to handle. As they write, “gender – and we would argue, gender identity – is learned and achieved at the interactional level, reified at the cultural level, and institutionally enforced via the family, law, religion, politics, economy, medicine, and the media. Gender identity is established early in life” (479). In other words, there’s a lot of pressure to establish an identity, and most (if not all) of this pressure tries to force people into the binary.

For those few who find themselves outside the binary, and are brave enough to try to live that way, there are communities online they can take part in. These communities can help them learn to ‘pass’ as the other gender (a phrase ripe with binary underpinning). Gagne et al. suggest that these communities are in a constant state of flux. According to them, “Often, after learning to pass and completing the transformation process, transsexuals dropped out of the transgender community and assumed their place as women in society” (501). My own research into online transgender sites suggests otherwise; that people who have been through it tend to stick around in order to give advice or support to those who are still going through it. But now is not the time to make that particular argument. I need to do more research first.

Gagne et al. understand the difficulty of those who live outside the binary. As they write, “the recognition, exploration, establishment, and final resolution of an identity outside cultural understandings is a difficult, complex, and for some, impossible process” (504). No doubt it is difficult to live life as a permanent ‘other’ in virtual every situation. This is why “the overwhelming majority of transgendered individuals adhere to traditional conceptualizations of sex and gender” (504); once they are able to ‘pass’ as a part of that binary, people tend to slide back into it. Which is kind of a negative thing, I think. Almost as if they’re suggesting that those who are outside the binary just need to ‘fix’ what is ‘wrong’ with them so that they can fit. That resonated badly with me.

So let’s move on to Alexander’s article about coming out of the closet. The important thing to note about this article is that it’s not just an abstract commentary on sexuality and gender, but rather a largely anectodal examination of how these issues affect the classroom.

Alexander says that “considering the cultural weight given to sexuality, composition classes are excellent forums for discussion of the ways in which talking and writing about sexual orientation is tantamount to talking and writing about our selves” (208). Alexander is pointing out that these are important issues, and that by examining those issues, and how we feel about them, we are actually examining who we are as people, and what our values are.

These discussions offer a lot of freedom for members of these groups. “traditionally marginalized gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals can find information, voice, and community, allowing them to create bonds with others to reinforce their gay subject position and contribute to each others’ sense of identity through communal support and understanding” which may seem a difficult thing to do in a public forum, but as Alexander points out, “networked discussions that allow for the use of pseudonyms or anonymous contributions can play a particularly important role in helping homosexual students explore the possibility of speaking as gays and lesbians” (209). Because they don’t have to reveal their true identity in these computerized discussions, students don’t necessarily have to ‘come out’ to their classmates, but can still feel free to make their opinions known.

This is not the only benefit of pseudonyms. A pseudonym also “allows curious students to perform subject positions different from the ones they deploy and are subject to outside the classroom” (210). Online, we really can ‘walk in someone else’s shoes,’ taking on another identity, even temporarily, to try to understand other positions. They can think in new ways that they might be uncomfortable with were it not for the safety blanket of anonymity.

And, Alexander tells us, it is successful. He says that “Students can begin to understand that sexual orientation is not just something that ‘happens’ to gays and lesbians, but is the complex intersection of a variety of social and personal forces that come together and shape how all of us – gay and straight – think of ourselves and our sexual identities” (210). So people are able to better identify with these groups, and better understand them, and apply that very understanding to an examination of their own selves.

Alexander talks about interesting ways to engage in this kind of exploration. He suggests roleplaying in a world where homosexuality is the norm, and heterosexuality is treated the way it is treated in our world (212-213). And it seems to be effective. Alexander tells us that “a little role-playing can go a long way in getting students to think more critically about how all identity, and particularly identity related to sexual orientation, is socially constructed, construed, and controlled” (212). This is not to say that sexual orientation is socially constructed; it’s saying that the way those identities are treated, accepted or shunned, is culturally constructed. In other words, that there is nothing “wrong” with homosexuality, it’s just that our culture has somehow convinced people that it is.

I like that message. It’s a great place to stop.

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