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"RainBOWS IN THE PAST WERE GAY": LGBTQIA IN THE WC

Andrew J. Rihn
Stark State College
arihn@starkstate.edu

Jay D. Sloan
Kent State University—Stark Campus
jdsloan@kent.edu

 

“The point is not to stay marginal, but to participate in whatever network of marginal zones is spawned from other disciplinary centers and which, together, constitute a multiple displacement of those authorities.”
-Judith Butler

In their 2009 article “The Queer Turn in Composition Studies: Reviewing and Assessing an Emerging Scholarship,” Jonathan Alexander and David Wallace describe the state of LGBTQIA/queer studies in the field of rhetoric and composition.  They note the “inclusion of articles and essays on queerness often pales in comparison to inclusion of material on race and gender” (317), and while this queered literature is “emerging,” it remains “spotty at best” (302).  The same can be said, we believe, for similar scholarship in the field of writing centers.  Prefiguring our own feelings, they write

Although we are proud to participate in a scholarly and pedagogical tradition that takes diversity seriously, we also feel a profound sense of disappointment each time we read the latest book or journal article in which a theorist or researcher whose work we respect takes on the knotty questions of how identity issues such as gender, race, and class affect the teaching and learning of writing but fails to address sexual identity or, in many cases, even to acknowledge it in passing (301). 

We begin with this quote from notable queer theorists because we experience the same paradox: feeling both pride and disappointment in our field.  Writing center workers have also taken diversity seriously and this commitment has guided serious inquiries into, and re-evaluations of, both our theory and our practice.  And yet amidst our critical discussions of structural inequalities related to topics such as sex, race, class, and dis/ability, the discussion relating to sexual identity has been, to say the least, light. 

It is our view that an unconscious ideological bias toward heteronormativity has dominated writing center scholarship, unintentionally but effectively winnowing out sexual identity as a subject for sustained reflection and interrogation.  In “Composing Queers: The Subversive Potential of the Writing Center,” undergraduate writing associate Stephen Doucette notes the “lack of archival memory and validity for LGBTQ history” within the field of writing center studies (10), and our own pursuit of such a history confirms this absence.  In reviewing over thirty years of scholarship, we found only fourteen articles with sufficiently meaningful discussions of LGBTQIA topics to merit inclusion in our annotated bibliography.  Of these fourteen articles, less than half make the alignment of LGBTQIA concerns and writing center work their primary focus; others include only brief narratives, some as short as a paragraph or two, of LGBTQIA tutors or directors in writing centers.  It is also worth noting that such scholarship is a recent trend; only two of the fourteen articles were published before 2000. How do we account for such paucity of scholarship, especially within an academic community whose one-to-one pedagogy encourages the habit of taking up difficult, even intimate, issues?  Why this failure to address sexual identity when writing centers, often occupying marginal spaces on their campuses themselves, have long identified with and catered to marginalized and at-risk students?  Why, on this topic, have we been relatively silent? 

This article, designed to serve as a companion piece to our annotated bibliography (see Appendix), aims to bring our failure to address sexual identity into the light, where we can all acknowledge and examine it.  LGBTQIA/queer studies is not simply a field for LGBTQIA people; rather, it is a way of reading the world that benefits society in general by critically examining the functions of heteronormativity and homophobia and their effects on how we view and use identity (Alexander and Wallace 301).  You don’t have to be LGBTQIA-identified to be an ally, nor to utilize queer theory.  Issues surrounding sexual identity are inclusive of us all, and the blunting effect of heteronormativity stunts everyone’s potential.  Many readers, we imagine, will not need to be convinced; they will already be well aware of LGBTQIA presences in their centers and may already understand, appreciate, and deploy queer theory.  For these readers, hopefully our article and bibliography will in some way speak to shared feelings of disappointment and perhaps give voice to unspoken frustrations.  A few readers might find themselves more resistant, perhaps from an entrenched sense of heteronormativity or a defensive enactment of heterosexual privilege.  More likely, we suspect, a large number of readers will feel torn in two directions: on the one hand, curious about the application of queer theory in writing centers and desirous to be inclusive and mindful of LGBTQIA concerns, but on the other hand, unsure of how to begin approaching those concerns, perhaps feeling somehow inadequate to the task, not “queer enough” to speak with authority on these topics.  For those readers, we hope this article provides a particularly instructive place to start. 

To properly discuss and effectively advocate for the productive intersections of LGBTQIA/queer studies and the writing center, this article is divided into five sections.  The first contains an explication of our title and then briefly outlines the formation of the LGBTQ Special Interest Group (SIG) within the IWCA.  The second section offers some general definitions for readers who may be new to LGBTQIA/queer studies.  In the third section, we highlight a few instances of heteronormativity within writing center scholarship.  From there, the fourth section grounds our annotated bibliography in a contextualizing discussion based on the work of Alexander and Wallace.  In the final section, we suggest that writing centers are uniquely positioned sites for the examination of sexual identity and urge the writing center community to continue and extend this conversation with a call for further investigations.

Dissonance and a “Curious Silence”

The title for our essay is taken from an odd fragment of conversation, a “Reader’s Comment” we discovered tucked away in the December 1988 issue of The Writing Lab Newsletter (see Figure 1) discussing the Newsletter’s use of colored paper.  Though we do not know the author’s original intent, a “straight” reading suggests that Taylor simply meant “The multi-colored paper was pleasant,” which is likely how the majority of WLN readers in 1988 took it.  However, the text now evokes a palpable dissonance, for the term “gay” has multiple potential meanings: happy or pleasant on the one hand, homosexual (often male) on the other.  “Rainbows,” in the context of the quote, refer to the multi-colored paper on which the WLN was originally printed.  However, rainbows (particularly rainbow flags) have also been a symbol of LGBTQIA pride since the late 70s.  Read today, words like “rainbows” and “gay,” and even “pink” or “brightly colored,” take on secondary, “queered” meanings, especially as they are contrastive and not compatible with the “boring” and easily reproducible.  Taylor’s words now leap off the page as playful, ambiguous, and strikingly funny.

Figure 1: Comment from December 1998 Issue of The Writing Lab Newsletter

 

That two such readings are possible is likely obvious to contemporary readers; indeed, the inability to ignore or overlook its queered perspective is one element that makes this example useful.  In maintaining these simultaneous readings, readers may experience a sense of dissonance.  With many texts, however, where queer content remains obscured or hidden, this simultaneity is not the case.  Furthermore, if readers are fundamentally enmeshed in heteronormative discourse, alternative readings of a given text may remain unknown, even unknowable.  For readers sufficiently attuned to LGBTQIA discourses, however, alternative or queered readings will present themselves.  Readers then have to choose, depending on context, which meaning to privilege, or, if utilizing more complex reading practices, to sustain both simultaneously, allowing one to play off of, or perhaps subvert, the other.  Dissonance results from the rattling together of these simultaneous readings: from tensions, anxieties, and even conflicts that may go unresolved.  

A second element that makes this “Reader’s Comment” useful is that while in close enough proximity to create dissonance, there is a gulf between the two readings large enough to engender a sense of alienation: the first reading (“straight”) is not inclusive of the second (“queered”).  In this comment, we see a rare use of the word “gay” in writing center discourse, and yet it does not appear to refer to LGBTQIA communities, illustrating a profound, if unintentional, disconnect.  For us, this is suggestive of how a discursive vacuum can be enacted around LGBTQIA communities.  To eyes not trained to see or even look for queerness, the world is read from a singular, “straight” point of view, foreclosing engagement with, and validation of, LGBTQIA communities.  Rather than embracing reductive or alienating readings, whether intentional or not, queered readings bring the multiplicity of simultaneous meanings to the forefront.  Our dissonant reading, then, stems from, but also alerts us to, the erasure or elision of such multiplicities, the lack of recognition of a world we know to exist. 

The potential of a queered understanding is not solely or necessarily positive, of course.  The term “gay” is also frequently used as a pejorative; the put-down “That’s so gay” is widespread, especially among younger people on our campuses, and perhaps in our centers.  Thus, an alternative reading of the remark “the rainbows in the past were gay” could be read negatively, spoken with a dismissive or hostile tone.  As writing center workers, we recognize the power everyday language has in effecting very real consequences; for LGBTQIA communities, homophobic rhetoric represents a range of very real threats.  The very impetus for our inquiry here, in fact, emerged as a direct result of discussions on the WCenter listserv following media coverage of the all-too-familiar pattern of homophobic discourse leading to tragedy: in this case, the September 2010 suicide of Rutgers undergraduate, Tyler Clementi.  As many readers will remember, Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam to capture Clementi kissing another man, and then disclosed that information among his circle of friends.  Three days later, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. 

On October 8, 2010, Harry Denny wrote a post to WCenter entitled “A Curious Silence and a Longish Response,” in which he asked his fellow writing center colleagues “if/when/how” they intended “to respond to this issue at our campus writing centers.”  Feeling the need to “do *something*, to not remain silent,” Denny noted that he had turned to his own staff, “a crew filled with young people Tyler’s age, but also sprinkled with those sharing his search for safety and sense of self, complicated by sexuality, race, gender, class, nationality, ability—and ask[ed] them to think about the Tylers in our midst.”  Noting the “ heartening, but also muted” reaction of the media, Denny encouraged us to view the tragedy not as a singular or isolated incident, but as the result of more subtle and widespread social practices aimed at LGBTQIA communities.  “The harassment and bullying and their escalation and culmination around Tyler were extreme forms of the usual fare that people experience — that most come to tolerate and cope with as a grudging cost of existing in an otherwise often hostile world.”  In noting this, Denny shifted focus from the “extreme forms” of harassment Clementi suffered to the “everyday ugliness” that doesn’t garner national headlines.  It was the “curious silence” around such everyday aggressions directed toward LGBTQIA communities, then, which led him to talk to his staff about “how it happens in the local, in the ‘smaller’ world that we inhabit and how we/I might intervene.”

In the exchanges that followed on WCenter, many in the writing center community rose to the challenge presented by Denny, sharing not only their personal reactions to the tragedy, but also their professional efforts to engage their own staffs in useful, transformative discourse.  When Jay Sloan suggested that “perhaps it is time to take a cue from the Anti-Racism SIG and form one to address LGBTQ concerns,” it took only a few days for Roberta Kjesrud, then President of the International Writing Centers Association, to schedule a meeting time, and for leaders to step forward to organize a new LGBTQ SIG at the forthcoming November 2010 IWCA/NCPTW joint conference in Baltimore.  It was during that first meeting that the idea for this annotated bibliography developed. The SIG went on to create a listserv, and subsequently met at both the IWCA and NCPTW conferences in 2012.   Thankfully, there is now at least one permanent venue within the writing center community dedicated specifically to moving beyond the “curious silence” that too often attends LGBTQIA issues.

“LGBTQIA,” “Queer Theory,” and “Heteronormativity”

We noted above our own experience of dissonance and alienation in re-reading the “Reader’s Comment,” and we appreciate that some readers may be experiencing feelings of distance or alienation from unfamiliar terms like “queer” or “heteronormative.”  Still, as Kim Gunter notes, we make our living in composition with words, our own and others’ (69).  We recognize, and indeed hope, that many of our readers are not already active participants in LGBTQIA communities or in the field of queer studies.  And for these readers, some of the vocabulary we take for granted may be unclear: our words may not yet be their words.  Given our intent to connect with as broad an audience as possible, we would like to pause here and provide some general definitions, with the caveat that such definitions should be read as provisional rather than final.  We encourage readers to consider these definitions not as rigid or finite, but as contestable and fluid.  They are but starting points in an ongoing process of engagement. 

A good place to begin is with the term LGBTQIA itself, as acronyms often lead to confusion.  Many groups use different configurations of this common alphabet soup, and its terms have multiple and simultaneous meanings, revealing the slippage underlying queer understandings of identity.  LGBTQIA can stand for “Lesbian;” “Gay,” but also “Genderqueer” (that is, someone who does not fit into society’s gender binary); “Bisexual” (or “Bi-curious”); “Transgender” (often shortened to “Trans,” an umbrella term for people who transgress or transcend gender norms in any number of ways); “Queer” (a word reclaimed from derogatory use though not embraced in all quarters) but also “Questioning” (as in someone unsure of their sexual identity); “Intersexed” (someone whose external genitalia at birth do not fit the gender binary); and finally “Asexual” (a category distinct from “celibate”), but also “Ally” (typically a heterosexual who takes part in the struggle against homophobic oppression). As we can see, the spectrum of sexual identity is not as neat as the often-invoked gay/straight binary would have it seem.  And this list isn’t exhaustive by any means; it fails to include, for instance, people who identify as polyamorous (that is, people who practice non-monogamy) or pansexual (people whose sexual attraction extends beyond a binary understanding of gender).  Furthermore, the grouping of LGBTQIA conflates two distinctly different concepts—sexual identity and gender expression—a problem perhaps reflective of cultural discomfort with both subjects.

We would also like to clarify our use of the term “queer theory.”  As distinct from earlier gay or lesbian theories, which tend to focus on stable, “homonormative” gay identities positioned in fundamental opposition to “heteronormative” constructions of heterosexuality, “queer” theory seeks to unpack, disrupt, and deconstruct all such simplistic binaries as well as the stable concepts of identity upon which they are based.  “Queer,” according to Annamarie Jagose, “is less an identity than a critique of identity” (131, emphasis in original).  Queer theorists, then, insist that sex, gender, and sexuality are lived across a continuum of possibilities, and that standard binaries (gay/straight, male/female, masculine/feminine, etc.) serve merely ideological functions inherent to culture and society.  By shifting focus from stable identities towards more mobile performances, queer theory becomes what José Muñoz calls “a modality of critique that speaks to quotidian gestures as laden with potentiality” (360).

Finally, we would like to look more closely at the term “heteronormative.”  Distinct from homophobia (the expression of a range of negative feelings directed towards LGBTQIA individuals or communities), heteronormativity is akin to what Adrienne Rich labeled “compulsory heterosexuality.”  It involves the privileging of heterosexuality in all areas of life, both private and public.  Heteronormativity assumes, and even expects, heterosexuality.  In this way, heterosexuality is not simply descriptive (the “norm”); it becomes prescriptive (the “normative”) (Kumashiro 367).  With the boundaries set by such privileging and prescription, then, come the disciplining practices of marginalization, including the “curious silence” described by Denny.  As discussed earlier and explored in the section below, heteronormativity is a reductive way of doing and reading the world; it can allow us, even force us, to gloss over, ignore, or otherwise marginalize LGBTQIA communities and concerns.  The effects of this marginalization can range from micro-aggressions (e.g., the phrase "that's so gay" directed not at a person, but at a choice of shirt, car, couch, etc.) to large-scale, institutional evasions or denials (e.g., the refusal of the Reagan administration to discuss and address the AIDS crisis during the 1980s).   We look again to Alexander and Wallace’s view of the field of rhetoric and composition.  They write,  “Ironically, because of the laudatory commitment to diversity in our field, we must take particular care that our liberatory intent does not serve an inoculating function, blinding us to the ways we remain unwittingly complicit in systems of oppression such as heteronormativity” (317).  Is it possible that we, the writing center scholarly community, have unwittingly overlooked a segment of the population?  Have we been “inoculated” by our best intentions?

Heteronormativity in Writing Center Scholarship

Just as we noted the often-unintentional tendency of heteronormative readers to read with a heteronormative eye, so too can writers write with a heteronormative pen, creating a self-reinforcing cycle.  To address and hopefully disrupt the smooth functioning of heteronormativity, it is important to place the absences it leaves behind in stark relief—to speak into and at this “curious silence” rather than around it.  We believe this silence on LGBTQIA issues has plagued writing center scholarship for far too long, resulting in the marginalization of LGBTQIA communities through omission, exclusion, and invalidation.  While we do not claim that the following represents an exhaustive historical survey, we cite these examples as illustrative of a problematic tendency toward heteronormativity within writing center scholarship, a systemic problem that, while often enacted through the individual, we believe reveals more structural or cultural bias than individual prejudice.

In 1992’s “Validating Cultural Difference in the Writing Center,” Greg Lyons suggests “we should value students’ alternative ways of thinking and communicating and not, in our gatekeeping roles, deny their personal histories or cultural identities” (145).  Encouragingly, he goes further, urging writing center workers to help students “who feel alienated to develop a critical consciousness toward their own place in the university and the wider mainstream culture” (145).  And Lyons goes on to specify that “writing center clients considered here include those marginalized by ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, age, class, and occupational history” (146).  Although the legitimacy of the term “sexual preference” has been challenged in subsequent years, we applaud the inclusion.  And yet, by the time Lyons reaches his conclusion, his specified audience shifts to “any tutor or teacher working with students who identify their own ethnicity, race, sex, class, or age group as a minority in the mainstream of college students or American culture at large” (150).  Where, in those few pages, did our LGBTQIA students go?  Intentional or not, the omission is troubling.

LGBTQIA people also went missing from discussions of sexual attraction in writing centers.  Neither Michael Pemberton’s 1996 article “Safe Sex in the Writing Center” nor Patty Wilde’s 2003 “Exploring Issues of Attraction in Writing Center Tutorials” address attraction from a same-sex perspective.  “Let’s face it,” Pemberton writes, “Writing conferences are really quite intimate.  Two people—often of different genders but just as often similar age and experience—spend a half hour or hour sitting close together . . . feelings of sexual attraction and/or emotional interest may arise” (14).  Wilde’s article, although it cites several studies examining heterosexual attraction, uses gender-neutral language, e.g., “there is evidence that suggests that a tutor’s attraction toward a student may affect the tutorial” (14).  These examples may appear relatively benign, and we applaud the authors’ willingness to address a topic that often engenders discomfort; however, in failing to incorporate LGBTQIA identities, they effectively ignore and expel LGBTQIA people from consideration, ensuring their continued marginalization. 

More troubling is an example in which LGBTQIA academic identity is referenced explicitly.  In 1998’s “Mediating Between Students and Faculty,” Michael Pemberton explores the difficulties presented when a student brings in evidence of an instructor who “has a clear political agenda” and who uniformly grades down oppositional students, “regardless of the quality of their arguments or their writing” (16).  Pemberton notes that typically “all the readings in the course focus on a single topic from a single point of view” (16).  He then lists several examples of what he sees as problematic perspectives within academia: “cultural studies/neo-conservatism/pedagogy of the oppressed/gender issues/gay and lesbian studies/fundamentalist Christianity/pick your favorite ideology” (16).   With “gay and lesbian studies” thus marked as a suspect “ideology,” and the intentions of its instructors brought into question, the implication seems clear: “gay and lesbian studies” is not a legitimate field of academic inquiry.  Linking it to the specifically non-academic pursuits of “neo-conservatism” and “fundamentalist Christianity”—ideological perspectives often associated with the promulgation of anti-gay bigotry—only serves to further delegitimize the entire field. 

We recognize that most of these articles were written in the 1990s, and that most writing center scholars would now readily accept LGBTQIA studies as a legitimate field of academic study.  Furthermore, as our bibliography shows, there is an emerging trend of acknowledging LGBTQIA communities in writing center scholarship and incorporating queer theory into this work.  Despite the good intentions of their authors, however, the examples above indicate the heteronormative tendency to systemically marginalize LGBTQIA communities through omission, exclusion, and invalidation.  Some might dismiss such marginalization as “merely” discursive, but we must remember these well-planned and otherwise thoughtful articles have made it through a process of revision, review, and editing; we cannot help but be troubled by what their inclusion might imply about our immediate, unpremeditated practices.  As the recently publicized gay suicides mentioned earlier illustrate, these issues are more than merely academic; they are literally life and death for LGBTQIA communities.  And in our writing centers, as advocates of diversity and liberatory education, as spaces open to any and all students, and as safe working environments for our tutors, we have a responsibility to attend to such matters with all the seriousness and devotion they deserve. 

With that in mind, we would like to shift our attention to our annotated bibliography, a lamentably small collection of articles relating directly to the overlap of the writing center and LGBTQIA communities.  Despite the amount of writing center literature and scholarship available, we could locate only fourteen articles that offer meaningful engagement with LGBTQIA issues, a number that feels far too low to us.  By highlighting such work, we hope to accomplish three goals: to make visible its scarcity, to make such engagements more accessible and readily available (especially for those new to writing centers), and to promote further engagement between and within these overlapping communities.

Queerness in Writing Center Scholarship

In performing their review of LGBTQIA scholarship in rhetoric and composition, Alexander and Wallace identify three main “theoretical and pedagogical moves” or themes: the need to confront homophobia, the desire to be inclusive, and the possibility of queering the homo/hetero binary (305).  Although they do not include any writing center related scholarship in their study, we find that their categories fit easily onto our own bibliography, providing a convenient way of reading the articles.  While not every article can be neatly categorized, and some may fit into multiple categories, we would like to situate a few of the articles in our bibliography within the larger field of writing center scholarship, viewing them through the lens of Alexander and Wallace’s three scholarly moves.

We would also like to note that while a rough chronology may be somewhat apparent in Alexander and Wallace’s themes, they stress that these moves do not represent a “staged model of increasing theoretical enlightenment.”  All three themes “ will retain relevance for composition theory and pedagogy as long as nonnormative sexual identities remain problematic in our culture” (305).  The movement, then, from theme to theme, is not as linear as our written format might imply.  Rather, like any educational process, it is a recursive movement: full of ebbs and flows, breakthroughs and revisitations.

With that in mind, after we contextualize our selection of articles within these themes, we will also take a moment to engage in the critically reflective practice of problem-posing: to interrogate those same themes, unpack them, and begin an inventory of what they leave unspoken.

The need to confront homophobia

The first move, or theme, identified by Alexander and Wallace is “the need to confront homophobia” (305).  In writing centers, this theme may be most often and immediately addressed in the ongoing conversation regarding tutor responses to “offensive” or “controversial” papers.  The guidance offered runs the spectrum from those advocating an overt, situated response, to those who feel addressing “political” topics may steer us “too far afield” (Bennet 10).  Take, for example, Michele Petrucci’s advice from 2002’s “Sacred Spaces: Tutoring Religious Writing.”  She acknowledges that a tutor may wind up discussing a “highly charged, dogmatic and, in some instances, offensive (sexist, homophobic) essay” (10).  Petrucci warns that the tutor should “control her initial reactions (body language, facial expressions, exclamations)” so as “not to destroy the session” (10), thereby calling into question a tutor’s negative reaction to homophobia and implying that the reaction, not the homophobic writing, is the problem.  Michael Pemberton takes a more thoughtful approach in his columns on ethics, posing problems for which he provides not answers, but possibilities.  On more than one occasion (“Do What I Tell You,” “The Ethics of Content”), he brings up David Rothgery’s essay “‘So What Do We Do Now?’: Necessary Directionality as the Writing Teacher’s Response to Racist, Sexist, Homophobic Papers,” suggesting the possibility that tutors have a responsibility to address the discursive face of homophobia.

Reflecting on the articles presented in our bibliography makes it clear that the relevant question to ask is not really “should tutors confront homophobia,” because we cannot stop homophobic language, ideas, and papers from entering our centers and confronting our tutors.  The question shifts, then, to how tutors should confront homophobia.  We can see, for instance, how a tutor like Cathy Darrup chooses to confront homophobic and other oppressive language in her 1994 article “What’s My Role?  When a Student is Offensive to You: Where (How?) to Draw the Line,” by openly questioning and discussing the beliefs and values that inform the student’s language.  Jay Sloan, however, takes us inside the conflicted mind of “an increasingly ‘Out’ gay graduate student” as he tutors a paper on “the sin of homosexuality” (“Closet Consulting” 9).  Reflecting on that session as well as on the limitations of non-directive tutoring techniques in a later piece (“Centering Difference”), Sloan lists a number of strategies he might have tried and suggestions he could have proffered.  In doing so, he models ways we might try to adjust our own tutoring practice when working with homophobic or heteronormative texts.

Breaking away from the extant literature and looking to the possibilities that lie ahead, we wish to problem-pose for a moment, to offer readers a few take-away questions as a means of encouraging sustainable engagement with, and critical revisitations to, these ideas.

  • How else do we “confront” homophobia; how does it confront us?
  • Is confrontation alienating?  More alienating than homophobia?
  • Should we agree to help students strengthen or refine homophobic arguments in the name of free speech or student agency?
  • Where else, apart from student papers, do we find homophobia in the writing center?  How do we confront other tutors, faculty, or the broader campus environment?

The desire to be inclusive

The second theme identified by Alexander and Wallace is “the desire to be inclusive of LGBT people” (305).  Writing centers have traditionally striven to be inclusive, as reflected in articles such as Lisa Birnbaum’s 1995 “Toward a Gender-Balanced Staff on the Writing Center” and Michael Pemberton’s 1998 “Equity Issues in Hiring for the Writing Center.”  Both offer sound arguments for the ethical value of hiring gender-balanced staffs (and in Pemberton’s case, racially balanced as well).  This sense of inclusion impacts more than hiring, as can be seen in Mulvihill, Nitta, and Wingate’s 1995 “Into the Fray: Ethnicity and Tutor Preparation.”  Similarly, many writing centers deploy inclusive language in mission statements, advertising, and other institutional documents.  For instance, one of our centers uses the slogan “Writing assistance for any class, any stage, any one.”

In our bibliography, we see the inclusion of LGBTQIA people primarily in the subjectivities of the stories they tell (or others tell about them).  For instance, in his 2000 article “Negotiating the ‘Subject’ of Composition: Writing Centers as Spaces of Productive Possibilities,” Stephen Jukuri writes three narratives about tutoring and the subjective experience of identity.  One narrative focuses on his consideration of coming out to a tutee and the effect it would have on their work and relationship.  Similarly, Curtis Dickerson and Jonathan Rylander discuss the “pros and cons” of coming out in a session, a process necessarily complicated by our student-centered pedagogy (7).  Several articles include brief narratives of LGBTQIA tutors working in writing centers.  In these narratives, we see LGBTQIA tutors struggle with a roommate’s homophobic language (Suhr-Sytsma and Brown), use sexual identity to empathize with a student’s experience of racism (Geller, Condon, and Carroll), and explore the intersections of multiple identities while taking a tutor training course (Green). 

Let us again shift our focus and look ahead, problem-posing on the theme of inclusion. 

  • How else could “inclusion” be enacted, perhaps through partnering with LGBTQIA centers, for example?
  • How might we nurture or facilitate the voices of LGBTQIA students?  How might we represent them in our scholarship?
  • Can sexual identity be discussed separately from other aspects of identity, such as race, class, or gender?  Should it?
  • Does dissonance follow necessarily from inclusion?  What about discomfort?

The possibility of queering the homo/hetero binary

The third and final theme identified by Alexander and Wallace is “the possibility of using queer theory to break down the homo/hetero binary as a constraining mode of thinking about identity and agency” (305).  Writing center scholarship has a long tradition of seeking out and applying critical, self-reflexive theories.  For instance, Anis Bawarshi and Stephanie Pelkowski’s foundational 1999 article &ldquo Postcolonialism and the Idea of a Writing Center” provides an excellent example of using broadened critical perspectives to revise our theory while simultaneously grounding their perspective in the everyday practices and consequences of our work.  There have also been a significant number of articles applying feminist principles to the writing center (Lutes; Seeley; Woolbright).  And the last decade or so has seen a significant focus on anti-racist scholarship, due in no small part to Victor Villanueva’s 2006 “Blind: Talking about the New Racism” and the conscientious efforts of members of the Anti-Racism SIG (Condon; Dees, Godbee, and Ozias; Diab, Ferrel, Godbee, and Simpkins; Greenfield and Rowan).  Likewise, embodied theories of practice such as Disability Studies (Hitt) and Fat Studies (Smith) are broadening our critical horizons and re-focusing attention on the bodies that inhabit our centers. 

In our bibliography, we can also see the application of queer theory’s critical lens.  It can be argued that the writing center’s interstitial identity disrupts binaries of all sorts.  This positioning makes the center a natural place from which to enact the “productive disruptions” that Tara Pauliny calls for in “Queering the Institution: Politics and Power in the Assistant Professor Administrator Position.”  Likewise, both Harry Denny’s “Queering the Writing Center” and Jonathan Doucette’s “Composing Queers: The Subversive Potential of the Writing Center” outline the productive interplay of queer theory with writing center theory and practice.

But there are certainly more problems to pose regarding the application of queer theory in the writing center.

  • How might the inclusion and enactment of queer theory alter or affect a tutor's practice?
  • What can queer theory add to discussions about student agency, authority, and ownership of a text? About our own use of directive/non-directive practices? 
  • How and where is sexual identity performed (or disrupted) on your campus, and how does this affect your center?  
  • Does queer theory provide an effective practice for speaking into or against the “curious silences” we encounter?

A Call for Further Investigations

Writing centers operate in the contested, interstitial territory between macro-level social structures and micro-level interpersonal communication, in a borderland “where the space between two people shrinks with intimacy” (Anzaldúa 18).  It is this relational space where meanings can be multiple, simultaneous, and provisional that we work, and it is from this dissonant inhabitance that we recognize both the relevance and applicability of queer theory.  “Queerness,” according to Alexander and Wallace, “helps us to see the important connections between our personal stories and the stories that our culture tells about intimacy, identity, and connection” (303).

As noted, queer theory isn’t for LGBTQIA people alone, nor do the issues it raises affect only queer people.  Like any critical theory, queer theory is a critically self-reflexive stance, encouraging everyone “to turn a critical eye to their own positionalities and embrace their own loose-ended assemblage” (Macintosh 40).  Furthermore, queer theory insists we recognize our own complicity within the larger, institutional forces of homophobia and heteronormativity.  Because these institutions condition all of us, LGBTQIA or heterosexual, the responsibility to resist is therefore distributed amongst all of us as well.  Utilizing a multitude of positionalities, both from within LGBTQIA communities and from without, is necessary for sustained and thorough critique.  Although the three themes listed above provide a good starting place, they should by no means be seen as the only available avenues for research and scholarship.  By further problem-posing along the “queer horizon” (Floyd), we would like to draw out some of the opportunities afforded by taking seriously Harry Denny’s call to queer the writing center. 

Alexander and Wallace situate their themes within “the need,” “the desire,” and “the possibility.”  Likewise, we advocate for critical reflection upon the needs, desires, and possibilities that reside within and between writing centers and LGBTQIA communities.  Where do these communities intersect and interact?  Where do they diverge and disagree?  We encourage future scholarship that includes pragmatic descriptions and models of how writing centers have reached out to, networked with, or otherwise supported campus LGBTQIA communities, as well as narratives that sustain, strengthen, enrich, and complicate what it means to be an LGBTQIA person in the writing center and on campus—as director, tutor, or student.  Furthermore, we are interested in scholarship that explores the dialectic of safety and risk, and examines the nature of the space our centers offer LGBTQIA people, especially dissonant or multivocal readings of those spaces. 

We would like to further suggest the rich potential in viewing the writing center as a distinctive institutional site for the study of sexual identity and the enactment of queer theory.  Drawing on our epigraph, we recognize the need for something more than a complacent marginalization, or what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the “minoritizing” view that sexual identity is only problematic for LGBTQIA communities (qtd. in Alexander and Wallace 301).  The writing center, as always already transdiciplinary and interconnected, has a solid tradition of engaging with the dialectic between embracing and resisting institutional marginalization, and perhaps this history can serve as a model for queer people in the writing center: institutional marginalization can be an opportunity for creativity, play, and subversion (see Brannon & North; Davis; Mahala).  Michael Pemberton explains that today’s “distributed” centers, while still often misunderstood, are expanding throughout their campuses, reaching “ all of the physical and virtual spaces where tutors can now meet and work with writers” (“A Finger in Every Pie” 98).  As Judith Butler suggests in our epigraph (xxxvi), networking with other marginal zones is crucial, and the writing center, with its multiplicity of students and tutors and their multiplicity of identities and motivations, can become a key site for investigating intersectionality on campus. 

The writing center is distinctive not only in its institutional positioning, but in the unique ways tutors and students interact.  In their article “Coming-Out Pedagogy: Risking Identity in Language and Literature Classrooms,” Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Debra Moddelmog write that “[i]n the classroom we head toward the continual rather than the momentary, turning the naming of our identities from a onetime confession into a process linked to a theory about identity” (315, emphasis added).  The writing center, however, is characterized by sessions that last less than an hour.  How might tutors discuss identity in these “momentary” sessions, de-linked from the semester-long processes that typify most academic discourse on queer identity?  Alexander and Wallace note the importance of simply “[i]ncluding the usually excluded, speaking the unspoken, and saying the words gay, lesbian, homosexual, and transgendered without blushing” (317, emphasis in original).  In those moments, tutors can leverage the relative institutional status of the writing center and disrupt the silence of heteronormative expectations.  Furthermore, tutors and students may choose to “come out” or “pass” during sessions (Denny, “Queering”), and by allowing for reflection on how those choices affect the often-discussed “rapport” between student and tutor, the writing center can become a key site for investigating what it means to negotiate identity on the fly, in unpremeditated moments of intimacy. 

Further discussing the consequences of coming out in the classroom, Brueggemann and Moddelmog note that “our identities pose risks: that the academic might explode into the personal” (314).  Indeed, the intimacy of the one-on-one writing center session makes these explosions into the personal not only possible, but likely.  As a site of in-betweenness, both institutionally and interpersonally, the writing center seems particularly poised to engage in the “productive disruptions” (Pauliny) that queer theory affords.  We call on the writing center community to take seriously the consideration of LGBTQIA people on our campuses and in our centers, and to engage in what Harry Denny has called “the perpetual tango of identity invoked and differed” (“Queering” 42).  We hope to see the conversations initiated by the articles in our bibliography continued, expanded, and enriched in multiple ways, by scholars publishing in our field, by participants joining in the LGBTQ SIG (both online and at conferences), and by countless (but too often uncounted) tutors sharing and discussing their experiences in writing centers everywhere.  We look forward to hearing what other, future voices have to say in the face of heteronormativity and the “curious silence” that so frequently surrounds and isolates our community.

 

Note

1. Anyone interested in joining the SIG’s listserv can do so by signing up on their website.

 

Works Cited

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Bawarshi, Anis and Stephanie Pelkowski.  “Postcolonialism and the Idea of a Writing Center.”  The Writing Center Journal 19.2 (1999): 41-58. Print.

Bennet, B. Cole.  “Student Rights, Home Languages, and Political Wisdom in the Writing Center.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 32.5 (2008): 7-10. Print.

Birnbaum, Lisa C.  “Toward a Gender-Balanced Staff in the Writing Center.”  The Writing Lab Newsletter 19.8 (1995): 6-7. Print.

Brannon, Lil and Stephen M. North. “The Uses of the Margins.” The Writing Center Journal 20.2 (2000): 7-12. Print.

Brueggemann, Brenda Jo and Debra A. Moddelmog.  “Coming-Out Pedagogy: Risking Identity in Language and Literature Classrooms.”  Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 2.3 (2002): 311-335. Print. 

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

Condon, Frankie. “Beyond the Known: Writing Centers and the Work of Anti-Racism.”  The Writing Center Journal 27.2 (2007): 19-38. Print.

Davis, Kevin.  “Life Outside the Boundary: History and Direction in the Writing Center.”  The Writing Lab Newsletter 20.2 (1995): 5-7. Print.

Darrup, Cathy.  “What’s My Role?  When a Student is Offensive to You: Where (How?) to Draw the Line.”  The Dangling Modifier 1.1 (1994): 2-4. Web. 14 June 2012.

Dees, Sarah, Beth Godbee, and Moira Ozias. "Navigating Conversational Turns: Grounding Difficult Discussions on Racism." Praxis: A Writing Center Journal 5.1 (2007): n. pag. Web. 14 June 2012.

Denny, Harry.  “A curious silence and a longish response.” Message to WCenter. 8 Oct. 2010. E-mail.

---. “Queering the Writing Center.”  The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 39-62. Print.

Diab, Rasha, Thomas Ferrel, Beth Godbee, and Neil Simpkins. “A Multi-Dimensional Pedagogy for Racial Justice in Writing Centers.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal 10.1 (2012): 1-8. Web.

Dickerson, Curtis and Jonathan Rylander.  “Queer Consulting: Assessing the Degree to Which Differences Affect a Writing Consultation.”  ECWCA Fall (2011): 7-8. Web.

Doucette, Jonathan.  “Composing Queers: The Subversive Potential of the Writing Center.”  Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric 8 (2011): 5-15. Web. 14 June 2012.

Floyd, Kevin. The Reification of Desire: Toward a Queer Marxism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. Print.

Geller, Anne Ellen, Frankie Condon, and Meg Carroll. “Bold: The Everyday Writing Center and the Production of New Knowledge in Antiracist Theory and Practice.” Greenfield and Rowan 101-123.

Green, Ann E. “’The Quality of Light’: Using Narrative in a Peer Tutoring Class.” Greenfield and Rowan 255-272. 

Greenfield, Laura and Karen Rowan, eds. Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2011. Print. 

Gunter, Kim.  “Queer Disruption in the Rural South: Institutionality and the Viability of Queer Composition.” Open Words: Access and English Studies 2.1 (2008): 69-91. Web. 14 June 2012. 

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Jukuri, Stephen Davenport.  “Negotiating the ‘Subject’ of Composition: Writing Centers as Spaces of Productive Possibilities.” Stories from the Center: Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center.  Eds. Briggs, Lynn Craigue, and Meg Woolbright.  Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. 51-69. Print.

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Mahala, Daniel. “Writing Centers in the Managed University.” The Writing Center Journal 27.2 (2007): 3-17. Print.

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Muñoz, José Esteban. “Crusing the Toilet: LeRoi Jones/ Amiri Baraka, Radical Black Traditions, and Queer Futurity.” GLQ 13.2-3 (2007): 353-367. Print.

Pauliny, Tara.  “Queering the Institution: Politics and Power in the Assistant Professor Administrator Position.”  Enculturation: A Journal for Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture 10 (2011): 1-14. Web. 14 June 2012.

Pemberton, Michael A.  “A Finger in Every Pie: The Expanding Role of Writing Centers in Writing Instruction.”  Writing and Pedagogy 1.1 (2009): 89-100.  Print. 

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Petrucci, Michele L. “Sacred Spaces: Tutoring Religious Writing.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 27.1 (2002): 10-11. Print. 

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Sloan, Jay D.  “Centering Difference: Student Agency and the Limits of ‘Comfortable’ Collaboration.” Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists  8.2 (2003): 63-74. Print.

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Villanueva, Victor.  “Blind: Talking about the New Racism.”  The Writing Center Journal 26.1 (2006): 3-19. Print.

Wilde, Patty.  “Exploring Issues of Attraction in Writing Center Tutorials.”  The Writing Lab Newsletter 28.4 (2003): 13-15. Print.

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Appendix: An Annotated Bibliographyof LGBTQIA/Writing Center Scholarship

Darrup, Cathy.  “What’s My Role?  When a Student is Offensive to You: Where (How?) to Draw the Line.”  The Dangling Modifier 1.1 (1994): 2-4. Web. 14 June 2012. 

Writing as a tutor, Darrup describes an uncomfortable session in which the student makes offensive comments with regard to race, sex, and sexual identity.  The comments, however, are not contained within his “neutral” sounding paper, but within his general conversation, leading Darrup to wonder whether or not it is appropriate or professional to address them.  In the end she does address them, but is left wondering how such conduct reflects on both her and the writing center. 

Denny, Harry.  “Queering the Writing Center.”  The Writing Center Journal 25.2 (2005): 39-62. Print.

Denny calls on the writing center community to engage more meaningfully with issues of identity, focusing on queer identities in particular.  Viewing the work of the writing center through the critical lens of queer theory, Denny concentrates on two practices: “passing” and “coming out.”  Just as LGBTQIA people sometimes “pass” by adopting heterosexual norms, so too do marginalized students attempt to pass in academia.  And just as LGBTQIA people engage in a process of “coming out,” Denny suggests that tutors who “come out” and disclose their own struggles or marginalizations can ease the process for other students.  These queered processes are, according to Denny, capable of demystifying and de-naturalizing the normative practices of academia. 

---. “Facing Sex and Gender in the Writing Center.”  Facing the Center: Toward an Identity Politics of One-to-One Mentoring. Logan, Utah: Utah State UP, 2010. 87-112. Print. 

From his book interrogating multiple “faces” of the writing center (chapters include race & ethnicity, class, sex & gender, and nationality), this chapter discusses the possibilities of assimilation, opposition, or subversion in regard to normative constructs of sex, gender, and sexual identity.  In “facing” these issues, Denny works to theorize sexual politics by first looking at its recent political histories and connecting these histories to composition and the writing center.  He proceeds to discuss how writing centers may “cover” or conceal sexual politics, then expands his view to how we might “foreground” and queer such politics.  Although the chapter title only references sex and gender, sexuality is highlighted throughout, with examples of sexual politics both disturbing and heartening. 

Dickerson, Curtis and Jonathan Rylander.  “Queer Consulting: Assessing the Degree to Which Differences Affect a Writing Consultation.” ECWCA Fall (2011): 7-8. Web. 14 June 2012.

 Based on a group presentation at the ECWCA conference, two tutors discuss ways queer identities can manifest themselves in writing center work.  Viewing the writing center as a workplace, they look at the necessity of safe working conditions for LGBTIA tutors and the ethics of asking tutors to go “beyond what is relevant to the text” and become agents of change on campus.  The authors find no easy answers and end in disagreement over the role of a tutor, suggesting the complexity of such issues.

Doucette, Jonathan.  “Composing Queers: The Subversive Potential of the Writing Center.”  Young Scholars in Writing: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric 8 (2011): 5-15.  Web. 14 June 2012.

Weaving academic discourse with personal narrative, Doucette looks at the compulsory heterosexuality and historic amnesia regarding LGBTQIA people in the field of composition.  Doucette finds a place for himself—both theoretically and physically—as a tutor in the writing center, a site he describes as a “potentially subversive queer space.”  He focuses on the transformative queer potential of the center, in particular the way interdisciplinary knowledge can queer the process of knowledge production for both students and tutors. 

Eodice, Michele.  “Introduction to ‘Queering the Center.’” The Writing Center Journal 30.1 (2010): 92-94. Print. 

In 2010, Denny’s article “Queering the Writing Center” was included in The Writing Center Journal’s “alternative history” special issue.  Eodice provides a brief introduction to the article, extolling some of its merits.  She notes her own reluctance to allow queer theory to inform her writing center work.  Eodice writes that queer theory is not necessarily tied to any individual identity, but rather a way to view identities.  She notes the positive reactions of tutors who read Denny's essay and suggests viewing queer theory “as one more lens you can adopt.”

Geller, Anne Ellen, Frankie Condon, and Meg Carroll. “Bold: The Everyday Writing Center and the Production of New Knowledge in Antiracist Theory and Practice.” Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Eds. Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2011. 101-123. Print.

In this book chapter, the authors seek to narrate what it means to take up racism and antiracism within the “institutional, administrative, and pedagogical implications” of writing center work.  With a focus on “white shame,” the authors unpack several stories from their own centers.  In one such story, a first-year student shares a paper focused on experiences of racial prejudice, and in response, a tutor uses her own experiences as a lesbian to “empathize with the student’s experience of prejudice.”  Though emotionally difficult, this intersection of identities was ultimately effective.  Having made a powerful emotional connection with her tutor, the student reported that the session made her feel more confident.

Green, Ann E. “’The Quality of Light’: Using Narrative in a Peer Tutoring Class.” Writing Centers and the New Racism: A Call for Sustainable Dialogue and Change. Eds. Laura Greenfield and Karen Rowan. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2011. 255-272. Print.

In her book chapter detailing discussions of “race/racism, gender/sexism, and sexuality” in a peer tutoring class, Ann Green describes her process of having tutors first utilize “prior texts” to engage in difficult conversations about identity before telling their own “tutor tales.”  One prior text is “Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality” by Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem.  The group of tutors reading the essay includes “one person who identified as a lesbian, one who identified as questioning, and two who identified as straight and feminist.”  These tutors go on to work with, and against, both the essay and their identities in productive ways. 

Herb, Maggie and Virginia Perdue. “Creating Alliances Across Campus: Exploring Identities and Institutional Relationships.” Before and After the Tutorial: Writing Centers and Institutional Relationships. Eds. Robert Koch, William Macauley, and Nicholas Mauriello, 2011. 75-88. Print.

In this book chapter, the authors recall their experiences reaching out to multiple campus resources in an effort to diversify their tutor training program.  They focus on two sessions: one from counseling services about working with traumatic writing, the other from Safe Zone presenters about LGBTQIA issues.  In the Safe Zone presentation, tutors are quick to talk about overtly homophobic papers, but fall silent when asked to consider their own roles in making the writing center more LGBTQIA friendly.  Reflecting on this silence, and the apparent confusion of some tutors for the “real reason” behind the Safe Zone session, the authors consider ways more sustained dialogue – before and after the sessions – could positively affect the sessions' impact.   

Jukuri, Stephen Davenport.  “Negotiating the ‘Subject’ of Composition: Writing Centers as Spaces of Productive Possibilities.” Stories from the Center: Connecting Narrative and Theory in the Writing Center.  Eds. Briggs, Lynn Craigue, and Meg Woolbright. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2000. 51-69. Print.

Providing three stories about working with writers in the writing center, Jukuri raises questions central to how our subjectivities shape our identity as writers.  He views the writing center as a site where these subjectivities are made more visible, and uses his article to “think through” the questions they raise.  In one story, the author wrestles with whether or not to disclose his sexual identity to a student, wondering whether or not the student can “handle it.”  He considers the way(s) it will complicate their working relationship, and in negotiating his own subjectivity, finds himself guarding his language.

Pauliny, Tara.  “Queering the Institution: Politics and Power in the Assistant Professor Administrator Position.” Enculturation: A Journal for Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture 10 (2011): 1-14. Web. 14 June 2012.

Writing as a Writing Program Administrator who is also an Assistant Professor Administrator, Pauliny notes the inherent “queerness” of such a position.  Although the focus is on the queer identity of the APA, in one anecdote the author notes the “productive disruption” she created while serving as director of the Writing Center.  Her disruption was able to challenge to binaries of administrator/faculty and expert/novice.  Pauliny views the act of disrupting the function and reproduction of institutionalized norms as a key component of queer theory, and one applicable to anyone occupying a state of academic in-betweenness. 

Sloan, Jay D.  “Closet Consulting.” The Writing Lab Newsletter 21.10 (1997): 9-10. Print.

In this Tutor’s Column, the author, an “increasingly ‘Out’ gay graduate student on a Catholic Jesuit campus,” must negotiate his reactions to a student writing on the “sin of homosexuality.”  Sloan details his struggle to confront and move beyond his own private fears—his own lifelong battle with a similar religious rhetoric which kept him in the closet for years—in order to reach out to and engage his “earnest” young student in a productive writing center session.

---. “Centering Difference: Student Agency and the Limits of ‘Comfortable’ Collaboration.”  Dialogue: A Journal for Writing Specialists 8.2 (2003): 63-74.  Print.

Now a writing center director, Sloan revisits his 1997 session with “Young Earnest” to reconsider the limitations of the “comfort-based” pedagogies he had utilized as a tutor, pedagogies still commonly advocated by writing center practitioners.  Suggesting that the evasion of conflict and confrontation may actually and fundamentally disempower student writers, the author explores ways he might have better served the student by functioning as what Walter Lippmann once called “the Indispensable Opposition.”

Suhr-Sytsma, Mandy and Shan-Estelle Brown. "Addressing the Everyday Language of Oppression in the Writing Center." The Writing Center Journal 31.2 (2011):13-49.  Print.

The authors seek to confront oppression in a broad and inclusive sense, with racism foregrounded, by looking at opportunities for tutors to leverage their language and resist deploying oppressive language and thought.  While not addressing homophobia directly, the authors do include “gay” in one listing of Othered identities, noting that such identities are often treated disrespectfully by students.  The authors also discuss a bisexual tutor who has dealt with oppressive, homophobic language—not in a tutoring session, but from her roommate.  As a result, the tutor worried about being outed and altered her behavior.  This example is used to show that language—despite the intentions of a speaker or writer—can have serious impact.

 



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