Before cartoons went soft, I used to love the violence and impossible physics of Looney Tunes. And as many times as he may have been beaten up, exploded, dropped off a cliff, or flattened by an enormous rock, I had a particular fondness for Wile E. Coyote. He doggedly pursued his prey, day after day, employing new techniques and technologies and ingenuity to the same, ultimately failing task—to capture and eat the Road Runner. Wile E. Coyote could easily have given in to fatalism and wandered deeper into the desert, never to be heard from again. But, I have to admire his dedication and persistence, his willingness to try new approaches and to sacrifice his comfort and wellbeing in order to satisfy his basic needs and to survive. Perhaps it is his willingness to develop and to grow that makes Wile E. Coyote difficult to define as a common coyote (canis latrans) and allows him to be defined and redefined in absurd Latinesque taxonomic terms (Carnivorous vulgaris, Famishius famishius, Hard-headipus ravenus, etc.). At some point, you’ve got to say, “Yeah, that’s Wile E. Coyote,” and to quit the attempts to classify him as one thing or another. Give him the space and freedom that he needs to define himself as a whole, complex coyote.
In many ways, the Carolina Conference on Queer Youth was about the language that we use to categorize and define ourselves and others. Beyond that, like the language that is used to define Wile E. Coyote, the conference was about how language is used to uplift, demean, pigeonhole, target, characterize, celebrate, minimize, inflate, diminish, privilege, and otherwise place a value on ourselves and others. This conference may have been a lexicologist’s dream, providing an opportunity to expand and expound upon the English language and its many uses and connotations. Or it could have been a lexicologist’s nightmare, wading through the history, violence, exclusion, and myriad social ramifications of the language that we use. It’s surprising and encouraging to me that, despite so many hardships and sacrifices, there are continued movements to satisfy our basic human needs to belong and to contribute and for our common survival. Like the battered, bashed, and beaten coyote; the movements for mutual respect and inclusion, for freedom and equality, for safety and agency have neither met fatalistic ends, nor gone away. They have persisted and pushed on. They have gained a space in our consciousness and our consciences. And the Carolina Conference on Queer Youth helped me to see that our language needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the openness of our minds and our hearts.
The Carolina Conference on Queer Youth was held in the UNC-Charlotte Student Union building on Friday, October 18th and attended by “200+ youth, teachers, [and] community members”. Everyone seemed to have come for different reasons—to support and affirm, to be affirmed and supported, to vent, to connect, to guide, to learn, to teach, to share stories, to feel safe, to be. I went to become a better advisor, teacher, and community member and to help my students connect to both larger conversations and to the daily conversations that shape our school culture. I didn’t really know what I would take away, but I came away with a deeper appreciation of the ways in which our language simultaneously reflects, shapes, reinforces, and structures our willingness—and our unwillingness—to genuinely appreciate one another. The less we tend to the power of our language (and its inclusive and exclusive effects), the more we abdicate our responsibilities to grow, to come together, and to each other.
The question isn’t really about getting the language “right,” but about doing right by and staying committed to one another. Along the way, there are sure to be false starts and wrong turns, but progress is a winding, wandering path toward a greater good. As Pema Chödrön says, “We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” Similarly (in perhaps my favorite quotation ever), Lee Mun Wah says, “The real question about diversity is not about whether someone will be hurt or upset, but rather if they are willing to stay in the room and resolve their differences. For that is where the real work of any healthy relationship inevitably comes to if it is to grow and to heal.” I suppose, given the quotations that I have included above, I was predisposed to accept what I heard at the conference as compelling. It’s these sorts of perspectives that keep me committed to understanding and respecting people’s depth and complexity, as individuals and collectives.
My first indication that language would be a central theme of the Carolina Conference for Queer Youth occurred when I received my nametag. It had the standard set of information one might expect to find on a conference nametag—the title of the conference, my name in large print, the name of my school, and the host’s (UNC-C) logo. At the bottom, however, I was also asked to publicly define myself for others. Written there, posing a mini existential problem, was the following:
“My pronouns are:______________________.”
Having arrived a bit earlier than the vast majority of the conference attendees, I had the time and was alone to decide how to complete my nametag. Of course, given how I think about things, that blank space felt immeasurably long and implied a need for deeper self-reflection and a response that could fill the line more fully than he and him. Are they really my pronouns? Was I assuming correctly that I should write personal gender-based pronouns? I was moderately tempted to write in I and me, or even the contradictory you and me. Or, maybe I could go with an indefinite pronoun, like nothing or everybody or both. With so many possibilities, I questioned whether it really mattered at all, and wondered whether I should just use the interrogative pronoun, whatever.
But then I considered that doing so might only serve to diminish the identities and experiences of those for whom the gendered pronoun distinction really does matter, and that my position as cisgender (or gender-conforming, socio-gender-normative) male allowed me to see gender as a relatively unimportant personal consideration. My former middle and high school classmate and friend (at least on Facebook now, though I suspect we might enjoy each other’s company more now than when I was a young jerk back in our hometown) Bess Hungerford, who very emphatically (and compellingly) argues that “gender is stereotypes,” nudged at my conscience at this point and led me to consider the idea that this whole notion of “gender” was socially constructed and continues to be reinforced and reified through our actions and expectations of ourselves and others. I’d grown accustomed to seeing myself as “neutral,” a perspective that I recognize as a whole set of lies that I tell myself in order to externalize issues and to abdicate certain social responsibilities; and this line, this stupid little line on the bottom of my cheap, conference badge, asked me to define myself—literally to wear a badge signifying who I am in the sea of gender stereotypes and complex identities, and to take a side—and I balked. In a state of defiance or ignorance or fear or dismissal or unwillingness or refusal to engage, I stared at that space, then I left it blank.
So, just like that, my role at the conference was no longer solely about how I could support others. My assumption that this conference was only about my students, that I was a “neutral” observer, had to be dealt with. I had to situate myself within the taxonomic lexicology of sex, gender, sexuality, and socio-normativity. And I hadn’t yet finished my morning coffee.
I have often been greeted with the word “welcome.” Typically, I hear that word expressed in an attempt at formality with a somewhat pretentious tone. Either I’m being sized up, or condescended, or the greeter is putting on some type of airs. Sometimes it’s a receptionist or cashier “welcoming” me in the way that they’ve been trained to do. The welcome to the Carolina Conference on Queer Youth had the genuineness of a warm, familial embrace, both in what was written in the inside flap of the conference program and by the opening speaker.
Since then, I’ve been thinking about welcoming as a concept, in particular how genuinely welcoming we are as a school and how welcoming I am as a part of our school community. Michael Weir, a recent graduate of UNC-Charlotte who is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Health at George Washington University and interning with the Executive Office of the President, was the breakfast keynote speaker. He discussed his coming out experiences, growing up in the small coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina. In many ways, Michael’s story was not terribly dissimilar from other coming out stories that I have heard over the years. It was a process of defining himself for himself, defining himself for others, being reductively defined by many others as only gay with no consideration of his complex wholeness as a person, all in the small town where his entire extended family has lived for decades. Busy with schoolwork, sports, friends, and family, Michael didn’t really spend much time thinking about being gay. It didn’t consume his life or define him for himself, being another of the many parts of who he is. Nevertheless, even in New Bern, where he was well known and well loved, Michael no longer felt welcome. “I wanted to live a life that I could be happy in,” he said. So, far from the hometown that had no community organizations that he could turn to for support, “UNC-Charlotte,” Michael said, “helped me to start a new life.”
UNC-Charlotte had offered Michael a truly welcoming undergraduate environment and offered us at the conference the same. The inside cover of the conference program read, “While at the Carolina Conference on Queer Youth we will respect your gender identity, sexual orientation, preferred pronouns, and your desire to question. We expect each and every participant to do this for others.” There was nothing disingenuous, forced, or pretentious about the welcomes offered at the conference. From the gender neutral bathrooms to the focus on sharing and learning, “[t]his conference [was] intentionally created to challenge your assumptions, create more community, and to be a safe space for YOU to learn.” Perhaps in the context of this one-day conference, among queer youth and the professionals who serve and advocate for them, creating a safe space was easier than in a broader school community. However, tending to those details, I suspect that we can move our school closer to the ideal that Michael Weir found at UNC-Charlotte, where our students and parents and community members of any age can live a life that that they can be happy in without the need to “start a new life” elsewhere. That we can use the word “welcome” in its truest and deepest sense from the moment that we greet prospective families and faculty to their annual welcome back at Homecoming, with no equivocation in between.
An Intersectional Justice-Based Approach to Liberatory Education
I guess that any insider group has its own particular jargon, and I had a hunch about what I was going to when I chose the session entitled “Paradigm Shift: Towards Liberatory Education,” but I certainly would have hesitated if asked to describe what “an intersectional justice-based approach to…liberatory education” meant. It seems that every organization that is connected to a movement has its own special vocabulary that needs to be explained in order for its work to be understood by outsiders, even if those outsiders are connected to the same collective body of work. The two presenters (I’m going to refer to them both as “women,” but as we went around the room introducing ourselves, we were asked to declare our pronoun preferences, and one of the presenters preferred they and them, which threw off my sense of singular and plural irrespective of the question of gender identity) represented two different organizations—Southerners On New Ground (SONG) and Girls Rock Charleston. As we discussed intersectional approaches, liberatory theory, “affirming the wholeness,” illusions of objectivity, and tried to narrow in on sharp distinctions and definitions of who we were and what we were doing and why we were doing it; it reoccurred to me that how we talk about who we are and what we do and why we are doing it can obscure both our organizational identities and our purposes.
It’s funny. I was just teaching about the inherent risks of definitions in my classes. How a definition is simultaneously inclusive and exclusive, and that the more narrow and tightly construed our definitions, the more exclusive they become. And, if we’re defining issues of any sort, our definitions will affect how and how well the issues can be addressed. This is particularly challenging when dealing with issues of identity, self-definition, and identity categorizations, because our definitions will include and exclude real people at a core level. So, there is a bit of a dilemma when trying to define an organization, what it does, who it serves, and why it does both, especially when that organization is intended to serve broad populations in a somewhat holistic way. Characterize the organization too broadly and you run the risk that no one you intend to serve will see whether or where they fit. Characterize the organization too narrowly and people will rightly see that they are not included in the definition. It seems that constant attention to who we are, what we do, who we serve, and why we do it is necessary in any organization, including our own. And, at the same time, no organization can be “all things to all people.” We’ve all got to make choices with a full appreciation of who is reasonably included in (and, by definition, excluded from) what we do.
The presenters at this session posted a definition of “queer liberation” on the board. “Queer liberation,” it said:
seeks liberation for all peoples through working for the recognition of our whole selves, the integrity of the relationships and families we embrace, self-determination in choices for our bodies in sexuality, gender, eroticism, disability, safety, and privacy; the dignity of our spiritual practices; fairness in our economic system, our work, and its compensation; full access to participating and benefiting from society’s institutions; human rights for all, and justice as a birthright for all.
While the broad approach to “liberation” made sense to me, especially in light of the broad set of slogans presented—“affirm the wholeness,” “justice for everyone,” “can’t liberate anyone without liberating everyone,”—in many ways it seemed like too much. The “big picture” was obscured by its bigness, limited by its limitlessness. As I considered the concept of queer liberation as presented, I wondered about how we define ourselves at Providence Day and who is included and excluded, heralded and obscured, uplifted and ignored by design.
Heath Morrison, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, arrived about thirty minutes late for his presentation and question-and-answer session, because he had been unveiling the CMS Strategic Plan earlier that morning. His presentation was to be followed by a panel of representatives from CMS schools—two teachers, one district-level administrator, and two transgender students—so they reversed the order and the panel preceded the superintendent’s remarks. The panel was asked questions both by a facilitator and by the audience. The questions continued to circle around the theme of the inclusivity and exclusivity of language. Rather than definitions, though, the focus was on the inclusivity or exclusivity of school policies and whether practices aligned with schools’ espoused principles.
Policies are often intended to create a sense of predictability in an organization. Yet, when policies are written, they can, like a definition, be so broadly construed that no one quite knows how the policy may be applied and/or so narrowly construed that many are left out. The policy at the center of discussion was CMS’s non-discrimination policy, which does not cover employment based on sexual orientation (or number of the lesser known categories discussed that day at the conference. Having petitioned the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education to incorporate (at least) sexual orientation into its non-discrimination policy and been flat-out denied several years ago, many teachers in the room were left with an unpredictable employment future should they wish to display pictures of their families or be inadvertently “outed” somehow. While Superintendent Morrison assured everyone that his personal and professional position was that LGBT status would not be a cause for discrimination, the protection still does not exist in the policy’s language. It seemed odd to me that the superintendent could say that the most important aspect of students heading out into the world is self-knowledge—knowing, sharing, and celebrating who you are—while at the same time, teachers in his district could not confidently be themselves.
All of this got me wondering about our policies at Providence Day School. I have read it enough times to know that sexual orientation is included in the text of our non-discrimination policy. But, the discussion during this section got me thinking more deeply about the more subtle messages that our policies and practices send. What issues do we publicly promote and silently ignore? Do we address issues in such broad terms that our efforts become muddled and meaningless (the example discussed by the panel during this session was “bullying”)? How does Providence Day’s gender-based dress code affect the educational experiences of trans* and intersex students? When going on overnight school trips and sleeping four students to a room, how should we account for sexual orientation and gender identities? When a two-father family is left out of Mom’s Day in Kindergarten, how will their six year-old child feel about their family? When only one of them shows up at Dad’s Day in the Spring, will we breathe a sigh of relief, thankful that the other children aren’t forced to confront their ideas about normal family structures “too early?” Are we truly willing to deal with the discomfort of choosing where we will stand? And will we stand together?
At lunch, Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls, Founding Pastor of Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte, encouraged us all to be fundamentalists. She wanted us all to take an up-close look at our fundamental personal and collective principles and to see them for the inclusivity that they promote. She spoke about the dangers of a single story, referencing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk warning of the same. She said that the more we put people in a box, defining them as only one thing, the more that we push them out and away from ourselves, and the more we reject our own fundamentally inclusive principles. So, she encourages us all to be fundamentalists as more than a matter of principle, but as a matter of life and death.
Sixteen. One-Six. The number that scares Bishop Rawls more than any other. Sixteen is the age that so many students drop out of school, because being LGBT in CMS is so dehumanizing. The stories that follow that decision, as Rawls put it, are “horrifying.” Left homeless and hopeless with nothing but their bodies to sell and fill with drugs, many LGBT dropouts end up straining the healthcare and prison systems. Many don’t make it that far. LGBT students are three times more successful at suicide attempts than their straight counterparts. And, there are stories behind the stats and the suicides. “I am amazed,” Bishop Rawls said, “that any LGBT students in CMS make it and survive at all.” So, she encouraged us “to be a fundamentalist.”
Bishop Rawls, with decided oratorical flair, asked us to look at our principles and to understand the idea and the word fundamentalist in a new way, by inserting LGBT identities into our most public espousals of our principles:
- “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men[, women, and LGBT people] are created equal….”
- “Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools provides all [LGBT] students the best education anywhere, preparing every [LGBT] child to lead a rich and productive life.”
- “The mission of CMS is to maximize educational achievement by every [LGBT] student in every school.”
How can we insert the language of inclusion into our own fundamental principles, to help ourselves see our ideals in a new way? Are we willing to state our principles publicly in such a way, or do we make silent assumptions about what’s included, hoping that no one digs beneath the words? What will they find there? What is? What they hope to see? Are we willing to be fundamentalists?
Heterosexism & Cisgenderism
It’s almost ridiculous, the number of words I’ve added to and instructed spellcheck to ignore, just in writing this reflection. One of them is in the subtitle above—cisgenderism. I just had to add it again, because when I wrote it the second time, it wasn’t capitalized. The session entitled “Heterosexism & Cisgenderism in High Schools: Tackling the Problem at Multiple Levels,” led by former Time Out Youth volunteer and current member of the Georgia State University faculty, Kristie L. Seelman, was largely about measuring how and how well we address heterosexism and cisgenderism in our schools. Doing so, means that we’ve got to know what in the world either of these terms means. Spellcheck sure as hell doesn’t.
Professor Seelman’s PowerPoint and handout give the following definitions:
- Heterosexism: “a systematic process of privileging heterosexuality relative to [other sexualities], based on the assumption that heterosexuality and heterosexual power are normal and ideal. This definition is based on an ideology that can be expressed by individuals, but emphasizes social regularities or contextual norms that privilege one group over others” (Chesir-Teran, 2003, p. 268).
- Cisgender: People who do not transgress gender rules, i.e., they are not transgender (Koyama, 2003); their “identity and presentation [match] their physical morphology” and mirror “the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated” with their sex (Matthews, 1999, Cisgender, para. 1).
- Cisgenderism: a systematic process of privileging cisgender (non-transgender) identities relative to transgender and gender non-conforming identities, based on the assumption that being cisgender is normal and ideal. Again, the ideology can be expressed by individuals, but the emphasis here is on how this shows up in social regularities & contextual norms.
I guess the good thing about spellcheck is that it recognizes that there’s a problem that needs to be dealt with, but usually it assumes that you’re wrong. That’s kind of how it is with the things that we do. If we don’t know what it is, we can’t incorporate it into the way we do things. At best, we might underline it in squiggly red. At worst, we’ll autocorrect and call it something that it’s not, imposing our own assumptions and drawing conclusions about what is and what ought to be. Professor Seelman’s session offered tools for assessing school cultural environments in which students make decisions about how they will present who they are—whether to be “out,” whether to hold hands with a significant other, whether to talk in class, etc. In order to recognize the importance of each student in our school, it’s going to take more than the spellcheck “add” or “ignore” button. We’ll have to take a comprehensive look at what our culture really says about who we are and who we underline in squiggly red.
In the session entitled “Advanced Queer Language,” led by Josh Burford (who is also one of my colleague Jen Bratyanski’s best friends), we delved into the “constant narrative of language” that has defined and redefined queer history over the last five hundred years or so. At this point in time, as Josh indicated, “binary language is losing its stranglehold,” and we are at a tipping point, ready to move beyond simplicity and into the complexity of a language that is needed to simultaneously align with and broaden the openness of our hearts and minds. This final presenter-based (and wildly entertaining) session was a perfect cap-off to the social, political, religious, pedagogical, and attitudinal lessons in taxonomic lexicology.
Starting with a radical interpretation of the story of Soddom and Gomorrah in a 16th century French monastery, which gave birth to the label “soddomite,” there is a long, long history of charged language and the application of labels to individuals and groups who don’t fit in a particular social, political, religious, etc. definition of “normal.” Over the course of time, “queer” people had little to no control over the language, labels, and values that were applied to them. It wasn’t until the 1940s that people began to group themselves together as “gay,” without necessarily considering what it meant to do so. From around 1990 to the present, more and more distinctions have been included—lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, transgender (and trans*), queer, questioning, intersexual, Native American Two-Spirit, asexual, ally, everyone—and extended the acronyms that are somehow supposed to mean something, but what? Each distinction, with subcategories of its own, adds to an already overloaded alphabet soup that makes understanding a movement seem overwhelming. In light of the history of queer language, Josh introduced an acronym that seems to be making some headway: QUILT BAGPIPE.
Q- Queer, Questioning
T- Trans*, Two-Spirit
A- Asexual, Allies
G- Gay, GenderQueer
E- Everyone we’ve forgotten
Josh highlighted the fact that using QUILT BAGPIPE as an acronym may be advantageous for any of at least four reasons. (1) Quilt and bagpipe are actual words. (2) Neither quilt nor bagpipe is so common as to be an everyday word. (3) It’s actually kind of memorable (as opposed to LGBTTQQINAAE). (4) You avoid the odd double-lettering of other acronyms. For me, the acronym illustrates the need to move beyond categorizing and characterizing others to a place in which everyone is valued for all of their complexity, all together, at all time. Where we give each other the space to be all of ourselves, not just one thing, without undue restriction or judgment. Where others see us as we see ourselves, complexities and contradictions included. But the pathway toward such a place is certain to be filled with misunderstandings, muffed starts, and hurt feelings. Will we take it anyway?
Never a Checklist, Always Complexity.
In Michael Fullan’s book, Leading in a Culture of Change (2001), Chapter Three is entitled “Never a Checklist, Always Complexity.” In that chapter, Fullan makes the case that “there can never be a recipe or cookbook for change, nor a step-by-step process.” That certainly seems to be the case with how we address (or whether address) issues within our community, but also how the words that we use impact the community that we intend to build. It’s certain to be a messy process, one in which we are certain to stumble along the way. “All this complexity keeps people on the edge of chaos,” Fullan says. “It is important to be on that edge because that is where creativity resides, but anarchy lurks there too. Therefore, effective leaders tolerate enough ambiguity to keep the creative juices flowing, but along the way (once they and the group know enough), they seek coherence.” Like Wile E. Coyote, it’s our persistence that will allow us to move forward and to redefine ourselves, learning along the way, perhaps moving no closer to any prey, but toward a truer understanding of ourselves.
 I use this idea of “taxonomic lexicology” to mean the study of words that categorize, separate, or classify us.
 Even the idea of “queer” in the title of the conference is a subject for reflection and debate about who is included or excluded and what it all means.
 qnotes [qnotescarolinas]. (2013, October 18). @timeoutyouth hosting 200+ youth, teachers, community members at Carolina Queer Youth Conf at UNCC. #queer2013 pic.twitter.com/xCR8XdVm1i [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/search?q=%23queer2013&src=hash.
 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender. An acronym that isn’t fully encompassing, but that is well-known shorthand for looking beyond binaries.
 Josh referred to “queer history” in his presentation, so my use of it reflects his choice of phrase.
 Genesis 19:1-16
 Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
 Fullan, 2001, p. 44
 Fullan, 2001, p. 6