“It’s always open season on gay kids,” so writes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay (1991). From physical or verbal harassment or abuse, to the increased likelihood of self-harm, and the medical pathologization of lesbian, gay, and bisexual children, LGB youth contemplate suicide and other forms of self-harm at almost three times the rate of their heterosexual peers. In fact, suicide among LGB adolescents is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24. As a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at the University of California San Diego, I am forever faced with repudiating the very seeds of homophobia that come to exist in students in their elementary, middle, and high school years. As Sedgwick comments, “teachers in the primary and secondary levels of public [and private] schools –who are subject to being fired…for providing any intimation that homosexual desires, identities, cultures, adults, children, or adolescents have a right to expression or existence,” (Sedgwick, 1991) often falls on faculty and graduate students at the university level to provide generative spaces, particularly within the humanities, to not only acknowledge the range and diversity in sexual orientation, but to encourage these very expressions to flourish – that they have the right to exist.
As such, when it comes to the treatment, dignity, respect, equity, and making intellectual space for lesbian, gay, and bisexual, (and of course, transgender) students, the scholarly and affective labor provided by those of us in academia is often just as important, if not more important, than the research we do (although they are not necessarily separate).
Now in my fourth year at UCSD, I have had the distinct pleasure, but also circuitous path, of arriving where I am today, teaching in the field of race, ethnicity, disability, and of course, LGBT studies, all while pursuing my own graduate study in Queer Theory, Disability Studies, and Television. For nearly eight years I worked in Washington, D.C., five of those years advancing LGBT issues in medical education at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), to ensure our future doctors are providing the care, treatment, and support for sexual minorities and closing the gap in health outcomes for LGBT patients. I spent an additional nearly three years working in public health and international development specifically on programs meant to diminish HIV/AIDS stigma while also reducing transmission for men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) (in addition to other vulnerable populations) throughout Africa as part of the Population Council. Having worked in such important fields and in the shadows of many incredible giants, I knew I wanted to move up and continue doing this transformative work, which required me to pursue a doctoral degree.
Although I initially struggled making the leap from practice (programming and fieldwork at the AAMC and the Population Council) to theory (sitting in a classroom at UC San Diego), I was quickly reminded of the importance that education has on the mind. It was only when I stumbled across a poignant quote by former anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and South African President, Nelson Mandela, during one of my classes that I quickly realized the positive difference I am making in my community within the classroom. The quote read, “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” It was in this moment that I no longer saw myself as a Ph.D. student conducting my own research and developing my own expertise, but an opportunity to use my research and experiences in working on LGBT issues in Washington, D.C., as a part of my curriculum and teaching pedagogy.
As someone who recalls very vividly what it was like growing up being tormented, teased, and tortured for being different – gay – I use my platform as an teacher, mentor, and survivor, to encourage and applaud those coming to terms with their sexual orientation, in a world that has and continues to view us as anomalies and degenerates. In my classroom I openly encourage the very existence of queers. And in this radical act, I am reminded of the many times numerous teachers gave room to homophobic rhetoric during my primary, middle, and high school years, and wishing someone, anyone, even just one person would have made me feel safe; made me feel that I belonged and was worthy of respect and life. I never want any of my students to ever feel this way: to feel diminished; to feel dead.
In centering texts by queer scholars – voices that have historically been silenced and pushed to the penumbra of society – are meant to elicit a sense of belonging and futurity. I want my students to be part of an unapologetically visible lesbian, gay, bisexual community, in a world that would much rather render them invisible. When my students walk away feeling more comfortable or certain about who they are as budding queers, in the same way that my hetero students understand their role in perpetuating systematic homophobic violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, that is a marvelous thing to bear witness to. The intellectual growth that happens in the classroom that students take with them out into the world, challenging and making spaces for people deemed unworthy of life, is one of the most important reasons I teach. I have come to realize that my graduate work and education at UC San Diego is not theoretical as I had once lamented, it is in fact, very practical. And for all the emotionally exhaustive and financially thankless days of being a Ph.D. student, if I can continue to chip away at the assiduous open season on LGB students, it will have all been worth it. It is this work I do year after year in the Dimensions of Culture program at UC San Diego, that has and continues to a make a positive difference in not just the UCSD community, but beyond. And for that, I am so very proud of my students.