(Dis)Covered Bridges: public articulation and the college classroom.
The effects of an instructor's disclosure should be considered, we shall argue, not only with regard to how an instructor's career and pedagogical effectiveness might be affected, but also, and more important, with regard to how that instructor's students--gay, straight, undecided--might respond and might be affected. In this paper, we will contextualize and argue a twofold position: that instructors should not disclose directly in the classroom unless the decision is made with careful consideration of professional and pedagogical ethical considerations that we shall outline, and that such consideration should take account of the likelihood that any benefits of hypothetical disclosure are already more effectively achieved owing to students' nonverbal and indirect communication and perception. We will then offer analysis of two texts that we use in our own classrooms, The Ellen DeGeneres Show (Majocha, Communication & Rhetoric) and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home (Cox, English & Gender Studies).
First, we shall consider the ethics of disclosure: what is the pedagogically and professionally appropriate distance between an instructor's public (that is, classroom) persona and their private life? And to what extent do students need or want to know private information about an instructor if that information helps shape an instructor's world view and perspectives? Perhaps more important, what motivates disclosure and whose interests are served? At the core of the debate are two familiar issues in academia today: advocacy in the undergraduate classroom, and essentialism as pedagogical imperative. Both are part of ongoing, often fierce, debates about undergraduate instruction, in particular the ubiquitous required freshman-level courses in speaking and writing, both of which, as skills-acquisition courses, have been appropriated, for better or worse, by instructors who use them as vehicles to instruct, enlighten, inculcate, or manipulate students with regard to contemporary social and political issues such as gender, class, race, and religion. Mary Rasmussen asserts the utility of considering such issues and contexts of disclosure in her 2004 article "The Problem of Corning Out": "teachers and students might benefit from being mindful of the moral, political, and pedagogical issues that necessarily influence educations discourses of the closet and coming out" (144).
Advocacy and essentialism intersect in the realm of scholarly enterprise and theoretical applications in the form of "identity studies," "sexuality studies," and "queer studies," popular and significant scholarly disciplines germane to the study of language and culture; indeed, it is difficult to imagine the state of theoretically informed scholarship today, our own work included, absent the influence of Judith Butler, Gender Trouble in particular, for instance. In addition to their significant positive impact upon scholarly enterprise as concerns theory and practice, many GLQ theorists and scholars have led the charge against canonical exclusiveness in college curricula and provided the catalyst for the introduction of sexuality and other identity studies as a legitimate academic field of inquiry. Even if self-serving, these pioneers have had a positive impact beyond the niche groups they hoped would occupy a new hegemony; as Gust Yep et al note in their 2003 article "Queering Communication: Starting the Conversation," "We believe that queer theory offers ways to imagine different social realities, gender/sexual systems, and participation in cultural politics" (2). And whether one personally agrees with their ideological agendas, it is worth noting the valuable contributions of curriculum activists--William Pinar, for instance, who describes a "queer progressive dream" of revising education (359) or Kevin Kumashiro, who advocates "troubling the standards" via queer theory (365)--who have provided much-needed leadership and momentum for making real, and positive, changes in the way conventional norms are reconsidered, and who, with dialogue and shared purpose, have helped revise college curricula to include Queer Studies, courses, and texts in more broadly construed avenues of study. But while discussions of queer theory's significance are an important part of critical and theoretical discourse in academia today, that discourse, we would argue, is in some important regards distinct from discussions of disclosure and pedagogy when the courses and curricula are not specifically GLQ, especially at the introductory undergraduate level.
To appreciate the utility of the kind of nonverbal and indirect communication, rather than verbal disclosure, in the classroom that we are positing, the issue of advocacy in the classroom must first be addressed. Whether advocacy belongs in the classroom is a highly charged and largely partisan debate still underway in academia, well over a decade since Patricia Spacks's landmark book, Advocacy in the Classroom, both reflected and stimulated discussion; having intensified in recent years in response to shifting political climates, it is unlikely to be resolved to anyone's satisfaction and certainly not within the foreseeable future. But the terms of this debate are germane to our discussion of disclosure: how might ideological contexts be openly and meaningfully explored? At what point does valid pedagogical enterprise cross the line into undue influences? Is the appropriation of the classroom for an instructor's political agenda valid? Such considerations can help elucidate the question of the extent to which public and private personas coexist in a pedagogical environment, an issue of currency and relevance in academia today, particularly germane to undergraduate speaking and writing courses. At the MLA convention in 2008 in San Francisco, for instance, Stanley Fish, author of the recent book Save the World on Your Own Time, debated Judith Butler herself on the propriety of advocacy in such classrooms, with Fish arguing that freshman speaking and writing courses are not validly used as an instructor's political platform and Butler arguing that it is her duty, she believes, to persuade students to see the world through her own ideological lens.
A key distinction must therefore be made here between advocacy--endorsing and encouraging student concurrence with an instructor's ideological, especially activist, views--and what is commonly known as 'positive awareness, the idea that, as described by Karen M. Stinson in her oftcited guidebook Diversity Awareness Profile, individuals become aware of issues of diversity and social justice and consider them from an informed perspective. Positive awareness of diversity issues, including GLQ, can lead to students' desire to participate in advocacy and activism, but the sequence need not, nor should be, mandated or absolute; informed students are more likely to form genuine and purposeful interests, rather than the rote or temporary interest exhibited by those students who feel compelled or manipulated into compliance with an instructor's own advocacy agenda. As Gloria Anzaldua notes in her 2002 essay "(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Spaces," "For positive social change to occur we must imagine a reality that differs from what already exists ... Empowerment comes from ideas" (3). As college professors, the authors of this paper share the view that our classrooms can, and should, promote positive awareness of diversity in society and culture; but we also share the view that positive awareness need not, and should not, cross the line into advocacy that usurps the classroom learning environment for ideological promotion.
As important related question, then, is that of for whom, and to whom, do we, as individuals and college professors, speak? The concept known as 'essentialism' in contemporary academia seems often to be distorted to rather extreme and absurd ends that collapse upon their own illogic: the belief that only a black person can legitimately speak about black issues, for instance, only a woman can speak about feminism, only a Jew can speak about Jewish things, only a gay person can speak about gay life and culture. Essentialists see authors and teachers as ambassadors of their gender, sexuality, race, class, ideologies, and other identity categories, and consider the teaching of these texts and topics a valid means of imposing a hegemonic reversal, playing the game of exclusion by reversing who's in and who's out.
Those of us who teach speaking and writing at the undergraduate level need not demand such absolute congruity with regard to individual identities or fidelity to entrenched ideological beliefs, and instead can recognize our ability to appreciate and understand the experiences of others even if we ourselves have not had exactly the same experience. An informed and conscientious sense of empathy cautions us against professing to speak 'for' any group or category, because empathy makes possible the crucial and obvious difference between 'like and 'as': we can temporarily, in our experience of reading and teaching, choose to read 'like' X, with a measure of empathy and cultural awareness, even if we, by biology or association, cannot read 'as' a member of X. From our textual experience, we can learn more about X and, more important, about the world that both X and we inhabit. Alison Bechdel does not demand that one be or become gay in order to appreciate the gay perspectives offered in her provocative 2006 graphic memoir, Fun Home, for instance, nor must an instructor publicly disclose as gay in order to establish authority for teaching or discussing it, a point to which we shall return.
It is important to note that we are accounting for student and faculty institutional demographics: our focus is not on the current, cutting-edge discursive openness so ubiquitously associated with graduate programs and the institutions that serve them; those environments are almost universally safe places for exploration and articulation of identity and association on the part of faculty and students alike (indeed, many departments of such institutions in the current academic climate tend to be disproportionately identity oriented, to the extent that some in the profession joke that those without an identity niche are the new marginalized and underprivileged group, the new 'other'). Rather, our focus is on the less-examined undergraduate classrooms that focus on writing, speaking, and the development of critical and analytic skills, in particular those of public, mid-level undergraduate institutions that serve largely regional, and hence potentially homogeneous and arguably resistant, student bodies--the kind of institution at which we ourselves teach, and the kind that serves far greater numbers of both faculty and students nationally in total. (While the main campus of our university, the University of Pittsburgh, is itself is a large, urban, and in many senses cutting-edge institution, its regional branch campuses are located in post-industrial, relatively conservative quasi-suburban, small-town environments, including Greensburg, Erie, and Johnstown.) Most of our teaching duties involve general-education, introductory, and survey courses, which attract students from all majors fulfilling their liberal-arts core; no one would ever describe what we do as preaching to the ideologically converted. Right-leaning critics of MLA and NCA notwithstanding, however, while the scholarly and critical work of faculty, usually graduate faculty, indeed establishes their industry-wide reputation, this is not, for the most part, what goes on in undergraduate classrooms--though students, of course, are aware, if they choose to be, of a professor's published work and its implications regarding self disclosure, which is, we believe, very different from our making that disclosure in the classroom in our role of instructor.
An analogy, albeit partial, may be drawn between an instructor's public articulation of religious identity, which isn't visibly obvious in the way sex and race are and the disclosure of which is, thus, subject to an instructor's discretion: were an instructor to walk into a classroom and say to the class, "I am Jewish," clearly they are doing two things: presenting themselves as a Jewish voice, which is not supposed to be their role in the undergraduate speaking or writing classroom--they might be an instructor who is Jewish, but they are not, in their role as professor, a Jewish instructor--and, second, whether it be their intention or not, they are implicitly warning the students not to say anything, in person or in writing, that might offend them in that identified role, while simultaneously encouraging unctuous agreement and therefore preempting legitimate inquiry and exploration by demanding that students be politically correct in their public and shared utterances. Analogously, were an instructor to walk into a classroom and announce, "I am gay," students would likewise feel silenced or constrained, not only because an ineluctable intimacy has been imposed upon them--which would be true of any personal, especially sexual, announcement; gay or straight, it's irrelevant and inappropriately familiar--but also because the focus of the class has been shifted from content to instructor, specifically the instructor's identity beyond the role of teacher.
This transfer of attention corresponds to the phenomenon known as 'gestalt-coherence': because the context of an object of attention forms the theme for the object, how it is perceived and understood, when the context around the object changes, the theme of the object changes, and when the theme of the object changes, the attention to the object changes (Arvidson ix-15). Therefore, when instructors disclose their sexual preference in the classroom, the context of the instructor changes and students change their focus of attention from the subject matter being taught to their instructor's sex life. As phenomenologists have noted in regard to attention dynamics, the "contemplated horse" model of immanence and object, discussed by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty among others (and contra Bretano), thinking about an object as thought, as opposed to thinking about the object, shifts awareness (Jacquette 117-118); by extension, thinking about having been told a piece of information shifts one's attention from the original focus of attention (e.g., course content) to the fact of the given information's having been made manifest (the instructor's sexual identity).
Students made aware of an instructor's GLQ status by dint of an instructor's class-room self-disclosure might, accordingly, think about the instructor not as an expert in the teaching of speech or writing, but as a GLQ individual, a perspective complicated by the instructor's position of authority. A 2003 study by Vanessa Ewing et al, "Student Prejudice Against Gay Male and Lesbian Lecturers," for instance, found that when instructors disclosed in the classroom, students no longer accounted for an instructor's knowledge or pedagogical effectiveness in completing student-evaluation survey forms after a weak classroom performance; instead, they focused on the instructor's expressed sexuality, giving the instructors an excuse for their poor performance. Ewing et al concluded that while the instructors received positive evaluations for weak performance, such instructors suffered in the long run because students regarded them as deserving of special treatment, an attitude that Ewing et al compare to racist beliefs (576-77). Many GLQ instructors, of course, fear such negative reaction from students, as well as from colleague and administrators; discrimination against GLQ instructors can, as David Nixon, "Discrimination, Performance, and Recuperation," found, can take the form of direct discrimination from those who perceive homosexuality as pathology, "to be met by verbal and/or physical aggression," or "marginalized as 'other' to the 'norm' of being straight; more insidiously, it can take the form of indirect discrimination, as Ewing et al found, which Nixon describes: "Indirect discrimination is more subtly focused, often by those who would see themselves as equity-minded. This would include views of GLQ teachers as 'victims' within the system, as a homogenous group, or as potential representatives of their sexuality" (147). Perhaps indirect disclosure would produce different results, but these studies show clearly that direct disclosure elicits possible bias.
As well, the insertion of personal revelations into a class lecture or discussion introduces a new, and limiting, ideological lens through which the students will now see the course content. Because of the inherently and necessarily asymmetrical power relationship between student and instructor--which exists even in the classrooms of those instructors who might wish to assert otherwise--students often feel pressured to comply with an instructor's personal or political views if voiced. The experience of contending with instructor advocacy can help train students, cynically, to give the appearance of agreement in order to avoid punishment or to ingratiate themselves for higher grades, but surely this is not the goal of undergraduate speaking and writing courses. Additionally, an instructor's giving the appearance of favoring one group of students in the classroom on the basis of shared identity could have a demoralizing or disruptive effect on the majority, some of whom would blame the 'pet' students rather than the instructor for the favoritism--a factor too often overlooked by instructors eager to share personal information in the classroom but unaware of, or indifferent to, the consequences of students revealing likewise in response, who must contend with other students in a possibly hostile environment where no ally-instructor is available to insist upon tolerance and respect or to intervene should prejudice lead to verbal or physical abuse. It would therefore be wrong, we believe, for an instructor to self-identify as GLQ for the purpose of encouraging GLQ students when such a gesture usurps the classroom to promote a personal agenda unrelated to a courses stated goals and content.
Indeed, research has shown that students feel ill served by instructors who usurp the classroom to call attention to their own politics and identity issues. A 2002 study by Travis Russ et al, "Coming Out in the Classroom: An Occupational Hazard?," found, for instance, in a study of 154 undergraduate students enrolled in eight sections of an introductory Communication course, that students perceived the same instructors and lecturers as less credible and less effective when the instructor self-disclosed to the class as gay than when the same instructor or lecturer, giving the same well-rehearsed and neutral lecture, self-disclosed as straight to comparable control-group classes (via references to same- or other-sex partners by first name); the study found as well that "students of a gay teacher perceive that they learn considerably less than students of a straight teacher," other variables being equivalent, and that "a considerable number of students in this study perceived the gay educator as 'biased' and 'pushy"' (322). This is not to say, of course, that disclosure alone equates with unsatisfactory student perception, but it does invite further consideration of what dynamic is at work in fueling student dissatisfaction with instructors who disclose personal information about themselves, chiefly the extent to which such disclosure is associated by students with ideological intolerance and attempted inculcation at the expense of expected course content. (It goes without saying, or should, that instructors in search of camaraderie and support for themselves would do better to seek validation from those outside the pedagogical environment rather than exploit students via the power asymmetry inherent in the pedagogical relationship.)
GLQ students, after all, risk the same kinds of discrimination as do GLQ-identified instructors; a 1993 study in College Teaching notes that such students were afraid to disclose to overtly straight instructors because "they felt the instructor might retaliate by grading them lower, might make them 'an object' in class, or might patronize them by giving them special treatment" (Lopez and Chism 98). At the same time, GLQ students, a small percentage of students in a typical undergraduate class (statistically estimated to be 5-10% of the general population, though higher in self-selecting populations [Gates 4]), have reported personal benefits in self-esteem and self-acceptance when an instructor self-discloses his or her own GLQ identity. An important 1997 study by Craig Waldo and Jeffrey Kemp, titled "Should I Come Out to My Students?: An Empirical Investigation: indeed found that instructors' public disclosure "may facilitate gay, lesbian, and bisexual students' empowerment: and concluded, "Although there are certainly personal risks associated with lesbian, gay, and bisexual educators' revealing their sexual orientations in class, one benefit of coming out is clear: students may decrease their prejudice towards lesbians and gay men." The study concludes, however, that "the burden of reducing negative attitudes ... should not solely be the responsibility of lesbian, gay, and bisexual instructors" (93). The subject of the negative effects of self-disclosure of instructors has been the subject of recent communication publications as well, as for example, Angela Hosek and Jason Thompson's 2009 article entitled "Communication Privacy Management and College Instruction: Exploring the Rules and Boundaries that Frame Instructor Private Disclosures: in which they explore the risks of self-disclosure in the classroom, including student discomfort and damaged instructor credibility; and Joseph Mazer et al, who assert in their 2007 article entitled "I'll See you on Maceboole: The Effects of Computer-Mediated Teacher Self-Disclosure on Student Motivation, Affective Learning, and Classroom Climate" that instructor self-disclosure can result in unrealistic expectations of instructors from students regarding formality and strictness in the classroom (13).
The key issue here, then, is the responsibility of an instructor to their students to provide instruction within the parameters of academic freedom and professional ethics, as set forth by industry standards and understood, subjectively, by the individual instructors who implement them. As noted by Jen Bacon in her 2006 article "Teaching Queer Theory at a Normal School,"
We all rely on identity, and yet we are troubled by it. We all want inclusion, and yet we sometimes find ourselves feeling exclusive. We all want to challenge heterosexist and homophobic ideas, structures, and discourses when we find them, and yet we sometimes find ourselves wanting to be normal. Our students want to be normal too, because it is a measure of privilege to be able to shun the normal--to queer the categories of our lives for the delight of pushing our politics further than our bodies might be ready to go, and they are in the process of acquiring that privilege. (279)
Many faculty argue, as does Bacon, that their own candor can encourage students to be unashamed and candid themselves about their sexual orientation and to be aware and accepting of sexual diversity among themselves as well as their instructors. But the specific classroom environment, the purpose and content of the course, and the ethics of an instructor's disclosure surely must be taken into account.
While these and similar studies have shown that an instructor's public articulation of private life encourages student disclosure, and, for GLQ students, appears to be positive and empowering, our own position is that the first obligation of instructors of undergraduate classes that focus on writing, speaking, and the development of critical and analytical skills should be to address the needs of all students in a class with the course goals in mind. But direct self-disclosure is only one means of an instructor's communicating identity to students; we suggest that nonverbal and indirect disclosure is another, and better, alternative. The question of how a student might gain the benefits of an instructor's disclosure, without an instructor's compromising ethics and pedagogy in the undergraduate classroom, will now be addressed.
The potentially deleterious impact of an instructor's direct disclosure is unnecessary because, as we shall argue, the GLQ students who might benefit from such disclosure are capable of gauging for themselves, via nonverbal and indirect communication and perception, that they and their instructor have a shared perspective on GLQ identity and issues. Specifically, the form of nonverbal or indirect communication known popularly as "gaydar" factors into student perception of an instructor's sexuality: gaydar, which we shall define and illustrate below, can facilitate a GLQ student's perceived connection to an instructor as role model and ally, while non-GLQ students, unaware and indifferent to such signals, need not be subjected to bias-producing direct revelations. After establishing the relevance of this kind of indirect/nonverbal communication to issues of instructor disclosure and pedagogy, we shall offer evidence, both research derived and anecdotal, of its potential positive utility in the classroom environment.
Direct disclosure in the classroom--an instructor's saying, in effect, "I am gay," or referring to a same-sex partner, or wearing a rainbow pin, for instance--differs from non-verbal and indirect disclosure, which pertains to the subtle cues that require not only an individual's production of such signals, but also another, knowing, individual's reception and processing of them. The term cgaydar', popularly understood to be a combination of the words 'gay' and 'radar, corresponds to a belief among GLQ people that, as a gay person, one has the ability to discern the identity of other gay people and to distinguish them from non-GLQ people by observation or intuition. The phenomenon of gaydar has been described, nebulously, as an "unmistakable tingle," by Brian Herrera (24), who emphasizes its apparently intuitive characteristics, and has become so familiar to American culture in general that Urban Dictionary defines 'gaydar' as "the intuitive ability to determine whether another person is gay or not," noting as well that "Gaydar is not based on whether a man is flamboyant or a lesbian is masculine." According to a 2006 Advocate interview with William Lee Adams, author of a Harvard thesis on the gaydar phenomenon and its ubiquity in gay culture, it is not only a well-known social phenomenon in the United States and may be universal across cultures, but is an empirically testable phenomenon as well, a real and necessary trait that involves picking up on subtle and sometimes indescribable cues in order to tell if another is gay or not: "it takes one to know one says Adams (21). Other surveys confirm the phenomenon, for example, Scott Shelp's 2002 study of gay men, about whom he notes, "The higher overall accuracy of gay men [in identifying other gay men in a controlled visual study] demonstrated a trend level difference from their straight cohorts" (1).
The hypothesized phenomenon of indirect communication of GLQ status relies upon the perception and interpretation of an individual's nonverbal behavior by another individual receptive to the non-verbal signals. In dyads which include a homo-sexual person, nonverbal behavior is different from that displayed in dyads consisting of heterosexual participants in terms of self touch, body posture, body orientation and gaze, as noted by Tobias Knofler and Margaret Imhof in their 2007 Journal of Nonverbal Behavior study (195-204). Facial expressions are remarkably telling: eye gaze during social encounters has been associated with identity recognition among gay men and lesbians including direct and broken stares as well as postures, gestures, and smiles, according to Cheryl Nicholas in her 2004 article "Gaydar: Eyegaze as Identity Recognition Among Gay Men and Lesbians" (60). Others have argued that there are physical traits and characteristics found in gay men and women that trigger the sense of gaydar (e.g., France 32).
There is, of course, variation among individuals in their ability to detect the sexual orientation of another, just as there is variation with any other social trait (Adams 21); not all GLQ individuals will detect potentially identifying characteristics in other GLQ individuals to the same extent or with the same degree of certainty, and some non-GLQ individuals will claim, often on the basis of recognizing purposeful, yet coded, disclosures--e.g., implicit gay markers such as tattoo design or piercing location--that they too have the ability to sense the identity of GLQ individuals. (One recent study, a graduate thesis by Heather Giovanini entitled "An Analysis of Gay/Lesbian Instructor Identity in the Classroom" , argues that instructor disclosure is unnecessary because "students can just tell"--which, on the surface, would appear to conclude what we are here arguing; however, the thesis study misidentifies gaydar by conflating it with other forms of coded disclosure, as noted above.) It is important to note that those who claim not to disclose because they make it obvious, are in fact disclosing; gaydar, and the subtle signals it detects, are not synonymous with an individual's reading stereo-typical or deliberately voiced or exhibited markers of GLQ identity.
Although (gaydar' substantiation studies tend to focus more on gay men, in general gaydar appears to be a phenomenon of both gay men and lesbian women, including bisexuals. Many gay women who do not look stereotypically gay, for instance, such as 'butch' (with masculine hair styling and clothing and the absence of cosmetics or ornament), are often read as straight by the straight community. These same 'femme' lesbians, whose clothing styles and trappings of physical appearance are otherwise indistinguishable from those of straight women, are likewise read as gay by gay individuals, according to Robbin Van Newkirk's 2006 Journal of Lesbian Studies article (73). Additionally, gays and lesbians are more likely to have participated in informal social training or apprenticeship to heighten their gaydar sense of identity detection--meaning that they learn to look for non-verbal signals, to the point where such observations become internalized and intuitive rather than consciously discerned--especially in comparison with heterosexual individuals, as noted by Lisa Woolery in her 2007 article "Gaydar: A Social-cognitive Analysis" (9).
The second author of this paper [Majocha] offers the following account of class-room experience with gaydar, both in relation to herself and in relation to GLQ students with whom she interacts: I teach Organizational Communication as a survey course, in which students are introduced to 12 different theoretical approaches to examining organizations through the lens of communication. One such approach is the cultural approach. During this lesson (one 50-minute class period), after I describe Edgar Schein's model of understanding the definition of culture through an explanation of how artifacts, values, and basic assumptions are connected, I ask students to name and describe artifacts important to them, identify the values that the artifacts represent, and then uncover the basic assumptions that underlie the values. For example, the United States flag is an artifact with red stripes, white stripes, blue canton, and stars. The values represented are honor (13 stripes honor the original 13 colonies) and unity (stars on the canton represent a union of the states). The basic assumption may be, for instance, that through honor and unity the United States can achieve and sustain freedom as a union. From this exercise, students learn to perceive and interpret the associations that attach culturally to artifacts. Because I work to prepare students for a global marketplace, I tell them that they will likely encounter diverse groups of people in their professions, and that therefore it would be helpful if they understood artifacts that other cultures embrace, both to familiarize them with specific cultural icons and emblems and to help develop and sharpen their awareness of such artifacts' existence and relevance. I then show students a picture of a rainbow flag. The students describe the artifact (eight differently colored stripes), identify the value (pride for difference), and uncover the basic assumption (that difference is beautiful, for instance, or perhaps, as some might assume or believe, God given).
At no point do I [Majocha] self disclose my GLQ identity as there is no reason to. Students are learning theory and marketplace readiness. Telling students which gender(s) I am sexually attracted to would be distracting to students at best, and inappropriate classroom decorum at worst, creating the kind of inappropriate classroom environment, in which focus has shifted from course content to instructor identity, as we have described above. GLQ students, I have discovered, do not need me to disclose my sexual orientation: they get it by virtue of gaydar. For example, I was discussing space orientation while teaching a non-verbal communication class and I asked the class which video performers were popular among adolescent girls. An answer shouted out was the Jonas Brothers. "Who?" I asked. One student replied, "You have a seven-year-old girl, just ask her, she'll know!" "Oh no," I said lightly, "There's nothing girly about Cindy. She's a tomboy and likes rocks, frogs, and fishing." Most of the students chuckled and laughed at my comment. But Ashley, a gay student (I know this by her Facebook postings), who was sitting with her group and facing away from me, quickly swung her head around 180 degrees and with an attentive look on her face listened as I described Cindy as a tomboy. Ashley has been a much more active and involved student since this time. She could tell by my comments, by my acceptance of my nontraditional daughter's behavior, that I was gay-friendly in an authentic, rather than affected, way. Straight students, already within the cultural norms, have no need for gaydar, no need to know who is straight-friendly because almost everyone is. Ashley, like most gay youths, is looking for validation of self, and she did not need me to disclose my sexual orientation to validate her own. The benefits of shared identity were achieved without the kind of instructor self-disclosure that could negatively affect the class experience for the non-GLQ students and influence their perception of my knowledge and credibility.
The first author of this paper [Cox] concurs, noting that indirect exchanges with students can have a powerfully positive impact while eliminating issues of classroom advocacy and propriety: one student, Sandy, on the first day of an introductory-level Humanities class, Mended' me on Facebook within minutes of leaving the classroom at the conclusion of my introductory overview of the course and its content; there she found, as I then found on her page, confirmation of gay identity (her references to and photos of girlfriends and postings of daterelated banter; my own likewise, including a photo album of my participation in a Pride march). What is telling is the initial gesture: I intuited upon seeing her in the classroom that she was GLQ, as she did upon seeing me, though nothing in my remarks about texts and hermeneutic methods gave any indication of personal information about me, certainly nothing indicative of GLQ status, nor did she speak to me before exiting the classroom.
In subsequent conversations over the semester, outside of the classroom, Sandy felt empowered to ask appropriately non-personal questions, clearly informed by her having gauged my [Cox's] own GLQ status, about issues and questions related to gay identity, religious texts and doctrine, and the rhetoric of popular interpretation of the two in conjunction with each other, which allowed us to address academic questions of personal relevance in an appropriate pedagogical and ethical context. While the role of Facebook in student/teacher relationships is a subject for another paper, it is worth noting here that several other student 'friends' who indicate GLQ identity directly or indirectly via their Facebook postings or photos have similarly been more assertive and secure in asking me for my professional and personal insights on academic topics and current issues related to GLQ interests; as well, and as important, students and former students, despite seeing my Pride photos, for instance, remain unchanged in their demeanor towards, and interactions with, me in the classroom environment.
This is in no way advocating that GLQ instructors at such institutions 'hide' or encourage students likewise; "don't ask, don't tell" is, we believe, a cruel and dishonest farce. Between concealing and revealing, however, lies the crucial space of discretion, in which each instructor constructs their professional persona according to their own sense of duty, ethics, and situation. Setting oneself out as a role model can be of great value to students and instructor alike--but it might not always be the right choice, especially when, as we have argued, the potential benefits of an instructor's GLQ disclosure can be acquired by those students who, owing to their perception and interpretation on nonverbal and indirect communication, recognize and value that like-lihood, without an instructor's compromising the course for the class as a whole. To illustrate, we will now offer two textual analyses from our own teaching experiences as GLQ instructors who have opted not to openly disclose in the classroom but who recognize the value of undergraduate students' having, if they wish, a GLQ role model as part of their college experience.
The following textual analysis, the first of two, was conducted in Majocha's Nonverbal Communication course in the Department of Communication & Rhetoric, during which the nonverbal hypothesis set forth above--that GLQ students' intuitive perception and interpretation of nonverbal or indirect communication could provide positive awareness of an instructor's GLQ status--was developed. The text under analysis was the 2008 interview of celebrity model Carmen Electra by Ellen DeGeneres on the Emmy-award winning daytime talk show The Ellen DeGeneres Show, during the show's eighth season in syndication by NBC.
DeGeneres is well known to American college-student audiences; she is generally regarded positively by viewers, based not only on her program's ratings (averaging for the current year, for example, 5.2 million viewers per episode with a demographic profile that includes young viewers, to whom regular advertisers such as iPhone, iTunes, and Samsung appeal) but also for her voice work as the character "Dory" in the hit movie Finding Nemo (2003), her success as an advertising spokesperson (iPhone, Cover Girl), the popularity of her guest appearances on other programs (including her having served as host of the Academy Awards in 2007, the first openly gay person to have done so), and, perhaps most tellingly, her having been invited to serve as a judge on the program American Idol following Paula Abdul's departure for the 2010 season. What makes De-Generes so intriguing as an illustration of nonverbal behaviors apropos of GLQ student/instructor identity issues is her celebrity status as a publicly self-identifying lesbian.
The Youtube clip of the interview with Carmen Electra was one of several clips shown to the students during the unit for analysis of various communication strategies and interactions, including Oprah Winfrey interviewing the popular singer Pink on The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as DeGeneres interviewing the martial-arts expert and actor Jackie Chan on an earlier episode of DeGeneres's own program. The Ellen DeGeneres Show clip featuring Carmen Electra was likewise used for analyzing non-verbal behavior as her behavior related to the concepts of conversational distance, synchronizing behavior, and affect based on facial cues.
Because the interview was filmed for television, the tight video shot required that the chairs be nearly touching, with a conversational distance of about four feet. This type of placement and structure is typical of talk show interviews, including the interview of Pink by Oprah Winfrey, also shown in class, during which Pink and Oprah are similarly sitting very near each other, with a small table between them and a piano behind and between them (Winfrey). Familiarity with the interviewee is expected of a talk-show host from the viewing audience, as producers are well aware, and is reflected by the proximity of the seating arrangement. Meshing of behaviors, when speakers engage in similar behavior occurring at the same time, can convey familiarity. For example, if one speaker raises her voice, the other speaker will have a tendency to raise her voice as well (Knapp and Hall 250-253). Winfrey's interview of Pink illustrates these concepts: Pink enters the set and upon sitting leans back, and after Pink leans forward, Oprah matches Pink by leaning forward. To provide a baseline for the students of DeGeneres's interviewing style before turning to the Carmen Electra segment, I [Majocha] show an interview between DeGeneres and Jackie Chan: when Chan sits down, he is leaning slightly forward; DeGeneres subsequently matches this posture and leans slightly forward (DeGeneres, "Chan").
Such synchronization, the class observes, is not present at the start of the DeGeneres interview with Electra. Electra sits down, sits upright, crosses her legs, and places her hands on her knees. DeGeneres on the other hand sits down and leans back, signaling disconnection with Electra's nonverbal behavior. In exploratory fashion, I asked the students in the class why they thought DeGeneres was not in concordance with Electra's nonverbal behavior. One student remarked that DeGeneres was nervous around Electra because Electra was "hot." I asked the student to explain their answer and point to a theory to buttress the argument. The student explained that if DeGeneres had leaned in--thus matching Electra's behavior--DeGeneres might appear to be flirting with Electra. The student continued by remarking that if DeGeneres flirted with Electra, DeRossi would be "royally boned" when DeGeneres went home. (The student supported their assertion by explaining the theory of "Quasi-courtship Behavior" [Knapp and Hall 414].)
Later in the interview, when DeGeneres and Electra discuss Electra's new book, How To Be Sexy (Broadway, 2007), DeGeneres and Electra begin discussing flirting behavior at which time DeGeneres exhibits a nonverbal facial behavior that belies her non-verbal distance and matching behavior. As a way of promoting her book, Electra teaches DeGeneres how to flirt. First Electra explains how to employ an eyebrow lift, which De-Generes platonically imitates. Then Electra explains how to employ a lip-lick, which she has described as a subtle flirting technique to indicate arousal, eliciting laughter from the studio audience. DeGeneres, subconsciously it appears, matches Electra's lip-lick with a lick of her own. The students in the classroom respond with "Whoa!" and "Awwww! I saw that!" and "She's [DeGeneres] flirting with her [Electra]." DeGeneres then belies her own nonverbal behavior by stating that she could never get away with a lip-lick. The students in the class respond with laughter and comments such as "yeah right" and "you just did!" DeGeneres then overtly yet comically mocks Electra's lip-lick.
At this point I ask students to identify and discuss what they have witnessed. One student expresses that DeGeneres is obviously "hot" for Electra. Another student states that they think DeGeneres will definitely be "cut off" from DeRossi when she gets home that night. I conclude by stating that although a subject may try to belie their emotions by affecting particular body cues, eventually the true emotions of the subject, as illustrated by the interview clip, will be conveyed via involuntary nonverbal behaviors. It is important to note the extent of the heterosexual bias that the students exhibited; the students made the assumption that DeGeneres must have been flirting with Electra because DeGeneres is homosexual and Electra is attractive. The students did not consider the possibility that Electra may have been presenting herself as a model of female allure, and seemed not to consider the possibility, however remote, that Electra might have been flirting with DeGeneres in a homosexual manner. Or perhaps she wasn't coming on to DeGeneres at all, and perhaps Ellen was trying to accommodate for her guest with her "lip-lick." When Electra was performing her sexual gestures in a very public forum, and perhaps in an artificial fashion, DeGeneres might have been feigning interest simply to be polite.
In spite of the heterosexual bias and having chosen not to disclose directly my own GLQ status, I effectively kept the focus on the DeGeneres text in relation to the analytical contexts; the students were not distracted by my personal status, nor was the class session about my own GLQ status. I did, however, notice that three students in the class who, according to the nonverbal and indirect anecdotal evidence discussed above, I believe to be GLQ themselves, were observing my own nonverbal behavior during the showing and discussion, presumably to see if I too found Electra appealing or arousing, applying the classroom analytical method to a proximate real-life example.
Our second illustrative case in point is Cox's teaching of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home in the undergraduate English & Gender Studies classroom. This popularly and critically well-received book is increasingly used in creative writing courses, autobiography and memoir in particular, as a model of voice and perspective; instructors of literature see its value as a work of aesthetic and hermeneutic accomplishment, provocative in the best sense as a stimulus for skills acquisition and development in critical reading, thinking, and writing. And it frequently appears on syllabi in Gender Studies and similar courses, my own included, given its GLQ subject matter and its author's openly gay identity and feminist politics. Because of its candor and insight, it is deservedly a popular choice; its engagement with themes of gay identity, adolescent sexuality, the coming-out process, and family reactions to these and related issues of self discovery and definition offer students a compelling opportunity to explore these themes from the relatively safe perspective of student audience, with a knowledgeable instructor's assistance in navigating the complex interplay of form and structure, narrative technique, voice and perspective, as well as ideas and their expression and reception.
Upon its publication in 2006, Fun Home was greeted with nearly universal praise from critics, and the subsequent paperback edition includes cited blurbs from dozens of reviews both literary and popular: Time magazine, for instance, awarded it status as its "#1 Book of the Year," and it made the "Year's Best Books" lists of about two dozen other publications (see Chute; Nieboer; Zuarino). As well, the considerable gay, specifically lesbian, audience of Bechdel's long-running comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, as well as gay-and gay-friendly critics, writers, academics, and general readers have lauded the commercial and critical success of an artist and writer from their own GLQ community. Certainly Bechdel's GLQ identity informs her work; indeed, in the case of Fun Home, GLQ exploration and affirmation form the thematic glue that holds the narrative levels and voices, past and present, together. An instructor's GLQ identity, my own [Cox's] included, as noted above, is irrelevant to Bechdel's own, and irrelevant to the study of Bechdel's text in the classroom; Bechdel's own words and images, her own narrative and interpolated commentary, surely deserve to speak for themselves, the appreciation and understanding of which can be facilitated by appropriate instructor's guidance.
Thematically, Fun Home's entwined storylines dramatize and engage issues of sexual orientation and the effects of its secrecy and disclosure, the GLQ content being both representational, as characters are depicted mimetically interacting, and also theoretical, as queer-theory concepts and methods of understanding and questioning identity categories are implicitly evoked. But in terms of form and structure, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home defies classification according to conventional genre labels, and this 'queerness' of form that parallels the 'queerness' of the book's multiple narrative perspectives and its GLQ-oriented subject matter is the starting point of my introductory/overview material in the classroom. The graphic (that is, illustrated panels, comic-book style) text combines a scripted level of narrative voiceover, by Bechdel, with a series of illustrated panels, the latter depicting the protagonist's, Alison's, childhood and adolescence and her eventual 'coming out' while in college. These recollections are articulated by way of almost a thousand illustrated panels, black-and-white line drawings over which a simple translucent blue-green wash has been placed; in interviews surrounding the release of Fun Home, Bechdel described the process of composition, whereby self-staged, composite photos of Bechdel herself performing each character's role in a scene were used as the model for her remarkably detailed illustrations. As Cox observes in her article "Queering the Siren's Call," "Although this staging is not technically part of the book itself, it underscores a more germane observation: the panels themselves figuratively convey a sense of ventriloquism and performance. Bechdel fully inhabits the imagined temporal, spatial, and psychological domains of her characters to tell their conjoined stories while discovering her own, blurring the boundaries of autobiography, memoir, non-fiction, fiction, novel, comic, and cartoon" (61).
Fun Home's hybridization of generic forms thus challenges its readers to consider what those forms, and genres, mean to both readers and writers, a mode of ambiguity the 'queerness' of which is reflected in Fun Home's content: as Bechdel recalls Alison's life experiences while making connections and offering analysis that Bechdel has since come to understand or at least to question.' Perhaps most tellingly, a panel depicts the family, including a young Alison, at a Catholic mass; the voiceover says, "He appeared to be an ideal husband and father," but the panel includes an overdub balloon, "But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?" (17). As she notes of the death that will compel her to reflect and rethink her life, "My father's death was a queer business--queer in every sense of that multivalent word" (57), the actual event of which chronologically follows closely her mother's revelation, "Your father has had affairs with other men" (58), the latter of which specifically takes Bechdel back in memory to revisit her father's private home tutoring of his teenage male pupils though it is his death that prompts the full-scale, autobiographical narrative that attempts to make sense of oddities, inconsistencies, and the general sense of emotional detachment that her father and his activities presented.
As well, the narrative's labyrinthine quality, its defiance of conventional linear expectations, challenges my students, not only to follow the story and put information in place, but also to appreciate the pointed truth of Bechdel's project: that new information changes how memories are interpreted--not the memories themselves, which, like Bechdel's internal panels, are recounted as initially experienced, but rather their current meaning, construed in relation to some larger whole. Fun Home dramatizes this concept as earlier scenes reappear later in the book, recognizable in their base form but with modifications and additions that reflect the new knowledge, and hence new perspective, provided by the voiceover: Alison's interview with a professor, for instance, which she notes occurred on the same day, depicted earlier (74), when she first self identifies as a lesbian in the campus bookstore: " Remarkably, this interview with Mr Avery occurred on the selfsame afternoon that I realized, in the campus bookstore, that I was a lesbian" (203). Likewise, on page 58 she mails a "I am a lesbian" letter to her parents; quite later, after describing a college-literature exam on Joyce's Ulysses, a special-topic Independent Study that she's been undertaking, she mentions, "My parents received the letter on the same day I bullshat my way through the Ulysses exam."
The issue of gay sexuality has occupied the attention of many a reader and reviewer and, obviously, as a key part of the book's thematic arc, it warrants textual analysis and discussion in the classroom. For some critics and commentators, Fun Home's GLQ theme and its treatment of coming-out issues and of concepts related to gay identity seems innovative or profound, though others see, more attentively, that the material is an integrated part of a project devoted far more to issues of memory, narrative, and subjectivity than in promoting or depicting GLQ identity per se. And indeed, Bechdel's unremarkable, almost banal, discovery of her lesbian identity, followed by her coming out, first to college classmates and then to her parents, is hardly unique or necessarily provocative, which some students find empowering because it is so unremarkable and therefore, in their words, "no big deal." (Others, however, perhaps desirous of attention or eager to embrace activism, seem deflated by their classmates' regarding GLQ status as non-special.) Alison mails a letter from college, as noted above, stating simply, "I am a lesbian" (58), about which Bechdel notes, with certainty and confidence, "My homo-sexuality remained at that point purely theoretical, an untested hypothesis. But it was a hypothesis so thorough and convincing that I saw no reason not to share it immediately" (58).
Unsurprisingly, several libraries and private religious colleges in the United States have removed, or attempted to remove, the book from shelves and syllabi owing to the allegedly "pornographic" nature of the illustrations ("NCAC"). A careful reading of the Fun Home will discover that of the almost one thousand panels, nine depict images candid about the body and its sexuality: two in which there appears a naked male body, deceased, on a funeral home table awaiting embalming (44); two of an adolescent Alison masturbating, with a hand down the front of her unsnapped jeans and eyes closed (76, 207); two of female/female sexual activity, discreetly hinting at rather than visibly showing the type of action being performed by Alison on Joan (80-81); and three sequentially restaging the same coupling, here depicting Alison's face between Joan's legs, pubic hair visible (214). It has become commonplace in contemporary American culture for the shamefast to attempt to deny access to other, open-minded people the materials that they themselves find frightening; their impact is minimal, having little clout in legitimate academia, where discussion and exploration and exchanges of ideas result from encounters with the unfamiliar. When I taught Fun Home in my introductory Gender Studies course last semester, several students shared that they had been shocked by the images on page 214, not only because their assigned text contained some relatively explicit images but also because the panels depicted activities that some students had not realized existed, or had heard of vaguely but the particulars of which had not been imagined; their comments served as a fitting segue into a discussion of narrative candor and graphic realism in relation to frank treatment of sexuality, in this case implied female/female oral sex.
Fun Home includes a handful of other jarring moments that contextualize, but are otherwise largely unrelated, to Bechdel's self-identified lesbian status and her journey of discovery that takes her there: her mother's revelation of Bruce Bechdel's largely hidden double life both as father and high-school teacher and as sexual predator of teenage boys, students typically--a revelation prompted by her coming out to her parents in the midst of their divorce drama--and his ambiguously suicidal death two weeks later at age forty-four. Bruce Bechdel's suicide and covert homosexuality are, in the context of the narrative, far more significant and traumatic than Alison's own homosexuality and her decision to live as an openly gay woman. In light of what she learns about her father, she must rethink past episodes, and comes to realize now what she didn't then, knowing that his life would end as it did, that a thread of deception runs throughout their entwined and conjoined identities and lives: "This abrupt and wholesale revision of my history--a history which, I might add, had already been revised once in the preceding months--left me stupefied" (79). As she reflects and reimagines, Bechdel must also come to terms with a sense of guilt: that she lives the open life that her father felt unavailable or impractical. More hauntingly, she wonders whether her revelation of being a lesbian somehow prompted her father's suicide, a fear that can never be sub-stantiated or refuted, which serves as an object lesson to readers, student and teacher, gay and straight, alike. With appropriate instructional guidance, and an approach that allows Bechdel's words and Bechdel's story to speak for themselves and hold center stage, I have found, students come to understand and appreciate that Bechdel had as much right, even more so ethically, to choose to live an open, honest life, and to accept the consequences, as her father had to choose to live in secrecy and shame.
* * * * * * *
GLQ students, as we've noted, can benefit from shared identity with a GLQ instructor, but how that identity is communicated must be considered in light of ethical and pedagogical issues and responsibilities. As Susan Talburt aptly asserts in her essay "On Not Coming Out,"
Although the rise of gay and lesbian studies offers significant new sites from which to work, fetishizing the visibility of gay and lesbian studies, identities, and bodies as signs of progress in the academy endangers sustained critical analysis of the social and economic relations that make their circulation possible and that may limit their transformative potential. (72)
Because indirect or implicit disclosure, we believe, allows these benefits to be derived by interested and relevant students without that instructor's overtly assigning him or herself the illusory role of ambassador or exemplar in the classroom for the audience as a whole, instructors need not, and in most cases probably should not, use the classroom as a forum for disclosure.
As well, our approach insists, rightly, that students take responsibility for exploring and enhancing their own personal identity issues, without an instructor's subjecting all students to ineluctable revelations and the politics that attaches to such disclosure. Careful text selection coupled with candid, responsible analysis and guidance, can help build the kind of pedagogical relationship in which students' safe exploration of ideas, and the possibility of seeing and understanding a range of sexual identities, is possible and productive. Instructors who trust their students to make their own decisions and develop their own opinions about life issues will find that students are more, not less, inclined to look to the instructor as someone who models professionalism and self respect.
(1.) Fittingly, an early version of this paper was presented at the 2008 MLA Convention in San Francisco, 27 December, on a panel sponsored by the GLQ Caucus.
(2.) We have opted to use "GLQ," meaning "gay, lesbian, and queer: as our shorthand for the full range of identities generally associated within the "gay" rubric; "gay" and "lesbian" have become recognized terms in legal documents and discourses, especially those related to legal issues of marriage and partner rights, whereas "bisexual: "transgendered," "transsexual: etc., are academic and social terms which, while significant in their own right as "queer" categories, are less universally recognized and their definitions less solidified.
(3.) I [Cox] use "Bechdel" to identify the narrative voice of Fun Home and "Alison" to refer to the character in the recollected internal biography; doing so keeps distinct the present narrator and the episodes of the past, clearly depicted in relation to the narrator's subjective perspectives. My doing so follows the well-established model used by scholars and critics of the medieval English autobiography The Book of Margery Kempe, who use "Kempe" to refer to the narrative voice and "Margery" to refer to the character in the recollected episodes.
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Catherine S. Cox and Kristen Majocha UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH
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