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The Transgendered and Transgressive Student
Rhetoric and Identity in Trans-Queer Ethnography

Abstract

This instructor/student co-produced webtext examines the challenges and benefits of creating a trans-queer ethnography in the context of the computer-mediated writing classroom, in academia, and in the cultural terrain of contemporary America. By juxtaposing personal reflections, course materials, theoretical reflection on gendered identity, and research on gender in the electronic composition classroom, this web text unravels and reconstitutes perspectives on the value of creating transgressive transgendered texts in the computer-mediated writing classroom.

  • What difficulties does a student encounter when constructing a text that transgresses academic notions of ethno-methodology traditionally held by many social science instructors?
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  • What difficulties does a student encounter when constructing a text that transgresses binary notions of gender typically held by classmates in a computer-mediated writing classroom?
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  • In what ways does a student have to navigate social pressures of family, peers, faculty, and administrators in order to produce a self-reflective, self-exploratory text about transgendered identity that will be posted on the web?

In the Winter of 2002, the authors participated in a pilot course called Advanced Writing: Ethnography. This web text unravels the experiences of Marshall Kitchens, the instructor who directed the course and mediated student interactions with each other and with the institution (such as through the Human Investigation Committee), and Lindsey Larkin, at the time a senior in sociology who chose to investigate drag king culture from an auto-ethnographic perspective in a project titled "Performing Gender: Drag King Culture in Metro Detroit." Larkin explains her purpose in constructing a trans-queer ethnography: "It was about self- exploration. I definitely didn't write it to persuade anyone, except myself.  And, that is a point I want to focus on . . . the way I choose to separate myself from the 'lens of straight culture' and at the time, in order to find power and identity in queer culture I felt like it had to come through me.  I think that's why it often times felt so scandalous...transgressing... because I hadn't allowed myself, or been given the opportunity in the academic realm to explore these issues on my own terms."

Larkin's observation engages the questions raised by Suzanne De Castell and Mary Bryson (1998):  "What might the ethnographic field colonized by queer subjects, the ethnographic text written from its margins, look like?" Their claim is that the goal of queer ethnographies is to "reveal the wires and pulleys and supports of the everyday context within which 'the normal' is invented and stage-managed, rendering its strange artifices and carefully wrought illusions evident, naming the ways in which social and cultural life are selectively re-presented to members as stable, reliable, necessary."1 While to some degree this revelation is directed toward the reader of the ethnography, we argue that the most significant revelation is to the student investigator herself about her own understanding of gendered identity. Rather than choosing a classical Aristotelian rhetorical construction that might more effectively move classmates, faculty members, and others to a more sympathetic understanding of transgendered identity, Larkin chose an impressionistic, self-reflective rhetorical style that assisted her in understanding, accepting, and celebrating her own views of transgendered identity. 2

This web text, like the student project itself, employs entertaining and playful methods to examine a difficult/painful issue. In an email exchange with Kitchens, Larkin explains, "I see drag now more as a way to criticize relations of power in a patriarchal and heterosexist society.  During the same time I was working on the ethnography I organized the clothesline project (a visual display of tee-shirts made by and for survivors/victims of sexual violence) and wrote a column for the Oakland Post disclosing one of my own stories of abuse (I was raped/assaulted, targeted as an out lesbian) and for the first time I thought about how I actively rejected and limited my queer identity for many years.  For me, engaging in this project was very much about regaining power and voice that I didnít think was mine as a queer woman."  Gender explorations such as drag king shows are seen as semi-temporary, and therefore feel "safer."  

As Larkin explains, any one can dress up, and then leave, although it's hard to watch a drag show and then remain exactly the same person as you were before. In the same way, this web text will shift identities, trying on different personas, exploring different perspectives, and leaving the reader with an unsettled sense of identity and a greater understanding of the relationship between student research and self- constructed identity.

Related Links:

Student Perspective
Instructor Perspective
Student Auto-Ethnographic Project on Drag Kings
Course Web Site
Student Column in Oakland Post: "Breaking Silence"

Bibliography:

Alexander, Jonathan. (1997). "Out of the closet and into the network: Sexual orientation and the computerized classroom."  Computers and Composition,   14 (2), 207-216.  

De Castell, Suzanne and Mary Bryson (1998). "Queer Ethnography: Identity, authority, narrativity, and a geopolitics of text." In J. Ristock & C. Taylor (Eds.), Inside the Academy and Out:  Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies and Social Action (pp. 97-110). Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Ekins, Richard and King, Dave. (2001). "Tales of the unexpected: Exploring transgender diversity through personal narrative." In Tarquam McKenna and Felicity Haynes (Eds.), Unseen Genders:  Beyond the Binaries (pp. 123-142). New York: Peter Lang.

Namaste, Viviane K. (2000). Invisible Lives: The Erasure of Transsexual and Transgendered People. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plummer, Ken (1995).  Telling sexual stories:  Power, change, and social worlds. London: Routledge.

Van Maanen, John (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, Janet. (1993). "Lesbian instructor comes out: The personal is the pedagogy." Feminist Teacher, 7(2), 26-33.

Yescavage, Karen and Alexander, Jonathan. (1997). "The pedagogy of marking: Addressing sexual orientation in the classroom."  Feminist Teacher, 11 (2), 113-122.

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