This summer, I’m teaching an undergraduate course called “Language and Sex”, and on the very first day, I had to give my students the disclaimer that we would not be talking about sex sex. Nope, this is a class about sex as a concept that relates to gender and sexuality. Sorry! This is more like a gender and sexuality studies class mashed up with sociolinguistics; not at all like your high school sex ed. I hope none of them had their hopes dashed.
Earlier this week, we began a short unit on sexuality and how sexual identity interacts with speech and language. So far, for the past three weeks, I’ve been introducing many concepts to my students that they may consider very new. More than half of my students are international students, many from China. They have admitted to not knowing very much about Western (read: American) LGBTQ culture, very little apart from what they can glean from their limited access to our movies and TV shows.
Out of a sensitivity to the (presumed) diversity of opinions — and likely the many misconceptions about sexuality I was going to encounter from my students — I began the lesson with another disclaimer: we are here to listen to one another and learn; please try to keep an open mind to things that may strike you as unusual or even wrong!
The lesson then began with a survey of the LGBTQ “Alphabet Soup”, as it’s been called in jest. This well-known acronym can get very long, because there are a lot of gender and sexuality-related identities that people would like it to cover. (The longest I’ve seen are LGBTTQQIAAP and LGBTQQIP2SAA — yes, there’s a number in there, too!) You know, labels are language, too, so we discussed some of the terms’ etymological histories (like why “queer” used to be derogatory but is being reclaimed by many queer communities), as well as when they are appropriate to use.
The visual response from my students was entertaining as I described concepts like gender fluidity and asexuality. It was easy to tell from their slack-jawed stares that most of them were treading on completely new territory. And they were full of good questions, too! Like whether the term asexual refers just to sexuality or also gender. One student asked: “If bisexuality refers to a person who is attracted to men and women, does that mean just male and female genders, or male and female biology?” I thought that I should answer that people are attracted to other people, not just body parts, but I wasn’t sure how to say that tactfully. Instead, I deflected and said, “That’s a good question to explore; I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m also not an expert in bisexuality.”
Fortunately, we had an expert right there in the classroom.
I had suspected that she might be queer from the beginning of the semester, of course, because she had written on her introduction note card (that only I could read) that she was a leader of an LGBT club on her campus back in China. But I did not expect her to openly divulge this information to her classmates. After the other student’s question, though, she raised her hand and offered, “As someone who identifies as bisexual…” And that’s when suddenly the entire room sat up straight.
Though I cannot recall what she said exactly, I thanked her for her contribution, and then we moved on to the next part of the lecture. But she still commanded everyone’s attention, because during our ten-minute break, every other student gathered around her to ask her questions. They wanted to know when she discovered she was bi, whether she had any preference for either gender, and especially what the climate was like for the queer community at her university, since campus LGBTQ activism in China is still generally unheard of. I should add that normally, during the break, all the students whip out their phones and text silently for the entirety of it, or leave the classroom altogether. That day was the one of the only exceptions, and I just stood behind my desk, pretending to work but secretly eavesdropping on my student’s candid and brave testimony.
I know from my own experience that coming out is not always an easy thing to do, and that most queer people have to come out again and again throughout their lives. I am proud of my student for taking on the burden of answering all her peers’ questions, as she did not necessarily ask to be put in the hot seat. As a queer person myself, I believe that representation really matters, so her sharing about her personal life was important for everyone who heard it. However, I also know that we should never expect a queer person to take on that role, since it can cause unnecessary stress. It’s not the token minority’s responsibility to educate everyone else, especially if they’re the only one in the room.
Now, of course, this student was not the only queer person in the room. I’m sort of wondering now if it would serve any beneficial purpose for me to talk about my own experiences, or at least casually slip it in to part of a lecture. (e.g., “So when we talk about the stereotype of gay men all speaking with a lisp, we know that’s not true, as I certainly don’t speak with one…”?)
I’ll mull over it. There are just two weeks left in this short summer “semester”, though. When it’s over, I’m traipsing off to Hawai’i for a wedding… and right after that, fall semester begins! Dude, where did summer break go?!
Word of the Day: sapiosexual, from Latin sapient (wise, to have taste) and the root -sexual (denoting attraction, not orientation), is a term that refers to a person who finds intelligence sexually attractive. It’s most definitely a recent coinage; dictionary.com traces its first recorded use to the early 2000s. I wonder if it started off as a kind of slang term, on par with the (maybe) facetious metrosexual or lumbersexual… but its use is clearly gaining. I find a lot of self-professed sapiosexuals on Tinder!