10 Reasons Why I Will Keep Teaching Queer Literatures at UH-Mānoa

by Noʻu Revilla

I am a queer Pacific femme poet. As a Ph.D. student and instructor in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi-Mānoa, I bring these worlds into my classrooms. I bring these worlds and the knowledge, pain, pleasure, and ways of creating that each of these worlds cultivate. So you can imagine my inner catwalk when I saw the beautiful Cocoa Chandelier gracing the cover of January’s issue of Expresssion! Magazine and the headline: “UH MANOA Everything but the Rainbow.” Featuring interviews with Puakea Nogelmeier, Cocoa Chandelier, Camaron Miyamoto, and Susan Hippensteele, the issue boldly advocates for integrating more queer curriculum at UH-Mānoa.

Throughout my undergraduate and graduate work, I have been blessed to work with educators like Susan Hippensteele (Women’s Studies) and Cynthia Franklin (English), who not only acknowledge the works of queer artists and scholars but also create significant space for these voices in their curriculum.

 

Thank you, Cindy, for leading me to Loving in the War Years, which means you led me to love.

cherrie moraga(Photo credit: “cherríe moraga” by 350 Vermont via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Yet as Expression! reported last month, the general lack of LGBTQ resources and programming at our flagship campus must be addressed. Two years ago, my proposal for a course on queer creative writing was approved and officially scheduled for spring 2014. Although the list of course offerings would read “Queer Literatures” instead of my original title “Queer of Color Literatures,” I remained faithful to a syllabus that sung the names of queer writers of color: Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, R. Zamora Linmark, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Eduardo Corral, Terisa Siagatonu, and Jamaica Osorio.

Thank you, Jamaica,  for “Straightjacket” & making me tremble.

At that point, I was a second-year GA with only three courses under my belt: two courses of first-year composition and one lovely creative writing course on poetry and place. Queer Literatures was going to be my second non-composition course. More importantly, it would be the first time I could speak to students about the ways creative writing amplifies desire, identity, privilege, love, embodiment, and belonging. I could draft a syllabus with queer women of color who reach, hide, and weep like me. I could guide class discussions that took erotic power seriously. I could cultivate a learning space that did not fetishize coming-out stories or make difference a spectacle. I wanted to be better. Like Natalie Diaz so eloquently writes, if what I mean by hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth. I wanted to be more intentional with language, with thinking, with connecting the classroom to the real world. I wanted to share that commitment with students.

Throughout the semester, we read Loving in the War Years, Sister Outsider, Leche, Sovereign Erotics, and Coconut Milk. We watched music videos to discuss heteronormativity and cisgender privilege in mainstream representations of queer desire. Students attended a free community screening of Kumu Hina. We did close readings of poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and academic essays. Students made Queer Literatures postcards with course-related art on one side and letters to future classes on the other side.

One student wrote her final paper on femme invisibility. Another student explored issues of racism on Grindr. Another wrote her paper on the fakaleiti of Tonga while another focused her research on queer families. Inspired by the postmodern structure of Dan Taulapapa McMullin’s essay “Faʻafafine Notes: On Tagaloa, Jesus, and Nafanua,” another student used the list form to organize her final paper on the decision to replace the diagnostic term “Gender Identity Disorder” with “Gender Dysphoria” in the DSM. Wanting to weave the flesh and blood of her personal journey with the clinical speak of medicine, she used the list form to craft a provocative narrative about trauma, access, and self-love. In that spring semester, my students and I got excited, speechless, frustrated, and hopeful side by side. We made that class together.

Two years later, I am reading about Sami L.A. Akuna’s course on the Art of Drag Performance in Expression! Magazine. Then click-click goes my high heels and enter dream sequence: there is no place like home, there is no place like home. Yes, there is no place to start like home, and I am dreaming of all the ways I can teach a better Queer Literatures course at UH-Mānoa.

So in the spirit of sharing love for all that makes me a queer Pacific femme poet, I want to acknowledge some of the reasons why I will keep teaching this course. By putting these reasons into the world, my dreams become promises to future students.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because on the first day of class in spring 2014, at least half of my students said they didn’t really know what “queer” meant, but it sounded interesting. For some of them, “queer” did not conjure love.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because LGBTQ is more than an acronym. Queer communities have ancestors, elders, children, leaders, artists, warriors, and healers. Mahalo nui loa, e Ngahuia Te Awekotuku. Mahalo for reminding us how we belong.

Audre Lorde (Photo credit: “Audre Lorde” by K. Kendall via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because “[i]t was a while before we came to realize that our place was the very house of difference rather than the security of any one particular difference.”[1]

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because my mother was shocked the first time I called myself queer in front of her. When she was younger, queer wasn’t an identity anyone she knew claimed with pride or respect. Queer wasn’t even a word; it was poison.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because queer is still misused as poison.

 I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because when students and I compared Katy Perry’s music video “I Kissed a Girl” and Jessie J’s “Do It Like a Dude,” an out woman of color told her peers: “This shit definitely wasn’t made for me.” The “why” behind her statement is stitched in my chest.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because I need to teach it better. My course materials emphasized indigeneity, race, and the influences of women of color feminism. Mid-semester, however, when I asked what was missing from the course, one student comment made me realize that no significant course text centered transgender stories. I also did not include texts that specifically focused on bisexual or asexual narratives. Furthermore, cis privilege is a serious issue that many students do not have the language to access, and I need to work harder to expand and refine discussions of privilege. While I accept that no single course can fulfill every demand for representation, I want to practice more inclusive and imaginative course planning.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because LGBTQ students need a safe space to learn and they deserve to see themselves in stories and syllabi.

 I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because queer, while often used as an umbrella term, does not and cannot cover it all. Indigenous practices of gender, for example, are not understood as non-normative. Our “normal” already has places for māhū, faʻafafine, fakaleiti, and takatāpui, and these roles must not be conflated with mainstream Western categories.

I will keep teaching queer literatures at UH-Mānoa because Cherríe Moraga has a poem called “The Slow Dance.” To embody the writing and connect its pathos to Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” I asked students to pair up, stand face-to-face, press their palms together, and recite the poem to each other in parts. It did not surprise me that they were uncomfortable being so close to a classmate, touching hands and looking into each other’s eyes, all while being accountable to someone else’s words in their mouths. We spent the rest of class talking about how we experience our bodies in space. We talked about intimacy and the stakes of being vulnerable. Today, many people are intimate with screens – up close and personal with iPhones, computers, and tablets.

Yet when was the last time you held someone’s gaze? I asked my students.

Held it on purpose. Because you meant it. Because without it you would evaporate.

When was the last time you looked away from a shared feeling?

When was the last time you slow danced?

 To all the students of my first Queer Literatures course in spring 2014, thank you for being so beautiful, so patient, and so immersed. To all my future students, save me a dance.

 

 


[1] Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom: Crossing, 1982) 226.

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