coming out: a problematic moment

I came out indirectly to my students in COM260, Public Speaking. I told them of the time I questioned Geraldine Ferraro, at the National Women’s Music Festival, about how she could address an audience of 3000 lesbians without using the word, “lesbian”. I don’t remember exactly what I said, I’m pretty sure it was implicit – I was a member of the audience she was addressing (without knowing us too well). I do recall a moment of heightened alertness/silence – as if a shudder went through the whole class at the same time?


I was reminded of it by a student who heard me explaining the notion of “problematic moments” and said, “We had one of those!” She said everyone was kinda like, “Uh, did she just say that? Uh, ok yeah, she did.” No one else has said anything about it – to me. I did get the feeling that some students had talked among themselves….did I have to say that?
Interesting, huh? This group of students has been more overtly concerned with my power/authority as the instructor than any other group I’ve taught in quite a while. Is it the subject? Is it the pedagogical approach in which we’re paying attention to our own discursive construction of a public sphere? Is it some kind of reaction to the way I look? If it is the latter, then isn’t it interesting that what many people take as a stereotypical appearance was so erased that students could be shocked (if that’s a fair description?) by my coming out?
In other words, while my appearance may have caused some students “to wonder what she’s about” (draft of a student speech), that wondering seems to have certain limits and even gaps. I’m reminded of Aleta’s questions from just after the first NCA panel on this topic: How much attention DO students pay to their teachers’ appearance? How would this affect their interactions? Does too much self-disclosure invite comments or discussion? Re the notion of ‘inviting’ discourse about appearance… when and how is this permissable and when/why not?
In the conversation that reminded me of this problematic moment, someone suggested that “saying something” could in and of itself be offensive. Her point being, if sexual orientation is normalized along a range of possibilities, then coming out ought not inspire any particular reaction. Agreed! But if there is “a reaction”, then what does silence indicate? And what is the relationship between the “I” students may perceive me to be “as a person” and the authority figure I am as a teacher? Have I been rendered invisible?

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