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Queer Studies: On becoming an ally

Gemma Dawson, IBDP English Language and Literature and Theory of Knowledge (ToK) teacher, East Campus
26 June 2019

LGBTQ books at UWCSEA East library

Most students continuing onto a postgrad degree immediately following their bachelors are probably used to the usual jokes about avoiding the real world, not wanting to get a job. In my case, this move was accompanied by homophobic 'banter', questions about my course of choice, my sexuality, and my family's refusal to look over my dissertation. 


Because I decided to follow my BA in English Lit with an MSt in Women's Studies; an embarrassingly archaic-sounding name for an exciting course which allowed me to focus on writing around gender and sexual identity. I spent my last year at university exploring transgender identities, particularly transsexual agency, and my dissertation was on emergent lesbian identities in the 1920s, looking at the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis. The question thrown my way most often was why, unless I identified as lesbian and/or trans, I would be at all interested in such 'material'?

Well, I'll tell you why! Here are some of the things that have stuck with me from that course, some 15(!) years ago:

Bodies and blood

This might seem like a bit of a gruesome start, but honestly, it's the first thing that comes to mind when I think back to what that course showed me. When I hear LGBTQ+ issues spoken about only in the abstract, or as though they exist just at the pedantic edges of political correctness, I'm reminded of the urgency of it all: that this is not theoretical, but real lives, bodies, blood, and skin. I won't ever forget the stories I read about violence, self-harm, suicide, and surgery, and I think of them whenever someone makes the *hilarious* joke about identifying as a unicorn/dolphin/frenchman....etc.

Performative gender

One of the earliest and most powerful concepts I came across was performative gender, thanks to Judith Butler. It's the idea that gender is not something innate, but an effect brought about by the repeated 'performance' of a series of gendered acts.

This has new meaning to me now as the mother of boys, and I see my sons navigate the narrow masculine performances available; how he mimics, tries them on for fit, and the awkwardness of that dissonance pains me hugely; I see how he and his friends discipline each other at the boundaries of gender. Again, I feel an urgency to this: he needs different models NOW, he and his classmates need difference books, different narratives, different ways to be RIGHT NOW. I feel a sense of panic from the speed at which he learns what to call "normal". Disrupting heteronormativity at the earliest years of schooling is urgent.

Queering the classroom

I came across so many writers I wouldn't have otherwise, and still try to queer my reading lists. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been a longstanding favourite, and a great point from which to discuss homophobia in sport, or consistency in homophobic narratives from the 1950s to today. Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Conundrum, and Woman's World are other great texts to explore from the standpoint of queer theory, and I'm looking forward to branching out now that text choices available in the IBDP Language A courses will become much more flexible with the introduction of a new syllabus for the August 2019 cohort.

Tiny power moves

One of my research interests was agency and transgender identity, and I looked a lot at whether/how power is removed from trans people as they are effectively made to repeat over and over a particular required narrative: to 'prove' themselves, often in order to access services such as medical or psychological support. One theory likens this to the act of a confessional: its never the confessor who holds the power, but he who silently listens. This has stuck with me and comes to mind when members of the LGBTQ+ community are expected to 'explain' themselves - particularly those for whom neat labels feel a poor fit. When that explanation is expected or required before a conversation can be had, there's power at play.

Bridging the gap

I've had some interesting conversations recently about the ethics of knowing, and the moral imperative that comes with learning. And I need to check myself on this, as I list that MSt on my CV: to know is not enough. To know is not to understand, and to understand means very little if it doesn't change your behaviours. I have work to do here, I know, and often coming at these conversations with an academic mindset has been a hindrance, and left me humbled. 

As a student reading and researching, I felt confident in my academic knowledge (and judging from a quick re-read of my dissertation, I felt embarrassingly confident, as only a 23-year-old can). As a friend and colleague and parent and ally, I am still learning.