n. the pervasive and systemic belief in male/masculine and female/feminine as the only true, natural and correct gender identities and expressions

gender normativity n. the privileged state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders perceptibly 'fit' with locally-derived and understood expressions of masculinity (for men) and femininity (for women)

gender non-normativity n. the oppressed state lived - whether momentarily or perpetually - by those whose genders do not perceptibly fit, as above

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Teaching the Caster Semenya story: On the connections between gender, education and visual culture

I am currently taking an interdisciplinary doctoral course at York called Visual Culture and Gender, and we are engaging with the visual character of gender as well as the pedagogical implications for teaching with this visuality in mind. This post features an excerpt from a brief writing assignment wherein I connect gender, pedagogy and visuality in a 'teachable example' and centres on the Caster Semenya debacle.


Lorber (1993, p. 569) reminds us that gender as a binary has always been instantiated through seeing. As a teacher educator, I am required to engage with visual culture because public battles surrounding ‘gender’ – or, more frequently, biological sex – are fought in the realm of the visual. In recognition of this visuality of gender (and in unconscious preparation for this course), I have long collected visual texts complimentary of my anti-genderist pedagogical aims, and I discuss one of these texts here. The intense policing of sex practiced by international sport authorities has yielded an inalienable exemplar of a ‘public battle’ in the realm of the visual. Caster Semenya, the South African world track and field champion, has had her sex (gender?) publicly disputed on an international scale; in answer, the September issue of the popular South African magazine YOU responded both visually and discursively.

The September cover [inset above] contains a photograph of the newly- feminine Semenya, a smaller image of her ‘masculine’ alter ego, a statement discursively reifying Caster’s split (athletic/power vs. non-athletic/glamour) femininity – “We turned SA’s power girl into a glamour girl – and she loves it!” – and an enticing invitation to the viewer to consume this most unambiguous visual feast of true femininity: “Wow, look at Caster now!” The South African government has rallied around Caster by issuing scathing condemnations of the media and international athletic community. In light of this national rallying, that a South African publication is so firmly invested in the visually discursive reification and rendering intelligible of Semenya’s gender-normativity indicates that gender and visual culture can quickly become politicized in tandem, and on a global scale.

This cover is just one artefact of the visual culture of gender which, I would argue, can “shift the focus of analysis away from things seen toward the process of seeing” (Herbert, 2003, p. 455) and onto the ways in which this process is scaffolded by our own experiences of being gendered and being gender experts. Columpar (2002) aligns the colonial, ethnographic and male gazes “insofar as they accord their bearers a position of mastery and designate their objects as the site/sight of difference” (p. 40); I would add the gender-normative gaze for the same reasons. Analyzing the YOU cover with students will necessarily illuminate their own curiosity about Semenya’s gender as inflamed by the media, and in turn, the ways in which they exercise a gender-normative gaze when viewing visual texts and when appraising the genders of others. To this end, the pivotal question arising out of my engagement with visual studies, gender studies and teacher education pertains to the ethics of viewing and how I might foreground genderism and the process of seeing with a pedagogy disruptive of the gender-normative gaze. Just as Khan (2007) uses Hatoum’s work to pedagogically disrupt ‘racial seeing’ in the Women’s Studies classroom (p. 330), how can I seek to deflect the teacher’s eye from ‘gendered seeing’?

Sexing the education of indeterminate young others

This is a very brief conference paper that I presented last month at the Bergamo conference in Dayton, OH. I link the aims of anti-homophobia education to the project of 'sexing education' for particular constituents, arguing that gender is in fact what is at stake. As always, I would appreciate any comments!


I am concerned with how we construct a hypothetical ‘LGBT’ student body through our projects. I will introduce the nature of my concern with a conference anecdote. Two years ago I attended a paper presentation given by a self-identified LGBT studies scholar in education who had performed a content analysis of photographs depicting teacher-student touching in teacher education textbooks. He found that the touching depicted was overwhelmingly performed by female teachers unto students of any discernable sex, but never by male teachers unto male students. He named this a homophobic representation, and while I certainly agree that it can be linked to systemic homophobia, we ceased to agree when he answered my question on what he would like to see in future textbooks: “gay all the time,” he said, in order to rectify the prior imbalance. As is often the case, the contents of ‘gay’ and its visual representation were left empty and could only be filled with reference to the ‘gayness’ of my interlocutor. In other words, the goal here was not to represent possibilities other than heterosexuality within which children and youth can dream their futures (c.f. Mayo 2007; McDonough, 2008), but to represent ‘gayness’ – or, one particular way of being and signifying non-heterosexually – as the Other option.

This exchange dogs my thinking and underscores my argument here. I consider the question “can sex be educated and can education be sexed?” in the context of my work on deconstructing various mainstream modes for ‘dealing with’ sexual Others in schools. I would like to address Britzman’s question to the field of LGBT or anti-homophobia education, specifically with regard to who is educating whose sex, or for whom the ‘who’s’ imagine we are doing this work. Perhaps against my own retrospective interest, I can only conclude that we – the gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer adult scholars of anti-homophobia education – are tacitly seeking to reproduce ourselves, for ourselves. I argue that this self-reproduction embodies a commitment to sexing education and educating sex in highly particular and often undisclosed ways. This is a commitment that ought to accrue suspicion.

It has long been acknowledged that public space, unless branded otherwise, is always already heterosexual (and white, etc.), and that schools as public spaces are similarly heterosexual (see Letts & Sears, 1999) and, moreover, heteronormative. Anti-homophobia educators and researchers have named this state of affairs as contravening the right of non-heterosexual students to learn in a space where their subjectivities can flourish alongside those of their heterosexual peers. However, despite heteronormativity’s extensive powers of circumscription and limitation, it is only seldom named as a source of harm in the lives of heterosexual students. The consequent isolation of heteronormativity concern solely on the bodies of students whom we self-referentially recognize as queer has, I would argue, resulted in a counterproductive geographic isolation of this concern in the form of ‘gay-straight alliances’ (e.g. Macgillivray, 2007) or islands of ‘non-heterosexual space’ in schools.

Gay-straight alliance (GSA) meetings are discursively constructed as spaces wherein non-heterosexual students can find respite from homophobia/heterosexism/heteronormativity, express their ‘true selves’ which are otherwise hidden, and experience the flourishing of their marginal sexual Otherness in relative safety amidst people ostensibly ‘like them’. In the parlance of adult LGBT academics like me, ‘we’ would have greatly benefited from these spaces as adolescents, and so would have countless thousands of other LGBT youth. However, GSAs and other initiatives advocated within the dominant mode of anti-homophobia education, such as workshops for teachers and students or the outlawing of phrases such as “that’s so gay,” are limited by the deployment of a sexuality-based anti-homophobia model for doing what amounts to gender justice work in education. The intention to sex the education and educate the sex of indeterminate young Others is so pervasive on the part of LGBT educators (myself included, perhaps) that the ubiquitous harm of genderism and gender-normativity is obscured.

I have made the case elsewhere (Airton, 2009) that an anti-homophobia educational project is, in practice, an anti-genderism project in disguise. I define genderism as the pervasive and systemic belief in locally-defined norms of male/masculine and female/feminine as the only correct or possible ways to be a gendered person. The argument is as follows: as they are commonly formulated, many social justice projects in schools require particular students as their subjects; an anti-homophobia project requires either fleshy or imaginary non-heterosexual students; non-heterosexuality is most frequently – and often erroneously – inferred from gender non-normativity and not a student’s expressed desires, affinities or practices; and homophobic and/or heterosexist harassment is levied on the basis of a student’s gender non-normativity regardless of their sexuality. Therefore, an anti-homophobia project is tacitly an anti-genderism project insofar as it addresses the oppression that accrues to gender non-normativity, whether this non-normativity is momentary or perpetual and whether it is expressed by a student who is heterosexual or a sexual Other. This conflation of gender and sexuality concern carries potent implications for the identity formation of gender non-normative youth participating in sexuality-based anti-homophobia projects.

I worry that anti-homophobia projects, in requiring highly particular subjects (ourselves in miniature) for their enunciation, risk stifling the emergence of identities that the mainstream non-heterosexual world does not recognize as being ‘queer’ or non-heterosexual due to our contemporary constellations of what ‘nascent’ queerness looks like: i.e., particular flavours of gender non-normativity. In this vein, I remain troubled by the insistence that we ought to sex education for or educate the sex of particular identities or constituents, even if such impulses are inextricably linked with the politics of recognition, the alleviation of harm and the pursuit of social justice.