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Diversity in education: Teaching LGBTQ+ literature

An interview with Valerie Billing

Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I would like to start with a brief description of yourself for those who don’t know you. Tell us more about the path you followed up to this day. Why did you end up teaching?

I am an assistant professor of English at Central College right now and I think teaching was not something I originally thought about getting into. I started an undergrad as a human nutrition pre-dentistry major because my parents told me that English was not a career and I could not major in it. When I started college I was not doing well on my chemistry classes and I kept dropping my dentistry classes to take English classes instead. Then, in my sophomore year of college, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. That is when I had this moment of «Well, if you can get divorced then I can be an English major.» That’s how I ended up, kind of stumbling into my field of study, which is where I have belonged all along. I didn’t give a lot of thought to what career I would pursue after undergrad until I had one semester where I took, at the same time, a Shakespeare class and a Renaissance women writers’ class and I had thought, when I was signing up for classes, that these were the only available classes that fitted into my schedule and that I needed for the major. I thought «This is going to be a really difficult semester, with all this old literature; it’s going to be tough to follow. I’m going to hate it, it’s going to be terrible» but I got into these classes and I suddenly realized that I was completely hooked and what completely fascinated me about them was their gender studies’ angle. The Renaissance women writers’ class was about the early forms of feminism and I was surprised to read women writers who were living so far in the past or saying things about their lives that so much echoed my experiences as a woman in the early 21st century. And then, in the Shakespeare class, Shakespeare was writing female characters who were saying similar things to what I was also encountering in the women writers’ class. But also I was discovering how queer Shakespeare’s plays are, how they have a lot of homoeroticism in them. Heterosexuality is completely not natural in Shakespeare plays, in order for marriages to come together at the end of them, things have to happen: for example, God has to come down out of the sky and create marriage or marriage doesn’t happen at all, the plays end just shy of marriage because they are kind of uncomfortable about them. I was starting to see issues that I was thinking about for myself as a young person early 21st century reflected in the old literature but, at the same time, this old literature was just bonkers and totally different from my experience as well and I was really fascinated by that contrast between the extremely familiar and extremely weird. That’s when I decided I had to go to graduate school, to study this in more depth. And graduate school led me into teaching, which is an integral part of graduate school and going into education is what graduate school in English prepares you for. So I spent 7 years in graduate school, much of that time training as well to be a professor and I went from graduate school in California to one job at a smaller college in Illinois and then I found this position here at Central College.

How did you come to teach the «LGBTQ+ Literature» class?

I first had the opportunity to teach this class when I was at Knox College, where they had a course that was called «Literature and Power», kind of an enveloped course in which you could include any topic that you were interested in. My graduate research was in Gender Studies and Queer Studies and, as a woman, I am interested in this topic. In this college there was a large population as students who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community, so it seemed like a perfect fit for this audience as well. So I developed the course to teach there. The first time I taught it, I included pieces of all my favorite LGBTQ+ literature in the curriculum, which was a lot of fun. The very first couple of times I taught it, it was a very large class; the students were really engaged and had a lot of strong feelings about issues impacting the community. It was a completely different experience than what my other classes here at Central College experience, in a smaller setting. Students are passionate, but feelings and energies are never kind of running quite as high as they did in Knox. So far I have been able to teach this class five times, the last two times here at Central College.

Have you perceived an evolution in the demographics and perception of this issue from your students?

At Knox, it was a very popular class and it attracted students from all over the campus, most of them being part of the community, but some of them wanting to learn how to be better allies. I would say that the students at Knox were all on the most progressive, cutting edges of terminology use and understanding of the issues. I actually never felt as old as I did when I started teaching this class, because I thought I was up to date but the kids are always five steps ahead. Knox was a very artsy school, the largest major was English and within that program most students were studying Creative Writing. Theatre was also a large major. Coming to Central, it is definitely a different student demographics. This is really a sports school, business and exercise sciences are the biggest majors. I think that those different interests students have mean that we have a different population here and that is why the student body tend to be more socially and politically conservative here as well. I think that’s the reason why the class is smaller here. However, in terms of the actual students who take the class, they are really not that different to those who took it in Knox.

Do you think this class is more needed in the US in general and in the Midwest, specifically, than in other countries?

Based on my experience here, it is very needed in a small college where the LGBTQ+ community can be invisible most of the time. I think it is needed as a place where students who are part of the community can see themselves reflected in the curriculum and also where students who want to learn how to be better allies can learn more about the community. Another large major here at Central College is education and I think it is really important for students who are going into it, whether they are part of the community or not, to learn how to do more to support the LGBTQ+ youth. I think it is crucial everywhere but especially in a place like rural Iowa where it is very religious and where a lot of people stay in the closet, where conversations about LGBTQ+ issues are not in the open or, if they are, then there is negative press about them. I think it is important for students to see positive portrayals of the community, especially for those going into education so they can understand a kind of better-rounded picture of the issue in order to be more supportive in their own communities. It was also really relevant to the students who took the class in Knox because, even though there was a big community as well as visibility and support, the course is still an important place for them to learn about history. I think that this is the case all over the country: big schools that have a whole major in Gender Studies where you can take a lot of courses in this field, which is really necessary, but you also have small schools where there may be only one opportunity every couple of years to take one of these classes.

Talking about education, why is it still really relevant and needed to this day to bring inclusivity into the educational curriculum? Why do you think literature is a good way of doing it?

I believe that literature, through the imaginative experiences that we have with fiction, is the best way to experience the world from someone else’s perspective. I think it is a two-pronged thing. Number 1: it is important for students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community to see themselves in fiction, to see stories about themselves, to see a history of themselves because unlike other minority communities, in which parents passed along to children a sense of history, that often does not happen in the LGBTQ+ community. It is important for children to see that history and experience it through literature. At the same time, it is also important for people who are not part of the community to understand the experience in order to be better mentors, to be more supportive and sympathetic. Hopefully, in order to change some minds, especially in places like rural Iowa, in very religious communities where people’s attitudes do real damage to young people and to young psyches.

I am aware that the materials included in the class have been written in really different eras. Why did you decide to include, for example, The Convent of Pleasure, by Margaret Cavendish, published in 1688? Why is that text still relevant in 2020?

That is a great question! I think I do it for a lot of reasons. Number 1: because of this issue of history, because the words ‘lesbian’ and ‘transgender’, which are the most relevant to this play, are so new, as it happens with a lot of terms used to talk about sexual identity. All of them are less than 100 years old and some of them even less than 20 years old. It is a very new terminology that can make us lose the sense of history, the sense that there have always been queer people, people like us. We can always find ourselves in the past. That is why I think it is important to include older literature in which we can identify members of the community. I also think it is important because we live our lives right now in a society with a sexual binary: «you are gay or you are straight». And there are some other shades of grey; we recognize bisexuality and asexuality, we recognize transgender and nonbinary identities. Still, the dominant cultural idea is the gay-straight binary. We also live in a culture in which our identity hinges on who we want to sleep with or who we are attracted to. That is why it is important to look at older literature and historical texts in order to see that it has not always been this way. It illustrates for us how much sexuality is constructed and is culturally contingent. And when we understand that this is that way, it can help people open their minds and look differently at the community, at themselves as part of the community or at others who are also part of it. I think it is really crucial to trace a history of sexuality in order to show that it does have a history and that cultures have other ways of doing things and ours is neither the only one nor the best one.

What is the one thing (book, article, movie, video…) that you consider to be absolutely essential to the «LGBTQ+ Literature» class?

Do I only get to pick one? Well, I start the class with Stone Butch Blues and maybe the fact that I put that text first says something about what I think about the importance of it. I start the class with it because it is a somewhat historical text that takes place between the 1940s and the late 1980s and is about a working class lesbian community and a character who at times does not really identify with the word ‘lesbian’, who sometimes identifies as a woman, some other times identifies and passes as a man, who takes hormones for a while, decides to stop taking hormones… I think the novel makes transgender issues visible and often these issues are not at the forefront of the conversations about LGBTQ+ issues. It illustrates the complexity of gender identity and how non binary this identity is. The character is not quite sure where they fit, but somewhere between woman and man and actually finds being asked to choose to be the most oppressive thing. The protagonist is also working class, which counters the usual face of the gay rights movement in the United States being a middle class white man. That is why starting the course with a book that has a protagonist who is so different from those categories is really important. The book also tackles race issues: the protagonist recognizes that their black friends are dealing with issues that they do not have to deal with as a white person.

What do you think of the concept of ‘separating the art from the artist’?

I think it is impossible. The art comes from the artist who is leaving a particular life in a particular culture who is influenced by a certain set of social circumstances and by their own beliefs. To try to separate the art from the artist is to separate the whole context of production. Are you thinking of Shakespeare who clearly was not straight but we do not talk about that with students? It is interesting how we mythologize artists in many ways so that in order for an author to become completely canonical there has to be some kind of mythology about them in which they are unimpeachable and perfect. That often means telling a kind of sanitized story about that artist and keeping some details about their lives under wrap. That happens a lot with artist of the past; artist who were in the closet more recently or others in the distant past like Shakespeare who clearly were not straight but it is not the cultural narrative that we tell about him in order for him to be the «greatest writer of all time».

Final question: since you have lived in Spain, and more concretely, in Granada, which book would you recommend to a Spanish speaking person? And why that book?

I think Giovanni’s Room is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language but I am thinking about a Spanish audience encountering Baldwin in translation and wondering about what is lost in the process. But the reason why I would recommend this book is because it is not a happy book. It shows the psychological journey for this character that shows a lot about him but also about Americans, about where they are coming from and how they have failed at working for our LGBTQ+ community over time. That is why I put the novel on the syllabus: because it could have a broader international appeal as well since Baldwin’s writing it thinking about his time in France, thinking about America from the outside. It is both a beautiful literary experience and a perspective from someone who is both an insider to American life but also feels like an outsider to his community.

Interview conducted by Pedro Garrido Montanet

This initiative is organized by Inserta Andalucía and the University of Granada, thanks to the funding provided by the Consejería de Igualdad, Políticas Sociales y Conciliación, and the Project «Educación Transversal para la Diversidad Afectivo-Sexual, Corporal y de Género» (code 419) of Plan FIDO UGR 2018-2020.

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