THINKING ABOUT QUEER THEORY IN SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION: A Pedagogical (in)Query






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Publication: Canadian Social Work Review
Author: MacKinnon, Kinnon V Ross
Date published: January 1, 2011

HETEROSEXUAL and queer are not mutually exclusive groups or fixed categories. One's sexual practices, tastes, styles, desires, subjectivities, and identifications vary over periods of time, changing even sometimes by the hour. At the same time, teaching and learning can be fuelled by passion, pleasure, pain and desire, sharing these qualities with sex and sexuality. It can be fun, it can be uncomfortable, and at times it gets messy. How is it, then, that social work pedagogy so often compartmentalizes issues of sexuality under the paradigm of a sexual minority oppression model, far removed from the complexities of human sexuality?

I argue that anti-oppressive social work education has the unintended consequence of reinforcing differences between heterosexual and non-heterosexual sexualities. There are times when an oppression model is useful in understanding basic issues of power; however, this model does not take into account the nuances of human sexuality and therefore precludes inclusive learning opportunities. An interdisciplinary analysis between anti-oppressive (AOP) social work theory and queer theory reveals tensions around the demarcation of sexual difference, liberation, and oppression. I draw upon queer theory as a way to open up discussions around a wide range of sexualities in the classroom, and I encourage social work educators to engage with queer theory as a productive pedagogical tool for expanding ideas around sexuality and exploring fantasies of sexual difference. What remains important to this conversation is a commitment to keeping knowledge open as a fluid and flexible question.

While being sensitive to the historical specificity of "LGBT" as a reclaimed homosexual medical diagnostic invention, I refer to "LGBT" using quotation marks.1 As we fumble for a useful linguistic shorthand, "queer" represents a multifaceted point of reference. The "queer" that I use here does not necessarily refer to an identity or to a sexual practice, although that definition does encapsulate a kernel of queerness. Keeping in mind that to define queer "would be a decidedly un-queer thing to do" (Sullivan, 2007, p. 43), I use "queer" not so much to refer to sexual object choice, but rather to desire, a certain attitude or politic, or simply whatever is at odds with the normal (Halperin, 1995). Queer challenges clear-cut notions about sexual identity through blurring the boundaries between identity categories. Queer theory is about being playful with ideas and turning knowledge inside out and backward. Rather than relying on taken-for-granted categories of straight and gay, queer theorists invite a questioning of all sexuality and a critical unpackaging of how we know what we think we know. Showing the queerness of normalcy and revealing the banal in "queer" is a project of queer theory (Tierney, 1997). Such an application of the concept of queer, which problematizes and destabilizes all sexual identities and practices, encourages "folks of different strokes" to participate in the conversation, not just those identified as "LGBT." This discussion is not so much interested in the experiences of being an L, a G, a B, or a T. Instead, queer theory pries open discussions of sexual subjectivities, implicating everyone, to make teaching and learning about sexual difference inclusive, fluid and complicated-as messy as sex.

Pedagogical issues around sexuality framed under a multicultural minority oppression model preclude inclusive learning opportunities and reinforce a fixed hetero/queer binary. This model underscores heterosexual practices as dominant and normative, with "LGBT" identities understood as marginalized and oppressed. In this manner, it constrains a teachable opportunity in social work education. Certainly, there is nothing inherently problematic in teaching straight-identified social workers about queer cultural knowledges or in pedagogically challenging homophobia, biphobia or transphobia. However, this method assumes that hetero practices are both normal and dominant, while positioning queer sexual practices and identities as requiring better understanding. Sumara 8c Davis (1999), argue that multicultural education that conceptualizes sexual difference in an oppression model perpetuates historical productions of heterosexuality and homosexuality that do little more than reinforce unequal power relations. What is more, this framework pedagogically implies that "straight allies" must (and can) become culturally competent around queer issues (see Poynter & Tubbs, 2008). This sets up two misleading beliefs: that straight sexualities (and queer ones) are always fixed and knowable; and that queer sexualities can be reduced to subjects of investigation, presenting fetishistic opportunities for learning about the other. According to Carlson (1998), such education has the unanticipated effect of perpetuating stereotypes and making the "other" more clearly the "other" (p. 114). Ostensibly, teaching and learning about queer populations, while leaving heterosexuality unquestioned, re-establishes a hetero/queer binary.

Queer theory is a productive pedagogical method for teaching about sexuality, gender and power relations, as well as the way in which identities emerge from classifìcatory systems. Similarly, this theoretical approach seeks to understand the historical, political and systemic productions of what is seen as normal or deviant. In this case, there is an interest in thinking about the way in which social work discourses shape and are shaped by social fantasies of sexual difference. Queer theory, then, shifts the idea of sexual difference to include a variety of sexual practices. Inclusive conversations, beyond identity categories, can be a helpful pedagogical tool in countering the tendency to construct people as either tolerated or tolerant (Britzman, 1995). So then, how can we trouble our notions that queer sexualities exclusively present teaching and learning opportunities? How do we problematize the assumption that only queers have something to teach and only straight folks have something to learn? How can social work education take focus away from the hetero/queer binary and move toward inclusive and open learning to unpack and investigate a range of human sexualities?

Social work education has rarely taken up queer theory due to competing theoretical conceptualizations of liberation. AOP, for example, has liberation and emancipation at its core with a passionate commitment to social justice and social change (Baines, 2007). Queer theory, on the other hand, has roots firmly planted in a critical questioning of the gay and lesbian liberation movement (Sullivan, 2007). Lyotard (1984) is critical of liberationist agendas because of their logic models, their universalizing discourses, and the imaginary of a singular freedom. While both AOP and queer theory represent hétérodoxes influenced by a multiplicity of theoretical flavours, there is an evident tension in the way that both frameworks understand postmodern and post-structural theories.

Baines's (2007) discussion of AOP theory identifies that "many social justice oriented social workers have turned to post-modern and poststructural theory"(p. 18). She explains that "social work's theoretical and practical development must be based on the struggles and needs of those who are oppressed and marginalized" and that utilizing a heterodox approach delivers "emancipatory theory and practice" (pp. 21-22). Sullivan (2007), on the other hand, highlights the way in which post-structural analyses have moved queer theorists to argue against liberationist agendas that leave no room for difference and to be critical of "ahistorical accounts of oppression, definitions of homosexuality, blueprints for freedom" and "universally applicable political goals or strategies" (pp. 40, 42). These words mark the tensions between AOP social work's liberationist discourse and queer theory's sceptical response to all liberation movements. Moreover, that postmodern and post-structural thought has been interpreted with such noticeable difference by social work and queer theorists represents the passions involved in playing with these ideas and shows the flexibility of ideas, theory and practice.

Often, social work pedagogy conceptualizes non-normative sexual practices through an identity-based oppression model, which in turn grants sexual dissidents minority status. A sexual minority oppression model is evident in AOP social work literature, as well as in cultural competency classroom discussions focused on working with (or liberating) the "LGBT" population. For example, Van Den Berg and Crisp (2004) discuss the application of a cultural competency approach to social work with sexual minorities. This literature imagines a binary in which sexual minority groups are constituted as having less power and privilege than the dominant heterosexual group (Brown, 2008; Cocker 8c HaffordLetchfield, 2010). Particularly in AOP discourses, sexual minorities are seen, at the very least, as subjects in need of understanding and compassion (see Brownlee, Sprakes, Saini, O'Hare, Kortes-Miller 8c Graham, 2005) or, with the greatest of ambitions, constructed as needing the energies of social workers to dismantle systems of homophobia/transphobia (see Burdge, 2007). This literature essentializes queer communities as one oppressed group with a collective identity, a perspective Trotter, Kershaw and Knott (2008) identify as an ethnic-based framework in which biology and culture underpin difference. As such, "queer" is implied to be akin to a variety of marginalized groups in that there is something inherently or reductively similar about being an L, a G, a B, or a T. This reduction also poses the necessary correlate that some striking dissimilarity must exist between hetero and queer populations. Such discourses of sexual difference not only re-signify a hetero/queer binary, but also reinforce the social fantasy that queer people are inherently and biologically different.

Whereas a sexual minority oppression model demarcates a binary of privileged straight folks and a marginalized queer community, queer theory remains open to the nuances and complexities of sexuality, power, desire and subjectivity. Queer theory challenges clear-cut notions about sexual identity, blurring the boundaries between identity categories. A sexual minority oppression model lacks the language to discuss the pleasures and desires associated with queerness. Rather, "LGBT" people are constructed as melancholy subjects, carrying out difficult lives in the pages of a social work text (see Burdge, 2007). Queer theory and nonacademic writings by queers have demonstrated the playfulness, pleasure, and emotional complexity that encompass the queerness of a human experience. Interestingly, learning about sexual difference through an oppression model has the tendency to minimize differences within queer communities and among those who are considered outsiders. "LGBT" community is imagined as one unified collective minority group with shared experiences and world views. Lyotard (1984), instead, is critical of the notion of a universal queer experience that leaves no room for complexities, ambiguities, or multiple subject positions. Remaining open to an unmappable range of differences within queer subjectivities, as well as the yet-to-be-revealed queerness of heterosexual subjectivities, is an important piece of inclusive teaching and learning about sexuality. Queer theory offers social work a useful pedagogical tool in facilitating inclusive discussions around sexuality and teaching about a wide variety of sexual differences beyond the limited "LGBT" identity categories.

NOTE

1 Sexuality is consciously centred in this conversation, as teaching and learning issues around genderqueer, transgender, and transsexual subjectivities are beyond the scope of this inquiry. Trans theory emerged in academe specifically as a critique of queer theorists who "queer" trans subjects without their wishes or permission. I have continued to use the "LGBT" acronym as a point of reference, remembering trans subjectivities and acknowledging the troubling inclusion of "T" in conversations of sexuality.

References:

Baines, D. (2007). Anti-oppressive social work practice: Fighting for space, fighting for change. In D. Baines (Ed.), Doing Anti-oppressive Practice: Building Transformative Politicized Social Work. Halifax: Fernwood.

Britzman, Ó. (1995). Is there a queer pedagogy? Or, stop reading straight. Educational Theory 45, no. 2, 151-165.

Brown, H. C. (2008). Social work and sexuality, working with lesbians and gay men: What remains the same and what is different? Practice: Social Work in Action 20, no. 4, 265-275.

Brownlee, K., A. Sprakes, M. Saini, R. O'Hare, K. Kortes-Miller & J. Graham (2005). Heterosexism among social work students. Sodai Work Education 24, no. 5, 485-495.

Burdge, B.J. (2007). Bending gender, ending gender: Theoretical foundations for social work practice with the transgender community. Social Work 52, no. 3, 243-250.

Carlson, D. (1998). Who am I? Gay identity and a democratic politics of the self. In. W. F. Pinar (Ed.), Queer Theory in Education (pp. 107-119). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cocker, C, & T. Hafford-Letchfield (2010). Out and proud? Social work's relationship with lesbian and gay equality. British Journal of Social Work 40, 1996-2008.

Halperin, D. (1995). Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lyotard, J. F (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Bennington & Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Poynter, K.J., & N.J. Tubbs (2008). Safe zones: Creating LGBT safe space ally programs. Journal of LGBT Youth 5, no. 1, 121-132.

Sullivan, N. (2007). A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.

Sumara, D., & B. Davis (1999). Interrupting heteronormativity: Toward a queer curriculum theory. Curriculum Inquiry 29, no. 2, 191-208.

Tierney, W. G. (1997). Academic Outlaws: Queer Theory and Cultural Studies in the Academy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Trotter, J., S. Kershaw & C. Knott (2008). Editorial updating all our outfits. International Journal of Social Work Education 27, no. 2, 117-121.

Van Den Bergh, N., & C. Crisp (2004). Defining culturally competent practice with sexual minorities: Implications for social work education and practice. Journal of Social Work Education 40, no. 2, 221-238.

Author affiliation:

Kinnon V. Ross MacKinnon is a master's student in the School of Social Work at Ryerson University.

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