by Karen Zaino and Jordan Bell
Our present moment is structured by increasingly coordinated attacks on queer and trans* lives in educational contexts: anti-trans* legislation targeting youth proliferates across states; politicians seek to ban books authored by and centering queer and trans* people, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color; white supremacist protestors organize against drag queen story hours; and corporations capitulate to fascist demands to remove curricular references to critical race theory, the Movement for Black Lives, Black feminism, and queer of color critique. Cindy Cruz has pointed out that this violence, and the discourse that justifies it, is “hard to contain unless we find life-affirming language to contain it” (Zaino et al., 2023, p. 11). To that end, those of us invested in queer and trans* lives are called to create, cultivate, and fiercely protect spaces where queer and trans* futures are imagined and enacted. These spaces demand our attention and efforts — now and always, both within and beyond educational contexts.
Of course, school — particularly the university, as addressed in many of the articles in this issue — is not automatically or implicitly a life-sustaining space, even when not facing external surveillance and suppression. The academy was not designed to support the collective thriving of minoritized people, including queer and trans* scholarship and livelihoods. Indeed, the university is animated by ongoing legacies of settler colonialism and racial capitalism that manifest as material and symbolic accumulation through dispossession, relying on an expansive carceral apparatus that protects property and its owners (Baldwin, 2021; Boggs et al., 2019; Chatterjee & Maira, 2014; Grande, 2018; Wilder, 2013). As such, “corporate models of diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) and stubbornly entrenched, implicit white supremacy” (Mayorga et al., 2022, p. 633) do not disrupt the foundational violence of the academy. These reformist tactics instead sustain the normative functioning of the university and its legitimizing narratives of benevolent progress.
The contributors to this special issue — all of whom are graduate students or early-career scholars — push us to refuse both widespread reactionary violence against queer and trans* people and specious claims of academic inclusion. Instead, they take up the call to write the worlds we deserve as queer and trans* people, to sculpt and share imaginaries of worlds that have long preceded and will outlast the myriad attempts to neutralize or eradicate queer and trans* life.
Such queer worldmaking is not new, either in theory or in practice: In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, the queer of color performance studies scholar José Esteban Muñoz (2009) theorized queerness as an imaginative and generative refusal of cishetereonormativity’s “totalizing rendering of reality” (p. 3). Queerness, he suggested, is “a longing that propels us onward,” a commitment to “dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds” (p. 3). Narrated as impossible within normative social imaginaries (Nicolazzo, 2021), queer and trans* futures are nevertheless invoked through the performative force of queer worldmaking: the queer and trans* social practices, cultural productions, and political activities that enact, through disidentification with the world as it is, expansive possibilities for queer and trans* lives (Muñoz, 1999).
The articles in this issue indeed propel us onward and away from the fantasy of inclusion through careful attention to the radical genealogies that have produced our longings for otherwise worlds (Crawley, 2016), alongside renderings of conceptual frameworks that delineate, methodological tools that surface, and pedagogical processes that support queer and trans* thriving. These concepts, methods, and pedagogies exist now, as the authors emphasize, even as they draw on the past and prefigure possible futures. However, far from serving the university, they exist alongside and against that context, an undercommons (Moten & Harney, 2013) for “decolonizing dreamers who are subversively part of the machinery” of the settler-capitalist university (la paperson, 2017, p. 1). In their work, the contributors to this special issue highlight the praxis of queer and trans* thriving as a home-place always in the making (Salas-SantaCruz, this issue).
The curation of a special issue like this one involves the labor of multiple parties along with the authors and editors, including the recently assembled TRAUE Editorial Board, consisting of students and alumni within Urban Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY. This issue also relied on the supportive work of eight mentors, each of whom read one article, supplied feedback, and then met with the author for a constructive conversation. This process, rather than an anonymized form of peer review, is integral to both TRAUE as a journal and to the generative relational foundations we have aimed to build as part of this special issue.
To that end, we would like to extend our deepest gratitude to our reviewers:
Dr. Matt Brim
Dr. Joshua Coleman
Dr. Antonio Duran
Dr. Erica Meiners
Dr. Caitlin Ryan
Dr. Ryan Schey
Dr. Stephanie Shelton
Dr. Susan Woolley
Each article in this special issue, whether conceptual, methodological, or empirical, invites us to consider knowledge production that can do justice to the complex joy and struggle of queer and trans* life in educational contexts. For instance, underscoring the necropolitical landscape of higher education, in “Towards a New Critical Methodology: Freedom-Dreaming as an Exploration of Nonbinary Student Utopia in Education,” C.V. Dolan critiques the “assimilation tactics” employed by universities that “seek to blend in with rather than dissemble dominant hierarchies and systems of oppression… [and] deems non-normative queers as disposable and killable.” Dolan argues that researchers should shift from the endlessly describing dystopian university contexts and instead highlight and explore queer, trans* and nonbinary utopias. Drawing on refusal, abolition and freedom dreaming, as well as queer utopias, they propose phenomenological arts-based freedom-dreaming as a means to co-construct knowledge with queer, trans*, and nonbinary co-investigators to surface the past, present, and future utopias that make queer knowledge and queer life possible. In this way, collaborative research itself becomes a form of fugitive praxis (Mayorga et al., 2022; Patel, 2021) within and beyond the university.
Meanwhile, surfacing the limits of academic disciplines as conceptual tools, in “Decoloniality & Trans* of Color Educational Criticism” Omi Salas-SantaCruz notes that the consolidation of “trans studies” as an academic field “represents an investment in whiteness and the coloniality of white trans being and knowledge.” They demonstrate that the erasure of Two-Spirit Indigenous, Jotería, and Black trans* histories and imaginaries — or, as troubling, the foregrounding of trans* of color suffering and death as a preamble to descriptions of white trans livingness — serves to sever trans*ness from its radical potentiality. By grounding their work in decolonial feminism, Salas-SantaCruz is able to effectively identify, grapple with, and ultimately refuse “colonial investments in heterogeneity, identity politics, fragmentation, and human/non-human distinctions… [as well as] the Eurocentric and Anglo-centric hold on trans educational criticism that frames policy, curriculum, and practice.” Instead, they create space for trans* of color criticism that accounts for power and coloniality within queer and trans studies.
As Dolan locates queer potentiality in utopia, abolition, and refusal, and Salas-SantaCruz in decolonial feminism, in “An Ode to Knowledge That Lives Outside Text,” Natalie Willens considers the intimate genealogies that have structured her understanding of queer knowledge production. Exploring the queer potential of art, music, and performance, Willens’ work reminds us of Muñoz (1996), who wrote about the “performatively polyvalent” power of queer knowledge, where indeterminacy and ephemerality are sources of epistemological richness (p. 6). In deference to the embodied knowledge on which she draws, Willens experiments with a hyperlinked and embedded citational practice that “[infuses] this article with the rich sounds, images, experiences — and words — that have shaped [her] thinking and feeling while composing.” Her methodological offering highlights the necessity of expansive practices for honoring the various thinkers and productions — many existing outside of formal academic publishing — that have shaped what we know and who we are able to be.
Alongside these important critiques of the academy and university as manifesting in the United States, Nur Makbul’s piece, “An Autoethnography of a South Asian (Muslim) Queer Scholar of Color in American Higher Education,” demonstrates the longevity of British colonial policies in his home, Bangladesh. Even with independence, the nation’s constitution has inherited homophobic and transphobic British ideologies, and a widespread carceral system works alongside vigilante violence to create ongoing vulnerability to premature death (Gilmore, 2007) among queer and trans* people. Makbul’s piece, for us, recalls Jasbir Puar’s (2007) warning about the manner in which homonationalism has been increasingly utilized as a means to prop up U.S. imperialism and war, as global violence becomes a means to protect the implicitly white, homonormative queer subject. Puar’s questions remain deeply poignant:
How do we conceptualize queer sexualities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other parts of the ‘‘Middle East’’—a term I hesitate to use given its area studies origins—without reproducing neocolonialist assumptions that collude with U.S. missionary and savior discourses? Given the mechanics of scapegoating sexual minorities as well as South Asians, Arab Americans, and Muslim Americans, what kinds of discursive and material strategies are queer Muslims and queer Arabs using to resist state and societal violence? (p. xxi)
Makbul’s piece, centering the entangled importance of his queerness, his South Asian identity, and his roots in Bangladesh, as well as the violence he experienced there and in the United States, layers Puar’s questions with ongoing immediacy. His autoethnography highlights the significance of storying as a method for enabling queer livingness in the academy.
Similarly drawing on her embodied experience, in “Embracing Queer, Fem(me)inine & Crip Failure: Arriving at Dream-Mapping as a Speculative Tool for Queer & Trans Educational Research,” Lindsay Cavanaugh sketches an approach to research that invites participants “to imagine how schooling-as-a system could be animated by queer, trans, femme-inist, crip, mad, anticolonial, and antiracist logics, such as care, interdependence, and relationality.” Refusing shame as a defining feature of queer and trans* existence (Sedgwick & Frank, 2003), she draws on crip failure as a speculative resource (Coleman, 2021) that enlivens queer and trans* worldmaking and disrupts colonial space-time, as well as normative academic expectations. Lindsay’s own experiences as a student who has at times “failed” to normatively participate in academic contexts illustrates the need to dream worlds where, as the disability justice activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2022) says, crip-queer “bodyminds are both accepted without question as part of a vast spectrum of human and animal ways of existing… [and] where our cultures, knowledge, and communities shape the world” (p. 22).
Sharing this desire to see queerness shape the world, in “(Re)Imagining Parallels Between Journalistic Instruction and Queerness: A Proposal to Connect Journalism and Queerness at the College Level,” Yelena Dzhanova dreams a future — one rooted in a transformative pedagogical approach at the college-level — where journalists appropriately communicate issues faced by queer and trans* people in a manner that is accurate and humanizing. Surveying recent journalistic work around queer and trans* issues, Dzhanova highlights cases of misgendering and misrepresentation. Given that one of the most read newspapers in the world, The New York Times, was recently lambasted by its own contributors for its harmful coverage of trans* people, Dzhanova’s piece is particularly resonant, as those of us invested in organizing for safer and more livable worlds for queer and trans* people require accurate accounts of the current political landscape that neither romanticize nor dehumanize queer and trans* lives. For all the failures of higher education, Dzhanova’s work echoes bell hooks’ (1994) reminder that “[t]he classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy” (p. 12). Dzhanova urges journalism programs to take up the responsibility of such possibility.
Likewise seeing the possibility in school-based work, despite the constraints of (hetero)normative schooling, in “Queering The System: Lessons for Schools from Youths’ Queer Aesthetics in Role-playing Games,” Scott Storm shares lessons from his empirical work with an after-school role-playing game (RPG) collective for high school students. Interested in the heteronormativity entrenched within traditional Dungeon and Dragons (D&D) gameplay, the youth, along with Storm and another university-based researcher, designed a youth participatory action research (YPAR) project in which they played and then analyzed multiple rounds of D&D. Youth researchers ultimately identified layers of heteronormativity within D&D, which they transformed via a range of practices such as integrating gender and sexual identity selection as part of the character-building process; creating their own campaigns that normalized queer and trans* character encounters, rather than relying on commercially available campaigns; and incorporating queer characters from other stories, especially young adult novels. Finally, the youth identified how queering D&D provided a speculative map for queering school, that is, augmenting and transforming the discourses and mechanics that constrain queer and trans* young people within educational contexts.
Finally, in “Toward Our Black Queer Joy[ous] Futures: To Achieve Our Freedom in the Academy,” Leslie K. Morrow considers how “diversity discourse” invisibilizes the experiences of Black Queer folx within the university. Drawing on a critical collaborative ethnography, Morrow shares her work with participants who “refuse to abandon salient aspects of their lives to conform to the office and work environments that enforce assimilation,” who instead “pay tribute to our ancestors and embrace our deviancy.” As the university deploys discourses of difference in order to control the nature of any deviance, Morrow argues, embodying Black Queer Selfhood in fullness is revolutionary — an agentic act (Brockenbrough, 2015) that continually unmakes the university from the inside and creates space for Black Queer Joy[ous] Futures. Morrow’s piece returns us to the core of the Combahee River Collective’s (1983) original expression of identity politics as the belief that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity [as Black women]… We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” It is enough, as Morrow elaborates, and it is revolutionary.
We close this issue with two contributions to our Community Voices section. First, Shamari Reid, Gia Love, and Jonovia Chase invite us to join them for “‘Isn’t It Cute?’: An Intimate Conversation on Black Trans and Queer Futurities.” Intentional in their selection of participants, some of whom are not part of formal academic institutions, and in their invitation for us to collaboratively construct the meaning(s) of their conversation, Reid, Love, and Chase ground us in the realities of Black queer and trans* future-making, imbued with the longing for stability, community, and liberation. The desire for community is particularly gutting, they suggest, when, recognizing the importance of broad-based coalitions, they show up for communities that may not show up for Black trans women. But, as Love says, they have each other: “not only are trans people like loving on each other romantically, platonically, we are doing work together. We are creating things for the future together. So I just think the future looks bright for trans people. And it will be cute.” Eschewing minimalist or dismissive definitions of cute, the authors instead claim the word as their own, as a word that will define their future.
We conclude with Lydia Villaronga’s piece “my gender,” a powerful poem that evokes the iterative, (re)visionary, contradictory, expansive, and euphoric experience of creating and recreating genders beyond binaries.
Taken together, these 10 pieces gesture toward the future of queer and trans* studies in education: a life-sustaining endeavor within and beyond the academy that refuses specious claims of diversity, equity, and inclusion on our lives; that refuses to participate in the university that churns out palatably white, homonormative subjects; and that refuses any futures but the ones in which we are, in all our complexities and multiplicities, ourselves.
Notes on Contributors:
Karen Zaino is a PhD candidate in Urban Education at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and a Visiting Instructor in Teaching, Curriculum, and Educational Inquiry at Miami University of Ohio. Her research interests include teacher education, educational activism, youth participatory action research, and queer and trans* studies. Her work has been published in Educational Policy, American Journal of Education, Peabody Journal of Education, Excellence & Equity in Education, and English Journal. Prior to graduate study, she was a high school English teacher for 12 years.
Jordan Bell is an award-winning Black Studies, English, and Philosophy educator who teaches courses through a critical lens, and he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center with research interests that center around Critical Race Theory, BlackCrit, Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CRSE), Healing Centered Engagement, and Racial Literacy, amongst other things. Moreover, Jordan also serves as the Chair of the State University of New York (SUNY) Black Faculty and Staff Collective (SBFSC) where the collective works to support Black Bodies at SUNY and beyond, as a For the Culture intern at Equity & Excellence in Education, and as an editor for New York University’s (NYU) Voices in Urban Education (VUE) Journal and Co-EIC for CUNY GC’s Urban Education journal, Theory Research and Action in Urban Education.
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