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Title:The curriculum of coming out: queer pedagogies, literacies, and rhetorics in LGBTQ lives
Author(s):Cavallaro, Alexandra
Director of Research:Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mortensen, Peter L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Vieira, Kate; Rodriguez, Richard T.; Hawisher, Gail E.
Department / Program:English
Discipline:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Degree:Ph.D.
Genre:Dissertation
Subject(s):literacy
lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ)
queer studies
rhetorical education
coming out
Abstract:In a meeting of Between Women, an LGBTQ support and discussion group at Centerville University, one of the participants said, “I’m here in order to get the words together.” This statement perfectly illustrates the imperative at the heart of this dissertation: people’s need to learn literacy and rhetorical practices that equip them to take decisive action in debates and discussions surrounding sexuality. While scholars in writing studies have long been interested in studies of everyday literacy and rhetoric in a range of extra-institutional sites (e.g., Gere), and recent scholarship has illustrated sexuality’s central role in shaping what it means to be literate in a democratic society (e.g., Alexander, Alexander and Rhodes, Wallace), little research brings the two together at present. In combining these threads of scholarship, I examine how LGBTQ people develop a sense of "sexual literacy" (Alexander, Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy), defined as the ways in which we learn to talk about and understand sexuality, in extra-curricular sites of rhetorical education, or what I call the “queer extracurriculum.” My dissertation traces the intricate connections between the processes, materials, and sites by which LGBTQ people develop materially consequential literacy and rhetorical practices through two qualitative case studies. In these sites—a support/discussion group and a community workshop—I focus on the rhetorical education essential to living in the world as an LGBTQ person, terming this set of informal pedagogical practices “the curriculum of coming out.” In such sites, I argue that my research participants come to see that LGBTQ oppression is not natural or inherent in laws, in cultural beliefs, in religious or medical texts, or in popular culture representations. Rather, justifications for oppression and discrimination are located in language, in particular rhetorical strategies, and in the ways they are mobilized. In these sites, individuals come to see that they are not powerless to combat these strategies, and that they can learn to craft their own arguments and counter narratives through the literacy practices and rhetorical pedagogies in these sites of rhetorical education. In doing so, they engage actively with the tension between normativity (assimilating into the status quo) and destabilization (rejecting and revising the status quo), tensions that remain at the heart of scholarship on sexuality in writing studies, both inside and outside the classroom. In contrast to approaches that advocate either acquiescence to normativity through essentialism (e.g., popular initiatives such as the Human Rights Campaign) or constant disruption and destabilization (e.g., queer academic or activist approaches) as mutually exclusive models of action, I argue for work that actively engages with the tension between these two endpoints and holds both tendencies in play simultaneously. I contend that we need to pay more attention to the material realities that make performing normative identities necessary and desirable, while simultaneously critiquing it and holding it in question. I do not advocate for a “middle ground” approach between two extremes, but a model that takes into account the material realities of people’s lives that make the performance of normativity an important tool for survival. This use of essentialism is not about an acquiescence to normativity, but about a critical and sometimes uncomfortable inhabitation of that space. Chapter 1 defines the intellectual space in which my dissertation intervenes. It does so by bringing together relevant research in writing studies and sexuality/queer studies, highlighting their common concerns with socially situated and embedded activity: the socially situated nature of literacy and rhetorical practices on the one hand (e.g., Brandt, Gee, Street), and the social construction and production of sexual and gender identities on the other (e.g., Butler, Sedgwick). In bringing these two strands of research together, I argue for increased attention to the everyday literacies and rhetorics of LGBTQ people, especially in “alternative” (Enoch) sites of rhetorical education, sites that often provide a unique opportunity for politically marginalized groups to revise commonplace ideas about writing, rhetoric, and their connections to identity in order to suit their specific community needs and political ends. I further theorize the role of the curriculum of coming out in aiding LGBTQ people in naming and claiming an identity for multiple audiences amidst a vast field of competing ideological forces that would take that potential away. Chapter two introduces the feminist methodology and methods (e.g., Kirsch, Kirsch and Royster) that ground the two case studies. I elaborate on the local particulars for each site of research, both located in “Centerville,” USA, a mid-size Midwestern town with a major research university, surrounded by farming communities. The first is a workshop titled “Biblical Self-Defense for the LGBT Community” offered at the annual Pride Festival in Centerville. Since the curriculum of the workshop is similar to the work of many LGBT and queer Christian organizations, this case study offers a local, grounded example of queer literacy practices at the intersection of sexual and religious identity. The second case study examines “Between Women,” an LBGTQ women’s discussion group at Centerville University. Groups like this one have a rich history in the LGBTQ community, and while the specific, local activities are particular to the combination of people in the group, the presence of a rhetorical curriculum (the curriculum of coming out) is not. Taken together, these “little narratives” (Daniell) provide telling cases to look at the function of the curriculum of coming out, and its role in the production of LGBTQ identities, stories, and lives. Chapter three presents my first case study, demonstrating how queer reading practices in the curriculum of coming out can disrupt dominant narratives about intersectional identities by illustrating the instability of biblical interpretation. Participants in the “Biblical Self-Defense for GLBTQS and Allies” workshop come to see that biblically-based justifications for LGBTQ oppression and discrimination are a result of the way the Bible has been mobilized rhetorically in arguments, removed from its historical context of composition. Through the development of queer biblical literacies, participants learn to construct arguments in order to refute the “clobber passages” and articulate a religious identity that challenges the dominant narrative that LGBTQ and Christian identities are mutually exclusive by problematizing the very category of “the Christian,” a category often positioned as having a stable, consistent meaning. The interplay of both strategies, I argue, are necessary to address the complex rhetorical situations surrounding issues of sexuality and religion present in current political debates. Chapter four presents my second case study, illustrating how rhetorical curricula are built in response to institutional, societal, and familial discourses surrounding LGBTQ sexuality. Drawing on a year-long qualitative study of “Between Women,” I demonstrate how the members subvert and challenge those discourses through their own rhetorical curriculum, reclaiming important sites of rhetorical education and literacy instruction, while showing the complex relationship to the institution that they are both a part of and yet remain critically apart from. In doing so, I argue that they create a location for the development of more community-relevant rhetorical and literacy practices, which illustrates the products, processes, and tensions of the curriculum of coming out. I conclude in chapter five by returning to a discussion of narrative, examining two parallel coming out narratives in order to argue that queer coming out narratives challenge our understandings of identity and sexual selves by calling explicit attention to those conventions and expectations through moments of disruption. I end with directions for future research.
Issue Date:2015-06-25
Type:Thesis
URI:http://hdl.handle.net/2142/88148
Rights Information:Copyright 2015 Alexandra J. Cavallaro
Date Available in IDEALS:2015-09-29
Date Deposited:August 201


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