Self-Exploration, Social Justice, and LGBTQ Autobiography
By John C. Hawley, professor of English at Santa Clara University
My years at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) in the late 1970s were life-defining. Classes with heavyweight scholars and theologians, psychoanalysis with preeminent practitioners like Bryce Boyer, ordination by exiled Malawi bishop Patrick Kalilombe, the reading of important and mind-opening works while living communally in the expansive Berkeley atmosphere--it was all very exciting. But it turns out that the most helpful course I took was one that consisted simply of writing an autobiography.
The course seemed reminiscent of the best class I took in high school: study hall. In both, I had the freedom to explore a really transfixing topic--myself. While my self-exploration in secondary school was disguised in wide-ranging studies of seemingly unrelated topics, at the GTU it took shape through a much more difficult immersion in memory and interpretation. The course was by no means the first time I had examined my gay orientation, but it was, perhaps, the most liberating and consequential, leading some years later to my setting aside theological studies (which, until then, had appeared to be my vocation).
Since leaving the GTU, I have noticed a proliferation of LGBTQ autobiography in publishing and academia. I have found that the genre shares with postcolonial literature (my current academic interest) a sense of explosive self-affirmation, as if the authors' shackles have finally been thrown off, their blinders tossed aside. Perhaps those who do not share similar histories now feel themselves to be the oppressed ones, living in a world in which their normalcy seems besieged by self-indulgent queers--but isn't that always the case when a silenced group finally finds its voice?
Students sense the postcolonial undertones of LGBTQ autobiography when they read Chris Bull's Come Out Fighting: A Century of Essential Writing on Gay and Lesbian Liberation (2001). The parallels between the struggle for LGBTQ rights and various ethnic struggles in the United States jump out at them. I always wonder how many students sitting in the classroom are rehearsing their own lives, their ongoing negotiations with their peers. I think of the great value pedagogical theorists have suggested expressive writing has in the classroom. In their free writing, in their notes in the margin of the syllabus, in their purposeless doodling--in short, in thinking outside the box--students momentarily escape the transactional writing they are so regularly called to produce, writing that sometimes alienates them from...well, from themselves. For LGBTQ students, the colonization of their minds by heterosexual norms is so omnipresent as to be mind-numbing. This state of affairs can silence students on many levels and maintain the social panopticon that Jeremy Bentham found charming.
Reflecting on Michel Foucault's valorization of writing rooted in an author's care for him or herself, autobiography theorist Leigh Gilmore suggests that such work "makes it possible for one to become other than what one is" (2001, 145). For the repressed student, life writing can play an ethical role, allowing him or her to engage in a private celebration of self before the public expression that marks personal maturity. One must first be one's own audience, and expressive writing helps students fill that role.
Reading autobiographies, of course, can demonstrate what one's life might be: Jennifer Finney Boylan's She's Not There, Edmund White's My Lives: A Memoir, Esera Tuaolo's Alone in the Trenches, Samuel Delany's The Motion of Light in Water, May Sarton's The House by the Sea, Margarethe Cammermeyer's Serving in Silence, Melissa Etheridge's The Truth Is...My Life in Love and Music, and Deirdre McCloskey's Crossing: A Memoir. By connecting students with organizations like the Lavender Youth Recreation and Information Center (LYRIC) in San Francisco (www.lyric.org), faculty can further help them act on newfound understandings in communities that cross races and economic classes. As a first step toward action, engagement with autobiography can ultimately encourage students to fashion a world that is more just.
Bull, C. 2001. Come out fighting: A century of essential writing on gay and lesbian liberation. New York: Nation Books.
Gilmore, L. 2001. The limits of autobiography: Trauma and testimony. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.