At this point in my career I find myself situated in two different worlds of the university: I teach for gender and sexuality studies (my course at the moment is called “Bodies Out of Bounds”), and I co-edit a journal on feminist pedagogy; at the same, I direct the campus women’s center, a place where students come to develop programs on issues around gender. I see my job as helping students contextualize their activist work within their academic work, and talking with classes at times about how to turn their theoretical work into practice. In other words, I see my work as a continuous series of questions about the intersections of theory and practice. The two sides of my academic life often bleed into one another, but during periods such as the one we’re in now (the suicides), the sides completely collapse onto one another. I know that I have to talk in class about the suicides and homophobia and how sexism plays into homophobia, etc., etc. and help students understand that those other kids and adults who harass these young people are working from their own theories of who matters and who doesn’t. I know as a teacher I need to normalize queerness as a topic.
But I also live my work life outside the classroom, and I see the times when students have terrible things happen to them or to their friends, and I see them surprised by the inability of the academic bubble to protect them. I watch them struggle to get to sleep and to go to class as they simultaneously cope with situations most people around them are unaware of. And I know I have to listen and sympathize and offer them practical help at the same time that I (gently) encourage them to dissect the myth of the university as “safe space” and help them understand the intersections of gender/race/age, and class privilege as they try to deal with their pain. Like many feminists, I don’t believe there truly is any such thing as an uncomplicated “safe space,” but there are times students need somewhere they can talk and where the challenges do not overwhelm them completely. Sometimes students simply need a place where they can sit quietly.
It’s important for those of us in the academy to put our theories into practice when we think about the people who spend their working lives around us, too. There are queer faculty who are frightened for themselves because of homophobia; there are queer staff members with the same fears for themselves and who don’t have the protection of tenure, and there are staff who fear for their queer children. Many of these campus members are invisible to our students (and too often many staff are invisible to faculty). As academics, we owe it to our communities to articulate the issues in ways that can be heard by many. And we need to let our students know that these deaths — and the harassments and other deaths we don’t hear about — matter. We need sometimes to mourn publicly at the same time we are clear about our anger.
Gail Cohee is Director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center at Brown University and co-editor of Feminist Teacher.