The Professor is Out: Are These Slacks Queer?
Queering the classroom can be nothing more or less than an act of existence that does not necessitate a certain mode, reaction, or action toward or against a gender presentation binary, or an understood queer normativity.
On the first day of class this year, I wear my skinny gray slacks, a white button-down shirt, and my now-infamous “Bob Barker Blazer,” a bright blue number that says come on down. I pin all my shoulder-length hair back into a bun. I stand with my hands in my pockets, slouch backward, and engage in a back and forth Q & A session, because no one ever remembers information given on the first day, so we can use the time to get to know one another. I wear some iteration of this outfit on every first day of class; sometimes, I omit the blazer and swap the slacks out for khakis.
Every semester, queer students, some of whom are out only to their closest friends, make confetti out of assignment sheets in my office and, after asking one or two fairly shallow questions, come out to me. Sometimes they do it in a rush, sparing no details. Sometimes they ask me, point blank, if I am also queer. They often reference my manner of dress in their question. I’m honest with them: yes, I’m queer. Yes, my partner is not a man. Yes, they were reading my mannerisms and fashion choices successfully. In this moment, they have successfully picked up on the unspoken, one of the most important aspects of a burgeoning queer identity in a queerphobic society.
Wearing pants as a woman isn’t considered queer anymore, and my cis-hetero students probably think nothing of my slacks. Plenty of women wear full suits regularly (I am gesturing to Blake Lively, in all her pantsuit glory, right now) and continue to assert their femininity. I had two out women as professors in my undergraduate career, and both wore men’s cut suits some days and flowing cardigans others, with jewelry and short hair and general disregard for what any of us thought about their choices.
To a queer audience, I might be “queering queerness” by going high femme when wearing a dress and lipstick, or enacting femme queerness, or ascribing queer meaning to hetero-cis-normative patriarchal gazes which prescribe skirts and makeup. Femme queerness is both revolutionary and painless as a thin, cis, white woman; to see me in a public space would be to think nothing whatsoever of my clothing choices, haircut, or general presentation. In the classroom, I choose to wear pants not to circumvent expectations of a young woman as professor, and not to enact masculinity in a traditionally masculine space, but because pants are comfortable, and I like to have pockets, and I like to disappear as much as possible into the background. I am nowhere near being capable, professionally or personally, of using my body as a lesson; frankly, I doubt I’ll ever go there because of my anxiety, disordered eating, and body-image issues. If I begin to consider that my students are already dissecting my body, gender presentation, and wardrobe as I stand at the front of the classroom, I think about never teaching again. For my own mental health, I cannot deeply consider my students’ biases, expectations, or thoughts about how I look or dress.
The weekend after the first week of classes at my little community college, my partner and I go shopping. Their friend’s wedding is coming up, and the dress code is “cocktail attire,” of which I have none. My t-shirt dresses, flimsy Forever21 holdovers from undergrad, and high-collared teacher-appropriate dresses for later in the semester, when I feel comfortable enough for my students to know that I do in fact possess knees, do not fit the cocktail party aesthetic. In the dressing room, I try on a fitted gray dress with structured sleeves, and my partner tries out a suit set. We are both between sizes and frustrated at the limitations that come from having these bodies in this world, in which the smallest details indicate who we are. The salesperson grins at us standing in one another’s doorways, tugging at lapels and adjusting hems, and I consider the possibility that we are safe in this Banana Republic outlet store, that the people around us think we are normal. Just in case, we call one another’s names over the partitions, not pet names.
My students will never see me in this dress, but this dress will exist as part of my presentation while I am teaching them. Likewise, my students will never see me in a backwards flat-brimmed hat, or cut off denim shorts, or any other indicators of my actual style or feelings about my body in different spaces. Queering the classroom can be nothing more or less than an act of existence that does not necessitate a certain mode, reaction, or action toward or against a gender presentation binary, or an understood queer normativity. Instead of judging every choice I make for or against cis-heteronormative binary expectations of a greater patriarchal society, I have decided just to wear pants, and see what happens.