How can I embed my queer feminist values into environmental education?

Today I have been reflecting on a buschcraft session I taught to a group of adults last week. We did carving, fire building & cooking, tied knots and ID’d trees. It was really fun and I got on with the group well; they all had something to offer and something to learn. The one negative that has really stuck with me though is a recurring theme that I really want to face up to and do something about. Half way through the reflection (which turned into the below blog post) I realised that the achievable goal I needed to set myself was to ask for help overcoming this problem. I’m not getting very far on my own. This post, therefore is an explicit plea for help. I’d be very grateful for any response.

Frequently I am the only woman in sessions. Society doesn’t make it easy for women (or anyone who isn’t a man) to access outdoorsy physical activities. Frequently I come across attitudes to gender (from colleagues as well as learners) that I think are problematic. The more men in the room the more sexist attitudes seem to come out. One of the learners even made a comment that implied that if I wasn’t there it would be worse. In a positive light this highlights the idea that my presence in a typically male space is a form of challenging gender norms and embedding diversity, but does it really change attitudes when the implication is that men just suppress their sexism when women are in earshot?
When I feel like I’m picked out because of my gender, or think a sexist attitude is present in sessions I find it harder and harder to assert what I really think. I even have less confidence in my abilities as a teacher. Things ‘slip’ and I don’t feel as though I can pull it back or challenge attitudes, which affects how and what people end up learning from the session. I really hate this dynamic & it seems as though it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
Part of it is that my perspectives on gender are different to the majority of people, even feminist people. In my personal life I am constantly engaging with radical queer* politics and identity which asserts that gender is NOT innate, that society coercively assigns and expects certain behaviours from individuals based on a messy collection of biological sex characteristics (which in themselves are arbitrarily separated into ‘male’ or ‘female’ when there is infinite grey areas).
What I want people to understand is that if we expect a person to act a certain way, and shape their whole world and identity around that; that is what they will become. If we divide society down the middle and treat one half differently to the other and construct the world to reinforce that, it will be easy to ‘prove’ that that’s just how it is. That women’s brains are just wired differently, that men are from different PLANETS!
What I want to ask people to do is to act as if this isn’t true. BECAUSE IT ISN’T. It is only true because we believe it to be true and so we construct that truth on top of our belief. I am weak because you told me I am weak by implying I can’t carry that box of tools and somewhere deep down I believe you are strong because that’s how the world works, even though you are skinny and wobbly and I know for a FACT that you will struggle with that box.
I want this not just because I want women to be equal to men but because I want to destroy a society that keeps us in those two factions and rejects anyone who doesn’t fit neatly on either side. I want this for me, for the men in my sessions and for my strong (most of the time), beautiful (always) loved ones who get punished daily for being too ‘diverse’ to fit into societies gender norms.
But how do I work for that in a two day bushcraft course? And if I were able to, would it be ethical to embed a radical queer liberation agenda into sessions with people who didn’t share that worldview? My answer to that when sat writing is a resounding yes, but I’m not so emphatically courageous when faced with a fire circle of kind hearted, slightly sexist men.

Can you help me?
How do I challenge subtly sexist comments made in sessions?
Should I go in right off the bat and explain that I won’t tolerate sexist attitudes? Wouldn’t this just mean people hide their attitudes from me, leaving no space for change?
How do I wrap up ‘emphatically courageous’ and carry it with me into every teaching situation (actually every life situation!) like a shiny queer forcefield to protect me from the trembling, scared little woman feeling I get when I’m blindsided by the patriarchy?
How do I embed gender diversity (and equality) into my sessions in a way that changes attitudes and actions?
How do I ask people to change when it hasn’t occurred to them that change is needed?

* If you don’t know what queer means aside from a homosexual slur, I invite you to look it up! I just typed ‘What does queer mean?’ into google and found a great HuffPost discussion. There is a culture within queer communities that says it is not the responsibility of queer people to educate the wider world about their existence. I am fully behind this because I know its terrifying to be expected to discuss the most private parts of your identity with a world that is mostly hostile towards that part of you. The respect that is shown by self-education is a great place to start these conversations because once you find the language, you find a way to navigate your uncertainties with real people without being unintentionally hurtful. I am a teacher & queer so I willingly take that responsibility at certain times and within certain boundaries. This, as you can probably guess is wholeheartedly one of those times. I’ll let you know if for some reason that changes.

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9 thoughts on “How can I embed my queer feminist values into environmental education?

  1. Ellie I am thinking, thinking and thinking. I want to do justice to your passionate writing by responding thoughtfully. I wanted you to know that I’ve read your words and that I’m thinking. Lou xx

  2. This is complex enough without the queer (I looked it up rather than make a lazy assumption. So glad I did) angle. You’re attempting to embed your wonderful values against centuries of patriarchal oppression. It’s tempting to say don’t take any prisoners, but I would suggest you chip away at it in a non-confrontational way or you risk your courses being empty. I do sympathise. I face similar issues with racism in some of my classes all too often and it leaves me feeling wretched.

  3. Ellie, I love this post. It’s brave and insightful, and it’s made me really tearful, (though not sure why!). You know when you read something in a book which describes exactly what you think, or have felt, or have struggled with, and it strikes such a chord, because maybe you couldn’t articulate what you thought until you read it in someone else’s words? I get a sort of hairs standing up on the back of your neck thing, and that’s what I experienced reading this. I find the grinding accepted sexism that pervades every part of our lives wearisome and depressing and at times feel I’d like to just withdraw and stop trying to challenge it. I’m white, able bodied, and straight, and any working class credentials I might possibly have are on the weak side of weak, so I’ve thought long and hard about the struggles that minority oppressed groups experience and what my role should be in challenging it. My reflections are that it’s absolutely my job.

    You’ve taken a big step forward here in creating a forum for discussion, because one of the solutions is (I believe), to draw strength from other like minded folk to continue the good fight. I love bell hooks for her courage in fighting sexism, racism and homophobia and despite being wounded, the way she always stands up again to resume the argument, even though I suspect she also feels little and trembly like you, like me, like most of us. There’s also a book in the LLSC called White Men Challenging Racism (or something very similar) and it made a big impact on me when I read it – although clearly the focus here is race, and in the US, it helped me work through my own discomfort, and understand better why people join racist societies and movements. I also did some work a few years ago with Oxfam on gender, which I loved, because it affirmed what I believed already, and at the same time was devastating, because my dearly loved male colleague (at the time) trashed the whole notion of gender inequality, and I couldn’t go back to seeing him as I had done before. It broke our friendship, although he never realised this.

    I want to have a bigger think about your other questions. I can’t promise to give you easy solutions, and I am thinking that maybe the ones that will work most effectively for you will come out of your work with the Diversity Project. But I will come back after some pondering.

    Thanks again for some great food for thought. xxx

    • Wow. Thanks so much for this, amazing to hear your thoughts. I think the story of your broken friendship is really where the block is for me, thank you so much for sharing something personal like that; it really lit that up for me. The fear of challenging this stuff is that it will polarise; that there will be a net loss in connections, friendships because sexism is just that pervasive. The replies to my post have begun to chip away at that assumption and have given me enormous strength.

  4. Hi Ellie

    I’ve been thinking about your post such a lot, and remembering all sorts of times when my feet have been swept away from under me in class. Like the time a young woman said she didn’t think women should be allowed to be MPs. Or the man who insisted gender equality had gone too far, because his friend had lost custody of his kids. Or the man from Hull who dismissed the whole concept of racism because a barber near where he lived put a sign in the window saying ‘Turkish Only’. Or the woman who said unemployed people shouldn’t get any money from the state, and we should reopen workhouses. What floored me was that all of these students were young, bright, academically able, and on a course called Social Inequalities.

    I’ve been reflecting on my coping strategies too. Humour is a big one – to try to deflect comments (and maybe my own tension). But always to challenge the comment, and to look for a way which doesn’t dismiss the person or make them feel stupid. Questions are good for me; asking people to say why they think that way. Facts to refute statements are helpful if I have them. With a smile.

    Inside I am mostly not feeling humorous. I am feeling despondent or angry or confused. I try to think about where the students are coming from. Often white and working class and poor. The suggestion that they may be in any position of privilege would be laughable to them. So for me, like Tom says above, it’s about chipping away. And sometimes there’s the magic moment when you get support from other learners in the room.

    What I don’t want is for students to have an excuse to dismiss what I say on the grounds I am a feminist or politically correct. Some of them do, of course. I know full well that what goes on outside the classroom out of earshot would probably upset me. I’m glad I can’t hear it. Chipping away. Maybe.

    On the Oxfam course we did an exercise that was miming putting on a gender superhero suit. Mine had a hood and a cape. It still makes me smile remembering people pretending to wriggle into theirs. Superheroes come in lots of guises though. And no one else needs to know I’m wearing one.

    🙂

    • I’ve been mulling over your suggestions of humour and questions over the past few days. Humour is the one I find hardest to imagine, though I really identify with that fear of being the humourless feminist in the room. I’ve started thinking about that in terms of having to build relationships first. If you haven’t shown interest in them, a direct challenge just won’t work because the only thing they see is humourless confrontation.
      I like the idea of questions. A question came to me immediately after a session yesterday that would need some honing if I ever used it but helped to clarify my thoughts ‘Do you realise that you talk about women as if they were objects?’. I am realising that sometimes (especially young) men don’t see me or other female teachers as women in the sense that they feel the need to censor themselves. They make comments along the lines of ‘we need some girls on this course so that X isn’t so rude’.
      I really like the superhero exercise! I’m putting on my emphatically-courageous-girl suit as I type 🙂

    • I’ve started reading Judith Butler (wish me luck!). This sentence made me think of you “laughter in the face of serious categories is indispensable for feminism” pxxx Gender Trouble Routledge classics 2006 edition. Really made me smile

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