Beyond the Letters is a podcast featuring LGBTQ+ educators, their stories, strategies and practical advice for creating safe and inclusive educational spaces for queer youth and educators, alike. Hosted by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, each week features a new guest as they talk all things LGBTQ+ and education.
Kate and Maggie are joined by Dana Stachowiak in today's episode for a wide-ranging conversation about LGBTQ+ identity in education. They discuss those formative moments when we find the words to match our identity, how coming out is a constant process, and how meaningful and important it is to self-educate.
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Below is a transcript of this episode.
Kate: Hello, and welcome to Beyond The Letters. My name is Kate Roberts.
Maggie: And I am Maggie Beattie-Roberts.
Kate: And we are thrilled to be speaking today with Dr. Dana Stachowiak. Dana is an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in the Watson College of Education at University of North Carolina, Wilmington and is also the Director of the Gender Studies and Research Center there. Dana's been a classroom teacher, literacy coach and consultant and is a leading voice in social justice and equity education. She's written articles, offered keynotes, run groups and has generally committed her whole professional life to leveling the field for all youth and teachers. And we are thrilled and honored to be talking to her today. Welcome Dana.
Dana: Thanks for having me. That was a really nice introduction.
Maggie: We're so excited that you're here. How lucky are we.
Kate: So we usually start off the podcast with a little bit of the personal, of getting to know a little bit about you. And while we wish we had the time in the podcast to hear your life story, we have to whittle that down too. We've generally framed it as, is there a moment, a critical moment, for you in your life, either as a person, as an educator that you feel was one of those moments where you felt like you had to live differently, live more actively as a queer educator?
Dana: Yeah. So I'm really sad you don't want my life story. It's pretty amazing.
Kate: I do want it.
Dana: There's actually three turning points in my story, I'll go over them really quickly. So the first one, I was teaching fourth grade, I identify as non-binary trans or genderqueer and I was very femme at the time. So that was awkward for everybody, especially me. But I was teaching in a classroom where a student, a young girl came out, was telling everybody that she was gay and people were pushing that under the rug. "Oh no, that's not what it is." And she went downhill as a student and it's at that moment, I realized if she had somebody in her life that she could see was happy and positive and healthy and out, then maybe it might be a little bit different. And so it was kind of that first moment of, "Wait, I need to be here for that student."
And then a second moment is, I got fired for being gay when I was very closeted. Somebody saw me out, not in school and went back to the school board and let them know. And so that was another, "Well, shoot, it doesn't matter. I just should be me." And the third moment in my life was when I learned what it meant to be genderqueer. And at that moment, that's when I decided not only to be out as queer, but also to be out as non-binary trans or genderqueer and cut my hair off and started to dress in ways that made me feel comfortable, which is more masculine, off center. So those were the three turning points.
And I realized that when I was visible, not only did I feel more comfortable, but people started to come to me and confide in me and we were able to form collective coalitions and support groups. And so I felt like all of those things led up to, "Yeah, I just need to be me and be out loud and be okay with that."
Kate: When you learned about the term genderqueer or you saw something that you were like, yes, can you say a little bit more about that?
Dana: Well, it was a friend of mine who, he was a trans man and he said, "I don't want to be the last genderqueer standing." And I was like, "I get that," but I had no idea what it meant. So I went home and Googled it, genderqueer, what is it? And when I found it out, I started sobbing. It fit me very, very well. And as I've learned new terminology and as new terminology has come out in the mainstream, I've chosen to identify as non-binary trans partly because I feel like that does very much fit me, but it's also easier to explain to people, what non-binary trans is versus genderqueer. So I'll often say that I'm non-binary genderqueer or just non-binary trans and keep on walking. But either one of those works for me, but definitely, I have come into my own and become the person I am so much because of those identity markers. They've been really life changing for me.
Kate: That's amazing. It's like the three moments, it's almost like because it's so scary to come out for most of us. And often we find reasons not to, for a while, if we can. And those three moments coming together that like there's one moment of seeing the need in a student, like someone in your care. A thing like, "Oh, if I were able to be something different that kid might have a better time." Then there's the, "Well, it doesn't matter anyway, because the homophobia is going to find me whether I'm closeted or not." So that excuse, like my own safety, that reason gets checked off. And then there's the language that can call us into being, the community that allows us to be who we are.
Dana: Yeah, and I think too, it was two comings out for me. Because I had to come out as queer, and then I came out as trans. And those were two very different things. I could hide queer when I wanted to. And when I walk into a room now I can't hide trans and I can't hide queer. And it's a little terrifying sometimes, but, for the most part, I'd rather deal with that than be closeted.
Maggie: When I like to, even just framing, like walking into a room and coming out, I think sometimes the narrative around coming out is that you do it once and then you're out.
Maggie: Right? Like you saying, "Every time I walk into a room, it is an ongoing conversation whether it is verbal or not that I'm having with the world at all times." And I mean, I could think about that for a good long time in terms of helping young people have that initial coming out moment, but then what does it mean to live your coming out. And also too how language, in a way, liberated you and as our language evolves. We have terms today that we didn't have, I don't know, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, that it calls more of us into our own being because that language evolves.
Kate: So the next thing is thinking a little bit about, given that life experience and given obviously what you've done with that life experience to help young people, to help teachers. We think about this podcast of as being as much of a support to people who want to do more, but aren't quite sure how to start doing more. Their hearts are in the right place. Their heads are in the right place, but now it's time to move towards action. And so in your experience, what are some things that you think are the most helpful that educators can just do to make things better for queer youth, queer educators?
Dana: There's lots of things that I've especially advocated in the past and still advocate. And one of the things that I have been really working on again, stemming from things that I've needed in myself and then within my own queer community, my personal community, is creating communities of care in focusing on healing centered engagement. And so I've come to this because I've gotten a little exhausted with being asked to do Trans 101 presentations. They're really helpful and I'm happy to do it, but I wrote an article, go read it and then let's do something else. The work needs to happen and I'm really appreciative that people are reaching out and doing that work, so I don't want that to stop. But I also think I've seen an urgency for something bigger, something that hits us a little bit more meaningfully, but that hits students more than it does us as educators.
So when I think of healing centered engagement and creating communities of care, we really are putting the focus on making sure our students feel cared for and feel loved that they can create that within themselves and that others can create spaces or make space for them in caring and loving ways. And so that's been my focus lately, is thinking about how can I, how can we talk to teachers about ... there's all this talk about trauma informed education which I think is really, really fantastic. [Sean Jun Ray 08:06} actually came up with or has developed healing centered engagement, which I like. It's an extension of trauma informed care in that it doesn't center the trauma, it centers the individual and not what happened to them. That this is just their story. Then let's look at the assets that come with that versus the deficits that come with that.
And it's recognizing that our struggles and our healing are collective. And so thinking about the ways in which I, for example, as a white person, can do some really terrible racist things and not even realize that no matter how much of an anti-racist educator I am, just recognizing and owning that I'm a part of that story for someone, that I've done something wrong. But then having the compassion within myself to go, "All right, well, you screwed up and moving on and what am I going to do, to do better?" And then also making sure that I'm maintaining a caring relationship with the person that I've harmed. And so for me, creating communities of care look like educators decentering themselves and centering the students.
And when we talk about centering voices or centering anything, and this is where I've grown as a learner as well, we often think of, "Well, I'm going to give you the mic because I have it, and so let me give it to you." But when we think about centering, we actually need to think about how we all deserve and have the right to have power." White cisgender straight males have it all the time, just because of the way the system works, but we all deserve to have it. And we all have it, it's the systems that are keeping other folks down. And so we need to shift our thinking about centering voices from, "I'm going to give the space to you because I own it and you deserve it," as in, "Hey, we have this space collectively.
I happened to be more privileged to take it up and I'm going to step aside." But it's not this idea of, "I'm giving something to you because I have the power and now, let me give you the sword. And now you have it." It's that we're already here together. So yeah, that's been kind of a shift in what I've been thinking about lately in supporting teachers.
Kate: Beautiful. There's actually three things that I heard inside of that. Then I want to ask a couple followup questions about the last thing. One, is actually you said two simple, but huge things, I think. And that's that we can look up stuff on our own. Do you what I mean? You said it twice actually. So you said it both when you heard the term genderqueer for the first time, you didn't ask the person saying it, "Hey, what's that mean? Can you school me on that right now?" You were like, "Hah, I need to go look that up myself." I think that's really important that allies can do for us, for any community that is having to do that education all the time. Every day that they're living is, "Just Google it. Read some articles, read some stuff on your own, follow people who are on Twitter who can educate you." You can do that without putting that emotional labor on somebody else.
The second thing you mentioned is just that internal move of saying, "Oh right, I'm a part of the problem. And that I don't have to be bogged down in shame about that, but I can recognize and come to all of my interactions with people with that understanding that I am a part of this," and to have that stance feels huge.
Maggie: And I also like how, I think sometimes when we do talk about this group of marginalized folks, we do focus on the pain, the hardest time, the moment that you're rejected by people who raised you. That pain is at the center of our stories. And you remind us to say that there are so many gifts and assets and moments of beauty that we could shift the focus to for this community, because that is only a slice of what these educators and children and their families can offer. It's more than just the darkest pain story that accompanies their story.
Dana: Exactly. It's a piece of it. But my life's pretty awesome. There are other things that like, "Let's celebrate, let's focus on that," because I'm already in my trauma all the time. It's always that narrative for me and other people aren't privileged to knowing that. Some people are, but we often ask our students, "Tell me your pain. Tell me about this because that's healing for you." Well, it's actually not all the time. Sometimes it is, like in my journal, and I don't want to share it with anybody or with my friends, but yeah, I think celebrating the assets and celebrating the things that we bring without ignoring that we are resilient in this way because of our pain and because of our trauma.
Kate: And that feels like one way to start to create those communities of care and healing. The other thing you mentioned is the decentering. And I want to poke at that a little bit for people like me, who might have a unit that I have to teach. I'm thinking about, "Okay, I've got to cover this material and teach this stuff." How would I start thinking about decentering myself in an authentic way, that's not handing the mic to the kids or being like, "What do you all want to study?" But what are some ways that a teacher who feels some pressure with curriculum demands, et cetera, could begin to think about decentering themselves?
Dana: Well, I think it is still asking the students, "What do you need? And what do you want out of this?" I am a big proponent of co-creating the curriculum and the units with students. I think they can do that young, I think they can do that in kindergarten. I've seen it happen. And so I think that is a really important piece. I think also when we try to decenter, we ultimately end up being the center because we're so worried about decentering ourselves the right way.
Maggie: Look at me decentering myself.
Kate: Once again, the spotlight [crosstalk 00:13:47].
Dana: Yes, exactly, the spotlight [crosstalk 00:13:51] centered. So I think that too, just letting go and being humble, like okay, having some humility and saying, "I don't know what I don't know, and that's okay." Just trusting. We don't trust our students enough. You're going to learn what you need to learn if I'm there guiding you and mentoring you and you're going to teach me some things. And so I think letting go of that control can be difficult as well, but I think it's necessary. So I think that's something teachers can do.
Maggie: One thing that I've always admired about you is how I can go to your social media feeds, I can go out and have a cup of coffee with you. And I'm always impressed with not only how current your research and knowledge is on issues like this, but also the leadership and advocacy work that you do. And if someone were new to approaching supporting this topic or starting to peek in and begin their journey of learning, are there any resources or guides that you would point them to as a good first step? Because I basically want to just be like, "Talk to Dana."
Dana: I don't know about that. There are people out there doing better work that I think we can lean on. So a couple of folks that I have on my trusty list here, really accessible support is Barker and Scheele. I don't know if I'm saying the last name right. It's called Queer: A Graphic History. And I think one of the first things, if you want to learn about the LGBTQ community is to learn about our history and learn about our stories, learn about what makes us who we are, our ancestors in that way. And I think that's a really great accessible, maybe sometimes heady, place to start. And I should say this, mostly authors of this work are white. So these two folks are white appearing. And so I just want to mention that, that there's not a lot of stuff out there written by people of color or indigenous. Just want to recognize that.
Another, not even text, but authors that I think we can learn a lot from that aren't necessarily doing things specifically on LGBTQ, but are doing stuff on advocacy and social justice, my go-to is Bell Hooks, always. Cara Page also has worked on healing justice and fantastic Alexis Pauline Gumbs is doing a lot of fantastic work on mothering and community work. And then also Bettina Love is doing fantastic work on hip hop and civics ed. So I think those are great folks to lean into. A heady academic book that I have to mention, because that's me, is a book called Assuming a Body and it's by Gayle Salamon, and they talk quite a bit about gender identity. And that's where I started to understand my trans identity a little bit more. That's probably my favorite book, but again, it's academic heady, heavy book.
And then some organizations that I think are leading this work are the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, and then SONG, which is Southerners on New Ground. They're heading up some really fantastic work that we can all learn a lot from.
Kate: And then just before we move on, we talked about decentering ourselves as a way to create those healing, caring communities. Are there other things that you think, like other ingredients, to that process of like, "So I'm beginning to decenter myself. I want to create a more healing and caring community for my kids. What else can I do?"
Dana: Yeah. So I'm actually going to reference a blog that I just wrote for CEL. It's called Leading with Solidarity, Centering Trans and Non-binary Voices. And I think there's a lot bigger work than what I could fit in this blog and I already went over the word count. But there are five things that I talk about there. I'll just mention them really quickly and then you can access the blog for the details. The first one acknowledged that CIS ... I can't ever say that ever, CIS sexism happens every single day in every single space. Number two, be an educated accomplice and educate others. Number three, be aware of, equalize and leverage power. Number four, remember your why? And number five, intentionally create space that fosters solidarity.
Kate: And I love that, remember your why. There's this irony, I don't know if that's the right word and I'm an English teacher, I'm totally screwing that up. Let's say a juxtaposition or a contrast maybe even, between like the idea of, "I have to decenter myself, but sometimes to decenter myself, I have to actually go inward first." Like it's not enough just to bluster onto the stage of the classroom and try to decenter my voice. I have to actually get in touch with what I believe, what I'm doing, why I'm doing it, why it matters. So that it comes from a real place as opposed to where I can fall into the trap of wanting to do the right thing, but then it becomes performative. I'm acting the part.
Dana: It's hard work, right.
Kate: It is hard work.
Dana: Once it starts getting hard, just sit in the fire. Just take a breath and sit in the fire and realize that if it's hard, you're probably moving in a good direction. So don't quit.
Kate: I love that. The discomfort is hard to sit with. And as a person with privilege, it's easy for me to want to get out of that discomfort as quickly as humanly possible. But the idea of like, "Actually my job is to sit with it a little bit and be uncomfortable."
Maggie: I think it's been important to make space for your work, your identity as gender nonconforming, trans. And I think about the youngest children in my life and the younger students that I teach. And sometimes it's our gender expression that we perform first, before we ever identify a sexuality. So I was wondering for people who work with younger children or children who are experimenting with dressing their identities and performing their genders, do you have any words or thoughts to support some of our youngest kids that are exploring that?
Dana: I say, let them do it. They know, right? When I was four, I knew. I mean, I was running around in my brother's underwear that I had a big old pin so they would fit and I didn't have a shirt on. And I can remember that moment, like running through the sunshine in the grass in the summertime, thinking, "This is me, this is who I am." And then when I went into kindergarten, I had to start wearing girl's clothes because I couldn't dress like that. And so let them and trust them because they know, they already know. The only reason they don't think they know and you don't think they know is because society is telling them otherwise. So just let them, they're going to be okay. They're actually probably going to be worse off if you don't let them do what they want to do with their gender expression.
Kate: And you don't know the end of that story as an adult, see what I mean? It doesn't necessarily mean one thing or another, it's an experimentation, a performance of trying on. And if you don't know the end of the story, but if that is the end of the story, that that kid is non-binary or trans, boy, do they need all the love and support as humanly possible.
Dana: And who cares? Who cares what the end of that story is? It's a good one. It's a happy one. That's what we want. But we can't dictate that.
Maggie: A caring community is what we want at the end of that road.
Kate: So speaking of being happy with your story, there are five questions that we do like to ask each and every guest that just as a window into them, are you ready for your first question?
Dana: Yes. Hit me.
Kate: First question. What is one thing we won't see you without?
Dana: My heart. I speak passionately and I know that can be off putting to some people, I speak compassionately. I really believe in what I believe in and stand pretty strong in that. So you're always going to see me with my heart on my sleeve and out there. And I love it, I wouldn't want to be any other way.
Maggie: I feel the same, very much so.
Kate: What is your favorite article of clothing?
Dana: I don't really like clothes. I like to be naked a lot.
Kate: There's your window? Heart on your sleeve and the sleeve has no clothes.
Maggie: No sleeves.
Kate: On arms, naked arms.
Dana: Shoes are my favorite. I don't really have great ones on today, but ... yes, I do. None of you can see it, so yes, I do, they're amazing.
I like a nice button down too, a nice crisp, button down as well, but definitely, shoes are my thing.
Maggie: I'm starting to embrace shoes. I feel like I always have had like the same pair forever, but I'm starting to branch out a little bit.
Dana: I go to the little boys section.
Maggie: I need some help after the podcast.
Dana: We can talk about it. And they're real awkward because sometimes they Velcro instead of actually latch like men's shoes.
Maggie: That would help me actually. [crosstalk 00:22:52] steps in my day. I would love to have some Velcro shoes.
Kate: Velcro everything just like Velcro, going back to nudity.
Dana: Especially in my nakedness when I'm home.
Maggie: It all comes back to nudity. I see a whole line of clothes imagined here on Beyond The Letters.
Dana: Quick nude brand clothing. All clear and you're naked. That's our sponsor here at Beyond The Letters. Please move on to the next question. Let's go.
Kate: What was your first concert?
Dana: New Kids On The Block.
Kate: Oh man, that's awesome.
Dana: Yes, fourth grade.
Kate: Favorite New Kid at the time?
Dana: Oh, Jordan Knight. I thought he was staring at me, thought I wanted him to be staring at me, but I didn't. He was though. Yeah.
Kate: Who, or did you have, a first queer icon?
Dana: I did. It was actually Ellen before she was Ellen. These friends of mine, that show started that way, and then it was the Ellen DeGeneres show, or the Ellen Show, I think. And I just watched it and loved her and didn't know why. And then when she came out, I sobbed and also didn't know why. Like, "Why am I crying?" Now I know. But yeah, people used to tell me when I was younger all the time that I reminded them of her. Well, people tell me that now. And I'm like, "No, it's just because I'm the only gay person you've ever met in real life."
Kate: Short hair, yeah, yeah.
Do you have a current queer icon?
Dana: I would say all kids today who are out and proud. I just am in awe of the things that our younger generation is embracing and coming up with and creating space for. So I think all of that, anyone that I meet on the street that's younger than me, I think is an icon.
Kate: It's so wonderful to know that we all have so much more to learn right and that the young people will teach us.
Dana: Yes, they will. They will teach us.
Maggie: I'd like to say it was pleasant to sit with you and talk with you is an understatement. I've been looking forward to this interview since the moment that this podcast was conceptualized.
Dana: I appreciate that.
Maggie: So thank you so much for bringing-
Dana: Thanks for having me.
Maggie: Your whole self and your heart to this interview. And I'm excited to continue the conversation as we shut off our microphones here.
Dana: Great. Thanks, y'all. Thanks.
Maggie: Thank you.
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Dana M. Stachowiak, Ph.D., is the Director of the Gender Studies and Research Center and an associate professor of Curriculum Studies for Equity in Education at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Dana is also a literacy consultant with The Educator Collaborative, where she helps to lead much of the social justice and equity work. Prior to her work in academia, Dana was an elementary and middle school literacy teacher and coach in North Carolina. Dana has researched, published, and spoken on trans/gender equity in education, healing centered engagement, social justice and equity education, and literacy curriculum development.
Kate Roberts is a national literacy consultant, top-selling author, and popular keynote speaker. She taught reading and writing in Brooklyn, NY and worked as a literacy coach before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in 2005, where she worked as a Lead Staff Developer for 11 years. Kate's latest book, A Novel Approach, asks how we can teach whole class novels while still holding onto student centered practices like readers workshop. She is also the co-author of Falling in Love with Close Reading (with Christopher Lehman), DIY Literacy (with Maggie Beattie Roberts), and she co-wrote two Units of Study books on Literary Essay. Her work with students across the country has led to her belief that all kids can be insightful, academic thinkers when the work is demystified, broken down and made engaging. To this end, Kate has worked nationally and internationally to help teachers, schools, and districts develop and implement strong teaching practices and curriculum.Follow Kate on Twitter @TeachKate and KateAndMaggie.com
Maggie Beattie Roberts began her teaching career in the heart of Chicago and then pursued graduate studies as a Literacy Specialist at Teachers College, Columbia University. She worked as a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project for nearly ten years where she led research and development in digital and media literacy, as well as differentiated methods of teaching and content area literacy.
Maggie is currently a national literacy consultant, guest teacher, author, and frequent presenter at national conferences. She is committed to helping teachers tap into the power of their own deep engagement in reading and writing, and leads school-wide staff development around the country. She is happiest teaching alongside teachers in their classrooms. She is co-author of the popular book, DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence (with Kate Roberts), and authored several Heinemann Unit of Study books on the teaching of writing. Her latest article, Thinking While Reading: The Beautiful Mess of Helping Adolescents Learn and Celebrate How Their Minds Work (co-authored with Kristen Robbins Warren), is featured in the December 2016 issue of NCTE's middle school journal, Voices from the Middle. You can learn more about Maggie’s work, as well as access videos and other resources, at KateAndMaggie.com.
Follow Maggie on Twitter: @MaggieBRoberts