Exclusive Interview with Sarah Moon, Editor of The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves

The Letter Q is edited by Sarah Moon (image credit: Arthur A. Levine Books)

One of my favorite lines in Sarah Moon’s The Letter Q, which features letters written by queer writers to their younger selves, is one by Eileen Myles: “‘Cause right now you are in the dancing years of your life and if you like dancing at all—and I know you do—you should be doing it for yourself, feverishly and exhaustively.”

Moon’s collection, published this past spring by Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic, aims to ensure that our queer students’ dancing years are just that, ones used for laughing, living, and loving instead of being bullied and harassed. Bringing together an impressive cadre of writers, from contemporary graphic to classic novelists, from writers of color to transgender authors, Moon sidesteps away from creating a literary pastiche of the It Gets Better Project and instead curates a collection that affirms the complexity and beauty of queer youth life and love.

As an educator who values bringing texts to the classroom that show our students the plurality of race, class, and gender, I was afraid these letters might be a bit white-washed, male, and cis-gender. However, the opposite is true. Gay white literary luminaries such as Michael CunninghamDavid LevithanTerrence McNally, and Paul Rudnick contributed, but Moon does not highlight any of her authors in particular; instead, each letter stands alone as an epistolary shot to the heart.

Authors such as LaShonda Katrice BarnettJewelle GomezJasika NicoleRakesh SatyalTony ValenzuelaLinda VillarosaJacqueline Woodson, and others share their stories of growing up queer and brown. Other writers acknowledge the fluidity of gender in childhood and the impact it made on their adult identities.Still others confess the emerging sexual desires of their teen years. These particular letters are sweet valentines to the precious adolescent fantasies that later scaffolded flourishing relationships.

A Spanish teacher at the progressive St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, Moon has seen the insides of prison classrooms at Riker’s as well as those in private schools in Connecticut. A survivor of bullying in middle and high school, Moon has published a book that we can add not just to our school libraries and curricula but also to our growing list of favorite texts that remind us of both the fragility and sadness, humor and creativity of our own younger, queer selves. Sometimes a book like Moon’s is exactly what we need to make sure we take care of our young people to make it better now.

The following interview via email gives us a glimpse of Moon as editor, teacher, and preserver of not a few dancing years. Continue reading

Feminist Teacher Featured on Melissa Harris-Perry Show

My national television debut on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (photo credit: Cheryl Coward).

Yesterday, I was honored to be on the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC. The show’s focus was on what makes a good education. Other guests who joined me throughout the four segments on education were:

Watch the first segment in which I talk about my class on feminism and activism for high school students. Watch the second segment in which I talk about the need to create safe schools free of bullying and harassment.

Feminist Teacher Featured in The Atlantic

During my time as a scholar at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this summer, I was interviewed by Conor Friedersdorf from The Atlantic on teaching my students how to make their writing a part of a larger public discourse through blogging. The result: engaged young writers who learn that their voices matter.

Spoke at AAUW Release of Sexual Harassment in Schools Report (VIDEO)

Last fall, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) released a report titled Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment in Schools at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The report presents new data on sexual harassment, including cyber-harassment, in middle and high schools based on a 2011 nationwide survey of students in grades 7-12.

As part of the release, I participated in a panel along with report co-authors Catherine Hill and Holly Kearl, both of the AAUW; Kedrick Griffin, senior director of programs at Men Can Stop Rape; and Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes.

In addition to providing key findings, the report highlights four promising practices that schools can take action on, including teaching women’s studies at the high school level. Teaching gender and women’s studies to high school students not only increases girls’ knowledge of sexual harassment but also shows that “girls [feel] more self-empowered to respond to incidents of sexual harassment.”

As part of my remarks on the panel, I pointed to this promising practice of addressing sexual harassment in schools as part of my own women’s studies classroom. Key components of my course on women’s and gender studies include:

  • Collaborating with advocacy and activist organizations such as Girls for Gender Equity to address sexual harassment in schools; Men Can Stop Rape to engage young men; Hollaback! to teach high school students to address street harassment via blogging and social media; and the Center for Anti-Violence Education, to teach my students self-defense.
  • Learning about intersectionality: As the AAUW report shows, the intersection of race, class, and gender can cause some students to fare worse than others when they experience sexual harassment. In my own classroom, teaching students how to analyze various systems of oppression, including sexism and racism, leads students to build respect for each other and in the end, decreases incidents of gender-based violence in schools.
  •  Building consciousness for boys and working with them as allies. We cannot overlook the importance of bringing young men into the conversation in terms of helping them understand societal messages about masculinity and hyper-masculinity that leads to the kind of homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment, and other gender-based violence we see in schools and on the streets.

WBAI’s “Joy of Resistance” Features Feminist Teacher and Students

My student Carina Cruz shares her experience learning about feminism in high school. (photo, Ileana Jiménez).

Earlier this week, my students and I were guests on the radio show, Joy of Resistance, a feminist, multicultural radio show on WBAI hosted by Fran Luck and Jasmine Burnett (@blkfeminst). My students and I spoke on the importance of learning and teaching feminist theory and activism in high school classrooms.

Each of the students who joined me have done important feminist work both in the high school women’s studies class I teach as well as outside of the classroom. Carina Cruz, junior, is a SPARK bloggerSexualization, Protest, Action, Resistance, Knowledge—for a youth-led movement to stop the sexualization of girls and women in the media. Junior Dinayuri Rodriguez’s blog posts on our feminist class blog, F to the Third Power, have been so successful that one of her posts connecting Virginia Woolf’s argument in A Room of One’s Own to today’s low-earning feminist bloggers earned her a comment on the post from well-known feminist author and blogger Courtney Martin, of Feministing fame.

Emma Stydahar, junior, is also a SPARK blogger who recently spoke at the Meet Us on the Street anti-street harassment rally in New York. Finally, senior Grace Tobin found her voice testifying at last year’s New York City Council hearing on street harassment, landing her an interview with CBS, which led to a blogging internship with the Women’s Media Center. Grace also spoke at the anti-street harassment rally with Emma.

I was particularly moved and inspired listening to my students speak about how taking the feminism course has made an impact on their lives. Fran asked students if they could share how learning about feminism allowed them to name one thing in their lives that they could not name before, leading them to a feminist click. Here’s what they had to say: Continue reading

Create an Anti-Street Harassment PSA With Your Students

The success of last week’s International Anti-Street Harassment Week was astonishing. Organized by leading anti-street harassment activist Holly Kearl, founder of the well-known blog Stop Street Harassment, the week featured the work of the most cutting-edge activists in the field, including dance performances by Sydnie Mosley and her Window Sex Project and a viral video featuring Joe Samalin and other male allies telling men to just stop harassing women in both English and Spanish.

As part of the week’s events, two of my students, Grace and Emma, and I spoke at the Meet Us On the Street rally in New York. Grace shared a portion of the testimony that she read to last year’s New York City Council hearing on street harassment and Emma, who is also a SPARK blogger against the sexualization of girls and women in the media, shared her own vision for safer streets and communities not just for herself but also for her own sister.

I spoke about the importance of engaging teachers in the global movement against street harassment as an education and health issue for schools.

But the work doesn’t stop there. It’s important to show students that activism needs to be consistent, and not done in a flavor-of-the-month style. That’s why last fall, students in my high school feminism course partnered with other students at our school to create their own anti-street harassment public service announcement (PSA).  Their goal: to educate their peers about the gravity of street harassment in their daily lives.

As part of the background work to create the video, I invited activists from Girls for Gender Equity, Hollaback!, The Line Campaign, Men Can Stop Rape, and Right Rides to talk to my students. Activist Shelby Knox also visited to talk about her film, The Education of Shelby Knox. Each of them shared their expertise, provided students with materials, and ultimately inspired them to create their PSA.

You can create your own PSA with your students too. Start, as I did, with educating your students about the issue by inviting activists to your classroom. Then have students envision a PSA that would be relevant and engaging for your school community. Screen the PSA at an upcoming assembly. Then join the revolution.  See above for inspiration.

Why Teachers Should Join the Global Movement Against Street Harassment

My student Grace testifying at the New York City Council Hearing on street harassment in October 2010. (photo by Ileana Jiménez)

Last year, my student Grace did a very brave thing. Before a packed room of reporters, politicians, activists, and fellow testifiers, she shared her personal experience with street harassment to the leaders of the New York City Council.

During her testimony, Grace described how a man publicly masturbated in front of her on the subway and the humiliation and shame she felt as a result:

The moment which I have felt most degraded, belittled, and humiliated was at 6 p.m. on a Saturday getting on to the 1 train at Chambers heading uptown . . . His eyes flashed up to meet mine and I quickly dropped my gaze into my lap. I didn’t want to make eye contact with him, just like with any stranger; I was worried he would misinterpret the eye contact  . . . but I glanced up at him, against my better judgment.

The hands I thought were in his pockets were not. They were under the big sides of his tan coat. 
Masturbating.

I guess I must have been angry. I don’t think I could feel it though. My fear and shock overpowered everything else such as the shame and embarrassment. The vulnerability and victimization. The fact that I was frozen. Unable to say a thing. Unable to move. Unable to fully comprehend, or at least, not letting myself.

Grace’s powerful testimony was one of many shared at that hearing, which was organized by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras, chair of the City Council Women’s Issues Committee. Ferreras hoped that it would “cast light on this depraved practice and that women and girls will no longer have to adopt a veil of caution when they want to do something as basic as walk down the street.”

As a teacher, watching my own student testify against street harassment made me all the more galvanized to be a part of the growing global movement against street harassment. Her story not only confirms the experiences of so many girls, women, and members of the LGBTQ community on both national and international levels, but also confirms that my very own students are subject to this very real form violence as they travel to and from school, hang out with friends, and in short, live their lives. Continue reading

Trans-Girls and Gun Hill Road: Marking International Women’s Day For All Girls

The following post is part of Blog for International Women’s Day hosted by Gender Across Borders. This year’s theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.”

Trans-girls of color need to be a part of how we mark International Women’s Day, especially in a year when the theme is “Connecting Girls, Inspiring Futures.” Often absent from our discussions about girls’ education and girls’ empowerment programs, trans-girls remain invisible to our re-imagining of a dynamic and inclusive future for all girls.

That’s why today I screened the film Gun Hill Road (2011) for my high school students taking my LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) literature and film class. Winner of the Best Acting Ensemble Award at the Ashland Independent Film Awards, Gun Hill Road features the story of a Puerto Rican family in the Bronx whose patriarch, Enrique, returns from prison only to learn gradually that his son, Michael, now identifies as a young woman, Vanessa.

As a queer teacher of color, I personally feel a responsibility to bring a range of narratives about the LGBT experience, especially those that have an intersectional lens of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality, to my students, who themselves acknowledge that the queer images they see in the media are too often of white, upper middle class Will & Grace types. For me, screening a film about a young Puerto Rican trans-girl is imperative for teaching students that we need to disrupt mainstream narratives of what it means to be queer, young, and of color in today’s transphobic, misogynistic, and racist world.  Continue reading

Spoke at Barnard Center for Research on Women: Activism and the Academy (VIDEO)

Earlier this school year, the Barnard Center for Research on Women celebrated its fortieth anniversary by holding a conference titled Activism and the Academy: Celebrating 40 Years of Scholarship and Activism. I sat on a panel titled Writing, New Media, and Feminist Activism along with other inspiring activists such as Mandy Van Deven of Girls for Gender Equity; Veronica Pinto of Hollaback!; and Susanna Horng of Girls Write Now.

The inimitable Courtney Martin, former Feministing editor and author of such books as Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, moderated the panel. Courtney framed our conversation with three compelling questions:

  • What is one thrilling success you or your organization has had at the intersection of writing, new media, and activism?
  • What is one good failure?
  • What is one question you’re still “living your way into”? Ala R.M. Rilke:  “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

It was an honor to to be a part of this exciting conversation with inspiring women who are at the forefront of working with young people at the intersections of gender and equity, writing and feminism, activism and advocacy.

Even more exciting was bringing the high school juniors and seniors in my feminism class to the conference; they all sat in the front row of Barnard’s Diana Center eagerly scribbling notes as they listened to the panel. Each of them wrote excellent blog posts on their feminist class blog, F to the Third Power, about their experience at the conference.

I think you will be left inspired by my students’ posts, as they ponder what feminism means to them, including Dinayuri, who wrote: “Feminism is not broken. It does not need to be repaired. It isn’t tainted so much so that the grounds from which it was built has to be destroyed and created all over again. But rather there is a need to expand feminism to include as well as recognize and fight for more diversity. Feminists can no longer be ignorant to other factors of oppression that come into play and which thwart one from being fully free of all discrimination.”

A video of the panel is now available:

http://vimeo.com/31753926

Teaching Feminism in High School: Moving from Theory to Action

The following post was originally published at On the Issues

The students in my feminism class read Rachel Lloyd's memoir, Girls Like Us, about the commercial sexual exploitation of children. (Photo, Steve Neiman, used with permission).

During a recent Twitter chat on #sheparty hosted by the Women’s Media Center, I tweeted: “How many feminists know edu hashtags and vice versa?”

The point I wanted to get across is that many feminists today don’t know much about today’s education conversation and, in turn, educators don’t know much about what’s going on in feminist discourse, whether it’s academic or activist.

My job as a feminist high school teacher is to close the women’s and gender studies gap for young people. To stop bullying, stop raping, stop perpetuating racism and sexism, and instead start making social change, I believe in bringing a gender, racial, and economic justice lens to education at all levels. Feminism does this work.

For me, connecting schools with feminist theory and action is personal. When I was in elementary school on Long Island in the early ‘80s, I was called “Afro” and “nigger.” Recess was not fun; to the contrary, it was a time to be bullied by my peers, who surrounded me while I was on the swings and in the sandbox. I always wonder how different my life might have been if my white teachers and white peers knew something about racism or if the rich history of Puerto Ricans and African-Americans had been taught to us as children. The goal would not have been color-blindness, but safety and inclusion, respect and responsibility for each other.

Now that I am a teacher, I believe that the power of feminist theory and action is exactly what young people need to create understandings across differences, learn how to lead healthy lives and to make social change.  Continue reading