THINKING ABOUT QUEER THEORY IN SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION: A Pedagogical (in)Query

By MacKinnon, Kinnon V. Ross | Canadian Social Work Review, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

THINKING ABOUT QUEER THEORY IN SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION: A Pedagogical (in)Query


MacKinnon, Kinnon V. Ross, Canadian Social Work Review


HETEROSEXUAL and queer are not mutually exclusive groups or fixed categories. One's sexual practices, tastes, styles, desires, subjectivities, and identifications vary over periods of time, changing even sometimes by the hour. At the same time, teaching and learning can be fuelled by passion, pleasure, pain and desire, sharing these qualities with sex and sexuality. It can be fun, it can be uncomfortable, and at times it gets messy. How is it, then, that social work pedagogy so often compartmentalizes issues of sexuality under the paradigm of a sexual minority oppression model, far removed from the complexities of human sexuality?

I argue that anti-oppressive social work education has the unintended consequence of reinforcing differences between heterosexual and non-heterosexual sexualities. There are times when an oppression model is useful in understanding basic issues of power; however, this model does not take into account the nuances of human sexuality and therefore precludes inclusive learning opportunities. An interdisciplinary analysis between anti-oppressive (AOP) social work theory and queer theory reveals tensions around the demarcation of sexual difference, liberation, and oppression. I draw upon queer theory as a way to open up discussions around a wide range of sexualities in the classroom, and I encourage social work educators to engage with queer theory as a productive pedagogical tool for expanding ideas around sexuality and exploring fantasies of sexual difference. What remains important to this conversation is a commitment to keeping knowledge open as a fluid and flexible question.

While being sensitive to the historical specificity of "LGBT" as a reclaimed homosexual medical diagnostic invention, I refer to "LGBT" using quotation marks.1 As we fumble for a useful linguistic shorthand, "queer" represents a multifaceted point of reference. The "queer" that I use here does not necessarily refer to an identity or to a sexual practice, although that definition does encapsulate a kernel of queerness. Keeping in mind that to define queer "would be a decidedly un-queer thing to do" (Sullivan, 2007, p. 43), I use "queer" not so much to refer to sexual object choice, but rather to desire, a certain attitude or politic, or simply whatever is at odds with the normal (Halperin, 1995). Queer challenges clear-cut notions about sexual identity through blurring the boundaries between identity categories. Queer theory is about being playful with ideas and turning knowledge inside out and backward. Rather than relying on taken-for-granted categories of straight and gay, queer theorists invite a questioning of all sexuality and a critical unpackaging of how we know what we think we know. Showing the queerness of normalcy and revealing the banal in "queer" is a project of queer theory (Tierney, 1997). Such an application of the concept of queer, which problematizes and destabilizes all sexual identities and practices, encourages "folks of different strokes" to participate in the conversation, not just those identified as "LGBT." This discussion is not so much interested in the experiences of being an L, a G, a B, or a T. Instead, queer theory pries open discussions of sexual subjectivities, implicating everyone, to make teaching and learning about sexual difference inclusive, fluid and complicated-as messy as sex.

Pedagogical issues around sexuality framed under a multicultural minority oppression model preclude inclusive learning opportunities and reinforce a fixed hetero/queer binary. This model underscores heterosexual practices as dominant and normative, with "LGBT" identities understood as marginalized and oppressed. In this manner, it constrains a teachable opportunity in social work education. Certainly, there is nothing inherently problematic in teaching straight-identified social workers about queer cultural knowledges or in pedagogically challenging homophobia, biphobia or transphobia. However, this method assumes that hetero practices are both normal and dominant, while positioning queer sexual practices and identities as requiring better understanding. …

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