Storytelling, decolonizing, and dancing with Queer education

Betty Baker on a bright blue metal bench with street intersection in the background. Photo credit: Christopher Coghill

A narrative of identity building

I began presenting Drag Storytime during the COVID-19 pandemic as a method of engaging with community online, and as a way to spend time with my mom, the puppeteer of Butch the puppet and mastermind behind how our storytimes are structured today. Since then, Betty Baker and Butch have been presenting the most well-attended event at the Peterborough Public Library, with the most consistent anti-drag/trans/Queer protests in Ontario. As a 20-year-old undergraduate student at Toronto Metropolitan University studying performance production I am not going to pretend as though I have any qualifications to edify educators on pedagogy. But… as a seasoned drag storyteller, someone who really likes gender theory, one of the most protested drag performers in Ontario, and a “visibly” Queer person, I absolutely want to take this chance to share my perspective on Queer education, what can be done to encourage student self-actualization, and with this, perhaps allowing for a reconsideration of our understanding of what Queerness looks like and how we can dance with it in public education.

The Queer educator/The Queer storyteller

It can be a daunting task to educate about Queerness in the classroom because it has no easily definable structure. Queer as a political movement differs from Queer as a social identity, which differs from Queer as a personal identity, which differs from Queer as an essentialist label (Serano 12). Even within those subtopics the malleability of the term itself is one of its most powerful tools which at the same time disallows a succinct and agreed upon utilitarian definition. As a drag storyteller I consider myself a Queer educator mainly because I am a Queer person, though the contents of my storytimes would not necessarily be considered “Queer” from a liberal view of Queerness; I rarely if ever discuss gender, sexuality, or specific identities. This pedagogy of mine has a twofold reasoning for its actuality. The first being that these scientific or identity centred pieces of information are often boring and belabouring in explanation, both of which are things that Drag Storytime in and of itself should not be. The second being that this kind of education does not align with my own understanding of Queerness itself, as it oftentimes reinforces the idea that there is a correct way to be Queer, that there are binaries that define Queerness as a whole. And while being taught, it often lacks the nuance that is required for understanding even basic Queer theory. Even though this education does not align with my own understanding of Queerness, because of the vast variety of Queer experiences, I’m certain that it does for others, and that is exactly the reason why Queer education could be best facilitated through storytelling.

The vastness of the Queer experience cannot be communicated effectively without exploring the intersectionalities of the Queer identity with other identities, and it cannot be explained simply through listing essentialist definitions of gender and sexual identities that disallow for a non-taxonomic, evolving, and approachable understanding of Queerness. Exploring Queerness through storytelling can make the Queer experience tangible for those who fall outside of any Queer identity by utilizing important aspects of engaging storytelling such as the corporeal aspect of a physical storyteller, having this storyteller speak upon their own history, and allowing for the nuances of their experiences to be detailed in a way that communicates the realities of these experiences. While certain aspects of the oral storytelling of personal histories are important for directly connecting Queerness with a base in reality, exploring Queerness through stories told in documentary film, non-fiction books, and podcasts can be effective in terms of finding alternatives if oral storytelling happens to be inaccessible. Alongside Queer storytelling, a classroom that centres understanding the self and others can allow for more self-actualized students who are able to share their own stories about their experiences.

Queering the classroom for self-ex/ploration/pression

The most important educators throughout my time as a student have consistently been those who have fostered environments where students feel free to self-actualize in a way that is both beneficial to establishing a community in the classroom and to realizing the potential of the individual’s place in the classroom. While this occurs in varied ways, I want to provide a few ideas or points to ponder that can inform both the way we move through the world and how this can look in the classroom.

The language used when addressing people is ever evolving, and meanings are both discursive and malleable so it can often be challenging to stay in the know in a large scale context, but while in the classroom, a microcosm of the world, having discussions to come to understand every­one is possible! It is fantastic if this “coming to understand” can be facilitated in two ways in tandem, one that is a social and connected discussion with everyone in the classroom about the way that we express ourselves (including the educator), and one that is private and personal as gender can be understood differently in social vs. personal contexts. If you are able to take the time to understand the language needs of students in your classroom in this way it can create an environment of understanding between students, and one wherein, as an educator, the current language necessary for worldbuilding in your classroom is demystified. This can be coupled with the useful tool of ungendering language when engaging with groups, to allow for a broader understanding of self-­expression. This is a practice my mom has been using in her classroom for years and one that I have adopted at Drag Storytime, not simply because it is important to acknowledge the realities of a broad spectrum of gender identities, but because of the capricious nature of identity and how it is constructed, and because young learners love to play pretend. Play is an incredibly powerful tool for exploring imagination, and this practice can be encouraged through using language that includes everyone, whether they are expressing themselves through a consistent identity, capricious identity, or short-term self-exploration through play or not. It can be an impactful way to establish an understanding of the community in the classroom without linguistically separating learners based on a binary understanding of gender or expression.

For me, the most important classes that I took in secondary school were ones wherein self-exploration and self-expression were centred; in a lot of ways the way that we digest information and manoeuvre through the world is informed by our own understanding of self. For example, having the ability to make pieces in my fashion class that were informed by my own experiences allowed me to express myself in the classroom and in everyday life, and because of the way that the course was facilitated, to feel celebrated by my educator and my peers. Even now in post-secondary, being able to explore the intersections of my identity within the work I am doing feels important because I have stock in the ideas that I am exploring, instead of learning something simply because it’s mandated; I feel as though I am learning about things because I want to, and this creates agency in my learning and self-discovery. It has given me the opportunity to research and further my knowledge about gender, drag, and Queer history which has in turn impacted my own understanding of self and the way that I present myself in my everyday life.

As educators, the way that we express ourselves also makes a difference in fostering environments where learners feel safe and celebrated doing the same. One of the biggest reasons why I feel that Drag Storytime is so important is because there are families who attend these events who can directly relate to me as a visibly Queer person with a high-camp presentation. At Drag Storytime the only people who have to worry about looking weird, being different, or doing too much are the protesters… who ARE doing too much. In all seriousness though, taking the opportunity to further explore my gender expression and the way that I understand gender as a larger social structure has furthered my understanding of how I am able to connect with others, especially those who I am educating. It is important to consider the ways that our own understandings of Queerness and gender impact the way that education is facilitated, and it can be valuable to consider the ways that it is necessary to deconstruct or readjust them in order to reify the self and decolonize the classroom.

Decolonizing with Indigenous and Queer/Two-Spirit education

I thought it was important for me to acknowledge that Queer storytelling, if done in a way that is interwoven with Indigenous knowledge and the realities of Two-Spirit people, can be a useful tool in decolonizing the classroom, and by extension the public school system. Remembering whose land it is that we educate on, and not just acknowledging, but centering the stories of Indigenous Two-Spirit people allows for not only a pre-colonial re-understanding of gender, but one that is actively being used as a tool for self-actualization and decolonization (Driskill 69). I bring this up, not to falsely reconstruct a utopian Queer past, it would be wrong of me to reify the idea that the past is the only space for Queer Indigenous Two-Spirit people, but to serve as a reminder that the rigid gender binary is not only a colonial construct that has been thrust upon Indigenous land, but a colonial construct that is necessary to dismantle as a part of decolonization (Driskill 76). The perpetuation of this gender binary as a part of the colonial project has assisted in the creation of tools such as misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia as ways to secure the nation state through homogenization, control, and domination (Driskill 77). Teaching history and the now in a way that realizes the importance of intersecting Indigenous knowledge and Queer identity, allows for a broader reconceptualization of what gender is, and why gender is, and subsequently how we interact with it in our everyday lives, inside and outside of the classroom.

Dancing with gender

When educating, it is my belief we should never stop learning ourselves, as knowledge is ever-expanding and ever-changing. I think that one­of the biggest challenges leading into adulthood is that we seem to lose the ability to play and explore, which is one of the best ways to learn and develop knowledge. So, I am going to present an action item to the readers of this article, and it may seem a little odd to have a 20-year-old un­dergraduate student ask you (probably an educator, labour activist, or even politician) to do something in order to learn, explore, and perhaps dismantle your ideas about gender but… here we are. In the foundational Feminist/Queer theory book Gender Trouble by Judith Butler, gender and the construction of gender are explained in a way that resonates deeply with me as someone who considers themself a “gender performer.” Butler explores the idea that gender is created as performativity through the idea that it is anticipated as an actuality, and that this performativity is created through a sustained series of actions that naturalises gender within the person (Butler 16). This idea of gender resonates with me, but my assignment for you is to find what ideas of gender resonate with you, and how your own understanding of self connects to your self-expression and connection with gender by trying new things.

- Do your makeup and hair, or dress in a way that you may not in your everyday life and see how that makes you feel. - Play around with different ways to move your body along the feminine/masculine spectrum. - Read some gender theory and see what resonates with you.

Do this and then ask yourself some questions. How does the way that I manoeuvre through the world inform my self-expression? How have I constructed ideas around gender/masculinity/femininity? How does my current understanding of gender inform the way that I educate? What is my story with gender, and how will it evolve, change, grow, be dismantled, and reify?

Betty baker in front of a puppet stage smiling with puppet.

Photo credit: Christopher Coghill

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006.
Driskill, Qwo-Li.“DOUBLEWEAVING TWO-SPIRIT CRITIQUES: Building Alliances between Native and Queer Studies.”GLQ, vol. 16, no. 1-2, 2010, pp. 69–92.
ProQuest Ebook Central,
Serano, Julia. Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. Seal Press, 2013.

About Isaac Maker/Betty Baker
IsaacMaker/BettyBaker (they/them) drag artist, activist, and storyteller.

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