Out in the Redwoods

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Sarah Juniper Rabkin

A Letter from
Sarah Juniper Rabkin
November 2002


Dear Irene,

Thank you for the invitation to contribute to this exciting project. As a former UCSC summer-school student (organic chemistry, 1978), an alumna of the Graduate Program in Science Communication (1985), and a faculty member for the past seventeen years (currently in the Environmental Studies Department), I am pleased to be out in the redwoods--and in such good company!

As a writing teacher, I like to tell my students about well-known authors who, like the rest of us, struggle to get words on paper. The block-busting techniques these writers have discovered can work for anyone. For example, the nonfiction master John McPhee says he drafts his articles as letters to his mother. And legend has it that a desperate young Hunter S. Thompson, unable to produce a commissioned article for Rolling Stone, finally dashed off a crazy memo to his editor at the magazine. That memo, or so the story goes, became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

So, here it is late November, with the deadline for my Out in the Redwoods piece looming. Time to write you a memo. What would I like readers to know about my experiences as a "bisexual" woman at UC Santa Cruz these past twenty years? What's worth telling? Take a look at the quotation marks that I feel compelled to wrap around the "b" word above. Perhaps they suggest a way to frame my thoughts.

How so? I'll begin with my love of teaching. Especially in these politically and environmentally bleak times, students give me energy and hope. In turn, I share with them the best I have to offer: my passion and enthusiasm; my curiosity; my skills and knowledge, and the lessons I have drawn from experience. In addition to conveying ideas and information, my work involves helping students figure out what they think, what they care about, what puzzles or bothers them, what they know and want to know--and how to express all of this in honest, compelling language that makes a difference.

In order to teach with integrity, I must be fully present with my students. I once heard the great UCSC teacher and social activist, Bettina Aptheker, say that teaching involves "moving energy around." Yes. And we can be artful choreographers of energy only if the flow inside ourselves isn't somehow blocked. This means learning to live in peace with the indelible elements of our own characters.

In my case, one such personal quality is this: my passionate attractions have always embraced a wide variety of individuals, masculine and feminine and in between. I respect people for whom sexual desire is strictly limited to either men or women, but I can never fully empathize.

Bisexual seems such a pale, polarized, clinical term to describe this state of being. Over the years, I have written articles and participated in panel discussions about the politics of bisexuality, but I have never been thrilled about the word itself. Some kindred spirits have proposed the alternative pansexual . I like the double-entendre association with libidinous Pan, but not the implication that (as brainless wags like to declare) bisexuals will make love to "anything that moves." We could use our own version of the term gay. How about joyful ?

My beloved life-partner is a man. Most of my long-term lovers have in fact been male. But just as choosing a monogamous commitment to one love does not suddenly douse all other attractions, choosing devotion to a man does not eliminate my delight in women. The fact that I may appear "straight" to people who don't know me affords me the comfort of "heterosexual privilege." But to hide behind that lie would be no privilege; it would be self-effacement.

How are these particulars of my personal life relevant to my professional work? To a profound degree, my personal history informs my perspective as a teacher. My experiences living on the edge of one particular societal norm heighten my awareness that I must not make limiting assumptions about my students. I therefore try to create a classroom environment where nobody feels invisible or disenfranchised, and where all students realize that they can make uniquely important contributions.

During a meeting of my Environmental Literature class last winter, students were discussing one of the 19th-century authors on our reading list. They were interested in the fact that this writer apparently never had a serious romance. "It seems like he was never really involved with a woman," said one young man. "Right," I said. "And, as far as scholars know, he didn't have romantic relationships with men, either." I'm sure my comment seemed off-the-wall to some students--and in those cases, perhaps it stretched their thinking by an important millimeter. For the non-straight students--so accustomed to a wider world where everyone is heterosexual until proven otherwise--it acknowledged their reality.

To tell the truth, I'm a little nervous about publishing this piece of writing under my own name. I'm especially wary about anybody having access to it via the Web. There's a lot of ignorance and hatred out there, some of it closer to home than we in Santa Cruz realize. I don't want to invite negative judgments from anyone who might believe that only heterosexuals (and perhaps closeted gays) should hold teaching positions. But to use a pseudonym would belie everything I have been writing here. To lay claim to one's identity, to speak out against repression, and to help others do the same often entails risk--but it is part of living fully and well.

Thank you for the opportunity to put these thoughts into words and share them with others. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas this piece is not. But therein lies my point, really. When Hunter Thompson finally let loose in that memo to his editor, he gave himself permission to be outrageously himself--and a celebrated, if drug-soaked and egomaniacal, writer burst onto the scene. When my students feel free to be expansively, non-defensively candid about their experiences, fears, ideas, beliefs, and questions, they begin to write with power. And only by living forthrightly in my own quirky heart, mind, and body can I create an accepting classroom atmosphere where this kind of magic can take place.

Yours, Sarah Juniper Rabkin

© 2003 - Out in the Redwoods © 2004 by the Regents of the University of California. Edited by Irene Reti. Any reproduction of these interviews, including electronic reproduction, is prohibited by United States copyright law.