How to teach Gender and Sexuality in Malaysia

It was a huge privilege to teach Gender and Sexuality at the University of Malaya between August 2015 and June 2019. Right from the outset of my appointment, I overhauled the syllabus to reflect current, local and global debates in the field of feminist and queer theory.

I felt that it was absolutely pertinent to dive straight into theory in the first lecture. It was my way of setting the tone with students who were on their first two weeks of ‘adding and dropping’ courses. Students who were put off by jargon and theory could drop the course but since I started teaching the course, only very few did.

A non-binary and non-normative approach to gender and sexuality was the guiding principle of the syllabus. Homosexuality and transgender/intersexed identities were not considered ‘other’ or ‘alternative’. Heterosexuality itself was provincialised and denaturalised to demonstrate its historicity rather than something that is ‘natural’, ‘normal’ or ‘common sense’.

Teaching gender and sexuality
Teaching Gender and Sexuality at the University of Malaya in December 2018 (Source: Yayasan Nusantara Instagram)

The course itself was quite theory-heavy. Students learn fundamental concepts like ‘performativity’, ‘drag’, ‘homonormativity’, and ‘intersectionality’ from reading classic texts by Judith Butler and Kimberle Crenshaw. Tutorials were conducted to discuss at least one essential reading (a journal article and/or a section of a book chapter) and students were assigned to write short essays or ‘reaction papers’ of no more than 500 words every week on their critical assessment of the texts. I have found that regular writing helps students with building confidence in articulating their argument and retention of ideas on exam day. It was also a way of identifying students who were struggling with the workload and personal issues. Irregular class attendance and failure to turn in reaction papers were often a sign of struggle.

The course spanned 14 weeks with one ‘reading week’ in between. In week 7 when students begin to show fatigue, there is a film screening following which students write a review using concepts learned in the course. I have shown Paris is Burning, Suffragette, Madame X and Perfect Blue as part of the syllabus.

Considering that homophobia and transphobia are institutionalised on Malaysian campuses, I was prepared for – rather than cautious of – the possible backlash to my course. However, my concerns were mostly unfounded; in the four years of teaching Gender and Sexuality from a pro-LGBTQ and feminist perspective, I had never received complaints or threats. In fact, student evaluations every year were very positive. I attributed my academic freedom to the slightly insulated professional status I had as a university lecturer and to the fact that moral-religious debates were kept outside the remit of the course syllabus.

I hope this brief post is instructive to lecturers interested in teaching Gender and Sexuality in Malaysia or who find themselves having to teach it. The course requires a thoughtful pedagogy and some chutzpah in the classroom to ensure teaching and learning approaches that are guided by social and structural justice 

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