An interview with JMU professor Dr. Shrewsbury

Courtesy of Kristen Shrewsbury

Kristen Shrewsbury is an instructional faculty member at JMU who teaches the special topics course WGSS 300: Queer Families. She’s a Harrisonburg native who went to JMU for her undergraduate degree from 1996 to 2001, and began working at JMU as a professional in 2007. She’s married to a same sex spouse and has two young children. She also works as a coordinator for multilingual student services at JMU’s learning centers and is an active member of both the office for Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression (SOGIE) as well as Harrisonburg’s Friendly City Safe Space. I had the opportunity to take WGSS 300 last semester, and I decided to reach out for an interview for the blog because of the impact this class and her overall teaching had on me.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your former work. I know in class you mentioned you’ve done some research. Can you tell me a little more about that?

And that research catalyzed a class that Dr. Thompson was gracious enough to say, “Absolutely, let’s put this into a three credit course and see what you can do with it.” So my first go at teaching Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) was in 2017, in spring of 2017, I think it was spring because I had my first child in June of 2017, I’m pretty sure it was that semester right before, where I taught a Marriage Equality course. And I rooted it in sort of the racial understanding of marriage and what it is, and then looked at the different narratives that came about around that particular social movement, and then looked at how do individuals make meaning of such a thing in a place where it’s not widely supported, and it may actually be safer for the relationship to remain invisible, rather than to say, “Oh, look, I’m married, and I’m married to someone of the same sex.” So that was a really rich course. And I was actually able to teach that twice over the years. And then, as my family grew, as I grew my family with my same sex spouse, we started just being interested in the same way I’d been interested in marriage, I became interested in sort of family creation. And as I was exploring that, just for my own edification, I thought, “Wow, this is really rich,” and this should also be a class. So again, Dr. Thompson graciously said, “Okay, let’s go ahead and turn it into a class, and let’s run it and see how it goes.” And I really enjoyed that process, because I learned some of the history of the LGBTQ community that I hadn’t been present to prior because I just never had a reason or had never encountered it beyond like going to a Pride festival or a space, which is celebrating now and moving forward. But being able to look back at the history has kind of been really powerful, as far as realizing the way to introduce these ideas to students who may be coming in because they have no experience with the LGBTQ community, perhaps they’re questioning, perhaps they have a close friend, or a sibling, or a parent who is out or coming out, or there’s just so many different iterations, so many ways to be adjacent to queerness, or to find yourself squarely in it. And so what I find is a lot of the students that take these courses are here to ask questions and also see themselves reflected or their families reflected in the content. And so I think that the Queer Families class did that in a really powerful way because a lot of people had more, I would say, more students than in the Marriage Equality classes, had like a very personal reason for being there. And so that was kind of neat because I felt like the space was inviting for students to share about themselves. And I’m actually looking forward to teaching this course again — I’m going to be teaching it in the fall of 2022. And I think that there’s going to be some refinement, obviously, from the first time I taught it, which was sort of a pilot, if you will. The first time that had been created and rolled out to actually being able to spend more time on some of the chosen family aspects, that was an area of Queer Families that I found to be really rich, and a lot of people really were excited to talk about. And another area that I was grateful that people were willing to share about was queer stepfamilies, and what that means and what that looks like. And I definitely want to spend more time on that as well. So I think that there’s some really good finessing that is going to come into this next course. But that’s kind of how I got into working with the Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies students at JMU. And I’m just really committed to supporting queer joy. That’s my goal, I wanna bring more queer joy into the world.

Q: Could you tell me a little bit more about the specific topics that you teach in the course? You already talked about chosen family and queer stepfamilies.

A: So without having the syllabus in front of me, and maybe I could even pull up the syllabus — that might be helpful. The chosen family is a big one and queer family and then taking kind of a deep dive into what it looks like for people who identify as trans or nonbinary and intentionally starting families or sort of relating into family structures where perhaps there’s a new relationship that begins and there’s already a child from a previous relationship for either one of those or multiple people. I’m really interested in also looking at like polyamorous families, and how that sort of is presented in our culture, but then also how it’s really lived by the people who are living it. So those are a few more topics. And then, of course, there’s always the big question of like, just biology, how does queer family come to exist when you have partners who are either of the same sex or partners who are infertile? There’s lots of different ways that people come to be parents. And so those are more topics. And then another one that I thought was really interesting was adoption, and adoption is interesting because you can look at it from either perspective — the perspective of the adopted child who may be queer, or the perspective of the adoptive parents who may be queer. And so I think bringing those different perspectives in really helps to add some dimension to the conversation.

One of the areas that I think is also important that the class covers is homelessness, so homelessness among LGBTQ youth. And I think that that’s important because it has often directly to do with family, when it’s about youth that are unhoused because of their sexuality.

Q: What do you want students to take away from this class?

A: I think just a greater awareness of the different iterations of family and how family creation and family function might not look like what we’ve been sort of standard-issued in culture as what a family is. And so just to kind of be aware of that, and then understand maybe where they fit into it. And then I would say the third goal might just be to expand students’ options, so that there’s an awareness that it doesn’t have to be one size fits all. In fact, it’s not.

Q: I think it’s really special that a lot of your focus has been pretty regional. You know, you’re a Harrisonburg native, and now you’re here at JMU. So why do you think this class is important for JMU students specifically?

A: I think that JMU has made some real strides in recent years toward acknowledging our gender nonconforming and queer students in some formal ways. I do think that our student body at large might not have access or an awareness always to the experience that maybe some of their peers are having. And so I think it’s really helpful to have a course like this at JMU because we’re not in a metropolis — we’re in a small suburban town that has a tremendous amount of linguistic and racial diversity, but when you drill down and start looking at LGBTQ people, we’re everywhere. So regardless of where you are, it’s good to develop this type of conscientiousness. However, being specifically at JMU and being sort of in the region of the Shenandoah Valley and then in Harrisonburg, we’re on the cusp. We’re really growing as a community around the idea that all people have value. And so we now have the Friendly City Safe Space. I’m excited because I just became a leadership member of that organization, so I’m starting that actually next week. And I’m on the advisory board for SOGIE. And I feel like I’m always just looking at ways the community and the campus community are kind of interfacing with one another. And then to create more networked queer community across JMU, as well as with the community. It seems like we’re just in a really rich moment where people are showing up for each other more, because we can. It’s safer too, now that we have marriage equality.

Q: This interview is, as you know, for the feminist blog, Shout Out! So how would you say Queer Families relates to feminism?

A: That’s a great question. I think that because feminism has undergone multiple iterations, there is space for looking at who is being oppressed and marginalized by misogyny. So where are we as a culture? Where are we as a community, looking at who’s being oppressed by this myth of male supremacy? And I think that that, of course, has to be tacked on to looking at the ways in which our society is making space for and holding people, particularly our trans brothers and sisters, our nonbinary folk, that exist. There’s a lot of space that I think feminism has an opportunity to sort of say, “This is not right, the way that these individuals and these groups of people are being treated.” And I think it’s really important that we include anyone who’s being stomped on by social norms that expressly state that things have to be really rigid and codified in gender and sexual relationships. So I see feminism as a really interesting space where some really rich conversations have been had. Historically, there’s been some tension around, for example, being trans-exclusionary, or, you know, there’s some tension around the ways in which different, you know, racial justice and equity movements kind of interface with feminism. And I think that queer folks kind of bring to the space another dimension to layer on top of the others. But at the end of the day, when we all kind of sit around the table and kind of say, “Okay, we’re all suffering from misogyny.” So let’s upend it, let’s upend misogyny and move on from there.

Q: What does feminism mean to you?

A: To me, so I was raised in a really conservative household, where my parents regularly listened to, what are today podcasts, that back then would have been like radio shows, for example, that labeled women who cared about feminism as “feminazis.” And I was really raised in a space that made a woman stepping outside of her prescribed role or her societal expectations as being dangerous, and like, uncouth and wild. And somehow deep down that really attracted me to it. Feminism for me, I think, has been more of just like this sort of long, slow awakening, sort of coming to self and kind of coming to terms with who I am. And really recognizing the ways in which I can have a voice, though I was trained and conditioned to fit a mold that never really fit me. It’s interesting now because feminism actually is sort of like my right to choose motherhood, for example. I really enjoy being a mom — I really enjoy parenthood. I really enjoy partnership. I really enjoy elements of my life that I think would almost fit more of a conservative expectation of me. But I love being able to explore those and interrogate those roles in a way that allows me to really be grounded in them. So I know that I’m choosing these things. And I know that I have these boundaries that I can articulate for myself — that was never modeled for me how to do that. But I have these boundaries that I can articulate for myself that give me strength in these places that I choose to be. And I really think that that’s an aspect of feminism where I can choose anything in my life. And as long as I’m not harming others, it is possible with feminism. And I don’t think that being queer for me is somehow outside of also being feminist. I think it’s kind of like one big, jumbled thing.

Q: As you probably know, there’s been a lot in the news lately, and we’ve had a lot of rich discussions in the Shout Out! class about stuff in the news. And so my question is, how do you feel about current pushes for legislation that limit the teaching of topics such as sexuality, gender identity, as well as like, critical race theory, etc. as an educator?

A: I think that one of the greatest things that we can do as educators is make the complex clear, and make something that feels scary and terrifying to certain folks more accessible, because we sort of strip away some of the sensationalism of them. And so this maybe comes from my multilingual student services background, but really understanding how using plain language and attempting to demonstrate value, while honoring space that other people are holding for whatever their beliefs are and their ideologies are. It’s like an art form. And so I think that what we could do, particularly since I often am in the teacher education role, because I teach for the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program on the semesters I’m not teaching for Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. And so that’s a pre-service teacher program. And one of the things that I think is really important to do is to assist teachers, pre-service teachers, with tools for how to have difficult conversations about race, how to have difficult conversations about sexuality, about gender identity, and then also how to understand what the differences between being an ally, being an advocate, being an accomplice, understand that there’s layers to that. And so when in the news, I see these things come up, I think this is part of social change. Social change is an ebb and flow — it’s a pendulum swinging, it’s a river, use whatever metaphor you want. But because I got my doctorate in social psychology, specifically studying transformation, I was explicitly looking at, what does it mean for social movements to happen? How does that happen? And I looked at it from the individual level to the societal level. So it was a very interesting V there. But I think that when the legislation is happening, it’s important to stay aware of what’s being pushed through, particularly in your area. But then when something really egregious happens, like in Texas, with the child abuse now being called on parents who are gender affirming to their children, this is a place that I think we all have a responsibility to find out how to support just people being authentic. When you’re being authentically yourself, that shouldn’t be a threat to someone else. And if it is, then I believe that there are ways that education can start to create access to understanding through, like I said, plain language, making clear complex ideas and being able to support the most vulnerable in those conversations, as well as being able to meet eye-to-eye without being in direct conflict, but rather, saying, “I’m listening,” and, “I want to be actively aware of what your point is,” and then really finding ways just to be able to be a bridge. But I also understand that sometimes to be an accomplice, you can’t be a bridge — you have to be blowing up the bridge. So I know that there are definitely moments when different faces kind of have to be, or, different hats have to be worn, I guess is a better way to say it. Different hats have to be worn in order to stay true and authentic to our own beliefs. But also remember that there’s humans on every side of this argument. So like, how do we look for the vulnerability and then protect vulnerable people, at the same time as empowering these vulnerable people to tell us what they need and how to help? And sometimes I’m in that category, and sometimes I’m not. And then you know, how to look at the folks that are attempting to use legal structures and political power to oppress and limit and narrowly define or like pigeonhole people outside of who they’re saying they authentically are.

Q: Going back to Queer Families, how has teaching this class impacted you?

A: Well, as I mentioned, it came about because I was growing my family and because I had small children, I was starting to encounter different people in the community through their children. And I was starting to see that there’s a lot of diversity of family construction outside of my front door — it’s just not something that’s been visible to me prior. And so being able to teach this course has given me insight into what students today are contending with, these students that are coming in are traditional ages. So far I’ve only had traditional age students between like, really 18 and 26, in the Marriage Equality and Queer families Classes. In that age range, it’s really powerful for me to hear stories of student experiences and really recognize the ways in which I have sort of lived through some things that my students sort of see as like, an assumed “this is always the way it is.” But this has been the way that it is since I’ve been paying attention, right? And so helping to kind of create some of that historical context has been really important for me, personally, because it helps me know how to educate my “little people.” So I have two “little people,” and I’m trying to assist them. And I’m buying books like “C is for Consent,” because it’s really important to me that my kids from a very early age understand that at the base of all human interaction is consent and respect. And so when I look at Queer Families, I think about the ways in which we have to navigate a society or a culture that doesn’t always respect us and doesn’t always ask for consent before placing judgment or making some comment or having some sort of opinion, that’s often thrust upon people who are not asking for opinions about their family structure. So I think it’s really been interesting for me to look at in lots of different capacities, but it’s also empowered me as a leader in a queer family, because I think I’ve realized how important it is that we are visible, and we are vocal, and we are part of the community trying to be just making life better. Amplifying queer joy. That’s kind of the goal.

Q: Going on kind of the flip side, have you heard of any feedback? What kind of feedback have you received from students who have taken this course?

A: It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I think that there were a couple of comments on my evaluations and emails that students sent to me just kind of appreciating that queer families are being discussed and in a way that invites intellectual curiosity. So that’s been something that I’m really grateful for, because I want to make sure to inspire that in future courses as well, especially this coming fall. Being able to invite that intellectual curiosity around something that often is either one single image in folks’ minds. Like, I’ve heard that students come in thinking that queer family is like, two gay dads and an adopted son, and that’s it. And then they discover that there’s just so much depth and richness to it. And then having students really be able to relate when their family has some element of queerness in it, that has maybe not been discussed in the family before. Or maybe it’s just been a given. And suddenly, there’s this academic forum to talk about and look at some of the different ways in which families have to navigate the world when there are elements of queerness present. So I think that students tend to come in with either no idea or some very rigid ideas. Or some students come in totally living it they’re like part of a queer family, and they totally get it. And they’re just there because they’d like to see themselves represented, and it feels really good and validating. And so I like to see where students are when they first come in. And then, you know, when they give me feedback throughout the semester, as well, at the end of the semester, it’s really been great to hear students say that they feel they have more options now in their lives. As they move forward into family creation. They also have more of a way to talk about family formation with people, either that are in their family or who are outside of their family that are experiencing some sort of queer family formation situation, particularly around chosen family, because, of course, chosen family was inspired by many, many people being disowned by their family members because of really deeply entrenched homophobia. And so that, I think, has been really powerful too. That’s kind of come up and come out in some of the student comments is that maybe there wasn’t an awareness of the ways in which homophobia has forced people into these less visible, therefore less traditional or conventional family structures, but how powerful and strong they actually are. So I think that that’s kind of neat too, that students are getting a chance to broaden their own perspective a little bit.

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