For those of you lucky enough to attend the PAAC conference in May 2019, you may have met author, scholar, and theologian Dr. Michael Campos. He is also a Catholic high school teacher, and it is this intersection of theology, justice, and work that I was particularly interested in discussing.
The following is Part 1 of an excerpt of my conversation with Dr. Michael Campos wherein we explore taboos, sex, and teaching it to kids. (You can read Part 2 here.) It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
VD: How about you just start off and tell us what your job is.
MC: I am in this really weird space where I teach high school and I do theology. I consider it a happy accident that one, I was able to find a teaching gig that allowed me to ask questions that intellectually mattered to me. But in so many ways, also were questions that were really common to the human experience: questions about self, identity, sexuality, and where do I fit into this political discourse that’s emerging?
Most kids come in and they have this vague class called ethics because that’s the title of the class. They think it’s really a question about right and wrong. But I tried to tell them it’s a deeper engagement around truth and what truth is about as contexts shift.
Engagement for me, perhaps more than anything else, captures what I tried to do in the classroom where we interrogate your sense of self, in all of its different iterations. Whether it’s sexuality, ethnicity, even philosophically. And then see where it goes.
VD: When we’ve spoken before, I think you said you taught a class on gender and sexuality. Could you tell us a little bit more about what that class was about, how you approached it, and how you went about it without being dogmatic?
MC: It’s an interesting class because it came out of ethics. What I do with ethics, it’s a year long course the first part of it is classical ethical theory.
VD: Just dead white people like Plato?
MC: Pretty much. Let’s talk about the Judeo Christian, Western European, North American tradition here. Then the second semester is when we go into post-modernity. We throw everything in like ethnic studies and queer theory. Here’s the canon, and here’s where the canon basically eats shit or falls apart.
That’s intentional for me because I think it’s important. At a time when kids have immediate access to information, what are the skills that are most needed when it’s no longer a question of research? That was my generation – what I had to research. Now it’s a question of sifting – a question of discernment – discrete ways of being able to evaluate which [stories] have to be at the foreground and which ones have to be in the background.
When we started talking about gender and sexuality, there was so much narrative coming out that I felt were unreflective and becomes too easily – you use the word dogmatic – for me, it’s ideological. It becomes very clearly ideological for kids. Even the word queer, for some of them, becomes an ideological marker of difference. “Like, I’m queer.” The implicit subtext that almost comes out is, “You can’t challenge me on that.”
And I’m like, “Well, no.” The point of queer-ing something is precisely to be iconoclastic. The point of a queer identity is to resist against canonical/ideological impositions on one’s becoming. One self critiques; one checks one’s sense of place and body in relationships—in sexual relationships, the ways in which we articulate desire.
What I did with gender and sex, one, the format is really conversational. I told them we’re only talking about a couple of things: 1) speech around sex, 2) body, and then 3) the ways in which speech and body intersect. And then largely imaginings. How do we rethink about speech and body outside of this. It’s deconstructive. Then at the end of it, it’s much more intentionally rearticulations.
That’s why we talk a lot about taboos. We explore what is permissible, what’s not. I loved it when at the end of last year, one of my students, Natalia Varni, wrote her final paper on pleasure and masturbation.
VD: Oh, wow. I cannot believe this is high school.
MC: It’s kind of cool. She says, “As children we are taught that our genitals are a place where we pee and poop, [leading] us to believe that it’s dirty. Often times, girls get stuck in the phase that their vagina is [seen as] dirty. They don’t allow themselves to grow in their sexual experiences. The hope is that our curiosity leads us to experience [ourselves], which then leads to security and confidence in our sexuality and body.”
This girl was reading this in a class of 30 girls and boys.
I feel as if at that very moment, her statement was breaking taboos, breaking norms, and then challenging people to rethink the boundaries of taboos and prohibitions. Because the deeper commitment is, how do we create new meanings? I think we’re doing a good job. But at the end of it, it really relies on the bodies that occupy or live within that space together. That would not have been possible if she didn’t take ownership of that space and articulate that amongst her peers.
So to go back to your question, what is justice work? For me justice work also means interrogating even what we understand of justice. But ultimately, it relies on who is sharing that space at any given time and then being able to articulate our desires and the prohibitions around those desires. To re-imagine what we mean by right relations.
VD: So what kind of questions do you ask them? How do you present it? Do you do you make them read something and then have questions like devotionals have? And you’re like these are the stupidest questions? How do you ask questions? How do you steer them without steering?
MC: Half of the class is really me flying by the seat of my pants. I have four big units and I just tell them it’s conversational. I often begin with a case study. Then we just have a conversation and whatever.
However, whatever the direction of the conversation, I pick up the next class. Their input shapes what we do in the next class. It also helps that I have the counselor come in once every other week. What the counselor does is we just have a conversation, “What do you want to talk about today?”
There’s a lot of intentionality around space for [the students]. I’m very upfront about the fact. We’re talking about just pedagogy, right? I will give you the philosophical framework, because that’s the analytical tool by which we look at these questions, but at the end of the day, that’s not really the meat of the class. That’s just the structure. That’s just the scaffolding.
When we talk about religion, I put it within the context of that philosophical framework. So let’s say we talk about taboos. We talk about what’s permitted and what’s not. We talk about what sin is and what sin’s not.
For example, we talk about religious language. I use a lot of Michel Foucault because his history of sexuality basically gives both an historical and philosophical framework as to why we talk about sex in a specific way.
So I told them these are the allowable spaces and these are the taboos. That’s what Foucault says. Now, how does that relate to a religious language around sex? [The students] can go to town with it. “Oh, the confessional! When you go to confession, most of the sins you talk about – it’s never about ‘I’ve not been a nice person.’ You always talk about, ‘I masturbated last night’ or something like that, right?”
Kids get it. You give them space to talk about taboos; it is hilarious.
It’s actually really beautiful. When that young woman was talking about masturbation, “This is what I need. And I want to know what you want.”
It makes perfect sense at that moment because they started that whole semester talking about taboos. Rene Girard, he talks about violence and the sacred. Taboo is really nothing more than to preserve the sacred; it’s almost to allow the sacred to be sacred, to allow God to be God. But if we’re not careful about taboos, it’s actually establishing this implicit message that God is so much better than who we are. That everything that God is, is not who we are. So taboos, to the extent that we’re trying to protect God, also diminishes us significantly. It’s a fine line; how do you hold a taboo?
VD: It also diminishes God.
MC: Yes, ultimately it does. Because what is God or language around God if not a projection of our own experience? So at that moment, if we’re not careful with the weight of taboo, it can easily slip into this abusive system. Or it could be a system that actually honors. It’s really being able to hold that intention.
The class for the most part is really an exercise in naming, exposing, and allowing taboos to somehow be addressed. More than anything else, it’s really not about how to avoid STIs.
Next week, we discuss what justice work means to Dr. Campos as a Catholic school teacher. Stay tuned!
As founding member of Emerging Queer Asian-Pacific Islander Religion Scholars, Michael Sepidoza Campos researches at the intersection of Filipino-American diaspora, postcolonial theory, queer theory, and critical pedagogy. Campos co-edited Queering Migrations Towards, From, and Beyond Asi‘ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) with Hugo Córdova Quero and Joseph N. Goh. His work as religion teacher in Catholic schools constitute the primary location of his work and ministry.