January 23 2018

Intersectionality and Disclosure as Pedagogical Tools

by Kirk VanGilder, Gallaudet University

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.

Although I am trained as a practical theologian and much of my scholarly research and interest therefore tends to express itself as theological construction and imagination, I am currently teaching in a religious studies setting at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. While all campuses are sites of diversity and intersectionality in identity markers, Gallaudet University presents teachers with a unique layer of identity formation. We are the only free-standing four-year liberal arts university in the world specifically designed for Deaf and hard of hearing students. Therefore our mission statement expresses our desire to be a bilingual institution committed to providing the best educational opportunities possible in both American Sign Language (ASL) and written English.

As Deaf (sometimes indicated with a capital D) people mark ourselves as a cultural and linguistic minority group within American society, many of us do not identify as people with disabilities in relation to our audiological status. This self-understanding contrasts with the view of many, if not most, hearing people who regard deafness as a medical condition in need of correction. This means that the formation and expression of Deaf identities is often a counternarrative to a larger hegemony that attempts to overwrite our own understanding of ourselves. Historically, Gallaudet was the only choice for Deaf people who use ASL when considering higher education. Secondary schools for the Deaf fed our university with a core of students who had already formed their identities as members of a cultural and linguistic group. However, with the passage of accessibility laws, Deaf students now have more options than ever. At the same time, the high number of students who were mainstreamed into hearing schools with hearing aids or cochlear implants and found those experiences unsatisfying now use Gallaudet as their entry point into Deaf culture and ASL.

Add to this the usual diversity of racial, gender, ethnic, linguistic, economic, generational, international, and LGBTQ identities found on any college campus—all within a student body of roughly 1,000 undergraduates and 500 graduate students. This is my classroom every day. Every individual embodies multiple identity markers and is negotiating a complex and potentially politically charged landscape. This makes intersectionality a vital and necessary part of my pedagogy when teaching religious studies courses. Religious and secular identity markers are not formed separately from other aspects of one’s identity. Therefore, a classroom conversation about personal experiences with one’s religious or secular identity will often interweave with how students experience their cultural identity, linguistic identity, racial identity, gender identity, and so forth.

How one responds to a religious community and identifies as a member (or not) is often wrapped up with how that religious community responds to other aspects of one’s identity. Deaf people who were taken to religious settings, told that they were in need of healing to become more like hearing people, and sometimes forcibly prayed (or preyed?) upon, may have very reasonable impulses to reject religious identities. In contrast, as an example, Deaf people who experience marginalization in a mainstreamed work environment where they are the only Deaf person may find Sundays at a Deaf church to be a holy and sacred time where their identity, language, and being is understood, affirmed, and celebrated. In either situation, neither a person’s construction of their Deaf identity nor their religious identity is formed in isolation from one another. They form a powerful intersection. Similarly, the layers of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, and other aspects of identity create a myriad of intersections that create each and every person.

Teachers must be aware of the contentious questions, assumptions, and inequalities that emerge from intersections of identity, and they must become adept at teaching students the practice of self-awareness so they can come to understand how privilege and power shape perspectives. In my classroom, these opportunities occur every day. One example: Black Deaf students frequently (although less now than in previous years) find themselves being asked some variant of the question, “Which comes first for you, being Black or being Deaf?” Most Black Deaf students find the question impossible to answer because their identity as a Black person and their identity as a Deaf person were formed simultaneously. If pushed to answer, many often end up saying something like, “When I’m at Gallaudet, it’s my Blackness that makes me different, so I tend to put that forward more. But when I’m at home with my hearing family, it’s my Deafness that makes me different so that comes forward.” This negotiation of intersectionality reflects what Richard Eckert, a Deaf American Indian sociologist, refers to in describing complex Deaf identities as a portfolio where one can shuffle various identity markers to the forefront in response to the social context (2010, 323). When discussing this example of intersectionality in a class, I once had a student respond, “That’s absurd! It’s like asking which comes first for me, being white or a woman. I can’t answer that.” I was able to counter, “Yes, but has anyone ever actually asked you that question?”  Her response, “No,” allowed us to explore how racial privilege impacts the kind of questions white people often feel justified asking people of color.

Intersectionality can also be an academic strategy that allows us to counter the negative effects of identity splitting that generally pits various identity groups against one another in social settings. A second example from Gallaudet’s community: In 2012, our chief diversity officer at the time signed a petition while attending her church that would put to popular vote Maryland’s recently passed legislation establishing marriage equality for same-sex. The petition was in the public record, and a lesbian faculty member discovered the chief diversity officer’s signature while examining the list of signers online. The faculty member filed a formal grievance based on the chief diversity officer’s job description, which included regard for LGBT people on campus.

As this dispute eventually became known on campus, tensions rose very quickly. LGBT people felt betrayed and unsure about their place in the community. Our chief diversity officer was placed on paid administrative leave immediately. That alarmed evangelical Christians on campus who were now unsure if they could express their beliefs without fear of punishment. Additionally, this action was taken against the only African American woman in our administration, and as a result, people of color questioned whether an immediate administrative leave would have taken place if this had happened with a white administrator.

Outside political groups, eager to score points in an election year, used the media to weigh in on our campus situation with little or no understanding of the complexity of identity on our campus. Within our community, students were torn by the tendency of the media to portray the matter as Christians v. Gays v. African Americans. This was unfair and bewildering to our students in general, but particularly for our students who embodied all three of these identity markers. Their portfolio of identities were suddenly reshuffled for them and thrust into a very public arena as contentious and controversial. People felt justified asking questions that seemed to ask them to prioritize their loyalties to various parts of their personal identities at the expense of others. To their credit, it’s my opinion that students did a much better job addressing this crisis than the faculty or administration. It was through student-led workshops and discussion groups on intersectional identities and safe spaces that campus tensions were addressed and redirected into opportunities to learn and reconnect with one another.

Modeling Practice in the Classroom

Learning to negotiate these intersections of identity requires both an understanding of one’s identity and the practice of disclosure. My pedagogical approach to teaching intersectionality includes modeling disclosure, thus allowing for the assumptions of identity markers to be challenged and creating a safer place to explore and discuss identity. In my second semester of teaching, I cotaught a course on postcolonial Deaf identities as a part of our general studies requirements curriculum. My coteacher was someone who was well known in the Deaf community and clearly grew up within Deaf culture. I, however, was much harder to read and place within the spectrum of identities between Deaf and hearing. As someone who was born hard of hearing, was mainstreamed into hearing schools, and did not come to a sense of Deaf cultural identity or ASL fluency until my late twenties after losing more hearing, students continually have a hard time figuring out my identity labels. The inevitable question among the students eventually surfaced, “Are you Deaf or hard of hearing?”—meaning did I identify more closely with Deaf culture or hearing culture? 

As this class was aimed at building student skills in understanding culture and identity theory, I immediately used this as a teaching moment. I asked them to classify me and gave them full permission to ask questions and speculate where I fit without fear of offending me. They remained timid, but after a few bold students asked questions, the entire class got into it. Could I voice clearly? Yes. Could I hear enough to use a telephone? No. Did I prefer ASL or spoken English? I use ASL most of the time, but spoken English with my family and close hearing friends. They found me unclassifiable. This was where I could explain that identity is not something that can be determined by essentialist checklists, but that it often remains fluid or situational. So they finally asked me, “What do you call yourself, Deaf or hard of hearing?” I still refused to categorize myself.

“I’m guess I’m some sort of deaf, but I know I didn’t grow up in the Deaf world and ASL is not my first language.” They weren’t entirely satisfied with that answer, but they accepted it. Class eventually dismissed and my coteacher expressed his amazement at how my openness to being questioned on my personal identity had led to such an effective understanding of identity theory.

Then two students standing outside the door came back in to ask, “So tell us, are you Deaf or hard of hearing?”

A second example of modeling disclosure as a pedagogical tool: I teach all our religion courses at Gallaudet. As I openly affirm the value of a wide variety of religious and secular traditions, students often have a hard time classifying me religiously. In my second year of teaching, an African American Jewish student asked me after class, “Do you mind if I asked what your religion is?”

“Sure no problem,” I replied, “I’m a Christian.” His jaw hit the ground.

“Really?  You’re so open and accepting, I figured you were some kind of Buddhist.” 

Since then, I’ve sought to disclose my identity as a liberal-minded Christian, while also affirming that Christianity is a diverse tradition. This goes a long way in challenging preconceived singular notions of what “Christian” means for many students. It also assists in modeling successful and nonconfrontational disclosure of religious identity in relation to aspects of identity that make me more liberal minded. Gallaudet often has a heavy silence around discussing religious identity on campus as people fear causing division, offense, or misunderstanding. My self-disclosure helps students learn how to disclose and discuss religious and secular identity in a pluralistic campus climate. I’ve found the disclosure and open examination of my own intersectionality to be a powerful tool in teaching both the practice and theory of identity markers to students in ways that improve our campus climate.


Eckert, R. C. 2010. "Toward a Theory of Deaf Ethnos: Deafnicity ≈ D/deaf (Hómaemon • Homóglosson • Homóthreskon)." Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 15 (4): 317–333.

Kirk VanGilder, PhD, is the assistant professor of religion at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. He is the author of Making Sadza With Deaf Zimbabwean Women: A Missiological Reorientation of Practical Theological Method published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in 2012. He is also an ordained clergyperson in the United Methodist Church and has previously worked as a campus minister and parish minister in Deaf congregations. His current scholarly interests include interfaith studies, missiology, practical theological methods, Deaf studies, and narrative theology.

Image: Plate XXX (Byzantine No. 3), The Grammar of Ornament by Owens Jones (1868; scanned from the 1910 reprint) London: Bernard Quaritch, via http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/DLDecArts.GramOrnJones.