This post will focus on our final class: an evaluation and a discussion with author and artistIvan Velez, Jr. who created Tales Of The Closet , one of the required books for this course. Ivan’s book is one of the first comic books to include youth of Color in NYC, queer identified youth in high school, and their experiences, challenges, and ways of building community.
Students were provided with the opportunity to write anonymous evaluations of the course. I asked them to focus on things that I have control over such as the topics discussed in class, texts used, assignments, grading, guest speakers, films, use of online teaching tools, their expectations of the class and if they were met. Students had 15-20 minutes to write as much or as little they desired regarding the course. After, we discussed the course as a group and they had the opportunity to share with me non-anonymously their thoughts regarding our course.
I was overwhelmed with how many students shared that their expectations for our class were not only met but exceeded them as well! Some admitted that they thought this class would be an “easy A,” but quickly realized they not only were learning a lot of information regarding health, society, and their own ideas and beliefs; but they were also doing a lot of work. This was something that challenged their expectations, but many said they did not find the readings or “work” for our class to be stressful or too much (which is often a critique of many upper level courses).
Some student’s thought that our class would make a good fall or spring course and some thought this was a course many students must be required to take versus an elective course. They also indicated that both books were useful and engaging, that they were affordable and could find the textbook for under $10 and thus, spent less than $20 for the texts for our class (Ivan offered his books to students for $5, almost a 50% off discount). I then shared with students how much I enjoyed being their instructor and mentor for the summer. They asked very thoughtful questions, had great discussions and respectful dialogues on many topics, and for being present in class for each session. I also learned a lot about myself as an educator and thanked them for being a part of my growth as well.
Tales Of The Closet
Some folks have often wondered why or how a comic book may be a text for a course. I’ve learned early in my teaching experience, that people learn things in different ways. Some people are visual learners and gain more information from watching films or looking at images, other folks are good at taking notes and rereading them to obtain information, other folks gain more understanding through doing activities individually or as a group. For this reason, many of my classes attempt to offer students with various learning styles the opportunity to excel.
I also believe that comic books are different ways of reading. It requires people to understand that there is a protocol for reading comics, that there is a cultural element to them being created, and they are artifacts from particular communities. It’s also important to be challenged and explore why and how we may become uncomfortable with a particular reading so that we can better discuss and explore that discomfort. It challenges readers to think and read in different ways, some that may not always be linear. Comic books require reading not only the words, but the images, and the cells help to guide the readers in understanding how time elapses, how the story progresses, changes in characters, tone, and perspectives.
Some students have had a lot of experience reading comic books before our class and did not have a difficult time reading the book. A handful of students had never read a comic book before our class and were at first finding the first few pages difficult, questioned if they were reading it correctly, and if they understood the story. When they got the “hang of it” they quickly moved through the comic book and understood what was going on in the story. I think it is also useful for students to have the opportunity to interact with the authors and artists of the texts we discuss. It is not often we can offer this opportunity to our students, but I believe when it is possible it’s important to take advantage of the occasion.
When Ivan Velez, Jr. joined us we were finishing up our class discussion and evaluation. I had him sit in the center of the class so students could see and hear him well. The first question was very direct and many students wanted to know “why did he end the book the way he did!” and where could they find the next books. Students read the first 3 comic books ofTales Of The Closet out of nine books. Ivan shared that as with many comic books, you end the story in a way to encourage the reader to want to buy the next issue. This is a common approach to writing and creating comics.
For readers who are not familiar with the book here is a brief overview of the characters and story:
Synopsis: A group of teenagers at a high school in Queens, NY build community together that creates networks of safety, affirmation, and support for them as they work with and through their desires, attraction, gender, and sexual orientation in their family, at school, and in their communities.
Tony: a Latino raised by a single-father who is an alcoholic, Tony is the first person to stand up for his friend Scotty when he was being bullied and targeted with violence by students in school. He enters the foster care system and then street prostitution.
Scotty: is the first openly gay character in the novel. He is racially white, comes from a middle-class background, “out” to his family, and fashion forward. He is also seen as an easy target for harassment and violence at school, which has made him a “loner.” His parents made him go to therapy to discuss his sexual orientation, but his therapist quickly realized this was not a choice Scotty was making and helped his family support him.
Kyle: is the only racially Black man in the first 3 books. He embraces certain aspects of femininity in his everyday gender expression, which results in his sexual orientation being assumed. Kyle is the first friend that Shorty makes on the first day of school.
Shorty: is a young middle-class Italian woman whose family is expecting another child. She is attracted to Mary, but is shy. She meets Tony at the principal’s office as they both are in trouble for different reasons. Shorty realizes her parents are supportive and do not discriminate against people who are not heterosexual towards the end of book 3.
Mary: is a very popular racially white upper-class woman who partners with Ben. After Ben shares on their first date that he is attracted to men, Mary shares that she has the same attraction and they become known as a couple at the school. Mary and Ben are invited to parties that the others are not invited to, even though they prefer the groups friendship.
Ben: is a racially white football player who is very popular. Most of his friends are on the football team and these are the same people who beat up and bully Scotty. He is set up on a date with Mary, and they agree to date one another for safety purposes even though they both identify as being attracted to the same gender. Ben’s father is a wrestler who encourages his son to be active and athletic.
Jenny: is an Filipina who comes from a large family. She has a history of drug and alcohol abuse and is attracted to Ramona. After she creates a friendship with the group she stops using substances but relapses one day, which may have long term repercussions.
Ramona: is a racially Black woman whose family comes from the Caribbean and has a strong religious ideology. Ramona is very shy and struggles with anti-homophobia that she is taught at home and believes she is not loved by her family or her spiritual community and deity because of her attraction and desires toward the same gender. She is an artist and writer who experiences physical abuse at home, isolation from the group, and forced heterosexual dating with a man her mother requires her to be with.
Wilson: an older racially white gay man who finds Tony beaten and mutilated by one of his clients and takes him to the hospital. He represents the “old guard” of the queer community and visits Tony often to check up on him and make sure he’s healing. He is best friends with Imelda who was with Wilson when the found Tony.
Imelda: is a transgender Latina who is best friends with Wilson. She is introduced at the end of book 3 when she is brutally beaten by tranmisogynists while walking with Wilson. Their attack is how book 3 ends and we do not know if she will survive.
Ivan then gave the class a historical overview of why he created the comic book. He created this text in 1985, which makes the book over 25 years old! Many students were surprised to hear that the book was this old and still relevant (a classic!). He shared how he grew up very similar to some of the characters, especially Tony. During his time with the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI), which is home to one of the first high schools (Harvey Milk High School) and shelters for LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, and asexual) youth in NYC, which is still open and providing services today, Ivan proposed writing a comic that represented the youth he worked with at HMI.
Ivan shared that he grew up reading comics, his favorites being Super Man, Hercules, and Casper. He wanted to first do a comic that he said would be like “a gay Archie,” but quickly realized what queer youth were experiencing were not even touched upon in the Archie comics such as survival sex, suicide, murder, drug use and abuse, and these numbers, 25 years later, are still not decreasing.
Students asked how he came up with each character and Ivan shared that each of the characters are a piece of him. He relates to each of the characters in some way. For Tony, it was a similar father-figure situation, Kyle, his mother was similar to Ivan’s, Ramona’s artwork, but also the abuse she experiences by her mother because of her religious beliefs and values. There were some critiques that Ivan did experience with his initial characters. He shared that because HMI were to help publish the comic there were several meetings and edits to the comic. One critique he shared was that Kyle was seen as a stereotype because he was created as a flamboyant character. Ivan argued that excluding characters like Kyle would be a disservice and misrepresent the community.
Ivan shared that as the comic evolved, he wrote this comic for heterosexual readers as well. Although some of the main characters are not heterosexual, there are many heterosexual characters in the book: family members, teachers, friends, and other classmates. Ivan stated that he wanted youth to read his book and understand that we all have a role to play in created a safe and inclusive environment that it is not just up to LGBTQIA youth, but all people. He also wanted to create something realistic. In books 4 and 5 Ivan shares that the characters realize that just because they have come to accept and support one another does not mean they find that anywhere else.
At first publication of Tales Of The Closet, 70,000 copies were distributed. This was part of a NYC attempt to include a multi-cultural curriculum in classrooms, which only lasted one year. To date, Tales Of The Closet has sold over 100,000 copies, this is more than any of the most popular comic books in the US. Students asked how they could get all of the copies, including the final book. Ivan shared that he is currently finishing up the final book, and promised to email our class book 4 for free. However, you may purchase (for a very affordable price) each book online at Net Comics (select the book number 1-8 that you wish to read).
Some changes that Ivan would like to make to the stories are to include a story all about one character’s pregnancy and what they experienced. He shared that some young lesbian-identified women choose to become pregnant as a way to not come out to family and friends. Often when someone is pregnant there is an assumption of heterosexuality, which in turn for many queer women may mean safety. He is also working on aging the characters, showing how they have evolved. Plus, he gave us a good overview of some additional characters and scenarios that come up later in the books, such as a new character Ana, more information on Mark, Ben’s best friend on the football team who experiences childhood sexual abuse, a planned pregnancy by two characters (which challenges ideas of them being exclusively gay and/or lesbian), unplanned pregnancies, and characters going for HIV tests.
I asked the groups why they think the book, over 25 years old, still has relevance. One student stated that they believe it may be because people were not able to come out or felt safe to do so until recently and that is why we see similar issues of violence, discrimination, and lack of resources and support for LGBTQIA youth. Ivan agreed with some of this and also wanted us to keep in mind that there are very encouraging and empowering parts of the book, it is not just about negative experiences. He gave us examples of the creativity of the characters: Ramona’s writings and drawings, Scotty’s musical talents, and Mary’s fashion and sewing skills. He hopes folks also recognize these positive aspects of the text as well.
After our discussion, Ivan signed each student’s book that remembered to bring it to class and we thanked him for taking time out to talk with us. A few days later Ivan sent me an email thanking me for inviting him to his class, he said he felt a lot of love from the group and it was very nourishing. I shared his email with the class because I think it’s important to let students know the affirming compliments they share when they visit us. It’s not often students get group/communal compliments from guest speakers whose work they question, critique, and embrace, and I think these are important things to share to help students understand they are appreciated and seen as thoughtful public intellectuals and scholars.
To purchase the book in bulk for your community or space contact Ivan at his publication company Planet Bronx (you can even tell him Bianca sent you!).