A Letter To An Activist-Turned-Academic

Rally

This letter was first published on my personal blog, egrollman.com.

Dearest Eric of the past, and Eric of the future,

In 1985, you were born into worlds of intolerance, inequality, and oppression. Your mother, Black, from a large, (mostly) single-parent family facing the hardships of poverty. Your father, white and Jewish, from a working-class family in which only his father was employed while his mother cared for home and family. Despite the message of the world – that people should only enter romantic and sexual relationships with people of their same racial group – and even some subtle resistance from their own families, your parents raised you in an environment of love, acceptance, and self-confidence. Even before you had a real sense of the world with all of its racial and racist realities, you knew you were both Black and white. A five-year-old, standing up to a teacher to challenge the forced option of one racial category. Those same episodes played out throughout your childhood and adolescents – “why must I choose one when I’m more than one?” By early adolescents, you were frequently contributing to an online forum for multiracial and multiethnic people. Of course, your parents were worried about this activity, fearing your words might be stuck on the net forever causing later pain and regret.

In all of this time, you knew you were different in another way. You played the expected role for boys, at least romantically: having a girlfriend, expressing interest in sex with girls to male friends. Despite a feeling that you weren’t quite a boy in a broad sense of the term since age 5, you hid it – from others, from yourself. By 17, the secret feelings of attraction to other boys, of not feeling like “a boy,” boiled over in subtle hints to friends that you might be bisexual. Then it was calling your older sister, a lesbian, confiding in her, but obviously seeking a positive response, validation, rather than solutions to “fix it.” Then it was all of your friends, one by one, almost making a game of it. Then it was your parents, not at the same time, and not in the same way. Your friends were fine with it for the most part, though you lost touch with one who you suspected was too religious to reconcile her views with your newfound identity. And, two friends, who had one of the most homoerotic friendships you have ever seen, also decided to stop talking to you. But, with all others, either the friendship did not change, or you became closer. Your parents were another story… A father who took it to heart – now with 2 gay kids – wondering if it is something he did wrong as a parent. A mother who incessantly checked your trash, searched for you on the internet. Before going off to college, you took your first, extremely visible step into the world of activism. You organized the National Day of Silence for your high school, Oxon Hill. It was modest in form, mostly you passing out the cards to your friends that you made on your computer at home. The most profound moment was the Colonel’s – one of the leaders of the Junior ROTC program you were in, as a high ranking officer at the time – request for a few of these cards. “Wow,” you thought, “I would have assumed he is homophobic. And, wow, now he knows for sure that I’m bisexual.”

In college, you immediately joined UMBC’s organization for queer students. The friends you had made that summer in the preliminary program of the Meyerhoff Scholarship Program attended most of that year with you. You also made many new friends there, some who remain friends today. On that first day, the officers of the club, Freedom Alliance, announced an opening for the position of Secretary. You jumped at the chance – it seemed like it was open just for you. Within a few weeks as Secretary, your parents began to raise concern that your name was listed on the organization’s website. You fought with them about it, arguing that it was obvious that organizations listed their officers in this digital era. But, for them, they were worried that “Grollman” would be associated with “gay” somehow – a concern for your father, not for you.

The year was an okay transition, though your grades suffered, and your relationship with the scholarship program became strained as you grew tired of their unspoken homophobia and more and more aware that its focus on math and science was not for you. You grew tired of your parents’ reassurance that they love you, but still took issue with all things associated with your sexuality – affiliation, relationships, academic interests. Eventually, you cut contact with them, ignoring their phone calls and emails. “Hey, I’m an adult now,” you thought, “on a nice scholarship, away from home. I don’t need them if they’re going to treat me like this.” You could have been right. Or, you could have been horribly wrong. After some time, your father surprised you with a visit at school, nearly an hour away from home. “Eric? There’s a cop downstairs here to see you,” the receptionist at the residential hall desk said when she called for your room. You rushed down, going over in your head all of the possibilities for such a visit from the police. It turned out to be your father – a little relieved that it wasn’t actually “the cops,” just your father in his police uniform. But, you were not excited to see him, unwilling to talk, demanding that he go back home. He was able to at least get you outside of the residential hall. But, outside, you simply argued, talking in circles, and you refused to look him in his eyes. “How can you love someone unconditionally if there is a condition,” you kept repeating, “that I’m not this.” You fought with your parents a lot in the early years after coming out, primarily challenging the authenticity of their love and acceptance given their discomfort with your sexuality. Because you didn’t look him in the eye, you didn’t see his heart breaking every time you promised him that you’d be okay if you just ended your relationship then and there. After maybe an hour, you eventually settled down, and he was able to convince you to get food. The food was mediocre, but the conversation was unforgettable. Though your parents still were struggling, they never stopped trying, caring, and loving.

But, given the academic problems, rough seas still remained ahead. You fell into academic probation after a bad spring semester. The following summer, you took courses to make up for a few bad grades from the first-year of college. You also started looking into leaving the scholarship program. Your parents were quite angry and frustrated with your willingness to completely leave a free ride because you did not like math and science and your insistence that the program is homophobic. You tried to negotiate with them, maybe they could cover some if you left it, maybe you would get lucky and secure a generalist scholarship from the university. After a summer of good grades, and a good fall semester, you made the request to leave the program official. In hindsight, this was one of those instances of a blind leap of faith. You officially left one scholarship with little knowledge of how likely you could secure another. You lucky dog, you secured another full scholarship, obtaining positive support from the previous program despite your occasional disobedience and poor grades. This transition allowed you to then change your major to sociology after taking a few interesting courses. It also put your parents’ worries to rest – after all of this fear that you would walk away from a full ride to nothing, you proved to them that you would be okay after all. They admitted to you later that this also helped them to see that gay or straight, you were still successful, still brave.

All while you resolved academic and family struggles, you continued to remain involved on campus. After the insistence of a friend in the math and science scholarship program to join his organization, the Student Events Board (SEB), you eventually checked it out. You wanted to run for president of the queer student group, but the position in SEB seemed that it would be too demanding time-wise. So, you went for SEB, knowing little about what you were getting into, but confident that you could handle being secretary in this new organization after being in that position for a year in Freedom Alliance. It wasn’t an LGBTQ organization, but most of the group’s members were LGBTQ friendly, and the staff advisors to the group were lesbian or bisexual themselves. Further, you had support in all of your efforts to pursue issues related to sexuality. Although you were not an event-planner, you received support for your own event-planning efforts – a successful film series followed by discussions, a discussion series about various social and political issues. Your involvement in this group — the second largest in terms of funding, institutional support, and clout — allowed for you to shift your efforts to a larger, mainstream audience. By your senior year, you successfully ran the organization as president, gaining a bit of recognition from student affairs staff.

In addition to your persistence, your confidence, your bravery, and your newfound visibility, you also found activism through love. Though you began to have romantic interactions with men as soon as you came out, your first real relationship was in the sophomore year of college. You weren’t overwhelmingly attracted to him physically, but his openness and confidence enticed you. You spoke for the first time by instant messenger, you using the general account for an organization for first-year students – First Year Council – that you were maintaining over the summer. He said something about an ex-boyfriend. You took his comment in stride, though you were so excited that he was so open with a complete stranger. “What? Oh yeah, ‘boyfriend.’ I’m gay.” He said it so easily, as though there’s no reason to worry that another person might become hostile or violent. You decided to meet since he was visiting the campus, and you ended up spending a little bit of time in the Women’s Center. Soon after, you began dating and let others know, like your friends in SEB, with pride. (They already knew you were gay when you first joined SEB, since you attended the preliminary meeting still dressed in drag from the Freedom Alliance drag show.) Throughout the first year of your relationship, you walked the campus, hand in hand, and sometimes hissed at those who gawked. It was love, but it was also political – an interracial gay couple, both centrally involved in key student organizations.

During the second year of your relationship, you both decided to run for homecoming court. The previous year, a same-sex couple ran, though as “king” and “queen,” but did not win. Their attempted run pushed the next year’s organizers to reconcile this new reality, that couples are not all heterosexual. So, they opened the call for “homecoming court,” which also opened the door for friends to run as well. The two of you ran, making a real effort of it – Facebook posts, emails, pleas to friends, and even a number of flyers on campus. The prior year’s same-sex couple used flyers that simply made reference to “love = love = love,” yet yours actually included pictures of you and your then-boyfriend and a tongue-in-check reference to the “gay agenda.” Overall, the experience was positive – most friends supported you, and you even won homecoming court. As nervous as you could be, you both kissed on the soccer field where your victory was announced. It seemed that the crowd paused their cheers just as you kissed, maybe surprised that we were actually a couple (and not two friends), maybe just stunned because of the general invisibility of gay sexuality and gay people in our culture. Just days before, a friend had warned you that some were making potential threats against you. Days after, a few of your flyers turned up defaced, including homophobic slurs and expressions. Along with our victory, these hostile responses, though rare, caught the attention of The Retriever Weekly, the campus newspaper. Also, after our public kiss, one angry parent called the university president to complain, though he, Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, directed the call to the direct of student affairs, Dr. Patty Perillo, an out lesbian. All in all, the response was positive, but it was an important moment to let shine through the prejudice that LGBTQ people still face. Indeed, the hostility was minimal given that this was a college environment. Sadly, homecoming court disappeared after that year, I suppose an experience that could be chopped up to the gays leading to demise of marriage and society.

All while this was occurring, you were in the midst of leading a small group of students, staff, and faculty that advocated for a number of new initiatives for resources and services for queer students. The primary goal — a big one — was to establish a campus resource center for queer students, mirroring the Women’s Center support for women students. Some really important people on campus became involved with the group, including many of the students affairs staff, and even the then-vice president of student affairs. Unfortunately, most of this energy was swept up into a task force led by the student affairs division to assess the needs of the campus for queer folks. However, reflecting back, these efforts were taken seriously. Your work was covered by the student newspaper several times. A petition in support of the campus center was signed by over 400 people. Very important staff and some faculty became involved, rather than simply talking you out of it or directing you to some other existing resource. And, the president of the university responded after being made aware of your work; of course, he charged the VP of student affairs to respond – or maybe to “deal with it.” Imagine it, in all the work that students do on campus with little recognition by staff, faculty, and administrators, that your work gained such momentum and recognition.

Unfortunately, the culmination of the crumbling relationship and the stalled progress of the queer initiatives lead you to shift your focus away from activism back to school. Without your partner in love and activism, it just wasn’t the same. And, with the needs assessment, it seemed that your hands were tied. So, you decided to channel your energies exclusively into school. You knew that graduate school was an obvious next step after college, a decision made early in college and expected by your parents once they completed their master’s degrees years before (you know, to “do better” than they did, academically speaking). So, you decided to pursue an honors thesis to establish your qualifications for graduate schools. With the help of your advisors, you settled on an assessment of anti-gay prejudice on campus – maybe this could be presented on campus and used to supplement the needs assessment. Having received a small research grant from the university, you decided to exceed the initial goal of 300 surveys from students on campus. With a great response from professors to enter their classes, you were able to obtain over 700 surveys. Looking back, that exceeds what many established researchers achieve for their own work. The project became a presentation at the Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day, April of your senior year, as well as a presentation at the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS), a national organization, and, years later, a publication with your advisor, Dr. Ilsa Lottes. Though you were aware that you were headed into an academic route, this experience really solidified your goal of achieving your activist goals through a route that seemed easier and more natural that “pure,” on the street activism.

And, then you went to graduate school, expecting to be surrounded by others who were academically-oriented, but still committed to social justice. Week by week, you came to realize that you were right about the orientation to academic pursuits, but the concern for social justice did not exist as you had hoped and expected. You were shocked to find that some people who were ignorant, even prejudiced, about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class were colleagues, including faculty. You were surprised by the general inattention to the community and world outside of the university and lack of effort to do work that matters and make one’s work matter. You were surprised that those who championed public sociology were merely speaking to a newspaper, or assumed their work mattered to lay audiences. The culmination of the homesickness for Maryland, now in Indiana, the lack of racial diversity, the lack of a distinct LGBTQ community, the reality of the academy previously unbeknownst to you, made you consider leaving, or at least transferring to a school in Maryland. You spent many nights with other students of color in your cohort, feeling hopeless and bamboozled. Though you resigned yourself to stay, you took on a rather militant perspective about race, even beginning to question your own biracial identity and relationship with your (white) father. You began to question your preference for white men as romantic partners. You questioned friendships from college with white students. Your parents fought with you, worried about this newfound obsession with “Black stuff.” During a summer program at the National Sexuality Resource Center, you decided to do this “grad school thing” but to do it your way. You came back with a new attitude and a new tongue ring to emphasize the new “fuck you” attitude. You were knocked back again, defeated, suddenly obsessed with an undergraduate student’s recent suicide. (How could someone whose pain was obvious to others get to the point of suicide?) It was time to make a change, a change of environment or a change of attitude. You threw yourself into work, getting back on track, and surrounding yourself with other friends, friends who were more integrated and more optimistic.

Though things got better, you still found the same disillusionment about activism among academics. So, you forced yourself to make time for volunteering, starting with local homeless shelter. It was nice for a while, primarily for you to feel as though you were making a difference that you could see instantly, and feel it. Eventually, you decided to turn your energy to Middle Way House – the local domestic violence and rape crisis center. Initially, you attempted to get involved with the center’s anti-sexual violence program in schools, but found that you did not have the time to devote to daily presentations. So, you took a step back, taking a supporter role in the program’s development of curriculum for these programs. You put together a report on bystander intervention, not thinking much of it, but finding it to be of great help for the center. Then, as the center expanded, picking up a focus on queer youth, you became a part of the small group that worked to develop a curriculum for the Building Health Relationships program specifically for sexual minorities.

In your experience as an instructor, teaching Sexual Diversity, you learned that this, somehow undervalued activity is a great way to make an immediate, yet long-lasting difference. With research, you spend years just getting a project from start to print, just to have no one but other academics in your area read it. With teaching, two times a week for an hour and a half, you are provided a captive audience of 70 young minds. Though they do not care to learn everything, and will not learn everything, you have the chance to validate those who are invisible in society, to teach those in the majority groups of the importance of recognizing diversity and their own privilege, and emphasizing the importance of thinking outside of one’s own experience. You are given the attention of many young people to teach them about the world and encourage them to think critically, if not actually going out into the world to do something about inequality and oppression. You have the opportunity to inspire and captivate. Remember this. And, do not let the institutional value system – that research is number one, and teaching is an obligation – force you to lose sight of that.

Now, about half way through with graduate training, you are aware of what the academy is – at least one academic environment. You know that there is an incessant pressure to publish, do as many things as possible, minimize energy devoted to teaching and service. You, at the present moment, are experiencing a pain in your chest that you suspect is the product of unending anxiety. At this time, it is important to reevaluate, to remember why you’ve gone this route, and what it is you want from life. For starters, it is time to find a release valve for the anxiety. The social support you receive is too tied up with your academic obligations, friends from your department, and many of them demand more of you than you demand of them. You have been freed from teaching, thanks to a prestigious fellowship, but your primary focus is on research – and the expectations for more research have increased now with more “free time.” You somehow get by hyper-involved in the department and discipline, but barely find the time to continue on with Middle Way House. And, of course, anything else in the community is seen as out of the question. Breathe. Relax. Expand your horizons, and find the lost social life you have had outside of school.

At present, you understand that the value system of the environment you are in dictates that you must publish often and in top journals of your field, it must be quantitative, you must minimize teaching, you must get big research grants, you must be at the top department in the country. But, just four years ago, you established your goals to be much simpler – to teach and do research as a professor. With that, you implied the desire to do research on areas that interest you and that are tied to your social justice goals. You implied that teaching was a part of your job, not an obligation, and that you would make time for students as professors had made time for you. You never cared about the prestige of a journal or department – and now, the anxiety surrounding those considerations has impacted your health. Return to your early values – secure a job as a professor to pursue social justice through this academic avenue. It is the work you do and its importance to the world that is importance to you, not its importance to others like you. You never signed on to be popular among academics, specifically sociologists. Ultimately, you have learned that the most popular among academics are often just as irrelevant as the unpopular. So, why bother? And, often, it is those who simply do what they do who seem the most content and satisfied with their lives broadly speaking. This job, even as a career, is simply that – it is not meant to take the place of one’s life. You do not want to reach the level of success of your mentors at present if it means being childless, unhealthy, and sleep-deprived as they are. That is for them, the decisions they have made – not for you.

So, continue with the work that you are doing, but don’t let it weigh you down. Seek to satisfy your social, psychological, emotional, political, and spiritual appetites as well. What you do now is just the beginning of your career, so there is no point treating it like life-or-death work. Aim for a comfortable job that will allow you to live our your social justice dreams – while status can be useful, don’t let it dictate where you go from here. Be aware of what the Kool-Aid tastes like, but don’t drown in it any longer. Return to those roots of bravery where you leapt because it was right, not because it was what others valued and expected.

Love always,
Eric