Navigating Sexual Harassment In Academia As A Young Black Femme

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Gabi Jordan (a pseudonym) is an assistant professor of sociology. She studies race, ethnicity, gender and intimate relationships.

“Oh, you have everything going on there, don’t you?”

The above question took me by surprise. I was going about my usual routine in the campus writing center, checking in with student athletes and their graduate student mentors about upcoming assignments. My questioner had appeared from around a corner just as I was leaving a study room. With a smile, he gestured toward my face.

I laughed, awkwardly. It was immediately clear to me that the “everything” to which he referred were my nose and septum piercings, as I had become accustomed to people commenting on them regularly.

As I prepared myself to make an excuse to turn and walk away, he said, “You even have one in your tongue; let me see it.” The awkward smile on my face fell, and I choked out a short laugh. I felt frozen, unsure of what to do or what to say.

This older man was not my superior, but a coach for one of the university sports teams for which I tutored at the time. Though I had been warned that coaches should not be asking questions about student athletes, little direction was provided for how to avoid a coach if they did try to chat. As I mumbled about having students to check on, he reached out a hand towards my curly hair and inquired as to whether I was married or had any children.

I was able to end this encounter by entering another study room and checking in with some other students. But I spent the rest of my shift at the writing center feeling extremely uncomfortable and questioning whether I had done something to invite the coach’s comments and questions about my appearance and personal life.

This moment remains vivid in my memory because it is not the first time that I experienced unwanted attention in my workplace or other professional spaces. Truly, it is not the first time in my life that I have had my appearance discussed in a way that made me uncomfortable.

I am a light-skinned, mixed-race black woman who is visibly feminine, with big curly hair and what is considered to be both a “voluptuous” and “fat” body. Consequently, I have been subjected to aggressive street harassment, followed by men in stores, grabbed by men (and women) in bars, had students write offensive comments about me in their course evaluations, and witnessed rape “jokes” being directed at student athletes in the middle of a writing lab.

I have even experienced sexual harassment at the hands of fellow academics. For example, at the 2016 American Sociological Association annual meeting, I had the unfortunate experience of having a male professor comment on my “beauty” in the middle of a conversation about my research, with him reaching out to caress my face.

A lifetime of men (and many women, too) feeling entitled to make lewd comments or touch me without my permission has, in some ways, made me numb to the ways in which my body is viewed as accessible. My research on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality has allowed me to intellectualize why such harassment often happens. Yet even with the minor protections that an intellectual understanding of these experiences lends me, I continue to struggle with being socialized to believe that I am somehow complicit. I often feel guilty about wearing makeup and dressing in formfitting clothing, even as I wear high necklines and hemlines that come to the knee. Despite teaching my students about how the notion that women are sexual gatekeepers is part of an oppressive gender structure, I have a hard time not blaming myself for the harassment I experience.

My physical appearance remains a factor in everything that I experience in the academy, particularly the ways that my students and my colleagues find it appropriate to speak on my attractiveness (or lack thereof). My experiences contribute to well-documented evidence of the ways that femme people are subjected to particular kinds of surveillance and, subsequently, harassment and violence. My membership in a discipline that recognizes and produces knowledge about various forms of sexual violence yet also fails to address harassment forces me to realize that there are still many gaps in how sociology departments and national organizations take steps to protect scholars.

I spent most of my graduate training unsure to whom to report these encounters and feeling awkward about discussing them with my (black, cisgender) male adviser. That awkwardness mostly stems from my own insecurities about admitting that I am vulnerable rather than deficiencies on my adviser’s part; in bringing up my harassment, I confirm that I am a sexualized body. Due to having had colleagues who are men of color tell me that the racialized and gendered harassment that runs rampant in higher education is something that I should “get used to,” I feel hesitant to bring up how my appearance impacts my ability to teach, to network with others or to conduct my research.

When I did report to one of my university’s human resources offices, I was told that I was not guaranteed any anonymity and, in the case of the coach’s unwanted attention that I described above, he would be let off with what they called a “positive confrontation” that I was assured would not enter his employee record. Instead, I was moved to another writing center and forbidden to work with student athletes who were members of that coach’s team. Essentially, this suggested that I was actually at fault, rather than the man who invaded my personal space and asked me inappropriate questions.

A Call For Change

Considering that women and femmes of color in academe already must anticipate that they will be viewed as less capable based on racist and sexist assumptions, what steps can they take to care for themselves amid a culture that fosters harassment?

To survive and thrive in the midst of these issues, I find it important to note that I am not alone. A 2017 report from the University of Texas at Austin found that 22 percent of students have experienced harassment perpetrated by a faculty or staff member. To this end, I have relied upon friends and mentors as a source of support while navigating these experiences. They remind me when something I have experienced is not OK and help me determine how to report or confront sources of harassment.

For women and femmes of color to thrive in the academy, and within sociology more specifically, there must be structures in place to support mentorship and community building. For instance, having multiple women and femme scholars and allies to reach out to redistributes the labor that often is placed on a single faculty member of color to provide all emotional support.

Further, faculty advisers need to be sensitive to the specific kinds of harassment that women and femmes of color may be subjected to. Advisers and department administrators must actively work to swiftly and effectively address harassment at the hands of faculty and other superiors, as well as between graduate students.

These interventions are just a few that can reduce feelings that there will be repercussions for reporting or that someone being subjected to harassment is at fault. Recognizing this issue, implementing clear and direct procedures for reporting and reprimanding harassment, and encouraging those with social and institutional power to intervene and quickly shut down inappropriate behavior are small steps that can be taken toward making the academy a safer place.

Sexual Violence At The Sociology Conference

"Don't Rape" by Richard Potts

“Don’t Rape” by Richard Potts

At last week’s American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting in Seattle, WA, two women of color graduate students separately disclosed to me that they had been sexually assaulted or harassed at the conference. Beyond courageously sharing their experiences with me, they do not feel brave or protected enough to report their experiences to the ASA. For, their vulnerable positions in the profession (graduate students) and in society (young women of color) present the very real concern of professional or personal backlash if they were to report the sexual violence. We live in a rape culture that denies the prevalence and impact of sexual violence; that does not believe victims, but rather blames them for their own victimization; that celebrates predators and excuses their violation of others’ bodies and space. ASA and the discipline of sociology exist within that culture. Why should we expect different results from them?

The perpetrators of the sexual violence in both instances are senior men faculty members – but, from different institutions. As such, the responsibility to pursue these cases – were they to be reported – falls outside of a particular institution. These incidents occurred at an ASA meeting, and thus are the organization’s responsibility to pursue.  As one of the two women pointed out to me, had she reported the assault to local police, she would be offered no support by local police at the next ASA conference as the location changes every year.

I took to social media to ask my fellow sociologists what resources existed to prevent sexual violence at ASA meetings and to support survivors of violence at future meetings. Few colleagues responded, all to say they wanted to know the answer, too. I did receive a response from ASA’s twitter account (@ASAnews) to look to page 2 of this year’s annual meeting program guide:

Ethical Conduct during the Annual Meeting:

It is unethical in any professional setting, including the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, for sociologists to use inequalities of power which characterize many professional relationships to obtain personal, sexual, economic or professional advantages.

Sexual, sexual identity or racial/ethnic harassment is also unethical behavior under the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics.

Attendees are encouraged to immediately report instances of harassment during the Annual Meeting to the ASA Executive Officer at Hillsman@asanet.org or through the ASA Annual Meeting Office.

To read the American Sociological Association Code of Ethics in its entirety, visit www.ASAnet.org and follow the link to “Ethics.”

I should note that I never read the front matter of the annual meeting program guide, and I imagine few other attendees do.  It is a thick book!  I only use it to find out when and where my sessions are.  Some attendees exclusively use the phone app, which won’t force them to flip through the front matter.  More importantly, it seems naive to assume that the above statement would stop a predator from assaulting or harassing others at the conference.  (Sexual violence is already illegal, yet the law doesn’t seem to stop it from occurring at alarming rates.)

I responded, pressing ASA about what is actually done to prevent sexual violence at these meetings, and to support survivors of sexual violence that has occurred at past meetings. I was informed that the Committee on Professional Ethics deals with reported instances of sexual violence on a case-by-case basis.

I felt underwhelmed by this response. When I returned home, I sent an email to the Sociologists for Women and Society (SWS) listserv to ask what feminist sociologists knew of existing resources and strategies for preventing sexual violence at academic conferences. I also contacted the ASA Committee on the Status of Women in Sociology and the ASA Committee on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Minorities in Sociology to ask that they take on this issue.

I had not anticipated Sally Hillsman, Executive Officer of ASA, to catch wind of my emails; she chimed in on the SWS listserv to emphasize that victims of sexual violence could confidentially report these events to her, and that this approach to handling such reports was voted on by ASA members. I pressed still to highlight the enormous fear that victims experience that prevents most of them to report sexual violence, and that these reporting mechanisms still do not address my concerns about sexual violence prevention and supporting survivors. Sally responded again to offer the following:

For the women who experienced sexual harassment at the Seattle, Chicago or recent meetings:

Please call me WITHOUT REVEALING YOUR NAME IF YOU CHOOSE at my office. I will return to my office this Wednesday August 31 to discuss your experience ANONYMOUSLY. If I am away from my desk, leave a message when you will call again and I will be there.

202-383-9005×316 goes right to my desk; no one else will pick up.

This is standard operating procedure. If you didn’t know about how ASA handles these situations it is good–insofar as confidentiality has been maintained–but bad that we have not been as available to sociologists as we could be.

The ASA has a Code of Ethics that everyone who is a member of the Association FORMALLY AGREED to abide by, and ASA has investigation and sanctioning ability within the scope of the Association.  These include confidential (non-public) and public sanctions for those found by COPE to have violated the Code.  Council is not involved.

Sally

I appreciate that ASA has allowed (which seems like a problematic verb here…) victims to report sexual violence without revealing their names. However, as others pointed out in the SWS discussion, eventually anonymity would become confidentiality, which eventually be disclosed to perpetrators if ASA pursued the reported case. This system does little to protect victims of sexual violence from being further victimized. And, given the horrendous reputation of other institutions, there is little reason for the discipline’s most vulnerable members to expect they won’t be victimized by ASA itself.

Rethinking Sexual Violence In Academia

I bring these events and conversations to the public stage not to criticize ASA, though I am clearly underwhelmed by its handling of sexual violence. Rather, I want to further contribute to the conversation about sexual violence in academia. There is fear that prevents many of us from talking about it, reporting it, criticizing it. Hell, even some sexual violence prevention activists have been censured or worse by academic institutions. Indeed, they are complicit in the production of rape culture within the profession.

There are many points that I wish to make – others have already said this, but it bears repeating. Sexual violence is an expression of power. Academia is obsessed with power and hierarchies. The profession enables predators to prey upon vulnerable members with little recourse. Those same power-dynamics leave victims and witnesses with few options to seek justice and prevent future instances of sexual violence. Professional hierarchies are laid upon social hierarchies; it is no coincidence that women and people of color are overrepresented among contingent faculty who – perhaps – have the fewest resources and least amount of support to avoid being victimized.

Just as academic institutions facilitate sexual violence among undergraduate students, it does so among graduate students, staff, faculty, and administrators, as well. There exists a rape culture on many campuses, and within disciplines and professional organizations. Victims are either blamed for their own victimization or not believed. Predators go unpunished, and are often times rewarded; their behavior is excused because of their professional status (which is likely enhanced by the privileged statuses of whiteness, masculinity, heterosexuality, wealth, older age, etc.). I once sat in a conference meeting that seriously considered naming an award after an older white man professor from my graduate program who has a long, loooong history of sexually harassing women students and colleagues; with great trepidation, I spoke up to oppose such an honor, but I believe he will still be honored in some other way. Others in that meeting were hesitant to entertain “hearsay,” but conceded when I stressed that I was privy to more than mere gossip about him.

Sexual violence exists at the intersections among racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, classism, fatphobia, ableism, religious intolerance, ageism, and xenophobia. White heterosexual cisgender women are not the sole victims of sexual violence; sexual violence is not merely a “white woman’s issue” or a feminist issue (with the necessary critique of the white, cishet, and middle-class biases of each wave of feminism). We fail many, many victims of sexual violence when we rely on ways of addressing it that are typical among white middle-class women; for example, there are racial differences in even naming one’s experiences of sexual harassment as such, and in reporting these incidents. A focus on sexual violence against white cishet women (presumably by white cishet men) ignores the gross unwanted sexual attention I (a Black queer non-binary grad student at the time) received from two white gay cis men professors at a Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) conference years ago. Such a focus ignores nuances of sexual violence in queer spaces and in communities of color, to name a few – especially across racial, gender, and class lines within those spaces communities.

We need to take seriously the bystander intervention approach to prevent sexual violence in academia.  That means it is not merely the responsibility of potential and actual victims of sexual assault and harassment to seek justice and support survivors.  It is everyone’s responsibility.  Yes, everyone.  Sexual violence is a systemic issue.  It is an expression of systems of oppression.  It operates within the very social institutions each of us inhabits everyday.  We must each challenge victim-blaming, rape-myths, and institutional practices that either ignore sexual violence or that even facilitate it.  We must intentionally support all survivors of sexual violence, even those who do not come forward.  Predators must be banned from our academic spaces so that they do not perpetrate violence again (because there is a good chance that they will).

I could go on. And, all of this is coming from someone with limited scholarly expertise on sexual violence and minimal personal experience with it. There is a great deal we can learn from the experts and survivors to actually prevent sexual violence in the academy. Right now, it is a crisis. In these first few weeks of the semester, countless undergraduate students are joining the statistics of victims of sexual violence; universities are continuing to be complicit in the predatory practices of perpetrators of such violence. And, graduate students, staff, and faculty are returning for another year – some to continue to be harassed as they suffer in silence. Who are we to offer guidance to the rest of society on ending sexual violence when hundreds of schools are currently under federal investigation for the mishandling of reported sexual assaults?

Further reading and resources:

On Finally Finding My Feminist Academic Community In Sociology

Note: this was originally published on Feminist Reflections blog.

About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.

No Support To Attend SWS Meetings

I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!

I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?

Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.

Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.

Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.

Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community

Tressie Me Perry DawnSo, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.

In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!

Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?

I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.

Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community

Adia Ray MeWhat I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.

I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.

So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.

Confessions Of a Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

Grace Cale photoGrace Cale is a PhD student in sociology.  Having gained her undergraduate degree from a college that specifically accepts marginalized and impoverished students, she is a passionate ally to many causes of social justice. Her research interests focus on political participation, social movements, neoliberalism, markets, and financialization. In the first part of this two-part essay, Grace reflects on the invisibility of scholars from working-class and  poor families, and the struggles these scholars face in academia; to rectify this, she calls for community-building among working-class scholars in academia.

Confessions Of A Poverty-Class Academic-In-Training

When I set out to write this essay, I had little concrete idea of what I sought to achieve. I knew that there was something unique about becoming an academic from a situation of clear poverty, and that I needed to make a case for this experience as existing along a real line of marginalization. Or at least call for recognition of the unique difficulties with which poverty-class academics struggle. While we certainly exist as a group, poverty-class academics seem curiously quiet about our origins, compared to academics of color and the LGBT academics, who fought (and still fight) long and hard for their visibility. The question I am left with is, what can we do to better advocate for similar recognition, and why is this important?

There is certainly a need for communal resource-sharing. It seems likely that we are all haunted by the threat of “Ph.D Poverty”, or the possibility of becoming bright, well-trained victims of the adjunctification crisis. And many of us know that we can look forward to heavy bills to pay from ballooning student debt, whether or not we are able to get a job matching our qualifications in an increasingly break-neck, competitive market. I hope that by coming clean about a history some of us actively hide, others might do so as well, and we might share our experiences and expertise regarding how to live in this academic environment which for so long had been quite happy to retain its white-middle-class, homogeneity.

Having frequently struggled with gaps in social, cultural, or human capital, and in struggling to access vital resources, I came to desperately seek social class-based advice for making it through graduate school. Given the few working-class folk in my own department, and knowing my poverty-born friends in other departments were having the same struggles, I called upon the surely endless fount of Internet wisdom available. Spoiler alert: the pickings were scarce. How could this be? Surely there are others besides me and a few peers who wrestle with class-based marginalization in academe. Surely there are others who have felt keenly a lack of resources and solidarity. Yet, despite a few out-of-date websites that attempted to address this gap, there was nothing with the scale, specificity, and upkeep as with those for communal resources aligned to other social equity movements (race, gender, sexuality, etc.).

Growing Up In Poverty

To clarify, let me return to the personal context: growing up, my family of four had an annual income between $8,000 and $12,000. We lived in a rural county in Appalachia, in which, as of the 2010 US Census, there was a 25% poverty rate. Without even needing to ask, all students in all levels of district schools were enrolled for the income-based program for government-subsidized breakfasts and lunches. It was common for our high school classes to have more students than textbooks. Very few of my classmates attended or graduated from college. As a child and teenager, I struggled to understand why every minute expenditure, even for our $1 lunch meat or an occasional $1.25 soda was such a difficult, stress-fraught decision. It was difficult to deal with seldom being able to visit friends from school or try high school sports, not because of time commitments, but because we couldn’t afford to use that much gas for the car. A computer left on overnight was a grave offense in our household, as there was legitimate doubt we could pay for the extra electricity.

Multiple studies support the claim that experiences of childhood poverty follow us well into adulthood, yielding not only socially observable effects, but even effects upon our physiology and genetics.1 In keeping with the findings of other researchers, I have certainly felt that as a young adult, such moments had deeply affected my development as an adult. My sister and I still battle powerful guilt for any purchase that is not materially necessary for our survival or basic health – even when we have had the disposable income. The process of paying bills, a generally unpleasant task for any person, is a viscerally fearful task which each month leaves me trembling and taking deep breaths to force a return to calm – even when I can cover each cost. There is always a nagging fear that no matter how careful and organized I’ve been, a bill has been forgotten, or an overdraft has occurred. We avoid most routine medical care, and only seek medical attention when our bodies cannot function, because we are so used to not being able to afford office visits or medication. Experience tells us that it is nearly impossible to get an invoice for medical services in advance of receiving care; it is usually easier to go without and hope for the best. I had my first-ever eye exam at 23 years old, upon discovering my graduate health insurance covered one annual exam. Turns out I need glasses. Might even get them someday.

Class-Based Struggles In Academia

I do not recite this tale to earn pity-points; despite these issues, I actually had a very happy childhood. But as my sister and I entered adulthood, and as I entered graduate school, these uncertainties and anxieties took on new, more powerful forms. Little differences began to creep into my graduate experience in small, subtly alienating ways, and I suspect that many of these examples will be familiar to readers. Some of these are issues that are generally just a nuisance for many academics, but could be damaging to the career prospects of someone with no savings account or trust fund, no credit, or no experience in which questions to ask their mentors.

  • I learned that people have different definitions of being “broke.” For some, it means “not much spending money”; for me, it meant the money does not exist. I literally have no money. Bank balance: $3. No cash. No credit. I no longer use the term in conversation; it has become too frustrating to continue doing so.
  • Some might have the feeling that other students somehow knew something that they didn’t. We have no summer funding in our program, but somehow I felt like the only one in a genuine panic about how to pay my rent for three months, let alone conduct the expected research and study. The possibility of having to beg to stay with my sister in her one-bedroom apartment was a dangerously imminent reality after one summer job, without notice, put all employees on two-plus-week leave due to lack of work to give us. This, after the hard realization that this job did not offer the full-time hours I was promised in the first place. How do so many other students appear to flawlessly “make it work” for these months?
  • Some may struggle to articulate why many departments’ reimbursement-style travel funding would not allow them to attend conferences for the so-vital-to-success networking experiences. In my case, it was because I did not have any money or credit with which to pay up-front. It wasn’t that it was committed elsewhere – it did not exist. To lay down over $500 worth of registration fees, airfare, and hostel reservations after struggling to buy food, with a possibly six-month wait for reimbursement was tragically laughable. Unfortunately, this funding style is not at all unique to our fairly average university; I see stories of such funding style splattered across various websites, blogs, and forums created as common spaces for academics.
  • It is also difficult to explain to others in a meaningful way why I did not simply take out loans to bolster my available funds. For people from backgrounds of poverty, debt is a tricky beast. Some have embraced it all too easily, only to suffer afterwards, and others struggle to get access to even small loans. My family lives with a vague, ever-present fear of debt – a fear I inherited as a child. To us, debt is something that can ruin lives. Whether these views are technically correct, they constitute an aspect of socialization with which poverty-class academics must struggle every time we see a need we have which cannot be fulfilled on our stipends or summer jobs. The decision to use credit is seldom a light one.

A Call For Community Among Poverty-Class Academics

These are just a handful of the starker experiences one may struggle with, and yet other subtle day-to-day moments may also reinforce socialized and lifestyle differences. The interesting thing about these experiences and the insidiousness of class-based gaps in cultural, social, and human capital is that I believed these struggles were due solely to my own shortcomings and lack of sufficient efforts and dedication. I felt underserving of the right to complain, feeling that, endlessly, I could have exerted more effort in depriving myself of small joys in order to save money. Really, nobody needs to visit a café. Ever.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized many of these issues were not unique or limited to personal shortcomings. There are many of us, quietly working our way through the graduate socialization process, atomizing ourselves in an attempt to narrow the capital gap; we believe these to be private missions. We have all labored to produce our own solutions, possibly failing to realize that we can benefit from finding each other and pooling our resources and experiences, with the hope that we and others can avoid having to learn every lesson the hard way. In some ways, it makes the most sense for us to band together and take advantage of the resources that we can offer ourselves; our more equipped peers certainly are.

That, I suppose, is my call, and the purpose of this piece. I find it rather surprising that a group of people as resourceful as we are have failed to truly gather those resources. I think we need to better advocate for ourselves. We need to be unafraid to admit our own existence, come out of the poverty “closet,” and share our stories. What lessons did we learn the hard way? What recommendations would we make to new graduate students and new faculty from the same backgrounds, to help lift each other up? Which tips and tricks have we developed to get through our theses, dissertations, and grant deadlines; tips that don’t assume we have the money to attend a retreat, get noise-canceling headphones, or even barricade ourselves in a café? I know that together, we are a veritable fount of knowledge. As researchers, teachers, and scholars more generally, we’ve dedicated ourselves to sharing it with the world. How about we share some of it with each other, too?

See the second part of my essay, “Getting It Done – Whatever ‘It’ Is,” in which I offer my own tips and tricks for surviving and thriving in academia as a poverty-class scholar.

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Notes

1 Sandoval, D. A., Rank, M. R., & Hirschl, T. A. (2009). The Increasing Risk of Poverty Across the American Life Course. Demography, 46(4), 717–737.

 

Please, Stop Assuming I Am A Graduate Student!

angie millerDr. Angie L. Miller is an Assistant Research Scientist for the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University, where she studies creativity, student engagement, and arts training in higher education.  In this guest post, Dr. Miller reflects on her experiences of being mistaken for a graduate student at academic conferences, and the social, intellectual, and gendered power undertones of these interactions.   

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I would like to be able to attend just ONE conference and not be mistaken for a graduate student. I completed my Ph.D. 6 years ago. At first when people did this, I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I realize that I do look young. I went right from undergrad to my master’s program, and then right into my doctoral program. I took more than full course loads every semester, and was able to finish before I turned 27. Coupled with the blessing (and curse?) of having no grey hair and also skin that break outs like a teenager’s, many people assume that I am much younger than 32. Although this is not just limited to professional situations (given the countless times I have been carded in bars and restaurants), it is usually where it is the most disconcerting. I’ve been addressed in meetings as a “girl” and been questioned about my dissertation progress during interactions with grant funders.

Because I am fortunate enough to have a research faculty appointment in a well-funded research center at a large university, I present at more conferences than most faculty with more traditional teaching positions. Usually averaging between 4 and 6 per year, I have had ample opportunity to do the “networking” dance of academic conferences. It never fails that at some point during the conference, someone I don’t know will assume that I am a graduate student. People will ask “So what doc program are you in?” or “Who is your advisor?” or “Have you finished your coursework yet?” or “What is the topic of your dissertation?” And then I am faced with the task of correcting them, which in such a forced and awkward social situation usually ends up being an apology on my part for looking so young.

At a recent conference during one of the various university-sponsored receptions, while standing in line for the cash bar a man (who couldn’t have been more than 15 years older than I am) politely said hello, looked at the name and institution on my badge, and said “So you’re a grad student at IU? What program?” From there I began my standard “Actually, I have a faculty position…” explanation. Having the first thing I say to someone come out as a correction, pointing out that he/she is wrong about something, is never ideal.

I have tried several different things, little social experiments with an n of 1, to see whether there is some specific aspect of my appearance that is sending off a “grad student” vibe. I’ve tried wearing my long hair up or pulled back. I’ve tried wearing minimal makeup, and I’ve tried wearing more deliberate eye and lip colors. Skirts and dresses and pants, heels and flats – all at varying levels of “dressiness.” Nothing that I can control seems to make a difference. Perhaps I need to start dyeing my hair grey or drawing wrinkles and age spots onto my face.

When I complain about this, that I find it condescending (or at the very least annoying simply because it happens with such frequency), some people tell me that I should take it as a compliment. I should be elated that I still look young, and that I can pass for a woman in her mid-20s. But the rationale behind telling me to take it as a compliment suggests that as a female, I should value a youthful appearance over everything else, including any of my intellectual accomplishments. I take major issue with that. I worked very hard to complete my degrees and garner all of my publications and presentations since, whereas I did absolutely nothing outside of regular sunscreen use to achieve a young physical appearance. Call me crazy, but I take more pride in the things for which I have actually had to work. So, no, mistaking me for a graduate student is NOT actually a compliment.

Getting To The Root Of It

I’ve given this quite a bit of thought recently, as it continues to regularly occur even as I begin the process of going up for promotion. I sometimes wonder if I am bothered so much by this because I come from a place of privilege in so many other aspects of my life and don’t really have a strategy for dealing with this sort of thing. And this, in turn, makes me feel kind of bratty and obnoxious for caring about it so much in the first place. As a white middle-class heterosexual cisgender woman with well-educated parents, there are a lot of privileges to which I have access, and from which I have certainly benefitted over the course of my life. I am fully aware that if I were a person of color, or in a male-dominated STEM field rather than education, I would probably face many more challenges in my career. But I still think that gender does, at least in part, play a role. In comparing notes with my other coworkers who are approximately the same age, it happens rarely, if at all, to my male colleagues. Conversely, it is a much more frequent occurrence for my female colleagues, one of whom I often travel and present with, thus having witnessed it firsthand. There never seems to be a good way to respond. Is not addressing the microaggression equivalent to tacit acceptance of it?

The assumption that age is equivalent to experience and seniority (also conditional on gender) is not limited to academia. However, considering the varied career trajectories of many who end up with advanced degrees and continue to work in higher education, it makes even less sense. Many people (of any gender) begin work on their Ph.Ds. in their 30’s, 40’s or even 50’s, so simply being older should not necessarily mean that a person is more established. Perhaps the exemplar of the middle-aged woman “going back” for a graduate degree after she has gotten married and had children plays a role in the development of these assumptions of age, gender, and expertise as well.

But regardless of its origins, the bottom line is when you make the assumption that I’m a graduate student, you undermine my intellectual authority. When I actually WAS a graduate student, I never experienced any sort of imposter syndrome. I knew that I was smart and capable and motivated to succeed, and I never questioned whether I deserved my place in the program. It wasn’t until after I finished my Ph.D. that I began to feel diminished and out of place in academia. When you assume that I am a graduate student, especially if you are a white middle-aged man, you implicitly send the message that you are superior to me in accomplishments and intellect, that you are the more valuable asset to the field. In one single sentence of one single interaction, you take away everything I have worked so hard to accomplish. Not just my Ph.D., but also the 14 peer-reviewed publications and nearly 70 conference presentations, workshops, and webinars I have completed since finishing my doctoral degree.

So please, stop.

Life’s Turning Points And My Academic Career

"Crossroads - Cruïlla" by MorBCN

“Crossroads – Cruïlla” by MorBCN

My career path thus far has been bumpy and unpredictable.  In this essay, I reflect on major turning points in my life — positive and negative — that have steered my academic career.

College

My loose plans to become a mathematician as a rising high school senior have led me to a career in sociology, working as a professor just one state south of home (Maryland). My goal to attend a liberal arts college for my undergraduate studies did not lead me to become “a big fish in a small pond.”  Yet, today, I am a professor at a liberal arts college. The big price tag and small scholarship offered from those liberal arts colleges were discouraging to my parents. That led me to a state school of medium size, a growing reputation, and that offered a full scholarship for STEM majors. But, within a year, math no longer held my interest, and no other STEM major could.  So, I left the Meyerhoff Scholars Program on blind faith that I would find alternative funding. I did, without constraints on my major.  I ended up double-majoring in sociology and psychology, with a certificate in women’s studies.

Early in college at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), I took a leadership role in the school’s LGBTQ student group. Though I moved on to the student events planning group – a much bigger budget, more clout – I began advocating for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students, as well as other LGBTQ initiatives. At the peak of our group’s efforts, we caught the attention and commitment of the university’s president. But, our efforts were stalled by the bureaucratic response of creating a university task force to conduct a needs assessment.

I turned my attention to graduating and applying to graduate schools.  I was encouraged by two advisors in sociology to devote my honors thesis to a topic that would help to advance my advocacy, and help me to look good to grad school admissions committees. I decided to study anti-LGBTQ attitudes among students at UMBC. With my advisors’ support and encouragement, as well as that from other faculty, staff, administrators, and fellow students, I felt validated in pursuing a career as an activist-scholar. I had finally seen that one could forge a career that brought together teaching, research, and advocacy.

Then, There Was Grad School…

I looked to continue on the path of becoming an activist-scholar beyond graduation.  As with many (naive) student-activist, I assumed graduate school would help me to become a better activist.  But, I prioritized finding a program that would help me excel academically.  Weighing possibilities of student affairs, gender studies, and sociology, I decided on PhD programs in the latter field because I assumed it may afford access to the other two fields, but not vice versa. I applied to programs with strengths in sexualities, including those that might allow training in gender studies (e.g., joint PhD, MA, or graduate minor). Half of the six schools rejected me, half accepted me. The collegiality and resources at Indiana University made the decision even easier.

I entered grad school with the goal of studying queer people of color and racism in LGBTQ communities using qualitative methods. But, I soon learned every detail of that plan was not considered “mainstream” sociology. Those interests — a joint PhD in gender studies, for example — were not encouraged, for they would not lead to (R1) jobs. And, it was made clear that grad school is designed to “beat the activist” out of students. Those marginal interests to which I clang became private matters – secrets, even. The rest were lost in pursuit of a mainstream career.

I was not certain that I would even get past the master’s degree. I was miserable during my first year, and then depressed in my second. During winter break of Year 2, a major car accident that coincided with (or was caused by) a bad stomach virus rendered me unable to care for myself. I couldn’t even open a bottle of pain reliever because of my badly injured hand. My mother, though angry that I totaled her car, looked after me for a few days.  I felt helpless, yet extremely grateful for my mother’s care.

Something about the experience forced me to make a tough decision: leave grad school already or make it work!  I was wasting my time being miserable. So, I decided to stay and threw myself into my work. Teaching for the first time during my third year was a saving grace. So, the unforeseen curse of the blessing of a fellowship was being unable to teach; I was “freed” from teaching to focus on research. The severity of my Generalized Anxiety Disorder became worse late in Year 4.  I asked my advisors whether I could defer my fellowship for one year to teach during Year 5, citing concerns about my mental health.  My request was mocked as foolish, and my mental health problems were dismissed.  One professor theorized the mental illness stemmed from “too much service”; another told me “a little bit of anxiety is good” to fuel productivity.  I decided to make my fifth year the last before going on the job market.

Three Funerals And A Wedding

While focusing exclusively on research, I stumbled into research on discrimination and health, which later became the topic of my dissertation.  I presented my first paper on discrimination and health at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Las Vegas.  I felt the presentation went well.  But, during the Q&A, two senior scholars argued back and forth about the measures I used.  The paper seemed hopelessly doomed.  But, after the session ended, another senior scholar said to me, “great paper!”  I felt reassured.  When he leaned a little more, his tame tag fell, displaying one of the biggest names in medical sociology!

That evening, my parents and I had dinner. When my mother left the table, my dad looked at me seriously and said, “don’t forget what is most important to you – to make a difference.” His words surprised me. I began to tear up, trying to hide it by looking away.  But, I should not have been surprised, as my parents know that I am an activist, and are aware I pursued graduate training to better equip me to make a difference.  I suspect he saw how excited I was following the successful presentation, and worried I might get caught up in academic fame or prestige, thus losing sight of the world outside of the ivory tower.

Before we left Las Vegas, there was an earthquake in the DC area – very unusual for home. And, on their flight home, my parents received word that my 19-year-old cousin, Danny, had passed away from a grand mal seizure. I had to stay in Indiana for a week before going to Maryland for his funeral. I cried sometimes, but the weight of this tragedy did not fully hit me until I was with other grieving family.  At Danny’s funeral, grief seemed to strike me hard.  At one point, I cried heavily into my hands for five minutes, which felt like forever. My parents took turns holding me, attempting to console me. I hadn’t been held by them like that since I was a child. I guess I have not needed it since then. I was also sick at the time – pneumonia (something I had never had before then).  I was out from work for another week after the funeral to recover.

The very unexpected silver lining from this tragedy was meeting my partner, Eric, on my way back from the airport.  I initially told him that I was not interested in a relationship because I was grieving.  I did not want to burden someone whom I was just beginning to date by relying on him emotionally so heavily.  But, I slowly opened to the idea over time, though making very clear that I was planning to graduate and leave Indiana within two years; I was not looking for anything casual.  So, we became official.

Danny’s death, and all of these other events, changed something in me. After thirteen years of atheism, I found myself questioning things. Out of such a tragedy that I thought would confirm my atheism, I ended up believing again. Maybe there was something meaningful to come from his death. The not-so-coincidental illness that followed forced me to take my own health seriously. Life could end at any moment. Do I want to waste it selling out, attempting to appease others, or chasing status?  No!

In summer 2012, I published my first solo-authored paper in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the top journal in medical sociology in the US.  So, I felt confident to go on the job market in my sixth year. I faced resistance in going so early (by the department’s standards), but I was not convinced it would benefit me to stay longer.  “But, you’ll have more time to think,” was not selling me on the idea of another year on grad student wages.  Department funding was not guaranteed.  And, I could barely muster the patience to even finish my sixth year, let alone one or two more years thereafter.

Shortly after my successful proposal defense, I attended my sister and her partner’s wedding.  Caught up in the sentiment of the day, I felt I knew, then, that I wanted to get married, and that I wanted it to be with my partner, Eric. But, the happy day was eclipsed by news that my uncle was in the hospital. He had stomach cancer. He died within a month – pneumonia. He was HIV-positive – a consequence (I was told) of being in the closet all of his life, having secretive and possibly condomless sex with other men. If he could have been out, would he still be alive today? The contrast of my sister’s wedding (she’s white and middle-class) to my uncle’s death (he was a Black, poor, frequencly-homeless veteran) was striking. Inequality aside, I found yet another sign from the universe: be authentic.

At the start of my final semester, my grandfather fell and hit his head. He had an aneurism. There was hope of recovery; at 97 years, what could stop him now? But, he later had a stroke and ultimately passed. I flew to Pittsburgh from Indiana along with my cousin, who had already been attending IU for a year, though we had never connected until then.  Just as we made it to the hospice, our grandfather passed. It was as though he heard our call from downstairs and decided to pass on rather than let us see him suffering. My sister and I weren’t out to him, but apparently he already knew. I felt I had missed my chance to be totally open with him; our father didn’t think grandpa would understand because of his age. But, I was more disappointed that he wouldn’t make it to my graduation in just four months. I knew ailing health or not, he would be there – he promised me that. Almost 100 years on earth! What was his secret? The four Hs, of course: “health, hope, happiness, and home.” The man danced when and where he pleased – literally. What’s the point of embarrassment?

A New Perspective

I may be weird, maybe too reflective for looking for signs and meaning. But, it seemed the universe started to scream at me to get me to listen: life is short. Why not live authentically? Why not live it up without shame and embarrassment?  Why let a career control my life?

In the past few years, I have worked to live in the moment, to assume today could be my last. I have begun prioritizing self-care and authenticity in my life, and my career.  I chose a job that celebrates a commitment to teaching, community service, and even advocacy (even my advocacy). Today, I am working on becoming healthier and more authentic en route to tenure. I refuse to keep putting my life, my family, and my values on hold until I … get a job … get tenure … get a promotion … die?  I need job security, but I don’t need an institution to define my worth. (I did my time in grad school. Enough already!)

I hope what others take from this is encouragement to let life offer new directions. Check yourself – how often do you let your job’s demands dictate your life? Do you only consider your health, family, personal life, etc., after the fact, if ever? Do you fill up your schedule only to get angry when life pushes back on work-life imbalances? Do you work until you are exhausted or sick?  Do you put off X until you… get a job/tenure/full professor/retire/die?

I have learned from having a form of mental illness, now for four years, that our bodies tell us when they need something – rest, food, sleep, water, activity. When you chronically ignore it, you set yourself up for health problems. Now, I have to check my body for physical manifestations of anxiety and stress: chest pains, numbness, tightened muscles, shortness of breath, eye-twitching, digestive problems, insomnia, teeth-grinding, headaches, nausea, bad dreams, etc. I am still working to change my perspective, work habits, and lifestyle to effectively manage and hopefully eliminate the anxiety. Allowing those turning points in life has been a matter of health.

It is not too late for me to make changes, though I wish I didn’t need three deaths in the family and anxiety to push me to change. It is my hope that future generations of scholars learn to prioritize self-care from the start of their careers – and that their advisors equip them with the tools and resources to do so.  It would make academia a healthier and happier place.

On The Conditional Acceptance Of LGBTQ Scholars In Sociology

A couple of weeks ago, I participated on a panel at the American Sociological Association annual meeting titled, “Navigating Queer Identities in the Department and Classroom.”  I decided to reflect on what I feel is the “conditional acceptance” of LGBTQ scholars in sociology.  I have provided my notes from that panel below.

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I have faced surprisingly little homophobic discrimination in my academic career. There have been occasional stings of homophobic microaggressions: “you’re gay, do you like my shoes?”; “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS”; “did you want life insurance for your wife?”; “we’re so gay-friendly – there are lots of theatres and museums nearby.” But, I am not aware of instances of outright discrimination, harassment, or exclusion.

I do not take from my experiences the assumption that I am one of the lucky few, and certainty not the conclusion that homophobia is a thing of the past (even in academia). Rather, I am keenly aware of the choices – or, rather, compromises – that I have made that have shielded me from more severe discrimination and marginalization in academia. To some degree, at least compared to even a few years ago, lesbian, gay, and bisexual have achieved acceptance in sociology. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) advocacy for marriage equality is nothing short of historical. (The field lags in recognizing, addressing, and eliminating transphobia.)

As a queer cisgender man, I have certainly felt welcome, if not accepted, in sociology. But, this acceptance has felt anything but unconditional. Throughout my career, I have felt conditionally accepted as an out queer man in sociology. I borrow this term – conditionally accepted – from the experience of coming out to my parents around age 18. In the years that followed, their initial denial and disappointment gave way to acceptance because I was doing well in school. They admitted that it became easier to accept my sexuality because I was successful. Translation: my parents would have continued to struggle if I were HIV-positive, suffering from drug addition, or another casualty of suicide or hate crimes.

“I Don’t Mind Gay People”

In my academic career, I have faced two manifestations of this conditional acceptance as a queer scholar studying queer communities. The first is akin to the supposedly welcoming phrase, “I don’t mind gay people as long as they don’t come up on me.” You can be queer in sociology – just do not demand the majority to change. Do not ask sociology to start recognizing sexualities and trans studies as legitimate areas of study.

Even before I even began my PhD program, I was discouraged from pursuing gender studies training. My dreams of a joint PhD in sociology and gender studies were quickly dismissed with the warning that I would never get a job. But, I was also discouraged from pursuing a graduate minor in gender studies; instead, my minor became research methods (i.e., statistics). By the midpoint of my training, I had picked up the habit of choosing more mainstream subfields and topics on my own. I focused on social psychology instead of gender or sexualities for my qualifying exam. My dissertation was primarily a medical sociology project, though it includes some attention to sexuality and intersectionality.

On the surface, the pressure to become a mainstream sociologist was a practical matter. I would, and did, get job offers as a quantitative medical sociologist who has published in mainstream journals. Maybe the interests I came to grad school with – wanting to study racism within queer communities using qualitative methods – would have led to a very different academic trajectory. But, the implicit message was that studying sexualities – or more specifically, studying queer people – was not important to sociology. To be successful, one does not become a sociologist of sexualities, and certainly not a sociologist of queer communities nor a queer sociologist. Rather, one becomes a medical sociologist, a criminologist, a cultural sociologist or some other reputable subfield, who happens to study LGBTQ people.

When I became a medical sociologist who happens to study queer people, and other oppressed groups, I stopped hearing that my research interests were “too narrow.” I stopped hearing, “you’ll never get a job with a dissertation on trans people.” Conforming paid off – at least professionally.

“Don’t Flaunt It”

ScholarThe second manifestation of conditional acceptance for queer scholars in sociology is parallel to the expression, “I don’t care if you’re queer as long as you don’t flaunt it.”  For lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, your sexual identity is not an issue so long as you do not make it an issue – at least in the eyes of our heterosexist colleagues. Besides advice on how to frame my work, I also occasionally received advice on how to present myself as a scholar.  For conference presentations, I was warned against “shy guy stuff.” Translation: “man up.” To be successful, a scholar must present herself in a masculinist way. From the awful stories that I heard from trans and gender non-conforming peers, I understood that to mean my ticket to success on the job market was wearing suits and speaking with unwavering authority and expertise. Due to my fear of professional harm, I wear suits in almost every academic setting, including the classroom.

In my pursuit to conform to the heterosexist and cissexist standards in sociology and academe in general, I have been rewarded. But, that has come at great personal costs. What began as a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder stemming from the intense, urgent demands of grad school morphed into anxiety about interacting with other people in general – even students. I find only slight comfort in my suits from the fear of being dismissed, disrespected, or even fired. I struggle to find a home within sociology. My work falls primarily in medical sociology, yet I remain unknown in that subfield of the ASA. I find a sense of community in the sexualities section, but my limited research feels insignificant to the study of sexuality. Finding the proper home for awards and sessions is a challenge each year, as well.

More generally, I feel my professional identity has almost completely dissociated from my sexual, gender, and racial identities, as well as my activism. Though I am undeniably out via my blogging and other public writing, my scholarship, and the picture of my partner on my office desk, my queer identity is disconnected from my professional presentation of self. In the classroom, I only explicitly out myself after students have completed course evaluations because I fear that I will be deemed biased or “too activist.” I suppose I am somewhat in the closet intellectually and pedagogically. I do not feel authentically queer as a scholar and teacher.

I probably should not be surprised by my experiences. I first read Patricia Hill Collins’s essay, “Learning from the Outsider Within,” in my first semester of graduate school. Through that 1986 piece, Collins warned me that scholars of oppressed communities face the pressure to “assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” in order to become sociological insiders. The outsider within status is one filled with tension between one’s experiences and worldview and the false ideology of objectivity in mainstream sociology. Collins noted that some sociological outsiders resolve this tension by leaving the discipline, while others suppress their difference to become sociological insiders. Apparently, I have pursued the latter path.

Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)

I do not share these experiences to criticize my graduate program, or as an excuse to vent about that chapter of my life. I also refrain from casting blame, as I am partly responsible. Knowing the norms and values of academia, I have made various compromises in order to get ahead. Fortunately, there are improvements, albeit reflecting slow change. For example, just 3 years after the 2012 sexualities ASA pre-conference in Denver, CO, sexuality will be the 2015 theme for the main ASA meeting in Chicago. And, I do not want to characterize the academic career options for queer people as bleak, facing either conformity and selling out or perpetually being on the margins of sociology.

I do believe there is hope for an authentic, happy, and healthy career for queer sociologists, including those who study gender and sexualities. I suspect we must all make some sort of concessions in order to success in academia, though this burden falls more on marginalized scholars. It may be useful, then, to determine how far one is willing to concede. At what point does advancing in one’s career outweigh the costs to oneself, one’s identity and values, one’s family, and one’s community? I recommend reflecting on this at multiple times in one’s career, particularly with upcoming milestones, new jobs, and other transitions. Essentially, can you live with the tough decisions you must make?

  • If you are forced to make concessions, or even sell out in some way, then make sure there are other sources of community, authenticity, happiness, or validation in place in your life. Find or create a queer community, maybe specifically of other academics. Have one fun, critical, or super queer project for every few projects that are more mainstream; maybe use these projects as opportunities to collaborate with other queer scholars. If your research is pretty devoid of queer issues, find ways to cover them in your classes, or vice versa, or focus your service and advocacy on queer initiatives.
  • Look for queer role models among your professors or senior colleagues. Look outside of your own department or university if necessary. And, in turn, consider being a role model for your students and junior colleagues – that means being out if it is safe to do so. Incorporate sexualities and trans studies into your syllabi to demonstrate the relevance and importance of these subjects in sociology. At the start of the semester, ask students for their preferred name and pronoun, and mention yours.
  • Before enrolling into a program or accepting a job, do your homework. How safe will you be as an out LGBTQ person? In the campus and local newspaper, can you find evidence of anti-LGBTQ violence, discrimination, and prejudice? Are queer scholars, especially those who do queer research, supported and included? Email queer and queer-friendly students or faculty. I have heard some suggest being out on interviews and campus visits, which seems counterintuitive; but, if you face discomfort or hostility, you would know what to except upon going there.
  • Let’s be honest about what we are talking about here: figuring out how to survive as queer people within heterosexist and cissexist academic institutions. In order to be included, in order to create queer communities, in order to see our own lives reflected in scholarship and curriculum, we must fight. Like it or not, we must be activists to ensure our survival and inclusion within academia and other social institutions.
  • Let’s keep having these conversations. It is crucial that we know that we are not alone, and that we have a supportive community in sociology.