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.

Back From Teaching Bootcamp

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, 2014.

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, June 2014, Trinity University.

Earlier this month, I attended the summer Teaching and Learning Workshop of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), held at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.  ACS is an organization of private liberal arts colleges in the US South, including my own institution (University of Richmond).  My university offered funding for any faculty, especially those of us on the tenure-track, to attend, as this summer program can enhance one’s teaching.  I jumped at the opportunity to attend, admittedly, in part, to signal my immediate willingness to grow as a teacher.  I attended the program genuinely open to learning and receiving feedback on areas where I may improve, and I ended up finding the workshop extremely helpful.

The crux of the teaching training at the summer workshop is microteaching.  Workshop attendees were divided into groups of six, in which we stayed for the week.  In these groups, we took turns teaching a seven-minute “slice” of a full lecture.  Other members of one’s group participated as students, took notes, asked questions, and attempted to understand the material — but as themselves, not pretending to be a typical student.  The slice was recorded, and immediately played back for the class.  Before and after playback of the slice, the teacher reflected on how the lesson went, and offered specific concerns and areas of improvement for the class to attend to.  Then, guided by the teacher’s reflections, students articulated what they thought, felt, and experienced during the slice.  The major challenge during these reflection sessions was for the teacher to simply listen to the students’ experiences without responding, and for students to avoid giving advice or reflecting on what should/could/would happen outside of the slice.

As you can imagine, this process challenged each workshop attendee.  Finding a solid seven minutes of material, which would hopefully be engaging and understandable to a group of students outside of your own discipline, was tough.  And, seven minutes seemed to be just enough time to get started, but to stop just before getting to the heart of one’s lecture or exercise.  Many — myself included — find it strange, even uncomfortable, to watch yourself teach immediately after the slice, and then to hear how five other instructors-as-learners experienced the lesson.

This aspect of the workshop was extremely powerful for me — and emotional.  In each of the three slices that I taught, I was asked to open up about how the experience of teaching was for me.  This usually meant expressing self-doubt, worry, and uncertainty.  And, watching the playback offered even more opportunity to be my biggest critic.  Ironically, nothing the students said was ever as harsh as the things I said about my teaching.  In fact, the feedback was generally positive, including the sentiment that my self-identified nervousness was never apparent to my students.  (Although, several students mentioned my nervousness in their course evaluations of one of my spring semester classes.)  There were a few areas wherein students felt uncomfortable or confused, but I could readily identify how to improve the lecture in my mind.

This process is also designed to make us feel safe and braver as teachers.  We were encouraged to experiment and take risks with each subsequent microteaching session.  I took the program staff up on this challenge.  On day 2, I pushed myself to use John R. Brouillette and Ronny E. Turner’s “spit” exercise to teach social constructionism, even though I felt other academics would find the exercise silly or childish.  Fortunately, this exercise went well and was very effective.  This usually goes well in my classes.  But, in this context, the immediate feedback session allowed me to hear why.  These students were able to pinpoint their own visceral reaction to someone’s spit as driving home the point that “spit” (how we understand and react to it) is socially constructed.

On the third day, I challenged myself to give a lecture on sexual violence.  As usual, I agonized over this lecture, worrying that it might upset students.  The slice went fine.  But, when invited to express how I felt after seeing the video of me teaching, I got choked up.  Though not at a conscious level, I had found a safe space to express how charged the topic has been for me, in general and specifically in the classroom.  I left that microteaching session feeling encouraged and empowered to take more risks in the classroom — and to feel comfortable having certain emotions related to the lecture.

Outside of teaching, we attended daily plenaries that exposed us to various classroom activities and teaching styles.  Some of these sessions were devoted to reflection, either to process what we had done earlier that day or to develop goals for teaching upon our return home.  In a later plenary, we were asked to choose one issue that we had not had the chance to address yet during the week, which we would share with a small group and receive feedback.  I felt reassured to hear that I did not appear nervous when teaching, but feeling nervous and the pesky issue of self-doubt in general continued to plague me.  During this plenary, I received encouragement and many suggestions to kick self-doubt to the curb for good.

Clearly, I enjoyed the workshop!  Admittedly, I did not feel up to attending, as it was scheduled right at the point that I felt recovered from academic year.  But, it was truly worthwhile, providing feedback on teaching that you cannot find anywhere else.  I highly recommend attending ACS’s or similar workshops.

Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

Since the start of my graduate training, I have wrestled with fear related to my career in academia.  As the stakes have gotten higher, and my scholarly platform has expanded, that fear has remained a constant fixture in my life.  This is now my fourth year living with generalized anxiety disorder.  With my anxiety piqued after a recent short post-semester vacation, I began wondering whether a post on fear was relevant to other academics; maybe it is just a symptom of my own mental health.

After a quick Google search of “fear in academia,” I found that others had already written about it — and, that the fear-anxiety link is not unique to me.  Graduate students are afraid their graduate training will be in vain, at least in terms of securing a tenure-track jobContingent faculty are afraid that they will never get out of the trap of temporary academic employment — and that they may face retaliation for speaking out about the awful conditions of many adjuncts.  Those in tenure-track positions fear being denied tenure.  Those who ultimately decide to leave academia fear the unknown beyond the ivory tower — a path for which too few of us are trained.  And, if not controlled, an academic may know fear her entire life career.

I have had many conversations with my colleagues and administrators about my institution’s tenure expectations.  To be honest, the institution could give me an explicit set of guidelines — down to the number of publications, in what journals, the minimum acceptable teaching evaluations and pedagogical enhancement, and “safe” forms of service — and I would still be anxious en route to tenure.  Though I usually ask about research expectations, my concerns often shift to my public scholarship (i.e., blogging).  Is there a chance I would be denied tenure, or possibly terminated well before then, because of my public writing?  Each time, I am reminded that 1) I was hired, in part, because of my public scholarship, 2) it is essentially impossible that a stellar scholar-teacher would be let go over a blog, and 3) it seems strange that I am so worried about this unlikely scenario.

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

To be blunt, I do not offer my complete faith and trust to other people, especially those I only know on a professional basis.  And, I certainly do not trust an institution to have my best personal and professional interests in mind.  (Call it paranoia, if you wish.  I call it survival.)  I will believe tenure and promotion are likely when they are awarded to me.  Though we like to buy into the myth of meritocracy in academia, and believe that scholars and academic institutions are bias-free, I see enough evidence to the contrary in academia.

The oppressed person’s skepticism aside, I have also located this fear at the heart of my academic training.  Graduate school was not simply a time marked by fear of the future.  It was the training ground to become a fearful, obedient academic.  Effective academic professional socialization seems to demand that we hyperinternalize the criticisms of our advisors, experts in our field, anonymous reviewers, journal editors, conference panel organizers, and every other colleague we encounter, as well as our anonymous student evaluations.  Intellectual innovation is necessary to advance in one’s career — yet, anything too far outside of tradition and the mainstream may be punished.  Silence and conformity (and fear) become valued traits of a young scholar’s career.

Even as I publicly declared that I would pursue tenure my way — embracing the values of accessibility, authenticity, and advocacy — I still struggle 12 months later with the professional fear that I internalized in graduate school.  My first year on the tenure-track has been a roller coaster ride of speaking up and retreating into silence, authenticity and conformity, bravery and fear.

On one hand, I successfully fought for a career path that would allow me to be a vocal public scholar.  This work does not “count” (but, does lead to things that do).  I am relieved to find the reactions to this public scholarship ranges between indifference and pride; in other words, at least it will not count against me professionally.  Yet, it feels as though my institution is a bit of an outlier, especially while other universities are formally cracking down on scholars’ use of social media.

On the other hand, I intentionally left the beaten R1 path for the devalued liberal arts path, and actively and publicly pursue intellectual activism.  I often find that I am making it up as I go, with so much available advice that does not fit for me or my priorities.  I remain wary because I have yet to find a role model like me who was successful, despite/because of speaking up as a junior scholar.  Until I see that an uppity fat brown queer feminist activist-academic can successfully win tenure without a hitch, I imagine I will continue to wrestle with finding a happy balance.  I want to be healthy, happy, and authentic, but I also want job security.

I anticipate that I will have more to say on this in the future, hopefully with advice of ridding this fear once and for all!  Stay tuned.

Blogging As Autobiography

Ok, so I won't add photoshop to my list of "mad skillz."

Ok, so I won’t add Photoshop to my list of “mad skillz.”

I have participated in some sort of semi- or totally public form of social media since my early adolescence.  First, it was Myspace, Livejournal, and the discussion boards of a group for multiracial/multiethnic people.  I joined Facebook the year it was created.  I had taken to more formal social justice-related writing through Letters to the Editor and op-eds for my college newspaper.  By graduate school, I went totally “public,” with my first blog that was neither limited in access to my friends nor in its content.  So, now inching closer to age 30 by the day, I have been “at it” in this business, if you will, for over 15 years.  So, now, being asked by others about my decision to “self-disclose,” or being “so out there,” I hesitate before responding, “well, I guess most people don’t.”

These days, publicly writing about my personal and professional life feel like a mundane, everyday part of my life.  No matter my scholarly training, I have only one frame of reference for all things: my own.  Sure, I can readily cite what is known from research in my areas of expertise, or figure out how to find it in other areas.  But, the only solid perspective which I can readily access is my own view of the world.  What separates me from “most people,” though, seems to be  my willingness to do so publicly.

Before I get into why, I should take a moment to avoid giving myself too much credit.  There is never a time I write without intensely reflecting on whether I am in a position to even speak about a certain subject, and the consequences of deciding to speak publicly.  When I went on the academic job market, I combed my personal blog for any posts I deemed too radical or militant or even too personal.  Though I (anonymously) started Conditionally Accepted, I quickly deleted it, hoping it was a temporary job market-related need for release.  (I am so glad I decided to revive that impulse!)  And, there are posts on both this blog and my personal blog that I deleted before ever posting, or after they were posted because of (real or perceived) backlash.  Fortunately, with each time I write something personal or critical, even radical, and the sky stays intact (and I stay employed), I become braver the next time I chose to speak out.  It is far from a perfectly linear development, but I can see a return to my braver, more outspoken self that existed before graduate school.

Now, on to the why — why self-disclose, so personally, so publicly, and so often?  Well, the quick self-serving reason is the release I feel upon writing about a troubling (or even exciting) experience.  After few years of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I have found getting shit bothersome stuff out of my mind and off of my chest is better than letting it eat at either or both.  And, yes, some things are shared only with the pages of journal on my nightstand.  Beyond that, sharing my own experiences is just one part of my larger project of intellectual activism.  I work to make my own scholarship — both teaching and research — accessible beyond the paywalls of college classrooms and academic journals.  Though I sometimes wrestle with feeling selfish for creating an academic blog for academics, I remind myself that this blog is, indeed, a form of intellectual activism.  It is my hope to make transparent the social problems that, too, plague academia; it turns out the ivory tower isn’t so immune to oppression, inequality, exclusion, prejudice, and exploitation after all.

In graduate school, I did not see myself reflected in course material nor in the professional socialization I underwent.  I had faculty with overlapping marginalized identities, but no one who shared my particular social location.  Though I bonded with other, similarly marginalized students, we did not always share our pain because it is tempting to hide it, or we did not want to burden others as they dealt with their own demons.  Also, as we were essentially in the same stage in our careers, we had little advice to offer to each other because we were still in the thick of it.  I did not have access to the stories of people like me — only what I assumed was true for most students and what my professors told me should be my experience and values.  Who knew I did not have to succumb to the pressure of taking a job at a Research I institution?  Who knew I could resist that pressure to actually feel happy, have a sense of balance, and not become “irrelevant” in my disciple as I was warned.

The good and the bad of creating Conditionally Accepted, now regularly telling my own story, is that I am one of few voices.  I am slowly discovering others who have been telling their stories for years now.  But, many others are looking to me to tell mine.  On top of the intense criticism one may receive in daring to “write in public,” some institutions and organizations have turned ignoring public scholarship into penalizing it.  And, in general, “it does not count.”  That all fuels a heightened sense of fear and the resultant self-silencing.  I have been commended by senior colleagues for my bravery — even requests to be cited for or speak about professional development.  (Y’all know I’m still suffering from my own impostor syndrome, right?!)

So, now a year after I secretly created this blog and then deleted it, I feel I have been assigned the task of telling my story — at least in hopes that others will be inspired to tell their own.  I am resisting the internal and external pressures to be silent, reclaiming power by pushing my story into the universe.  I hope for a day that scholars like me stop feeling alone, stop feeling that there is only one academic narrative to which they compare their own experiences and values, and stop feeling silenced and invisible.  In the mean time, stay tuned and consider contributing your own story!

My Survival Vs. My Job

Tenure

One Friday, a couple of weeks ago, I woke up tired and a bit grouchy.  I cannot explain how, but I had a feeling the day was destined to be rough.  Now teaching everyday except for Friday — three classes, including two on Tuesdays and Thursdays — I am typically extremely exhausted by Friday.  But, I have yet to reach a week’s end where I could take Friday off from work, or even do light, mindless work.  With a new course prep, if I do not get a decent amount of work done on Friday, I am setting the stage for a panic-filled Monday followed by more days of stress, and another exhausted Friday.  Did I mention this semester is kicking my ass challenging?

But, I digress.  I logged into Facebook one last time before leaving for work finally.  There I saw a picture of a Black History Month themed display at my university’s dining hall:

Dining Hall Display

The cotton and bale of hay…  What about this display is a celebration of Black history?  What about this features the accomplishments of Black Americans, or aspects of Black culture?  What the fuck about this is a celebratory moment for Black people in the US?  Yes, cotton — makes me think of the most oppressive and violent period in American history for Black people: slavery.

I saw that a colleague had posted the picture, taken from a student who posted it on Twitter earlier in the week.  But, I decided to ignore it.  I had not seen it for myself nor was I willing to make a special trip to see it.  And, let’s be honest, I immediately felt this was not a matter I could fight as a pre-tenure professor.  But, the major reason was I simply did not have the emotional and spiritual capacity because I was already bogged down fighting other demons.  I had to muster up enough energy just to go to work.

Choosing Your Battles; Or, Racial Battle Fatigue

As the day went on, the bizarrely racist dining hall display increasingly bothered me, like a slow-release pill.  I braved a smile as I chit-chatted with my colleagues about usual department matters.  I spoke with one about being productive and politically “safe” as I progress toward tenure.  Something about that colleague’s advice — that everyone’s tenure decision is political and uncertain, so you really cannot help but to be stressed for seven years — yanked the last shred of hope I had for the day.  I almost walked away upon hearing it, but forced myself to carry out the conversation.  When I returned to my office, it took every ounce of my energy to stay seated and keep working rather than collapsing into a ball on the floor to cry.  I should have taken Tyra Banks’s advice: just let the cry out and get back to work.

But, what was there to cry about?  Oh, that I cannot shake the feeling that I am slowly sabotaging my own career with every provocative tweet and blog post.  That, maybe even at the end of this first year, I will receive a letter instructing me to clear out my office and seek new employment.  For all of the positive feedback I have received on my blogging, I still hear a voice that says something bad will happen if I insist on publicly, vocally criticizing academia.  Another way to put it is that I do not have a clear, external gauge for my standing at the university, and I will have to wait until my third year review to find one, though annual reviews may help, too.

By late afternoon, I returned to the dining hall display of nostalgia for the “good ol’ days.”  Still, I did not feel comfortable voicing my concern without having seen it, and did not want to make the trip to see it.  So, I asked my tenured colleague to voice a complaint, and made clear my hesitation as a tenure-track faculty member and, frankly, that I already felt depleted from other battles.  Fortunately, a number of people had already spoken up and the display was removed.

My Survival Or My Survival?  (But, not both…)

This incident highlighted a tension that I had not named for myself until now.  On the one hand, I could speak up, emphasize the hostility to Black students, staff, faculty, and visitors that is conveyed by a display reminiscent of enslavement.  That is, I could take an action to fight for the survival of my racial community.  On the other hand, I could keep my mouth shut and “play it safe” as a junior professor, opting to avoid making enemies across campus.  That is, I could chose inaction for the sake of keeping my job — my survival as an individual.  Choosing to speak up (anti-racism) or shut up (job security) were my two opposing options.  Do I focus on my survival (as a Black person) or my survival (as a professor)?

And, there it is.  Yet another painful reminder of how marginalized scholars are, at best, conditionally accepted in academia.  Everyday, I am faced with the decision: group survival vs. individual survival.  Since these are opposing decisions, I rarely, if ever, experience both. Ultimately, I chose silence about the dining hall display; I picked “safely” keeping my job over the safety of Black people on campus.  By creating this blog, I am “taking one for the team,” enduring known and unknown professional risks in order to improve the lives of marginalized scholars.  Everyday that I wear a man’s suit, I am choosing professional safety (as well as safety from violence) over greater visibility of genderqueer people on campus.  Every interaction with a student or colleague — do I choose authenticity and social justice or safety and job security — carries the decision between my survival or my survival.  And, major decisions like making my research more “mainstream” to increase my professional status comes at the expense of my own authenticity and perspective. The very things I should and should not do as a tenure-track professor seem at odds with the very things I should not and should do as a Black queer person.

Unfortunately, my actions have consequences for my partner and family, as well.  That means there is an additional layer — feeling selfish or reckless — each time I put my job on the line for the good of my communities.  I would say once per month, I ask my partner, in essence, for permission to be myself.  In that I fear professional consequences for blogging about academia, as well as other forms of advocacy on and off campus, I convey to him my worry that my actions could ultimately hurt him, as well.  If I were fired before even going up for tenure for seen and unseen political reasons, we would both suffer (e.g., loss of income and benefits).

Every once in a while, the thought crosses my mind to eliminate the blog and start all over as a “safe,” silent, apolitical tenure-track professor.  To just teach my classes and churn out publications.  And, wait until tenure is awarded to become vocal and critical and involved in social justice work.  Yes, then I would be safe.  Right?  Because all scholars have a fair chance at tenure, right?

I would not be safe.  Every tenure decision is political.  So, I have two choices: play it as safe as possible, all at the expense of fighting for my communities’ survival; or, speak up and out against injustice, potentially being labeled radical, “activist,” uppity, militant, or even a liability.  I am doing my damnedest to balance the two paths.

Hate is Not a Richmond Value

Safe Zone

Yesterday, I shared two essays to share my own perspective on the controversy at my university.  In 2012, one of the University of Richmond’s board of trustees members, Paul Queally, participated in an induction ceremony for an honor society for very wealthy people (Kappa Beta Phi).  His comments, including sexist and homophobic jokes, have come to light in a book by Kevin Roose, which Roose wrote about in New York Magazine last week.  Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni were left underwhelmed by the slow and limited response from the university, board of trustees, and Queally himself.

As a new queer professor at Richmond, I felt it important to speak out — not simply to criticize Queally, or the underwhelming response from the university, but also to make clear these values do not reflect the university community I have joined.  By that, I mean this is surprising considering what I have seen at the university in my short time on the faculty, and that I will work to ensure that the university exhibits a commitment to inclusivity in actions, not just words.  The links are below.

  1. Hate is not a Richmond Value,The Collegian (U Richmond’s student newspaper)
  2. Hate isn’t a University Value,” Inside Higher Ed

(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

Me - Stairs

I hate dressing up.  I could tolerate the occasional obligation to dress up as a graduate student: the one year I taught one twice-a-week class; presentations in the department; annual conferences.  Now as a professor, I have to dress up everyday.  And, I just hate it.  Of all of the things I must do to prove I am a competent and qualified (and hopefully, phenomenal) teacher and scholar, what I put on my body seems highly irrelevant and shallow.  But, guess what?  Since my competence and qualifications are not automatically assumed, I cannot afford to as dress casually as I would like.

Fat Boy Gripes

The fashion industry has a particular body type in mind, and it is not mine.  Oh, and dress clothes are the worst.  Since I have breasts, typical men’s dress shirts are very unflattering on me.  So, as I pointed out to my advisor at a conference (to his embarrassment), I always wear a vest or suit jacket (or sometimes both) to mask the appearance of “man boobs.”  Even with that issue covered, I still spend much of the day readjusting my outfit because I am self-conscious.  What a waste of mental and emotional energy.

Queer Boy Gripes

Worse than my body image issues is feeling like a fraud in this hypermasculine attire.  A suit, for me, is the costume of a white heterosexual middle-class professional yet masculine man.  Slightly baggy jeans and shirts designed for men serve for my comfort (and my safety against homophobic and transphobic violence); but, the tighter fitting dress clothes designed for men really feel foreign to my body.  On the outside, I appear a respectable man — listen to me, respect me, for I have a dick (and a brain)!  On the inside, I feel uncomfortable, inauthentic, and on edge that someone will declare that they are not falling for my masculine illusion — the jig is up, fag!  We know you’re in there!

Brown Boy Gripes

Unlike my sexual and gender identities, I made peace with the racialized nature of dress clothes.  I learned early in graduate school that certain appearances — certain “urban” or “thuggish” attire — was deemed unprofessional, even threatening to my (white) colleagues.  I am conscious of the whitening effect of dress clothes, especially a full suit.  My ambiguously brown skin is less distracting when concealed in a respectable black suit.

Class-Related Gripes

I am an assistant professor at a wealthy institution.  Despite how much money I actually have in the bank, after years of living on graduate student wages, I am considered comfortably middle-class.  And, despite being upwardly mobile from poverty, I come from an undeniably middle-class family.  That includes the benefit of the cultural capital to navigate “professional” and other middle-class-dominated spaces.  I know to look the part, I know to play the part.  But, damn, it is uncomfortable for me.

ScholarMy specific gripe about clothing here is that the restrictiveness of dress clothes seem to force a “professional” way of behaving and interacting with others.  Suits, in particular, are too tight to make sudden or wide movements.  One must stand tall, with one’s back straight and shoulders wide.  If sitting, one is limited in options for comfortable posture: legs crossed either one over the other, or one ankle on the other thigh.  Slouching, hunching, or having your legs spread to far apart can be uncomfortable, but also look bad in a suit.

For all of these behavioral restrictions, it is no wonder that I cannot help but sing at the top of my lungs and dance while listening to the radio on the drive home.  Get this costume and muzzle off of me!

The Politics Of Respectability

Oh, I just know it.  I am playing with a set of politics that make me appear respectable to my privileged colleagues (and students) so that they are more likely to respect me based on my actual skills and qualification.  I am working to reduce the number of frivolous and shallow ways that I may be dismissed due to racist, homophobic, fatphobic, and classist bias.  But, sometimes the joke is on me because bias cannot be reasoned with; you cannot win a logical argument with ignorance, after all.  I may only be fooling myself by thinking that I can hide behind the master’s clothes to gain status in the master’s house.  But, so long as I see others’ bodies policed for being “unprofessional,” too feminine, too masculine, too queer, too poor, too fat, too “urban,” — too anything other than white middle-class heterosexual cisgender masculine man — I worry looking too much like an Outsider will eventually lead me to be pushed out for good.

The Politics Of Authenticity

The other side of the coin of respectability is authenticity, at least for me.  I have written before about feeling a tension between success (by normative standards) and being authentic in my identities, politics, and values.  How much am I willing to do to be seen as respectable in the eyes of my (biased) colleagues?  How much — of myself — am I willing to give up to be seen as respectable in their eyes?  Is the success I gain worth feeling like a fraud, dressing and acting like them?

Me - No SmileI had alluded to making certain clothing decisions that counter my “true” identities and politics to my gender and sexuality class last semester.  Privately, one student asked me “how would you really dress?”  Well, since “privately” was still in earshot of other students, I said I did not feel comfortable having that conversation then and there.  But, I followed that with an honest admission: “I really don’t know.”  I have been dressing in ways that placates the exclusive culture of academia so long that I cannot even imagine what I would wear otherwise.

In being genderqueer, having an ambivalent relationship with masculinity (and men) since the age of 5, I really would just like the option: do I feel like wearing a suit today, or the short skirt and the blonde bombshell wig, or just a comfortable pair of jeans and a hoodie?

But, I do not live in that reality.  And, I do not care to risk my job, status, and credibility just because I feel more at home in jeans and a shirt, or feel the occasional itch to go to work as Denise.  I am trading authenticity on this front to avoid threatening my success on other fronts.  As a marginalized academic, my only option seems to be which poison to drink; I have chosen the cocktail of success, inauthenticity, discomfort, and delusion.  That is, in hopes that my work will prevent future generations from having to make this choice.