Jeff Kosbie On Being A “Luxury Hire” In Academia

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University (see his full biography at the end).  In this guest blog post, Jeff discusses his frustration with constantly hearing that his job prospects are slim because he studies sexuality.  While typically well-intentioned, these messages from colleagues implicitly (or even explicitly) suggest that the subfield of sexualities is not of central importance to the discipline.

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On Being A “Luxury Hire”

“Just be careful — you don’t want to seem like a ‘luxury hire.’” “Be aware that you can’t get hired just for studying sexualities.” I’ve heard variants of this since I started graduate school, but especially this year being on the market. And it all comes from well-meaning people. People who really want me to get a top job as a professor. And, yeah, I get where they’re coming from. Sexuality should be central to the curriculum in law and in sociology. But it’s not. At least not how it should be. So, I need to be aware that there might be fewer jobs for people who do sexualities than for people who study federal courts or criminology or business organizations.

Strategic advice aside for a moment, I want to address the psychological impact of these messages: they really breaks you down! The cumulative impact of this is huge. It’s essentially hearing again and again that what you do just isn’t in the mainstream of the discipline. I didn’t realize how much it was affecting me until some recent discussions about diversity and microaggressions. I shared some of my experience hearing these comments, and then it really hit me, wow that hurts.

I’m never anxious or stressed, even when I “should be.” But this year I’ve become anxious. A lot of the anxiety comes from how fundamentally the job market has changed since I started grad school. Anyone with my current research and publication record would be getting several interviews on both the law and sociology teaching markets in 2006, when I started grad school. Subject area aside, the expectations for getting a job have changed. It’s like I got to the finish line, only to find that the finish line had moved. So, the fact that I’m facing uncertain job prospects plays into the anxiety. But, some of it also comes from the cumulative impact of these comments.

The flip side of hearing that you could be a “luxury hire” is that if I get a job, the implication might be that it is because I study sexualities. The fact that I do really good work becomes secondary to the fact I add an extra “luxury” to a department. And somewhere implicit in this is some comment on my identity as a queer scholar. The people making these comments mean it as a comment on my scholarship, of course, but it’s hard not to take it as a comment on my identity. It can feel like a comment on whether queer scholars belong in the heart of the academy at all.

Now, of course, everyone who has said this to me has meant well. They have all had my best interests at heart. Maybe some of them didn’t think sexualities should be central to the discipline (law or sociology), but most of them did. Most of the people saying this to me support my work, want me to succeed with it, and think it is important. They saw themselves as giving me strategic advice.

So, part of the challenge is how to impart this strategic advice without the microaggression that devalues my work and identity. And I want to recognize that strategic advice is important! Even if the cumulative impact of hearing it is harsh, the truth is that I don’t know of any law school that is hiring just for law and sexuality. Some sociology departments hire for sexualities, but those positions are few and far between. So yes, any scholar studying sexualities should probably address other academic areas, as well. If I were mentoring a new graduate student interested in sexualities, I would be remiss not to mention that.

What Are the Real Concerns Behind This Strategic Advice?

There are ways to give this advice that reaffirm the importance and centrality of sexualities to the disciplines of law and sociology. For starters, at least reaffirm that you think that sexuality is or should be central to the discipline. That actually goes a long way. There’s also a difference between hearing “it’s okay that you research law and sexuality, but you need to do something mainstream as well” and “how can we package your work to show how you speak to more mainstream concerns with a unique and important voice because you research law and sexuality.” The latter implicitly values sexualities and asks how we can make it relevant to the mainstream in a way that the former message doesn’t.

One of the most common concerns about studying sexualities is that I might be too specialized. But this is not unique to sexualities. Every scholar faces this concern. We all have to be specialized enough to have command of some area and to add our unique insights. But, we cannot be so specialized that we are only speaking to ourselves. We certainly need to be able to teach classes that are much broader than our individual research. So like most graduate students, I can benefit from mentoring on how to talk about how specialized my work is. But the concern should not be that I’m too specialized because I study sexualities. People who study tax law might be too specialized if they can only teach a particular class on corporate tax and nothing else. The real concern is my ability to use my research on sexualities to speak to other literatures and to teach classes. So let’s talk about that, and not whether sexualities is too specialized.

What about the concern that I won’t find a job? There are just not enough (or any) jobs in law and sexuality. But this concern also isn’t unique to sexualities. People doing legal history or sociology of culture also face this concern. For almost all of us, it probably does not make strategic sense to only apply to jobs in our subfields. We need to think about how we can apply to jobs beyond our own subfields and make strategic decisions about how broadly we want to try to do that. Sometimes it means taking two runs at the market: once with a more focused, only-in-my-subfield approach, and a second time with a broader anything-I-can-conceivably-get approach.

I guess it comes back to the idea that there’s a big difference between being told: “the discipline doesn’t support sexualities as much as it should, but you bring a unique and important voice to the core of the discipline because you do sexualities, so let’s figure out how to sell that” versus “you need to recognize that sexualities isn’t valued as central to the discipline and you could be seen as a luxury hire so you need to do something to address that.” All of my core advisors fall into the former, far more supportive and helpful camp. But I’ve heard advice from the latter camp enough that it’s still a strong current.

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About Jeff

Jeff Kosbie is a J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at Northwestern University. He will defend his dissertation and receive both degrees in Spring 2015. Jeff’s research theorizes law as a field for constructing and contesting identities around gender and sexuality. He studies how law creates and perpetuates inequalities and how it is used to challenge inequalities. His dissertation uses original data to tell the history of the major LGBT legal organizations. Drawing on extensive interviews and archival research, he argues that internal organizational debates drive strategic decision making processes at these organizations. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern University, and The Graduate School at Northwestern University. Jeff’s website is at jkosbie.com.

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.

That Time I Spoke Up

Source: ALH Photography

Source: ALH Photography

So, this happened…

On April 5th, I had the pleasure of attending the Equality Virginia Commonwealth Dinner – a big time fundraiser dinner for LGBT people and allies in Virginia.  The University of Richmond purchased a table, where a handful of students and a staff member sat.  Also, two members of the Weinstein family (trustees/big donors to UR) purchased a table, where four UR students, UR President Ed Ayers, and I sat (in the picture above).  This was a significant moment — the university president and one of the board of trustees members attended an LGBT fundraiser.  And, I had the honor of sitting with them that night.

Besides being a new professor, and trying to figure out how to properly interact with students and the president and a trustee simultaneously, and navigating the many utensils that surrounded my plate (work outside in, right?), I went both excited and nervous.  If you recall, two months ago, I had spoken openly about my university’s handling of a trustee’s homophobic and sexist comments at a 2012 private event.  Essay 1 for all at UR to see, and Essay 2 for all of academia to see.  Though my intent was to defend the university against growing criticism of complacency, or even being complicit in the trustee’s homophobia, I made clear I was underwhelmed by the university’s response.

I had hoped that if these essays or the incident came up during the dinner, we would ease into to the topic.  “Hi, Ed — I’m Eric Grollman, in sociology,” I introduced myself to the president.  “Hi — I really liked your Inside Higher Ed essay,” he responded.  “Oh, we’re getting right into it, huh?” I nervously joked.  He was genuine.  (Why have I grown accustomed to passive aggression from other academics?)  As the night went on, he emphasized that he sees a faculty member’s job, almost as a citizen of a university community, to speak out in such instances.  I made other nervous jokes in response, “oh, can I tape-record you saying this,” and other silly comments.  I was slow to process the significance of his assurance for me, my status at the university, and my tenure prospects.  Eventually, I explicitly noted this, saying that I have grown so accustomed to being afraid as an academic.  Isn’t fear all of what being a tenure-track professor is about?

The next week, I went to meet with the university’s legal counsel as a precaution in light of increasing hostility toward me on the web.  As I waited, Dr. Ayers walked by, heading toward his office — next door to legal counsel.  He made brief small talk — “Saturday night was really fun.  How much later did you stay?”  (Why was I surprised that he even remembered who I am?)  Then, he returned to the tense conversation we had at the dinner; he re-emphasized that I have no reason to fear for my job because of my public scholarship and public presence.  Once I explained why I was waiting to see legal counsel — that, my job aside, I do have to worry about backlash outside of the university — he invited me to talk briefly in his office.  It was a short conversation because I had a standing meeting time, but it was an extremely important moment for me.

Immediately after I penned those essays in late February, I received dozens of emails of support from students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni.  Some thanked me for speaking up, some expressed their excitement that I had joined the university, and others expressed their admiration for my bravery in speaking out.  To my relief, I also got notice shortly thereafter that I was approved to return to the university for my second year on the tenure-track.  I was not asked to clear out my office.  I have not been snubbed by my colleagues or students.  The sky did not fall.  In fact, the outcome seems quite positive!

Objectivity Doesn’t Exist (And That’s A Good Thing)

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Source: Steve Jurvetson

Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth.  So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective.  Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience.  While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).

Researchers Are Human

In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful.  I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s).  In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd.  I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.

Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness.  Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.*  There are few people in the US — the world even — like me.  And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world.  I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness.  I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research.  And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.

In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born.  In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews.  There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination.  But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized.  It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.

In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn.  I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health.  In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination.  I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research.  But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections.  (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)

Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective.  Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it).  In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons.  Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.

Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities.  Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences?  With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.?  Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career?  By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.

Personal Motivations For Research

No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study.  Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research.  Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:

It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.

I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study.  Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism.  The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color.  I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry.  Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work.  Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?

I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study.  For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses.  Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome.  (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.)  But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses.  If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health.  A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.

And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published.  To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia.  There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom.  But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.

There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.”  In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower.  I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School, by Race/Ethnicity

Embrace Your Inner Unicorn

To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must.  But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research.  It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.

Can we stop pretending objectivity exists?  Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons?  Conformity is overrated.  And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education.  Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place.   Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education.  Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!

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NOTES

* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color.  We’re already below 1% of the population here.  Narrow that to multiracial gay men.  And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs.  Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.

On Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict, And Marginality

KasimKasim Ortiz will be a PhD student in sociology at Vanderbilt University beginning in Fall 2014. His research interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, medical sociology, religion, urban sociology, and demography.  Although, he contends that such labels of interests are too restrictive, as he is merely interested in life!  Below, Kasim reflects on the difficulty of finding a supportive mentor, and the broader, uglier reality that academic training often takes the form of hazing.  He offers practical tips for grad students to survive.

May I Work With You, Please?  Academic Hazing, Intra-Racial Conflict & Marginality

~ To be afraid is to behave as if the truth were not true.
Bayard Rustin

The Journey Begins…

Markedly a characteristic of graduate school is identifying a mentor, often someone whose research speaks to you, from which you can grow as a scholar and gain insight on their lived experience in academia.  Also, this decision is often influenced by an ability to gain access to mentors’ professional network. Because it’s more important who you know rather than what you know, right? Racialized minority graduate students often find themselves gravitating towards faculty of color for a myriad of reasons. This mentor could very well be the only one in your department doing research that interests you.  All the blacks doing research on blacks, all the Latinos doing research on Latinos, all the gays doing gay research, all the financially stable doing poverty research. Please excuse my cynicism and generalization concerning academics and financial stability, not trying to give another blow to those in the academy that find themselves financially unstable.

Well guess what, I want to research them all because all of them are me (well, except financially stable… I’m still in the “trenches”).  I recognize my own financial capital in being an “intellect.”   I digress.  This story begins in an email: “May I work with you??  I really like your research and have ideas from which I believe can build upon your work.”  Little did I realize that such “community” seeking would be the beginning of a tormented pilgrimage to belong!

Culture Shock Sets In

A growing space has been supplied to the discussion of academic hazing, especially along tenure, gendered, and racial lines.  Graduate students are subject to certain expected experiences of hazing as “part of the process.”  Hazing it directly complements expected norms of academic life?  The backdrop for this “socialization” process often is remedied with our sole purpose being to obtain those “letters” behind our name because that will then afford us “freedom.”  But why?  But how?  But really?  But wait! “Freedom” at what cost?  Grandma interjects in the back of my mind: “Boy you know nothing in life is free.”

Wikipedia (yes I know it’s not an academically “reputable” source) defines hazing as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse, or humiliation used as a way of irritating a person into a group and can be comprised of physical and psychological abuse. Most campuses have “anti-hazing” policies aimed primarily at undergraduate fraternalism, yet you’d be hard pressed to locate highly enforced policies on campuses that speak to academic hazing among or between faculty and/or faculty and graduate students.

Let Me Reintroduce Myself, My Body is…..

In an attempt to muddle the water, I’d like to discuss my lived experience not only as a racialized minority in the academy but also as an openly gay man with perceived “femininity,” who happens to be outspoken. Now you might ask yourself, why are those unamenable and innate qualities important? They are important because each quality represents a direct conflict against the sterilization (oh, I meant to say professional etiquette) within the ivory towers. The intersection of qualities has often resolved in a positionality reminiscent of Wocquant’s articulation of marginality. This has salience because as Wocquant notes (specific to urbanized areas), marginality is not experienced the same everywhere. Thus, it should be duly noted the situational context from which this piece arose.

I have attended a Division 1 SEC university in the southeastern United States for the past several years. I was mentally prepared for daily racial microaggressions such as when a white professor, studying disparities, proclaims in a public health course that “Tuskegee wasn’t about race? It was about class?!?” This “preparation” nonetheless minimized a constant burning at my soul physiologically and mentally.

However, I was not in any form or fashion prepared when a Black professor called my cell phone one weekend.  A response to my rightfully questioning authorship on a published manuscript.  The conversation proceed with, “Who the *uck do you think you are?  Don’t you know I could *uck your career up?”  The light bulb started warming, but wasn’t all the way on.  The light bulb finally came on when a Black administrator told me, “oh no we don’t want this information to get out because [professor so and so] brings <insert famous politician> yearly to this university.”  At that point it became clear, I was stuck in a crab barrel that promoted docility, unwarranted politics of respectability, and a selling of one’s soul.

My Brain is Larger Than Yours

The intellectual sizing up that accompanies life in the academy has often frustrated me beyond explanation.  This frustration is amplified when it comes from the hands of those in which my hands mirror.  It hasn’t become quite clear as to why such specific hazing occurs. However, why can’t I just be intelligent, passionate about learning, enjoy answering complex questions, read a lot and that be ok….isn’t this a place of “higher learning”?  I’ve often speculated that academic hazing stems from hazing experienced by so many Black undergraduates as they’ve sought brotherhood/sisterhood in fraternal organizations and have made it to glory as a professor.  A true crossing of the burning sands of a sort.

Yet this framing seems insufficient or at best a minimizing lens or an oversimplification. Could it be internalized racism which is rooted in historical experiences of enslavement and beyond chattel slavery? Could it be heterosexism and homophobia that deems my sexualized body dispensable among those that have similar skin tones because I am not quite a man but yet too much a feminine being? Is it because my outspoken nature is reminiscent of a “snap queen” or an “angry Black woman”? Might it be an attempt to cope with constant messages of inferiority where hazing one “less” privileged becomes necessary? Could it possibly be insecurity because of how an intersectional world experience manifests in my “thinking outside the box”? Or quite possible, academic hazing could just be internalized hatred for something someone represents for which others don’t want to be reminded of (the naivety of intellectual curiosity). I don’t have definitive conclusions to these puzzling questions, but I do have truth in being the recipient of their outcomes.  My questions aren’t a futile attempt to argue from the margins without recognizing the center.

So What Have I Learned? (Here’s the Takeaway):

  • Arm thy self! A desire to belong cannot, and should not, compromise your quality of life, emotional well-being, intellectual interests, passions beyond the sanitized walls of the academy, nor deny aspects that make oneself unique. This requires maturity in emotional intelligence, willingness to unveil masks, and ally building.
  • Protect thy self! Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy for an unwillingness to see truth. When situational contexts become clearly detrimental find meaningful ways to exit stage left. This could mean merely throwing the deuces; however, remember the last component of the previous tip. Without ally building it can be challenging to ‘exit stage left’ but with allies you can often find some peace. Also, naivety has to be thrown out the window. Just because someone talks like a duck, looks like a duck, doesn’t always mean they walk like a duck!
  • Love thy self! This cannot be iterated enough. Striking a balance in life while pursuing graduate studies can be difficult, yet you must force yourself. Find healthy (however you define) ways to disengage from academic life without jeopardizing your goals. Life isn’t always about doing; sometimes peace can be found in mindless nothingness.
  • Know thy self! When you’ve had enough, allow yourself to find the coping strategy that works for you. Often this is when you learn who is part of your “community” because those who are a true social support will be understanding. On “community”: immediately locating this is vital for success in academia. If you cannot find proximal “community” develop some form of “community” that provides you shade and cover from the day-to-day psychological distresses of the academy.
  • Challenge thy self! In the face of adversity do not, I repeat, do not run from it. Your feet will quickly become tired. Life in general can place you in uncomfortable situations and gaining consciousness of privilege may lead to heightened sensitivity. This is totally fine, just manage. If you feel there is a need for righteous anger, display it with your head held high, yet be open for change if necessary.

This post is an expression of me taking my own advice in challenging myself for which the following quote is truth of a new awakening.

“The Black [insert Latino] homosexual is hard pressed to gain audience among his heterosexual brothers; even if he is more talented, he is inhibited by his silence or his admissions. This is what the race has depended on in being able to erase homosexuality from our recorded history. The “chosen‟ history. But the sacred constructions of silence are futile exercises in denial. We will not go away with our issues of sexuality. We are coming home.”
Essex Hemphill, “Loyalty” (1992)

 

When Academic Organizations Fail To Fight Anti-LGBT Discrimination

LombardiDr. Emilia Lombardi (@elombardi_cleve) is a public health sociologist, who studies LGBT health (especially trans* health); she is also an advocate for trans* issues (see her full bio at the end of the post).  Below, Dr. Lombardi reflects on her frustration with the failure of her original disciplinary home — sociology — to effectively stand up against homophobia and transphobia — and the consequences it has had.

“Why You Haven’t Been Seeing Me At ASA Annual Meetings Lately” By Dr. Emilia Lombardi

I have been living as a Sociology expatriate in the field of Public Health for many years now.  I still consider myself a sociologist, and how I view health and social problems come from the sociological tradition.  At the same time, I feel truly alienated from the profession due to my experiences of a trans woman and as someone who research focus and expertise is in trans* (transgender, transsexual, gender nonconforming, etc.) issues.  There are many reasons to which I can point that led me to this feeling.

One notable experience came from the second to the last American Sociological Association (ASA) annual meeting that I ever attended, in 1997.  That year, ASA decided to give Charles Moskos the first ever Public Understanding of Sociology award.  The Award goes to “an ASA member, person or persons, who have made exemplary contributions to advance the public understanding of sociology, sociological research, and scholarship among the general public”.  Dr. Moskos was one of the primary people involved in establishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the policy in how the US would handle gay men and lesbians in the military.  This led many LGBT members and allies to protest his award with letters written within the November 1997 issue of Footnotes, ASA’s newsletter.  Significantly, one of the issues that Dr. Moskos discussed as a reason for this policy was the fear heterosexuals would have in undressing in front of gay people.

A similar justification for creating this discriminatory policy was recently made by a group in California in their attempt to repeal a law protecting transgender students.  California’s School Success and Opportunity Act allow transgender students to fully participate in all school activities, sports teams, programs, and facilities that match their gender identity.  The act was signed into law in 2013 and came into effect this year.  This led to the creation of a coalition, called “Privacy for All Students,” that attempted to repeal the law through a referendum. Their primary message is similar to the reason Dr. Moskos gave for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” that people fear transgender children sharing the same facilities as cisgender children.  Their attempt to place a referendum against the School Success and Opportunity Act has failed at this point in time, but they are planning on challenging the results and, if not now, may attempt to do so in the future.

I’m not saying that if ASA had not given Dr. Moskos an award that it would have prevented any of the above from happening.  I do want to say how leaving assumptions unquestioned can cause them to be perpetuated.  The fear that organizations and individuals are spreading about the existence of transgender individuals within many social spaces have led many transgender men and women to experience discrimination, harassment, and violence.  I once thought that Sociology as a discipline could have been a leader in stopping the fear and lies people are promoting against transgender people.  However, I’m a bit more pessimistic about it at this point in time.

Sociology as a discipline was very important to me and helped me through my transition by giving me tools to question society and its rules around gender.  However, it has been depressing to see the discipline lapse into irrelevancy as it fails to encompass transgender issues.  It’s not surprising that that the profession was caught by surprise by Mark Regnerus’s 2012 study of children of same-sex families.  The discipline has not show any leadership in the area of LGBT issues for many years and when someone used the discipline to promote an anti-gay/lesbian perspective, there was a scramble to respond out of fear of the entire profession being painted with the same anti-gay/lesbian brush.

I am not saying that there is any particular bias among sociologists or ASA, but I can say that people have given these issues very little thought.  I stopped going to ASA meetings largely because it has failed to provide any sessions of interest, whereas, the public health field has been providing very interesting information regarding trans people and health.  Unfortunately ASA and the profession have shown little change regarding trans issues since the 1990’s; they still refer to “transgendered persons” in their diversity statement and committee.  I haven’t seen anyone use that term for 20 years, and even the President of the United States uses transgender now.

I value Sociology’s history and effectiveness regarding its advocacy for social change protecting marginalized populations.  But I see a growing irrelevance for the profession when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender topics. I was surprised that the theme for the 2015 meeting is “Sexualities in the Social World,” but part of me thinks that this is additional attempts to further distance themselves from the Regnerus’ of the world rather than attempting at becoming a leader in these issues.  I’m also disappointed that the theme is presented in an unquestioningly cisgender way.  As a sociologist who is strongly interested in transgender health and social problems, seeing the lack of support the profession is giving these issues is disappointing.  Some of the stories I hear from other trans sociologists is even more troubling when it comes to employment.  I was fortunate to have found a welcoming alternative and was able to continue the work I love, but it had to be outside of sociology.

Hopefully, the coming conferences in San Francisco (2014) and Chicago (2015) will provide opportunities for trans work to be presented.  I do want to see the Association organize a separate committee to discuss trans issues in the discipline.  Between their use of outdated terminology and limited understanding regarding the development and utilization of trans measures, the association needs a lot of help.

One step in that direction is to invite Masen Davis, Executive Director of the Transgender Law Center, to speak at the San Francisco meeting this August.  He can talk about the recent events concerning the School Success and Opportunity Act and the efforts to have it repealed.  His office is in SF so it would be convenient for him.

____

About Emilia Lombardi, Ph.D.: Dr. Lombardi is an Assistant Professor within Baldwin Wallace University’s Department of Public Health.  She has a PhD in sociology and has been examining health disparities among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender populations since the mid-1990s.  She had served as the principal investigator of a study, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA R03DA12909), entitled “Substance Use and Treatment Experiences of Transgender/Transsexual Men and Women” that examined the problems those with non-normative gendered lives have in accessing and utilizing substance use treatment programs.  Dr. Lombardi is heavily involved in transgender related research and social activism.  She is currently working on a project examining the utility of various survey measures to identify transgender populations that can be used within population studies. She is currently organizing a LGBT Health Research Conference at Baldwin Wallace University August 7-9, just prior to the Gay Games.

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