Tolerating Anti-LGBTQ Intolerance In The Classroom

Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong.  It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting.  Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”

Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom.  Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.

But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion?  Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?

Tolerate Intolerance

Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes.  The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students.  One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes.  One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views.  Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them.  In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.

Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:

I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.

Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions?  I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter.  Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom?  I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc.  But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?

The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc.  If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material.  I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion.  And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”

Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective.  For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course.  So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between.  But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams.  I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.”  On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.

Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors

Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves.  (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.)  So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators.  But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.

First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate studentsSpecifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes.  Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world.  Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”

“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”

It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools.  For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance.  And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students.  Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.

Academic Freedom, Right?

With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors.  Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people.  If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job.  And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”

[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.

Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination.  But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution.  In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away.  Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations.  These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.

Freedom From Intolerance In Academia

At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms).  One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence.  This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“).  Yes, that is true for our democracy.

But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment.  Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview.  It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.

Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus.  This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion.  This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus).  We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class.  Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.

Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety.  “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors.  Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.

Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!).  I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.

Recommendations

  • If academia recognizes scholarship by  and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is.  At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors).  Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.”  (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
  • In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia.  This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
  • Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity.  That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
  • Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door.  Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture.  Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
  • Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us!  Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
  • Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people.  It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.”  These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
  • Develop a safe zone/space training program.  I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people.  As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community.  The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
  • Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities.  First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people.  Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression.  Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men.  Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.

Resources For LGBTQ Academics

“Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative”

Haigen Huang

Haigen Huang

About Haigen Huang: I am a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA) at the University of Missouri-Columbia. My research is in educational policy and leadership, but I also write stories of LGBT international students.  Hopefully, at some point in my career I can combine these two.  I grew up in a small rural community in southern China and attended Beijing Normal University for my master’s degree in comparative education.

Below, I have shared a narrative that I wrote in the spring: “Encountering Heterosexual Normality: A Narrative.”

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Whether in my home country China or in the United States, living a life that fails to meet expected heterosexual norms oftentimes is associated with emotional nervousness, anxiety, and fear. I hid anything which might reveal my sexuality and have rationalized avoidance of mentioning my relationship. When I was eventually courageous enough to come out after getting engaged in the United States, I encountered the following scenarios.

Stories of My Engagement Ring        

When a ring sits displayed in a store, it is just a commercial product. But after the purchase and someone begins to wear it, the ring lives with human stories.

“Let’s take the engagement rings off when we visit my parents,” my fiancé Chris suggested.

“Yes…” I did not insist and I did not ask why.

It was my first visit to Chris’ parents’ house, and also his first time back home after telling his family about me. I understood that he did not want to throw them too much information all at once, to introduce me so soon after telling them he is gay and then to tell them that we were already engaged.

About six weeks after we started wearing our rings, we put them in the drawer of a night stand before setting off to Nebraska from Missouri. Over the next couple of days, I always felt something was missing. After having worn my ring for almost one and half months, I felt as if it had been part of my hand. I liked the way it looked; I liked the smooth inner surface, the rounded silver touching my skin; I enjoyed turning it around my finger. More importantly, it was the symbol of my love and commitment.  Nevertheless, we decided not to show our rings to Chris’ parents, at least not during the first visit.

During the five-hour long drive, I could not imagine what it would be like in his parents’ place. The rhythm of the engine and raindrops hitting the windshield induced me to nap from time to time in the passenger seat. Remembering that Chris’ mother said that she was happy as long as he was happy comforted me but not enough to keep my hands from sweating. We did not talk much on the way.

It was a pleasant visit, but a few times I had to stop myself from saying something about the engagement. My fiancé’s parents welcomed me with open arms. They were happy, in part because their son eventually opened up to them about his personal relationship after being distant from them for at least ten years.  It was easy for me to be known as a gay man in front of Chris’ parents. I was introduced as his boyfriend. Everything they know about me started from there. But when it comes to my coming out to friends who assumed me to be heterosexual, I have different stories.

Coming Out To Friends And Colleagues

On the first Monday after our engagement, I felt nervous to wear my ring. I shared an office with 12 other graduate research assistants, most of them also my classmates. Whenever I heard footsteps approaching the office, I would feel my heart beat suddenly. I was afraid someone would see the ring and ask about my relationship. By e-mail one of my friends told me:

There is no reason to be afraid, it is a handsome ring and you should be proud to wear it because a special guy gave it to you. Some may think it is a wedding band and unless they know you very well, will not say anything or ask who.

But still I could not force myself out of the mode of being hyper-sensitive to anybody walking into the office.

Eventually, somebody came in. She needed my help for a class assignment. To explain what should be done and show where to find the resources online, I had to type. I started typing with one hand so my ring remained under my left sleeve. It was awkward especially when she asked, “Is your left hand okay?” I had to try very hard not to show my nervousness, but I didn’t need to type much and I got by without behaving too awkwardly.  However, when a second colleague approached me an hour later, I decided not to use the same trick. Instead, I took off the ring with my hand still in my pocket. That moment, I felt lucky I had a ring a bit larger than the right size.

Awkward moments came when I put on the ring, but they did not go away when I took it off or hid it. I don’t believe the ring had the magic power that the one in The Lord of the Rings does, and no supernatural force has cast any spell on it. Nevertheless, to wear or not was a problem. With me being trapped in this dilemma, that Monday went by slowly. On the one hand, I wanted my relationship to be recognized; on the other hand, I was nervous about being recognized, and I didn’t know how to tell my colleagues about my engagement.

It was frightening to imagine telling anybody that I was engaged with a man. I remembered the awkwardness and sweating when I told a faculty that I was in a long-term relationship with a man. I could hear my own heart beat when I was talking. My face was burning, and I think I stuttered. Although she had always been my most supportive colleague and I had no regrets about coming out to her a few weeks before my engagement, I did not want to experience a round of similar nervousness again. So I turned to social media and pictures, and eventually I posted my engagement photos on a website that most of my friends and colleagues use. Many of them gave their congratulations, except one friend in Kansas.

“What is this? Are you kidding me?”

That is a comment on my photo of Chris and me showing our rings in front a courthouse. I did not answer him, although I was a little irritated. Instead I posted a message:

Thinking about a comment on my engagement picture, I wonder whether I should respond directly. Maybe not, I might just pretend that I had never read it. I don’t feel like getting into a debate with someone potentially having a firm belief that homosexuality is something wrong. I assume the comment meant to boo my engagement. But I am sorry I don’t believe there is anything wrong that I love a man.

My friends and colleagues backed me up with comments such as:

Some folks have not yet learned that people are not all ‘wired’ in identical ways. Our diversity enriches us, and your behavior has shown me and others that you care for other people.

And:

Don’t worry about it. Just delete them or block them from seeing your posts.

One of them even responded to that comment directly in a challenging way: “Why should this be a joke?”

Eventually the author of the comment apologized. I was grateful for the support I had but I also felt I was seeking approval from others, as if I were asking, “I am gay — I hope that’s okay?”

I knew I might encounter negative reactions, especially after being exposed to comparisons of homosexuality to incest, bestiality, and polygamy for almost four years since coming to the United States. It kind of surprised me that I received only one negative comment. Although I do not believe that being gay is morally wrong and queer theory has long challenged the hegemony or normality of heterosexuality (Pinar, 2003), trying to live openly as a gay man brings with it constant nervousness, awareness of my sexuality as something that might cause conflict with some people, and the feeling that I must seek approval from others. As one of my friends said, “Gay people are always coming out in one way or another.”

From my own experience, I believe that “men’s desire for men does not constitute some ‘third sex’” (Pinar, 2003, p. 359). Nevertheless, being “socialized” to confirm heterosexual performances (Butler, 1990) I did hide my non-conforming behaviors. For more than ten years after I became aware of my homosexuality when I was a teenager, I never mentioned anything related to my sexuality in front of my straight friends. Even after I decided to be who I think I am, I encountered awkward moments such as hiding my ring under my sleeve or in my pocket.

Decision Not to Come Out to Family

It is now May 2013, and I’m going back to my hometown for the summer. It is a small rural village in southern China. I lived there for 18 years before going away to college. As a native speaker, I do not know if words like ‘homosexuality’ or ‘gay’ even exist in the dialect of the village.

In junior high school when my male teenage classmates were chatting about their crushes on girls, I never felt interested. I understood what they were saying but I had no motivation to participate in. And I never did. As years passed, I always thought I would fall in love with a woman and get married just like everybody else. That was the given path for every man, at least I perceived so.

When I started to be aware that I had cruses on boys, I kept it to myself. I still don’t know why I knew it was something I should not acknowledge. Possibly I sensed that it was something ‘abnormal’ because I had never heard or seen homosexuality or same-sex relationships. There were no confrontations, no awkwardness because I kept my interest in men to myself. Both in my junior high and senior school, it was considered to be a good thing not to have a girlfriend. Teachers and parents always worried that students having girlfriends or boyfriends was a distraction to pass the competitive College Entrance Examination (or Gaokao in Chinese). In college, it was still okay not to have a girlfriend. Most of my straight male classmate and friends did not have a girlfriend. I got by without anyone nagging until recent years.

Several years ago, my family began to pressure me to find a woman and marry her. In a village like mine getting married — of course heterosexually — is the most significant duty in a person’s life. I am approaching 30, and they have become impatient with me. One of my relatives tried to introduce me a young woman from my hometown. This relative knew that I would not come home soon because of my study in the United States.  However, she insisted that I chat with the woman online and arrange to meet her whenever I return to China. I cannot remember what I was thinking then, but I did add the young woman’s online chat account. Fortunately, she never showed up, which turned out to be a good excuse.

Whenever I am about to say that I have a boyfriend, I hold it back. I don’t know how to explain my relationship to my family, and they keep pressuring me as long as I talk with them on the phone. Sometimes persuasion becomes an argument if I allow myself to be irritated and talk back.

I should focus on my study and I will think about marriage later!

In response, they adopt a serious and doctrinaire tone.

You are almost thirty. It is the age for having your own family. You know that even your younger childhood friends are married and have kids now! You are well educated…you should know this better than me!

There were times one of the relatives even said,

What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you get married like everybody else?

Members of my family told me that if I get married and have kids soon, they would volunteer to take care of them in China while I am still in the U.S.

After these uncomfortable conversations and arguments with my family, I decided not to wear the ring during my visit in the summer — that is to say, not to inform them of my engagement and my sexuality, at least not until I return to the U.S. I don’t feel that I am ready to challenge their beliefs. I guess I need to be an actor and play my old role for another summer. I’m not sure how I would feel or think about my summer performance. I haven’t been back to my hometown for two years. In the past, when I was there I was still considered young, not yet old enough for my family to be impatient with me about marriage.

Even when I was younger, I could feel the strong expectation from my family for me to marry a girl and have children. When I was 25, my parents arranged for me to meet a young woman. Fortunately, it did not lead to anything but the woman’s rejection, because I was not showing interest.

But this expectation coerces people like me to conform to a norm that does not make sense to us. Many gay men marry women because they feel obligated to meet this expectation. According to a documentary published by the Phoenix Television (feng huang wei shi) in Hong Kong, there might be as many as ten million women in marriages with gay men in China (Liu, 2012). Most of these women (tongqi, a Chinese term for wives of gay men) are straight and they do not know their husbands are gay. The emotional isolation of these men, the shame and sense of failure to be good husbands for their wives, the fear of being discovered, and the despair and feeling of betrayal if they are ever found out are all potential consequences of the hegemony of heterosexuality.

No Conclusion Yet

On the way to my office, looking into my ring I can see myself reflected in the finely polished gold surface. I want to talk to it as if it were alive. I know I will miss it during my visit to my home town, and I hope it will continue to witness the stories of my commitment. I hope it gives me the “magic power” to further confront and challenge hegemony of heterosexuality.

A couple of professors passed and wished me good morning, and I greeted them back. Suddenly aware that I am wearing tight blue jeans, I can’t help asking myself,

Would they think that I look gay wearing these?

Before I could critique my self-consciousness about my sexuality, this question came to my mind. I paused a few seconds and laughed. At this moment, I know the journey of coming out is not yet finished and the ring has more stories to tell — stories of “coming out” to parents who believe every man should marry a woman and have children, stories of “coming out” to future colleagues and friends.

In the United States same-sex marriage became a reality in some of the states within the past 10 years, even while some still argue against homosexuality and same-sex relationships. During this year’s Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of a California law banning same-sex marriage, Charles J. Cooper argued that same-sex marriage is at odds with human procreation. The stigma of failing to conform to the heterosexual norm still pervades everything, and I must learn to be comfortable with my sexuality with support from my fiancé, his family, my friends, and colleagues, and reading feminist theory and LGBT research.

Conclusion

When I was first aware of my homosexuality as a teenager, I almost believed that I was doing something morally wrong. However, in traveling the path from growing up in a Chinese rural village to pursuing a doctoral degree in a U.S. college town, I have decided to challenge the problematic hegemony of heterosexuality. My stories do not end here as long as hegemony maintains.

But let me pause and ask myself here, does this sound like coming out storytelling? Am I presenting myself as a victim? Am I challenging the heterosexuality norm in a negative aggressive way? What do I really want to say or demonstrate? Or am I making justifications for being gay? Here it is! Being gay oftentimes requires the person to make a case, at least under the pressure to do so. That explains why we hear coming out stories over and over again. Not only do you need to make justification for being gay, but you also might do so to justify supporting same-sex relationships.

“If you’re a lawmaker who wants to ban gay marriage, you can come up with any reason you want…But if you’re a lawyer defending a gay marriage ban in court, you need an actual legal reason for your position” (Chait, 2013).

Now we see numerous politicians and senators have “evolved” coming out to support same-sex marriage in the United States. Have you ever seen anybody making a justification for being heterosexual or supporting heterosexual marriage? Of course not, unless you are out as gay and want to marry heterosexually or in-between and want to go either way.

Back to the question of whether I am justifying being gay — no!  Even if it sounds like I am, it is not my intention! The purpose of me telling these short stories is to reach people like me, as my gay identity gives me legitimacy to share these stories. As far as I know it is a challenging and stressful process to come out, which puts LGBT people under the risk of work discrimination (Day & Schoenrade, 1997; Ragins, Singh, & Cornwell, 2007), and negative reaction from parents (Cramer & Roach, 1988; D’Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998). I do not believe that heterosexual life performances fit with gay men well, not for a lifetime.

At the end, I sincerely hope that somewhere somebody might find my stories helpful.

References

Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, NY: Routledge.

Cramer, D. W., & Roach, A. J. (1988). Coming out to mom and dad: A study of gay males and their relationships with their parents. Journal of Homosexuality, 15(3-4), 79-92.

Chait, J. (2013). Gays can’t marry because … they plan babies? Retrieved from http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2013/01/gays-cant-marry-because-they-plan-babies.html.

D’Augelli, A. R., Hershberger, S. L., & Pilkington, N. W. (1998). Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth and their families: Disclosure of sexual orientation and its consequences. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 68(3), 361-371.

Day, N. E., & Schoenrade, P. (1997). Staying in the closet versus coming out: Relationships between communication about sexual orientation and work attitudes. Personal Psychology, 50(1), 147-163.

Ragins, B. R., Singh, R., & Cornwell, J. M. (2007). Making the invisible visible: Fear and disclosure of sexual orientation at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(4), 1103-1118.

Pinar, W.F. (2003). Queer theory in education. Journal of Homosexuality, 45(2-4), 357-360.

Liu, C. (2012, February, 3). How to save wives of gay men (na shen me zheng jiu tong qi).  Hong Kong, China: Phoenix Satellite Television.

When White Men Stare

Stare One

A couple of weeks before the semester started, I was introduced to a colleague in another department — an older white man.  He shook my hand, but did not speak right away.  He looked in my face, puzzled.  Initially, I registered his stare as one of familiarity, a face he could not place.  As this was the first time we were meeting, I was ready for the stare and the silence to break — there was no memory to jog.  But, he kept staring, though he finally said hello.  The “you look familiar” stare and furrowed brow that I initially read began to look more like confusion or anger.

Was he confused by something on my face?  By me?  Or, that they hired me for this tenure-track position in sociology?  Classes had yet to start, so I was not “dressed to the nines” at that point; maybe the image of a young brown man in casual attire did not fit his mental image of a professor.  I figured once I did start wearing the costume suit, attention would shift away from my age, my newness, and any assumptions about my credentials or experience.

Wrong.

Stare Two

A few weeks into the semester, I attended a workshop on facilitating discussion in the classroom.  I had recently introduced true discussion in my upper-level gender and sexualities course, so the timing of this training was great.  Some seasoned faculty recognized my face as unfamiliar and asked if I was new, and then welcomed me and asked how my first month had been.  When the session began, I saw a middle-aged white man staring at me.  I expected the stare to break because he had been caught staring (custom holds that you look away when caught), or to realize he was staring out of the window behind me.  Neither was he case.  He continued to stare, his unwelcoming eyes beamed a hole into my forehead.

I decided to ignore him and listen to the panelists. Ignoring ignorance is only partially effective, if at all.  His unwelcoming stare made me self-conscious.  I looked at how I was dressed; were jeans, a sports coat, and tie too casual for a Friday?

Then, I looked around the room.  White, white, white, white, white…  Somehow, I had not noticed I was the lone brown face in the room.  His unwelcoming stare had effectively pointed out that I was a true outsider.  Things went downhill from there for other reasons.  Though I appreciate some of the panelists, I was distracted by the burning desire to scream to one panelist, “you can get away with that as an old white straight man!”

An Unwelcoming Environment

In my mind, the confused or even hostile stare of older white straight men at me — a young queer brown tenure-track man professor — is a microaggression.  It sends the message that I am an outsider and, frankly, unwelcome.  These stares are just one message in a chorus of messages that I do not belong, be it internal (imposter syndrome) or external (e.g., recently, the dining hall cashier asking, “are you a visitor?”).  These colleagues likely represent what I have heard described as the “old guard” — a generation of faculty who have a different set of expectations for the professoriate than the generation that has taken the reins in leadership.  So, they are few in number (on the campus at least).  But, I still face the occasional possibility of interacting with them.

“This may look like discrimination, but it isn’t…” – Reflections By Dr. Mark Williams

Mark WilliamsDr. Mark Williams is in his second year as an assistant professor of social work at a large, public university in the Midwest. His research examines social factors that influence the health of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) older adults. Also, he teaches courses on social work practice in healthcare and social gerontology.

Below, Dr. Williams shares one (frustrating) aspect of his experiences a gay man in academia: navigating university and state domestic partnership policies.

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“This May Look Like Discrimination, But It Isn’t…”

Just a little over a year ago, I sat in a Human Resources orientation for new employees as I prepared to start my first faculty position after completing my doctorate and moving across the country to take this job.  The Human Resources employee explained that those of us who choose to access domestic partner health benefits would have our incomes “imputed,” and that the university would intentionally over-report our income in order to ensure that we would be fully taxed for the portion of our partners’ health insurance that the university would pay for. I must have looked skeptical. Or confused. Probably both. Because the presenter quickly added, “This may look like discrimination, but it isn’t, because everyone who gets domestic partner health benefits is treated the same.”

I went from skeptical and confused to insulted and angry in a heartbeat. That excuse might… MIGHT… explain why I should not take the accounting gymnastics and tax penalty for having a same-sex partner personally, but it most definitely did not explain how this procedure failed to qualify as discrimination.  I stewed, rather than confronted, for a couple of primary reasons. The first reason was that the Human Resources employee assuring us that this was not discrimination was a black woman, and the complicated powers and privileges involved in me, a white man, publicly arguing with a black woman about the definition of discrimination seemed way too messed up to me. I also chose not to confront because I didn’t want to already be rocking the boat three days before my contract actually started with my new employer.

When we actually applied for my partner’s health benefits under my coverage, we learned that according to the bureaucratic system in place to process these claims, we were not domestic partners until our signed affidavit was officially filed with a benefits claims office halfway across the state. Until that time, I was advised to file for my health insurance as a “single” employee.  After more than 10 years together, with domestic partnerships legally registered in two states (including the state where my university is located!), we were told that our domestic partnership would “start” when a filing clerk received the proper paperwork.  When I pointed out to our local Human Resources office and the central office responsible for filing the paperwork that they did not, in fact, have the power or authority to determine that my partner and I are not already legally recognized domestic partners, my comments were mostly ignored. The paperwork was eventually processed. Slowly. My partner finally received the health insurance coverage that I was assured would be “no problem” when I negotiated my employment contract.

I don’t know how the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA may impact the large tax penalty assessed to those of us whose employers provide same-sex partner health benefits. I don’t know whether our upcoming state Supreme Court hearing to consider throwing out our nominal domestic partnership registry as in violation of our state DOMA amendment will change my family’s access to civic and social goods we were promised when we moved here to take this job.

I do know, however, that this is all steeped in open-faced bigotry and insidious systems of institutional discrimination, and straight people telling me that it isn’t so does not change that reality.  I understand that my family has been assessed a tax penalty that my married opposite-sex colleagues do not pay. I do not like it, but I understand it.

But arguing that it isn’t a direct expression of discrimination, or that the definition of my family depends on a benefits compliance employee filing a piece of employment paperwork, is nothing other than personally insulting.

On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

“On Being Out in the Classroom” — Reflections By Dr. Shawn Trivette

Below, Dr. Shawn Trivette reflects on the importance of being out in the classroom (and on campus) as an LGBT professor.  He is an assistant professor of sociology at a university in the deep South.  Between teaching courses on the environment, agriculture, and social network analysis (among others), he is also the faculty advisor for the university’s LGBTQ student organization.

On Being Out in the Classroom

Dr. Trivette

Dr. Trivette

Last quarter when I was lecturing on issues sexual minorities face I had a student ask why gay people felt the need to flaunt their sexuality.  We don’t have straight-pride parades, she reasoned, so what’s the deal?  I responded, as politely as I could muster, that actually straight people flaunt their sexuality all the time: wedding bands, casually mentioning significant others, and the like.  “And you do it without even thinking about it,” I concluded.  This prompted another student to ask, well, how often do you think about it?  “Every single time,” I responded immediately.  I am always assessing if it’s a safe environment to talk about a (current or previous) significant other, if I can make a comment assuming everyone knows I’m gay or if that’s going to raise questions from some, if I can show physical affection like hand holding.  Every single time.

While I recognized that this second student was attempting to trap me with his question, I also saw a golden opportunity in my response.  Here was a chance to do two things.  In personalizing the material I was able to show many (straight) students a glimpse of the everyday challenges sexual minorities face and, hopefully, foster a bit more empathy for those of us who don’t fit the heteronormative ideal.  Simultaneously, my answer was a chance to implicitly affirm the experiences of LGBT students in the class: you are not alone.

I teach at a small school in a rural, conservative part of the Deep South.  When I started here I had to make some serious decisions of just how out I would be in the classroom.  I realized that personally I simply wasn’t going to be able to manage re-closeting myself, but I also didn’t want to make coming out to my students some sort of exercise in self-aggrandizement or personal therapy.  (I also had to give some thought to how my colleagues and administrators might respond, of course, but that’s a consideration for another post, and also connected to a manuscript I’m working on with my friend and colleague Kristy_Watkins.)  I also had an intuitive hunch that this was just the right thing to do.  But why?  What made it right?

I eventually was able to articulate three clear reasons for coming out to my students.  The first was very class-specific.  I teach in sociology and I have found that students often appreciate and can connect to personal experiences shared by an instructor, particularly when those personal experiences are grounded in the course material.  While personal experience is never the final authority in a field like sociology, it can be a useful illustrative tool, especially in helping students to grasp the real-world experience of sometimes abstract concepts and trends.  Since I further theme my Intro class around race, class, gender, and sexuality – and ask my students to articulate their own identities along these lines – it seemed only fair to share equally.

My next two reasons I think apply across the university, regardless of academic discipline or content of the courses taught.  One of the roles of a university is to foster receptivity to diversity.  We often think of diversity in somewhat reductionist terms, usually meaning it as a code-phrase for race (or specifically non-Whites) and sometimes meaning gender, too (translated as: look, there are women in the academy).  While I think recognizing racial and gender diversity is incredibly important (particularly when we can do so in ways that recognize the nuance of our racial and gendered experiences), I also think it’s important to consider the less-obvious ways in which diversity occurs.  Knowing that their instructors are a diverse crowd (in terms of sexuality, politics, background, ability, etc.) is valuable for students, many of whom (particularly in more isolated areas, like mine) may have never been given the opportunity or space in which to talk openly or learn about LGBT people or issues.

Third, and related to fostering an awareness of diversity, I see part of my role as an educator as offering support and empowerment to students, particularly marginalized students.  Our LGBT students are in many ways a marginalized population; self-disclosure is a way of offering encouragement to these students by providing a successful role model who is in some way “like them”.  It also shows these students that here is a faculty member who may offer support or other resources to help ensure their own success.  This is a vitally important message.  And I have had students who have told me (sometimes in person, sometimes in written comments) how much they appreciated my willingness to be so boldly out and by extension affirm their own process of identity development.

Being out with my students has opened up some profound conversations, both in and out of the classroom.  But perhaps more importantly, I have learned that telling them my rationale for coming out to them – which, at least in Intro, I do on the same day I lecture about sexual minorities – carries at least as much weight as the coming out act itself.  While students heard this information with varying degrees of both acknowledgement and interest, some wondered what relevance such disclosure held.  One time, after explaining these reasons to the class, I had a student flat out tell me (and the rest of the class) that everything made a lot more sense now: he had been wondering what relevance my sexuality had with anything, but after my explanation he thought coming out made a lot of sense.  I don’t know that all students make such a connection, but it seems reasonable to expect that many do.

I suspect there are many other LGBT instructors who may want to come out to their students, but aren’t sure about the best way to do so or how to respond if students (or others) challenge them.  Regardless of field or course topic, there are two reasons that easily apply to all of us: being out in the classroom helps foster in our students a receptivity to and respect for diversity and goes a long way toward offering support to our marginalized (particularly sexual minority) students.  Acknowledging our identity as gay (or lesbian, bisexual, or trans*) instructors, whether we teach in sociology, engineering, business, music, or somewhere else, puts a real face on an often invisible minority and pushes back at the boundaries of privilege and inequality.  Kristy and I would love to hear from other LGBT colleagues about your experiences being out (or not) in the classroom; please feel free to drop us a line [shawn.trivette at gmail.com] with your stories.

Coming Out Everytime We Let Others In

Yesterday, in my upper-level course on gender and sexualities, my students and I discussed the life-long process of coming out as LGBT.  In essence, because of heterocentricism (the assumption that everyone is heterosexual) and, what we can call ciscentricism (the assumption that everyone is cisgender), LGBT people are forced to out themselves to each new person they meet (if they decide not to be presumed cisgender and heterosexual).  As one student pointed out, that, of course, presumes one is closely aligned with the stereotypical images of heterosexual and cisgender people; any displays of gender non-conformity may lead one to have their sexual and/or gender identities questioned.  Still, to some degree, we believe there is some choice in the matter, whether to out oneself or confirm others’ suspicions.

In this conversation, I chose not to out myself — a position I usually take until the end of the semester (once course evaluations are in).  I have mentioned “my partner” to two students, and, aside from wearing suits, I rarely obsess over presenting myself as hypermasculine (or even masculine, for that matter).  So, my students may already have suspicions about me, at least regarding my sexual identity.

And, though quite relevant, I had not mentioned an incident that occurred immediately before class.  I briefly returned home to regroup before the late, 4:30pm-7pm class.  As scheduled, our front and back doors had been replaced.  The workers had thrown our door mats aside, failed to return moved furniture to their original location, and left sawdust on the floor and some furniture.  The blinds from the original back door sat on our kitchen table.  And, a bag of used doorknobs sat on our front porch.  This was just shitty, inconsiderate work.

The worst sign of their inconsiderate presence was this:

Ugh.  This pamphlet from a Billy Graham affiliated church in the city was left on our kitchen table.  If this was “innocent” proselytizing, it was inappropriate.  But, with a number of pictures of my partner and me up in the kitchen and other rooms, I suspect this was something more.  An unknown number of strangers entered our house and decided we needed Jesus in our lives.  As gay people, this was a minor, yet symbolic assault from strangers who decided we were immoral because of our sexual orientations and our relationship.

Connecting this back to my class’s discussion, I realized that I could be in the closet in every aspect of my life: at work, with friends, doctor‘s visits, etc.  No one but my partner and I would know we identify as gay and that we are in a long-term, committed, loving relationship.  But, if we lived together, as we do, at some point the apartment complex may know (or suspect), and the service people who enter our homes would figure it out.  To these strangers, we would have no choice about being out, unless we went to the lengths of hiding any signs of a relationship, or even living apart.  There is a base level of outness that life demands if you want any semblance of a full life as a queer person.

As I threw clean dishes into the cabinets later in the evening, I began to realize just how upsetting this experience was.  Simply put, I feel violated.  Strangers were given access to my personal home, and judged me, and had the audacity to leave behind their propaganda just to let me know what they thought.  Even in my own fucking home I am not free from homophobia.  It is bad enough that I bring the stress of bigotry home, in its wear on my health, in the suits I quickly strip off when I get home like taking off a costume, and in the taxes I pay for my partner to receive benefits in a state that ignores our relationship.  But, this incident pushed beyond that.  I came home to a visible reminder that strangers think I am immoral.  Fuckers.