Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part II

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this second part of a two-part essay (see part I here), Dr. Sumerau reflects on the ways that academic definitions of bisexuality (which differ greatly from how it is defined and experienced outside of academia) actually facilitate biphobia.  Ze offers a few ways to combat these biphobic tendencies.

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Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part II

In the first part of this essay, I outlined contradictions that I have observed between academic and non-academic notions of bisexuality. In this second part, I will focus on some ways that academic definitions of bisexuality facilitate biphobia. After almost seven years working as an openly bisexual scholar in the academy (i.e., since my first days of graduate study), I’ve had plenty of time to think about these issues. I would like to offer readers some ways to disrupt biphobic academic definitions and interpretations of bisexuality in their daily lives. While I limit these examples to things I’ve tried myself (to varying levels of success), my hope is that we may begin a conversation wherein people seeking to be inclusive and supportive of bisexual people (as well as bisexual people themselves) can begin the work of moving past academic simplifications and marginalization of bisexuality.

  • When someone says that bisexuals are only attracted to males and females, ask them where they got their information. Point out that some bisexuals are attracted only to male and female people, while others are attracted to all sexes (i.e., their own and others).
  • When people cite or read from academic definitions of bisexuality, ask them who wrote or said it, whether they were bisexual-identified, did they come direclty to the academy after childhood or did they live among non-academic populations for some period of their lives, did they come up with this definition or did they draw it from somewhere else (if somewhere else, ask the same questions about that source). In other words, follow the lead of Black Feminist, Queer, Trans, early Lesbian and Gay, and Intersex scholarship by interrogating where these definitions come from and why they make sense to the people using them. In my experience, these questions will likely lead you to a cisgender heterosexual source at the foundation of the definitions, and thus – like white definitions of people of color or heterosexual definitions of homosexuality or religious definitions of the nonreligious – they should be examined critically.
  • When someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if attraction exclusively to males suggests the existence of only one sex or exclusive attraction to females suggests the existence of only one sex. This may sound silly to lesbian, gay and heterosexual people, but it is the same logic: attraction to X group means there is only X group. If being exclusively attracted to males and females automatically suggests there are only males and females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in binary sex only), then attraction exclusively to males or to females suggests there are only males or only females (i.e., this attraction means you believe in only one sex). I have yet to find lesbian, gay or heterosexual people who believe this, but I have encountered many who quickly recognize this logical fallacy when it is directed at them.
  • At other times, when someone says attraction to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, ask them if homosexuality and heterosexuality reproduce the binary. Lesbian, gay and heterosexual people often use expressions like “opposite sex” or “same sex,” which are predicated upon the existence of mutually exclusive and recognizable binary sex categories, but these people are generally not accused of reproducing the sex/gender binary when they do so. If being attracted to males and females reproduces the sex/gender binary, however, so does being attracted to the “opposite” or “same” sex. Again, in my experience, lesbian/gay and heterosexual people do not like this line of logic so much when it is directed at them instead of bisexuals.
  • When someone says “bi” automatically refers to the existence of only “two” sexes, ask them why they feel that way, ask them why it doesn’t refer to cisgender and transgender, ask them why it doesn’t refer to my sex and others, ask them why they decided (i.e., note that they chose what “two” to which the word “bi” referred) that it must mean two sexes. In my experience, you will very quickly learn that they see the world in binaries themselves, and are thus simply (intentionally or otherwise, with or without malice) seeking to place (or cage or box) bisexual people within their own frame of reference.

Finally, I would suggest readers – whether or not they adopt any of the above strategies in their lives – ask themselves if they have internalized academic or non-academic definitions of bisexuality. One way to do this would be to ask what the academy and the world might look like if we stopped trying to place every marginalized community into binary boxes, and instead embraced the fluidity, variation, and spectra of bio-social-psychological experience in all its forms. In fact, doing away with binary boxes and dichotomous definitions (no matter how comforting to existing academic traditions) might well provide more breathing room for all types of people. It might further help us recognize that (to the best of my knowledge) there is no one universal type of gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, fluid, queer, heterosexual, intersex, female, male, cisgender, transgender, or any other “static type” of being. Rather than seeking to place people into “bi”nary boxes based on oppressive traditions, we could seek to map, explore, and celebrate our similarities and variations “bi” treating all people with dignity and respect.

Academic Versus Actual Definitions Of Bisexuality, Part I

Dr. J. SumerauDr. J. Sumerau is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa.  Zir teaching, research, and activism focuses on intersections of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the experiences of sexual, religious, and gender minorities. In this first part of a two-part essay, Dr. Sumerau reflects on how bisexuality is defined and understood in academia (particularly by heterosexual, lesbian, and gay scholars), which differs greatly from how it is defined and experienced by bisexuals in the real world.

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Academic or Actual Bisexuality, Part I

Actual Bisexuality

I have identified as bisexual since the first time I heard the term at a political rally in the late 1990s. Although I have experienced bisexual attractions and sexual engagements for as long as I can remember, I will never forget the moment an intersex bisexual activist took the stage and provided a sexual definition and label that finally seemed to make sense in relation to my own experiences.

I had driven the hour plus with my boyfriend and best friend (at the time, ze identified as gay and I identified as “heterogay” for lack of a better term). We were there to learn more about transgender and intersex issues because I was considering transitioning and ze had recently learned ze was born intersex, but neither of these things were discussed in the small town where we grew up and neither of us knew much about these issues. We were holding hands under a banner (happy enough just to feel safe holding hands) with the words bisexual, transgender, and intersex printed in purple, and we both felt proud that we knew at least two of the three words when the speaker began zir commentary. In the middle of the definition, we each turned at almost the same moment and ze said, “hey cool, that’s you,” and I said, “wow, that’s me.” I remember feeling an almost immediate sense of relief that at least I was not totally alone in my sexual attractions and desires.

I share versions of this story with students in every course that I teach. I do this for three interrelated reasons. First, after much time spent in communities and libraries learning about the erasure and marginalization of bisexuality by heterosexual and gay/lesbian communities as well as the broader social marginalization of minority groups of all types, I see coming out as both a necessity for (me) living an authentic, honest, and healthy life, and as part of the process whereby such marginalization may be reversed and undone. I come out automatically in classes to raise the issue of taken-for-granted assumptions that benefit some at the expense of others. Second, I can’t forget what it felt like to not know there were other people like me, to believe (as heterosexual and lesbian/gay people often told me and some still do) that I had to “pick a side” as if monosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of beliefs that one is necessarily only attracted to one sex) would be any better than heterosexism (i.e., the systematic elevation of heterosexual norms and perspectives). I share this story in case there are others in these classrooms who have yet to learn that bisexuality exists in the world around them.

Third and finally, after years experiencing an academy where bisexuality is defined (usually by cisgender heterosexual and gay/lesbian scholars) much differently than I’ve seen in bisexual communities without academic access, I share my experiences to give students a concrete example of the ways minority experience is socially constructed in mainstream institutions. While I believe each of these three reasons are important for me personally, for students educationally, and for minority communities politically, I would like to focus for a moment on the third reason because it is an ever present experience that I encounter as an openly bisexual teacher and scholar that I rarely hear mentioned outside of hushed conversations in hallways.

I remember very clearly how bisexuality was defined the first time I heard the term, and I’ve heard the same definition throughout my life in non-academic bisexual, intersex, transgender, and queer settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities not affiliated with academic institutions and/or composed primarily of people who never had access to college education). In this tradition of knowledge, bisexuality refers to attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement preferences for (1) one’s own sex and other sexes, (2) cisgender and transgender people, and/or (3) people regardless of genitalia. In each case, the “bi” refers to two distinct possibilities of sexual engagement along a spectrum of bodily and presentational options. Specifically, one may identify as male, but experience attraction to males, females, and intersex people; one may identify as transgender or cisgender but experience attraction to both cisgender and transgender people; or, one may have a clitoris but experience attraction to others regardless of whether they have a clitoris.

As it did in the 1990s, this definition resonates with me and is the one I come across most outside of the academy (and in private within the academy) to this day. No matter whom I have had sexual relations with – intersex, female, or male people, cisgender or transgender people, bisexual (or fluid, queer, pansexual, or other terms more frequently used in academic communities) people, asexual people, gay/lesbian or heterosexual people – the similarities among people in each of these groups (for me) outweigh the differences by a wide margin.

In fact, as I often tell my students, I consider myself lucky to have had romantic experiences with all of these groups because they allowed me to recognize just how similar we all are in terms of dating, relationships, sexual desires, and needs. These experiences also helped me to figure out what differences are important for my own sexual and romantic satisfaction (for me these differences are mostly personality based). While I have met bisexual people who are only attracted to males and females, who only date gay, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual or bisexual others, and who only desire cisgender or transgender lovers, the variations in these patterns (both between people and in the life course of individual persons) speak to the multifaceted elements of the definition and direct attention to the variation and complexity embedded within other seemingly static sex, gender, sexual identities.

Academic Bisexuality

When I entered the academy ten years after first learning of the term bisexual, I encountered a very different definition of bisexuality. In academic settings and communities (i.e., settings and communities affiliated with the academy and/or composed primarily of people who have had the privilege of access to college education), I’ve generally read and heard bisexuality defined (mostly by cisgender heterosexual and lesbian/gay scholars) as attraction, desire and/or sexual engagement to males and females. In this tradition of knowledge, the “bi” refers to the sex/gender binary initially established by cisgender heterosexual scientists and religious elites in the 1800s, which was meant to grant science religious legitimacy by matching the origin story of Judeo-Christian-Western theological traditions.

This definition of bisexuality automatically erases intersex and trans experiences, and provides the foundation for the heterosexual/homosexual binary constructed by the same scientific and religious traditions. Further, it reduces sexual attraction, desire, and engagement to the genital properties of a given being, which provides support for interpretations of sexualities predicated upon reproduction rather than pleasure. From what I can tell, this definition seems to comfort some people who identify within sexual binaries (homosexuality/heterosexuality), sex binaries (female/male), and cisgender binaries (man/woman), and has even been adopted by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual academics (at least in public). Yet, it was completely foreign to me before I entered the academy and did not fit any bisexual I had met at that point in my life.

Beyond the fact that this definition does not resonate with me or capture the bulk of bisexual experience that I’ve witnessed in my life, it is often used as a weapon against bisexual people within and beyond the academy. Academic people use their own definition of bisexuality to then argue that it reinforces the same binary they used to define it; I’ve encountered this mostly by cisgender heterosexuals and lesbian/gay people, but even by some intersex, transgender, and bisexual or people claiming other fluid sexual identities. Such efforts, echoing patterns of bi, trans, and intersex erasure in heterosexual and lesbian/gay communities, define bisexuality as problematic based on definitions of this identity created and repeated by people who rarely have personal experience in this area or who only learn about it within academic settings and communities.

This practice is eerily similar to the ways cisgender heterosexual scholars defined homosexuality as pathological sex inversion, then used their own definition to argue that homosexuality was a disease or perversion of nature. It is also reminiscent of the ways white scholars (usually heterosexual and cisgender) defined people of color as a separate species before using this definition to justify systematic marginalization of, and discrimination and violence against people of color. Another example can be found in the ways medical science defined intersex people as abnormal and then used this definition to justify the mutilation of these people to fit into rigid sex binaries.

Since academic his-her-our-story is littered with examples of minority groups defined by privileged groups in ways that justify marginalization (i.e., transgender communities, differently-bodied communities, working and lower class communities, cis-trans-intersex women, etc.), I could offer plenty of other examples of the ways current academic definitions of bisexuality that are used to justify the marginalization of bisexual people mirror long standing patterns in academic gatekeeping and social control. In each case, the beliefs of the ruling academic class remain salient at least until voices from [insert minority community here] are granted access to the academy and disrupt the dominant narrative.

I would like to end this post by simply asking readers to think about definitions of bisexuality (and other marginalized statuses). Do you subscribe to or assume academic definitions of bisexuality predicated on binaries rather than two ends of a spectrum? If you occupy marginalized statuses yourself, do you currently define them in ways that come from your own communities or do you harken back to the ways privileged groups defined your people once upon a time? When you hear “bi,” do you think of binaries constructed by cisgender and monosex norms, or do you here two ends of a spectrum? By thinking about these questions, you can take the first step to figuring where you stand in relation to bisexual marginalization within the academy and the broader social world.

In the second part of this essay (posted here), in which I explore ways to resist or counter biphobia brought upon via academic definitions of bisexuality.  And, see Dr. Sumerau’s reflection on writing this essay at Write Where It Hurts.

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.

I Don’t Exist (Yet)

Me - Tower Dark

Some time ago, I shared a secret with two friends: I find myself frequently searching for things that move me.  A deep, insightful book.  An exciting new song.  A novel movie.  An unusually critical article.  An event that pulls on my heart strings.  Something that will feed my spirit in a way that most things do not.

One of these two friends responded, “doesn’t that seem unhealthy?”  She worried that having spiritual food located externally, and its actual whereabouts unknown and fleeting, was no way to live a self-sustaining live.  I had never thought of this kind of hunger as unhealthy.  I had actually convinced myself that this was my way of searching for meaning in the world, specifically for my own life.  Isn’t it a good thing to want more from life, to proactively look for more and better rather than simply accept what is?  And, don’t we all get excited when something “gives us life”?

My friend’s concern came to mind recently as I browsed a local bookstore.  I sat on the floor before the disappointingly small selection of books on LGBTQ issues.  I found myself looking for… well, myself.  Where is that story about people like me?  It finally clicked.  Maybe this is not exactly what concerned my friend.  But, it definitely concerned me.  I am not (only) looking for meaning; apparently, I am desperately searching for myself, something more than my own reflection in the mirror.

The media.  My workplace.  My family.  Politics.  Religion.  My own racial and sexual communities.  People like me do not exist, apparently.  I am invisible.  Or, maybe I do not even exist.

Fuck intersectionality.1  As one part of myself becomes visible, the other parts remain invisible.  Black is straight.  Gay is white and thin.  Black and white cannot coexist, so where does that leave me as a multiracial person?  Where does this leave me, Black, white, queer, fat, something other than hypermasculine yet male-bodied?  Fuck intersectionality.  Fuck being unique.

It takes energy everyday to exist — to dare to enter the world as the other other Other.  Some days, I am exhausted from it all, from forcing the universe to see me, from trying to carve out space in the world for myself.

But, that is the key to my survival.  My existence is not a given.  It is the outcome of a lifelong fight against invisibility, bias, exclusion, and even conditional acceptance.  It comes from not giving up, or settling into subordinate status.

I will exist — or die trying.

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Notes

1 To be clear, this statement reflects my frustration with existing at intersections among multiple oppressed statuses, not the theoretical framework of intersectionality.  Indeed, intersectionality and Black feminist theory in general have been instrumental in making visible such intersections and highlighting the critical importance of studying them in academia.  Intersectionality as a framework “gives me life” in so many ways.

Academia: Uncharted Territory

Belle Isle

…to go where no queer has gone before…

There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia.  Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career.  While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define.  The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor.  But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.

The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender.  I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure.  Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example.  Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors).  For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain.  Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.

As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling.  Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others.  Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women.  Women of color know well the status of being a token.  Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever.  While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.

Uncharted Territory

To be completely honest with you, I am scared.  I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search.  Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality.  There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics.  The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.

Strike one: I am black.  I am queer.  I am fat.  (That’s already 3 strikes, right?)  Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism.  Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog).  I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars.  But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.

This is uncharted territory.  That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man.  With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics.  With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways).  But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.

Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available.  On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism.  As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models.  I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today.  At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism.  I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility?  If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?

Paving The Way

I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general.  In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC.  I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program.  After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture.  My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way.  Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.

paving the way

paving the way

While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students.  I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded?  will I ever give the suits a rest?  do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself?  A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless).  Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.

But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark.  I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success.  But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together.  I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security.  But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.

How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors?  Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”?  I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model.  I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general.  I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure.  I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia.  But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream.  I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.

The Radical-Sellout Academic

Rally

A few months ago, I agreed to be a guest speaker via Skype for a professional seminar course in a master’s program in sexuality studies.  Per the professor’s request, I spoke about my experiences in academia, particularly navigating the academic job market.  Since that final chapter of my graduate training was one filled with heavy-handed advice yet the greatest level of independence yet, and authenticity and selling out, I necessarily spoke about my job search as a Black queer intellectual activist.  (Indeed, that was the narrative most relevant to this class of sexualities scholars of diverse backgrounds.)  In addition to pushing back against others’ expectations for my career, I also spoke about how I presented myself, including decisions regarding my online presence.

I briefly rambled about my job search, graduate training, and career thus far, and then opened the floor for questions and comments.  One student in the class asked, “you mentioned your social justice advocacy — but, all you do is blog?”  Ouch.  I went on the defense, arguing that, as a new tenure-track professor, all I have the time and energy for once my week is done is to blog.  Teaching and research are the primary tasks upon which I am evaluated; and, service hardly ever means community service, and probably never activism.

What I did not say was, “you’ve got me!  I guess I’m not really an activist.”  In fact, I decided to pursue an academic career because I never felt competent at front-lines activism and community organizing.  I am too sensitive and timid to be at the front of a picket line or going door-to-door to campaign.  I have always felt most comfortable pushing for change in academic settings.  And, from my senior honor thesis onward, I have felt my niche is in pushing for change via research and teaching.  But, as I sit before these students who were brave enough to pursue degrees in sexuality studies — with my dress clothes on, and my PhD in sociology — I did feel called out.  What about my life right now resembles anything “activist”?  (Nothing and everything.)

Later, another student expressed appreciation for my efforts to make change from within.  Yes!  The student named for me my brand of activism in a way that seemed so obvious, but never crystallized before now.  If all who demand change are outside holding picket signs, getting petitions signed, contacting politicians, etc., who is on the inside making sure important institutions even hear these demands?  And, the reverse means all are inside with their hands tied by institutional practices and norms.  Some need to work for change inside, some need to demand change from the outside.  I have long known this, and decided that I am most effective at working from within.  But, I do feel a twinge of guilt that I am not doing “more” (meaning working outside of the system).

Ironically, I have faced the harshest criticism for being too much of an activist.  In publicly declaring my effort to infuse academia with activism, others have disagreed that the two can ever mix.  In specifically challenging the standard of “objectivity” in research and in the classroom, given its implicit valuing of the dominant group’s perspective (i.e., white middle-class heterosexual cis men in the West), I have been mocked for daring to bring my own perspective into my work.  Even in simply proposing that more (sociological) social psychological research focus on sexual orientation, I was passive aggressively chided by a professor for being “Mr. Activist.”  The criticism and character assaults I have faced as of late seem to suggest I am the most radical activist to ever work in sociology; I appear to be a threat to the discipline, and must be squashed to protect it.  Even just blogging has rubbed a number of fellow sociologists the wrong way.

I don’t understand — am I just another sellout, drawn to the comforts of a tenure-track career in academia?  Or, am I yet another radical scholar who threatens the academic status quo?  How can I be both?

Do You, Boo!

The summer brought in an unexpected wave of anxiety.  The momentary reprieve from teaching did not bring peace of mind; it seemed to open the door to all sorts of doubts and questions.  The gateway stressor was “what am I supposed to be doing during my first summer?!”  That seemed to lead to asking myself competing questions: “what do I want to do this summer?” and “what kind of career do I want?”  The latter question reopened the door for me to obsess over revisit the warnings I received from my graduate advisors about taking a liberal arts job (e.g., little research productivity, irrelevance in the profession/discipline, become “damaged goods” in the eyes of research universities).  How could I focus on wanting to relax and do some traveling when I am worried about tenure, irrelevance, and others’ opinions?

I have learned to listen to my body when I experience symptoms of/related to my anxiety.  I talked over my worries with trusted mentors, colleagues, and friends, decided to take Fridays off all summer, planned another short vacation, and worked on settling these doubts once and for all.  I recognized that I had allowed others’ opinions — my graduate advisors’, those that I presumed of my current institution, and online critics — to heavily affect me.  And, I had lost sight of the fact that I must work to define my own career my entire life, especially if I dare to create change within and through academia.

As selfish as it feels, I have been painfully aware that I must work on my self-esteem and confidence before I can really get to work to make change.  That means getting more comfortable in my own skin and in the decisions that I make.  I have revisited the writings of Patricia Hill Collins on being an “outsider within” in academia and on intellectual activism. No matter how much change I dare to make in academia, simply being in it will forever mean being an outsider within; if I want a satisfying and authentic career, I will have to work for it and push back against the status quo.  But, I do want to make change.  I want my discipline to better reflect the lives (and perspectives!) of oppressed communities — speak truth to power!  I want academia to proactively work to improve the world beyond the ivory tower  — speak truth to the people!  No matter what, I do not have a choice but to be an activist for the sake of my own survival, and the survival of my communities.

For leisure reading, I picked up Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography, My Beloved World.  I knew about her “wise Latina” comment, which she was forced to retract essentially upon being confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.  But, I did not have more context for the sentiment.  In essence, she is an outsider within in the legal profession.  She is well aware of, and has fought to challenge, the barriers faced by people of color in law and the courts.  And, she intentionally draws upon her background and personal experiences to inform her perspective as a judge (and when she was an attorney); but, which she makes clear, she does not allow her personal perspective trump legal precedence, the law, or the Constitution.  Rather, her perspective as a Latina woman is an asset not well reflected in the law and courts.  All of this mirrors Collins’s argument about the value of a Black feminist perspective in sociology.

Sotomayor and Collins, as well as other “outsiders within” in academia, serve as important role models for me.  Their struggles and triumphs remind me to stay the course — continue to bring about change within and through academia by drawing on my own experiences and perspective.  I cannot afford to waste time and energy on what other people think about or expect of me.  The tall task of advancing a fat Black/multiracial queer feminist worldview stands before me, with the additional challenge of doing so both with and against the mainstream theories and models in my discipline.

Besides, as one grad school professor told me, I will always struggle with the tension between activism and academia; the day I find balance between the two is the day I have gone too far in one direction or the other.  I will forever be a sellout by radical activists’ standards, and a radical by mainstream academics who defend the status quo.  Oh well, this radical sellout has work to do.

Still An “Outsider Within” In Academia

Me - Presentation 1

Around the time of my birth, Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins began writing, and ultimately publishing, an essay on being an “outsider within” sociology.  In her 1986 piece, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” Collins writes about the difficulties Black women scholars — specifically sociologists — face in reconciling their personal experiences, identities, values, and perspectives with those that dominate academia.  In particular, “to become sociological insiders, Black women must assimilate a standpoint that is quite different from their own” (p. 49).  Almost 30 years later, I struggle with similar challenges at the beginning of my academic career.

In graduate school, I learned several harsh lessons about what was entailed in being a good scholar:

  • Academia and activism do not mix.  And, one of the primary aims of academic professional socialization is to “beat the activist” out of you.
  • Good researchers do not simply study oppressed populations.  Rather, one adopts a valued, mainstream framework (e.g., social psychology, medical sociology), and just happens to focus on a particular community or population.  Studying race, or gender, or sexuality, or *gasp* the intersections among them are deemed “narrow” research interests.
  • Qualitative methods, particularly approaches that give voice to and empower oppressed communities, are devalued relative to quantitative approaches.
  • Good research is objective.  One should not even write in the first person in articles and books!

I bucked at the pressure to “go R1.”  I publicly declared I would not put another day of my life on hold just to attain or keep an academic position.  And, I have dared to talk openly about inequality within academia.  You would think that I would be passed all of this, no longer carrying around bitterness or resentment about what my graduate training was or wasn’t.  It seems my journey as an outsider within has just begun.  Collins argues:

Outsider within status is bound to generate tension, for people who become outsiders within are forever changed by their new status. Learning the subject matter of sociology stimulates a reexamination of one’s own personal and cultural experiences; and, yet, these same experiences paradoxically help to illuminate sociology’s anomalies. Outsiders within occupy a special place – they become different people, and their difference sensitizes them to patterns that may be more difficult for established sociological insiders to see (p. 53).

I welcome what my unique perspective stands to offer sociology and academia in general.  Even at this early stage, I feel my research has covered issues that seem so obvious to me but, to date, has not been examined in prior research.  However, the downsides of the tension that Collins mentions — the frustration, self-doubt, alienation — continue to take a toll on my personal and professional life.  Can this tension ever be reconciled?  Collins suggests:

Some outsiders within try to resolve the tension generated by their new status by leaving sociology and remaining sociological outsiders. Others choose to suppress their difference by striving to become bona fide, ‘thinking as usual’ sociological insiders. Both choices rob sociology of diversity and ultimately weaken the discipline” (p. 53).

Wow, damned if you do…  This is why Collins advocates for greater acknowledgement, recognition, and use of the black feminist perspective in sociology.  She argues that outsider within perspectives should be encouraged and institutionalized.  In general, scholars, especially outsiders within, should “trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge” (p. 53).  Without this change, scholars continue to rely on research and theory that largely excludes, or even distorts, the experiences and values of oppressed people.

I suppose some progress has been made since Collins wrote this article.  Indeed, more and more sociologist recognize black feminist theory as an important perspective.  But, many marginalized scholars, like myself, continue to feel conditionally accepted in the profession.  Our success and relevance, even our livelihood, seems to depend on the extent to which we assimilate to white, masculinist, cis- and heterosexist, and middle-class ways of thinking (and being).