On The Conditional Acceptance Of LGBTQ Scholars In Sociology

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

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

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

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

“I Don’t Mind Gay People”

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

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

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

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

“Don’t Flaunt It”

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

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

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

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

Some Advice For LGBTQ Sociologists (And Scholars in General)

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

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

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

I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. III)

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part III of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I and Part II). With all the processing I’d done to reach the point where I felt somewhat comfortable stating “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore,” and all of the specific ways in which my field can accommodate alt-ac work, I set out to try on this new identity at a conference.

Luckily, I picked a pretty fitting conference at which to do so: the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Since I got roped into going by a bunch of fellow grad students at Indiana University a number of years ago, I’ve been a regular attendee at this conference on sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comics, film, fandom, the visual arts, and practically any other aspects of the fantastic mode that exists. And it’s truly an international conference; I see some of my favorite Scandinavians there.

In addition to ICFA being a conference where I feel as though I’m coming home each year I attend, it’s particularly well-suited to these kinds of post-ac/alt-ac conversations. While it’s an academic conference, wherein presentation submissions are refereed before being admitted, it’s not just professors and grad students in attendance. Many of the presenters are alt-ac in some sense, whether they’re trained in a different field than the conference theme, or actually employed outside the academia but attending to do the scholarship they love. The fields of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror studies are interdisciplinary, and have always had elements of a fan participation. And at ICFA, we have a number of guest artists, authors, and editors in attendance. Their presence as participants in the media we study makes for rich and lively discussions, as well as a conference program that includes more than just scholarly presentations. I got to meet author China Miéville and ask him about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, for instance, which was wonderful and fascinating.

I decided that ICFA was the perfect place for a soft coming-out for two reasons: I’m comfortable there, having attended for nearly a decade and built so many friendships and collegial relationships there, and it’s already a mixed group of academics in varying relationships to institutions as well as non-academics. That, and the processing of my academic angst had reached critical mass by the time the conference occurred, and I really wanted to talk to people about it. I felt ready to start moving in a new direction or three, and I needed to know whether all of my colleagues would suddenly hate me. The fact that fantasy studies isn’t my main field, though it overlaps with folklore studies in some areas, particularly areas in which I work, would also soften the blow if things went poorly.

Upon arriving at ICFA this past March, I told everyone whom I talked to that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a professor anymore. Depending on how long I’d known someone, and whether it was looking to be a brief “get to know you” conversation or a “let’s talk for ages” conversation, I went into varying amounts of detail about my reasons for reaching this decision. I outlined some of my plans for the future and asked for feedback where appropriate.

The experience was wonderful overall. Everyone was very supportive and encouraging. Most of the folks I talked to knew of the troubles with the academic job market, and it was interesting comparing notes with my colleagues from other countries. I had to fill them in on some of the specifics of our job market and, in turn, I got to learn about some of the reasons things are difficult in other places.

No one berated me for my choices or my experiences. But, I did get a few of those annoying “just hang in there” talks, which I guess are meant to be helpful, but miss the point that one can only “hang in” so much when one is struggling on various levels, including emotional and financial.

I found a lot of solidarity with people who are in similarly liminal situations, regardless of whether they had an academic career in mind. For instance, I talked to Kathryn Allen, who blogs at Bleeding Chrome (check out this great post on embracing ambition after a PhD), and she was really understanding and wonderful when listening to me rant about my career-shift ideas. And there are others whom I won’t name because not everyone’s out about their various career moves… but you all are awesome. Our poolside chats and discussions over drinks made me feel accepted, loved, and as though I am not alone in this struggle.

Getting to “try on” the new identity of post/alt/whatever-ac was a transformative experience for me. It demonstrated that people whose ideas and work that I respect still find value in me even when I am distancing myself from the institution and career that we’re all indoctrinated to venerate above all else. My precarity wasn’t seen as a personal failing, nor as a factor in evaluating the worth of my ideas.

I was a bit worried about whether I’d get very emotional about this topic (since my career angst has been tugging at my heart for a couple of years now), but things went pretty smoothly during the conference. I might’ve also been envisioning my time at ICFA as though I were playing a new character in a role-playing game, but that’s not terribly out there given the content of the conference. So I’ll go ahead and call it a success. (of course, it helped that I had a successful conference on a professional level, too, receiving many compliments on the research I presented and chairing a session that went wonderfully)

Tune in next week for the final post in this blog post series, which will address the “what now?” of coming to terms with the “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” experience.

I Souled Out

Around this time last year, a few friends and colleagues — those with whom I was not as close — continued to ask about the outcome of my academic job search.  “Oh, how nice!”  “Where’s that?”  “Are you excited to go there?”  To put it politely, my decision to take a job at a liberal arts university was not without push-back from my department.  Though I stood firm in my decision to accept a job at a department and university I liked, that is close to my family, and that presented the closest thing to “balance.”  But, I could not help but feel a bit defensive against any sort of question regarding my decision.  Even to a simple, polite, “oh, I haven’t heard of University of Richmond before,” I automatically explained my reasons for choosing it.  It was as though I felt I needed to justify myself, to convince others that I was not a failure for not taking a job at a Research 1 university.

The notion that “it’s your life!”, even articulated begrudgingly by those who pushed hard for me to “go R1,” has — so far — proven true.  Life goes on.  Fortunately, it is going on with me in a place where I feel content.  The funny thing is fighting to make a career decision that best suited my needs (professionally, health and well-being, politically, family) has shifted to being told that I am lucky.  I am lucky to have a job (period). I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job.  I am lucky to have secured a tenure-track job after one year on the academic job market.  I am lucky to be a professor now at 28, having gone straight through high school, college, and graduate school (which I finished “early”).  Lucky?

I have already heard the line that 80% of what occurs on the job market is beyond one’s own control.  Who knows what search committees want, what departments need, what Deans tell them they want, and how universities operate in terms of hiring?  I definitely buy that.  But, considering the prevalence of discrimination in the US including academia, I resent the assertion of luck in my success.  Yes, let me rattle off my oppressed identities once again.  I am a fat Black queer scholar who studies sex and sexuality, race and ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, and discrimination.  No matter my efforts to “soften” my public image by deleting blog posts that might be too radical or militant, much of it was still out there and easy to find.  Search committees were not beating down my door to offer me a job.  And, those interviews and job offers that I received were a reflection of 80% that is beyond my control, 20% my publications, teaching experience, and committee’s letters — and 15% selling out throughout my graduate training.  Telling me I am “lucky” is both insulting and a perverse view of how hiring decisions are made in academia.

I Souled Out

Let me think for a moment to see if I can pinpoint where it began.  Like many kids with aspirations for college, and college students with aspirations for graduate school, I was involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and aimed for high grades.  But, all of that felt like the hard work and sacrifice that was necessary for anyone.  It was at the start of my graduate training when I realized I needed to start sacrificing who I was as a person in order to be successful.

I suppose the need to trade off bits of my soul in exchange for professional success first crystallized in my second semester.  I attended a talk in my department on public sociology, and was disappointed by the speaker’s approach to make sociology publicly relevant and accessible.  I came filled with rage, hating graduate school so much those days because racism had reared its ugly head right within one of my classes — on the first day, nonetheless.  I wore a gawdy, baggy hoodie to signify “don’t fucking talk to me.”  And, it worked.  Blackness — specifically Black rage and Black militance — stood out, and seemed to make others uncomfortable.

I went to the National Sexuality Resource Center‘s (at SFSU) summer institute on sexuality that year, and was given life that I needed so badly at that point.  I met queer people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, and of different academic stripes, who shared my passion for social justice and inclusion and my critical perspective.  I cried at our award ceremony at the end of the summer institute because I did not want it to end.  In between sobs, I said that I wished my fellow institute participants were my grad school cohort.  I returned to grad school that fall ready to make it work, but on my terms.  So, I got my tongue pierced.  I noticed furrowed brows from one of my professors; I suppose saying something was out of the question, but facial expressions can say much more.  I took it out that same day.

Grad school knocked me back on my ass that second year.  I was still miserable, still debating whether to leave or transfer to another program.  That winter, I got sick while visiting a friend.  After a couple of days, feeling a bit better, I went to visit other friends.  I suppose I was not as well as I thought.  I completely missed a red light and hit a car going through the intersection.  Fortunately, there were minor bumps and bruises, though both cars were totaled.  I was staying with my parents for the holidays… and it was their car I wrecked.  My mother was not happy with me.  But, she set her anger aside because she had to care for me — I was sick once again, and now had a badly injured hand.  Feeling so helpless over those remaining days of winter break changed something in me.  I returned to my grad program knowing that it was my job to make the training work for me.  After a year and a half of misery, I decided it was either time to change the situation to stop being miserable or just leave.  Why waste any more of my life?

Making it work, at times, meant selling out.  I said goodbye to any clothes that could be read as “too Black,” “too urban,” “too thuggish,” or “too militant.”  I worked at being more patient with people who were not the most open-minded, accepting, or understanding.  I stopped resisting advice from professors, which, admittedly, at times simply meant appearing more open to their suggestions.  I slowly shifted into what I saw as the “good little graduate student.” And, it paid off.

  • I solidified my use of quantitative methods, given its valued status in my department, and sociology in general.
  • When applying to graduate schools, I decided on sociology over gender, women, and sexuality studies programs; I figured I could get a PhD in the former and get a job in the latter, but never the other way around.  Then, I was discouraged from pursuing either the gender studies or sexuality studies graduate minors; instead, I made research methods (read: quantitative methods) my minor.  I also decided on social psychology for my qualifying exam, not gender or sexuality as I actually wanted.  So, besides a couple of courses, my graduate training is squarely in mainstream sociology.
  • I continued to move toward marketing myself as a mainstream sociologist — one who is within a major subfield but happens to study a particular population.  That is, I learned that studying LGBT people was not enough; one had to be a medical sociologist who focused on LGBT people.  That is exactly how I marketed myself when applying to jobs.
  • Socially, I pushed myself to interact more with those I saw as “making it.”  How were these people going through the same program as me but without ever feeling miserable?  Unlike the professional changes I was making, this did not last.  These people were not miserable because they were not marginalized in the same ways as me (or at all).  Unfortunately, this meant that they were unwilling to hear my complaints, or seemed to dismiss other students like me as responsible for their own misery.

Recovering My Soul

How far I had gone in selling out became apparent just in my last year of grad school.  I sat on a panel about diversity in grad school and, more specifically, the challenges that certain students faced because of their marginalized status(es).  A student in the audience, to our surprise, vented about all of the compromises they made to survive, and times they bit their tongue instead of challenging racist comments from their classmates.  Their reflection struck a chord with me.  Wow, how much of my own soul have I given up, compromised, or hidden in order to get ahead in my career?

I definitely see it today.  As I look at my CV, I see few publications on sexuality — the very thing I went to graduate school to study.  A colleague even remarked his surprise that my primary line of research is on discrimination and health; as much as I talk about sexuality, teach courses on it, and publicly write about it, he assumed sexuality is my primary area of research.  My students, too, note their surprise, seeing two shelves of books on sexuality compared to half on health and half on discrimination.  As I looked for paper awards in sociology to which I can apply, I realized I am eligible for those in health and none on sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, and the body.  Some days, I do not even know who I have become professionally and intellectually.

I am still carrying on with suits and ties in an effort to “blend in.”  This semester, a few former students noted that they sense I have my “guard up,” that I seem nervous or uneasy at times, leaving them to wonder who I really am.  I am sure I have also made certain comments that piqued their interest in me enough to even think about these things or to notice.  But, as open as I have been about making certain decisions about how I present myself, and it seems everyone knows, the joke is on me apparently.  What good is a disguise if everyone knows it is a disguise?  For my own well-being, it seems it is time to let go of this strategy because it is not helping and actually takes a toll.  And, increasingly, I am seeing that attempting to blend in is doing a disservice for my marginalized students.  Some seem to want me just to be me so badly because there are no others who are (exactly) like me.  Why deny them that?  Oh, right — tenure.

But, to my surprise, I am finding that I have joined a place that already knew who I am (it seems silly to think you can hide who you are when you have had an online presence since the start of grad school) and likes who I am.  I was in job market-mode when i interviewed, so I was not fully conscious of the comfort I would feel politically.  But, I do believe, at a semi-conscious level, I made a note of that benefit of this job (over others).  I chose this job because I can do critical work, serve the local community, and blog (even about academia!).

Tenure

Concluding Thoughts

A part of me wonders whether I would even have this job if it were not for the ways in which I souled out.  Would I have been forced to stay in graduate school longer?  Would I have fewer publications?  Would I have been forced to teach more because I never received external funding?  Would I have stayed miserable, maybe even dropped out of graduate school all together?  Would I ever get a tenure-track job?  Pessimism here is very tempting…

It is also tempting to say that I sacrificed in such big ways, it all paid off, and I lived happily ever after.  But, I do not want to offer that as the moral of the story.  I do not want to send the message to other marginalized scholars they can be successful with just a little hard work and selling out.  If anything, I will accept that I made certain sacrifices to get ahead so that I can change that narrative.  Ah, yes, and that serves as yet another vote for being authentic and comfortable where I am now.  I see myself as no role model to my students if my success exists solely because of the ways in which I souled out.

I am not alone in making sacrifices to advance my career.  And, this happens for marginalized folks outside of academia, as well.  My point here, though, is to highlight that it does occur in academia.  The implicit message sent is that success is narrowly-defined, which usually means that marginalized folks must work at downplaying their marginalization, their Otherness, to fit in the mainstream definition of success.  Sometimes the messages are explicit, like the gender policing I have witnessed or experienced firsthand to “encourage” grad students to present themselves in masculine(-ist) ways.  At times, it seems you have to choose the (limited) ways you can embrace difference, criticism, or militance because there is a threshold that one should not exceed if you want to be accepted at all.

It is my hope that speaking publicly about this, and regularly maintaining conversations like this publicly through this and others’ blogs, will highlight what many marginalized scholars face in their training and careers.  More optimistically, I hope that these kinds of demands cease, that one’s unique social location, interests, and perspective are embraced rather than seen as inconsistent with traditional or mainstream scholarship.  Pessimistically speaking, as tenure-track jobs become scarce, and people of color and women are overrepresented in contingent positions, I fear the pressure to conform and sell out will only increase in the years to come.

Dr. Crystal Fleming On Being Bisexual In Academia

Dr. Crystal Fleming, a sociologist, has kindly offered to share a recent post from her blog, Aware of Awareness, on being out as a bisexual scholar in academia.  Dr. Fleming’s blog offers a unique mix of her scholarly and spiritual selves, regularly covering mental, physical, and spiritual wellness, love and dating, race, thrift shopping, and the occasional vegan recipe.  See her full bio on her website.

On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia

The first time I came out to my undergrads was during a unit on the sociological concept of “stigma” in one of my theory courses. In discussing Erving Goffman’s understanding of stigma as a “discrediting” attribute, I told the story of how my 90-year-old godmother responded when I told her I date men and women.  “I’m so, so sorry to hear that,” she replied, as though I’d been diagnosed with the plague.

When I finished my lecture, a student came to the front of the classroom and expressed gratitude for my coming out story. I thanked her for reaching out and asked why she was moved. “Well, we look up to teachers,” she said, “and it’s really important for people in positions of authority to help reduce the stigma.”

People in positions of authority.  I let the phrase float in the ether of my mind.  Did my being in a “position of authority” mean that I had a duty to come out?  I didn’t think so.  And, I didn’t see my being honest and authentic about my experience as a conscious effort to reduce stigma. Including the story about my godmother’s disappointment was an effort to demonstrate how many of us are stigmatized by loved ones because of our sexuality.  But this student’s simple declaration of gratitude helped me understand the impact of owning our personal identities in our professional lives.

Part of my pedagogy is to teach students to connect sociological theorists with concrete lived experiences — both their own as well as the biographical details of the intellectuals themselves.  No doubt, this perspective was shaped by my work with sociologists of ideas during my graduate studies at Harvard.  But a commitment to uniting the personal with the professional, the intellectual with the existential mostly derives from the pivotal influence of black feminist scholars who have given me the courage to draw on intersectional and post-intersectional frameworks to produce theory from the fabric of my queer, black, working-class-born, middle-class-bred, single-mother-raised, particular and peculiar existence.

Coming out as bisexual in academia has been a long process for me. When I fell in love with a woman in my early twenties, I found myself surrounded by fellow graduate students and colleagues at an academic conference.  I wanted to sing about my new love from the rooftops.  And yet, when we were together, I was too paranoid to hold her hand as we walked across campus.  Insecure about my sexuality and lacking a queer support network, I danced in and out of the closet, at turns brave, uncomfortable, liberated and ashamed.

As a woman who mostly partnered with men, many (though not all) colleagues and students assumed I was straight. Sharing my bisexuality was something I would only do on occasion — haphazardly. Over the years, I began to realize how much I benefited from heterosexual privilege in the profession — and it disturbed my spirit.  When, in my 30s, I found myself single for the first time in many years — and dating women again — I saw clearly that being open about my sexuality was the only healthy option for my well-being.

There was just one little problem: I didn’t have any bisexual role models within academia.  Not a one.  While I knew of many openly gay and lesbian professors, I personally could not name a living, breathing, bisexual academic in my social network. Bisexual profs may be legion, but I’d personally never met a colleague who publicly proclaimed the label.  And to be fair, I didn’t exactly search high and dry. If I attended conferences dedicated to sexuality or joined more groups for LGBT sociologists, I’m sure I would have met more bisexual colleagues.  But the other part of the story is that “bisexual” may not be a particularly popular label for non-straight-identifying folk to claim. Some decry what they see as the “sexual binary” inherent in the term and prefer to see themselves as “queer.” The bottom line is that I looked around and found myself on a bisexual academic island. What’s a Ph.D.-having-bi-woman-of-color to do?

Eventually, I put on my big girl panties.  Of course I would have to be the change I wished to see. I only wanted to date women who were open about their sexuality, in their private and public lives – so I knew I had to embody those same values.  I was already out to close family and friends, including some other academics, but I still allowed most folks to impose an assumed heterosexuality. And so I began by recognizing that I wanted to kick my “openness” into a higher gear.   To do this, I knew I needed to build a queer support network both within and outside the straight-ivory-tower. While I didn’t know any openly bi profs, I made a conscious decision to connect with queer women of color.  Just knowing having other women within the profession to talk to about my concerns made all the difference.  One of my most inspiring mentors is a senior scholar who happens to be woman of color married to another woman.  Chit-chatting with her over the years about sexuality, race, gender and spirituality within the profession has nurtured my spirit. Also?  She successfully earned tenure.  Pow!

Next, I began to openly discuss bisexuality via social media — primarily on my blog and especially on Twitter.  Being open in this way also facilitated building new connections with other queer academics, some of whom reached out to me – privately and publicly – sharing their own bi-sexual and queer identities.  A few told me that they found my openness inspirational.  For me, simply knowing that I was not alone was powerful and profoundly affirming. Real talk? You get what you give. I realized that if I wanted to connect with more openly bisexual academics, I had to be an openly bisexual academic.

The truth is that in academia, just as in other professions, straight colleagues often talk about their private lives publicly, signaling their sexuality in a matter-of-fact-way that people rarely question. No one bats an eye when straight men wax poetic about “My wife and I…” or straight women refer to their husbands … or single straight colleagues talk about their heterosexual dating experiences. As I began to date women more often, I also found myself referring to my sexuality spontaneously in water-cooler conversations at work.  In responses to questions and conversations, I’d say things like:

“Well, I date men and women…”

“I’m actually bisexual..”

“The woman I’m seeing…”

And the reality of the thing is just about every time I’ve referred to my sexuality, the revelation has been met with either:

1) profound indifference

2) slight puzzlement and surprise or

3) an unusual and slightly disturbing amount of enthusiasm [as in: “Oh my gahwd, that’s fantastic!“]

Regardless of how other academics may feel privately, publicly they’ve been nothing but affirming and accepting. Well, for the most part.

One of my straight academic friends, concerned for my professional success, warned me to stay mum about my sexuality.  This person feared that I might be negatively “judged” for being open.  And their concerns are not unfounded. Of course we know that homophobia exists.  There are always risks to living life authentically. And yet, as other academic mentors told me, the rewards of living in accordance with our highest values outweigh the costs. In truth, accepting heterosexual privilege and hiding my sexuality are simply not choices I am capable of making at this point in my life.  Ten years ago?  Yes.  Now? Not a chance. And it makes all the difference that I know other queer men and women of color who have found a place for their authentic lives inside of academia.  Their personal courage inspires me even more than their intellectual production.

If you are bisexual in academia  (or simply think of yourself as a human being who dates other human beings regardless of their gender identity), here are a few last insights into how our experience is distinct from that of our gay and lesbian allies:

1. Many people do not understand what bisexuality even means.

In LGBT-land, the L and the G are, for sure, far better known than the B and the T.  Or, as one straight white guy mansplained me at a bar one evening: “You’re a minority within a minority within a minority!” No fucking kidding. You may be the only openly bisexual person your colleagues know.  Which means that you need to be ready for odd-ball questions — questions that most colleagues mercifully keep to themselves. Bisexual awareness is rising, but we’re still a little snippet of the human population.  And bisexuality carries with it distinct stigmas that are sometimes imposed from within the queer community itself (e.g. “The Confused Bisexual” stereotype and other forms of bi-phobia).

Once I made peace with not giving a flying fuck what folks think about my orientation, inside or outside of academia, it became much easier for me to be unassumingly and unapologetically open at appropriate times within professional settings.  This doesn’t mean that I introduce myself as “Dr. Bisexual” at academic conferences, but it does mean that I have no qualms about saying I’m bi when talking about identity politics, oppression, family dynamics, gender, power and sexuality.

2. You may start your job with a partner of one gender and then switch a few months or years down the line.

When I started my job, I brought a male (academic) partner with me. Our eventual breakup was epic and embarrassing. Two years later? My partner is a woman. #kanyeshrug.  As an openly bisexual person, you need to be comfortable publicly owning and asserting the reality that you date men and women, which means . . .

3. Colleagues never know what pronoun to use when they hear that you are dating.

Well that keeps life interesting, doesn’t it?

The bottom line?  In my experience: no one really gives a shit.

Over the years – and especially in the past 12 months – I’ve casually informed mentors, former dissertation committee members, old friends from graduate school and just random people on the streets that I’m bisexual. Now, granted, I have lived and worked in towns and institutions that are bastions of liberal/progressive politics.  And yet, the reality is, even in these spaces, I was concerned, in my early 20s, that it would be problematic to own my bisexuality in academia. Thirty-two-year-old-me is here to tell my twenty-two-year-old-self that, for the most part? No one gives a shit.  Really.  No one gives a shit.  People have their own lives, private crises, intimate joys, families, friends and work – lots of fucking work – to occupy themselves.  And those who do give a shit? Last I checked, the earth is still spinning on its axis. Life goes on.

Coming out about my spirituality within academic circles a few years ago meant that I could not help but commit myself to a life lived authentically. What I have gained, in owning my bisexuality in my private and public lives, is not a gold star and certainly not the approval of my socially conservative godmother.  What my transparency has earned me is my own self-respect and self-love, the priceless feeling of being in alignment with my own values — and, every now and then — the simple gratitude of a student who thanks me for being the only openly queer and/or bisexual professor that they know.

(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

Me - Stairs

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

Fat Boy Gripes

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

Queer Boy Gripes

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

Brown Boy Gripes

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

Class-Related Gripes

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

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

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

The Politics Of Respectability

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

The Politics Of Authenticity

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

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

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

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

Blogging For (A) Change

Should academics blogSome academics are hesitant to do so, but a generation of young scholars — who have been raised with technology — have pointed out many benefits of doing so (and using Twitter).  For one, it presents something other than the traditional format and flow of academic writing.  The freedom (and fun) of writing for a blog can actually help our traditional academic writing.  Also, it presents a medium to transcend the traditional barriers to making academic work accessible.  Earlier this year, I wrote an essay, “Blogging For (A) Change,” about using blogging for intellectual activism (see below).

If you are interested in starting your own blog, there are several bits of advice on the web about getting started And, I am always looking for guest bloggers for ConditionallyAccepted.com!

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I recently wrote on essay on blogging for Remarks, the newsletter for the Section on Racial and Ethnic Minorities of the American Sociological Association.  In it, I reflect on the reasons why I blog, namely to make academic knowledge more accessible, and my participation in the recent blog discussion on “post-racism.”  Institutional support does not exist to encourage academics to blog or use other forms of social media for their scholarship (yet), so I elaborate on some of the potential professional and personal benefits of blogging.

Download a pdf of the Remarks newsletter here, or you can jump right to the original, extended version of the essay below.  This post was featured as a guest blog post at RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, and captured the interest of Dr. Fabio Rojas who responded with “why activism and academia don’t mix.

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Blogging For (A) Change

To blog or not to blog?  Within the context of the debate over public sociology, which seems as old as the discipline itself, the question does not seem that novel. But, with technology advancing even as I write this, the question does warrant attention.

Still today, much academic knowledge, be it publications or lecture material, is locked within the academy. Individuals who can afford it are welcomed into institutions of higher education to learn basic aspects of any discipline of their choosing. Their student status allows them to peruse whatever academic journals to which their university has purchased access. But, beyond the university, the public has limited access to academic knowledge. And, even those who can access it, like our students, there is little hope (and utility) of gleaning much from the latest issue of American Sociological Review.  Even Contexts articles are behind pay-walls!

On Activism and the Academy

I have wrestled with the ivory tower’s barriers to academic knowledge since the start of my graduate training in 2007. Like most of my colleagues of marginalized backgrounds, particularly scholars of color, I came to graduate school as an activist, prepared to devote my life to making a difference. Still today, I am often frustrated by my naiveté that the academy, by design, is apolitical and “objective.”  The first time it was made painfully aware to me, a professor joked, “oh, we still haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”  No, they still have not.

Unsurprisingly, the value-systems of many academic institutions (particularly research-intensive universities) reflect and reinforce this apolitical and supposedly objective culture. One’s job prospects, tenure-ability, and chances of promotion depend, first, upon one’s research in peer-reviewed journals; then, some attention is paid to the quality of one’s teaching. Finally, one’s service to the department, university, and discipline are given a quick skim. Of course, service never means serving communities in need. (That is what you do in your “free” time.)

Unfortunately, these institutional priorities mirror those of white, middle-class scholars. I suspected this from the start of my academic career. But, I had my “proof” when I saw the ASA presentation, “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions” (see the Powerpoint here).  In a 2009 sample of 1,473 doctoral students, African American and Latina/o doctoral students ranked as their number 1 and number 3 reason to attend graduate school, respectively, to “contribute to the advancement of minorities in the US”; “contribute to my community” was number 2 for Latina/os. The top three reasons for white doctoral students were to “grow intellectually,” “improve occupational mobility,” and “make a contribution to the field.”  All these years of feeling my work was urgently needed to make a difference, while my white colleagues were merely curious about the social world, now had confirmation.

Top 3 Reasons Students go to Grad School

Intellectual Activism

Recently, I have grown more comfortable in accepting that I pursue change-making through my research, teaching, and academic and community service, and that I do so in an environment that tries to “beat the activist” out of me.  I have been particularly inspired by Patricia Hill Collins’s latest book, Intellectual Activism, which makes such work seem like a given for scholars of color.

Collins makes a distinction between speaking truth to power and speaking truth to the people. Indeed, by pursuing traditional academic work, namely publishing research, we aim to accomplish the former. That is, we try to advance research, and even challenge others’ research, to better understand social problems, make visible the lives of historically marginalized communities, and so on. But, such efforts alone could mean that your work never leaves the pay-walls of academic journals. Instead, to do so, we must speak to (and with) those outside of the ivory tower (e.g., public speeches, working with community groups).  (See her Contexts article on these ideas, as well).

The importance of both of these intellectual activist efforts became very clear to me with the publication of my first solo-authored article in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Understandably, I was excited upon news of its acceptance. But, from acceptance to OnlineFirst to print and beyond, I kept feeling that something was missing. In fact, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I was underwhelmed. Here, I had achieved the great feat of publishing in one of the discipline’s top journals, and ended up feeling more irrelevant thereafter. Getting somewhat choked up in revealing this to a few friends, I realized I was aching for some sense that my publication would actually matter to the people it was about – marginalized individuals who face discrimination and bear the health consequences of these experiences.

I suspect I will eventually be cited, as many scholars are doing important, novel work on discrimination and health. But, beyond those JHSB articles featured as policy briefs, few outside of the academy will ever see my article. Whereas capturing the media’s attention for one’s research seemed to be the common route to accessibility, I pursued a press release through Indiana University and one through ASA. I am grateful for these opportunities, but, again, disappointed by the outcome. A few sites that indiscriminately repost every academic article picked up the press releases. And, my study was featured in a few Spanish-language newspapers in Los Angeles.  No small feat!  But, it was not the New York Times attention of which I dreamed.

I considered sending printed copies of my article to non-profit organizations like NAACP, NOW, and HRC. But, I worried that their overworked staff had little time to figure out what to do with it. Ultimately, I decided to devote a guest blog post at Sociological Images to a summary of my article, which I also posted on my own personal blog.

Blogging as Intellectual Activism

Blogging – a form of writing on the internet (short for web-logging) – can serve many academic functions. In fact, at least in the way I approach blogging, it offers a unique space to simultaneously achieve efforts related to research, teaching, and service.  Again, using the example of my JHSB article, I was able to make my findings accessible beyond the JHSB readership (i.e. academics). In addition, it offered an unlimited space to elaborate or clarify. In particular, I was able to strip away much of the sociological jargon that likely hinders readability. In addition, I was able to offer simple bar graphs instead of multivariate models. While expounding upon my research, I also spent some energy to teaching an unfamiliar audience about some of the concepts within my article, namely the intersectionality theoretical framework.

In addition to extending traditional academic work, blogging also presents a space for more “real time” scholarship. One of the constraints of academic work is the lag in doing research to publication to uptake beyond the academy. Years may go by before one sees one’s first citation, and even more before one’s study has some impact, albeit indirect, beyond the ivory tower. As such, sociologists rarely attend to current events in their research.  Though one might find it challenging to pursue, for example, an ethnographic study of the Trayvon Martin murder case, one certainly could devote a five-paragraph blog assessment of the racial dynamics inherent within it. With so much political commentary offered for everyday current events, we certainly could use more sociologically-informed, critical perspectives to make sense of things.

Personal Benefits of Blogging

You may not be convinced by these aforementioned reasons to blog – that it offers a space to make your research and academic knowledge in general accessible to the public. Indeed, there is still little institutional value and support for such work. However, there are other benefits, both personal and professional, that may make blogging more enticing.

Professionally, blogging can serve as an opportunity to connect with other scholars. Though I am physically (and socially) isolated these days as I frantically finish my dissertation, I have been a part of an on-going blog discussion with Fabio Rojas (orgtheory.net), Tressie Cottom McMillan (tressiemc.com), and Jason Orne (queermetropolis.wordpress.com) about the persistence of racism in America, or the possibility that we are in living in a “post-racist” era. In addition, blogging can function as a space to mentor other scholars, or simply offer professional advice. Tanya Golash-Boza (SREM Section Chair) has a great blog (getalifephd.blogspot.com) that is filled with tips for writing and creating balancing in one’s schedule (and life in general). Karen Kelsky’s theprofessorisin.com was tremendously helpful for preparing for the job market.

Following the aforementioned blog debate on “post-racism,” I have also been reminded that blogging has a bit of a liberating effect. Of course, any additional writing tasks are good practice. But, blogging offers a space to write without censor, standard, and fear of “what will the reviewers think!”  Early on, I learned that my academic writing must be undeniably supported by prior research or my own findings. One cannot discuss what they are not measuring directly; “don’t talk about racism – you’re measuring race attitudes,” I was told. In my personal blogging, I can talk about racism – and I often do. As a result, the words flow more easily. I do not stop after each sentence to agonize over what reviewer number 2 will say. And, this newfound ease in my writing extends into my academic writing, as well (even on “perceived” race discrimination in my work on racist discrimination).

Obviously, every sociologists cannot blog, for it may not be a desirable task to add to those overwhelming To-Do lists that actually lead to jobs, tenure, and promotion.  But, I would at least like to encourage those who have been curious or tempted to consider it, even if infrequently or offering a guest blog post to existing blog sites.  There are numerous free blogging sites (e.g., WordPress, Blogspot).  Whether you blog for change, or just for a change of pace, the benefits of doing so may be worth giving up a few minutes to an hour.

References

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2012. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Segura, Denise A. 2012. “‘Diversity and Its Discontents’: A Report on Graduate Student Experiences in PhD-Granting Institutions.”  Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 17, Denver, CO.

That Time I Was Mistaken As A Student

student or professor?

student or professor?

I have heard other instructors, particularly young women and especially young women of color, who express frustration with being mistaken as a student.  I have been on guard for this, spending just an extra second to think about a stranger’s surprise when I introduce myself as “Dr. Grollman” or noting that I am a professor.  Sure, few people in the world hold PhDs, and even fewer are professors.  So, I let their surprise slide as a matter of probability.  And, when on campus, I remember that I am a new face, giving others the benefit of the doubt.

But, I have never been mistaken as something else — until yesterday.  I went to my campus’s library to check out a film that I may show in my social inequalities class — PBS’s RACE: The Power of An Illusion.  Of course, the only video missing from its shelf was the one I needed.  How did someone check this out so quickly?  I just saw it listed online as available on Friday!  I noticed there were some videos behind the library student worker — maybe those that had been checked out and returned, but not yet processed.  I saw it!  In bigger letters on a white cover: RACE.

So, I asked the student staff member whether that was the video I was looking for, and whether I could check it out.  “Sure, but you’ll only have it for four hours, and you’ll have to watch it here.”  That seemed strange, so I asked why this was available in such limited use; I wanted to show this in my class.  “Oh, you’re the professor who put this on reserve?!”  “Yes!”  She scanned my ID and began the process to check it out to me.  I asked, “do I look that young?”  I was being polite, and trying to give the benefit of the doubt.  But, my mind was already wondering… “it would happen as I’m checking out a video on race and racism…”

“It’s the hat.”  Huh?  Upon explaining, she said many (men) students wear the hat I had on.  Oh, ok.  Strange.  I joked that I would donate the hat so I would no longer be mistaken as a student.  She assured me it was not a bad thing.  Whew, okay, so this was not about race (on the surface).  “Also, professors tend to be more demanding.”  HA!  I quickly responded,  “well, that’s not a part of our training.”  As it turns out, it was on reserve.  I missed that part.  So, I could not check it out anyhow, at least not without asking the professor who put it on reserve to borrow it temporarily.

The hat’s fate is debatable.  Sometimes, I do not mind disappearing — at least as an obvious professor — to just get where I need to go on campus.  But, the idea that many students wear the same hat is planted in my head.  In terms of being more polite than other professors, I am more than happy to be an outlier.