Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

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

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

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

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledging The “One-Body Problem”

Source: PhDComics.com

I am worried about my fellow academics (broadly defined).  Many of us suffer from what I wish to call the “one-body problem.”  I am borrowing here from the term, “two-body problem,” which refers to the challenge of navigating the academic job market along with your (also) academic partner or spouse.  But, I mean “body” in a more literal, physical sense — the responsibility of taking care of one’s body.  It seems that some of us become so overworked and overwhelmed, either trying to meet high (and growing) demands and/or pushing ourselves to meet unrealistic standards.  Consequently, our health and well-being take a toll.

Speaking From Experience

I still steam a bit today when I recall being told by a professor that the mental health of graduate students is not a major departmental concern.  The excuse rationale was that (presumably) many of students come to graduate school with preexisting mental health problems.  If you were depressed when you entered the program, that is on you!  Now, good luck finishing your PhD in a timely manner…  The dismissal was disappointing, but the assertion was personally insulting.

Yes, I experienced teenage angst.  And, I was depressed at times, a reasonable state for pretending to be heterosexual through my childhood and adolescence.  Just like the depression I experienced at the start of college, I was depressed through my first two years of graduate school.  Sure, that all seems like reasonable, and predictable distress through an adjustment period.  But, when I hit the lowest point, letting graduate school push me to contemplating suicide, I knew it was time to make a radical change or get the hell out.  Fortunately, my university’s counseling services offered to put me in time-management group therapy… you know, to make time for suicide between classes.  (The lack of mental health services for graduate students warrants its own blog post…).  I decided to make graduate school work for me, as there was nothing else that I envisioned myself doing at that point in my life.

By my third year of grad school — a generally content period because I began teaching — I was experiencing chest pains.  Eventually, I saw a doctor because I worried it might be heart problems or hypertension.  But, also suspected it might be the symptom of some mental health problem.  Fortunately, the first physician I saw had the great recommendation to have sex to alleviate stress — an outlet with little worry about sexually transmitted infections because I was having sex with middle-class white women (or so he assumed).  I decided to see another physician thereafter, a doctor with a D.O. degree (and the promise of holistic care).  She immediately suggested it might be anxiety, but had me rule out all physical causes first — heartburn medication, stress test, cardiologist visits — oh, thank goodness for health insurance!  Once those were ruled out, I searched for a therapist.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”  My new therapist said it so casually.  Over the year or so that I saw her, much of our conversation focused on the stress of graduate school — both real, external demands, and those that I hyperinternalized.  In my mind, research was the main source of the anxiety I experienced, so I decided to take a year-long break from my research fellowship to teach — nope.  I was told that it would be foolish to “give up” a break from teaching.  And, even in disclosing “but, I have anxiety,” I was told a little bit of anxiety is good fuel for your productivity.  So, I pushed on, anxiety and all.  Certainly, I feel I was successful on the research front, and graduated early by my department’s standards.  But, not without some daily manifestation of anxiety: chest pains, lightheadedness, numbness in limbs, sore throats, eye-twitching, insomnia, nausea, shooting pain in my hip, etc.  I suspect the anxiety also made me vulnerable to other health problems I faced, like pneumonia, an allergic reaction to allergy medicine in my eyes, and multiple instances of strep throat.

Today, I have the anxiety under better control.  But, when I fail to take care of myself efficiently, and I let “should” pile up the many self-imposed demands, it can easily rear its ugly head.  Yes, if it were not for my body’s resistance, I probably would have given in to the pressure to take a job at a research-intensive university.

Audre Lorde

Make Self-Care Mandatory

Unfortunately, it took the sudden death of my 19-year-old cousin in 2011, followed by three more relatives’ deaths, and the recent passing of a friend and colleague, to force me to recognize my mortality and fragility.  It has been driven into my head and my heart that tomorrow is not promised to me.  If I die today, I should be able to do so proud of what I have made of my life and what I have done for others.  Around my office, I have little phrases, poems, and lists that emphasize living well, including the tenure-track as a “7-year postdoc.”  I do not resent that my body’s negative response to the stressful demands of graduate school altered my career path.  After all, my brain would be out of a job if the rest of my body dies.

Yes, we know well that we must be amazing teachers, prolific scholars, and serving on every committee possible in order to get a job, get tenure, get promoted, and any other academic milestone.  But, many of us fail to prioritize self-care as a part of our career.  What are you doing to ensure that you will even be alive long enough to get tenure, become full professor, or leave/retire from academia to start a second career?  What are you doing to ensure that you can achieve these career goals and be happy, and have a life, and feel healthy rather than depleted and frazzled?

I will say that one important starting point is to address the root of any mental health problems (or threats to your mental health):

  • The first is to take a hard look at your career, specifically the demands placed upon you and the obstacles you face.  How much are they affecting your health?  Is that compromise to your health worth the professional gains (in the long run)?  Is there something you can do differently, or do less of, or even just change how you think about it?
  • Second, catch yourself when you start to think of your brain and your body as separate entities.  I have too often found myself cursing my body for needing something that interrupted or limited my work.  I find myself negotiating with my bladder to let me finish writing that one last paragraph; instead, I should be seeing bathroom breaks as necessary mental breaks (which help productivity).  The mind-body connection is way outside of my expertise, so I appreciate the blogging of Dr. Crystal Fleming at Aware of Awareness on this topic.
  • Third, acknowledge that self-care is a political act 1) in pushing back against the institutional and cultural norms that increasingly demand unhealthy working conditions and 2) in daring to survive as a marginalized person in an oppressive society or institution.  You cannot wait for an institution that would rather you devote your life exclusively to your job to take care of you and provide necessary breaks.  You cannot expect the very institution that exposes you to discrimination, harassment, and undermining as a marginalized scholar to provide the resources to survive, let alone thrive.  Each semester, we are asked to make proper accommodations for our students’ abilities and health status, but the question of our own needs is never raised.

Beyond that, I do not have great advice for taking care of yourself.  Here are a few places to look for advice on self-care:

Think Like A Drag Queen

RuPaul

This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

Is It Just Me? Slowly Disposing Of “Grad School Garbage”

Before I embarked on the academic job market, I had heard a few references to job market PTSD.  I think that characterization, as a form of trauma, is fair, and the warnings that I might experience it myself were accurate.  After securing a job — the first job for which I ever interviewed, on my first tour on the job market — I did feel a sense of survivor’s guilt, seeing some friends going on their second year of the job-search and others desperately hoping for a job that never came.  Even today, I still hear, “wow, you’re lucky!”, but have learned to understand that more as a statement about the person saying it, or the general state of the job market.  There is no sense in feeling bad about getting a job!

Then, upon completing the dissertation, there was a sudden wave of depression — what others have called post-dissertation depression.  After devoting an entire year to one project, the biggest project of my life thus far, suddenly it was over; and, since I probably have not properly celebrated my successes still to this day, I was vulnerable to the creeping underwhelming feeling upon finishing.

Grad School Garbage

These appear to be pretty common forms of distress (maybe even signs of mental illness, if severe and chronic) toward the end of graduate school and then some time thereafter.  I have to wonder whether scholars on the margins are at greater risk, or experience a more severe form of them.

I have officially started my tenure-track position now, which comes with a sense of relief.  I also feel the slow (re)blossoming of my sense of self-worth.  (Deciding to do the tenure-track my way helps tremendously.)  For the most part, I do not think about my days of graduate school, unless it is to relay advice to a current graduate student.  But, I have noticed that it won’t require pulling teeth to get me to go into a rant about how awful the experience was at times.  And, a few minutes in, and I feel just as crappy as I did when I actually was in graduate school.

Why?  I am dubbing this phenomenon “grad school garbage.”  I do not think distress, or depression, or PTSD fully describe the resentment, regret, and anger — as well as those feelings of anxiety, trauma, and depression — I harbored throughout my graduate training.  And, because few options exist to readily express these feelings, I am still carrying some of this “baggage” today.  Fortunately, I can already feel that I have disposed of some of it.

Sources Of Grad School Garbage

Let me note the standard line — graduate school is tough for all.  There, I said it.  Now, let me state the obvious for graduate students of marginalized backgrounds — grad school is particularly tough for us.  Though our US-born heterosexual middle-class white male colleagues without disabilities also experience “imposter syndrome” in their first year of graduate school, it usually dissipates soon after.  I am a first-year tenure-track faculty member feeling a little bit of a rough adjustment from deferential grad student to equal colleague (especially with academics of privileged backgrounds).  For us, imposter syndrome may be a lifelong disease.

One source of grad school garbage is constantly facing microaggressions and, in some cases, major forms of discrimination and harassment.  Those are experiences with few options for release, recourse, and compensation.  Who could my (Black) friends tell that a (white) professor petted their hair with great curiosity as though they were zoo exhibits?  Or, being told by a colleague “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”, thus reinforcing the stereotype that HIV is a “gay disease”?  Typically, we tell friends of similar backgrounds, and try to avoid the “usual suspects” of such assaults to our identities, communities, and worthiness.  But, the scars still remain.

Another source that I constantly wrestle with is the contradictory nature of bigotry in academe.  In one breath, we advocate for diversity and inclusion, and many scholars directly investigate inequality in their scholarship and teaching.  But, in another breath, you are being told “man up!” or “don’t do that — that’s girly”, told fellowships for minority students are forms of “reverse racism,” and assured that homophobia does not exist in academia.  I found it more damaging and upsetting to receive these conflicting messages.  The greatest source of this appeared to be the supposed inclusion of marginalized people at the expense of marginalized subjectivity.  (This is the major theme of this blog!)  “We can accept you as a queer scholar, but” … “stop using queer theory in your work” or “studying gay people isn’t interesting in its own right.”

A final source (of course, there are more than I write about here), gets at the heart of the professional socialization of graduate school.  First, note the language that is used.  Graduate training is explicitly defined as a form of (re)socialization.  It is not enough to master the skill of scholarship; we must become scholars.  And, given the history and contemporary significance of exclusion and devaluing marginalized communities and perspectives, this poses a direct threat for scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  There is pressure to suppress our identities, our community memberships, our critical perspectives, and our values to take on those of the academy.  The better you become at convincing others that “you’re black, but won’t make an issue of it”, the more successful you can become within the mainstream.

Unfortunately, for some, this means losing ties with one’s community of origin.  We run the risk of becoming alienated from our communities, yet we are never fully accepted into the academic community.  I have heard from working-class friends that visits home increasingly include a sense of foreignness — “who are these people?”  “Who have I become?”  And, this also reflects the experiences of scholars of color (Michelle Obama’s honors thesis speaks to this for Black students who attend elite Historically White Universities and Colleges [HWCUs]).  Ironically, many of these folks came to academia to improve and empower the very communities that they now feel disconnected from.

Disposing Of The Garbage

Wow, what a difference a day makes!  I wrote the above text this morning — and now, I am writing this section at the end of the day.  I feel an unexpected, great sense of relief.  This is probably the first time in a long time that I have felt free of the misery that I grew accustomed to in graduate school.  So, I suppose time and distance are great sources of relinquishing the garbage one collects in graduate school.  I feel freer and in more control of where my career heads now.

I suppose this feeling of liberation is a confluence of factors: a new, high level of respect from others as Doctor Grollman; having publicly declared my plan to do tenure my way; having pushed for a job that will support me in many ways; having physically, socially, and emotionally left graduate school; and starting this blog to speak openly about the injustice and marginalization faced by many scholars.  This all gives academic freedom a much broader meaning!

So, let’s see how things transpire over my first few years on the tenure-track.  I am quite hopeful that having carved out what is best for me will minimize much of the garbage-producing aspects of an academic career.  Stay tuned.

Another Consequence Of Homophobia: Overcompensation?

In my and other scholars’ research, the damage of discrimination to one’s health and well-being is clear.  On top of the constraints discriminatory treatment places on one’s life chances and livelihood, victims of discrimination are furthered burdened by the blow to their sense of justice and fairness, and their well-being.  It is no surprise then that so much research focuses on discrimination as a mechanism through which social inequality is maintained.

From my personal life, exercised in my professional life but not as a topic of research, I know well about the “positive” consequences of prejudice and discrimination.  I do not mean positive as in good or desirable.  Rather, I mean the consequences that otherwise would be good or desirable if they were not the product of facing discrimination or prejudice.  I mean the sense of solidarity with fellow members of one’s oppressed group, pride in one’s identity and community, and a drive to persevere and overcome adversity.

The “Gay Tax”

I know well of the “Black tax” that I and other Black people face, having to work twice as hard to receive equal recognition.  This is because Black people are stereotyped as unmotivated, unintelligent, culturally inferior, unprofessional, and immoral.  I find myself particularly concerned with how others will evaluate me and my work.  I find myself having to give a second thought to people who don’t give me a first.  It is hard for me to let trivial slights go because I refuse to be undervalued or underestimated.

In comparing how I navigate this homophobic society as a gay man to the “Black tax,” I can discern a “gay tax” that manifests as regulating (read: suppressing) my gender and sexuality.  To minimize heterosexual men’s discomfort with my sexuality, I remain physically and emotionally distant, and “man up” my gender presentation.  To dodge religious folks’ judgement, I make as little reference to my sexuality as possible.  And, as many couples do, my partner and I are rarely affectionate in public.

All at once, I am aware of these aspects of the “gay tax,” critical of them, but pay them for my safety and well-being.

Another “Gay Tax”: Overcompensation?

But there may be another aspect to the “gay tax” that is similar to the “Black tax.”  Aware of the devalued status of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in society, some gay men have expressed through autobiographies that they throw themselves into their work to elevate their status.  Maybe, just maybe, if you are the first gay president, the world will see you just as “the president.”

In a recent study, Pachankisa and Hatzenbuehler (2013) found support for the “best little boy in the world” thesis.  In a sample of gay and heterosexual male college students, their results suggest that gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to derive their self-worth from academics, appearance, and competition.  And, the length of time that gay men remained in the closet, and the level of homophobic prejudice and discrimination in their state, were strong predictors of the extent to which these young gay men derive their self-worth from competition.

It’s the idea that young, closeted men deflect attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on. Overcompensating in competitive arenas affords these men a sense of self-worth that their concealment diminishes (from NYT review).

The downside of this “positive” consequences of the stigma gay men face is their health and well-being.  Through a nine-day diary, these gay men’s focus on elevating their status (either professionally or aesthetically) predicted long periods of isolation, interpersonal problems, unhealthy eating behaviors, and emotional distress.

All Gay Men?  What About Women?

The researchers devoted a great deal of discussion to the generalizability of their findings.  With a non-random sample of gay male college students, there is reason to worry that these findings do not translate into the experiences of all gay men, particularly those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Further, the sample is overwhelmingly white.  So, in a blog post about the article, the lead author noted:

Importantly, like the authors of “best little boy in the world” narratives, the participants in our study were mostly white, middle class, college-educated men.  The extent to which possessing multiple stigmatized identities might shape self-worth remains to be seen, as does the extent to which this or a similar phenomenon applies to women.

In addition to assessing how other gay men (especially gay men of color, working-class gay men, older gay men), are affected by and respond to homophobia, one curiosity remains: what about women?

What about female sexual minorities, you might ask? “The notion of the ‘best little boy in the world’ crops up everywhere in stories about gay men’s early lives and not as much in the narratives of young lesbians,” lead researcher John Pachankis of Yeshiva University told me in an email. “That certainly doesn’t mean that women don’t experience a similar phenomenon, but only that lesbians’ personal stories don’t seem to emphasize it as much.” Exploring that particular question is a next step for research, he says.

Ironically, the language of “overcompensating” has been used in discussions of this study, but without explicit reference to the gendered notions of (men’s) overcompensation.  It may be the case that these young men are emasculated by homophobia, and they (like many men) have found some way to compensate in their effort to measure up to the rigid expectations of masculinity.  And, funny enough, many appear to set their sights on arenas that are not vehemently homophobic — academics and aesthetics.  Athletics, sex with lots of men, and big trucks do not seem to top the list of the things gay men wish to brag about.  So, this raises some interesting (unaddressed) questions about gay masculinity.

That’s Me!

Ah, yet another study where I, as a scholar, am humbled to reminded that I am a human, equally affected by the social world as everyone else.  In his NY Times article, federal lawyer Adam D. Chandler echoed some of these sentiments:

But seeing your reflection in an empirical study has its drawbacks. The flip side of discovering you’re not alone is the melting of your presumed snowflake uniqueness. Now I’m a statistic, another data point, just an ordinary overachieving closet case.

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that the biography is half finished. They haven’t told me what’s on the other side of the closet door. Once I’m no longer harboring my secret, will I lose my drive? Or will my lifelong trophy hunt expand to include a search for a trophy husband?

I don’t know the answers. But I’m ready to find out.

Toward (Some Of) The Answers

Like any manifestation or consequence of oppression, a starting point is becoming aware of this drive to overcompensate.  This is yet another aspect of the homophobic reality gay men note and challenge in raising our gay consciousnesses.  And, I can provide (some of) the answers Chandler wants.

In a general sense, strong social support will help to minimize some of the distress.  And, having multiple roles or other important, ongoing tasks, events, affiliations, relationships, etc. is beneficial as well.  We do ourselves a disservice as gay men by isolating ourselves — that’s the opposite of seeking social support and others like us (as well as supportive allies).  By focusing narrowly on elevating our status, we place so much stock into too few things, leaving us vulnerable to having our entire self-worth tank when those aspects of our status do not go well.

But, more specific to gay men is a strong, positive gay identity and connection to the LGBT community that helps to buffer the harmful effects of our exposure to prejudice and discrimination.  While inevitable, how we respond to these stressful aspects of homophobic oppression can reduce their impact to our health — namely, challenging discriminatory treatment and confiding in trusted others about these experiences rather than accepting and repressing them.  And, rejecting (rather than internalizing) the homophobic prejudice and stereotypes of our society, and general self-acceptance are crucial for our well-being.  I recommend (again) Dr. Crystal Fleming‘s advice on rejecting others’ stereotypes and hatred.

The lead author of the study, a psychologist, offered the following recommendations:

Our research also reveals some important lessons for young gay men’s health and well-being.  The results of our research suggest that gay men take careful stock of the extent to which their self-worth derives from seeking status from domains like being the best, looking the best, or earning high grades or lots of money.  If gay men do recognize that their self-worth comes from those domains, they might consider the health costs of doing so.  Do they experience trouble in relationships with others, such as frequent arguing or spending lots of time alone?  Will they compromise personal values to attain status?  Are they chronically stressed or engaging in unhealthy habits, like going to the gym to an unhealthy degree or restricting their food intake?

If gay men answer “yes” to any of these questions, it will first be important to recognize that these difficulties are not personal failings and may have their source in stigma and the early lessons learned from growing up in a stigmatizing world.  Psychotherapy with a compassionate, gay-affirmative therapist can help gay men understand the legacy of experiencing early stressors like hiding one’s sexual orientation during adolescence or growing up in homophobic environments.  For many gay men, the negative effects of these early experiences may not be obvious at first, but can nonetheless be successfully addressed with supportive help from friends or professionals.

In understanding this “gay tax” as a stressor unique to gay men (similar to the “tax” that other oppressed groups face), I also recommend mental health service that treat patients who are gay as gay patients.  That is, care that understands the unique needs and experiences of gay people, rather than treating them as interchangeable with any other patient.  I strongly recommend The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing Up Gay in a Straight Man’s World

Oh, and eliminating homophobic prejudice and discrimination helps, too!