On Being A (Sorta Closeted) Non-Binary Professor

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

“On Being Trans And Non-Binary At UR: One (Sort Of Closeted) Professor’s Perspective”

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to write a love letter to transgender and non-binary identified students at UR, as I recently did for students of color.

DeniseDon’t get me wrong – I would much rather write that op-ed than this one. The difference here is not that I don’t care about the success, well-being, visibility, and future of trans and non-binary students – because I certainly do. Rather, I cannot speak with the same kind of experience and wisdom about being trans/non-binary as I can about race and racism. I can’t effectively love the beauty, creativity, brilliance, kindness, and bravery of you – my fellow trans and non-binary folk – because I’m still wrestling with loving myself.

I am in the closet as a non-binary identified person. A glass closet. With the door wide open. On paper and especially online, I am unapologetically genderqueer. I left my college years (2003-2007) beginning to tell others I identified as such, and first noted it in a blog post in 2009. I participated in two national surveys for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. I’ve even begun toying with the idea of exclusively using the pronouns they/them/theirs, for he/him/his reflect my identity and experiences as little as do she/her/hers.

But, in person, particularly at work here at Richmond, I hide behind suits. I note my pronouns at the beginning of the year (though it still has been “he or they”), but would never gently remind others to use “they,” especially given my masculine presentation. In fact, I was so fearful of upsetting potentially transphobic cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students in asking them which pronouns they use as a standard introduction for my classes. I’m already so far “out there” as a Black queer tenure-track professor, who does research on and teaches about controversial subjects (e.g., intersectionality, feminisms, queer theory, discrimination), and who is public in being an intellectual activist. So, I fear my little unicorn self cannot handle the backlash of yet another marginalized status – in this case, being non-binary.

To be fair to Richmond, the fear I carry is compounded by the fear of discrimination, violence, and exclusion in society generally. I hesitate to more intentionally play with my gender expression because we still live in a time where Black and Latina trans women are murdered at alarming rates. I know from my own research that the more visible one is as a trans or gender non-conforming person, the more discrimination one faces – and, in turn, the more likely one is to develop the health consequences of discriminatory treatment. Ironically, trans people experience discrimination and cultural incompetence in health care, as well. We are victimized at high rates, but are disproportionately incarcerated – not to mention frequently ignored or even harassed by law enforcement. Somehow, I’ve gotten comfortable with being out “in theory,” but, I tend to hide my non-binaryness in everyday interactions.

Beyond the fear of transphobic discrimination and violence, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I simply don’t know who I am in terms of gender. I announced at the age of 5 to my mother that I should have been born a girl. At 30, I’m still wrestling with a sense of being born in the wrong body. So, I’ve seriously questioned whether I am transgender. The problem is, the issues I have with my body do not pertain to the sex I was assigned at birth (i.e., male). In fact, my body isn’t the problem; rather, it is with those stubborn gendered meanings that are associated with my sex. I typically feel as though I have little in common with other men; in masculine spaces, I feel like an outsider. But, I also don’t feel at home in spaces for women, either. Still yet, I feel like an outsider in the few spaces carved out for transgender people. Despite the growing visibility of trans people, I still see few people like myself in the world. (Miley Cyrus might be the only non-binary celebrity I can think of… for better or for worse.)

I’ve considered saying “fuck it,” and letting my spirit and heart, rather than society and my fears of being denied tenure, dictate how I present myself to the world. As a good sociologist, I know that man, woman, transgender, and cisgender are all socially constructed categories; but that kind of gender-agnosticism (or atheism, if you prefer) doesn’t help me to navigate the real consequences of presenting myself in the world in certain gendered ways. I’d love to occasionally present myself as what some call “genderfuck,” wherein you intentionally defy rigid gendered norms, almost as parody – something along the lines of Jacob Tobia’s look. But, that critical, perhaps internalized-transphobic voice in my head says don’t do it because it may be seen as a “distraction” from my classes and my research. I fear showing up in my sassy red wig, sleek red dress, and masculine combat boots might be considered making a mockery of the classroom – or, worse, distracting from the “real” experiences of trans students (and staff and faculty). I want to be seen as a serious academic, so I’ve decided that now isn’t a good time to “play dress up.”

Oops… I did it again. Once again, I am talking openly about being non-binary – hiding in plain sight, really. Why take the time to ponder about these matters – and so publicly? I’m doing so because I know that I am not alone. I am a close friend of two staff members who are trans/non-binary. (Sadly, I don’t know of any other out trans or non-binary faculty). I know of a handful of students who are trans or non-binary. And, there are likely others who are struggling to navigate the rigid gender binary, the sex-assigned-at-birth-as-gender-destiny force, and the assumptions others make and the values they hold about specific gender categories. I know that realizing that one is not alone – particularly when oppressed students see themselves reflected at the front of the classroom – can be incredibly affirming. So, I’m sharing myself, with all of my hang-ups and confusions, with you in hopes of being a little trans island on a cisgender-dominant campus.

It’s not easy for any of us – students, staff, faculty, or administrators – to be authentic and visible in categories that are not reflected in the majority or in the institution’s policies, practices, and mission. We are increasingly recognizing that trans and non-binary students exist at UR, but treat them as special cases, while we leave in place the sex-segregation of the coordinate college system. We defend that system because of the benefits for women students (e.g., resources and support for leadership among women), but offer no parallel program that would benefit trans and non-binary students. Only in LGBTQ spaces have I heard introductions request to know one’s pronouns; otherwise, we typically make assumptions based on one’s perceived sex assigned at birth. The university prides itself on racial and ethnic diversity, but LGBTQ inclusion rarely comes up in conversations about diversifying the faculty and student body. Gender-inclusive bathrooms remain few and far between (literally). I could go on… I’ve seen real progress on this campus toward LGBTQ inclusion, so I’m aware some of these very issues are discussed and real change is coming.

To clarify, I raise the above points not to label the university transphobic (though, by design, almost every social institution is), but rather to highlight the structural and cultural barriers to being out and authentic as a non-binary or transgender person on this campus. It is hard to love yourself when you don’t see yourself, when you aren’t encouraged to be your true self, and, at times, when you experience actual hostility because of who you are. I dream of a future in which I, and other trans and non-binary folk on this campus, am braver in being visible, being vocal, and being authentic. I see you, fellow unicorns; I hope you see me, too, even when I hide in plain sight.

A Love Letter To Students Of Color

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

“A Love Letter To Richmond Students Of Color”

Me - Ford“Dr. Grollman, this is the worst chapter of my life,” a Black woman student revealed to me in my office two years ago. Her comment was heartbreaking, especially coming from an individual who has lived but two decades and was on her way to finishing her degree at this world-class university. I refrained from trivializing her comments, avoiding some flippant response like college supposedly being a time of fun and self-exploration as though she had chosen, instead, to be miserable. Rather, I told her that I believed her, as I would when anyone has revealed that they have suffered from violence (in her case, the intersections among racism, sexism and classism). I pointed out resources that were available to her to help her survive and, ideally, thrive on campus. And, I asked that she consider finding ways to leave the campus in better shape than when she arrived, for I do not want to hear cohort after cohort of Black University of Richmond students reveal their misery to me.

That student’s misery was not unique to her experiences at UR. Although other students have not quite gone as far as to declare that their four to five years at Richmond are the worst chapter of their lives, they have expressed their misery in similar terms. I have lost count of the number of students of color who have revealed their intentions to transfer, or that transferring is not possible given the generous scholarship and/or financial aid they are receiving. Better yet, I do not know how many are not miserable, looking to leave or counting the days until their graduation – it does not seem like many.

Students of color, I see you come into my class with a dark cloud over your head. I know you use your hoodie, blaring music on your headphones and a facial expression that says, “Don’t f*** with me!” as a shield to your racist and classist surroundings. Maybe you have checked out of the campus social scene all together, or you begrudgingly go to lodge parties because there is nothing else to do. Or, you go to events by groups of color though they always seem to have a heavier police presence. Some of you desperately try to find community, only to be disappointed that social class, or gender, or sexuality, or religion, or ethnicity, or nationality, or even racial politics create divisions that make community for people of color nearly impossible. Many of you want to change things, to make Richmond more diverse and inclusive, but are so disenchanted by the lack of a political culture on campus – why even bother if only 20 people show up, or if white students will dismiss your efforts because we live in a supposedly post-racial society now?

You are all young, gifted and Black. But, I know that more often than not, you feel nothing more than Black on this campus. I believe you. And, I believe that if I were a student here today, I, too, would be miserable. I cannot imagine being able to breathe in what appears to be a suffocating environment for many students of color.

But, as a professor, I am able to breathe. And, with more and more support from my department colleagues, Dean Kathleen Skerrett, Provost Jacquelyn Fetrow, Associate Provost Lázaro Lima and President Ronald Crutcher, I have been able to breathe more deeply. I know that with that privilege, I am also charged with the responsibility of helping others who cannot breathe as deeply – and, that largely means you, students of color. Despite the lack of exposure to critical race, feminist and queer perspectives in my academic training, I am pushing myself to bring these perspectives to my classes in sociology, even those cross-listed with WGSS and Healthcare Studies. Despite the pervasive myth of objectivity in academia, I push myself to not only “show up” as a professor of color, but also to be authentic, for having brown and black faces is meaningless if they do not bring diverse perspectives and experiences. Despite fearing for my job security and physical safety, I push myself to be brave on campus to model for you that you can be a critical, academic and Black.

Students of color, you are not alone, despite the small numbers of Black, Latino/a, Asian and American Indian students (when you calculate by each specific race and ethnicity). You are not alone in feeling miserable, in wanting to leave, in wanting to demand change. You are not alone in experiencing racial discrimination, racial battle fatigue, racist microaggressions and being subject to racist stereotypes. You are not alone in wanting to just get that degree, cross that stage so you can make your mother proud, and get a good job afterward – but wondering if it is all worth it considering the obstacles that lie ahead and those you have already overcome. You are young, gifted and Black – and you are many.

Let’s be real for a moment. Richmond, like most universities, was neither created for nor by people of color. We had to push our way in through court cases and protests. Still today, “diversity” rhetoric in academia rings hallow in the face of segregation and strained race relations on campuses, while racist white conservatives are still challenging Affirmative Action. Meritocracy in society, including higher education, is a myth. It is dangerous to assume that this university will be here for us, will look out for us, will treat us equally, will affirm our existence. We are, by and large, on our own.

So, I ask, then, that you find others around you to build community. Get out of your dorm rooms, and stop hanging exclusively with your roommates and floormates. If existing groups are exclusive, demand that they become more inclusive, or start your own group. I want you to think creatively about how to make your voice heard. Alumna Dana MacLaughlin, WC ’14, conducted a wonderful historical analysis of LGBTQ life at Richmond over time, which you can see online at the Office of Common Ground’s website – I recommend a similar project, or at least using The Collegian to document your life, your existence, your amazing work. Every event that you plan related to race and ethnicity, be sure that a Collegian reporter is there with a camera; if they do not show up, write your own op-ed about why you planned it or what happened. Think about what you need to survive and thrive while you are a student here, and also think ahead to how you can improve the campus for future classes of students of color. Reach out to faculty and staff of color to ask how they might support you, too; sometimes we simply do not know what is going on, and get consumed with our own survival. But, we likely had support to get here, too.

If you are miserable right now, that is fine. Please do not pretend otherwise. But, you deserve better. The reality is, “better” has never been handed to us, and probably never will be. With President Crutcher at the helm, now is definitely the time to make your voices heard, to demand that the university genuinely live up to its promises of diversity and inclusion, and to leave your mark on this fine university of ours. Trust me, you will sleep better at night in 10 years knowing that you might have been miserable, but were active in working to improve the campus.