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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.
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.
My 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?
I 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.
Learning From (All Of) Our Colleagues
I suppose there is no harm in admitting that the career not pursued for me was one of a student affairs professional. When I began applying to graduate schools in 2006, I weighed between sociology, women’s and gender studies, and student affairs. My mentors in the student affairs side of campus suggested I would have an easier time shifting into student affairs with a PhD in sociology than to sociology with a PhD in student affairs. So, the compromise has been to become a sociology professor who, at times, will be an advocate and mentor for students outside of the traditional classroom setting. To further bridge these two worlds — students academic lives and their “extracurricular” lives (formal clubs, but also developing into adults) — I remain open to collaborations and mutual learning with my colleagues in student affairs and higher education.
Over the summer, I went through my university’s Safe Zone training program, and attended one of the lunches for safe zone allies. At the beginning of each of these events, Ted Lewis — University of Richmond’s Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life — asks attendees to introduce themselves: your name and your preferred pronoun. At some point, Ted usually indicates that this approach is to avoid making assumptions, and to be more inclusive of trans* and gender non-conforming people. At the summer safe zone brownbag lunch on LGBTQ students in our classrooms, we spoke at greater length about the importance of this approach. And, while most appreciated the importance of doing so, the (junior) professors in the room squirmed at the thought of doing something that may be considered radical.
Ted always seems so comfortable when starting meetings this way. So, I figured I could employ this in my classes, no matter how scary it might be. A colleague actually discouraged me from doing so, fearing the students’ (negative) reactions and, in turn, their (negative) course evaluations. I shared that fear, so my compromise was to ask students’ preferred pronoun in my gender and sexuality class (11 students, high gender and racial diversity) but not in my research methods class (20 people, lower gender and racial diversity).
On the first day of the semester, I was comfortable enough to ask students in my research methods course for their preferred name. Per Ted’s suggestion, to be even more inclusive, we must not assume students use the legal name listed in the university’s records. And, this is welcoming not just for trans* and gender non-conforming students, but any student who goes by Bill instead of William. And, to minimize the embarrassment we feel as (US-born) instructors as we knowingly, yet helplessly, mispronounce international students names, we allow them to pronounce it for us first, or, for some, provide the “Americanized” name they have adopted for this very reason. There seemed to be a slight level of appreciation from the students for calling only their last names, and having them respond with their preferred first name. But, I did not feel brave enough to ask for preferred pronouns.
On the first meeting of my gender and sexuality course, I did ask both preferred name and preferred pronoun. I quickly jotted down “he”, “she”, and “ze” on the board to explain what a pronoun is. The students complied. As much as possible, I do the scary things that I ask of my students; when I ask them to share parts of themselves or personal background, I share as well to lessen the power differential. So, as the last student announced their name and pronoun, it came to me to respond. Since I was nervous during this entire exercise, I rambled: “Doctor or Professor Grollman; and he, she, whatever really.” I had not emotionally prepared for outing myself, so I was dissatisfied with an incoherent response that probably raised more questions than answers. Then, I moved on by briefly explaining my desire to make the classroom inclusive for trans* and gender non-conforming students, and then into covering the syllabus.
The Brave Act Of Asking?
In hindsight, it is quite telling that I experienced such nervousness about asking people the simple question — “what is your preferred pronoun?” It is less scary to assume for everyone, and potentially erase or misgender trans* and gender non-conforming people. That, to me, is a shame. The sheer importance of actually asking recently became more apparent as news story after news story ignored Chelsea Manning’s (a soldier convicted of espionage this summer) self-defined gender identity and preferred pronoun of “she”/”her.”
The saving grace was, first, the sky did not fall and I was not unemployed by the end of the day. The students did not scream at me, “you queer radical!” And, no one left before the official end of class time. Later, a student thanked me for asking, and confided in me that another student said, “wow, you know I never really thought about that.” In that moment, I indicated to one student an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, and, to another student, I disrupted the taken-for-granted practice of sex categorizing. I also put myself out there, at a minimum to students’ assumption that I am LGBT, but possibly that I am transgender or gender non-conforming.
This is a brave step up from what I have done in the past. When I taught sexual diversity a few years ago, I would drop little hints about my background throughout the semester — that I am multiracial, that I am from the East Coast — but, mostly fairly inert details. So, given the personal nature of the assignments for those classes, I let students devote one of their in-class quizzes to asking me something about myself. There is usually a surprising mix, but most of them end up asking — “omg, tell us already — are you gay?” I end up using that moment to bring them back to our lectures on queer theory, gender identity, and the social construction of sexual orientation to tease them with: “I’m queer.” And, then explain that I identify as genderqueer, despite my typical masculine gender presentation, and that I acknowledge my attraction to masculinity not merely stereotypically male bodies. Ah, yes — remember when we deconstructed the male/female binary, and the homo/hetero binary, and the distinction between sex and gender?
My treat to them was to share a picture of me in drag (actually, genderfuck). I relish in their “wow!”s and pleased laughter. But, I also feel at ease about baring my “true” identity because the have already completed their course evaluations. To protect myself from professional harm, I allowed the students to assume week after week that I am cisgender of whatever sexual identity. But, at the cost of keeping trans* and gender non-conforming people (even myself to an extent) invisible until it is professionally “safe.”
Now with a PhD, and a job that I have at least for seven years, I am pushing myself to be braver. I am sacrificing what I may be mistakenly assuming is a delicate rapport with (more conservative) cisgender and heterosexual students to make my classroom inclusive. Yes, it could very well mean a ding to my course evaluations. I may even find awful, possibly homophobic and transphobic comments on RateMyProfessor.com in a year. Frankly, I think it is worth it to push cisgender students, at least once in their entire lives, to answer the dreaded question, “what are you?!”, that trans* and gender non-conforming people face too often.
And, so far it has paid off. On Week 2, a new student arrived as a late add to the class. I welcomed the student. And, another student interrupted me, “um, preferred pronoun?” I had already assumed the new student’s name (that which was provided in the university records), and failed to ask for the pronoun the student preferred used in the class. So, I had the students, once again, announce their preferred first name and pronoun. This time, I was ready, and gave a more coherent response for my own — “he or she is fine.” It is my hope of hopes that the students leave the class taking this practice, or at least knowing its importance, into other arenas in their lives. I certainly have found it worth the anxiety and fear, so I will continue to do so in future classes — and, not just in my gender and sexuality classes!
One concern that another professor raised was forcing students to out themselves. Without asking for pronouns, trans* and gender non-conforming students can presumably go unnoticed in your class. When you do ask, their turn comes and they are faced with the choice to out themselves or not. And, no matter their answer, other students may make assumptions about them. And, choosing not to provide a pronoun may also lead others to simply assume, “oh, they’re trans.” I, too, worry about this. But, as Ted pointed out, the other alternative is to gender them yourself. At some point, you as the instructor, will likely provide an assumed pronoun and gender identity before the entire class — or, another student may do so, “yeah, I agree with her.” Asking is at least one step closer toward respecting all students’ self-definition related to gender.
Why single out gender? I could imagine someone might ask that self-definition should either be asking nothing of our students (and ourselves as instructors) or asking them to orally complete a demographic profile: and preferred race? and preferred sexual identity? It is important to note how frequently we rely on pronouns to refer to other people. And, those pronouns are inherently gendered. Repeatedly saying, “Eric said… and Eric did… and Ted asked Eric…”, feels more jarring (at least to the ear) than “ze said”, “he spoke on,” and “I saw her.” We rarely reference race, income, or other social identities unless we are actually talking about them — unlike the pervasive use of gendered pronouns.
I note that I feel comfortable asking up to 20 students their preferred name and pronoun. Now, thinking about professors at my graduate institution who taught classes of a few hundred students, I cannot imagine bothering to take attendance, nor outing myself or asking others to do so before hundreds of people. So, the size of the class may influence how effectively this could be done, and really, whether you as the instructor feel comfortable doing so.
Although it may feel that this is easiest in the social sciences or humanities, especially in classes on gender and sexuality, I believe it can (and should) be implemented in every class. But, it may prove more effective when a set of ground rules have been established for civil, respectful classroom discussion. My gender and sexuality students may have been more amenable to this approach to teaching because we also spent time creating a list of ground rules — which included the use of “oops, ouch, educate” per one student’s suggestion.
As I noted, I am trying this out for the first time myself. So, I hope to provide a follow up in a semester when I begin asking for preferred pronouns in each class (and maybe even meetings that I facilitate).
Additional Resources For Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Students
- “Preferred Gender Pronouns: For Faculty” [download]
- “Resources for Transgender and Gender Variant Students” (Brown University)
“Identity Matters: Teaching Transgender in the Women’s Studies Classroom” by Kate Drabinski. 2011. Radical Teacher 92: 10-20.
- “Teaching Transgender” by Tre Wentling, Elroi Windsor, Kristen Schilt, and Betsy Lucal. 2008. Teaching Sociology 36: 49-57.
- Understanding Transgender People [download] and Transgender Terminology [download] (National Center for Transgender Equality)
- “Trans 101” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project)
When news first broke about the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations spoke out about the injustice. Some even signed onto calls demanding that Zimmerman be tried for the murder. Now, after the not-guilty verdict, which has freed Zimmerman of any responsibility and thus punishment for taking Martin’s life, even more LGBT organizations have voiced their outrage. Indeed, advocating for justice is the right thing to do.
Trayvon’s Murder As An LGBT Issue
But, is this really something that we should expect of organizations that advocate for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression? Or, as the Queerty article asked of its readers, “Should the LGBT community care about the George Zimmerman trial verdict?“
When I first saw the headline, I thought the answer was obvious — yes! And, other LGBT media were focusing on the organizations that were demanding justice; so, it seemed the question did not even need to be posed. I skimmed the article and then the comments to see if the obvious “yes” and the reasons for it were articulated by others. Fortunately, most of the readers at least said yes, though largely because they could empathize with the injustice in this case as LGBT people.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by this response. It felt as though LGBT people — at least the few people answering Queerty’s inquiry — cared about the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin to the extent that they were able to envision fearing such violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. I had hoped to see some recognition that this racial injustice affects the lives of LGBT people of color — that that was enough for the entire LGBT community to be concerned that some of its members’ rights have been threatened.
However, I read an op-ed in The Advocate this morning, which help me understand this sort of empathy (which I would better understand outside of this very divisive case). Michelle Garcia, the magazine’s commentary editor, wrote a piece that connects the so-called gay panic defense to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received. In the former, there have been cases of anti-LGBT murders wherein the heterosexual murderer argues that he (typically) was momentarily insane because of a sexual advance made by the gay or transgender victim. In a way, they feared for their safety (in line with the stereotype of gay rapists), and thus defended themselves. Zimmerman’s defense for pursuing and killing Martin was that he feared for his and others’ safety. Because the stereotype of young Black men as violent criminals exists, eliciting real fear in whites, it seemed to be enough to justify taking Martin’s life, and letting Zimmerman (and his racial biases) walk free.
I find this take (and this one) convincing. The very laws (i.e., Stand Your Ground) that let white murderers of innocent Black people walk free could let heterosexual or cisgender murderers of innocent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender walk free. In fact, prior to such broad self-defense laws, and without drawing directly upon them now that they exist, there are several of such murderers who do walk free because of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. Courts and juries have sympathized with privileged people who momentarily felt unsafe (often because they stereotyped an LGBT person as a sexual predator), while offering no justice for their victims — people who live in daily fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence their entire lives.
A(nother) Call For Coalition-Building
As such, the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin is an LGBT issue… is a feminist issue… is a human rights issue. In the past few weeks, LGBT people have celebrated major advancements toward sexual and gender equality. In that same time frame, the hard-fought rights of people of color and women have been attacked and, in some cases, successfully eliminated. These setbacks hurt lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, and LGBT people of color. Thus, they are setbacks for all LGBT people, and all people of color, and all women. And, pessimistically speaking, they are a signal to the LGBT movement that bigots never retire, even as discrimination and violence are outlawed. The very rights we finally secure today may be undermined in a few decades.
This is yet another reminder that single-issue politics are less effective, at least in the long-run. We cannot afford to have white feminists focusing exclusively on the slow reversal of Roe v. Wade, while white gay men continue to blindly celebrate marriage equality, while heterosexual, cisgender people of color exclusively mourn the recent string of racial injustices (Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, Baby Veronica, Zimmerman’s acquittal, etc.). That is, while women of color, LBT and queer women, and LGBT people of color are exhausted by trying to keep up with all of these issues, and trying to explain to others how they are fundamentally linked. Simply put, we are overdue for successful coalition-building. For, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King).