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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.
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”
The 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.
Many scholars have long criticized the notion that research, in any capacity, can be “objective” — free the personal biases of the researcher, and reflecting universal Truth. So, I will not take the time to review the argument(s) that research cannot and never will be objective. Instead, I would like to reflect on the benefits that come from the inherently subjective nature of research — at least in my own experience. While the “how” of the research process — how research was carried out — cannot be separated from the humanness of the researcher, I am more interested here in the “why” (why it was carried out and in that way).
Researchers Are Human
In much of my graduate training, and even at times now as a professor, I have agonized over concessions I feel forced to make in order to be successful. I have sometimes relinquished authenticity in order to appeal to the mainstream of my field(s). In other words, knowingly (or unknowingly), I have sometimes acted in a way that would keep me from standing out from the crowd. I am already marginalized in academia and society in general; I cannot totally shake the feeling that I must “fit in” somewhere.
Fortunately, I have been moving in the direction of accepting my uniqueness. Statistically speaking, I am a unicorn.* There are few people in the US — the world even — like me. And, my unique social location informs a unique perspective on the world. I do myself a disservice by working against my uniqueness. I do science a disservice by withholding a perspective that may challenge conventional and mainstream research. And, I do my students a disservice by advancing the same perspective they might find in every other course.
In embracing my unicorn-ness, albeit unevenly throughout my career, two unique lines of research were born. In one, which I started early in my career, I attend to sexual orientation as an important social status — one that likely shapes an individuals’ worldviews. There is good work that looks at the sexual, romantic, and familial lives of sexual minorities, and other work examines their exposure to homophobic and biphobic discrimination. But, these approaches have tended to focus at the surface level of this groups’ marginalization — what makes them unique (to be frank: sex and relationships) and the consequences of being stigmatized. It is my hope to highlight how else this status shapes our lives.
In the other line of research, I have been more intentional in embracing my inner unicorn. I examine exposure to more than one form of discrimination (e.g., Black women’s experiences of race and gender discrimination), and the impact it has on health. In hundreds of studies on self-reported discrimination and health, I saw few that acknowledged that some individuals, namely those who are marginalized in multiple ways, face more than one form of discrimination. I have been pushing greater attention to the intersection among systems of oppression (intersectionality) in this line of research. But, as the intersectional theoretical framework has implicitly favored qualitative approaches over quantitative approaches, I now find myself pushing back on intersectionality to take seriously the quantifiable aspects of life at the various intersections. (This comes after feeling I should apologize to intersectionality scholars for doing it “wrong.”)
Speaking of intersectionality scholars, three come to mind who, in their own ways, embraced their unique perspective. Two, obviously, are the foremothers of the intersectionality perspective: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw (the legal scholar who originally created the theoretical framework) and Patricia Hill Collins (the Black feminist sociologist who elaborated and further popularized it). In her latest book, On Intellectual Activism, Dr. Collins discusses why she advanced Black Feminist Thought, including intersectionality — gaps she saw in how other scholars were examining the lives of people of color and women (as distinct, non-overlapping groups) among other reasons. Another researcher who has embraced her unique perspective and social location is sociologist Mignon Moore, who has 1) pushed intersectionality scholars to bring sexuality (back) into such work and 2) challenged prior work on lesbian couples and families that failed to look specifically at Black women.
Imagine if these scholars decided not to “go against the grain,” did not dare to advance scholarship that actually reflected their lives and communities. Would intersectionality be an increasingly popular theoretical framework in the social sciences? With no hope of studying their often invisible communities, would marginalized students decide against training in traditional fields like sociology, law, psychology, etc.? Or, would they even consider graduate training or an academic career? By honing one’s own unique perspective, and inspiring new scholars to hone their own, we advance science to reflect diverse viewpoints and approaches, and challenge existing ones that may be limited or even one-sided.
Personal Motivations For Research
No matter the perspective you advance in your research, another important component of our subjectivity as researchers is why we study what we study. Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega recently reflected on the role of emotions in his (and other scholars’) research. Though his work might be classified as positivistic in his approach, generally keeping focus away from him as the researcher, he embraces his personal motivations that influence what he studies and why:
It’s no secret to anyone that I have publicly declared my own research position and what drives and fires my research focus: I strive to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. I want to see poverty alleviated and, if possible, eradicated. I want to address global inequalities and inequities. My research is driven by an intense desire to increase access to proper sanitation. Water poverty pains me and I want to help reduce it. Informal waste recyclers’ frequently face inhumane working conditions, thus making them vulnerable populations. I am interested in empowering the disenfranchised, and thus I strongly believe that my research benefits from the raw emotions that I feel whenever I am faced with, for example, the realities of poor communities with little access to water.
I suspect most researchers are influenced, to some degree, by their personal interests and values — at least in choosing what to study. Women are overrepresented in research on gender and sexism. The majority of scholars who study race, ethnicity, and racism are people of color. I have heard those who have either suffered from mental illness or had relatives who did are drawn to psychology and psychiatry. Even aside from what some have called “me-search,” I suspect curiosity — some mystery from one’s childhood that propels a desire to study it deeply — drives other researchers’ work. Does anyone study something they do not care about at all?
I would argue that one’s passion for a particular topic still informs later aspects of the research process — not just in choosing what to study. For example, a researcher may be disappointed to yield a “null finding,” that something that concerns them was not found in their analyses. Of course, a good researcher would not intentionally manipulate their data or analyses in order to create a desired outcome. (And, a good researcher would already exhaust all alternative measures and analyses.) But, failing to find something you expect to find (either from personal experience or prior research) may push you to look a little deeper, to think more creatively about your analyses. If one found that Black Americans fared better than whites on some health outcome, one might double-check their data and analyses because so much prior work suggests otherwise; if that finding truly holds beyond thorough examination of alternative approaches, a researcher might pursue additional projects to find what explains this odd finding in hopes of eliminating racial disparities in health. A researcher who is not personally invested in what she studies might accept her results as is; she might not feel compelled to further unravel mysterious or provocative findings.
And, personal values and passions may influence what comes after our research is published. To date, publishing in peer-reviewed journals that are locked behind paywalls remains the norm for much of academia. There is little institutional reward (possibly even informal sanctioning) for making one’s scholarship accessible beyond paywalls and the classroom. But, some scholars do take the time to propel their work beyond these boundaries.
There are numerous terms for such public scholarly efforts (e.g., public intellectualism, public sociology), though Dr. Collins has the best articulation of such work in On Intellectual Activism — “speaking truth to power” and “speaking truth to the people.” In her own career, she has balanced the two strategies of intellectual activism — advancing knowledge through theoretical and empirical work, and advancing knowledge beyond the Ivory Tower. I see what one does post-publication as either the simple advancement of one’s career (“publish or perish”) or the advancement of a community or society (or both).
Embrace Your Inner Unicorn
To be clear, agreed-upon standards of careful, thoughtful, and rigorous theorizing and empiricism is a must. But, the pressure to maintain the same frameworks or perspectives considered traditional or mainstream in one’s field likely hinder the development of new ways of thinking, maybe even new ways of doing research. It is a shame, in my opinion, that critical, radical, novel, and cutting-edge scholarship is too often discouraged, not supported, not mentored, not funded, not published, or even professionally punished.
Can we stop pretending objectivity exists? Can we stop pretending we, as researchers, are soulless, experienceless, identityless, valueless automatons? Conformity is overrated. And, I would argue that it is bad for science and education. Please, rather than suppressing who we are as humans, let’s embrace our unique perspective and experiences — the very things that likely propelled us into academia in the first place. Since many marginalized students do not even see themselves reflected in their training — lack of diversity among faculty, narrow perspectives advanced in courses — we owe it to future generations to push out the boundaries of science and education. Hell, we’re always already dismissed as “biased” anyhow!
* LGBT-identified individuals comprise of 3-4% of the US adult population, half or slightly less than half are men, and one-third of LGBT people are of color. We’re already below 1% of the population here. Narrow that to multiracial gay men. And, add the layer of education, that 1% of the population receives PhDs. Like I said — I’m a frickin’ unicorn.
Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class. This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place. Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects. A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.
The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain. This is not really a complaint. Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning. So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom. As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom. Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.
Let me give two examples of what I mean:
- About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children. I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them. But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination. I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on. It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
- On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment. I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door. Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture. I went to class that day feeling violated. A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs. This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class. But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying. I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.
My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant. I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences. I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking. Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses. So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.
I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor. I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session. I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?” My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course. But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.
Professor’s Feel Pain, Too
But, what about my experiences and pain? I certainly do not make the class about me. (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!) Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish). At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?” Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses. After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.
I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts. That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far. But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it. I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers. But, I do not simply have a painful past. As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.
Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom. Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion. When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me. This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share. But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.
“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain
The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor. Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger. It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.
So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it. Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion. So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home. Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.
But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class. This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow. And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.
“Did you want [life insurance] for your wife?”
That comes from my HR office… in an email response to a form I filled out to apply for life insurance on behalf of my partner and myself. So, you know, his traditionally-masculine name (Eric… yes, we have the same first name), and checking ‘M’ for his sex, and checking “I currently have an eligible Domestic Partner” rather than providing the date of our (heterosexual) marriage — all of that failed to correct the automatic assumption that I, as a man, am 1) married 2) to a woman.
I fumed for a bit, and then responded politely to correct the heterosexist assumption. When I received a call instead of an email reply, “partner” was used, but no apology was given for the mistake. Insult, meet injury.
From there, I had to compartmentalize my hurt long enough to meet with a student who dropped by unannounced, and then teach my gender and sexuality course. It is no wonder that I left campus that night exhausted, grouchy, and a little queasy. Sadly, that is only one of many days that have either been completely derailed by a microaggression, or that I have had to conjure great emotional strength to box it up until I get home.
Yeah, so being a marginalized faculty member is probably a health hazard. No, really.