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When White Men Stare

Stare One

A couple of weeks before the semester started, I was introduced to a colleague in another department — an older white man.  He shook my hand, but did not speak right away.  He looked in my face, puzzled.  Initially, I registered his stare as one of familiarity, a face he could not place.  As this was the first time we were meeting, I was ready for the stare and the silence to break — there was no memory to jog.  But, he kept staring, though he finally said hello.  The “you look familiar” stare and furrowed brow that I initially read began to look more like confusion or anger.

Was he confused by something on my face?  By me?  Or, that they hired me for this tenure-track position in sociology?  Classes had yet to start, so I was not “dressed to the nines” at that point; maybe the image of a young brown man in casual attire did not fit his mental image of a professor.  I figured once I did start wearing the costume suit, attention would shift away from my age, my newness, and any assumptions about my credentials or experience.


Stare Two

A few weeks into the semester, I attended a workshop on facilitating discussion in the classroom.  I had recently introduced true discussion in my upper-level gender and sexualities course, so the timing of this training was great.  Some seasoned faculty recognized my face as unfamiliar and asked if I was new, and then welcomed me and asked how my first month had been.  When the session began, I saw a middle-aged white man staring at me.  I expected the stare to break because he had been caught staring (custom holds that you look away when caught), or to realize he was staring out of the window behind me.  Neither was he case.  He continued to stare, his unwelcoming eyes beamed a hole into my forehead.

I decided to ignore him and listen to the panelists. Ignoring ignorance is only partially effective, if at all.  His unwelcoming stare made me self-conscious.  I looked at how I was dressed; were jeans, a sports coat, and tie too casual for a Friday?

Then, I looked around the room.  White, white, white, white, white…  Somehow, I had not noticed I was the lone brown face in the room.  His unwelcoming stare had effectively pointed out that I was a true outsider.  Things went downhill from there for other reasons.  Though I appreciate some of the panelists, I was distracted by the burning desire to scream to one panelist, “you can get away with that as an old white straight man!”

An Unwelcoming Environment

In my mind, the confused or even hostile stare of older white straight men at me — a young queer brown tenure-track man professor — is a microaggression.  It sends the message that I am an outsider and, frankly, unwelcome.  These stares are just one message in a chorus of messages that I do not belong, be it internal (imposter syndrome) or external (e.g., recently, the dining hall cashier asking, “are you a visitor?”).  These colleagues likely represent what I have heard described as the “old guard” — a generation of faculty who have a different set of expectations for the professoriate than the generation that has taken the reins in leadership.  So, they are few in number (on the campus at least).  But, I still face the occasional possibility of interacting with them.

Coming Out Everytime We Let Others In

Yesterday, in my upper-level course on gender and sexualities, my students and I discussed the life-long process of coming out as LGBT.  In essence, because of heterocentricism (the assumption that everyone is heterosexual) and, what we can call ciscentricism (the assumption that everyone is cisgender), LGBT people are forced to out themselves to each new person they meet (if they decide not to be presumed cisgender and heterosexual).  As one student pointed out, that, of course, presumes one is closely aligned with the stereotypical images of heterosexual and cisgender people; any displays of gender non-conformity may lead one to have their sexual and/or gender identities questioned.  Still, to some degree, we believe there is some choice in the matter, whether to out oneself or confirm others’ suspicions.

In this conversation, I chose not to out myself — a position I usually take until the end of the semester (once course evaluations are in).  I have mentioned “my partner” to two students, and, aside from wearing suits, I rarely obsess over presenting myself as hypermasculine (or even masculine, for that matter).  So, my students may already have suspicions about me, at least regarding my sexual identity.

And, though quite relevant, I had not mentioned an incident that occurred immediately before class.  I briefly returned home to regroup before the late, 4:30pm-7pm class.  As scheduled, our front and back doors had been replaced.  The workers had thrown our door mats aside, failed to return moved furniture to their original location, and left sawdust on the floor and some furniture.  The blinds from the original back door sat on our kitchen table.  And, a bag of used doorknobs sat on our front porch.  This was just shitty, inconsiderate work.

The worst sign of their inconsiderate presence was this:

Ugh.  This pamphlet from a Billy Graham affiliated church in the city was left on our kitchen table.  If this was “innocent” proselytizing, it was inappropriate.  But, with a number of pictures of my partner and me up in the kitchen and other rooms, I suspect this was something more.  An unknown number of strangers entered our house and decided we needed Jesus in our lives.  As gay people, this was a minor, yet symbolic assault from strangers who decided we were immoral because of our sexual orientations and our relationship.

Connecting this back to my class’s discussion, I realized that I could be in the closet in every aspect of my life: at work, with friends, doctor‘s visits, etc.  No one but my partner and I would know we identify as gay and that we are in a long-term, committed, loving relationship.  But, if we lived together, as we do, at some point the apartment complex may know (or suspect), and the service people who enter our homes would figure it out.  To these strangers, we would have no choice about being out, unless we went to the lengths of hiding any signs of a relationship, or even living apart.  There is a base level of outness that life demands if you want any semblance of a full life as a queer person.

As I threw clean dishes into the cabinets later in the evening, I began to realize just how upsetting this experience was.  Simply put, I feel violated.  Strangers were given access to my personal home, and judged me, and had the audacity to leave behind their propaganda just to let me know what they thought.  Even in my own fucking home I am not free from homophobia.  It is bad enough that I bring the stress of bigotry home, in its wear on my health, in the suits I quickly strip off when I get home like taking off a costume, and in the taxes I pay for my partner to receive benefits in a state that ignores our relationship.  But, this incident pushed beyond that.  I came home to a visible reminder that strangers think I am immoral.  Fuckers.

A Space For Me In Feminist Activism?

In recent years, I have either stayed clear of women’s and feminist groups I presume to offer a safe space for women, or ask outright whether they are intended to be a safe space before I begin participating.  Feminism is not intended to offer something to me as a man, so I acknowledge and respect that much of it is not necessarily a space for me.

via The Retriever Weekly (UMBC)

2005 Take Back the Night Rally at UMBC.
I am in the funky blue shirt, holding a sign, on the left side of the picture.

Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

It appears that others know well that men’s place in feminist activism is a precarious one.  I am aware of a few groups — some pro-feminist, some for sexual violence prevention — that are run by and for men who wish to advocate for gender equality and eliminate violence against women. (Thus, I am not confusing these with “men’s rights” groups, that advocate for advancing men’s status in society even further.)  There are also resources like The Guy’s Guide to Feminism that are produced for and by men to better understand feminism, gender inequality, and sexism.

I am uncertain of the particular histories of these kinds of groups.  Were they started because feminist women effectively articulated a need to have groups that serve as a safe space for women?  Did men feel out of place in these kinds of groups?  Or, are (some) men aware that the kind of advocacy they would pursue would be qualitatively different — for example, more inviting to men, and possibly even more influential among men as a whole?

My Involvement In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

I understand the significance of pro-feminist groups for men.  But, I initially felt no particular draw to such groups.  A few years ago, I did actually become involved in one — not necessarily by my own decision-making.

I became involved with a local sexual violence prevention organization as a graduate student.  The organization also served as a rape crisis center and shelter for women (and their young children) fleeing abusive partners.  Understandably, the organization limited the number of volunteer positions that men could hold in order to maintain a safe space.  But, that meant my involvement was constrained to external programming, namely sexual violence prevention education in local schools.  Since that ended up not working for my schedule, I was invited to help start a group, “Man Up!”, for men to raise awareness about and eliminate sexual violence.

I knew from the start that I felt out of place in Man Up!  Even the group’s name symbolizes the emphasis on men‘s involvement.  I did my best to stick with it, but slowly drifted out of the group until I was no longer participating at all.  I dreaded meeting with other men — especially straight men — about gender politics.  I was not enthusiastic about reaching out to young men about healthy relationships and consensual sex — presumably heterosexual relationships and sex.  And, even the perspective of the group — men‘s sexual violence prevention advocacy — felt distant from my feminist politics.

Fortunately, I moved to another external project — healthy romantic and sexual relationships among young gay, bisexual, and trans men — and stuck with that until I had to focus exclusively on my dissertation.

Invisible In Men’s Pro-Feminist Groups

This summer, I had the pleasure of meeting a bright undergraduate student who presented a paper on men’s anti-sexual violence groups at the American Sociological Association.  From my own experiences, I had assumed it was just me; because of my gender politics and genderqueer identity, I feel uncomfortable in predominantly-male spaces.  But, this student pointed out larger problems with these groups.

In particular, (some of) these groups are founded upon whiteness and heteronormativity.  They are created for heterosexual men to have healthy, consensual relationships with their women partners.  Advice like, “just don’t rape your girlfriend or wife!”, presumes that all men participants are engaging in heterosexual relationships.  What about bisexual, queer, and gay men?  Similarly, advice to check one’s white privilege erases men of color who are involved in pro-feminist and sexual violence prevention advocacy.  So, as a queer man of color, I often walk away from these groups for men feeling invisible.

The student also pointed out the missing structural and cultural perspectives of these groups.  The flip of blaming women for their own victimization is to blame individual men for perpetrating violence and discrimination against women.  There is inattention, then, to the ways in which organizations and institutions reproduce sexism and to the larger rape cultureSystemic problems cannot be properly addressed with individual behaviors.

Carving Out My Own Space

I suppose the starting point to finding a space for myself in feminist activism is a recognition that it cannot be a space for men.  It has to be a space that explicitly acknowledges queer men’s social location in our sexist and heterosexist society.  We are still privileged as men, albeit disadvantaged by trans-, bi-, and/or homophobia.  It is a major oversight to assume that queer men are immune to sexism and free of male privilege.  Sadly, I did not find much on queer men’s feminist advocacy, so I created a short essay, “A Gay Guy’s Guide To Feminism – A Brief Introduction.”  But, even these initial efforts fail to directly address my perspective and experiences as a person of color, and a fat person.

Black Gays for Justice and Respect

In some ways, I feel I should still participate in groups where I am the only man, only queer person, only person of color — or even only queer man of color — to ensure that my perspective is reflected.  But, in others, I need to acknowledge that a focus solely on gender simply does not fit for my perspective — one that is is inherently intersectional.  I do not fit as a fat brown queer man, not simply because I hold these identities, but because of the worldview that is shaped by the intersections among them.  I suppose at best, I can collaborate with feminists and be an ally to women; but, the space in which I will be most instrumental, and feel most comfortable, is one that advocates for human rights, with explicit attention to the intersections among racism, sexism, classism, fatphobia, transphobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and xenophobia.  I suppose I found the answer to my question.

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!

Protecting Science From Harm, And Against Harmful Science

sosThe activists are coming!  And, so they should.  A supposedly “debunkedstudy by Mark Regnerus that does not employ valid measures of lesbian couples worked its way right into a US Supreme Court case on marriage equality.

We, as sociologists, did all that we could: 1) petitioned the journal in which it was published, Social Science Research, 2) published critiques of his and Loren Marks‘s studies in the journal, 3) wrote to the media to point out the study’s flaws, 4) offered extensive methodological critiques (e.g., blogs), 5),  petitioned the leadership of the American Sociological Association (ASA) to make a public statement against the Regnerus study, 6) conducted an internal audit of the peer review process, and 7) submitted a brief to the Supreme Court as a discipline to make clear no evidence exists to worry about LGBT families.  And, there may have been other efforts of which I am unaware.

But it wasn’t enough.  Regnerus and other conservative scholars submitted their own amicus brief to the Court.  And, somehow, this one study counters all of the other studies enough that Supreme Court Justice Scalia noted:

If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples, you must — you must permit adoption by same-sex couples, and there’s – there’s considerable disagreement among — among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a — in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not. Some States do not — do not permit adoption by same-sex couples for that reason.


The American Sociological Association released another statement thereafter to clarify that Regnerus’s study was flawed.  While imperfect, every other study suggests no evidence that children of same-gender families are worse off in terms of health, adjustment, academic performance, etc.  And, the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas-Austin held a mini-conference on LGBT families last week, featuring Gary Gates and other big names in LGBT research.  I assume this was part of the department’s effort (which started as soon as Regnerus’s study was published) to show that others in the department are doing great, pro-LGBT work.

But, it is too late.  We do not yet know the outcome of the Supreme Court cases.  And, it is unclear whether Regernus’s “debunked” study will be cited by other researchers, politicians, or in other court cases.  These are, indeed, real possibilities because his study has been “debunked,” but not retracted.  That means it still stands as a peer-reviewed, published academic article — albeit critiqued and discounted.

The lengths that these activists are going makes sense.  Though we got to the point where we felt comfortable with the “debunked” status of Regnerus’s paper, it still caused damage — on our watchDespite our intentions and efforts as a discipline, we did not do enough to prevent this study from having an impact in the fate of LGBT rights (in this case, marriage equality).  Whether it comes from religion, science, politics, education, or some other institution, threats to your rights are just that, so who wouldn’t shift into self-defense mode?

Protecting Against Harmful Science

My primary concern, which I have voiced in the discussions among sociologists, is what are we doing to prevent further harm to the community that has been affected by this study?  On our watch, a study that should never have reached publication ended up reaching the Supreme Court.  We alerted others, “watch out!”; we critiqued Regnerus’s actions, “he’s not even measuring it right!; and even issued a formal statement saying, “we’re not with this guy, he’s crazy.”  But, all while we watched Regnerus set up a very calculated assault on LGBT Americans.  Since fellow sociologists have so vehemently opposed releasing the names of the peer reviewers of the study, and do not feel compelled to push for retraction, I continue to ask, so now what?

I cannot believe I have to raise this question.  But, it seems some are more concerned about protecting science than protecting people from science.  There are general principles regarding ethical scientific practice (including discipline specific guidelines), and the universality of Institutional Review Boards to ensure researchers at universities are not causing harm to their participants.  Unfortunately, these guidelines were developed as a response to very unethical and harmful research in the past:

  • During the Holocaust, the Nazis conducted many experiments on Jews (including children)
  • The “Tuskegee syphilis experiment” (1932-1972), in which poor African American men were infected with syphilis without their knowledge nor with treatment: “The 40-year study was controversial for reasons related to ethical standards; primarily because researchers knowingly failed to treat patients appropriately after the 1940s validation of penicillin as an effective cure for the disease they were studying.”
  • Similar experiments were conducted in Guatemala from 1946-1948.  Over 80 people died as a result.
  • The use of Henrietta Lacks‘s cells without her or her family’s permission or knowledge in 1951.
  • Stanley Milgram’s 1961 psychological experiments on obedience, in which he deceived subjects into thinking they were delivering shocks (sometimes deadly) as punishment to a person completing a faux task.  Ethical concerns have been raised about the Stanford prison experiment, as well.
  • Tearoom Trade (1970) — Laud Humphreys’s study of same-sex sexual encounters in public spaces without their knowledge or consent; after observing the men, he used their license plate numbers on their cars to track down their home addresses to interview them (sometimes in front of their families).

For all of the positive things that have come from science (even from some of the awful exploitative, dangerous experiments above), science is sometimes used for evil.  Too often, marginalized communities are the targets of harmful science.  Of course, in this case, Regnerus and his colleagues did not have any direct contact with their participants; and, there is little reason to suspect that Knowledge Networks (which carried out the survey) caused any harm.

However, I argue that we have an obligation to ensure that harm is not caused in the activities that come after research is conducted: how the research is used and for what purposes.  Some argue that, even when studies are carried out for good, we owe it to our participants to give something in return — immediate and tangible, not just “thanks for advancing science!” — for opening up about their experiences, backgrounds, thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

So, now what are we doing to protect this marginalized community that has been further harmed by science?  What can we do?  Below are some things that have been suggested, and my thoughts on them.

Speaking Out, In General

It is important that we speak out about this scandal, in general.  Unfortunately, it feels as though some sociologists feel they have done all that they could and just want this to go away already.

But, who speaks for us?  I may be wrong, but many of those — “some sociologists” — do not appear to either be LGBT themselves nor do they study LGBT communities (I’m including here bloggers and those who have left comments).  So, maybe it is simple to walk away from this when you can return home to your legally-recognized spouse after a day’s work.  Unfortunately, it appears that the sociology bloggers at orgtheory and scatterplot are serving as The Voice for the entire discipline, and the LGBT activists are in direct dialogue with them.  I wonder what LGBT sociologists and sociologist of sexualities have to say about this scandal, and whether they feel that we have done enough.

I worry, as I have before: who gets to speak?  The subfield of sexualities in sociology is relatively new and disproportionately young.  We must tread lightly.  And, it is likely that many have remained silent on this issue because they are soon to be or are currently on the job market; or, they are on the tenure-track; or, even with tenure, they are at the margins of their department and the discipline as a whole.  Or, just like other fields, maybe some sexualities scholars see their work as irrelevant to activism.  And, even for those of us who do pursue activism, we risk professional consequences.  But, even those who are not explicitly involved in activism may be the target of political witch hunts or other external threats, or lack of support from the academy to do our research.


Retract It Already

The retraction of published studies is more common than I realized.  But, it looks like there is no movement to retract the Regnerus study.  There is a lot of shadiness, omission of important details, and conflict of interest sprinkled throughout this entire scandal.  But, within conservative standards of “when to retract,” Regnerus’s study is safe.  It was the peer review process that is problematic.  Specifically:

[T]he paper was submitted for publication 20 days before the end of the data collection, and 23 days before the data were delivered to the University of Texas! That’s fast.

There must be some post-hoc excuse Regnerus or the journal could give to clear this up.

That is in addition to the serious methodological problems that the reviewers should have caught.  That is more than enough for some to call for the study’s retraction.  Okay, so, since this is not Regnerus’s fault, per se (short of questionable political motivations and funding sources), retract the study and then invite him to go through the peer review process again — this time with different reviewers who are not his colleagues.

“Out The Reviewers!”

LGBT activist John M. Becker has moved forward in demanding records from Social Science Research, namely to out the reviewers of the Regnerus study.  Some of my fellow sociologists have been talking about this — I’m sure informally, but in this case publicly on blogs.  Some have taken issue with Becker’s efforts, suggesting that it subverts the sanctity of the peer review system for academic publishing; to reveal the identities of anonymous reviewers is a threat to the entire scientific enterprise.   Oh, and does it get ugly when sociologists and activists go head to head.  But, understandably, when outside forces threaten science (e.g., forced oversight, taking away funding), we necessarily lash out in self-defense.

But, I wonder what would happen if we did reveal the names of those scholars who reviewed Regnerus’s study.  Recently, while reading one article about the source of whites’ attitudes toward race-based attitudes, I noticed that the reviewers were explicitly named, right on the first page:

Editor’s note: The reviewers were Lawrence Bobo, Warren E. Miller, David O. Sears, and Susan Welch (p.723).

I decided to search Google for “editor’s note: the reviewers” to see if this was a fluke.  I came across two other journals that have, or at least used to, explicitly name the reviewers of a published article, Teaching Sociology and Sociological Inquiry.  In the case of the former, I thought maybe as it has become more popular, and moved toward publishing more empirically-based articles, the editorial board might have dropped this practice along the way.  But, even a recent article, by sociologist Janice McCabe, dawns the editor’s note, naming each reviewer.  It looks as though Sociological Inquiry published the names of authors just for a few years in the early 1990s.  These are not the top journals of the discipline, but this discovery leaves me wondering what the harm would be to reveal the names of the publishers in this instance — in this case in which the peer review system was abused, misused, or underused (depending on your perspective).

This is not a question of whether sociology or any other academic discipline should maintain anonymous peer review for publishing.  While imperfect, it strengthens science and minimizes (some) concerns about bias.  If anything, I see room to strengthen the peer-review system further.  And, let’s set aside the potential harms of the overwhelming pressure to publish for jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. as well.  The question here is what harm would be caused to the peer review system, or even the entire scientific enterprise, if the reviewers of this one “debunked” study were revealed?

That some journals have revealed the names of reviewers — including articles that are ethically and politically sound — leads me to suggest that the sky will not fall if Becker is successful in his demand for the SSR records.  Science will still exist the following day.  But, I do agree that this may not actually get us any further in squashing Regnerus’s study or the harm caused by it.

Fight Fire With Fire: More Research!

As Fabio Rojas suggested in response to my plea to do something to take this study down, another possibility is to simply beat Regnerus at his own game.  Do more, better research.  Indeed, sociologists Andrew Perrin, Philip Cohen, and Neal Caren have done just that in a forthcoming article in Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health — even using the New Family Structures Study data. (Of course, they find that Regnerus’s conclusions were bogus and methodologically flawed.)  I do hope, however, that awareness of their new study spreads, as JGLMH is a psychiatry journal and has a so-so impact factor.   But, Perrin makes clear that this journal was chosen because of the speedy turn around, and it actually sent out a call for papers to address the Regnerus scandal.

As Michael Bader notes, this scandal has sparked even better work, and maybe science will be even stronger in the first place.  But, shouldn’t we be getting it right the first time?  Isn’t that what peer review is for?  Sure, with time, maybe we will set the record straight.  But, for now, the damage has been done for LGBT people.  With so much that we have yet to study about LGBT families, it also warrants asking whether we should be worried about having to spend time, energy, and resource on redoing research.

Other Suggestions

Fabio also suggested:

  • [Realize] that that history is on our side. Increasingly, public opinion polls show greater and greater majorities favor LBGT equality. So if we are winning already, I wouldn’t go and ruin one of academia’s most valuable assets – blind review.
  • [R]elentlessly critique garbage and draw attention to the body of research.
  • I would engage the other side with sincerity and fervor. I would show people how to maintain the high ground.

In other words, don’t worry, keep blogging, and be the bigger person.  As gay people, my partner and I still cannot get married, not in the state in which we currently live nor the one we are moving to this summer.  I am pretty worried about the outcome of the Supreme Court case.  And, I am worried how easily this one study breezed through the peer review process, to publication, to press, to the courts.  Shouldn’t more sociologists be worried about this, too?  And, I am not sure what to say about maintaining “the high ground”.  It seems, for the oppressed, playing nice and playing by the rules does little to protect your rights being debated and denied on a daily basis — and my colleagues seem less concerned with my well-being as a human than with the well-being of science.

A Final Plea

“You don’t know what the heck you’re talking about!”  Exactly.  I am just days away from receiving my PhD, and have little experience publishing and providing reviews for journals compared to the sociologists at the fore of these debates.  What do I know?

That is a problem, in my opinion.  A systemic problem.  With a few research scandals going on these days, I am surprised that my colleagues and I are not in dialogue about science and research ethics.  In fact, all that I recall is one week in my research methods course devoted to ethics.  We read ASA’s code of ethics, Van Maanen’s (1983) “The Moral Fix: On the Ethics of Fieldwork,” Allen’s (1997) “Spies Like Us: When Sociologists Deceive their Subjects,” and Simonds’s (2001) “Talking with Strangers: A Researcher’s Tale.”  

I read Tearoom Trade for another course, though we did not discuss Humprhey’s unethical methods.  My knowledge of the Milgram experiment comes from a brief coverage of ethics in my undergraduate psychology and sociology methods courses.  And, much of my knowledge about eugenics, the Tuskegee experiments, and other exploitative practices on communities of color comes from my knowledge of Black history rather than science.

In speaking with other LGBT sociologists, I know that I am not alone in my anger, disappointment, and frustration — and, my ignorance about what I can do.  This is partly due to our relative lack of power, as a subfield in general (soc of sexualities) and as individuals (pre-tenure).  But, it is also due to our lack of access to memories of prior scandals of this sort.  For example, while I did read Richard Udry’s “Biological Limits of Gender Construction” (ASR 2000), and even Barbara Risman’s and otherscritical responses in a class, we never talked about the broader context.  What happened after the article and the responses were published?


Why don’t we talk about these types of events in our graduate courses?  Why does our training on research ethics only cover the stages leading to submitting an article for publication, ignoring ethical and professional practices that follow publication?  In general, I think we could benefit from a bit more reflection on science as an institution.  It would be nice (I would even say crucial) to discuss the contexts behind published articles and books.  A sociology of sociology, if you will.  Why are the authors in certain journals overwhelmingly women, while the top sociology journals are about two-thirds men authors, and the most male-dominated journals are on methods and mathematics?  Why are broken barriers in publishing somehow undermined as “affirmative action in publishing” or “trendy, but not really important” (yes, I have heard scholars say this).

If anything, I ask that we stop trying to make this scandal go away in hopes that history will stop repeating itself.  Just 12 years after the scandal surrounding Udry’s study, we are faced with a similar problem.  And, my generation of sociologists barely knows about it.  How can we learn from the mistakes of our discipline if we are not teaching new members about them — what happened and how we resolved it?  C’mon colleagues — we have got to do better, for the future of our discipline, but also for society as a whole.

UPDATE (05/02/13):  And, now we have an example of the potential impact Regnerus’s study can have outside of the courtroom: the everyday harassment of LGBT people.