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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.
“Lower your voice.”
“Keep your head down and your mouth shut.”
“Don’t rock the boat.”
“You need to tone it down.”
It seems the universe has been dead-set on silencing, immobilizing, paralyzing, and deradicalizing me since my birth. In simply being myself, which happens to entail being outspoken about injustice, I have been labeled uppity, radical, provocative, militant, showy, hypersensitive, and a trouble-maker. In choosing to pursue a career in which I make change from within the system, I have struggled much of my life with finding the right balance of keeping my position and speaking out. Worrying about what others think of me, specifically of losing out in major ways, I remained in the closet until age 17.
You would think it would be smooth sailing since then. Actually, the further I have gone in my career — college, graduate school, and now a tenure-track faculty position — the more anxiety I have felt about how I present myself to the world. At the same time, the “innocent” requests to shut up, hide, and stand still have increased. Even at my quietest, most inauthentic, and politically inert point, I still receive these request. It seems the universe won’t be satisfied until I completely disappear. Or, maybe become a white straight man who upholds the status quo.
Recently, I ran into a friend who relayed to me other friends’ concerns that I am “too out there” in my new job. Their thinking, along with everyone else’s it seems, is that tenure-track faculty should be seen and not heard. Particularly for me as a young Black queer man, in an interracial same-gender relationship, living in the South, I should be ever vigilant about how I present myself to the world. Duh. I did not secure this job without doing that for years in graduate school. I did not burst through my university’s doors declaring I would radically change the place. Trust me. To survive in this racist, sexist, heterosexist society, there is not a single day in which I do not constantly think about self-presentation.
When the quantoid in me lights up, I am really fed up with these requests. I have lost count of the number of times I have been encouraged, usually from a place of concern, to be quiet, tone it down, hide who I am, etc. Whatever the number, it far exceeds the times I have been encouraged to speak up, be seen, or shake things up. And, let’s count the number of people who quietly exist within the status quo. There are plenty. We can afford to have just one more person who may make herstory by refusing to be “well-behaved” and quiet.
Where is the limit on being well-behaved? Is being a good little black gay graduate student for six years enough, just til I get a PhD and a job? No? Oh — maybe it is the seven years of wearing suits that betray my genderqueer identity and stressing myself to publish in my discipline’s top journals — you know, to secure tenure. Assuming I am of the rare sort to finish graduate school before 30, that means I can finally be free to be my outspoken self in my mid-thirties. That is, you know, banking on tomorrows that are not promised to any of us.
And, outspokenness and activism are not the only things that are policed. It is my identities as a queer person of color that are seen as a threat. By entering into spaces that historically have excluded people like me, now shaping the next generation’s minds, I am a threat. I am a threat whether I hold radical politics or not. I could play it “safe” by academic standards and still be lynched outside of work because of my race. Or, I could be denied tenure — you know, because discrimination and harassment occur within academia, too. It is a damn shame, but the truest reality of them all is that my PhD merely affords me a different kind of policing of black and queer bodies.
I am tired of having to name my career path as one that seems out of the norm. I am tired of having to justify not pursuing that good, ol’ prized Research I (R1) path, or even the silent, politically inert journey toward tenure at any type of school. More importantly, in the midst of this miserable first semester, all that I do that is being read as outspoken or radical are merely strategies for my survival. I am trying to carve out space in the universe so that I can actually get out of bed in the morning to go to work.
I note the good intentions behind the requests for silent inaction. I appreciate it. But, they typically come from people who do not know me well enough to give that kind of advice. They do not know how much I really do negotiate interactions with others. They do not know how many times I have completely shutdown because something so offensive has been said and I stew in guilt for not speaking up. They do not know how many mornings I fight with my body and body image issues trying to fit into costumes deemed appropriate for professional men. They have assumed I am recklessly opening my mouth without thinking, without doing my homework to make an informed critique, and without thinking about the potential consequences.
I am not an idiot. I know what can happen to “outspoken faggots” and “uppity niggers”. In a way, I am risking my life, or at least my status and position, to prevent that for myself and others like me.
So, please do me a favor. Stop telling me to be quiet.