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That Time I Spoke Up

So, this happened…

On April 5th, I had the pleasure of attending the Equality Virginia Commonwealth Dinner – a big time fundraiser dinner for LGBT people and allies in Virginia.  The University of Richmond purchased a table, where a handful of students and a staff member sat.  Also, two members of the Weinstein family (trustees/big donors to UR) purchased a table, where four UR students, UR President Ed Ayers, and I sat (in the picture above).  This was a significant moment — the university president and one of the board of trustees members attended an LGBT fundraiser.  And, I had the honor of sitting with them that night.

Besides being a new professor, and trying to figure out how to properly interact with students and the president and a trustee simultaneously, and navigating the many utensils that surrounded my plate (work outside in, right?), I went both excited and nervous.  If you recall, two months ago, I had spoken openly about my university’s handling of a trustee’s homophobic and sexist comments at a 2012 private event.  Essay 1 for all at UR to see, and Essay 2 for all of academia to see.  Though my intent was to defend the university against growing criticism of complacency, or even being complicit in the trustee’s homophobia, I made clear I was underwhelmed by the university’s response.

I had hoped that if these essays or the incident came up during the dinner, we would ease into to the topic.  “Hi, Ed — I’m Eric Grollman, in sociology,” I introduced myself to the president.  “Hi — I really liked your Inside Higher Ed essay,” he responded.  “Oh, we’re getting right into it, huh?” I nervously joked.  He was genuine.  (Why have I grown accustomed to passive aggression from other academics?)  As the night went on, he emphasized that he sees a faculty member’s job, almost as a citizen of a university community, to speak out in such instances.  I made other nervous jokes in response, “oh, can I tape-record you saying this,” and other silly comments.  I was slow to process the significance of his assurance for me, my status at the university, and my tenure prospects.  Eventually, I explicitly noted this, saying that I have grown so accustomed to being afraid as an academic.  Isn’t fear all of what being a tenure-track professor is about?

The next week, I went to meet with the university’s legal counsel as a precaution in light of increasing hostility toward me on the web.  As I waited, Dr. Ayers walked by, heading toward his office — next door to legal counsel.  He made brief small talk — “Saturday night was really fun.  How much later did you stay?”  (Why was I surprised that he even remembered who I am?)  Then, he returned to the tense conversation we had at the dinner; he re-emphasized that I have no reason to fear for my job because of my public scholarship and public presence.  Once I explained why I was waiting to see legal counsel — that, my job aside, I do have to worry about backlash outside of the university — he invited me to talk briefly in his office.  It was a short conversation because I had a standing meeting time, but it was an extremely important moment for me.

Immediately after I penned those essays in late February, I received dozens of emails of support from students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni.  Some thanked me for speaking up, some expressed their excitement that I had joined the university, and others expressed their admiration for my bravery in speaking out.  To my relief, I also got notice shortly thereafter that I was approved to return to the university for my second year on the tenure-track.  I was not asked to clear out my office.  I have not been snubbed by my colleagues or students.  The sky did not fall.  In fact, the outcome seems quite positive!

Hate is Not a Richmond Value

Yesterday, I shared two essays to share my own perspective on the controversy at my university.  In 2012, one of the University of Richmond’s board of trustees members, Paul Queally, participated in an induction ceremony for an honor society for very wealthy people (Kappa Beta Phi).  His comments, including sexist and homophobic jokes, have come to light in a book by Kevin Roose, which Roose wrote about in New York Magazine last week.  Many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni were left underwhelmed by the slow and limited response from the university, board of trustees, and Queally himself.

As a new queer professor at Richmond, I felt it important to speak out — not simply to criticize Queally, or the underwhelming response from the university, but also to make clear these values do not reflect the university community I have joined.  By that, I mean this is surprising considering what I have seen at the university in my short time on the faculty, and that I will work to ensure that the university exhibits a commitment to inclusivity in actions, not just words.  The links are below.

  1. Hate is not a Richmond Value,The Collegian (U Richmond’s student newspaper)
  2. Hate isn’t a University Value,” Inside Higher Ed

(I Hate) Professional Boy Drag

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.

Class-Related Gripes

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.

ScholarMy 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?

Me - No SmileI 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.

When Being Queer Was My Little Secret

Last weekend, my partner and I went to a thrift store run by the local LGBT community center.  As we had on previous visits, we perused the store’s library.  I followed my usual routine: LGBTQ books, sociology (mislabeled, in my opinion), health and medicine, history — areas of personal and professional interest that I search at any bookstore.  I found myself hoping for that one book, that one queer book that I would secretly read and enjoy at home.

“Wait,” I thought.  It was an LGBT thrift store; there are several LGBTQ-themed books.  And, it is 2013 now, so LGBT issues are discussed and written about rather publicly these days.  I no longer have to find pictures of and stories about people like me in that one queer book in the store.  Those were the days of the closet — not just my own, but the collective closet all LGBTQ people stayed in until recently.  Obviously, much of the infinitely long road to full equality and acceptance lies ahead, but much progress has been made even in my three decades of life (and one decade out as a queer person).

But, I actually felt a little disappointed that queerness is no longer my little secret.  I felt the tiniest twinge of nostalgia.  I cannot really explain why, for being in the closet was an awful period to which I would rather die than return.  I suppose the only seemingly rationale explanation is that I miss the control I felt, or convinced myself I held, over the knowledge and visibility of my sexual identity.  At 17, finally unable to deny who I was any longer, I started coming out to certain friends and family — but, I decided whom to tell and when.  Of course, people talk, which I also factored into the coming out process.  And, aside from two male “friends” (who had a rather homoerotic friendship with one another), the reception was generally positive.  (Well, family took some time, but have come around completely.)

Out There, Everywhere

Now, I do not feel I have that control anymore.  By virtue of my research and the kinds of courses I teach, students and colleagues typically assume I am gay.  These aspects of my professional life that presumably reflect my personal life are publicly accessible, and even recorded through course history, and my publications and conference presentations.  Recently, when I printed out the midterm exam for the gender and sexualities course I am currently teaching, I felt exposed — any colleague could pick up the exam from the printer and assume it must be mine.  “Right, he’s the sexualities guy…” (read: he’s the gay guy).  With what I presume are few out LGBT faculty and/or professors who teach courses on sexualities at my university, it feels as though a spotlight is permanently directed on me.

Further, the introduction of institutions’ involvement in my romantic life has been a bit jarring for me.  By jointly signing a lease on our apartment, and opening various accounts jointly, my relationship with my partner is “official” — with various people at these institutions privy to it, and free to make whatever assumptions about us.  Each time maintenance or some sort of service person comes to our home, we have to worry what they will think and assume, and how they will react based on those assumptions.  And, now as my university moves forward in aligning with federal recognition of same-gender couples, but constrained by state law that prohibits same-gender marriage, I once again feel I have no control over my own sexuality.

While I want access to these various institutions and the associated benefits, and recognition as a committed couple with my partner, I also regularly fear assumptions, microaggressions, and other forms of hostility.  These are the very things I typically guard against by controlling who knows what and when about my sexuality and relationship.   I suspect other queer people may feel a bit unsettled by this patchwork of homophobic prejudice and discrimination interwoven with acceptance and recognition.  I feel I am hyper out at work, where my queer identity, relationship, and scholarship are recognized and affirmed, but my partner and I are vulnerable to intolerance off-campus and are reduced to “roommates” by state law.  This is a strange and unsettling liminal space for me as a queer person.

What Now?

As quickly as LGBT rights have been advanced in the last decade, it feels a bit out of our hands as queer people to predict what lies ahead.  I suspect the entire country will have marriage equality before 2020.  But, will LGBT people feel any safer in public, walking down the street hand in hand with their partner?  The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will eventually be passed to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, as well as trans* people, but transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic violence will remain a pervasive reality for us.  There will be greater acceptance for LGBT individuals (to varying degrees) and same-gender relationships, but a pretty solid disdain for queer sex.  And, my greatest fear of all is that we will begin hearing the retort to demands for LGBT rights — “but, you can get married now!”

Yeah, as sick as it may sound, I kinda miss being 17 and out to the chosen few.  Things were clearer, more consistent, predictable, and easily controlled.

Stop Telling Me To Be Quiet

“Careful.”

“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.

Enough! 

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.