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“And Your Preferred Pronoun?” Another Step Toward Inclusion In Our Classrooms

Imagine this: rather than assuming our students’ gender identity based on their appearance and formal university records, we as instructors can simply ask them — “what is your preferred pronoun?”

Learning From (All Of) Our Colleagues

I suppose there is no harm in admitting that the career not pursued for me was one of a student affairs professional.  When I began applying to graduate schools in 2006, I weighed between sociology, women’s and gender studies, and student affairs.  My mentors in the student affairs side of campus suggested I would have an easier time shifting into student affairs with a PhD in sociology than to sociology with a PhD in student affairs.  So, the compromise has been to become a sociology professor who, at times, will be an advocate and mentor for students outside of the traditional classroom setting.  To further bridge these two worlds — students academic lives and their “extracurricularlives (formal clubs, but also developing into adults) — I remain open to collaborations and mutual learning with my colleagues in student affairs and higher education.

Over the summer, I went through my university’s Safe Zone training program, and attended one of the lunches for safe zone allies.  At the beginning of each of these events, Ted Lewis — University of Richmond’s Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life — asks attendees to introduce themselves: your name and your preferred pronoun.  At some point, Ted usually indicates that this approach is to avoid making assumptions, and to be more inclusive of trans* and gender non-conforming people.  At the summer safe zone brownbag lunch on LGBTQ students in our classrooms, we spoke at greater length about the importance of this approach.  And, while most appreciated the importance of doing so, the (junior) professors in the room squirmed at the thought of doing something that may be considered radical.

Ted always seems so comfortable when starting meetings this way.  So, I figured I could employ this in my classes, no matter how scary it might be.  A colleague actually discouraged me from doing so, fearing the students’ (negative) reactions and, in turn, their (negative) course evaluations.  I shared that fear, so my compromise was to ask students’ preferred pronoun in my gender and sexuality class (11 students, high gender and racial diversity) but not in my research methods class (20 people, lower gender and racial diversity).

The Experiment

On the first day of the semester, I was comfortable enough to ask students in my research methods course for their preferred name.  Per Ted’s suggestion, to be even more inclusive, we must not assume students use the legal name listed in the university’s records.  And, this is welcoming not just for trans* and gender non-conforming students, but any student who goes by Bill instead of William.  And, to minimize the embarrassment we feel as (US-born) instructors as we knowingly, yet helplessly, mispronounce international students names, we allow them to pronounce it for us first, or, for some, provide the “Americanized” name they have adopted for this very reason.  There seemed to be a slight level of appreciation from the students for calling only their last names, and having them respond with their preferred first name.  But, I did not feel brave enough to ask for preferred pronouns.

On the first meeting of my gender and sexuality course, I did ask both preferred name and preferred pronoun.  I quickly jotted down “he”, “she”, and “ze” on the board to explain what a pronoun is.  The students complied.  As much as possible, I do the scary things that I ask of my students; when I ask them to share parts of themselves or personal background, I share as well to lessen the power differential.  So, as the last student announced their name and pronoun, it came to me to respond.  Since I was nervous during this entire exercise, I rambled: “Doctor or Professor Grollman; and he, she, whatever really.”  I had not emotionally prepared for outing myself, so I was dissatisfied with an incoherent response that probably raised more questions than answers.  Then, I moved on by briefly explaining my desire to make the classroom inclusive for trans* and gender non-conforming students, and then into covering the syllabus.

The Brave Act Of Asking?

In hindsight, it is quite telling that I experienced such nervousness about asking people the simple question — “what is your preferred pronoun?”  It is less scary to assume for everyone, and potentially erase or misgender trans* and gender non-conforming people.  That, to me, is a shame.  The sheer importance of actually asking recently became more apparent as news story after news story ignored Chelsea Manning’s (a soldier convicted of espionage this summer) self-defined gender identity and preferred pronoun of “she”/”her.”

The saving grace was, first, the sky did not fall and I was not unemployed by the end of the day.  The students did not scream at me, “you queer radical!”  And, no one left before the official end of class time.  Later, a student thanked me for asking, and confided in me that another student said, “wow, you know I never really thought about that.”  In that moment, I indicated to one student an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, and, to another student, I disrupted the taken-for-granted practice of sex categorizing.  I also put myself out there, at a minimum to students’ assumption that I am LGBT, but possibly that I am transgender or gender non-conforming.

This is a brave step up from what I have done in the past.  When I taught sexual diversity a few years ago, I would drop little hints about my background throughout the semester — that I am multiracial, that I am from the East Coast — but, mostly fairly inert details.  So, given the personal nature of the assignments for those classes, I let students devote one of their in-class quizzes to asking me something about myself.  There is usually a surprising mix, but most of them end up asking — “omg, tell us already — are you gay?”  I end up using that moment to bring them back to our lectures on queer theory, gender identity, and the social construction of sexual orientation to tease them with: “I’m queer.”  And, then explain that I identify as genderqueer, despite my typical masculine gender presentation, and that I acknowledge my attraction to masculinity not merely stereotypically male bodies.  Ah, yes — remember when we deconstructed the male/female binary, and the homo/hetero binary, and the distinction between sex and gender?

My treat to them was to share a picture of me in drag (actually, genderfuck).  I relish in their “wow!”s and pleased laughter.  But, I also feel at ease about baring my “true” identity because the have already completed their course evaluations.  To protect myself from professional harm, I allowed the students to assume week after week that I am cisgender of whatever sexual identity.  But, at the cost of keeping trans* and gender non-conforming people (even myself to an extent) invisible until it is professionally “safe.”


The Sacrifice

Now with a PhD, and a job that I have at least for seven years, I am pushing myself to be braver.  I am sacrificing what I may be mistakenly assuming is a delicate rapport with (more conservative) cisgender and heterosexual students to make my classroom inclusive.  Yes, it could very well mean a ding to my course evaluations.  I may even find awful, possibly homophobic and transphobic comments on RateMyProfessor.com in a year.  Frankly, I think it is worth it to push cisgender students, at least once in their entire lives, to answer the dreaded question, “what are you?!”, that trans* and gender non-conforming people face too often.

And, so far it has paid off.  On Week 2, a new student arrived as a late add to the class.  I welcomed the student.  And, another student interrupted me, “um, preferred pronoun?”  I had already assumed the new student’s name (that which was provided in the university records), and failed to ask for the pronoun the student preferred used in the class.  So, I had the students, once again, announce their preferred first name and pronoun.  This time, I was ready, and gave a more coherent response for my own — “he or she is fine.”  It is my hope of hopes that the students leave the class taking this practice, or at least knowing its importance, into other arenas in their lives.  I certainly have found it worth the anxiety and fear, so I will continue to do so in future classes — and, not just in my gender and sexuality classes!


One concern that another professor raised was forcing students to out themselves.  Without asking for pronouns, trans* and gender non-conforming students can presumably go unnoticed in your class.  When you do ask, their turn comes and they are faced with the choice to out themselves or not.  And, no matter their answer, other students may make assumptions about them.  And, choosing not to provide a pronoun may also lead others to simply assume, “oh, they’re trans.”  I, too, worry about this.  But, as Ted pointed out, the other alternative is to gender them yourself.  At some point, you as the instructor, will likely provide an assumed pronoun and gender identity before the entire class — or, another student may do so, “yeah, I agree with her.”  Asking is at least one step closer toward respecting all students’ self-definition related to gender.

Why single out gender?  I could imagine someone might ask that self-definition should either be asking nothing of our students (and ourselves as instructors) or asking them to orally complete a demographic profile: and preferred race?  and preferred sexual identity?  It is important to note how frequently we rely on pronouns to refer to other people.  And, those pronouns are inherently gendered.  Repeatedly saying, “Eric said… and Eric did… and Ted asked Eric…”, feels more jarring (at least to the ear) than “ze said”, “he spoke on,” and “I saw her.”  We rarely reference race, income, or other social identities unless we are actually talking about them — unlike the pervasive use of gendered pronouns.

I note that I feel comfortable asking up to 20 students their preferred name and pronoun.  Now, thinking about professors at my graduate institution who taught classes of a few hundred students, I cannot imagine bothering to take attendance, nor outing myself or asking others to do so before hundreds of people.  So, the size of the class may influence how effectively this could be done, and really, whether you as the instructor feel comfortable doing so.

Although it may feel that this is easiest in the social sciences or humanities, especially in classes on gender and sexuality, I believe it can (and should) be implemented in every class.  But, it may prove more effective when a set of ground rules have been established for civil, respectful classroom discussion.  My gender and sexuality students may have been more amenable to this approach to teaching because we also spent time creating a list of ground rules — which included the use of “oops, ouch, educate” per one student’s suggestion.

As I noted, I am trying this out for the first time myself.  So, I hope to provide a follow up in a semester when I begin asking for preferred pronouns in each class (and maybe even meetings that I facilitate).

Additional Resources For Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Students

  • “Preferred Gender Pronouns: For Faculty” [download]
  • Teaching Transgender”  by Tre Wentling, Elroi Windsor, Kristen Schilt, and Betsy Lucal.  2008.  Teaching Sociology 36: 49-57.
  • Trans 101” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project)

Think Like A Drag Queen


This post is not to be confused with anything related to Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (or the movie, Think Like A Man).  I know nothing about it, but a quick internet search confirms my suspicion that I am saving myself from a waste of time and anger by avoiding it.

Rather, this is a post about embracing one’s inner confidence in academia. From reading The Ultimate Guide to Grad School Survival by Lesli Mitchell years ago, the one suggestion that sticks out in my memory is to pretend you are a drag queen at academic conferences:

Pretend you’re someone else who has more confidence.  I pretend I’m a drag queen when I do a reading (p. 160).

Mitchell offers this advice to overcome the nervousness and doubt we experience as we prepare for public speaking, particularly presenting at a conference.  Many people experience anxiety about public speaking — not just academics.  In part, this is because we want to do a great job.  But an internal voice (really, a critic) raises concerns that we are not strong enough, prepared enough, or qualified enough.  And, this is compounded by the fear of being negatively evaluated by our audience, and/or that something will go wrong during the talk.

But, because academia is hierarchical and status-obsessed, academics are constantly evaluated.  So, some have an internal critic that is constantly talking, casting doubt on small (e.g., my lecture won’t cover enough material) to big (e.g., I won’t get tenure!) matters.  This is further compounded by prejudice and discrimination in academia, leaving scholars on the margins at risk for a lifelong case of “imposter syndrome,” distress, and even the resultant health problems.

Fake It

There is some great advice out there on overcoming “imposter syndrome,” which I share at the end of the article.  One tip that I like is to “fake it ’til you make it”:

Acting as if I belong will eventually lead to belonging.  Imagining how I would behave if I were not feeling so insecure was useful. I just acted that way until I owned it (I even named my unflappable alter-ego and acted as if I were her. Also, I have a theme song. I don’t know: it just works!) (from gradhacker).

As Megan Fork, a very bright graduate student, pointed out, we can change how we feel internally by making external changes — at least to some extent.  The research of psychologist Dr. Amy Cudy demonstrates that how we hold our body — i.e., postures that signal greater (or lesser) power — alters our internal state (i.e., mood).  Of course, that has external meaning as body language, which signals to others how to perceive and interact with us.

If only it were that simple.  Adding insights from the sociological side of social psychology, we must acknowledge that others may sanction (or reward) our behavior.  Our behaviors, cognitions, and emotions do not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by various social interactions and processes.  For example, a man standing in a “high-power” pose is accepted without question, yet a woman in the same pose may be dismissed as aggressive, bitchy, or a lesbian (as if these are bad things…).  So, to get ahead, we must think and behave in ways that indicate confidence and authority, but within the allowable limits for our gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, weight, social class, etc.

Think Like A Drag Queen

I really like Lesli Mitchell’s suggestion to pretend one is a drag queen.  And, I would extend this advice beyond conference presentations.  Drag queens are known to be confident, flashy, and provocative.  In a way, they embody stereotypically masculine behaviors — aggression, competition, and sexual prowess — but through feminine expression and attire.  There is an art to the drag queen’s ability to flip the audience’s power via evaluation (e.g., applause, or lack thereof) to her own control over the audience.  Audience members squirm in fear yet desire that drag queens will make jokes at their expense, or pull them into embarrassing interactions during performances.

This may be a useful mentality for academics to embody.  Students are taking your class; they work to make good grades by your standards.  You are offered a job because a university wants you; and, they hope you will do the work necessary to earn tenure and stay for life.  You have been invited to submit an article, present a paper, review others’ work, participate on a panel.  We must resist the easy temptation to live in constant fear of negative evaluations.  Even in the face of negative evaluations, we must recognize our strengths and accomplishments, and contexualize what the “haters” think appropriately (e.g., prejudice, standards that are not transparent, conflicting standards).  Or, take (drag queen superstar) RuPaul‘s perspective — “what other people think of me is none of my business” — at least to the point that you are actually formally evaluated and held accountable.

Make Them Eat It And Gag!

How my advice, to think like a drag queen, differs from the mantra of “fake it til you make it” is the recognition that traditional, mainstream academia does not want us (scholars on the margins), and will employ various strategies to keep us from “making it.”  It has been a long fight to even get through the doors of colleges and universities for women, immigrants, people of color, disabled people/people with disabilities, and people of poor and working-class backgrounds.  The fight to be treated as equals, taken seriously, and be rewarded continues for these groups, as well as people who are trans*, lesbian, bisexual, gay, and fat.

I see the world of drag as communities that have carved out their own spaces, but not with the intention of being accepted into the mainstream.  Drag, by its very nature, is subversive to the values of the heterosexist patriarchal dominant society.  Drag queens, in particular, differ from “female impersonators” because they do not aim to mimic the heterosexist society’s obsession with the gender binary, rather to mock and subvert it.  More specifically, for some queer people of color, there is a recognition that one will never be accepted into the mainstream.  Through the process of disidentification, the queer individual of color resists dominant ideology and embraces a “disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture” (p. 31, Muñoz).

The gift that marginalized individuals have is the DuBoisian notion of a double consciousness.  By being kept outside of the dominant mainstream, we are in a unique position to better understand it.  Because behaviors and values celebrated by whites are taken for granted, they are unable to grasp a full consciousness of how these acts are socially constructed, reinforced, and performed.  As a person of color, I sometimes feel I understand whiteness and white culture better than white people themselves.  I feel I can effectively convince whites that I am just like them, albeit with brown skin.  But, it takes an additional oppressed status — for example, queer people of color and women of color — to see the trap of tolerance that some singly disadvantaged people fall into.  As white lesbian, gay, and bisexual people celebrate the recent victory in the movement for marriage equality, queer people of color watch with a suspicious eye as the tide reverses on racial justice.

The parallel for scholars on the margins is the ability to clearly observe the values, practices, and structures of academia.  We are the outsiders within.  To be so far removed from it — both by others’ force, and the disjuncture between academic values and those of our communities of origin — allows us to convincingly perform the normative role of “academic.”  We can show them that we came to work, that we are professionals.

But, we also have the alternative path of subverting it.  We can resist the messages that critical methodologies and marginal communities are inferior by recognizing the inherently hierarchical and oppressive natures and histories of those methods and fields that are considered acceptable.  Or, like myself, you can work to build up credibility and resources (former path) that allow you to more freely make changes (latter path).  For, “the haters will read, even if you peed.  You still the ‘T’ — just pose, turn, and flaunt.”  So, “make them eat it and gag.”

Eric | Denise

Eric                                                      Denise

Do It For The Children, Hunty!

Another bit of advice that others have offered is to find support and serve as a mentor.  During my first official week as a professor, I experienced great anxiety about how I presented myself, being taken seriously by my students and colleagues, and that stupid fear of being “found out.”  But, after a great first day in my Gender and Sexuality course, and then seeing two students (from that class) on campus, I was reminded that my agenda as an academic is to create change for and inspire the next generation — particularly those of marginalized backgrounds.  By focusing on myself, my own internal demons, I am taking attention away from offering support to others going through the same thing, and from being a role model.  I do not want to send the message to my students that they, too, can earn a PhD and land a job at a top university… if only they censor themselves and dress just like their privileged peers.  I want them to see a great scholar who is brown, queer, and fabulous.

By prioritizing improving academia, specifically to become a more welcoming, diverse, and socially just place, getting a job, earning tenure, getting published, etc. become means to that end.  I need not stew in my stress and worry about tenure because devoting all available energy just to winning tenure means I am doing nothing to better others’ lives, only serving my own (professional) needs.  And, I am better able to flip the question “do I belong here?” to “does this career/field/university work for my goals and values?”  (Fortunately, the answer is a clear “yes!”)

Seek Professional Help, If Needed

I do not mean to make light of the anxiety and self-doubt that underlies imposter syndrome — I know them all too well to think it a laughing matter.  But, RuPaul’s Drag Race, including RuPaul herself and her queens, have given me life.  After a tough day at work during my grad school days, my escape was the fantasy world of reality show drag realness.  Blogging was a useful escape during the dissertation phase.  Find something that works for you!

And, sometimes the weight of this form of distress is simply too much, too disruptive to our lives.  That is the point at which one should seek professional help.  This is just a job.  There is no reason why we should be suffering with mental health problems.  Frankly, I do not think it is worth it!

Actually, I would say to seek the help of a mental health provider even if the symptoms are mild, or just for regular checkups (the way we do for physical health).  Considering the persistence of the interpersonal and institutional factors that bring this on, there is no reason to feel ashamed or weak that you need to ask for help.  Consider it a long-term investment, so that you do not shorten your lifespan, have to take time off for health reasons, or retire early, or leave academia all together feeling bitter and stressed-out.  As it turns out, we are responsible for our own health and well-being — it is not our jobs’ responsibility (or concern, even).

Other Advice

Authenticity Vs. Success

Before I officially started my tenure-track faculty position, I declared to the world that I refuse to be constrained by tenure.  I fought for chose a job at a small liberal arts college, not too far from my family, that would clearly support my scholarship (broadly defined).  Specifically, I mean support for my social justice-informed approach to research, teaching, mentoring, and service to the academy and local community.  I figured that I had been silent and stressed long enough through my graduate training that, now with “Doctor” in front of my name, I earned that right.

Then, why was I crying into a couch cushion by the end of the third week of the semester?

The Setup

I have done it all “right.”  Before the semester even started, I sent out three papers from my dissertation for review — including one that was rejected from my field’s top journal, and quickly edited and sent off to another journal.  I set a rigid schedule that has demanded a disciplined approach to research and teaching and, for the most part, I have stuck to it each week.  I have even been good about keeping the “extracurricular” activities — service, blogging — outside of my 8am-5:30pm work schedule.  You will only find me wearing jeans — of course, with a blazer and dress shirt — on days that I am not teaching nor attending meetings.

But, I have also done things right by my own standards and values.  Each morning begins with yoga, and I recently added a bit of meditation to my lunch break (yes, a non-negotiable lunch break).  I have started making connections on campus with both faculty and staff with similar academic and social justice interests.  This blog has remained active, and even expanded to include an assistant editor (Dr. Sonya Satinsky) and growing blogroll list.  In fact, I recently shared expanding this blog as one aspect of my service to the academy on my 5-year plan with one of my associate deans.  And, my office is all set up to be accessible, with subtle indicators of my background (e.g., pictures of my partner, my family) and my values (e.g., political posters).

Even bolder acts of doing things my way have occurred, albeit unintentionally.  At my university’s colloquy — where new faculty were introduced to the entire faculty body and administration — my dean concluded my introduction with, “and he regularly blogs, sometimes on personal and critical reflection.”  I could not stop the utterance of “oh my god” that passed my lips after she said that.  And, a similar feeling after I told my department chair, “oh, I don’t work weekends.”

Or, So I Thought…

So, I have done everything “right.”  But, I was unprepared for a few things that eventually knocked me down.  Upon seeing the entire faculty body and administration at colloquy, I realized that the school’s racial and ethnic diversity really is a work in progress.  Progress has been made, and more progress is needed — the university itself is aware of this.  But, it is one thing to hear this on your campus interview, while it is another to actually see this all at once.  Some spaces are clearly diverse, while others are still predominantly white — so, the progress made is not evenly spread across the campus.

And, though I have read essay after essay on the imposter syndrome that can exists for a lifetime for marginalized scholars, I was not emotionally prepared for experiencing it myself.  The older white straight man colleague who looked puzzled when I was introduced to him, as though he was confused that I was the new hire.  The fight I have with my body (image issues) every morning as I force myself into suits that feel like costumes.  The lingering sense of self-doubt from graduate school.  The awareness that I am only six years older than the seniors in my classes — and, that they, too, may know this, or can easily find it out on the internet.

Relatedly, I was blindsided by the feeling of isolation that has crept up.  Though I work in my office every weekday, and there is always at least one other person in the department, there are days when I never interact with another soul.  The risk of feeling lonely may be exacerbated for me in a small department at a small school — e.g., with two professors on sabbatical, one-fifth of the department is absent this semester.

The Meltdown

The Thursday of my third week started in good spirits.  By lunch, I felt nauseous — a symptom of the piqued anxiety from a massive project that I have been working on for years.  On the way to lunch, I was mistaken as a Latino professor who is currently on sabbatical.  By the time I wrapped up the day, I wondered why I felt lonely sitting in my office, knowing others were in the office.   I began to cry on the drive home.  It was unexpected, no prior thought-process that would evoke sadness or pain.

When I told my partner about my day, the tears interrupted my story.  I was starting to name an unnamed feeling that has been lurking for a few weeks now.  Due to a storm that knocked the power out, we were forced to talk in the darkness to pass the time.  After some time, I excused myself to sob quietly on the couch; unfortunately, “quiet” sobbing became loud wailing — that ugly cry that you do not even want your partner to see.

Trying to comfort me, my partner said, “any job that makes you melt down like this is not worth it.”  I did not want him to go there.  It felt as though I fought with my graduate department to take this job.  And, I have learned just how great it is for me on many counts.  So, why would I be upset?

I was embarrassed: I should be celebrating each day for this prized job; I should know better than to think I would somehow be immune to the realities of oppression within academia; I am running a blog about these issues!  Of course, no place is perfect.  And, the reality for my institution is that I will have to be a part of the changes; that requires resilience, patience, and understanding on my part.  But, I had hoped to never find myself sobbing on my couch in the dark.

Naming It

It turns out I have not been doing it “right” — or, at least not doing some things right.  First, though I know the critical importance of making connections, I have not put in enough effort to make new connections, and utilize existing ones.  This is important professionally to find supportive colleagues and mentors.  Also, from the tools of Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore‘s NCFDD workshops, I need sponsors — senior colleagues who will advocate for me in public and behind closed doors.  Fortunately, in attending the recent NCFDD workshop on my campus, I was reminded of the importance of networks, and even met others who will likely become connections.

Second, I have neglected some aspects of self-care, especially being confident in my abilities, being patient with myself, and being kind to myself.  I actually opened up about my recent meltdown to some colleagues, and even at the NCFDD workshop in response to “why are you here?”  The common response was that I would have bad days, no matter how great the job.  And, I cannot expect myself to have everything figured out by the third week.

Another factor that has fueled my imposter syndrome is failing to properly celebrate my recent accomplishments: securing a job, finishing my dissertation, earning a PhD, receiving a “revise and resubmit” on one of articles I sent out this summer.  Though my parents attempted to plan some sort of family celebration, I insisted that it would be making an unnecessary fuss, especially after we already celebrated after graduation in May.  It was when I said out loud, “I’m proud of myself,” and then burst into tears, that I realized I had not heard it from someone else in a long time, nor had I sufficiently celebrated those accomplishments.

Finally, I am still burning great energy toward success and toward authenticity — two goals that feel inherently oppositional to me.  I find comfort in making clear my advocacy for greater diversity and social justice in academia.  But, for fear that I will not have an academic job to keep pushing for change, I am also busting my butt to publish articles quickly and in top journals within my discipline.  Though I find multiple ways to work in critical examples into my teaching, I still dress in a suit to teach (no less than a vest).  And, though the entire university knows about my blogging, I had initially intended to keep my work life and my blogging separate, fearing that I would be seen as an activist (presumably a bad thing in academia) and wasting time when I could be doing more research.

Authenticity Vs. Success

Reading Dr. Isis‘s post, wherein she criticizes framing open access in academic publishing as a moral imperative, helped me to name the seemingly contradictory relationship between authenticity/advocacy and success in academia:

Larger than the Open Access warz, I feel that I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities. I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it. That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.  As I  tried to say on Twitter in the midst of the storm, non-white men have to play even harder by the rules.  It’s cute to consider being a rebel, but not at the expense of my other goals.  To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

As Dr. Isis notes in a follow-up post, this is simply something privileged scholars cannot understand.  Wherein scholars of marginalized backgrounds — especially people of color — are more likely to pursue academic careers for activist or social justices related reasons, the success versus authenticity dichotomy is one that many know well.  This is in no way on par with anything (most) privileged scholars worry about:

  • It is not the irritation one experiences that you cannot wear pajamas to work because it is seen as unprofessional.  It is the racist and sexist assault of being told that having one’s hair in a natural style or an Afro as a Black woman is militant, unprofessional (by white men’s standards), or distracting.  That also goes for requests to touch your hair, as though you are a zoo exhibit.
  • It is not the stress to do good work, publish in high-status places.  It is being told that studying gay people is unimportant, or consistently seeing the curious absence of articles on sexualities in your discipline’s top journals.
  • It is not simply deferring to senior faculty while one is on the tenure-track.  It is suffering in silence for seven years while you are subject to the sexual harassment, and sexist microaggressions and stereotypes of men colleagues who can only be removed from their jobs through freewill or death.  That, and having them “manplain” to you about your own experiences as a woman.

I could go on forever.  The root of the issue is that I, among many marginalized scholars, experience an internal game of tug-of-war between my desires to be authentic and to make change in academia (and beyond), and the keen awareness that I have to work to keep my position in the academy to do those things.  It almost seems every decision to be more authentic comes with an obvious hit to my success and status.  And, every effort to increase my success and status comes with a compromise of my self, identities, and values.

The Role Of Tenure

Tenure is widely considered the promised land where authenticity and advocacy can roam free.  If only I can work quietly with my head down and my mouth shut for another six years… another six years… I will experience true academic freedom.  I have so many problems with that request — “just wait a little longer.”

  • Tomorrow is not promised to me.  The day my 19-year-old cousin passed away, suffocating in his sleep after a major seizure, I promised myself to live everyday in a way that I would be happy and proud that I lived my last day right.  He suffered from severe epilepsy, which ended up robbing him of the full-scholarship he was to receive to play football at a four-year college.  I feel I owe it to him to breakdown the walls of the academy that keep out countless young adults of poor and minority backgrounds.
  • My parents have worked hard their entire adult lives to support me, and to push me to reach even higher heights than I can envision.  They have made sacrifices so that I could pursue my dreams.
  • My ancestors have risked (and, for some, lost) their lives to protect rights denied to them for future generations.  I am already free relative to what they had in the past. I was able to enhance my status even further by obtaining a PhD — an accomplishment that would be unheard of decades ago.  Why willingly give up freedom in the name of winning “freedom” with tenure?
  • Obsessing about tenure Devoting energy to obtaining lifelong job security in the form of tenure takes energy away from goals that help people other than myself.  Yes, blaspheme!  Working toward tenure is a self-serving goal — a clever disguise for the university’s self-serving goals.  If I spend seven years publishing in top-tier journals (behind paywalls), teach in ways that do not challenge my students thus keeping their course evaluations high, and minimize service (and forgo community service), all in a suit and tie — I may have a job for life; but, I will have done nothing to help others.  And, let’s be completely honest about it: I could do everything “right” and still be denied tenure.
  • Once you get tenure, you’re set for life — right?  Well, that is if you are comfortable remaining at the associate professor level forever.  And, even after one becomes full professor, you still want regular merit pay raises.  So, from the first semester of graduate school to retirement, one can be on a lifelong path of constrain, censorship, and stress.

So, I am back to it: the “tenure-track without losing my soul.”  The most difficult matter will be finding a happy and healthy balance between authenticity and success.  A professor in graduate school once told me that it will be a lifelong juggle; the day you feel completely comfortable with the balance is the day you have gone too far in one direction.  That is, if I find I have reached a satisfying level of success by mainstream academic standards, I have probably gone years without making a bit of difference in ways that I consider direct and meaningful.  Alternatively, if no one is on my back — “what… too much service?” — I have likely been dismissed by my colleagues as a scholar.

If I wish to make space for future generations of marginalized scholars in academia, I cannot do so by simply recreating the current “ideal” model.  I cannot send the message to my disadvantaged students that they, too, can be a professor, so long as they look and act like their privileged peers.  And, I will never be happy if I push myself to be something other than myself.  And, to be “real” about it, I will never be anything more than conditionally accepted in academia.  So, let the haters hate — I have got work to do.

I leave you with my current musical obsession:

Brief Advice For Current Graduate Students On The Margins

Me - FordShortly after I graduated from Indiana University, earning my PhD in sociology, I felt compelled to scream to every graduate student, “we can do it!”  Or, more specifically for marginalized students, “we can do it without losing our souls!”  But, the structure and culture of academic institutions leaves many scholars on the margins questioning their competence and contribution and/or attempting to reconcile the mainstream values of their discipline with their politics and authenticity.  It is certainly no small task, and likely will be one that last throughout one’s career — but, it can be done.  So, in the spirit of pursuing a PhD, but not at the expense of my well-being, identity, and values, I gave the following advice to current graduate students.


My advice to those still working through graduate school:

Don’t let these “experts” from privileged backgrounds who define “expertise” and “knowledge” narrowly — in their terms, their view of the world — tell you, or even lead you to believe, that you are not smart enough, not critical enough, not good enough.  They have carved out a small piece of the world and declared that only those who can break into it or “get it” are true intellectuals.  Some of them actively guard those borders to keep the rest of us out. Some of them intentionally use esoteric language and methods to force the rest of us to feel incompetent.  Be mindful of what they’re up to, but trust your own perspective, passion, and voice. Don’t be fooled into thinking there are no alternatives to what is considered “mainstream” or “traditional.” Don’t let them tell you that only quantifiable knowledge can be trusted.  Don’t let them deceive you into thinking objectivity exists, that researchers must be apolitical and disconnected from their work. Don’t hesitate to question why all of the “classics” reflect the scholarship of old/dead white heterosexual middle-class men.  Don’t let them tell you that studying a specific (marginalized) group isn’t important unless it tells us something about the entire (dominant) world.

Trust you. Do you. Be you. Speak for you. Think for you.

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!