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Some time ago, I shared a secret with two friends: I find myself frequently searching for things that move me. A deep, insightful book. An exciting new song. A novel movie. An unusually critical article. An event that pulls on my heart strings. Something that will feed my spirit in a way that most things do not.
One of these two friends responded, “doesn’t that seem unhealthy?” She worried that having spiritual food located externally, and its actual whereabouts unknown and fleeting, was no way to live a self-sustaining live. I had never thought of this kind of hunger as unhealthy. I had actually convinced myself that this was my way of searching for meaning in the world, specifically for my own life. Isn’t it a good thing to want more from life, to proactively look for more and better rather than simply accept what is? And, don’t we all get excited when something “gives us life”?
My friend’s concern came to mind recently as I browsed a local bookstore. I sat on the floor before the disappointingly small selection of books on LGBTQ issues. I found myself looking for… well, myself. Where is that story about people like me? It finally clicked. Maybe this is not exactly what concerned my friend. But, it definitely concerned me. I am not (only) looking for meaning; apparently, I am desperately searching for myself, something more than my own reflection in the mirror.
The media. My workplace. My family. Politics. Religion. My own racial and sexual communities. People like me do not exist, apparently. I am invisible. Or, maybe I do not even exist.
Fuck intersectionality.1 As one part of myself becomes visible, the other parts remain invisible. Black is straight. Gay is white and thin. Black and white cannot coexist, so where does that leave me as a multiracial person? Where does this leave me, Black, white, queer, fat, something other than hypermasculine yet male-bodied? Fuck intersectionality. Fuck being unique.
It takes energy everyday to exist — to dare to enter the world as the other other Other. Some days, I am exhausted from it all, from forcing the universe to see me, from trying to carve out space in the world for myself.
But, that is the key to my survival. My existence is not a given. It is the outcome of a lifelong fight against invisibility, bias, exclusion, and even conditional acceptance. It comes from not giving up, or settling into subordinate status.
I will exist — or die trying.
1 To be clear, this statement reflects my frustration with existing at intersections among multiple oppressed statuses, not the theoretical framework of intersectionality. Indeed, intersectionality and Black feminist theory in general have been instrumental in making visible such intersections and highlighting the critical importance of studying them in academia. Intersectionality as a framework “gives me life” in so many ways.
There is no clear-cut, universal, transparent set of standards for success in academia. Even “publish or perish” is both too fuzzy and fails to account for teaching, service, and the politics in one’s department/university/discipline to serve as a formula for achieving tenure or any other milestone in an academic career. While some universities work to make their standards more transparent, many scholars simply admit that standards are impossible to define. The reality is most PhDs do not land tenure-track jobs, most tenure-track professors secure tenure, and few are ever promoted full professor. But, these aggregate patterns cannot serve as an individual scholar’s chances of success; maybe the more confident among us can “face the facts” and sleep peacefully at night, but the rest of us work even harder to beat the odds.
The aggregate patterns also mask clear disparities by race, ethnicity, and gender. I imagine we would also find disparities by sexual identity, gender identity and expression, age, ability, weight, social class, and family structure. Those favorable odds for tenure look a little more like the odds of a coin toss for scholars of color, for example. Women and people of color are overrepresented among those landing contingent and adjunct positions, and underrepresented among tenure-track and tenured faculty (especially full professors). For marginalized scholars, one thing is certain: our future in academia is uncertain. Needless to say, many of us are well aware of the “Black tax” or “female tax” or other penalties that demand extra work (and worry) for equal outcomes.
As marginalized identities intersect, optimism about one’s career becomes a foreign feeling. Diversity initiatives tend to focus on a single identity in isolation from others. Progress made in recruiting people of color and women really means more men of color (especially Black men) and more white women. Women of color know well the status of being a token. Other identities like sexuality, ability, class, and weight barely register as dimensions of “diversity,” if ever. While freed from accusations that we secured a job solely because of our marginalized identity, we know that we end up securing jobs or advancing in our careers despite these identities.
To be completely honest with you, I am scared. I was surprised (and relieved) to secure a tenure-track with one year’s job search. Despite the shift in my research toward health — a lucrative subfield in sociology — I feared losing opportunities because of a focus in my research, teaching, and service (and advocacy) on sexuality. There were no jobs with a specialization in sexuality; and, I have heard that has changed little since my 2012 search. Now on the job, my sense of favorable odds for tenure is trumped by the fear of unknown, unpredictable, and insurmountable politics. The fear is strong enough that I secretly await the notification that I have been terminated immediately — not in 5 years through a tenure denial.
Strike one: I am black. I am queer. I am fat. (That’s already 3 strikes, right?) Strike two: I have pursued a non-traditional academic career, first, by taking a liberal arts job in the context of an R1-bias in academia, and second, by engaging in intellectual activism. Strike three: I have documented my professional journey publicly (i.e., this blog). I cannot help it really; I feel compelled to tell stories I do not see reflected elsewhere, and to offer my experiences and advice to other marginalized scholars. But, doing so publicly has not been without criticism and concern from others.
This is uncharted territory. That is the only way I can describe pursuing a liberal arts career with a focus on intellectual activism, as a multiracial fat queer man. With little effort, I can find examples of liberal arts careers, successful academics of color, and even some successful LGBTQ academics. With a little more effort, I can find examples of intellectual activists (who were not harmed or forced to compromise professionally in major ways). But, frankly, I do not see any one who looks like me.
Maybe these potential role models exist, but their careers, journeys, and experiences are never made readily available. On my own, I had to familiarize myself with Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, and her intellectual activism. As a distinguished full professor and former president of our discipline’s organization (American Sociological Association), Collins continues to be one of my role models. I surmise, based on her writings, that she felt similarly to the way I feel today. At the start of her career, she probably did not see many Black women in sociology or academia in general, especially those who advanced scholarship on Black women and Black feminism. I hate to ask, but how many Patricia Hill Collins exist who did not reach her level of success and visibility? If there are many who have not “made it,” is it misleading to point to Collins as proof that any of us can make it?
Paving The Way
I suppose, in some way, I have known all along that I would be embarking on uncharted territory, both professionally and in life in general. In my office, I have a black-and-white picture of my hands “paving the way,” reenacting the motion I made in my 2007 interview for the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC. I was finishing up my senior year of high school at the time, and hoping to be selected for the scholarship program. After the interview, I told my mom how it went, and that one of the interviewers gave me an usual look as I made the gesture. My mom teased me that my motion of paving the way looked more like sweeping people out of the way. Jokes aside, even at 17, I was both aware of the challenges that lie ahead for me in pursuing an academic career, and that I would be tasked with making change along the way for others who followed me.
While I attempt to identify the safe bounds of my career in academia, experimenting with work-life balance (and WERRRK!-life balance), authenticity, and intellectual activism, I also feel slight pressure to figure things out and succeed for future generations of scholars and my own students. I notice that some students pay attention to how I present myself in the classroom — do I seem guarded? will I ever give the suits a rest? do I mention my partner or otherwise out myself? A few students have found this blog and expressed their appreciation of it (to my embarrassment, nonetheless). Now having experienced a glimmer of comfort and confidence in the classroom (omg, year 2 is so much better than year 1), I feel compelled to finally rid myself of the usual nervousness because I can more genuinely connect with the students.
But, without many of my own role models, I am still trying to find my way in the dark. I certainly do not want to send the message to students, especially my LGBTQ students, that we are all one three-piece suit away from success. But, I am not confident enough that this is purely a myth to do away with suits all together. I do not want to be yet another tenure-track professor who trades silence and invisibility for job security. But, I would be a fool to ignore the horror stories of professors who refused to be silent and paid the price professionally.
How can I be a role model for students and future scholars if I am making it up as I go, treating my career as a series of trials and errors? Why the hell, in 2014, do I feel like one of “the firsts”? I actually do not want the honor of being “the first” nor the pressure of being a role model. I just want to publish useful research later made accessible, help students to develop skills necessary to view the social world critically, and make space for all people in academia and society in general. I can follow the road too often traveled, playing it “safe” all of the way to tenure. I can totally embrace my marginal identities and interests without regard to the mainstream of academia, and surely find myself forever on the margins of academia. But, I have decided to carve my own path, working to bring the marginal into the mainstream. I would be more than happy to know that, along the way, I have paved the way for others so that they will not experience academia as uncharted territory.
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.
Student: “I think homosexuality… you know… is wrong. It’s a sin.”
Professor: “Interesting. Are there other thoughts for the rest of the class?”
Certainly, physical forms of violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*, and queer (LGBTQ) people would not be tolerated in the classroom. Professors would also be inclined to appropriately punish verbal harassment and any discrimination against LGBTQ people.
But, what about expressions of intolerance toward LGBTQ people, relationships, and communities within the context of classroom discussion? Is there a place for “civil” expression of intolerance in college classrooms?
Over the summer, I attended one of my university’s safe zone brownbag lunches — this one focused on LGBTQ students in our classes. The main concern that we addressed was ensuring that we, as professors, can make our classes safe and inclusive for LGBTQ students. One issue that arose was the views and behaviors of other students in our classes. One fellow attendee expressed concern about directly challenging students who may articulate prejudiced views. Another suggested, rather than shutting a student down (or up, really), to politely invite the student to unpack their views, and encourage other students to respond to them. In my mind, I heard, “tolerate intolerance” for the sake of classroom discussion and the students’ feelings.
Earlier in the summer, a Chronicle of Higher Education essay spoke to these concerns:
I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality.
Why do we immediately shut down racism, but invite homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in classroom discussions? I expressed my concerns about this, and note that the question should not matter. Why is the morality of homosexuality up for debate in a classroom? I cannot speak to what is covered across the entire academy — especially in religious studies, divinity schools, philosophy, etc. But, in most of academia, where is a debate about the acceptability (or not) of same-gender relationships an appropriate debate?
The way around this, in my view, is to remind students to connect their argument with course material — lecture, readings, assignments, etc. If you have assigned material that offers an opinion about the morality of homosexuality, then ensure that students are speaking about/to that material. I cannot imagine that a student articulating that “two dudes having sex is gross!” is relevant to a classroom discussion. And, as such, there is the clear respons, “that’s not appropriate.”
Having taught classes on sexuality, I have an interesting perspective. For the most part, students self-select into this (typically) upper-level course. So, those students who might hold intolerant views are few and far between. But, I did have one who ended up performing poorly in the class because they were unable to engage the course material on exams. I had to say, “homosexuality is immoral according to the Bible,” was an incorrect response to “describe the ‘nature versus nurture’ debates about the origins of sexual orientation.” On the flip side, I also never asked students to adopt a view that same-gender relationships are acceptable, though that is the latent goal of exposing students to critical dialogue about homophobia and the social bases of sexual morality.
Additional Challenges For LGBTQ Professors
Anecdotally speaking, academics who teach on sexuality are more likely to be LGBTQ themselves. (I am not sure why — privileged scholars are simply not drawn to the areas in which they are privileged.) So, the question of challenging intolerance toward LGBTQ people in our classrooms is of greater concern to LGBTQ educators. But, beyond the likelihood of facing this dilemma, queer professors face additional challenges that may further invite transphobia, biphobia, and homophobia into the classroom.
First, like people of color and women, professors who are (or are presumed to be) lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) are more harshly criticized by undergraduate students. Specifically, students are more likely to perceive LGB professors as politically biased, at least (or maybe especially) in human sexuality classes. Once again, professors of the privileged social group (i.e., heterosexuals, cisgender people) are viewed as “objective,” giving them more space to teach the Truth about the social world. Professors of the oppressed social group (i.e., LGBTQ people) are viewed with suspicion, deemed unable to speak outside of their own experiences and “agenda.”
“Well, of course you would say that — you’re a lesbian!”
It may come as little surprise that LGBTQ educators — in college and at earlier levels of schooling — are less likely to challenge anti-LGBTQ bias in their classrooms and schools. For those who choose to be out as LGBTQ (that is, publicly disclose their sexual and/or gender identities), this may entail fear of negative student evaluations or other forms of retaliation for challenging intolerance. And, for others, it means not coming out at all, or at least not to one’s students. Even LGBTQ-friendliness may get straight and cisgender faculty in trouble.
Academic Freedom, Right?
With the promised land of academic “freedom,” one may assume all of this is irrelevant — even for LGBTQ professors. Well, faculty take a hit to their course evaluations because they are 1) out, 2) LGBTQ-friendly, or 3) deemed biased because they are out or an ally to queer people. If one’s department and university takes the position that course evaluations are a reliable, unbiased assessment of teaching performance — one that can apply a universal standard across all professors — then, there is a limit to one’s “freedom” if you want to keep your job. And, as the tradition goes, one must get through the tenure process in order to obtain academic “freedom.”
[Academics’] lifestyles have become so self-regulated, difference has become so closeted, that our actual code of conduct embodies the exact opposite of what it professes. Tolerance is nonexistent: To be “queer” in academia is to be as damned as it was in pre-Stonewall days. The thing is, queerness is, as always, a moving target.
Obviously, the culture of one’s particular institution will shape how comfortable one is being out as LGBTQ, with advocating for inclusivity and acceptance, and with challenging intolerance and discrimination. But, so, too, do the standards and policies of one’s institution. In places where non-discrimination policies do not protect sexual and gender minorities, jobs may be denied or taken away. Sometimes transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic discrimination will manifest in more subtle ways, such as the devaluing LGBTQ scholarship, publishing in sexualities or gender journals, or ignoring service to LGBTQ communities and organizations. These double standards in evaluation are compounded by limited options for presenting and publishing one’s work in mainstream academic venues, and barriers in navigating IRBs and seeking funding.
Freedom From Intolerance In Academia
At the heart of the question of tolerating intolerance is the right to free speech (especially in our classrooms). One of our basic freedoms in the US is to be able to articulate our opinions without consequence. This proves to be a messy issue (unnecessarily, in my opinion) for expressions of hatred (sometimes called “hate speech“). Yes, that is true for our democracy.
But, in academia, there is also the prioritization of equality and enlightenment. Many see higher education as a vehicle through which students are exposed to people and perspectives unlike their own, and eventually develop the ability to 1) empathize and 2) think outside of their own worldview. It is safe to assume that institutions of higher learning should also be inclusive, safe spaces for all students.
Following this logic, we, as educators, have a responsibility to ensure that our students feel safe in the classroom and everywhere else on campus. This means a sense of safety to be a member of an oppressed group and share one’s perspective in class discussion. This does not been feeling safe to spew hatred, reinforcing those students’ oppressed status in society (and on campus). We face an obligation to ensure that we do not allow our students to feel the same isolation, hostility, and tokenism that they experience everyday outside of class. Rather, the classroom should be a place where we critically engage these issues — name them, deconstruct them, and, hopefully, empower our students as they leave the class each day and at the end of the semester.
Sadly, as I noted above, professors — especially who are queer themselves — are constrained in their ability to ensure classroom safety. “I need to graduate” becomes “I need a job” becomes “I need tenure” becomes “I need to get promoted” becomes… In other words, the structure of academia reinforces homophobia and transphobia by (indirectly) silencing LGBTQ instructors. Classroom silences are compounded by the marginal status of scholarship on queer people and the lukewarm campus climate for queer students, staff, and faculty.
Below, I offer a few recommendations for change in academia based on my limited time in academia (almost a whole semester as a professor!). I also offer a list of a few resources for LGBTQ scholars.
- If academia recognizes scholarship by and on LGBTQ people as serious academic inquiry, it needs to put its money where its mouth is. At a minimum, develop more courses to the study of sexualities and gender; at a greater level, develop LGBTQ Studies programs (e.g., majors and minors). Seek to hire faculty who study sexualities — stop using “gender” as code for “gender and sexuality.” (I am happy to see actual job ads for tenure-track sociology positions this year that list “sexualities” and/or “trans* studies.”)
- In terms of evaluation (e.g., tenure and promotion), recognize that LGBTQ scholarship is devalued in academia. This means limited funding, options for publishing, existing data, and obstacles that may delay the research process.
- Recognize sexual identity, gender identity, and expression as dimensions diversity. That means we should begin assessing how diverse universities currently are, and seeking to further diversify, in terms of LGBTQ representation.
- Once LGBTQ faculty and staff are hired, ensure that they are supported; diversity is more than simply getting marginalized faculty and staff through the (front) door. Attend to issues of same-gender partner benefits, trans* inclusive health care, and fostering an inclusive academic culture. Acknowledge the homophobic and transphobic realities that exist beyond the (relatively) liberal bubble of campus.
- Considering the constraints and obstacles faced by queer faculty, we need more cisgender and heterosexual allies to stand with, by, and up for us! Even/especially if your classes and scholarship does not focus on sexualities and gender, you can signal to others the importance of these aspects of human life.
- Devote campus resources explicitly to advocacy for LGBTQ people. It is not enough to point to multicultural centers, women’s centers, gender studies, and mental health services as coverage of “LGBT issues.” These may (or may not!) be queer-friendly spaces, and, no matter their level of friendliness, there are some issues and experiences that simply cannot be effectively addressed when they are designed for other issues/communities.
- Develop a safe zone/space training program. I do not mean freely handing out the stickers that signify that one’s office is a safe space for queer people. As my university does, there should be an actual workshop that covers some basic issues of terminology, particular issues and obstacles faced by LGBTQ students, and points to friendly resources on campus and in the local community. The knowledge and resources are crucial, but this also weeds out faculty and staff who are not committed enough to sit through a three hour-long workshop.
- Finally, to effectively support LGBTQ people, universities must recognize the diversity within LGBTQ communities. First, note that we generally use some sort of acronym — LGBT, GLBT, LGBTQIIA, etc. — because there are multiple identities and associated sub-communities within the larger population of non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people. Second, be sure to attend explicitly to issues related to sexual identity and gender identity and expression. Too often, efforts to address the needs of trans* people are subsumed under a one-shot approach of addressing all LGBTQ people, which really ends up being attention to lesbians and gay men. Finally, acknowledge that other identities and community memberships make for very unique interests, needs, and experiences: race, ethnicity, nationality, ability, body shape and size, religion, and social class.
Resources For LGBTQ Academics
- NOGLSTP: National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals
- Out To Innovate biennial career summit for LGBT scholars in the STEM fields
- oSTEM society for LGBT people in the STEM fields
- Gay and Transgender Chemists and Allies subdivision of the American Chemical Society
- ASA Committee for the Status of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Persons in Sociology
- APA Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns
- Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History (AHA)
- Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals
- Campus Pride
- See our full list of resources here, as well as LGBTQ bloggers on our blogroll.