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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?
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 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.
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 tenureDevoting 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:
In the spirit of releasing the toxins of my graduate school days, I wish to do one more detox as I wade into the next chapter of my life as a professor. I have already noted that time and distance have tremendously helped to heal some old wounds. So, too, has moving out of the days of having to answer to and be molded by someone else (and now, refusing to do so on the tenure-track) and defining my own path here forward.
But, throughout, just disposing of some of that emotional and mental garbage is all it takes to feel free. It’s just a shame that so many concerns about jobs, tenure, promotion, etc. rob us of outlets to really vent without repercussion. So, I had taken to sprinkling vague references to offensive and unjust incidents throughout my blogs. I’m just going to do it, once and for all, to get it out of my system. But, I will still keep identities and contexts masked, unless it was shared in a public (and easily found) venue.
Sh*t Academics Have Said
Yes, I know the “sh*t [x group]” says is old, and became tired and repetitive rather quickly. But, I still like the framing because there were some good and/or funny versions (e.g., “white girls to black girls“; “cis people to trans* people“; “everybody to rape survivors“; “black gays“; “white people to Asians“; “[straight] girls to gay guys“). I just found this one actually about academics and accessibility. So, here it goes…
- “You’re gay – do you like my shoes?”
- “You all have ghetto booties!”
- “What’s a Black Panther?”
- “All Black guys have six-packs.”
- “I’m glad I don’t have to worry about AIDS!”
- “Can I touch your hair? Omigod, please stop me. I shouldn’t be touching your hair!”
- “Aren’t fellowships for minorities a form of reverse racism?”
- “Man up!”
- “Don’t do that — that’s girly.”
- “I don’t think homophobia is a problem anymore.”
- “You don’t have to get uppity!”
- “A little anxiety is good for you.”
- “I mean, is it possible that these students came to graduate school with mental health problems?”
- “You’ll have to remind them that you’re Black.”
- “Don’t worry — you’re Black. You’ll get a job.”
- “You’re not going to get a job.”
- “So, lesbian and gay falls under the umbrella of transgender, right?”
- “I think you’re overreacting [about racism].”
- “You know, as a woman of color, you really shouldn’t show up late.”
- “Where is the hotel lobby? Oh, you don’t work here?”
- “The students here are kind of stupid.”
- “Community service?! Not before tenure.”
- “You have anxiety? What — too much service?”
- We live in a “post-racist” society
- “Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation.“
- “She didn’t get the job because she’s a party girl.”
- “You’re not going to get a job by studying trans* people.”
- “She teaches an immigration course. Can’t she teach race, too?”
- “Do not have a baby before tenure!”
- “You’re not really Hispanic. You don’t even speak Spanish!”
- “Why would you tell anyone that you’re Black when you can pass [as white]?”
- “You’re not like other Black people.”
- “Can’t you just breastfeed in the bathroom?”
- “I don’t know who the new secretary is, but, I’m sure she can help you.”
- “Oh, we haven’t beaten the activist out of you yet?”
- “Activism and academe don’t mix“
- “But, you’re research interests [on race and sexuality] are so narrow.”
- “So, what are you?”
On A Serious Note
There is an element of fun and humor to naming these rather hurtful comments. These are, by definition, various instances of microaggressions — or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative” slights and insults toward people of color, women, queer people, fat people, and other marginalized groups. These seemingly innocuous comments and actions are compounded by more obvious, major expressions of prejudice and discriminatory acts, and symbols in the environment that devalue marginalized people and/or elevate the values of privilege people.
So, in my experience, these verbal and interactional slights are just one (albeit common) manifestation of racism, heterosexism, and fatphobia in academia. I also saw few faculty like me — scholars of color and LGBT scholars, in particular; my graduate department regularly struggled to recruit students of color. My classes were held in a classroom named for a revered old white man scholar (whose picture watched over us), within a building named for another revered old white man scholar — all of this, at a school that continues to struggle to diversify its student body and faculty. Within class, curricula regularly featured the work, perspectives, and voices of heterosexuals, cisgender people, whites, and men (especially white heterosexual cismen), and studying particular marginalized populations was not seen as rigorous as taking on a mainstream concept or theory.
What’s worse is that the pressures of the job market, tenure, promotion, and general status-mobility in academia force us to be silent about these realities. If I played it completely safe, I would wait until tenure to finally open up about these experiences. That would mean 13 years of silently dealing with microaggressions, discrimination and harassment, double-standards in evaluation, and tokenism — and, the real consequences for my livelihood and well-being. But, guess what? I could do everything the
white right way and still find myself without tenure and a job in seven years.
Further Reading And Resources (Again)
- The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure–Without Losing Your Soul (Kerry Ann Rockquemore & Tracey Laszloffy)
Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Gabriella Gutierrez y Muhs , Yolanda Flores Niemann, Carmen G. Gonzalez, Angela P. Harris).
- …. and the authors’ Facebook page.
- International Black Doctoral Network Association, Inc. (and look the associated Facebook group)
The days of formally excluding women and people of color as faculty, staff, and students from colleges and universities are long gone. And, great progress has been made toward achieving diversity on college campuses along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality. But, it seems diversifying the professoriate remains a stubbornly challenging problem. The realities of racism and sexism in the academy are complex, and shape every stage of the academic pipeline — from admission to graduate school to promotion to full professor to university leadership. So, the mere counting of how many women and people of color “come through the door” as faculty misses these larger problems.
Racial And Gender Inequalities In Graduate School
Beyond admission to graduate training programs, the quality and extent of the mentorship one receives is shaped by their race and gender. In a recent study, professors at over 250 colleges and universities received fictitious emails from PhD students requesting meetings. Professors were more likely to grant meetings for the following week to students presumed to be white men compared to those presumed to be women and/or of color. But, no difference was found for meeting requests for that day. The difference for later meetings was attributed to the sense that such meetings were worth the professors’ time. One could extrapolate from this that racial and gender differences in investment from faculty may exist beyond scheduling meetings. And, these inequalities in mentorship may increase throughout graduate training, posing potential disadvantages to students as they pursue jobs and their success beyond the PhD.
And, what if this is interpreted as racist and/or sexist bias among professors — particularly among white men faculty? One way of avoiding this would be to seek advisers from one’s own background — women professors for women students, faculty of color for students of color. These relationships might be more comfortable, including support for one’s research (especially if it is on gender and/or race and ethnicity) and for one’s subjectivity. However, you may be trading comfort for marketability. A couple of years ago, the American Sociological Association conducted a study of PhD students in a minority fellowship program to assess where they landed jobs. Those with white men as their mentors were more likely to secure jobs at Research 1 universities than those with advisers who were women and/or of color.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Hiring
Progress has been made in hiring faculty from diverse gender, racial, and ethnic backgrounds. But, problems remain. Though outright discrimination is both illegal and harder to get away with, racial and gender bias has found sneakier ways to keep qualified women and people of color out.
For example, an experiment comparing the hireability, competence, and presumed willingness to mentor students of women and men candidates for a a lab manager position found clear gender bias (against women). And, proposed starting salaries were lower for women candidates, which reflects actual gender gaps in pay.
When scientists judged the female applicants more harshly, they did not use sexist reasoning to do so. Instead, they drew upon ostensibly sound reasons to justify why they would not want to hire her: she is not competent enough. Sexism is an ugly word, so many of us are only comfortable identifying it when explicitly misogynistic language or behavior is exhibited. But this shows that you do not need to use anti-women language or even harbor conscious anti-women beliefs to behave in ways that are effectively anti-women.
And, of course, there is discriminatory treatment even once you are hired:
[T]he report [on sexist discrimination at MIT] documents a pattern of sometimes subtle — but substantive and demoralizing — discrimination in areas from hiring, awards, promotions and inclusion on important committees to allocation of valuable resources like laboratory space and research money.
So, by the time women and people go up for tenure, they may have faced numerous instances of unequal treatment — even the prestige associated with their research and how widely they are cited (especially if they do work on race and/or gender).
But, institutional and external constraints that deter some women from applying for tenure-track jobs exacerbate these practices. Because (heterosexual) women are still responsible for much of the household labor for their families, women with children are more likely to opt out, instead taking underpaid postdoctoral positions. Those who do take faculty positions still face penalties for being married and/or having children.
Racist And Sexist Discrimination In Tenure And Promotion
Late last year, a report from an investigation in tenure at the University of Southern California was released, including some very depressing statistics.
The results they procured were staggering. According to her press release, “Since 1998, 92% of white males who were considered for tenure got it. During the same period of time only 55% percent of women and minority candidates were granted tenure. Looking at ethnicity alone, USC granted tenure to 81% of its white candidates but only to 48% of its minority candidates.”
I say “very depressing” to describe this pattern because it suggests that one could do everything “right” while on the tenure track — become a publishing machine; minimize how much you challenge students so they will not punish you on evaluations as “incompetent” or “biased”; remain censored, silent, and apolitical — and still be denied tenure if you are a woman and/or a person of color.
Racist And Sexist Climate
Discrimination is not merely the denial of access and opportunities. It also includes aspects of interpersonal interactions and the institutional climate that can be unwelcoming to women and racial and ethnic minorities.
[A] study based on interviews with 52 underrepresented minority faculty from throughout the university describes areas for attention and improvement in the academic environment, particularly with respect to research isolation, diminished peer recognition and lesser collegiality experienced by some faculty of color.
In an environment where networking and self-promotion are vital to one’s success as a scholar, harassment and hostile interactions serve to keep marginalized faculty “in their place.” For example, philosophy has recently received some negative attention for rampant sexual harassment by men faculty targeted against women faculty. And, just like many universities’ failure to protect and seek justice for victims of rape and sexual assault on campus, there appears to be little protection from and recourse for sexual harassment.
No Better, No Worse
I do not write this extensive post on racial and gender harassment and discrimination in academia to demonize colleges and universities. Rather, I wish to continue to beat the drum that calls for more explicit examination of the areas of bias at various stages in the academy. Academia is a social institution; as such, it is not immune to realities of the social world beyond the ivory tower.
Many individuals of marginalized backgrounds pursue higher education to improve their social status and fight for change for their communities. Indeed, college is viewed by many as a possible source of enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation. While partly true, so, too, is the reality that universities and colleges exhibit the same inequalities of the larger society and actually contribute to them. But, the relatively small number of women and people of color in university administration limits their potential to create change from the top; the same goes at the department-level because of the disproportionately low numbers of senior professors who are women and racial and ethnic minorities. Those on the tenure-track (and in graduate school) are politically quarantined for several years, as well.
I call, first, for better efforts to attend to and minimize bias in graduate admission and evaluation, hiring, awards, tenure evaluation, and promotion. This means becoming attuned to the subtle and covert ways in which bias is plays out. For example, in hiring, problems with “fit” are often used to justify overlooking women and people of color as job candidates. There appears to be an incomplete recognition of inequalities in mentorship and publishing that occur during graduate school that then impact one’s marketability when seeking jobs. I have also heard that some departments make a priori assumptions that candidates of such backgrounds will not seriously consider them if an offer were made, and thus rule them out without waiting to be turned down. My own university has made great strides in the past few years by requiring search committees to employ a diversity advocate to oversee the hiring practices.
Second, as I noted above, attention to discrimination must extend beyond denial of opportunities and access — those matters of getting in. Hostile interactions, racist and sexual harassment, avoidance, isolation, and invisibility are also severe impediments to one’s productivity in graduate school and on the tenure-track (and beyond). These experiences pose problems to one’s health, which can further slow one’s work down. And, they may steer women and people of color out of academia all together, or toward certain (possibly less prestigious) programs and universities to minimize their exposure.
The problems are certainly complex, but academics are bright enough to better understand and address them.
I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.
I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people. She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball. When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed. Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment. It just seemed unnecessary. And, really, unnecessarily vulgar. Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?
I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives. (I’m late, anyhow.) But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment. Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics. (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…) Good; let’s think sociologically!
But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers. Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist icon? Or, is she yet another pawn of the music industry? Apparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin. Fuck. That is a really disturbing revelation.
Queer Sexual Empowerment
In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment. It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex. Right? It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right? It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?
My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment. My mind drew a blank. What would queer sexual empowerment look like? In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act. Fuck you homophobia. We exist.
For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality. Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad. I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow. So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.
But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex. I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause. First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual. It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy. The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion. These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer. That’s not empowerment.
Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered? Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences? Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor? And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?
As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered. Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals. But, not everyone wants that. Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public. I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public. I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men. Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.
I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define. For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred. Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues. To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act. But, only to an extent, it seems. We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions. Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.In a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms. A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off. The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours. Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it. We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”
Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment. Ugh.
With the start of Women’s, Womyn‘s, and Womanist Herstory Month this past Friday, I have been wondering what more I can do to challenge sexism — including my own. As I have noted in previous posts, I have an evolving awareness that my own disadvantaged social location as a brown queer man does not make me immune to sexism, nor any other system of oppression.
One important task of my anti-sexist advocacy is to become aware of the ways in which I am privileged as a man. I know this to be a particular challenge for queer men because of our awareness that we are disadvantaged among men. So, I was disappointed to find little beyond a few personal reflections from feminist-identified gay men to guide me and other queer men to understand and appropriately fight sexism. The Guy’s Guide to Feminism seems like a good start, but I find it useful to engage gay men from their unique relationships with sexism, women, and male privilege.
Feminism For Gay Men 101
Though I am just at the beginning of a lifelong journey to understanding sexism and my own male privilege, here are a few lessons I would like to impart to my fellow gay men:
- We are men. We hold male privilege. Period.
- Yes, number 1 is true despite our sexual orientation and despite our gender expression (no matter how feminine, androgynous, or queer). Though gay masculinity is devalued relative to hegemonic masculinity (i.e., white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied young/middle-age masculinity), it is still privileged over all femininities.
- Systems of oppression are linked including — particularly relevant to this discussion — sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism. As such, our liberation is tied to the liberation of ciswomen and trans* people.
- While number 3 is true, we are not immune to sexist attitudes and behaviors. And, most importantly, being gay does not make us anti-sexist. Our marginalized status among men may make it easier to understand sexist oppression, but it does does not preclude us from it. Just like heterosexual cisgender men who engage in anti-sexist activism, we must be active in challenging the prejudice, discrimination, and violence against women, and to keep our male privilege in check (i.e., give it up or use it for good).
- Though we generally are not sexually attracted to women, we are just as capable of sexually harassing or assaulting women. The root of sexual violence is power, not sexual attraction. I must point out here that too many of us have sexually harassed or assaulted women and naively excused the behavior as innocent because we are gay. Sexual violence by any perpetrator is wrong. But, that of gay men has the added element of placing our women friends and allies in the difficult position of questioning whether to feel violated or upset.
- Related to number 5, we must stop treating the women in our lives as objects or accessories. Yes, many heterosexual women are guilty of doing this to us — the gay BFF, every girl’s must have! — which is also wrong. Friendships that exist because of her gender or your sexual orientation are forms of exotification.
- Attraction to male-bodied individuals, men, and masculinity must be stripped of the presumed aversion to female-bodied individuals, women, and femininity. We need not be repulsed by female bodies just because we are not sexually attracted to (cis)women. Even when joking, this is no less problematic than (cisgender) heterosexuals who proclaim to be repulsed by people of their same sex.
- Certain aspects of gay men’s culture that promote pride and empowerment among us come at the expense of women’s empowerment. To call a fellow gay man “bitch,” “cunt,” and, more commonly in the drag scene, “fish,” is to use a term that derogates women. Though they may be positive in intent and meaning, these are not instances of reclaiming pejorative terms used against us: self-identifying as queer is; “servin’ up fish!” isn’t. Just think how outraged we would be if women decided to adopt “faggot” as a term of endearment among themselves.
- Our queer, bisexual, and lesbian sisters are oppressed by heterosexism and sexism. We, as LGBT and queer people, will not be fully liberated by addressing homophobia and heterosexism alone.
- Related to number 9, we must recognize that LBQ women are often subject to our sexist prejudice and behavior, ranging from anti-lesbian jokes to outright exclusion (often disguised as innocently bonding with other gay men or even the product of our exclusive attraction to men).
- The way that we devalue femininity among ourselves is another arm of sexism. The “no femmes” sentiment, aptly called femmephobia, is nothing more than the hatred of femininity, which is associated with women. Beyond eliminating this silly prejudice in our anti-sexist efforts, we do ourselves the favor of freeing the constraints on how we can behave and express our gender.
- We owe it — yes, we owe it — to the ciswomen and trans* people who have fought against the injustices we face to fight against those they face. Even when kept at the periphery or outright excluded, transpeople have fought for equal rights and status for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Many lesbian and bisexual women served as caregivers to gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS during the 1980s and 1990s, while also fighting along side those who worked for better HIV/AIDS health care. Feminists of all walks of life have advocated for our protection from prejudice, discrimination, and violence, seeing it as important in (and linked to) activism against sexist discrimination and violence against women.
We owe it to our ciswomen and trans* friends and allies — and ourselves — to be better feminists.