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Last weekend, my partner and I went to a thrift store run by the local LGBT community center. As we had on previous visits, we perused the store’s library. I followed my usual routine: LGBTQ books, sociology (mislabeled, in my opinion), health and medicine, history — areas of personal and professional interest that I search at any bookstore. I found myself hoping for that one book, that one queer book that I would secretly read and enjoy at home.
“Wait,” I thought. It was an LGBT thrift store; there are several LGBTQ-themed books. And, it is 2013 now, so LGBT issues are discussed and written about rather publicly these days. I no longer have to find pictures of and stories about people like me in that one queer book in the store. Those were the days of the closet — not just my own, but the collective closet all LGBTQ people stayed in until recently. Obviously, much of the infinitely long road to full equality and acceptance lies ahead, but much progress has been made even in my three decades of life (and one decade out as a queer person).
But, I actually felt a little disappointed that queerness is no longer my little secret. I felt the tiniest twinge of nostalgia. I cannot really explain why, for being in the closet was an awful period to which I would rather die than return. I suppose the only seemingly rationale explanation is that I miss the control I felt, or convinced myself I held, over the knowledge and visibility of my sexual identity. At 17, finally unable to deny who I was any longer, I started coming out to certain friends and family — but, I decided whom to tell and when. Of course, people talk, which I also factored into the coming out process. And, aside from two male “friends” (who had a rather homoerotic friendship with one another), the reception was generally positive. (Well, family took some time, but have come around completely.)
Out There, Everywhere
Now, I do not feel I have that control anymore. By virtue of my research and the kinds of courses I teach, students and colleagues typically assume I am gay. These aspects of my professional life that presumably reflect my personal life are publicly accessible, and even recorded through course history, and my publications and conference presentations. Recently, when I printed out the midterm exam for the gender and sexualities course I am currently teaching, I felt exposed — any colleague could pick up the exam from the printer and assume it must be mine. “Right, he’s the sexualities guy…” (read: he’s the gay guy). With what I presume are few out LGBT faculty and/or professors who teach courses on sexualities at my university, it feels as though a spotlight is permanently directed on me.
Further, the introduction of institutions’ involvement in my romantic life has been a bit jarring for me. By jointly signing a lease on our apartment, and opening various accounts jointly, my relationship with my partner is “official” — with various people at these institutions privy to it, and free to make whatever assumptions about us. Each time maintenance or some sort of service person comes to our home, we have to worry what they will think and assume, and how they will react based on those assumptions. And, now as my university moves forward in aligning with federal recognition of same-gender couples, but constrained by state law that prohibits same-gender marriage, I once again feel I have no control over my own sexuality.
While I want access to these various institutions and the associated benefits, and recognition as a committed couple with my partner, I also regularly fear assumptions, microaggressions, and other forms of hostility. These are the very things I typically guard against by controlling who knows what and when about my sexuality and relationship. I suspect other queer people may feel a bit unsettled by this patchwork of homophobic prejudice and discrimination interwoven with acceptance and recognition. I feel I am hyper out at work, where my queer identity, relationship, and scholarship are recognized and affirmed, but my partner and I are vulnerable to intolerance off-campus and are reduced to “roommates” by state law. This is a strange and unsettling liminal space for me as a queer person.
As quickly as LGBT rights have been advanced in the last decade, it feels a bit out of our hands as queer people to predict what lies ahead. I suspect the entire country will have marriage equality before 2020. But, will LGBT people feel any safer in public, walking down the street hand in hand with their partner? The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) will eventually be passed to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, as well as trans* people, but transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic violence will remain a pervasive reality for us. There will be greater acceptance for LGBT individuals (to varying degrees) and same-gender relationships, but a pretty solid disdain for queer sex. And, my greatest fear of all is that we will begin hearing the retort to demands for LGBT rights — “but, you can get married now!”
Yeah, as sick as it may sound, I kinda miss being 17 and out to the chosen few. Things were clearer, more consistent, predictable, and easily controlled.
I am only one person. A mere mortal. So, I am keenly aware that I need the support of others to survive. I need ever greater support to thrive. And, in trying to make a difference in the world — to change it — I need even more support, particularly from allies. At the start of my (hopefully long) career as an academic, I have been reminded immediately of the importance of academic allies. But, allies sometimes get things wrong in their advocacy, or can even make matters worse.
In this post, I will articulate the the importance of allies, at least in my own life and career; and, I hope to convince you to be a better ally to other scholars (especially those on the margins of academe). But, my larger plea is for academia communities to share the responsibility of support, inclusion, and equality.
I have said plenty in conversations and in blog posts about the barriers to free speech in academia. The culture of academia, as I perceive it, is one that celebrates individualism, status, competition, theory over praxis, and research over teaching. The reward structure ensures that academics feel just anxious enough to stay focused on the carrot dangled before them. Keeping one’s head down and mouth shut is
demanded encouraged for the PhD, a tenure-track job, then for tenure, then promotion to full professors, then… Do academics actually ever reach the promised land of “academic freedom”?
I raise this question with concern because those constraints stand at odds with the primary reason I pursued an academic career: to make a difference in the world. I see no point to replicating the apolitical, quiet careers I see of others who have been touted as “academic greats.” Doing so would produce yet another academic career that has no meaning to or influence on the world beyond the ivory tower. (Let us agree to disagree that research in academic journals behind pay-walls is useful to the broader society. That is why we invented impact factors and other ways to self-validate.) Or worse, following the road too-often-traveled would reinforce inequality, at least within academia.
So, if I take the approach I had initially set out on, just staying silent long enough to “make it” and then start making changes, I would be waiting until retirement. I have waited long enough, banking on days that are not promised to me, and success and “freedom” that might never come. The expression, “well-behaved women seldom make herstory,” resonates with me. I know I will regularly be faced with weighing success (or even job stability) with the power to make a difference; as I have noted before, I hope to forge some path between success and social justice, using each to advance the other.
As I noted in another post, I am exhausting myself by devoting energy toward being successful by traditional academic standards — a strategy that regularly feels inauthentic. It is draining at a spiritual level to be something and someone I am not while pushing to create space for my authentic self and others like me. I simply cannot do it alone, working toward the two big goals of keeping my job and creating change in academia and society. Even if I chose not to go against the grain, I would still need support and guidance as a junior professor.
The need for support is especially apparent when I directly challenge “the system” or more powerful members within it. On a number of occasions, I have spoken out and, in the face of being the sole voice before a powerful giant, ended up backing down out of fear. Yet, on other occasions, I have spoken out and then became one of a chorus of voices, standing strong in solidarity. Sometimes, those voices are mere whispers from behind me — a private message on Facebook to thank me for speaking out, an appreciative comment shared in passing in the hallway.
A Few Examples
Stop Saying “Mulatto”!
My entree into blogging as a form of advocacy began around age 12 or 13, as I joined an online forum for multiracial and multiethnic people. But, I had been outspoken about the existence and equal treatment of mixed-race/ethnicity since the age of 5. (I am sure that comes as little surprise to some who know me well…) The first instance was pointedly asking my kindergarten teacher why I could only self-identify as one race. I do not recall her response, though.
In my junior year English class in high school, we had a long-term substitute while our regular teacher was out on maternity leave. He had us spend a great deal of time focusing on race, ethnicity, and nativity — specifically the experiences of Black Americans and African immigrants in the US. At some point, we read a novel about a multiracial person; it was an older text, so the term “mulatto” was used to describe Black-and-white people. As we discussed the text in class, a classmate spoke up: “well, the mulattoes… and, mulattoes…” Growing increasingly offended, I shouted out, “stop saying ‘mulattoes’!” Too angry to further explain, I sat and stewed as the class looked at me in shock and confusion. Without skipping a beat, the (sub) teacher clarified that the term is considered offensive by some because it suggests Blacks and whites are of different species, thus mixed individuals are like mules (the offspring of a horse and a donkey). And, we carried on.
To my surprise, he did not keep the attention on my outburst, nor did he attempt to discipline me thereafter. It was as though my anger was expected and understandable. It provided a moment for him to educate us about the term, not one to punish me. That moment sticks with me today.
National Coming Out Day
A few months after I came out mid-way through my senior year of high school, I jumped to organizing my school’s minimal attempt to celebrate National Coming Out Day. What this actually entailed was printing cards on my personal computer that participants would wear to explain their silence, then handing these out on the day of the silent protest. In essence, this was a one-person initiative that had no input or support from the school or any staff.
One of the Junior ROTC teachers called me over in his typically gruff voice. (I was an officer in JROTC, and president of its honor society.) When I approached, he very kindly asked for a view of the cards to hand out to other students. HUH? I had braced myself to either be reprimanded for handing out “unauthorized” material or even have the caused dismissed all together. I did not have him pegged for an ally to the LGBTQ community. Staying true to the silent protest, I obliged by handing him a few cards without saying a word, and then nodded to express my thanks. People can surprise you.
Staff And Faculty Allies In College
The most impressive expression of support in my life has come from staff and faculty at my alma mater (UMBC). Students who become involved on campus, be it within already formed student organizations or even engaging in advocacy and activism, will find a great deal of support, especially from the student affairs side of the college. As my participation in LGBTQ activities shifted into LGBTQ activism, these mentors and allies supported me and provided me opportunities to advance my initiatives. That work moved to a bigger stage, including the formation of a group of students, staff, faculty, and administrators, eventually capturing the attention of the university president.
Looking back, I am in awe of the level of support I received from staff and faculty who put their name on the line. Many publicly signed their name to a petition we started calling for the creation of a campus resource center for LGBTQ students. I still chuckle as I think about one of my faculty advisors turning to the vice president to pronounce, “I’m queer – I mean, in a political sense. I am queer!” When my then-boyfriend and I successfully ran for homecoming court, facing hostility in the form of graffiti on our flyers, the then-director of student life worked with us to report these acts of intolerance; she also quietly handled a call from an angry parent who complained that we kissed when we were crowned homecoming king and king. My faculty advisors signaled their strong support by allowing me to devote my honors thesis research to advancing the LGBTQ activism in which I was engaged.
Now, I realize UMBC spoiled me. It set pretty high expectations for the kind of mentorship and support, and commitment to social justice, that I should find in academic communities. Let’s just say there are reasons why I keep looking back to those days so fondly…
A Call For Allies In Academia
On several occasions, I have spoken up to call out colleagues who made dangerous public statements about how the world works. Each time, I run the risk of any professional consequences that come from pissing off potential journal editors or reviewers, grant reviewers, tenure-letter writers, etc. And, I may also face backlash or be dismissed (i.e., “you uppity…”).
When I have had allies to chime in, or at least whisper an “amen!” or “thank you,” I feel greater support as I stand on my soapbox. When I do not, I start to question whether it was wrong of me to speak, or that I am reading too much into something or even being overly sensitive, or maybe I just do not know what I am talking about. I hate to feel that I am begging for attention or validation, but, as a “Tweep” pointed out, we need that sense of solidarity to keep us going in our fight for justice.
Unfortunately, both tradition and the academic
punishment reward system keep many of us silent. For example, I wrote a post a few weeks ago about the hostile response that Dr. Rachel Leventhal-Weiner received when she advanced the unpopular advice to look locally for jobs, that it is okay to set geographical parameters in one’s job search. Of course, the hostile posts of disagreement came first, and eventually others chimed in to thank Dr. Leventhal-Weiner for her post, and to criticize the aforementioned comments. It is not fair to make assumptions about her response, but I imagine I would have felt discouraged by the kinds of opposition she received simply for offering advice (a free service for her colleagues, current and future!).
Besides that, what seems to be a new generation of more social justice-minded scholars is currently bound and gagged by job market and tenure-track concerns. We are simply too few and far between, and too far down the totem pole to speak out against injustice in the academy. In order to keep the jobs for which the odds are not in our favor, we keep our heads down and mouths shut. So, that speaks even more to the need of allies who are in positions of power, be it in the academy (e.g., chairs, administrators, tenured faculty) and/or in society (e.g., white heterosexual cis men), to advocate for those without/with less power. But, this has to be proactive. Please, stop waiting for marginalized faculty to raise concerns and then reacting. There is too much at stake to consider before complaining or asking for help. And, do not ask us for the solutions to problems that have existed longer than we have been alive!
Beyond Allies: A Bystander Intervention Approach
So, once again, I am calling for a bystander intervention approach. Since many of the problems in academia are systemic and institutional in origin, we cannot rely alone on individuals — namely those impacted by these problems — to create change. This means that we should all feel a sense of responsibility for improving academia, for making it a more humane and just place.
Listen With Respect And An Open-Mind
Tenure, She Wrote notes the following for men to be better allies to their women colleagues in academia:
Know when to listen. Don’t assume you understand what it’s like for women. Don’t interject with “but this happens to men, too!” Don’t try to dismiss or belittle women’s concerns. Remember that women are often reacting to a long history of incidents, big and small.
Appreciate what (quantitative) data can tell us about larger patterns, but do not ignore personal narratives and anecdotes. This may be more salient to me from the quantitative-biased field of sociology. But, I have noticed a tendency to uncritically rely on data, sometimes to dismiss one person’s experiences or to conveniently to bolster one’s point in an argument.
Keep in mind that most reports of discrimination and harassment are not false reports, be it intentionally lying or being “overly sensitive.” In fact, these manifestations of oppression are underreported because of the potential risk for retaliation or simply being dismissed by others. Oppressed people actually go through quite a bit of processing before they label an act as discrimination or harassment; that is, there is a chance they will conclude shy of that, giving the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt. So, by the time they are expressing this to another soul, they have already processed how likely it is they were the victim of unfair or hostile treatment, and weighed the costs of being wrong or dismissed.
Speak Up And Out, Often
Support others — in everyday matters, but especially when the stakes are high. If it is dangerous to demonstrate this support publicly, do so privately. Offer some sort of signal that you agree — and, even if you do not agree, that you appreciate someone’s bravery for speaking out when it might have been easier and safer to stay silent. Take Dr. Chris Uggen’s advice to be nice and affirming of one’s colleagues in general. Even when colleagues are not intentionally avoiding you, it is easy to feel isolated in academia; it would be nice to be the occasional recipient of random acts of kindness, not just the big department, university, and discipline awards and honors. In my first semester, facing a few challenges outside of work, I really could have used more support at work to ease the emotional burden.
Make equality and inclusion a priority no matter who is present. Please do not bring up racial inclusion only when people of color are present at a university or department meeting. Yet, do not assume that marginalized scholars’ primary concern in life is their marginalized status. (Yes, there are academics of color who do not study race and racism; there are white academics who do study race and racism.) Also, do not leave it to marginalized scholars to be the one’s to bring this up, for there are numerous external and internal barriers to freely tell a predominantly-privileged room of people that inequality exists in that room. We must stop leaving the burden of fighting oppression solely to the oppressed.
Act, When Appropriate
Assess the ways in which you are reproducing inequality and practicing discrimination or exclusion. I really appreciated a post at Tenure, She Wrote, “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic.” This included being vigilant of practices that burden or devalue women, especially those that hinder their academic careers and create a hostile work environment. I would add finding any opportunity to work inclusion and social justice into one’s classroom (and beyond it) — and, especially if one is of the relevant privileged group, and thus freed from concern about being evaluated by students as biased.
When possible, use your privileged status(es) to make space for others currently excluded from the room or conversation. I do not mean to imply we should put marginalized people’s voice on a pedestal — especially if you only do so when it is about their experiences. But, I certainly emphasize that research expertise in absence of personal experience cannot stand in place of personal experience (with or without research expertise). Whether it is about diversifying the faculty or designing a new major, any conversation is always incomplete if diversity is lacking.
What I am calling for here is a collective responsibility to be better colleagues in academia — which includes being an ally and advocate for others where possible. Our colleagues, particularly those on the margins of academia, need to feel that their perspective, experiences, and contributions are valid and appreciated. Sometimes, this means listening to affirm someone’s experiences (rather than defining someone else’s reality). Other times, it means pushing to create space for those who are currently and historically excluded from certain spaces. This shift has to be both collective (we are all responsible) and proactive (we actively seek for ways to advocate or to offer support); we cannot place the burden to make academia a more inclusive and humane place on the shoulders of scholars who are systematically excluded and victimized.
A few additional resources:
- “How to Be an Ally if You are a Person with Privilege“, by Dr. Frances Kendall
This Friday, October 11th, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) communities will be celebrating National Coming Out Day. Beginning in 1988, one year after the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights, LGBT people have recognized this day as an important moment to publicly come out or celebrate those who are already out. The social climate around sexual identity, gender identity and expression, and same-gender relationships has quickly shifted toward tolerance, especially in the last few years. So, coming out (as LGBT) has become easier, with LGBT and queer youth coming out earlier and earlier in adolescence.
Coming Out (Or Not) As A Selfish Act
Considering the growing acceptance for LGBT people, does it seem silly to stay “in the closet” (i.e., hide one’s sexual and/or gender identities)? Last week, I attended a talk by LGBT rights activists Judy Shepard; since her son, Matthew, was murdered in 1997 because of his sexual orientation, Judy has done speaking engagements all over the world to promote understanding and acceptance for LGBT people.
I was surprised, though, that she characterized staying in the closet — at least in one’s own family — as selfish. She argued that, by hiding who one’s “true” self (in this case, one’s LGB sexual identity), you are robbing family members of getting to know you completely. To be fair, she started her talk by noting some things she would say would not resonate with everyone. But, she emphasized her argument about selfishness for about ten minutes. (Other than that, I loved her talk!)
Funny, because as my mother first struggled with my (then) bisexual identity when I came out in 2003, she told me coming out was selfish. She suggested that it forced her and my father to adjust to this new me. Since this was fundamentally about sex in her mind, there was no need for me to share such personal details with my parents. (Now, over a decade later, my parents accepts me as a whole human being, and have apologized for the understandable rough time they had to go through after I came out.) Earlier this year, a football player (selfishly) argued that coming out in the NFL is selfish because it takes attention away from the entire (otherwise heterosexual) team.
So, a queer person is selfish if they never come out to their families. And, a queer person is selfish if they come out. I guess. Maybe, at the core, being queer is selfish?
Heterosexuals And Cisgender People Are Selfish
I am flipping this “selfish” accusation to highlight the selfishness of heterosexuals and cisgender people who 1) automatically assume every person is heterosexual (i.e., heterocentricism) and cisgender (i.e., ciscentricism), and 2) actively pressure LGBT individuals to become heterosexual/cisgender.
That one has to come out as LGBT in the first place is the product of the assumption that, from birth, everyone is heterosexual and that their gender identity is aligned with their sex-assigned-at birth. A common parenting strategy is to assume one’s child is heterosexual (and cisgender) until proven otherwise; and, for parents, that includes actively demonizing queer people, communities, and relationships.
When LGBT people decide to come out (or are forced out), our heterosexist and cissexist society does not throw up its hands and say, “well, I tried.” At the level of microaggressions, we are asked whether we think our sexuality or gender is a “phase,” or are interrogated about the traumatic events that led up to a deviant sexual/gender identity. We are encouraged to “try a little harder” — maybe you have not found the “right” girl, or should consider joining the military to “toughen up.”
Though veiled as innocent suggestions from a place of concern, we receive comments that suggest we should give being “normal” a second chance. Of course, this ignores the long internal process one goes through, first wrestling with one’s identity and then weighing the potential costs of coming out. It ignores that we already have “tried” heterosexuality and/or being cisgender many, many times for many, many years — that is why we have finally decided to come out as LGBT.
More severe manifestations of heterosexist and cissexist selfishness are punishing LGBT people for being different. The soft approach of re-recruitment did not work. So, the big guns have to come out. We are subject to discrimination in schools, the workplace, public accommodations, healthcare, the criminal justice system, the government, religion, etc… Countless queer people have been verbally, physically, and/or sexually harassed or assaulted. Countless queer people have been killed because of their sexual and/or gender identity. Heterosexism and cissexism are not secure enough to co-exist alongside a small minority who are not heterosexual and/or cisgender; so, queer people must be eliminated, erased from the past, present, and future, and forced to assimilate.
Shaming queer people — yes, I am calling this a form of shaming — for coming out, or not coming out, ignores the consequences of these actions. The true selfishness is demanding that an oppressed minority disclose everything to you when you want it, and hide everything when you don’t want it, while you ignore the oppressive forces that shape and constrain their reality.
As a sociologist, I must emphasize that individuals’ actions exist within a larger social context. In this case, LGBT people’s decision to come out (or not) must be viewed as an individual act within a larger heterosexist and cissexist society. Our agency or “free will” to act (or not) is shaped by opportunities and obstacles posed by interactions with others, institutions, and larger social systems (e.g., cissexism).
As a Black queer feminist sociologist, I must emphasize that the pressure to come out — whether from LGBT community leaders or heterosexual and cisgender family members — ignores the unique pressures and consequences for doing so among queer people of color, working-class queer people, queer immigrants, disabled queers/queers with disabilities, and queer religious minorities. For LGBT people who are disadvantaged in other ways, the stakes may be higher for coming out. For example, LGBT people of color risk being kicked out of their families, and lose larger ties to their racial/ethnic community; the former may be less damaging in the long-run for white LGBT people, and the latter is a non-issue for whites.
So, not only is demanding that queer people (don’t) come out selfish, it is arguably racist, sexist, classist, ableist, and xenophobic because it presumes a common set of experiences for all LGBT people.
My intention is not to demonize particular cisgender and heterosexual people. But, I do take issue with shaming queer people for either coming out or not coming out. Simply existing in this transphobic, biphobic, and homophobic society of ours is a brave act that constantly requires deciding how to
navigate survive in this world. There is no one good path because every decision we make comes with costs and consequences. Sometimes, for the sake of survival or protecting our livelihood, we cannot afford to be out. Sometimes, we consider the risks, but decide it is still more beneficial (for ourselves and others) to be out than not. And, in general, the decision to come out (or not) is not always ours to make.
Without having first-hand knowledge of the reality of being queer (i.e., that is, being queer yourself), it is unfair to question the decisions that queer people make. If you — talking to cis and hetero people here — feel the need to be critical, set your sights on the systems of oppression that shape and constrain every aspect of the lives of trans*, bi, lesbian, gay, and queer people. We could use more of that kind of critique, anyhow!
Today kicks off a week-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, best remembered by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,’s “I Have A Dream” speech. For so many reasons, it is hard to believe fifty years have passed — some positive, some negative.
On Wednesday, the anniversary march will include presidents Carter, Clinton, and Barack Obama. But, this anniversary celebration comes a couple of months after key policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination — Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act, and the Indian Child Welfare Act — have been significantly limited and compromised. And, after George Zimmerman walks free after killing an innocent, unarmed young Black man — Trayvon Martin — among other persistent uses and misuses of the law to keep Blacks “in their place.”
A Broader Vision
In some ways, Dr. King’s dream has become reality; in other ways, the nightmares of the pre-Civil Rights era have returned. One unique aspect of this anniversary march, as there were a few before (e.g., 20th, 30th, 37th, 40th), is a broader focus on discrimination, equal rights, and equal protections. Specifically, the National Action Network (NAN) — a (younger [23 years]) civil rights organization led by Rev. Al Sharpton — has including the following items to their list of talking points for the anniversary celebration:
- Jobs & the Economy (including unemployment among youth)
- Voting Rights
- Workers’ Rights
- Criminal Justice Issues, Stand Your Ground Laws & Gun Violence
- Women’s Rights (including right to make health-related decisions, and equal pay)
- Immigration Reform
- LGBT Equality (including marriage equality, and employment discrimination)
- Environmental Justice (especially for low-income communities of color)
- Youth (including unemployment, college debt)
It will be difficult to give due credit to each of these issues, and some are certainly left out all together. But, I see this as an important direction as we move into the future. Many of these issues are intertwined such that you cannot effectively address one without addressing another.
For example, the Supreme Court struck a blow to discrimination and harassment law this summer, which will make it more difficult to “prove” one has been targeted by someone other than a supervisor; this has consequences for people of color, women, LGBT people, working-class people, and other marginalized groups. The Court’s decision to gut the part of the Voting Rights Act that calls for oversight in states with histories of blatant racist discrimination in elections also opens the door for heightened discrimination against trans* people. Stand Your Ground laws, which made the murder of Trayvon Martin legal, mirror the “gay panic” defense that has been used to justify violence against LGBT people.
It is also important to remember that some individuals are directly affected by these issues in their everyday lives. For example, a singular focus on race, ethnicity, racism, xenophobia, and immigration overlooks the additional realities of sexist discrimination, sexual violence, and sexual harassment in the lives of women of color. It leads us to continue to ignore the unjust imprisonment of CeCe McDonald as an issue that impacts the lives of all people of color because her gender identity is not seen as a “Black issue.”
It is my hope that the awareness of these connections, and the genuine efforts to build coalitions across groups and causes, will lead us to a broader fight for justice and human rights.
A Family Legacy
My Grandmother — Barbara Cox — participated in the 1963 March on Washington. (I have heard conflicting stories from family, but she may been fired from her job for missing work to do so.) Sadly, she passed in 1990, when I was just five years old. But, my mother and I participated in the 30th anniversary of the march, in her honor, in 1993:
Today, at the 50th anniversary march, my mother is now participating alongside her union, fighting for better working conditions and to eliminate workplace discrimination and harassment for federal workers. Though my father will also be at some of the week’s events on the security side of things (in his capacity as law enforcement), he, too, has become increasingly involved with anti-racist and other social justice work over time. As he noted in a talk on contemporary race relations at his local Unitarian Universalist church, there are relatives on both his and my mother’s sides of the family that participated in various anti-racist and civil rights efforts, as well.
I suppose you could say it’s “in the blood” — that inevitable commitment to social justice and activism. Reflecting on the legacy of activism and advocacy in my family certainly puts me at ease about my own work; whatever the challenges I may face in my career, fighting for justice feels a bit like my destiny. And, part of that charge is to keep fighting for the issues my Grandmother and other older relatives — and now my parents — fought for, but also to broaden that work to reflect social justice for the 21st century.
Though in some respects “destined” or “inevitable,” the work that my mother, father, and I are pursuing reflect change. As pessimistic as we could be, and with good reason, about where we are at this 50th anniversary, there is so much to celebrate. My parents’ marriage, as an interracial couple, faces no legal barriers and substantially less social opposition. Today, I can look to the White House to see that the nation’s top leader is multiracial like me. I can openly fight against homophobic and transphobic prejudice and discrimination; in doing so, I have influenced my parents to see the importance of fighting for LGBT rights, and the connections to other forms of inequality. At the time of the 30th anniversary, none of us could have predicted who we are and what we are doing today, 20 years later.
Unfortunately, I am not feeling well and energized enough to attend this weekend’s events, and Monday’s start of classes prevents attending the week’s events (and I’m certain the latter matter is the cause of the former)! But, I am there in spirit. I remain committed to fighting for, but also broadening, Dr. King’s dream for life.
The Chronicle of Higher Education recently featured an interesting article by Domenick Scudera on “teaching while gay.” Scudera raises the question (or concern, really) to queer professors how to navigate one’s own experiences and views and those of students who may “oppose” homosexuality:
If there are students who oppose homosexuality, those students should feel safe within the confines of our classroom to express their opinions in a respectful way. But how would that make me feel? Would I feel safe?
More important, am I harming my gay students? I believe it is helpful to them, in a safe environment, to hear the arguments against homosexuality. They will encounter those same arguments in the “real” world, as I have. I want them to be prepared. Polls tell us that homophobia persists in our country. It is reasonable to assume that some students in my classroom hold such negative beliefs about homosexuality. They might be reticent to express their feelings in the classroom. Do I have a responsibility to create an atmosphere to bring those thoughts forward?
He suggests that, unlike racist, misogynistic, or anti-Semitic views that students may express — which he would shut down immediately, without question — he tends to entertain homophobic views expressed by students. He even plays “devil’s advocate” when students raise pro-LGBT views in class discussions. But, there are lingering questions of a responsibility to create a safe classroom environment, which seems to push against the responsibility to respect free speech (and thought).
My initial thought on this is when are there debates in college classrooms on homosexuality — I suppose simply on how students feel about it, the morality of same-sex sexuality and relationships, etc? Because the debates are so wrapped up in religious doctrine, I cannot think of any non-theology classrooms where a comment such as, “well, I’m against homosexuality” is relevant to a class discussion.
If my read is accurate, then this should not be much of a dilemma. Students’ comments that are either tangential or irrelevant to the class discussion, particularly that are simply expressions of prejudice or hatred, should not be tolerated. We, as educators, have a responsibility to create classroom spaces that are free from intolerance. Yes, even though students are exposed still in the “real world,” our responsibility is just the classroom; and, why not provide at least that one space as a place where students, queer and straight alike, do not have to hear, “the Bible says it’s a sin”?
My view is, in general, if it does not draw on course materials, or challenge them, the comment is a tangent at best. This goes, too, for thinly veiled expressions of bias that give a passing reference to course materials. For example, once, on an exam, a student of mine lost points and asked me why. The provided answer briefly noted what an article covered, and then went on to oppose homosexuality. The question, I believe, asked to draw on queer theory to either make sense of the article, or explain why it does not fit with the theory. So, there was no room for students to weigh the merits of same-sex relationships!
A second question is why homosexuality is even addressed as something to be debated. Why treat it as an issue by which no one is personally affected? Why, in light of pro-LGBT views, play “devil’s advocate”? (Again, simply saying, “I’m all for gay marriage,” is still likely tangential at best, unless professors are holding debates on whether to legalize it.)
This is a component of my larger concern of what is lost by approaching teaching from a distance, as though one is merely an “objective” professor with no personal ties to the course content. What is missed by letting the course texts discuss the lives of LGBT people, but essentially keeping the professor’s sexual identity and experiences as a gay person in the closet? Certainly, I am aware of the presumption of bias, that students tend to misread queer professors as advancing “the gay agenda” in the classroom; and “real” activism by LGB professors comes at a cost in academia in general. And, it may be the case that they, like women and people of color, are assumed to be less competent by students, as well. And, there may be concerns for one’s safety and job security. This should not be read as encouragement to express one’s own ideology. But, I still struggle with understanding why so many professors teach as though they are robots with no present, no future, no sort of personal history and experiences.
There are no easy answers. And, of course, much of this varies based on the particular institution (especially religious vs. secular), type of course, and the professors own level of comfort. But, even short of outing oneself, there are ways to minimize the expression of homophobia and transphobia in the classroom. And, these strategies may even challenge students’ views in general. Maybe “debates about homosexuality” should be avoid to get away from explicitly inviting opposition. Offer, or create (with one’s students), a set of guidelines for classroom discussion that makes clear that prejudice and mean-spiritedness will not be tolerated. Encourage students to exercise their skills to use, extend, or challenge course material, sprinkled with other forms of knowledge, in a way that their own personal opinion does not serve as their primary point in speaking during discussion.
Either way, I hope that Scudera is right in his hope for the future:
Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.