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Authentic And Unapologetic: On Being A Unicorn In Academia

Note: this blog post was originally published on the “Conditionally Accepted” career advice column on Inside Higher Ed.

DeniseI am the only black LGBTQ professor on my campus (as far as I know). I am black, yet multiracial and multiethnic (black, white and Jewish). I am a queer man, yet genderqueer and nonbinary. I am an activist, yet working with and in the system of higher education to make a difference in society. And, I am pretenure … with no additional caveats.

I have taken up the identity of a unicorn because my existence, both on the campus and in society in general, is nearly mythical. And I regularly live with the fear that it is easier for the institution to crush me, eliminate me or force me to assimilate than it is for me to actually change the institution to include me, respect me and value me. I have exhausted a great deal of energy navigating the tension between efforts to ensure my survival as a person and those to ensure my job security; what constitutes excellence in teaching and research tends to prioritize the very things that exclude me, erase me or silence me.

But now I am in therapy, working through the traumatizing experience of graduate school. I am properly medicated to minimize the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, from which I have suffered since my third year of grad school. I have found friends and colleagues who support me in pursuing my self-defined career as an intellectual activist. And, most importantly, I have ensured that those things that will most certainly grant me tenure — publications and good student evaluations — are taken care of before anything else, while also prioritizing self-care and personal fulfillment.

My own well-being and livelihood aside, the importance of being authentic and visible for others, especially my students, was the strongest impetus to take back control of my life and my career. Early on, despite hiding in fear behind suits and a guarded demeanor, I had students who sensed that a more radical, social justice-oriented and vulnerable person was lurking behind the mask — and that they sorely needed that unicorn to come out of from hiding.

As I have taken better care of myself, and, as such, found room to take more chances in being public, I have found even more students expressing their appreciation for my visibility. In two recent examples, I wrote opinion pieces for my university’s newspaper, The Collegian: one was a “love letter” to students of color who frequently feel miserable on our predominantly white campus, and the other was a coming out of sorts as a nonbinary-identified professor. I have attended more events related to social justice, often sharing my own experiences and viewpoint, rather than hiding behind the myth of objective scientific expertise. I am often rewarded with what feels like reciprocated love from many students of color, LGBTQ students and women students — especially those who belong to more than one of these groups.

My activism on the campus, thus far, has not felt incredibly radical. I have made myself visible as a fat black queer nonbinary feminist intellectual activist. With time, therapy, medication and support, I am now less afraid to be visible as a unicorn at this institution. I no longer hide behind a mask that unintentionally sent the message that success for marginalized people requires extensive compromise, hiding and/or “souling” out. The students’ reactions — ranging from a passing thank-you to heartfelt emails and Facebook friend requests (which are declined until they graduate) — demonstrate to me that there is something inherently radical about my visibility on campus. And that the campus is so lacking in diversity — particularly at the intersections among minority identities — that it seems the students are hungry to see something different, or even something like them in the case of marginalized students (fellow unicorns).

I have already griped about the additional labor I feel as a diversity token. Where the university is ill equipped to adequately support students of color, LGBTQ students and first-generation and working-class students, the slack is picked up by faculty and staff members (often of those very backgrounds). Or these students simply fall through the cracks. Sometimes both.

But I also appreciate the importance of my presence, my visibility, my authenticity and my advocacy. Without ever agreeing to serve on a committee related to diversity, I can be a face and a voice that contributes to the sense of diversity and inclusion on the campus. Without taking on honors thesis and internship students, and the more informal advising that is common in supporting marginalized students, I can be a source of support by addressing diversity and social justice in my classes. I sometimes have to turn away a marginalized student; this is incredibly heartbreaking, but I know that such additional emotional labor is not valued and might even take away from the tasks that actually “count” professionally — the very things that will help me keep this job for the long haul.

Lately, I have been thinking of the “visibility of one” that I offer to my campus as something akin to the personal hot spot feature of cellphones. This feature essentially allows your phone to provide internet access to multiple devices. It is great technology, though I have never actually used it myself. But it makes for an interesting analogy to the kind of energy I feel I send to others on campus.

From my own visibility as a unicorn, it seems that I am able to allow others to feel seen, to feel they are not alone, to feel their struggles and experiences are valid and recognized, and to feel loved and in community. I would like to think that my writing, my approach to teaching and, at a basic level, my presence at the university is helping to boost others like me. While students — especially those who are of color and/or LGBTQ — lack support from the institution, they can find some virtual support from me.

But like cellphone hot spots, this kind of visibility of one has a huge drawback: it is draining work. My battery life depletes much more quickly. So I must also be intentional about equipping students to find support from multiple places, to advocate for themselves, to prioritize their own self-care and perhaps to become their own personal hot spot of visibility to help others. I have gotten better about leaving work behind every weekday at 5 p.m. and giving myself a true break over the weekends. I have had to turn down service requests that do not yield long-term opportunities (especially potential leadership roles).

In the long term, I want to push the institution to further diversify its faculty, focusing on both recruitment and retention, and to put resources in place that prioritize marginalized students’ success and well-being. Since I am more emotionally healthy today, I can afford to be a visibility hot spot for fellow unicorns on the campus. But it cannot be an alternative to real institutional change. Ideally, the university will provide “visibility Wi-Fi” throughout the campus (e.g., diversity in every office and department, diversity-promoting policies) so that individuals no longer need to serve as visibility hot spots.

On Being A (Sorta Closeted) Non-Binary Professor

Note: this essay was originally published in my university’s student newspaper, The Collegian.

“On Being Trans And Non-Binary At UR: One (Sort Of Closeted) Professor’s Perspective”

Unfortunately, I cannot bring myself to write a love letter to transgender and non-binary identified students at UR, as I recently did for students of color.

DeniseDon’t get me wrong – I would much rather write that op-ed than this one. The difference here is not that I don’t care about the success, well-being, visibility, and future of trans and non-binary students – because I certainly do. Rather, I cannot speak with the same kind of experience and wisdom about being trans/non-binary as I can about race and racism. I can’t effectively love the beauty, creativity, brilliance, kindness, and bravery of you – my fellow trans and non-binary folk – because I’m still wrestling with loving myself.

I am in the closet as a non-binary identified person. A glass closet. With the door wide open. On paper and especially online, I am unapologetically genderqueer. I left my college years (2003-2007) beginning to tell others I identified as such, and first noted it in a blog post in 2009. I participated in two national surveys for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the US. I’ve even begun toying with the idea of exclusively using the pronouns they/them/theirs, for he/him/his reflect my identity and experiences as little as do she/her/hers.

But, in person, particularly at work here at Richmond, I hide behind suits. I note my pronouns at the beginning of the year (though it still has been “he or they”), but would never gently remind others to use “they,” especially given my masculine presentation. In fact, I was so fearful of upsetting potentially transphobic cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students in asking them which pronouns they use as a standard introduction for my classes. I’m already so far “out there” as a Black queer tenure-track professor, who does research on and teaches about controversial subjects (e.g., intersectionality, feminisms, queer theory, discrimination), and who is public in being an intellectual activist. So, I fear my little unicorn self cannot handle the backlash of yet another marginalized status – in this case, being non-binary.

To be fair to Richmond, the fear I carry is compounded by the fear of discrimination, violence, and exclusion in society generally. I hesitate to more intentionally play with my gender expression because we still live in a time where Black and Latina trans women are murdered at alarming rates. I know from my own research that the more visible one is as a trans or gender non-conforming person, the more discrimination one faces – and, in turn, the more likely one is to develop the health consequences of discriminatory treatment. Ironically, trans people experience discrimination and cultural incompetence in health care, as well. We are victimized at high rates, but are disproportionately incarcerated – not to mention frequently ignored or even harassed by law enforcement. Somehow, I’ve gotten comfortable with being out “in theory,” but, I tend to hide my non-binaryness in everyday interactions.

Beyond the fear of transphobic discrimination and violence, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, I simply don’t know who I am in terms of gender. I announced at the age of 5 to my mother that I should have been born a girl. At 30, I’m still wrestling with a sense of being born in the wrong body. So, I’ve seriously questioned whether I am transgender. The problem is, the issues I have with my body do not pertain to the sex I was assigned at birth (i.e., male). In fact, my body isn’t the problem; rather, it is with those stubborn gendered meanings that are associated with my sex. I typically feel as though I have little in common with other men; in masculine spaces, I feel like an outsider. But, I also don’t feel at home in spaces for women, either. Still yet, I feel like an outsider in the few spaces carved out for transgender people. Despite the growing visibility of trans people, I still see few people like myself in the world. (Miley Cyrus might be the only non-binary celebrity I can think of… for better or for worse.)

I’ve considered saying “fuck it,” and letting my spirit and heart, rather than society and my fears of being denied tenure, dictate how I present myself to the world. As a good sociologist, I know that man, woman, transgender, and cisgender are all socially constructed categories; but that kind of gender-agnosticism (or atheism, if you prefer) doesn’t help me to navigate the real consequences of presenting myself in the world in certain gendered ways. I’d love to occasionally present myself as what some call “genderfuck,” wherein you intentionally defy rigid gendered norms, almost as parody – something along the lines of Jacob Tobia’s look. But, that critical, perhaps internalized-transphobic voice in my head says don’t do it because it may be seen as a “distraction” from my classes and my research. I fear showing up in my sassy red wig, sleek red dress, and masculine combat boots might be considered making a mockery of the classroom – or, worse, distracting from the “real” experiences of trans students (and staff and faculty). I want to be seen as a serious academic, so I’ve decided that now isn’t a good time to “play dress up.”

Oops… I did it again. Once again, I am talking openly about being non-binary – hiding in plain sight, really. Why take the time to ponder about these matters – and so publicly? I’m doing so because I know that I am not alone. I am a close friend of two staff members who are trans/non-binary. (Sadly, I don’t know of any other out trans or non-binary faculty). I know of a handful of students who are trans or non-binary. And, there are likely others who are struggling to navigate the rigid gender binary, the sex-assigned-at-birth-as-gender-destiny force, and the assumptions others make and the values they hold about specific gender categories. I know that realizing that one is not alone – particularly when oppressed students see themselves reflected at the front of the classroom – can be incredibly affirming. So, I’m sharing myself, with all of my hang-ups and confusions, with you in hopes of being a little trans island on a cisgender-dominant campus.

It’s not easy for any of us – students, staff, faculty, or administrators – to be authentic and visible in categories that are not reflected in the majority or in the institution’s policies, practices, and mission. We are increasingly recognizing that trans and non-binary students exist at UR, but treat them as special cases, while we leave in place the sex-segregation of the coordinate college system. We defend that system because of the benefits for women students (e.g., resources and support for leadership among women), but offer no parallel program that would benefit trans and non-binary students. Only in LGBTQ spaces have I heard introductions request to know one’s pronouns; otherwise, we typically make assumptions based on one’s perceived sex assigned at birth. The university prides itself on racial and ethnic diversity, but LGBTQ inclusion rarely comes up in conversations about diversifying the faculty and student body. Gender-inclusive bathrooms remain few and far between (literally). I could go on… I’ve seen real progress on this campus toward LGBTQ inclusion, so I’m aware some of these very issues are discussed and real change is coming.

To clarify, I raise the above points not to label the university transphobic (though, by design, almost every social institution is), but rather to highlight the structural and cultural barriers to being out and authentic as a non-binary or transgender person on this campus. It is hard to love yourself when you don’t see yourself, when you aren’t encouraged to be your true self, and, at times, when you experience actual hostility because of who you are. I dream of a future in which I, and other trans and non-binary folk on this campus, am braver in being visible, being vocal, and being authentic. I see you, fellow unicorns; I hope you see me, too, even when I hide in plain sight.

“I Wrote This Rant Before” – Reflections From A Black Gay Man In America

Me - Hoodie

I wrote this rant before, but I erased it.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried what others would think.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried others would think I am militant.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried I was militant.

The exact words escape my memory, but it went a little something like this.

I know two words, six letters long each, that shape my experience as a human. They are both old words, with long histories of linguistic, social, and political transformations. One is the perverse derivative of a color that now implies the oppressive superiority of one group over another. One is the perverse transformation of a neutral, inert object that was used to eliminate people now dehumanized and disempowered by the word. One has been reclaimed by some of the very people oppressed by the word and what it represents, but too many are repulsed by the word to successfully reclaim it. Instead, most refer to the word only by its first letter – N. The other word has not been met with systematic efforts to reclaim it. Yet, ironically, the word seems to repulse fewer; as such, referring to it by its first letter – F – world confuse most as another word we regularly censor.

Despite their differences, these two six-letter words share similarities, some odd. Similar in length, beginning and ending with consonants, home to two Gs in the middle, with vowels sandwiched in between. In use, the two are similar in their function of reminding me that I am subhuman, or maybe not human at all. At least, as a partial human, the word nigger reduces me to my skin color and, as such, that my status is inferior to those of white skin. The word faggot reduces me to a sexual act considered immoral, pathological, and revolting. Only six letters long, yet each conjures up a reminder of my place in society – always outside – even when included within.

The simultaneity of these experiences infuses their dehumanizing potential. Indeed, in society, this racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist society in which I live, places me at a subordinate status as a racial minority, as a sexual minority, and as a racial-sexual minority. This marginalization is compounded by the dual betrayals of the predominantly-heterosexual Black community and the predominantly-white gay community. In the former, I am just as likely to be reminded of my subordinate status as a faggot as I am in white-dominated society. I am likely told my efforts to fight homophobia are distracting. In the latter, my racial identity is erased and any attempts to attend to anti-racist projects seen as irrelevant. Unfortunately, both communities have fallen prey to white heterosexist efforts to “divide and conquer,” and too rarely able to forge lasting coalitions. Both, too often, forget that individuals cannot be reduced to a single status: fighting racism, yet putting up with sexism; fighting homophobia while ignoring the whiteness and middle-classness of gay movements. Invisible in Black spaces as a faggot, invisible in gay spaces as a nigger, and invisible as both in society.

But, for as much invisibility is regarded to these statuses is the granting of hypervisibility. Due to the presumption of whiteness and heterosexuality, one always stands out as something other – the Other. I know the ironic reality of invisibility as a Black person, yet the hypervisibility as a black man approaching someone on the street at night. I know the invisibility as a queer person, yet the hypervisibility as a gay man in sex-segregated spaces and situations. It is quite odd that one is simultaneously invisible and powerless, yet hypervisible and threatening.

I use these stereotyped threatening images to my advantage. Or, I at least attempt to do so in desperate attempts to protect myself. When I feel the sense of danger arising in white people as I approach, I trade off my Blackness for my gayness in an effort to seem harmless. Who’s ever heard of a gay thug anyhow? Flipped, in scenarios where I feel unsafe as a queer person, I emphasize my Blackness to appear threatening. To what extent this is simply hypervigilance every minority faces, I am unaware. To what extent these trading-off efforts work, I cannot assess.

The possibility of trading off race for sexual identity and vice versa is made through their intersections with gender. An emphasized Blackness to appear threatening presumes a tough, masculine demeanor, one that implies heterosexuality. An emphasized gayness to appear non-threatening implies a meek, feminine demeanor, one that is at odds with the stereotypical image of Black men. When laid out this way, their opposing nature becomes apparent. One cannot be both the stereotypical Black man and the stereotypical gay man. The former implies the opposite of the latter, and vice versa.

What, then, is the category of Black queer? How does one inhabit these two identity spaces defined as opposites of one another? One’s mere existence resists narrowly defined racial and sexual categories. But, many face what feels like pressure to choose: choose your status, your identity, and your allegiance. Are you Black or are you gay?

I reject this notion of opposition between Blackness and gayness just as I reject the labels nigger and faggot. I am not defined by the histories of oppression, enslavement, and discrimination faced by Black people. I am not defined by the history of oppression, exclusion, and collective closetedness faced by gay people. These histories shape who I am and my consciousness, but I cannot be reduced to either.

This time, I will keep this rant.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with others.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with myself.
This time, I will keep this rant to accept my militance.

Legal Progress is Good, But Don’t Forget About Cultural Progress

I can relate to some of the disappointment with either the inaction, slow action, or counteraction of the Obama administration regarding sexual and gender equality.  Over a year ago, then-candidate Barack Obama made a number of promises that he, now as President, has either backed down from, disregarded, or moved in the opposite direction (like on the Defense of Marriage Act).  While it’s nice to have a friend in the White House, we need not forget that much of the work it will take to realize full equality in a legal, social, and cultural sense will be our own doing.  Though my generation was not around for the Stonewall riots and gay liberation, and was too young to understand any of the emergence of AIDS and the mobilization for better treatment and prevention options, we have to remember the power we hold as people to create change for ourselves.

My concern is that we’ve become increasingly obsessed with making changes to laws and policies, thus depending upon politicians and fellow voters, and have forgotten about the importance of cultural change.  For example, the government may recognize our marriages and families as real and equal, but the majority of the country will still view these as immoral or, at best, alternative.  This is reflected in voting patterns – we lose too often to continue to cross our fingers and hope that a future Prop 8 won’t happen.  (Heck, the fact that it happened in 2000 and then in 2008 in California of all places says that we need to rethink our game plan.)

I cite, for example, the removal of laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying by the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision.  Within the context of the law, interracial relationships were no longer treated any differently from intraracial relationships.  But, in my quick skim of the 2002 General Social Survey, a nationally-representative sample of adults in the United States, I see that nearly 10% of respondents still thought that there should be a law prohibiting interracial marriage.  That was in 2002!  That was 35 years after the law changed!    The General Social Survey’s 2006 survey revealed that 55% of their respondents for that year viewed homosexual sex as “always wrong” compared to 33% that said that it’s “not wrong at all”.  What good is legal marriage equality if more than half of the country thinks that our sexual and romantic relationships are immoral and abnormal?

Often times, when keeping up with my favorite blogs, I skim over posts about kiss-ins, sit-ins, and other forms of protest for the sexual equality.  But, it recently hit me that these political actions are just as important, if not more, as new bills that are introduced in congress, new decisions handed down from the courts, and new orders coming out of the White House.  The most recent I came across was the formation of “A Day in Hand”, a group in the UK encouraging same-gender couples to hold hands in public.  I’ve also seen a number of posts about the nation-wide kiss-in that was planned.  I guess a part of me shrugged because I do not currently have a honey to hold hands with and kiss, either publicly or privately.  But, I’m all for promoting others to do so.  It is these forms of actions that send a reminder to the world that we exist, we’re happy, and we’re healthy.  I’ve come across a number of studies that found that attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are much more positive when they actually know such people.  I know that this sort of advice comes with the potential of fear of harassment and violence, and the potential for being victimized, but we have to start somewhere.  Sometimes the greatest force keeping us from being out and proud is the fear that we’ve internalized.