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Gay in the Academy

Gay in the Academy
May 18, 2009

We can be truly astounded by how rapidly general attitudes have shifted toward GLBTQ people over the past decade. As conditions have improved in the nation, so too has the academic world become a bit better for scholars who identify as G, L, and sometimes Q (though there is still a long way to go for B and especially T). Because things have generally become better, some might imagine that GLBTQ scholars who enter the job market don’t have significantly different concerns than any other candidate scrambling to assemble a dossier. Alas, we must remember that a transition from overt hostility to disinterested apathy isn’t exactly a triumph of social justice.

Don’t tell Larry Kramer, but I am going to use "queer" as a convenient umbrella term for the rest of this post. After a certain point, it’s just easier.

Certainly queer scholars share the major concerns of every person on the academic market, primarily, “Will I actually get a job?” Yet, being queer in the academy also carries its own set of challenges (and rewards – but why focus on the positive?).

Unlike racial minorities or women, [white] queer [male] scholars have not necessarily been absent from the academy in relation to their percentage of the overall population. Historically, people of color (hetero or otherwise) and women (of color or otherwise, hetero or otherwise) have been (and in many cases continue to be) woefully underrepresented in the academic ranks. In contrast, [white] queer [male] scholars have been employed as professors. The key difference was that most of those [white male] queer scholars had to stay in the closet to keep, much less obtain, that job. Most of them feared that public exposure would end their careers. In some cases, they were right. It goes without saying that their research rarely focused on queer topics. Silence was their shield.

Given this history, it is not surprising that I found little published advice for queer scholars when I first started thinking about the job search process while still a graduate student a decade ago. What I did find tended to be fairly bleak. More or less, the available advice proposed the academic equivalent of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell." Since much of my youthful consciousness raising had emphasized the need of being out for political and social gains, that hardly felt like very nice advice. Getting a job was more important, the argument went, than principles or politics.

Fortunately for me, I had a more sensible adviser who rightfully suggested that such strategies wouldn’t yield the best of results in the long run. You might obtain a job, but could end up working for a legion of homophobic colleagues who would ultimately deny you tenure anyway. Since then, I’ve combined her ideas, my own experiences, and the stories I have heard from my queer friends and students who have gone through the process. Rather than advice, here are some of the things that tend to come up over and over again.

Let me, though, start with a few caveats. No short entry can fully cover the experiences or desires of all queer scholars looking for a job. Our diversity and various intersecting identities inform our choices about what is the best "fit." A single lesbian Chicana with a child will likely have significantly different concerns than a partnered Africa-American man without children who, in turn, will have different concerns from a white transgendered woman with grandchildren.

Second, recognize that no job is perfect. As a child, I believed television. It promised my work day would be filled with hilarious hijinks, comedic colleagues, and lots of coffee. Of course, I also imagined that at some point in the middle of the day I would fight crime after dashing off to a broom closet to change into Wonder Woman. None of those things has come true -- so far. Every job requires compromises and, for many, simply having a job really is the most important factor. Nonetheless, there are some things that we should all think about as we make career choices.

Consider Being Out During the Search Process

Through all stages of interviewing, it is not appropriate (and in 20 states and the District of Columbia, actually illegal) to consider the sexual orientation of a candidate. Job candidates are under no obligation to reveal their sexual orientation or marital status. So, if you are on the market and aren’t comfortable being out, you are under no duty to do so.

Nonetheless, I actually recommend being out in the later stages of the process. To my way of thinking, being out is one of the only ways to determine whether you will find the campus climate, benefits, and life in the town acceptable.

It is a myth that you must conform to obtain a job in the academy. You should appear professional and serious during the interview. Feel under no obligation, though, to dress or act differently than you would in your day-to-day life. If you identify as a woman, but don’t like to wear skirts in daily life, there is no need to suddenly put one on for an interview. Likewise for those who identify as a man but disdain ties. So too there are good reasons not to conceal your sexuality.

Many, I know, will take exception to the notion of being out during the process because it goes against common wisdom on such matters. They will suggest that it blurs professional and personal matters. Or they will argue that it can cost a candidate a job. For the latter, I suggest that if a department won’t hire you because you are queer, then they will certainly make your life a living hell if they did hire you without knowing. Ask yourself if staying closeted is really worth obtaining a job at a university like Brigham Young.

For the first concern, I would say that the academic world already blurs personal and professional life. Most academics socialize considerably with those with whom they work, especially in small towns. Plus, in a nation that still lacks universal healthcare, your job and its benefits have real consequences for your personal life.

It is important therefore to know how the department and administration responds to an out candidate to know how they will respond to an out employee. During your campus visit, you will likely meet with the Dean (or a Deanlet) and the Department Chair. It is completely reasonable to ask them about how junior queer faculty fair on the campus or in the department. Consider it a bad omen if their response is something along the lines of, “I’ve never really thought about it.” Be equally leery of an administrator who evades a discussion of homophobia on campus or in the community with superficial platitudes. Things like, “Our university doesn’t offer same-sex spousal benefits, but we have an excellent Trader Joe’s in town!” or “There’s an Ikea within driving distance! Don’t your people shop there?” are a far cry from knowing that your potential employer has thought seriously about the actual needs of queer faculty.

When going on a campus visit, I have also usually asked to meet with other gay faculty. They are more likely to give you a sense of their own experiences and sense of the town (though this doesn’t always work out, as I’ll mention in a minute).

Unfortunately, the story that you are likely to be told is a bleak one. According to the best numbers that I could find, only about 40 percent of universities in the United States offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite sex partners. That is about the same percentage as private companies (larger than 500 employees) that offer equal benefits. Many public universities, moreover, are explicitly forbidden from extending benefits due to discriminatory state constitutions or hateful legislatures. Private universities or those in New England are your best option right now. So, if you aren’t interviewing in Massachusetts, be aware that your benefits package will likely be less than they would offer a straight professor. The Dean (or Deanlet) doesn’t have much control over those matters.

Nonetheless, the administration should be able to discuss how the university is combating those inequities (law suits, local activism, spousal hires). They should also be aware of how queer faculty, students, and staff are treated and perceived. If they can’t speak intelligently about these matters, bad times are likely in store for a queer employee.

Don’t Fear Asking Key Questions During Your On-Campus Visit

Aside from the administration, you probably also want to ask questions of the regular faculty that you meet through the day. Yet, campus interviews can involve a tricky balance. If the only questions that you ask are about whether or not the town is livable for queer people, you might inadvertently send the message that your are turned off by the location. The established faculty of a small town might be sensitive about their location and imagine that you are unwilling to live there. So, make conscious decisions to spread out a variety of questions to different faculty that you meet. Also arrange your questions so that they are not accusatory. Try asking, "Can you tell me a bit about the queer community in this lovely town?" instead of, "Can a gay man possibly survive in this backwater Texas hell hole?"

I would ask a couple of different people, but not every person, about what they perceive as the major issues for queer folk on campus. If you are in the humanities or social sciences, you might also ask if any of the existing faculty currently teach on queer topics and how that has been received by students. If you are a queer parent, it seems important to know whether the school system has experience with non-hetero families. It would be a drag to have to spend your time educating the town’s educators.

Expect the Bizarre

The interview process is a grueling gauntlet. Making it worse is the fact that you are sometimes going to encounter loony situations (or people) while a guest of a particular department. You might encounter faculty who have no idea about what is appropriate conduct for an on-campus interview. As a cherished former colleague of mine always recommended, “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” Indeed, most of the usual interviewing gaffs (but not all) are committed by those who are poorly informed about their professional responsibilities. Nonetheless, it can take you off guard. Let me mention some examples that I have encountered.

Though I have usually made it clear to the search chair before I arrive that I am gay, and my c.v. suggests strongly that I am gay, I have nonetheless been asked if I was [heterosexually] married on every single on-campus interview that I have ever had. Every. Single. One.

Responding to such questions is tricky. Though it is generally illegal to ask about marital status, are you supposed to call the police? Is there a special “campus interview” division assigned to crack down on such violations? Nope.

It’s not that I care whether the faculty know that I am gay. Rather, it puts me in an uncomfortable situation where I have the choice of either pointing out their erroneous (read: heterocentric) assumptions and, thus, embarrassing them (which, even when I am not interviewing, isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do). Or, I have to evade the question (which makes me feel bad and closeted, too). The best you can do is come up with a plan before you arrive on campus about how to respond in a gracious manner.

Those questions, though, are nothing compared to other awkward moments that I have encountered. During one memorable campus interview (that didn’t go great all the way around), my request to meet with other queer faculty brought me to a nice, but misguided, lesbian. While she intended to be helpful, the sum of her advice for a young gay interviewee was peculiar. Noting that the small town lacked a gay bar, she offered up the various campus bathrooms that were known for their gay male cruising as an alternative. There was no good way to mention that I am not that type of gay. In that instance, I would have preferred she talked up the local Trader Joe’s.

It made me wonder if she actually considered that stating that the only viable option for gay men in the town was anonymous sex near dirty urinals was “selling her university.” It also goes to prove that lesbians and gay men don’t always have insight into the best needs of the other group.

Location, Location, Location

Taking a job as a queer scholar frequently involves moving to a state or location where the majority of voters have declared that we are not eligible for equal rights or protection under the law. Forget questions about a hostile work environment, some queer scholars have to contend with a hostile living environment. From more than one of my friends I have heard stories about their first job’s stress being compounded by harassing phone calls or other threatening behavior because they were one of the few out scholars on campus. While those were extreme instances, decide ahead of time what level of homophobic climate you are willing to tolerate. Only you can decide if any job is worth it.

Even in small towns where homophobia is relatively mild, queer scholars often feel isolated. Indeed, most of my queer friends and colleagues across the nation complain to me about the actual location of their job more than any other factor (including the rigors of getting tenure). How often have I heard, “I love my colleagues. My students are great. This job would be simply perfect – if it was in Chicago"?

Most of these complaints have to do with a perceived lack of “community.” It’s a word that really signifies different things for different people. Some are not happy unless there are several gay bars within walking distance. (Let me tell you, if a town has only one gay bar, you do get tired of it mighty quick). Others, though, are content to know that there is one other gay person within 50 miles. Still others want to know that there are active community centers or professional organizations. Some want a specific community of queer parents.

Whatever the case, most queer folk prefer to be in an area that can provide at least a reasonable circle of queer friends. If one is single, the need for a larger queer community becomes all the more urgent. Urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston, and others more than meet that requirement for most people.

Unfortunately, you might have noticed that most of the nation’s universities are located far from urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston, and others. This was no accident. Most of the nation’s universities opened in the 19th century. Their founders imagined that universities had to be isolated from the illicit temptations of city life that would corrupt impressionable students. Queer men were one of the most illicit of those temptations. If you imagine that you can only live in an urban setting, I am here to tell you that the academic deck is stacked against you.

Because queer people are such a tiny minority of the entire population, being in a small town necessarily means that the options for a single queer person seeking a romantic attachment, or even a means to pass the time, are limited. Indeed, many queer people who are not in academia actively choose to move away from those very same towns to reach an urban setting.

Alas, I have no solution to this problem. If I did, my friends would worship me. Or, I should say worship me more than they already do. I am pretty worshipable.

My best recommendation would be to expand your imagination and expect to do a lot of driving. Some opt to live in the closest city-sized place they can find. This, though, usually means a significant commute (which can interfere with your progress towards tenure). Others actively decide to live a life of the mind. Either way, remember that obtaining tenure is your primary goal.

In the end, many queer scholars feel that they don’t have a choice in terms of employment. Assuming that you are going to insist upon living indoors, any job offer is going to seem preferable than nothing at all. We all have to earn those coins. Remember that nothing has to be forever. The most important thing to do is to make the best informed choices that one can make, work hard at getting tenure, and always keep an eye on those job postings in New England.

Bio

GayProf is an assistant professor in the humanities and the author of the Durable Blog Center of Gravitas.

 

 

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