Gay rights/issues

Christian college presidents discuss what to do about sexuality

Smart Title: 

A gathering of presidents from more conservative Christian colleges discusses what to do about controversies surrounding gay and lesbian students.

Review of Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin, "The Lives of Transgender People"

The adventurous reader browsing a newsstand in the 1940s could sometimes find a periodical called Sexology.  This was not, in spite of its title, a specialized medical journal, but rather a mass-market title in the empire of Hugo Gernsback. The publisher had invented science fiction -- or at least the expression “scientifiction,” which eventually fissured into something easier to pronounce. Sexology was, like Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine. For that matter, it was also full of amazing stories, many of them sent in by readers.

Not that it was Penthouse Letters, avant là lettre. Anxiety was the dominant tone, not arousal. People who wrote in to Sexology tended to be perplexed by what their libidos were doing (or wanted to do, in any case) and they were looking for advice. And among the regular authors dispensing it was one D.O. Cauldwell, M.D. -- a general practitioner who had served as a military doctor and picked up a smattering of Freudian and Jungian ideas along the way.

I became aware of Cauldwell’s psychosexual journalism while studying the Midwestern publishing house of E. Haldeman-Julius, which had roots in the old Appeal to Reason, an extremely popular Socialist Party newspaper during the first two decades of the 20th century. By the late 1940s, it derived more revenue from reprints of literary and philosophical works than it did from socialist pamphlets. But what really kept the press afloat were the booklets (more than a hundred of them) reprinting Cauldwell’s work. There was Female Homosexuals -- Lesbians -- Tell Their Stories and The Intimate Embrace and The Diary of a Sexologist. None of this sat well with J. Edgar Hoover, and the fact that Cauldwell’s oeuvre contained at least half a dozen volumes on transvestism cannot have helped.

Cauldwell documented the range, intensity, and terrific flexibility of the American libido at least as well as Alfred Kinsey, but without leaving a comparable trace in the historical record – although he is now recognized as the first person writing in the English language to use the expression “transsexual” which appeared in one of his Sexology articles in 1949. (The neologism already existed in German medical literature, and it is possible he picked it up.) The pamphlets on transsexuality are now among the rarest items by Cauldwell. In 2001, the peer-reviewed International Journal of Transgenderism devoted a special issue to Cauldwell, reprinting some of his work and otherwise treating him as a pioneer: “a popular writer disseminating information and helping to create a climate in which such things could be discussed in a more open and liberal way.”

The good doctor is absent from the pages of Genny Beemyn and Susan Rankin’s The Lives of Transgender People (Columbia University Press), and in a way that is understandable. Cauldwell was not what anyone would call a careful researcher or deep thinker, and his work veers oddly between the sensible and the sensationalistic. Beemyn and Rankin, by contrast, have gathered an enormous amount of data, much of it statistical, and they exhibit all the probity that being vetted by an institutional review board would demand. They are contributing to an established and developing body of knowledge. (Beemyn is the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts. Rankin is an associate professor of education at Penn State.)

The term “transgender,” they explain, subsumes those undergoing or considering sex-reassignment surgery, but is “a general term for all individuals whose gender histories cannot be described as simply female or male, even if they now identify or express themselves as strictly female or male.” Such is the common usage now. But it only serves to underscore the originality of Cauldwell's work, since he meant "transsexual" in roughly the same sense and regarded it and cross-dressing as just part of the continuum of human behavior.

In any case, Beemyn and Rankin are far more methodical than their somewhat erratic predecessor. In 2005 and '06, they conducted a large-scale survey of transgender people by preparing a detailed questionnaire that they circulated online via appropriate listservs, support groups, and the like. Not quite 3,500 individuals completed the survey, of whom 400 agreed to detailed follow-up interviews by phone or  e-mail, or in person. Interview subjects were asked to review the transcripts “to make sure their responses were presented accurately and in their own words.”

The questionnaire and interview protocol cover some fairly generic demographic categories -- age, race, citizenship status, sexual orientation, etc. -- but most questions are transgender-specific: “At what age did you begin to feel ‘different’ from others? … How did you experience this ‘difference’? … At what age did you first understand that there were [sic] a group of people whose gender identity or expression did not coincide with their birth sex?” Quite a few questions focus on the difficulties, and in some cases dangers, of being openly transsexual, including how comfortable subjects feel in their interaction with family members, co-workers, and strangers.

And while the very term “transgender” serves to challenge the sexual binary as a way of categorizing people, the range of options for designating gender identity has proliferated wildly. Among those surveyed who had been designated female at birth, the authors note, “45 percent refer to themselves today as male, 36 percent as transgender, and 13 percent as ‘other,’ ” while about half of those in the survey carrying a Y chromosome “now describe themselves as female, 35 percent as transgender, and 6 percent as ‘other.’ ”

Complicating things further is the researchers’ finding that “6 percent of the female-assigned and 12 percent of the male-assigned individuals continue to identify with their birth gender” but “still consider themselves to be transgender because they cross-dress, present part-time as a different gender, or otherwise challenge gender norms.”

The variety of information gathered by the researchers -- and the range of identity and experience subsumed under the heading of “transgender” -- make it difficult to generalize about Beemyn and Rankin’s fine-grained statistical and qualitative analysis of trans life in recent years. Some things do stand out, though.

A majority of respondents in whatever category reported that they “sometimes or often hid their transgender identity.” The psychological benefits of openness seem to be matched by a corresponding degree of risk. Forty percent of those “who reported that they were out to all of their friends were the most likely to state that they had experienced anti-transgender harassment with the last year” (with comparable experiences reported by those who were open about their status “to their nuclear families, extended families, and colleagues”) while only 10 percent of those who concealed their transgender identity indicated they had been harassed.

“Fewer than 10 percent of respondents confronted the harasser at the time (or sometime later),” Beemyn and Rankin note, “and only 6 percent lodged a complaint with the appropriate authority.” A reluctance to involve the police is understandable: other researchers have found that fear of being harassed by the police is common among transgender people. (See, for example, the recent video of a transgender woman being stunned with a taser gun by rangers while she stood with hands in the air.)

The situation on college and university campuses is sometimes better, but it should not be overstated. Of the students, faculty members, and administrators surveyed by Rankin in an earlier national study, 92 percent of transgender respondents “reported that they were the targets of harassment because of their gender identity.” While a growing number of educational institutions have incorporated “gender identity and expression” into their nondiscrimination policies, the authors say that more than 90 percent of two- and four-year colleges have taken no steps at all “and remain completely inaccessible and inhospitable to transgender students.”

The indicators of just how much of an uphill battle trans people still face -- as if things hadn’t changed that much since the days when Sexology magazine was around -- colored my initial reading of the book, and made it seem kind of depressing. I wrote to the authors to ask if they thought otherwise.

“In my mind,” responded Beemyn, “the study shows dramatically different experiences by age. While it may have been largely depressing for people in previous generations, it is often much less so today. Younger trans people in general are not going through prolonged periods of denial, self-repression, and uncertainty; have connections with other trans people from a young age; have role models and mentors; and are able to find friends and partners who support their gender identity.”

Rankin seconded that point. And fair enough: the authors report that 90 percent of their respondents, of whatever age, “realized that they did not fit in with others of their assigned gender by the end of their teen years” -- with large majorities having already felt that way before adolescence, and about one in five experiencing gender dissonance from early childhood on. Most subjects in their 30s and older indicated that they had tried to hide or repress such feelings for long periods, and “more than half of the older participants did not meet another transgender person until they were at least forty years old.”

The contrast with the experience of younger participants in the study couldn’t be more stark. “Among the twenty-one interviewees who were between eighteen and twenty-one years old,” write the authors, “only four indicated that they repressed their sense of gender difference throughout childhood and adolescence,” while “more than two thirds … had already met other transgender people by the time they began to identify" that way.

The formidable array of data presented by Beemyn and Rankin shows that discrimination, humiliation and assault remain facts of transgender life. But at least some of the interview subjects may have more energy to fight them, since they won't be at war with themselves. In time, they will probably take self-respect for granted. If so they ought to go read one of Cauldwell's pamphlets. Even that much information and sympathy, inadequate though it now seems, was once incredibly hard to find.   

Appeals court rejects appeal of anti-gay student's challenge to counseling rules

Smart Title: 

University counseling department has right to enforce its rules and a professional code of conduct, federal appeals panel rules.

A Civilized Debate

Smart Title: 

Youth for Western Civilization, a student group, has grown in its first years of existence, stirring controversy at campuses across the country.

Not Marching in Step

Smart Title: 

Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" led other elite universities to restore ROTC. Brown is still debating.

They Ask. You Needn't Tell.

Smart Title: 

It's common for college applications to have optional questions in which would-be students may indicate their race or ethnicity. In what experts believe to be a first, Elmhurst College has released a new undergraduate application that includes an optional question about sexual orientation and gender identity status.

Admitted students who indicate when applying that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered will be eligible for a diversity scholarship worth one-third of tuition.

Whose Agenda?

Smart Title: 

Study finds students are more likely to see gay and lesbian professors as biased than they are straight professors -- based on the same syllabus.

Things Done in Secret

Three years ago,The Harvard Crimson broke a story about a troubling series of events that had occurred on campus ... more than 80 years earlier. After months of effort, student reporters had received access to a set of documents cataloged in the university archives under the intriguingly vague heading "Secret Court Files, 1920." The dossier was massive and, even after so many years, shocking. It contained 500 pages of correspondence and memoranda from an inquiry conducted to investigate a gay social circle based in a dormitory.

The panel of five Harvard administrators -- including the president, A. Lawrence Lowell -- did its work with a kind of vindictive glee. Seven undergraduates were expelled. One instructor had been forced to resign and to end his doctoral work. Another Harvard graduate who worked as a tutor had to sever any ties to the university.

At least one of the men later died in circumstances suggesting suicide, as William Wright recounts in Harvard's Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals, published next month by St. Martin's. Most of the others went on to lives that were blighted by the event. Administrators were not content to drive them from campus. In case a future employer inquired about the circumstances -- or should the students try to enroll in any other university -- Harvard was prepared to explain just exactly why their education had been interrupted.

Wright, a journalist and the author of several books, has picked up where The Crimson left off. He has reconstructed not just the proceedings of the secret court itself, but the circumstances leading up to it and the decades-long aftermath. The material itself is fascinating and troubling enough to hold one's attention in spite of the author's penchant for repetition, overstatement, and editorializing. (A few too many pages are written in a tone of "To think it happened at Harvard! At Harvard, I tell you!") The book is not long, yet seems padded, even so.

A good overview of how the Secret Court came into being is available in the original series published by the Crimson, and still available online. Wright has added to the story -- and, frankly, made the Harvard administration of 80 years ago look more vicious -- by digging out additional documentation beyond the records of the original hearings.

The hearings themselves sound like a cross between Franz Kafka and David Lynch. They were reportedly conducted in a darkened room. Those called before the inquest had no representation. They sat in front of the five administrators, who asked them, among other things, whether they had read the work of Sigmund Freud or Havelock Ellis. An affirmative answer was evidence, not of scholarship, but of probable deviancy. The panel then moved on to more personal matters, including questions about whether or not the subject masturbated. (Given that most of those called in were guys in their teens and early 20s, this must have produced a wealth of information.) All information about the students' sexual activity, of whatever kind, was recorded in detail that would have made Alfred Kinsey proud.

Of course, the old expression in loco parentis effectively put college administrators in the position of the superego on a daily basis. But this was acting it out with an almost perverse flair. Wright notes that one of the faculty members who helped get the inquest underway, an anthropologist named Earnest Albert Hooton, later published a book called Young Man, You Are Normal, which summed up (in his words) "a four year study of Harvard undergraduates ... to find out what 'well' men were like." In all, it seems as if defining "the normal" were a focus of exceptionally intense anxiety for some of the nation's presumed best and brightest.

The accounts of the later lives of the expelled students make for somewhat melancholy reading: Wright has unearthed the files containing the letters many of them sent trying to gain readmission or the clearing of their record, seldom with any success.

One of them, Keith Smerage, eventually quit playing nice and, in anger, began confronting the administrators with what must have been their worst fear. "Mother said she was warned never to send me to Harvard, but no specific reason was given," he wrote. "Now we know! Harvard has a reputation for this sort of thing that is nationwide. I have heard a most uncomplimentary song Princeton sings of Harvard along this theme."

The files for another student contain a letter from the dean of Brown University that Wright might have done well to ponder. Thanking his colleague at Harvard for information on why the student had been "requested" to leave the university, the Brown administrator sighs, "How frequently we uncover messes of this sort, and how disagreeable it is to deal with such matters!"

What are the implications of this comment? For one, it shifts the emphasis away from the particular scene of the event by reminding us that such investigations were, once upon a time, a normal if unwelcome fact of university life. The significant thing about the files of the Secret Court is not that the inquest was held at Harvard. Rather, what makes them important is that they survived. Other boxes of memoranda must have accumulated at other universities. Doubtless, most of them were eventually destroyed -- whether from a belated sense of respect for individual privacy, or just to make room.

And while digging out whatever traces remain of such hearings might be a worthy enterprise for scholars, the phenomenon itself isn't quite history. At religious and military schools, they continue -- a point made by the Equality Ride.  On the Web site of this group of gay-rights activists, you can find anonymous statements from gay students at colleges that would expel them if their sexuality became known -- and of students who were expelled not so very long ago at all.

Scott McLemee
Author's email:

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Suggestions and ideas for future columns are welcome.

Rumor and Innuendo

Springtime in higher education heralds the faculty search extravaganza. As a newly minted Ph.D., I dove head first into the overflowing candidate pool. I was engaged with some short-term work at my graduate institution and had a strong desire to remain there. It is located in my home state, close to family and friends, and is a highly regarded national university. I also had a strong personal affinity for the institution and had developed strong personal and professional relationships, which I valued a great deal. I navigated my way through the process of creating a dissertation-length CV, the nerve-racking experience of being interviewed by my speakerphone (i.e. the dreaded first-round phone interview) and the endurance test of 8 to 10 hours of interviews and meals with people in positions I never knew existed.

I was fortunate to have reached the “I can taste the job it’s so close,” campus-visit stage in two searches at my institution. I felt fairly confident that I would emerge from this process with at least one offer. What I did not foresee was that my experience would force me to reflect on the role of trust  in higher education. My first foray, as a “full member,” into the academic universe would be a “teachable moment.”

During one of my campus visits, I knew that an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for diversity would be a trait required of the position. So in 3 different sessions with 12 different individuals, I chose to share that I am gay as a means to illustrate my ability to empathize with students, professors, and staff of diverse backgrounds. It was a strategic decision, which, after researching institutional policy, I believed would unfold in the context of a confidential faculty search.

Heretofore, I had not been open about my sexual orientation in my professional or educational life (while being so to family and close friends). My reasons are many and my own; yet, in my view, not terribly relevant to this particular situation. The decision to “be out,” in this part of my life, was mine alone to make.

Nineteen days after my interview, a colleague and personal friend, unaware of my sexual preference, called me at home that evening. She wanted to let me know that late in the day she had been approached by a colleague, uninvolved with the search, who stated “There is a rumor going around that Jim ‘came out’ during his interview.” My friend, never a gossip, asked the colleague how he had heard information revealed during a confidential search. My friend, feeling duty bound, contacted the chair of the search committee, 1 of the 12, to inform him  that information from a candidate interview was being shared outside the search process.

It has been five weeks since that evening telephone call and I have not heard anymore of it. I am not quite sure what, if anything, I should expect to hear. As I reflect on my experience, I circuitously analyze the issues it raises. It undoubtedly raises issues of professionalism. A case can be made that it raises ethical considerations. Perhaps, it crosses into the legal realm, but I leave that to the lawyers among you. That is of little interest to me.

It is the ethical implications that keep my mind stirring late past my bedtime. They are what keep sending me back to my computer to read, over and over, the institution’s policy on confidentiality in the search process. As I have already said, there were many reasons I chose not to “be out” in my professional life. However, after completing my Ph.D. and embarking on a new chapter in life, I was now prepared to travel down that road. Revealing my identity during a confidential search process, to a limited audience, was the first of many destinations on that journey.

I keep returning to two primary considerations. The first relates to diversity. My institution professes a strong commitment to and appreciation for diversity, almost to the point of overkill. Perhaps that is why it was that much more difficult to swallow that the information I shared was deemed, by an individual involved with the search, fodder for the rumor mill.

The far more salient issue to me is that of confidentiality, and more specifically trust.  Institutional policy dictates confidentiality in the search process.  Common decency demands it. The search process is an opportunity for the committee and potential colleagues to gain an intimate understanding of the candidate in a relatively brief period of time. To effectively evaluate what strengths and challenges a candidate would bring to the institution, he/she must be willing and permitted to be utterly candid and acutely honest.

At the same time, candidates should be able to have confidence that information shared during the interview process is privileged and confidential. Whether such information be a medical condition, unique family situation, special accommodation, or sexual orientation, it should be treated as internal knowledge to those involved in the search. When speaking of confidentiality in the selection process, Joan Rennekamp, a national commentator on personnel issues,  states: "It is sometimes helpful to think of information as you would think of a material object that has an owner.... No other employee has the right to communicate it to someone else unless some overriding concern arises, or unless the owner gives permission to do so."

Yes, Rennekamp is a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but even lawyers have sage advice at times.

Trust, leadership, and moral conduct are professed institutional values at my college. Of course, as an educational institution, those values are most strongly inculcated in students. However, as educators, we have a responsibility to model proper, responsible, and ethical behavior to our students. If we fail to lead by example, then we fail to lead at all. If we are unable to maintain trust among colleagues, how can we develop trust with students, or teach them to develop trust in each other.

Lest I seem to be presenting myself as some type of moral elite, I must admit that I am all too experienced in losing the trust of those close to me. I will never forget the utter look of devastation on my mother’s face when she discovered I had lied to her as a teenager. More recently, I lost the trust of a supervisor who felt I had betrayed our professional relationship. Yet, in each of those instances I was able to make an honest, open, and sincere apology to the wronged individual. I have a strange feeling that no such apology will be forthcoming in my situation.

I suppose I never realized how important those three simple words -- I am sorry -- are to my value system. The fact that my sexual orientation is now part of the public domain is not what makes me continue to brood over my experience. The issue that forces my mind to wander is that one or more of those 12 individuals felt it their prerogative to decide how I “rolled out” my sexual identity to my professional colleagues. There were unique aspects of my own experience that I felt could be educational to faculty, staff, and students. For better or for worse, I am an educator. I had a “lesson plan” for sharing my experience with members of the campus community. That “lesson plan” was my own to execute.

Yet beyond my own experience, what do such actions say about trust among members of the campus community. Higher education is, admittedly, a gossip factory on overdrive. How often have each of us heard information that was not intended for anyone but those involved with the search process? How often have the personal issues or misfortunes of our colleagues been whispered throughout the classrooms, laboratories, and conference rooms of academe? How desensitized have we become to the whirlwind of rumor and innuendo? Knowing the character of the collegiate workplace, I perhaps should have known better. Yet, based on an explicit, written statement of confidentiality, I chose to begin this particular personal journey during the search process. In hindsight, it was a poor choice.

As in any situation, I look for the lessons learned. For good to emerge from a bad experience, I always look for the “take away.” In no particular order, and limited to the clarity of my thinking on this issue, are some thoughts for institutions, candidates, and myself.

For the institution:

  • What is the institutional policy on confidentiality? Is it a policy that is iterated not only to search committee members, but also to other faculty, staff, and students whothat may interview a candidate? Does the institution also communicate the seriousness of the policy and that it exists for reasons other than mere formality? Are processes in place to handle a breach of confidentiality?
  • Do attempts to include a breadth of constituencies in the selection process sacrifice the integrity of the process? I wrote 26 “Thank You” notes for the campus visit alone. Can confidentiality be maintained in such an open and inclusive environment? Should only the search committee interview be subject to confidentiality? Should an explicit notice of when confidentiality applies be provided to candidates?
  • Are there implications for student confidentiality when candidate confidentiality cannot be maintained? Do professionals with access to student records have a sufficient understanding of federal and state privacy laws? Are professionals required to undergo training on legally protected data and information? Are we modeling professional, ethical, and legal behavior for our students when it comes to matters of trust and proper conduct?

For the candidate:

  • Be clear about  institutional policy concerning confidentiality. Research the policy with human resources and/or the equal opportunity office. At a minimum, be aware of the written policy. Be confident that information shared is privileged information. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”
  • Be even clearer about your expectations should you choose to share a personal or private experience. For example, during the interview process, you may choose to share information about a current or former supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate. If such information reflects a negative experience, you should preface the information by asking that such information remain internal to the search process. Some candidates may want to share information about a medical condition -- and should be very clear about expectations.
  • For internal candidates, be aware that professional responsibility and personal friendship make strange bedfellows. Knowing the actors in a particular search makes the issue of trust and confidentiality that much more critical. Should irregularities arise in the search process, the actors have a professional responsibility to the institution. That responsibility will, more often than not, take precedence over duty to personal friends.    

For myself...

I do my best to approach my experience as a professional, letting reason guide my analysis. But, emotions do enter the scene. Hurt, anger, and disappointment inevitably play a role. While it is difficult to lose respect for and trust in the colleague who divulged the information, it has been far more difficult to question the status of personal friendships I have developed with others involved in the search process and hiring department. Their lack of communication leaves me to assume indifference to the issue.

I would like to say I have not become a less trusting person. But, I would be lying. However, with no one from whom to hear those three magic words, I am left to lose a little bit of trust in the institution as a whole. That is a very hard pill to swallow when you have a passion for your institutionschool. I am still processing that aspect of this whole experience.

And for those interested, I was not offered this particular position. I accepted another position at the same institution, which has greater responsibility, offers a higher salary, and is a new field for me within higher education. Had I been offered the position in question, my adverse experience during the search process and the subsequent administrative silence would have been a rocky start, to say the least. So, I am optimistic about what lies ahead, yet uncertain as to how I feel about the personal and professional relationships I leave not so far behind.

As for my “lesson plan,” I guess that is on hold for now. I need to retool it given new realities on the ground. Of more immediate concern is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. More specifically, the great majority of individuals who are aware of my sexual orientation are also aware of how the information came to be shared (and most of them did not learn of it during the search process). It is a uniquely interesting experience to be meeting or dining with a colleague and have the proverbial “family secret” lurking under the table. In two days, I have a meeting with the individual who mistakenly gossiped to my friend and started this chain of events. We have not seen each other since this whole episode started. For some odd reason, I chuckle to myself when I think about the encounter.

My hope is that after writing this piece, I will feel a sense of closure. Since I am not privy as to whether there has been any administrative action on the issue, I cannot gain the satisfaction that some good or value came out of my experience. For myself, I suppose the good comes in that I think far more about what is and what is not appropriate information to share. I think far more about trust. I am more cognizant of my own behavior and how it positively and/or negatively affects others.

We all receive an enormous amount of information each and every day. Being able to differentiate between routine, need-to-know, and confidential information is a critical skill, and more importantly personal and professional value, for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Trust is the foundation on which any vibrant community, academic or otherwise, is built. No community can survive without it.

Democritus said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” I honestly do not know how I feel about that statement. I have always been an openly trusting person. What I do know is that I have a newfound appreciation for those individuals who I trust implicitly and who have not given me reason to doubt that trust after many years of friendship. I have a new respect for those closest to me who are “men [and women] of worth.”

James Pierpont
Author's email:

James Pierpont is the pseudonym an administrator at a research university.

Why I Am Not Radical Enough

As a teacher of rhetorical studies, I've been trained to think about the differences between audiences and how to adapt one's messages to address those differences. Of course, having earned one's credentials in "the art of persuasion" and (presumably) possessing the intellectual tools of audience adaptation doesn't necessarily mean one can do it well, and last fall I really stepped in it. What have I learned? Sometimes it is permissible to retreat from a more straightforward -- if not radical -- introduction to queer theory to a classic, liberal politics of toleration or humanism when teaching undergraduates because we no longer live in an environment that protects academic freedom. Although Kurt Cobain did once sing, "what else should I say/everyone is gay," sometimes students are not ready to interrogate what that means, and they'll make their parents call deans and chairs attempting to get you fired if you try to teach them.

Here's the set-up: For three years I worked as an assistant professor at  Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Having moved there from the University of Minnesota (where I did my graduate work), adapting to Louisiana students took some time, and the culture shock I experienced was intense. Gradually I acclimated to the sight of public, drunken nudity and that charming, Southern hostility toward my so-called Midwestern political correctness. My experiences in Louisiana taught me that although the students claimed a conservative, religious politics, they were quite familiar and accepting of "alternative lifestyles," and I often had to resort to pretty wild examples in the classroom to keep their attention and to get them to engage queer theory beyond the level of "whatever!" and "so what?"

Friends and colleagues were often surprised when I told them that my students took to "controversial" theoretical perspectives, such as the critical work of Judith Butler on gender and sexual identity, quite well. One semester -- as I was teaching the Kinsey scale to supplement Laura Mulvey's theory of cinematic pleasure - -I just asked my students: "Y'all don't seem too bothered by this material; why is that?" One of my repeat-students said in a sardonic tone, "Dude: Mardi Gras?" My Louisiana students had "seen it all," and probably from a very young age many of them learned how to hang up their hetero-hang-ups, at least for a week or two before Ash Wednesday and Lent so that they could properly enjoy all the parades and street parties.

Obviously, I had a lot of adapting to do when I took my second job, at the University of Texas at Austin. I still do not have a good "feel" for the students at my new university, but I think in general it is fair to describe the students here as more right-leaning politically and more conservative in their thinking about lifestyle. Regardless, to my delight and horror, as I began teaching the queer theory unit of my Rhetoric and Popular Music course I heard the same wild examples exiting my mouth in seemingly automatic fits of charismatic teach-o-mania. I still assigned readings like Cynthia Fuchs' fabulous essay on queercore, "If I Had a Dick: Queers, Punks, and Alternative Acts." But I quickly learned that when one combines reading material that attempts to unravel binaries and my own ambiguously (and strategically) queer teaching persona in a "Bush Country" classroom, one should expect a little hostility. I expected it, really I did. I simply did not expect to catch hell from a parent.

The day after I lectured on heterosexist norms in heavy metal music videos, I was summoned to the principal's office to get a talking to. Apparently a student's mother was among the sea of faces in my large lecture class that day, and was expressly appalled at my queer "agenda." In an email that my chair shared with me, the mom said that it was obvious I was attracted to both men and women and therefore "no one is safe." For the class I developed a field trip ethnography project at a well-known, Austin 18-and-up punk club. This parent said that I forced my students to go to a "gay bar." Ultimately, I was characterized as unprofessional, as teaching filth, and as trying to recruit students for the "gay cause."

Needless to say, my meeting with the chair was painful and I was fearful, although one couldn't blame him. He did the best "you have academic freedom, but" talk I've yet to hear. Even so, I was told the story about "that professor" who was fired from such and such a department for "creating a hostile classroom environment." I was told to de-personalize my teaching and reminded that I did not have tenure yet and that teaching evaluations were very important to the tenure review process.

Since that meeting I have changed my teaching a bit and am more mindful of the power of students and parents have to take out an assistant professor whom they do not like, especially under the aegis of sexual harassment. Us juniors should also remember that many of our deans are (necessarily) insulated from the classroom and by force of situation are often more sympathetic to students and parents in our age of the "cultural wars" and "zero tolerance."

Immediately after the incident, I was worried about protecting my teaching assistants. One of them was slated to deliver a lecture on the interchangeability of sex organs in the music and art of Peaches, a controversial and polyamorous figure who had an underground dance hit with "Shake Yer Dix (Shake Yer Tits)." Although I knew I was a bit oversensitive after the talking-to with my chair, I decided to send a preemptive e-mail message to the 130-student class in an effort to spare us more grief. Here is the text of that message, edited to protect the innocent and please the legal eagles:

Greetings Class,

Your resident instructor here with some background commentary on your readings for Tuesday, as they directly challenge cultural assumptions of “normalcy.” We will be discussing the field of “queer theory,” which grew out of the heated discussions of feminism in the 1980s and 1990s regarding sexual desire and the relationship between social identity and biology. We’ll spend some time discussing the term “queer” itself -- which is confusing--but for the moment let us simplify a lot of the concern of queer theory to a series of questions: to what extent does biology and genetics form a materialist basis for gender and sexual identity? In other words, are we born gay, straight, or somewhere between those two poles? Where do the chemicals and biological predispositions end and where does culture begin? Why is sexual identity such an obsession in the United States (e.g., what’s the big deal about the proposed Texas amendment to ban gay marriage)? Finally, why are we so interested as a culture in these questions?

The latter question may resonate somewhat. To put it like my own granny does, “who gives a d*&! what you do in the privacy of your own home?” Or to reduce it to a question I received some years ago from a student, “who cares?”The answer to the last question is this: if you identify as traditionally masculine or feminine or “straight,” for whatever the reason, you have a much easier time in our society that if you do not. Sometimes having someone broadcast their sexual identity in your face gets tiresome. My point, though, is this: If you were deemed socially “abnormal,” it hurts, and it can be empowering to say, unabashedly and unashamedly, “this is me!”

Indeed, not being “normal” in any respect first leads to torment (think back to your own experiences in middle school, hey?), and then ridicule and rejection. The big problem is that being different can get you killed (e.g., Matthew Sheppard, Tina Brandon, hundreds of thousands of folks without white skin, Jews ... Jesus, alas, we are not wont for examples in history). So the answer to the question “who cares?” is “those folks who are more likely to suffer," as well as the people who love them. Although you might think you are pained reading this stuff, feminism and queer theory are really about ending human suffering. That’s really what it comes down to folks: people suffer and die because they are “different.” If there is a tacit ethical teaching to this literature, it is the lesson of tolerance.

Feminism and queer theory concern thinking about ways to keep people from getting hurt because they are not what society deems “normal” in regard to their gender and their sexual desire. Millions of folks live realities that are fraught with pain and hardship, and only because they harbor a preference for someone of the same gender or sex (or of a different race, and so on). As we saw with heavy metal, popular music practices are a central way in which these issues are expressed and negotiated in our culture. For reasons we discussed with Attali and Adorno (the irreducible humanness of music, that “noise” factor), as a powerful form of human expression, music can be used to create a kind of force field for expressing, deconstructing, constructing, and establishing a gamut of identities. Music, in other words, can unsettle our gendered and sexual identities (e.g., glam rock; queercore) as much as it cam reestablish or reinforce them (e.g., Enya; Nas).

As we tread into this territory I need to underscore a few things about the ultimate purpose for assigning this material. Although it may appear at times your goodly instructor is endorsing or promoting this or that approach, requiring readings and lecturing on queer theory is not to be taken as an ENDORSEMENT or propaganda for joining the some sort of Gay Borg or ominous Lesbo Deathstar (nor does lecturing on materialism entreat you become a socialist). Exposing you to this material, or any discussion of non-straight sexual identity, is not designed to “convert” you; it’s not, in other words, sermonic. Rather, it’s functionally informative AND designed to challenge settled, “normal” beliefs about what is and isn’t appropriate in our society (indeed, what is or is not appropriate to discuss in the classroom!). You can think about it this way: the classroom should be the opposite of the church, synagogue, or mosque. In class, we challenge our settled ideas about normalcy and look beyond deity or the physical sciences for alternative explanations for social practices. In the house of God, we reaffirm and reestablish our settled ideas and beliefs. And in some ways, you cannot have the latter without the former.

Finally, I recognize this message is crafted for a “straight” audience, so let me give a shout-out to those among you who are forced to switch codes in the classroom (which, as you well know, is also almost always oriented to the “hetero” world): if you do not identify as “normal,” welcome. I hope the readings and lectures on identity -- sex, gender, and sexual orientation -- are affirming and that classroom is a safe space in which you see your reality represented.

Now, mindful of the audience of Inside Higher Ed, I needn't detail at any length why this e-mail makes me cringe. It represents my frame of mind, worried about student hostility toward my assistants and (however unrealistically) worried about losing my job. I shared my e-mail message with colleagues, and my friend Ken Rufo  detailed the teaching pickle it created better than I can:

Here’s a philosophy-of-pedagogy question, one that I confront quite a bit, and am always unsure about negotiating. The letter . . . indicates the problems with difference from a fairly conventional, liberal perspective. But this conceptualization of difference isn’t exactly simpatico with a lot of [the theory you teach and publish].... you’ve invested a lot of time and effort making a case for [the value of psychoanalytic theory] to rhetorical studies, and so I wonder how you negotiate the complexities of a certain worldview with the necessities of teaching, or if you feel any tension there at all?

What my e-mail does, in other words, is reestablish the same liberal-humanist politics of toleration that a lot of queer theory tries to challenge and dismantle: What if there is no common humanness to us?  What if this binary logic of same and different is a causal factor in homophobic violence? Aren't these sorts of questions the kind posed by the thinkers we are reading for class?

After I posted the email to the class and talked to my friends about it, I decided I would simply address the issue directly in class, turning the e-mail into a teaching exemplar. Before I could lecture about the e-mail, however, my teaching assistant lectured on Peaches, and she received a standing ovation when she finished. That reaction told me that perhaps the e-mail had a positive effect. On the following teaching day, I asked the students to bring a copy of my e-mail message to class, and we went through it together and we discussed why it was a problematic message, locating binaries and troublesome assumptions. In my mind, this was the best way to "recover" an important teaching of queer theory while, at the same time, eating my cake too.

I cannot say that going over the e-mail helped most of my students understand the problem with liberal humanist approaches to identity. Some of them understood what I meant when I confessed that I "retreated to humanism," while others clung tightly to their notions of a universal equality rooted in phallogocentrism. Nevertheless, I'm coming to the position that I should send variations of this e-mail to my class every time I teach queer theory. I feel slightly dirty doing it because the move represents a bait-and-switch pedagogy, but it may be the best way for me to adapt to my Texan classroom while retaining my tendency to personalize theory. I guess, then, I'm not radical enough. But I want to keep my job.

I'll admit as well that deep down there is a part of me that cannot let go of the notion that liberal humanism keeps some people alive -- a faith I'd like to think has some affinity to Spivak's notion of momentary solidarity in "strategic essentialism" for social and political action. I say I'd like to think it has an affinity, but perhaps I'm more sheepish and cowardly than I'd like to admit? Nevertheless, institutional pressures, the increasing erosion of academic freedom and the decay of tenure protections, the general, cultural hostility toward the professoriate, parental and alumni demands and the PTA-ification of the college and university, and the consumerist drive-thru window attitude about teaching that some students harbor, these trends collectively suggest that the teach-it-and-then-deconstruct-it approach may be the baby bear's porridge pedagogy of our time.

Joshua Gunn
Author's email:

Joshua Gunn is assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


Subscribe to RSS - Gay rights/issues
Back to Top