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Essay on being a queer professor at a university where prominent trustee makes jokes about gay people

Hate Isn't a University Value

February 25, 2014

When Kevin Roose’s New York Magazine article on the Kappa Beta Phi induction ceremony was published, I naively dismissed its significance. TL;DR, as they say (too long, didn’t read). As articles about the event, a celebration of a secret society of very wealthy and powerful people, multiplied, I decided I should probably pay attention. Paul Queally, a University of Richmond alum and member of the Board of Trustees, made a few comments at the event that many have appropriately deemed offensive to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The event also featured jokes about working-class and poor people, liberals, and a little bit of nostalgia for the Confederacy, as well as forcing KBP inductees to wear drag, supposedly as good-fun humiliation.

When news broke about Queally’s comments, he remarked that his “jokes” were in the spirit of the event – but that those zingers about the politicians Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barney Frank were not reflections of his own values. Unfortunately for him, he found himself in the hot seat again upon news about a picture on Facebook featuring his use of the term “fag.”

Queally’s comments were offensive, and his participation in the ceremony is questionable. But he has donated generously to the University of Richmond, enough that the business school bears his name, as does the new Center for Admissions and Career Services. Thus, it does not surprise me that the university has not jumped to dismiss Queally from the Board of Trustees. It does surprise me, however, that the only statement released from the board reaffirms a commitment to “inclusivity, civility, and respect,” yet says nothing about Queally’s comments.

President Edward Ayers further emphasized that the board shares the values of the university, which have been laid out in the Richmond Promise -- an initiative he created and successfully advanced. This response has left many students, staff, faculty, administrators, and alumni underwhelmed. Yes, the university, including the Board of Trustees, is committed to diversity and inclusivity; but what is it going to do about this controversy, which has received national attention?

The personal significance of Queally’s comments and the limited response from the university finally sank in by the week’s end. As a trustee, Paul Queally will be one of the last individuals to decide my professional fate: tenure. I am a queer man, and some of my research is on the lives and well-being of LGBT people. And I just began my first year as a tenure-track professor at the University of Richmond. Life on the tenure track is already stressful and scary enough. Now, add to that the possibility that at least one person has indicated, at least to me, a level of hostility toward me, my community, and my research. After a tight knot formed in my stomach, I felt I needed to lie down right on my office floor. What is the point of working toward tenure over the next six years if the odds are already against me? 

Sure, that may sound paranoid or overly dramatic. But I encourage the heterosexual majority to understand that LGBT people, as a means of survival in a hostile society, must look for signals regarding the social and political climate. Are we safe from prejudice, discrimination, and violence? The absence of anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination does not necessarily indicate the presence of LGBT-friendliness and inclusion. This is why many colleges and universities have Safe Zone programs, which indicate places on campus that are making intentional efforts to be safe and inclusive for LGBT students. So, the slightest hint of hostility – say a joke about Barney Frank, or the use of the term “fag” on Facebook – sends a message to LGBT people to be on alert for the possibility of more, and more extreme, hostility.

I decided to seek out motivation of the caffeine variety to keep working. I am still doing my best to adjust to life as a professor, which really means I am simply too overwhelmed to stop work to have a mini meltdown over this controversy. At our campus coffee shop, I ran into my dean and a director of one of the social justice offices on campus. They both hugged me and expressed sympathy for my precarious position. There is news of homophobia at the highest rung of the university ladder; they were right to assume how troubling this is for a new, queer professor who studies sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. And, to my surprise, my dean noted that the college would support me, including any efforts to right this wrong that has occurred at the university. I did my best to hold back the tears that threatened to come forward as I returned to my office; I felt such a deep sense of relief after bumping into them. 

Why was I surprised? This is not the first time I have heard from colleagues – including people who will decide my professional fate in a few years – that I am supported as a scholar, teacher, and advocate for social justice. I have been reminded on a couple of occasions that one of the very reasons for which I was hired as a professor was to contribute to the university’s mission toward inclusivity and diversity. This even includes my work as a blogger, making my and colleagues’ research publicly accessible, and, at times, criticizing norms and practices within academia that constrain the well-being and scholarship of marginalized academics (like myself). In the midst of other universities cracking down on professors’ social media use, advocacy, and teaching on difficult subjects, I have found a job at an institution that supports my own efforts. 

The university has made great strides in the past few years toward inclusion of and support for LGBT students, staff, and faculty: hiring an associate director of LGBTQ campus life; creation of a living-learning floor in LGBTQ studies; creation of an office for LGBT students; recently hosting the first-ever conference for LGBT athletes; solidified a major and minor in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; revamping and subsequent campuswide adoption of the Safe Zone program – just to name a few recent advancements!  This year’s book selection for the One Book, One Richmond program is The Laramie Project – a play depicting the brutal murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard and its aftermath.There are several on-campus events associated with the book, which included a talk by Matt’s mother, Judy Shepherd, in October.

When I interviewed for this job, I did my homework about the institution. I saw these initiatives, and scoured the archival project of graduating senior Dana McLachlin (a phenomenal student!) on the history of LGBT life and activism at the University of Richmond. I found, given the tremendous progress in just the past decade, I had little reservation about joining the Richmond community.

The comments by Paul Queally are troubling. And the response thus far from the university about this controversy is underwhelming. But I do feel the commitment to diversity and inclusion is genuine. I see that in hiring staff and faculty who not only are LGBT or allies themselves, but clearly bring energy and visions that will propel the university even further toward LGBT inclusion and support. However, this controversy leaves me a little worried that some of the top leaders may not be nearly as inclusive as the students, staff, and faculty – a fear I am certain is shared by colleagues at other institutions. The University of Richmond (like many colleges and universities) is a work in progress that I, as a queer professor, stand by.

Postscript: After I wrote this piece, but just before it was published, Queally issued more of a full apology and the president of my university sent a campuswide statement that went well beyond what the university had said earlier. While I'm pleased with those statements, I still ask: Should it have taken a week to figure out that this was much more than bad humor?

Bio

Eric Anthony Grollman is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Richmond. He also maintains a blog for marginalized scholars, ConditionallyAccepted.com.

 

 

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