Academe's 'Gay Tax'

LGBTQ folks pay a price for prioritizing their safety and well-being in academe -- often taking less stable or lower-paying positions to be in hospitable cities, writes Bonnie J. Morris.

June 3, 2016

Like all part-time or contingent faculty members, I have learned to stretch the dollars from my fluctuating salaries over the years. Like many but not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer faculty members, I am comfortably out in the classroom, my identity never a secret. And like many historians passing the age-50 mark, I sometimes enhance my lectures with personal anecdotes, reminding my students that I Was There at this or that rally or riot, this or that cultural turning point, earthquake or election. But all of those eyewitness aspects are part of a triad that I have not seen addressed when we speak about fair adjunct wages.

For years, my LGBTQ colleagues and I paid a “gay tax.” We paid higher costs in food, rent and other services because we lived and worked in America’s more expensive cities: those cities where civil rights statutes recognized our equal rights in housing, adoption, partnership and workplace arrangements. We may very well have pored over tenure-track job ads for positions offering better packages than our adjunct appointments yet found only prospects in states or cities (or at faith-based colleges) where we would never be free to be open and out, acknowledged or housed.

It’s easy to forget the legal climate of open homophobia and biphobia that prevailed so recently. My long-term renewable half-time appointment at George Washington University, for example, began in 1994 -- the year when a court in Virginia cheerfully removed a child from a loving home with two moms simply because one relative complained that no child should grow up in a lesbian household. Young people wanting to learn more enlightened views on this topic in 1994 had another problem: some Northern Virginia public libraries forbade youth under the age of 18 from taking out books about bi- or homosexuality without a parent’s permission.

It would be another decade before Lawrence v. Texas overturned the state sodomy laws that declared someone like me a criminal, even a felon, in Virginia and in other states -- but felon status made us less favorable in many a state university job search. In 1986, as I was taking my M.A. exam in graduate school, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bowers v. Hardwick decision grimly reminded all of gay America that private, consensual lovemaking with a partner in one’s own bedroom was not protected action and could result in arrest, jail time and a sex offense record. Such a record was hardly the best résumé for a hopeful educator.

So, we avoided Virginia. We avoided Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. We ground our teeth during the American Historical Society discussions about whether to hold annual meetings in cities that openly discriminated against LGBTQ people. We knew we were thus an inconvenience to our straight peers. Meanwhile, as America lumbered toward a greater understanding of full citizenship, we competed against all other gifted LGBTQ colleagues for that one tenure-line job in San Francisco, Ithaca or Chicago. And I continued working two or three jobs in order to live in D.C., rather than in its more affordable but LGBTQ-inhospitable southern neighbor, Virginia.

We put ourselves on the line financially and politically by insisting on ordinary quality of life up through very recent years, which the nation risks forgetting in all the focus on the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same-gender marriage. It was not long ago that one of my colleagues won an academic appointment in Florida that she ultimately left, given that state’s rules against gay adoption, gay foster parenting and hospital visitation rights for same-gender couples. Even at liberal GWU, I was not immune to homophobia’s depressing tentacles. Well into this 21st century, I received threatening calls and letters due to my curriculum on gays in the military, and I watched tensely as our terrific women’s basketball team -- including some lesbian players and at least one beloved transgender man -- competed against Liberty University, the evangelical institution still banning LGBTQ students and faculty members.

I have lived on a budget as a gay historian in a gay neighborhood (or “gayborhood”) for 22 years, and just as we move to almost (but not quite) universal protections, I now face losing my job as LGBTQ historian altogether. This year, my women’s studies position was marked for elimination in new budget cuts, effectively gutting the LGBTQ minor that I helped create. Where my curriculum and I will go is a question in arbitration. But having been a living role model for my newly arriving students every fall -- Be out! Live authentically! -- I intend to go on speaking as a living relic of that recent, gay-taxed time. In looking back on how I planned my budget, I know that surviving on contingent labor pay was always linked to living freely, where possible -- and required carefully weighing isolation against income.

Substitute black for LGBTQ and this story is an old one; for my ancestors it was Jew and for others, Irish or Native. We can’t always search for a job where we’re not wanted. I have personally also experienced the discomfort of teaching women’s history where women faculty members were not wanted and where the campus climate was not merely hostile but also unsafe for women students and faculty members, regardless of our personal feminist identities. Where we see a high ratio of women (and women and men of color) in the adjunct or contingent labor pool, the intersectionality of these issues is clear: Which of one’s interrogated identities benefits a college or university seeking to “diversify” yet places the applicant in a miserable situation -- the unsafe and isolated exhibit A of their own identity? In a job interview, is it fair to ask how one might not merely survive but also thrive at an institution offering a salary yet lacking a community? What quality of life is an adjunct professor allowed?

Over the years, those friends who asked me, “Why don’t you have tenure?” were usually not LGBTQ. Their job-search engines did not drive with a rainbow flag flying up front. I am asking that we call attention to these stories as we talk about the “living” in the living wage agenda, for there is much to learn from everyone who paid the gay tax and, in gentrifying cities, formed the gayborhood locus that often displaced longtime residents/people of color. We are the faculty members who taught the very history we lived out. We lived it out, on part-time pay, in zip codes that were the safe zones of our time.


Bonnie J. Morris has been half-time faculty at both George Washington University and Georgetown University for over 20 years and is the author of 15 books, including three Lambda Literary Award finalists. She is also a consultant for Disney Animation, the AP U.S. history exam and the AP unit on high school psychology.


Back to Top