What’s it Like to Be a Gay Academic? Thoughts in Response to a Reader Question
“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks, 1900.
So, a reply to a recent question from a reader email:
[I have an] admittedly broad question to ask you. What is it like as a gay man in academia? I am a young gay man planning to become a professor of philosophy. I understand that a discipline such as queer theory is favorable to queer individuals, but what about “non-queer disciplines” such as philosophy? More specifically, as a young gay man, should I “mention” that I’m gay when applying to graduate school and afterward to teaching positions? Is being gay subject to affirmative action? I’m looking for some guidance here and unfortunately I haven’t been able to find much else yet. I have thought about being gay and being a professor some, and what often comes to mind are the limitations. For example, it would be difficult for a gay man to teach in Egypt . . . because that environment is so anti-gay. Even teaching somewhere in America where anti-gay sentiments are still strong, or where there is at least little in terms of LGBT community, is unappealing to a queer individual for reasons additional to whatever a straight individual might have.
First off, I just want to say, I don’t have any answers to any of the questions my reader asks. I only have my own experiences, my own background teaching queer studies, and navigating this all imperfectly on my own. For whatever that’s worth.
But anyway. I started this email with an epigraph from WE.B. DuBois, from the opening section of his epochal The Souls of Black Folks. Fifty years before Sartre, DuBois described what he called ‘double consciousness,’ an answer to the often unarticulated question he identified on the lips of those whites around him: “what is it like to be a problem?”
All marginalized folks sit at the site of social contradictions, and those who are multiply marginalized sit at the site of many social contradictions. This is why DuBois thematized it as living in a ‘shadow,’ because you are made to feel different from a standard that you could never approximate. Franz Fanon did a great job of describing what it feels like: dismemberment, amputation, splattering, what Lacanian readers of Lacan have described as being forced into the realm of the imaginary, of being ‘the body in bits and pieces’, but because others force you to bear the weight of the contradictions they won’t carry. Those at the margins allow those at the centers to have the fantasy of a unitary identity.
This is why so many critics have argued that African-Americans were some of the first moderns, for they experienced the decentering effects of capitalism – uprootedness, homelessness, disorientation, alienation, fragmentation – so far before the dominant groups of the Euro-American center. Then again, I think we’re dealing, at least some extent, with a game of hot-potato – no-one every really gets away from feeling alienated and fragmented, it’s just a difference in degree. But I doubt George W. Bush ever had to feel socially fragmented. The entire world is set up so it will only reflect his identity back at him.
I don’t think that being black is like being gay, or a woman, or anything simplistic like this. But I do think that all of these groups are marginalized. And I think we need a ‘discourse of the oppressed’ that allows us to be able to speak about the different forms of oppression that bring us together, as well as how these relate to the ways in which subjects who do get various privileges – white privilege, male privilege, hetero privilege – also are oppressed by our contemporary world-system. I think it’s all about alliance, and that a ‘discourse of the oppressed’ is a precursor to a ‘discourse of coalition’ that could allow us work collectively for changes which could start to improve conditions of oppression, not for one group or another, but the structures which perpetuate it as such.
Which is why I think it’s really important for each group to look out for the ways in which their privileges go unnoticed. As someone who gets white privilege, I think it’s essential to continually listen to those who don’t get this, and try to find ways to unwork white privilege in the world.
And I think one myth that we as philosophers often face is that philosophy is beyond history, beyond race, class, gender, sexuality. I think the blindness of philosophy to these issues is truly that. The work of Luce Irigaray in regard to gender in the work of Plato is I think exemplary of why it is not possible for philosophy to be blind to these issues. Philosophy needs to be reconstructed within – knowledge is always a form of power, and a form of power which relates to specific historical conditions. Being able to read philosophy against the grain is I think essential to doing ethical philosophy today.
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All of which is a precursor to answering this reader question. But I think it’s essential to situate the question. Because it’s not just being gay that makes being an academic difficult. I think being a female or black or latino academic has it’s own types of burdens and double standards which need to be constantly unworked if they are to change. Often this starts when those who get privilege ask for and listen to those who often don’t get these privileges when they speak of what burdens they often silently bear.
I actually think that there are many more ways in which being queer impacts a person’s lives than people often admit, even queer people. I think often we like to try to ‘not make a big deal’ about things, to ourselves or others. Or channel the difficulties into defensive strategies of various sorts. But there’s a lot more here than meets the eye. Often I have well meaning hetero friends say things to me like, ‘yeah, but I know lots of queer friends, and they don’t seem to have these difficulties!.’ But one or even a select group of people’s abilities to get around certain aspects of social marginalization doesn’t mean everyone can, or that it impacts people equally.
I think that my reader asks some very real questions. There are simply so many more options for hetero academics. I mean, I have a good friend who did his PhD in middle of nowhere America, and met the love of his life there. But as a queer person, I could never have done my PhD there, unless I wanted to completely smother a whole part of my existence. Granted, I don’t avail myself of much of the more obvious forms of gay life in nyc, and much of that is due to ambivalence on the form that mainstream gay culture often takes. But it’s there. And there’s tons of other queer people here. The fact is that meeting other queer people is possible here, and everybody has queer friends. You’re physically safe here (with the exception of the occasional odd event). The fact is that I can live openly and comfortably and not have to think too much about it, but that’s a luxury.
But doing a PhD program in middle America? Taking a job in a ‘Red State’? Now, don’t get me wrong, there are cool cities in all those places, but not all universities are in those cities. Austin, for example, despite being in mid Texas, I hear is wonderfully queer friendly. But central Texas? It’s just not an option until some very real things change. In addition to the fact that there is ‘queer drain’ to the cities. So the countryside has many fewer than 1 in 10, and cities have many more. So yeah, being a queer academic really does limit your options. It’s not that you will just be lonely out there. It’s that the only other queer folks are likely to be closeted. It means killing off your ability to be yourself, to speak openly. It’s essentially going back in the closet. Just not an option, nor should it have to be.
I come out each semester to my students, in every class I have ever taught at a university level. Why? Because I think it’s important. I usually do so mid-semester, after students know me, like me, respect me. I don’t think that being gay is the first thing they need to know about me, and in fact, it is much less important than what I can teach them. But I think one of the things I need to teach them is that they know a queer person, and liked them and respected them before they knew they were queer, and do afterwards. But I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t feel like my school supported me, and beyond that, the larger community in which I live. I’ve taught at several colleges/universities, but only in New York City and Berkeley.
In some of those universities, I specifically taught queer, gender, and sexuality studies. And this is another issue that hits queer academics – do you specialize in queer studies? I must say, I fought it for quite a while. I mean, I’m gay, but I didn’t see what this had to do with my studies. What could there be to study, particularly for theory/philosophy? But once I learned the power of queer studies, and the relation it can have to philosophy, well, it opened my eyes. I also hesitated being ‘the queer studies guy,’ because I find it annoying to be pigeonholed as the ‘anything’ guy. I’m skeptical of any movement that isn’t a movement of outsiders, and I think Groucho Marx has it right – ‘I wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have me as a member.’
But with that thought in mind, I think community is really important. Especially for those just coming out, of coming from intolerant parts of the country/world. It’s essential to be a resource to my students, to let them know that I’m there for them, to make sure the school is there for them, etc. There’s so many pressures that only those who have gone through it would know, and while hetero folks can be helpful, this usually comes only after they’ve had queer folks teach them many of the pressures involved. I feel it’s essential for all of us to learn from those oppressed in ways other than us.
But I do feel that the ‘lure of identity/community’, as some critics have called it, can also be a trap. Identity limits our sense of who we consider ‘us.’ Which is part of why I think the notion of ‘oppression’ (and the work of Paulo Freire is essential to me here) is useful as a discursive category, because it brings together so many things.
Which is also why I think for me queer studies became in so many ways about race and various sorts of socio-economic privilege, rather than, say, my own need to get married. I see it as incredibly important to push for gay marriage – for hetero folks. Let them advocate for that. And many do, and I think that’s great.
But any idiot can advocate against their own discrimination. No, the real work is to advocate against discrimination against others. And so, my queer studies classes became all about helping students move from what Deleuze and Guattari call being a ‘subjected group’ to a ‘subject group’ – to wanting to fight not only their own oppression, but oppression as such. And this requires teaching like a therapist, making the class about interchange, and a journey. At least, that’s how it worked for me. Moving students from the content to the form, and for learning from each other.
The concept I’m describing above is one that elsewhere I’ve called ‘cross-activism.’ Namely, that anyone can advocate for themselves, but that there’s an ethical mandate, after realizing that oppression works the way it does in the world, to advocate for the removal of oppression of others. I think that only when people do this will true politics beyond current divisions come about, and become strong enough to truly create change in the world. Power has always believed in divide and conquer. Cross-activism is about trying to short-circuit that.
But then there is the issue of pigeon-holing, and doing something other than queer studies. When I was hired in my first full-time job, it was partly to teach queer and gender studies. And the fact that this is possible is a good thing, for it does give queer scholars some place in a world in which there often isn’t one. And I think it’s important to make sure my school has the ability to offer courses on these issues. But I’m also strongly involved in our faculty diversity group, which is pushing to make the school more diversity in a wide variety of ways. Diversity takes many forms.
But it is odd to sometimes be made to speak ‘for one’s group.’ But it’s important to know when and how to do so, which is a skill that I think no-one ever gets quite right. It’s always odd, but it’s important. I think it’s taught me a lot. But damn I wish sometimes it were easier. You figure that you’d figure out the whole ‘being gay’ thing after a certain age, but our society just doesn’t work that way.
But what if you don’t want to teach queer studies? What if you want to be a queer mathematician? Or a queer historian of ancient Egypt?
I find that since entering my current job, I’ve been given the freedom at a wonderful home institution to pursue all my research interests, and with that I have returned to philosophy with a vengeance, after being exiled, as so many of us have been, to a literature department because of the ‘continental philosophy’ issues in this country. Don’t get me wrong, I like literature, and like teaching it. But philosophy/theory has always been my passion, and literature a side love, or a means to an end.
So I find that in my current job, I just wear many hats. And I find that exists on my blog as well. Sometimes I write specifically on philosophy, other times on film, other times on gender studies. And I think its important to wear many hats. But I think that just doing philosophy in the same way is impossible after queer critique. Or the critique of oppression as such that has emerged since the 1960’s.
Which is why I think it’s important for me to zig-zag. Sometimes I will deal with philosophy, and nothing but philosophy, and sometimes queer studies, and nothing but, but at other points, it is essential to show how power and thought are inextricable. To literally queer philosophy. Not necessarily in relation to gender, but not necessarily in distinction from it either. To show how power inflects knowledge at every possible level.
I think that queer critique, as well as African-American critique, post-colonial studies, and a variety of other ‘discourses of the oppressed’ have given use the tools to do this, to read supposedly neutral discourses ‘against the grain.’ I think its an essential, ethical duty for us all to do this. But as a gay scholar, I think it’s also important to not necessarily be reducible to this. That is, I think that one should be able to be an expert on mathematical group theory. Not every aspect of it requires queering, so to speak. But the curve of the discipline as a whole does. I think ethnomathematics does a great job of starting this process, particularly in the manner in which recursivity in fractal mathematical patterns in non-western cultures provides entirely different senses of what mathematics can be from the perspective other cultures. What is fascinating is the degree of resonance between some of these non-western approaches, particularly their use of fractals, and some of the most cutting edge western math today.
But when do you come out to your colleagues? I have to admit that I have it easy – it’s right on my CV, in the courses I teach, the papers I’ve given. But with my students, I wait. I like to keep them guessing. I say things which are against oppressions of various sorts. I think there’s something to be said for keeping people guessing. So often queer folks are forced to guess if others know. But having hetero folks wondering, and not having an answer just being given to them, to make them have to ask the awkward questions, or otherwise wait, well, I think there’s an important way in which this reempowers queer folks, and teachers non-queer folks a tiny bit of what the uncertainty of knowing feels like on the other side. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s good to be petty or vindictive about it. But a little playful refusal to give away information right away, to deny the demand to know, the interrogation of ‘what are you?’, hits me as potentially productive for all sides. I mean, why does someone else need to know? Especially before they have gained your trust? Of course, there are also reasons why coming out immediately can be effective. It creates visibility, and that protects us all. But I think it’s all about figuring how to negotiate this for yourself, and balance your personal needs with that of others.
Of course, this only relates to environments in which you feel that coming out won’t hurt your chances of getting a job. But in some conservative schools, particularly with older faculty, it may. And schools beyond the west, with different views of gender and sexuality. And then you need to ask yourself, do you really want to work there? And of course, this limits our options. They doin’t call it marginalization for nothing.
But I think talking about these issues, particularly with academic friends who don’t know the sorts of difficulties involved, is the start of changing things, and things are changing. But I think also that the more important thing is to realize that as queer academics looking for jobs, we are pretty damn privileged. I mean, it sucks to look for ANY job in the current climate. But I think its essential to multi-task, and to realize that in this country, even though there are very real difficulties with being queer, many of which really DO go unnoticed, and then just become introjected as individual/collective neuroses of various sorts, that we are still privileged in a wide variety of ways.
Which is why when someone asks me if I support gay marriage, I’m always like, well of course, it’s a no brainer! But there’s more important things for me to fight for. Like making sure that our schools give equal opportunities for the future to lower income students, particularly in the inner cities where kids are horrendously underserved. The burden is on the hetero’s to get me marriage rights. I need to fight for rights for immigrant laborers. Which is not to say that I won’t sign petitions for marriage and all that. But it’s just not where my priorities are.
Which is why for me queer studies is about race, immigration, etc. I think it should be. And I think when I do philosophy, I feel two imperatives. I want to be taken seriously for who I am, but also, I want to queer the discipline, to read it against it’s grain in relation to various forms of oppression. I think that dual imperative is essential
Does it make it easier to get a job if you’re gay? I think that’s 50/50, and in relation to what type of job, etc. It’s true that these days, to be a white male hetero academic, with no oppression to use to sell yourself with, could make getting a job more difficult in the humanities. Then again, we’ve had many other privileges. A few more hurdles perhaps helps equalize the playing field a bit. I don’t think one should shy away from ‘selling oneself’ on what one knows, and if queer studies is part of that, well, great. But I think it’s important to always do that AND, just as it’s important to do philosophy AND read it against it’s grain.
I think there’s a lot to be said for the logic of the ‘both-and.’
I’m not sure if I really answered my reader’s question. And I’m sorry if I got a bit preachy here. But I guess it’s just stuff I’m very passionate about. Of course, I guess it is easier to get passionate about these things with a job. But I guess there’s a lot of work to fight oppression in its various forms that we all need to do. Making it so that no-one would have to endure ‘queer isolation’, or threat of violence or ostracization, if they want to teach anywhere in the world is definitely a start.
But there are other issues which complicate things. Often western activists who advocate for LGBTQ rights abroad find that these very categories don’t exist in other cultures. Rather, there are indigenous forms of queerness, and protecting these folks may not gel well with a western, identity-politics model. We need to make sure we don’t impose our own values on others, even while working to make the world a more tolerant place.
So many issues. Not sure if I really answered my reader’s question, but certainly a lot to think about, so what’s above is just a set of thoughts in response to the question more than anything else . . .