Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ruminations of a baby lesbian administrator

I just finished reading an essay in IHE by Ralph Hexter, President of Hampshire College, on being an out college president, and I am truly moved. Hexter discusses his conscious decision to be out, and the positive effects this openness has had on his administrative accomplishments and his identity as a leader.

Hexter writes, "It not so much that I happen to be gay but rather that I have always been open and honest about that fact, even in a world that is still sometimes hostile. For it seems to me that openness and honesty especially in the face of risks are values we should look for in the presidents and chancellors of institutions of higher education, and perhaps all leaders."

He counsels LGBT leaders to "be out there, and you can at least console yourself that every bit of resistance you smack up against is the real thing. None of it is of your own imagining. You didn’t put those walls there by projecting your fears and practicing avoidance tactics."

I really respond to Hexter's advice. And I also just love the image of him moving into the President's house with his partner of 27 years.

I left a comment on the article, which I guess they may or may not publish. I wrote:
I want to agree [with the last commenter] that your essay was heartening. I will look up the book you mention.

As an out lesbian administrator who aspires to higher administrative posts, it is encouraging to see others who are out--not just because they feel like it, but because they see their disclosure as integral to their performance and their honest "being in the world."

I like to say I am a cynical idealist, or an idealistic cynic, because I purposefully approach my outness with the highest of expectations for others' reactions, even as I know that they may not live up to those expectations. I firmly believe that if I expect warmth, inclusion, and graciousness, I am more likely to receive it. And while I do face my fair share of disappointment, I still have hope that even these negative experiences have positively changed those with whom I have interacted.

I also saw early on, from looking at colleagues who had lost their edge, that if you don't speak out when it costs you (i.e., as a doctoral student, a junior faculty member, a lower-level administrator), you forget how to speak out at all when you have more power.

Thanks for your words of wisdom and your hard work!"

I am very convicted regarding that last part about speaking out. I have run into too many people who sell out early on, telling themselves that later, when it is less costly, they can speak up. The problem seems to me that they get too used to being safe. And then, when they do have the power to make a change, to stand up and speak out, they tend to shy away from these moments. Sometimes, I think they don't even see the moments when they arise; worse, they don't see that they have the power!

This is also the case when it comes to being out as gay/lesbian. Those who spend years hiding their sexual orientation (SO) away from everyone start to accept the idea that their SO is scary, intimidating, upsetting, or odd. This acceptance and internalization makes it that much harder to claim their sexual orientation openly and proudly later.

I once had a lesbian professor who had made a huge impact on her field in her youth, but who had felt the need to be closeted, lest she be branded and her work dismissed. By the time I had her, when she was a more senior scholar, she still wouldn't speak out on lesbian issues, and she would not disclose (or confirm) her SO to students or some faculty. It still saddens me. Another semi-closeted senior lesbian with whom I worked critiqued my LGBT research as too "limited," because LGBT folks are such a small part of the population. Self-hatred not only hurts those who live with it; it hurts other scholars, the university, and the academic endeavor as a whole.

That said, I also know several out lesbian administrators in my field who are my role models. They are honest, thoughtful, and creative leaders, and all of them have shown the willingness to speak out. I doubt any of them would be described as strident or argumentative. Indeed, they are more likely to be considered fair, engaging, and willing to work across differences of opinion. But they are who they are all of the time. And that is what I aspire to do.


What Now? said...

Amen, sister!

Being out ended up being a very costly decision at my last job -- costly in the sense that I am no longer a professor in a TT job -- but I think that the cost would have been so much higher to me if I'd been closeted. I just can't live my life that way.

Tenured Radical said...

Nice post, Lesboprof. I've always been out, and it gives me clarity in exactly the way Hexter is saying.

Funny story: many years back, I was talking to a famous queer scholar about being out on campus, and I mentioned that I always find some way to come out to job candidates, so that they know they could have a gay colleague if it makes a difference. And my friend squinted at my everlasting butchiness and said, "What makes you think you have to come out for htem to know you're gay, TR?"

Lesboprof said...

In response to What Now, I am sorry to hear about that prior job, but I am glad you made a decision good for you.

TR, I am jealous, sometimes, of those who are more identifiable. Of course, I am usually attracted to them, too! ;-)

Sleepy said...

I worked in an inner city secondary school for 7 years.
I never actually came out but if I was asked the question directly by pupils or staff, I would answer honestly.

I was called in by my Line Manager and told that in no circumstance was it ever acceptable to reveal my SO to the kids.
Like, TR, I'm fairly 'Obvious'.
Kids who used to come to me for advice and acceptance I had to send to the school counsellor.
A 60yr old straight woman.
I left teaching.

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