Thursday, August 30, 2007

To be or not to be... out

When I do lectures about lesbian/gay/bisexual (LGB) issues for students, I often discuss the challenges of "being out." I explain that it is relatively impossible in our heterosexist culture to just make a declaration one time that one is LGB and be done with it. Society asserts that everyone is heterosexual, and most people operate from that default. As a result, most LGB folks have to come out over and over again.

This also holds true for LGB faculty members. There are many methods and venues in which a LGB faculty member can be out in academe, which lead to a constant series of choices to be made throughout one's career. So far, I have been employed as an assistant/associate professor in academe less than 10 years. In that time, I have had to decide:
  • whether to come out to the search committee
  • whether to disclose to the chair/dean, ask for accommodations for a partner or push for additional compensation to make up for the missing health care benefits provided to heterosexual colleagues
  • whether to disclose to colleagues in other departments (because disclosure to the search committee basically outs you to the department)
  • whether to disclose to students and in what fashion
  • whether to pursue research in an LGBT-related area
  • whether to become the "token lesbian" for colleagues who need an appropriate and educated guest speaker
  • whether to act as advisor to the queer student group or serve on the LGBT-related university committee
  • whether to serve on thesis/dissertation committes for students pursuing LGBT-related research
  • whether to participate in community service activities that are LGBT-related
  • whether to speak out on campus about LGBT-related policies and anti-LGBT practices
  • whether to speak out in the local, state, and national media on LGBT-related issues in higher education

Now, I will admit that these choices are somewhat particular to my discipline (e.g., it is probably harder for a physicist to pursue LGBT-related research), my personal commitment to educating people about homophobia and heterosexism, and my intention to work for a better life for LGBT students, faculty, and staff on campus and LGBTs in our world. I also speak out on other issues of oppression and discrimination, as well, but that kind of advocacy is less personally marking.

The scary thing for those of us with aspirations for leadership in higher education is that each decision, each level of "outing," is a risk. Further, working to change university, local, state, and federal policies brings with it the possibility of me being seen as strident, unprofessional, consumed with a personal cause, and just plain "too dykey." (Which, as my lesbian and gay male friends will attest, is categorically different from being "too gay." Gay guys have to worry about seeming weak and effeminate; we lesbians have to worry about being too strong (read: butch), shrill, and scary.)

The level of risk is apparent when looking for out LGB role models in higher education central administration. A recent story in the Chronicle about gay male college/university presidents or chancellors identified a total of three gay men in these roles, all at small private schools. (I can't find it, but a follow-up story or comment named a few additional out gay men in similar leadership roles.) It is exciting to see out gay leaders; it would be more exciting to me to see out lesbian leaders, especially those who don't commit suicide (see the tragic story of Denice Denton, the former Chancellor of UC-Santa Cruz). I have met and spoken with several out lesbians and bisexual women who have made it into positions in higher administration (dean, vice provost), but none in the highest positions.

At every stage of my career, I have gotten the message,"You don't have to tell everything." I am not good at hearing or accepting that message, partly because I have trouble countenancing the complicity with oppression that it involves. I made a decision early on in my professional career to be out basically all the time. And in choosing to teach, research, and do service related to LGBT issues, I have pretty much insured that there is no turning back. The evidence is there, forever, on my vitae. And yet... new choices arrive daily, each on a broader stage, requiring more outness, and at each stage I get nervous. And I have realized that the answer to the question/opportunity is not always yes.

For example, I have served as what I call a "professional queer" for many years in different schools. I have visited classes, spoken at meetings, led workshops, and spoken to the media about gay issues. And at some point I realized that it was time to stop saying "yes." If I kept offering to do the gay lecture for class, the teacher never had to learn about the material. In my own classes, I certainly lecture on things that are not in my area of expertise, which requires studying the topic and preparing for activities and questions. I realized that I was denying my colleagues a wonderful opportunity to learn more about LGBT issues by taking everything on myself. So, I am now trying to decline these invitations.

I also have been counseled by family, friends, and mentors to turn down some "opportunities" that do not serve my own interests, and that might, in fact, hurt me. This is a harder pill for me to swallow, because it feels both selfish and cowardly. Yet, when dealing with the media, who have their own agendas and spin to put on the news, it is a greater risk to be out and outspoken about LGBT issues. With the internet, news stories have a longer half-life than ever. A poorly written or biased story that misuses quotes and/or pictures might have a long-term impact on a career.

It is funny, but saying "yes" to being out is so much easier for me to do. Perhaps my struggle can be explained as the problem many women have of saying "no." Perhaps it is vanity--liking the idea of participating on a public stage and getting attention on such a large scale. Perhaps it is about wanting to be authentic. But in my heart of hearts, I know deep down that some opportunities should be refused. And perhaps if I don't step out this time, I can be one of those out lesbian presidents who can speak out later.


Laura said...

Take a look at this, about the Santa Cruz Chancellors, which shows how not being out can be held against us too:

undine said...

Interesting post!

cd said...

from a (former) students perspective, having out professors, whether they are talking about LGBTQ issues or not, makes a difference. Even in the 21st century, it is quite possible to grow up w/o out adult LGBTQ role models. As a kid/young adult in that situation who had a few openly gay teachers, just knowing that successful openly gay adults existed in my community was hugely comforting.