Wednesday, November 03, 2010
Second shift as a lesbian academic
As I sat on my sofa and received the Facebook instant message from a high school acquaintance (let's call him "Tom"), I pondered about what it means to be an out, lesbian academic. I didn't talk to Tom much in high school, probably because when we were in junior high, he used to come by and slam my locker shut to see if he could catch my fingers in it. It wasn't an anti-gay thing; he was just a 13 year old boy who didn't know how to act right. But they grouped us by last name, and as our names start with the same letter, we shared a homeroom from grades 8-12.
Now Tom is an adult, and his younger sibling has revealed recently that he is gay. He saw on my Facebook site that I am openly lesbian and in a long-term relationship. He did the sort of random chitchat, and then moved towards the topic of his sibling. I gave him some advice on how to be a supportive brother, and we chatted about ways to communicate his love and acceptance.
Lest anyone think this is a rare occurrence, I have to say that I have these kinds of "out of the blue" conversations a lot. I can easily recall dozens of conversations with colleagues, supervisors, students, and others who were dealing with their own sexual orientation issues or the disclosure of family and close friends. Once I was approached by a woman and her husband at an LGBT reception at a national conference who were upset because their adult gay son had not invited them to his wedding. They were struggling with his sexual orientation and his anger at their lack of support and understanding, and they needed guidance and help.
At school, I have had LGBT undergraduate students cry in my office as they worried about how they could tell their parents about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. I have spoken to numerous LGBT grad students about managing their identities on the job market and how they might assess the culture of potential employers. I have had many heterosexual students come to my office to discuss aspects of gay and lesbian life that bothered them, such as gay parenthood or gay Christianity, trying to understand new perspectives and grow on these issues.
All of this is in addition to serving as the "Go To Girl" for all of my fellow instructors when they need a guest speaker on LGBT issues in class. I have presented at colloquia on campus and participated in LGBT panels. (I have declined the honor of advising the LGBT student group on campus, leaving that to some of the other queer faculty and staff. Thankfully, there are many other folks who can fill that role.)
Being an LGBT scholar-activist in the local community brings it own unique experiences. After appearing in the local newspaper talking about LGBT issues, I received a phone call one night from a lesbian who had just moved into town. She explained that she had looked up my phone number in the phone book, and she asked me about the LGBT resources in our area and how she might get to know new LGBT people.We chatted for a while and I connected her to as many resources as I could identify. I came away very impressed at the courage to make such a cold call, and I hope it was helpful, though we have never spoken again.
Tom apologized for taking up so much of my time at the end of our chat. And of course, his apology raised the issue that none of this outreach "work" counts in the eyes of my university. (They certainly wouldn't be impressed with that bit of trivia in the report on my sabbatical.) Yet, this extra work I do--the second shift work that most members of racial and ethnic minority groups do, as well--isn't recognized or compensated. I don't resent that (too much), because I have chosen this work, this kind of service to my students, my colleagues, and my community. While I sometimes get worried about the time and emotional energy I am spending on these issues, I know that each conversation can help make a small difference in the world for LGBT people and our families and friends. And that is what my scholarship and my teaching is really about--making students think a little better, a little more deeply, and hopefully help in the movement towards a more just society for all people, especially LGBT people.