Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The challenges of identity

There is an interesting First Person column in the Chronicle that really speaks to me. The author, Jerald Walker, is a Black American scholar who has been struggling with the expectations of some other Black faculty members in his College. He is expected to share their understandings of race and the role of Black faculty members in a predominantly white institution. This is a problem for Dr. Walker because he does not identify as an African American--to wit, a Black American with historical and cultural ties to Africa. He is clear that he sees more connections to Black Americans throughout American history, and he prefers not to attend Afro-centric celebrations or other events that point to Blackness as difference or as historic or current oppression.

As a White Jewish lesbian, I obviously am not connecting with the author based on any shared race-based experience. Instead, the column resonates with my experiences as a lesbian scholar who is in a department where there are other lesbian and gay scholars **for the first time**!! I too have had to grapple with philosophical, professional, and personal disagreements with others who share an important identity characteristic--some of whom had tenure when I did not.

I spent the first 5 years of my teaching as the ONLY queer faculty member in my first small (5-person) department and the ONLY tenure-track queer in my second large (20+) faculty. Being the ONLY queer got kind of old, though as others who are the ONLY one of their type can attest, I got a lot of great invites to present in classes and I was afforded room and legitimacy to speak because of my unique "queer perspective."

In my current department, however, a full one third of the 20+ faculty were gay and lesbian when I was hired. I was very excited about this opportunity to have other GL scholars as colleagues within my own field. And yet, it has offered some unexpected challenges.

Early in my time here, I hosted a gathering of several of the lesbian faculty members and their partners at our home. While it started as a great party, it fell apart when we started to disagree about whether queer professors should be out in the classroom.

A VERY-OUT contingent argued strongly that all queer faculty should disclose their sexual orientation, as it provided an opportunity to educate heterosexual students, challenge homophobic students, and support queer students (assuming, wrongly, that these are mutually exclusive categories). Those who didn't come out were cowardly and not truly invested in the education of our students.

The WHO-US? folks argued that such a standard was oppressive; they saw their sexual orientation as tangential to their identity as a professor. They felt that they could educate, challenge, and support all students quite well without coming out themselves.

The GUESS-ME folks felt they were identifiable enough for the queers to find them without mentioning it in class. They would confirm their identities for those students who asked, but they would not reference these issues in a classroom setting.

Sometimes, these positions seemed to relate to individuals' levels of comfort with people knowing their sexual orientation. At other points in our discussion, people reflected on their own internalized homophobia, which did not necessarily break down cleanly into one or another of the groups. Other times, it seemed to be a basic disagreement over how much personal information anyone should share with our students. As we tried to understand and negotiate our different approaches, the gathering grew tense and people got defensive.

Where did I fall, you ask? My position was somewhere in the middle, yet strongly argued (imagine!) and deeply felt. I don't need to control the behavior of others and require that they make the same decision as I do, so I am fine for each of us to choose as we feel led. For myself, though, I certainly wanted to argue for my right to come out, and my belief that it is helpful and important to straight and queer students alike.

I went further, though. I wanted some respect and an assurance of support from those who do not disclose for my choices to disclose to students, to speak out on queer-related institutional issues, and to do queer-related research. I feel like I stick my neck out for all of us when I come out and speak out and, while I am okay with that role, I want my props. I tried to be clear that I find these actions risky, and I take them not because it is easy for me, but because I feel led to do so. Perhaps it is easier for me than it is for some of them--due to some experiential, personality, and age differences--but it is often scary, troubling, and painful.

Responding to this request was hard and upsetting, I learned, for those who do not come out, speak out, or do queer-related research to agree to. Some of these folks like to tell themselves that their decisions and (in)actions don't matter to anyone but themselves, and therefore, they have to believe the same about my decisions and actions. If my actions do make a difference in our institution and do help students, then they have to face that they themselves are choosing not to make these decisions and that this can have negative consequences for all queers and straights alike.

I tried to give them a pass, saying that our different approaches actually model for queer students the many different ways one can be lesbian/gay, which is not such a bad thing. We pretended that we could agree to this, but the gathering ended on a sour note... one that took months, and perhaps years, to abate. I have to say, even for myself, that the refusal of others to say that my being out is important or beneficial was challenging to hear.

In the intervening years, other problems have arisen: a tenured queer colleague who didn't find LGBT-related research particularly compelling and suggested an expansion of my research area to strengthen my tenure bid; tension with another queer colleague about who got to teach the one queer class; consistent prodding from a queer colleague to get others to attend queer community functions; loss of a treasured colleague to a school that offered domestic partner benefits.

Like Dr. Walker and the Black colleagues he describes, we academic queers don't agree on any number of issues: the usefulness of identity politics; the need for same-sex marriage, domestic partner benefits, or Lavender Graduation ceremonies (modeled on the African American graduations of which Walker writes); the appropriateness of lesbian-only spaces; and many more. Hell, academic lesbians can't all agree on whether we should be feminists, and what kind of feminism we ought to embrace if we do claim that identity. These kinds of divisions and disagreements are unavoidable among identity groups, even among a small group of faculty who share an identity on a large, predominantly other-identity campus.

A quick glance at the Factbook at Bridgewater College's website shows that Dr. Walker is 0ne of 34 tenured or tenure-track faculty of color (13%) and one of only 11 Black faculty at his school. I can't even tell you how many lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men there are at my university; no one gathers those numbers, and even if they did, it is hard to know if they would be accurate, given the stigma around queer identity.

As I see it, the issue for faculty who are in the numerical minority in our colleges and universities is whether we can count members of our group, and other allies, to support us in what can sometimes be a hostile climate. We don't need to be judging or pillorying one another for "being overly identity-identified" or "not being identity-identified enough." My hope for Dr. Walker is my hope for myself: to forge an academic community that welcomes diversity in all its forms, a community that supports our decisions and facilitates our successes. But I am resigned to the hard work that that goal represents--the divisions, disappointments, and challenges of within-group disagreements, and the necessity of choosing for myself what kind of "identitied" person I will be.

Cheers to Dr. Walker.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that I have anything to add here, but I did want to say cheers to you. The combination of Dr. Walker's column and this post have had me thinking about these issues all day.

Excellent post!

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