Monday, May 18, 2009

Gay in the Academy

With the summer upon us, it is just about time for the academic job search process to start spooling up again. Inside Higher Ed asked me to think about any advice that I might have for queer folk who will be entering the market for the first time. My usual advice is not to use anything from my career as a model. Other than that, here is what I came up with for them:


We can be truly astounded by how rapidly general attitudes have shifted toward GLBTQ people over the past decade. As conditions have improved in the nation, so too has the academic world become a bit better for scholars who identify as G ,L, and sometimes Q (Though still has a long way to go for B and especially T ). Because things have generally become better, some might imagine that GLBTQ scholars who enter the job market don’t have significantly different concerns than any other candidate scrambling to assemble a dossier. Alas, we must remember that a transition from overt hostility to disinterested apathy isn’t exactly a triumph of social justice.

Don’t tell Larry Kramer, but I am going to use “queer” as a convenient umbrella term for the rest of this post. After a certain point, it’s just easier.

Certainly queer scholars share the major concerns of every person on the academic market, primarily, “Will I actually get a job?” Yet, being queer in the academy also carries its own set of challenges (and rewards – But why focus on the positive?).

Unlike racial minorities or women, [white] queer [male] scholars have not necessarily been absent from the academy in relation to their percentage of the overall population. Historically, people of color (hetero or otherwise) and women (of color or otherwise, hetero or otherwise) have historically been (and in many cases continue to be) woefully under-represented in the academic ranks. In contrast, [white] queer [male] scholars have been employed as professors. The key difference was that most of those [white male] queer scholars had to stay in the closet to keep, much less obtain, that job. Most of them feared that public exposure would end their careers. In some cases, they were right. It goes without saying that their research rarely focused on queer topics. Silence was their shield.

Given this history, it is not surprising that I found little published advice for queer scholars when I first started thinking about the job search process while still a graduate student a decade ago. What I did find tended to be fairly bleak. More or less, the available advice proposed the academic equivalent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Since much of my youthful consciousness raising had emphasized the need of being out for political and social gains, that hardly felt like very nice advice. Getting a job was more important, the argument went, than principles or politics.

Fortunately for me, I had a more sensible adviser who rightfully suggested that such strategies wouldn’t yield the best of results in the long run. You might obtain a job, but could end up working for a legion of homophobic colleagues who would ultimately deny you tenure anyway. Since then, I’ve combined her ideas, my own experiences, and the stories I have heard from my queer friends and students who have gone through the process. Rather than advice, here are some of the things that tend to come up over and over again.

Let me, though, start with a few caveats. No short entry can fully cover the experiences or desires of all queer scholars looking for a job. Our diversity and various intersecting identities inform our choices about what is the best “fit.” A single-lesbian-Chicana with a child will likely have significantly different concerns than a partnered Africa-American man without children who, in turn, will have different concerns from a white transgendered woman with grandchildren.

Second, recognize that no job is perfect. As a child, I believed television. It promised my work day would be filled with hilarious hijinks, comedic colleagues, and lots of coffee. Of course, I also imagined that at some point in the middle of the day I would fight crime after dashing off to a broom closet to change into Wonder Woman. None those things has come true -- so far. Every job requires compromises and, for many, simply having a job really is the most important factor. Nonetheless, there are some things that we should all think about as we make career choices.

Consider Being Out During the Search Process

Through all stages of interviewing, it is not appropriate (and in 20 states and the District of Columbia, actually illegal) to consider the sexual orientation of a candidate. Job candidates are under no obligation to reveal their sexual orientation or marital status. So, if you are on the market and aren’t comfortable being out, you are under no duty to do so.

Nonetheless, I actually recommend being out in the later stages of the process. To my way of thinking, being out is one of the only ways to determine whether you will find the campus climate, benefits, and life in the town acceptable.

It is a myth that you must conform to obtain a job in the academy. You should appear professional and serious during the interview. Feel under no obligation, though, to dress or act differently than you would in your day-to-day life. If you identify as a woman, but don’t like to wear skirts in daily life, there is no need to suddenly put one on for an interview. Likewise for those who identify as a man but disdain ties. So too there are good reasons not to conceal your sexuality.

Many, I know, will take exception to the notion of being out during the process because it goes against common wisdom on such matters. They will suggest that it blurs professional and personal matters. Or they will argue that it can cost a candidate a job. For the latter, I suggest that if a department won’t hire you because you are queer, then they will certainly make your life a living hell if they did hire you without knowing. Ask yourself if staying closeted is really worth obtaining a job at a university like Brigham Young.

For the first concern, I would say that the academic world already blurs personal and professional life. Most academics socialize considerably with those with whom they work, especially in small towns. Plus, in a nation that still lacks universal healthcare, your job and its benefits have real consequences for your personal life.

It is important therefore to know how the department and administration responds to an out candidate to know how they will respond to an out employee. During your campus visit, you will likely meet with the Dean (or a Deanlet) and the Department Chair. It is completely reasonable to ask them about how junior queer faculty fair on the campus or in the department. Consider it a bad omen if their response is something along the lines of, “I’ve never really thought about it.” Be equally leery of an administrator who evades a discussion of homophobia on campus or in the community with superficial platitudes. Things like, “Our university doesn’t offer same-sex spousal benefits, but we have an excellent Trader Joe’s in town!” or “There’s an Ikea within driving distance! Don’t your people shop there?” are a far cry from knowing that your potential employer has thought seriously about the actual needs of queer faculty.

When going on a campus visit, I have also usually asked to meet with other gay faculty. They are more likely to give you a sense of their own experiences and sense of the town (though this doesn’t always work out, as I’ll mention in a minute).

Unfortunately, the story that you are likely to be told is a bleak one. According to the best numbers that I could find, only about 40 percent of universities in the United States offer equal benefits to same-sex and opposite sex employees. That is about the same percentage as private companies (larger than 500 employees) that offer equal benefits. Many public universities, moreover, are explicitly forbidden from extending benefits due to discriminatory state constitutions or hateful legislatures. Private universities or those in New England are your best option right now. So, if you aren’t interviewing in Massachusetts, be prepared that your benefits package will likely be less than they would offer a straight professor. The Dean (or Deanlet) doesn’t have much control over those matters.

Nonetheless, the administration should be able to discuss how the university is combating those inequities (law suits, local activism, spousal hires). They should also be aware of how queer faculty, students, and staff are treated and perceived. If they can’t speak intelligently about these matters, bad times are likely in store for a queer employee.

Don’t Fear Asking Key Questions During Your On-Campus Visit

Aside from the administration, you probably also want to ask questions of the regular faculty that you meet through the day. Yet, campus interviews can involve a tricky balance. If the only questions that you ask are about whether or not the town is liveable for queer people, you might inadvertently send the message that your are turned off by the location. The established faculty of a small town might be sensitive about their location and imagine that you are unwilling to live there. So, make conscious decisions to spread out a variety of questions to different faculty that you meet. Also arrange your questions so that they are not accusatory. Try asking, “Can you tell me a bit about the queer community in this lovely town?” instead of, “Can a gay man possibly survive in this backwater Texas hell hole?”

I would ask a couple of different people, but not every person, about what they perceive as the major issues for queer folk on campus. If you are in the humanities or social sciences, you might also ask if any of the existing faculty currently teach on queer topics and how that has been received by students. If you are a queer parent, it seems important to know whether the school system has experience with non-hetero families. It would be a drag to have to spend your time educating the town’s educators.

Expect the Bizarre

The interview process is a grueling gauntlet. Making it worse is the fact that you are sometimes going to encounter looney situations (or people) while a guest of a particular department. You might encounter faculty who have no idea about what is appropriate conduct for an on-campus interview. As a cherished former colleague of mine always recommended, “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” Indeed, most of the usual interviewing gaffs (but not all) are committed by those who are poorly informed about their professional responsibilities. Nonetheless, it can take you off guard. Let me mention some examples that I have encountered.

Though I have usually made it clear to the search chair before I arrive that I am gay, and my c.v. suggests strongly that I am gay, I have nonetheless been asked if I was [heterosexually] married on every single on-campus interview that I have ever had. Every. Single. One.

Responding to such questions is tricky. Though illegal, are you supposed to call the police? Is there a special “campus interview” division assigned to crack down on such violations? Nope.

It’s not that I care whether the faculty know that I am gay. Rather, it puts me in an uncomfortable situation where I have the choice of either pointing out their erroneous (read: heterocentric) assumptions and, thus, embarrassing them (which, even when I am not interviewing, isn’t exactly my favorite thing to do). Or, I have to evade the question (which makes me feel bad and closeted, too). The best you can do is come up with a plan before you arrive on campus about how to respond in a gracious manner.

Those questions, though, are nothing compared to other awkward moments that I have encountered. During one memorable campus interview (that didn’t go great all the way around), my request to meet with other queer faculty brought me to a nice, but misguided, lesbian. While she intended to be helpful, the sum of her advice for a young gay interviewee was peculiar. Noting that the small town lacked a gay bar, she offered up the various campus bathrooms that were known for their gay male cruising as an alternative. There was no good way to mention that I am not that type of gay. In that instance, I would have preferred she talked up the local Trader Joe’s.

It made me wonder if she actually considered that stating that the only viable option for gay men in the town was anonymous sex near dirty urinals was “selling her university.” It also goes to prove that lesbians and gay men don’t always have insight into the best needs of the other group.

Location, Location, Location

Taking a job as a queer scholar frequently involves moving to a state or location where the majority of voters have declared that we are not eligible for equal rights or protection under the law. Forget questions about a hostile work environment, some queer scholars have to contend with a hostile living environment. From more than one of my friends I have heard stories about their first job’s stress being compounded by harassing phone calls or other threatening behavior because they were one of the few out scholars on campus. While those were extreme instances, decide ahead of time what level of homophobic climate you are willing to tolerate. Only you can decide if any job is worth it.

Even in small towns where homophobia is relatively mild, queer scholars often feel isolated. Indeed, most of my queer friends and colleagues across the nation complain to me about the actual location of their job more than any other factor (Including the rigors of getting tenure). How often have I heard, “I love my colleagues. My students are great. This job would be simply perfect – if it was in Chicago.”?

Most of these complaints have to do with a perceived lack of “community.” It’s a word that really signifies different things for different people. Some are not happy unless there are several gay bars within walking distance (Let me tell you, if a town has only one gay bar, you do get tired of it mighty quick). Others, though, are content to know that there is one other gay person within 50 miles. Still others want to know that there are active community centers or professional organizations. Some want a specific community of queer parents.

Whatever the case, most queer folk prefer to be in an area that can provide at least a reasonable circle of queer friends. If one is single, the need for a larger queer community becomes all the more urgent. Urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston, and others more than meet that requirement for most people.

Unfortunately, you might have noticed that most of the nation’s universities are located far from urban centers like New York, Chicago, Boston, and others. This was no accident. Most of the nation’s universities opened in the nineteenth century. Their founders imagined that universities had to be isolated from the illicit temptations of city life that would corrupt impressionable students. Queer men were one of the most illicit of those temptations. If you imagine that you can only live in an urban setting, I am here to tell you that the academic deck is stacked against you.

Because queer people are such a tiny minority of the entire population, being in a small town necessarily means that the options for a single queer person seeking a romantic attachment, or even a means to pass the time, is going to be limited. Indeed, many queer people who are not in academia actively choose to move away from those very same towns to reach an urban setting.

Alas, I have no solution to this problem. If I did, my friends would worship me. Or, I should say worship me more than they already do. I am pretty worshipable.

My best recommendation would be to expand your imagination and expect to do a lot of driving. Some opt to live in the closest city-sized place they can find. This, though, usually means a significant commute (which can interfere with your progress towards tenure). Others actively decide to live a life of the mind. Either way, remember that obtaining tenure is your primary goal.

In the end, many queer scholars feel that they don’t have a choice in terms of employment. Assuming that you are going to insist upon living indoors, any job offer is going to seem preferable than nothing at all. We all have to earn those coins. If that is the case, remember that nothing has to be forever. The most important thing to do is to make the best informed choices that one can make, work hard at getting tenure, and always keep an eye on those job postings in New England.


Swede in SF said...

Thanks for sharing a very interesting read. Thought-provoking to say the least! I can of course also wonder what the "Are you married question?" will lead to when more and more same-sex couples are married - just having to hope and pray CA will get its act together and join the New England area.

Laverne said...

You know, what do you say when you are asked if you are married? I've been completely off guard asked that question, just because I didn't expect it.

And yes Gayprof, I worship you.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. I wish I'd had this advice several years ago when I was on the market. I did end up with a job that was happy to have a queer who researches queers, but along the way there were many bumps. Among them was one interview in particular (a phone interview) where someone asked how someone who studied gay men could ever be qualified to teach a general ed or survey course or a course outside of that specialty. I happened to know that the person who posed the question researched teh American Civil War, so I retorted with "How could someone who researches the Civil War ever be qualified to teach a general ed or survey course outside of his specialty?" I was pissed and so was he. I didn't get the on-campus interview, let alone the job.

squadratomagico said...

That story about being told which of the men's bathrooms traditionally are used for hookups is priceless! Wow!

Here at OPU, I don't think being out would make a bit of difference. We have quite egalitarian policies, extending through the range of benefits all the way up to partner hires (one of my newest colleagues was hired as one half of a couple, in fact, across two departments and with lots of support from the dean.) However, I can see how one would have to be more careful in some contexts -- I suppose one simply has to assess the atmosphere and decide on a case by case basis how much to reveal.

Nate said...

Yeah, your story of the lesbian who described the town's cruising locations as alternative to a gay bar is truly hilarious. I do wonder, though, how she was so well-informed!

Might your fourth point of advice be to just steer clear of Texas entirely? :)

adjunct whore said...

after a long hiatus, my return to center of gravitas does not disappoint. i cannot BELIEVE that you have been asked if you are married at every single campus visit; only a little less than a faculty member actually suggesting bathroom cruising to a visiting job candidate. what.the.fuck.

i might add (though it is implicit and as you point out, experienced differently) that most of us have to live in places we would rather not, queer or not, and most of us struggle with "community" outside of the very local, academic one. it is an unfortunate feature of being an academic in general and one that doesn't get stressed enough to graduate students.

as always, you make me laugh. this is great advice for all future candidates.

Greg said...

It really IS amazing that Diana Prince managed to NOT deck General Darnell anytime he said one of these demeaning little comments about women. The man has no idea how lucky he was, really.

GayProf said...

Swede in SF: Chances are CA is still a much better place to live as a queer person (even with the marriage debacle) than many other places in the U.S.

Laverne: Even though I have encountered it lots, I am always surprised to be asked if I am married. Where is HR with these people?

Toddshammer: At my former gig, one colleague declared that classes on race, gender, and sexuality were "boutique" classes. He then said we needed to start teaching "real" history again. The subtext was that white, straight men are "real" history.

Squadratomagico: Except religious universities, I think we have reached a point where being out won't make the difference in your day-to-day life it once did. Still, it will make a difference in the sense that 60 percent of universities explicitly offer different benefits to hetero verses queer employees. The spousal hire thing seems to be one way that some universities are combating this issue.

Nate: While I generally advise against moving to Texas, there are some people out there who find it a good choice. Don't ask me to explain their reasoning, though.

Adjunct Whore: While you have been away, the important thing is that you are back now -- and that you find me funny.

Greg: She had the patience of a saint.

Christopher Hennessy said...

Thanks for this! I posted over at my blog! (I'm starting a Phd program this fall!)

Steve Fellner said...


This is a very, very, very, very important post. A word I don't like to use- courageous- I would apply to this.

I am going to respond to this in detail on my blog, amplifying some of the points, and rejecting others.

Again, I find this invaluable, and if I can ever be of any use.

I am a tenure-track employee at SUNY Brockport.

Steve Fellner said...

And I will say out of the spirit of debate, some of your advice could prove to be detrimental.

Steve Fellner said...

P.S. Just for the record, my essays that were reviewed during the interview included talk about public sex. And I was offered several jobs in small towns and larger places. So it'll be fun swapping stories.

Steven said...

The thing I was going to suggest is to see if the university has a GLBTQ organization. It wouldn't hurt to get the students' perspectives, plus there may be faculty members who serve as sponsors or liaisons.

I was surprised to realize how welcoming municipal governments are of single "queers" (using your generalized term to encompass GLBTQ), particularly when the employer is looking for someone who is dedicated (i.e., can work 16-hour days, eight days a week) because candidate doesn't have a spouse or children to contend with, relocating children in new schools, and can work starting tomorrow.

I've only worked for two employers since graduation and I never have come out during the interview process...yet. But I must say, I work in just about the "queerest" profession. With my last employer, 60% of my department was "queer" before I left. With my current employer - 33%.

Great post!

Steven said...

P.S.- "Gay" faculty members, that is.

Sydney said...

Steven: Don't assume that single gay people don't have kids, please! During the "lesbian baby boom" of the 1990s, there were several of us who decided to become single moms! We single gay parents are so often left out of the gay conversation--perhaps because our parent-status makes us invisible as queers? Perhaps because people assume our heterosexuality in the absence of a partner? I teach in a community college in part because I need to live in a large city where my son isn't the only kid with a gay parent!

Anonymous said...

I wish that this post had existed two years ago, when I first ventured out on the job market; it would have offered some much-needed encouragement.
One book offering advice for (female) academic job seekers that I read at the time advised what amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell" approach (and in fact, to keep your sexual orientation secret if possible until you get tenure). That same book encouraged women to wear skirts, especially if they were interviewing in the south. When I asked a (queer) academic mentor of mine if I absolutely HAD to wear a skirt, his response was, "Well, do you want a job?" In the end, I wore pants, and got the job regardless.

My sub-field is even more conservative than most on issues of gender and sexual orientation. It's male-dominated, not that many people are out, and research into gender and queer issues is well behind that in other comparable sub-fields. As a grad student, I was often given the message that I shouldn't focus on such topics in my research, at least not until after tenure. But in the end, I decided that since I didn't know if I would ever get a job, much less get tenure, I might as well do what interests me the most.

I am now about to leave the position I have for another one, which is in an urban center with a visible queer community. I have often felt pretty isolated in the position that I have been in for the last two years, and financial constraints have made it very difficult to get around that by driving. Reading queer blogs--yup, including yours--has helped keep me sane.

seekeronos said...

"--- Alas, we must remember that a transition from overt hostility to disinterested apathy isn’t exactly a triumph of social justice. ---"

This is not a *bad* thing, y'know.

I'd much rather face disinterested apathy than hostility any day.

That said, I don't think that the next step will be "elated acceptance" much more than tolerance, however grudgingly given.

Earl Cootie said...

I believed television too. Never again!I've always fantasized that if asked if I was married, I'd reply that it's not yet legal for me to marry. But I've never really been asked. (Here, the question is usually, "Are you married, or do you have a partner?")

Anonymous said...

Does your advice about being out, at least in the later stages of the interview process, also apply to trans people? People usually assuming I'm queer because of my work, but unless I say otherwise, they read me as a gay (nontrans) man rather than an ftm. On one hand, my genitalia is none of the hiring committee's business. On the other, I am not and never have been 'stealth' in any kind of way, and the longer you go without mentioning trans-ness the weirder it is when it does come up...and if I am fortunate enough to ever get a job, it will surely come up with friends/colleagues at some point.

GayProf said...

Anon2: If you know established trans professors, I would raise these questions with them as well. They will have experiences and insights that I lack.

To my mind, I would say the same advice about being out would be important for trans people, too. You are absolutely right that your genitalia is none of their business. But, knowing how you will be treated on campus as a person who identifies as ftm is definitely your business.

I would ask the department chair and the dean key questions about trans professors on campus. What type of environment is it? Are there going to be issues with students? If so, are they prepared to back you and others up? Are there going to be issues with fellow faculty? Have they ever thought about trans people on campus? What about the town? Even really little things, like the bathrooms on campus, can be significant. Have they provided unisex/non-gendered facilities?

In many ways, these are questions that I think would be informative for all candidates, whether they identify as trans themselves or not. Their responses would suggest just how deeply they are committed to social justice and an equal work environment for all.

As with being gay, if they won't hire you because you identify as trans, they will likely make your life hell if you are hired as "stealth." I hope that is helpful.

goblinbox said...

Being neither in academia nor gay, I'll just say that 'fair' should be 'fare':

"It is completely reasonable to ask them about how junior queer faculty fair on the campus or in the department."


goblinbox said...

Also, if I'm ever asked in an interview if I'm married, I laugh and say, "You know you can't ask me that, right?" It usually diffuses the issue easily enough.

jeremy said...

Dying for the Sotomayor post . . .

Ochre said...

Firstly, you really are quite worshipable.

Secondly, I'm sure that you've addressed this at some point, but between moving blogs and re-linking to people, I've lost the will to read archives how in the world have you managed to illustrate your posts with such wonderfully accurate Wonder Woman panels? My mind is boggling at the thought of that much effort.

evaberlinerin said...

What a good Blog you have! Hope you the best for the future! And thanks for this post!

Eva from Hauptstadtreisen