Thursday, February 15, 2007

Come Out -- Win a Million Dollars

John Amaechi’s public identification as gay created a tiny amount of interest. The former NBA center reminded the public that homophobia still runs rampant in professional sports. My solution would be to eliminate all professional sports, but, alas, this doesn’t look likely. Damn it.

To almost no queer people’s surprise (but many straight people’s disbelief), another former NBA player, Tim Hardaway, went on the radio to proudly declare his homophobia days after the Amaechi announcement. Hardaway spent much of the interview giving lengthy speculation on what it would mean to have a gay man in the locker room with him (a topic that he seems to have given a great deal of thought). After that, he put the issue in simple terms, “Well, you know I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States. So yeah, I don't like it.''

Gee, I just can’t imagine why so many athletes wait until after they retire to come out of the closet (which, btw, I think is wrong – Being out is still the easiest and best strategy to obtain equality for queer folk regardless if you are in the NBA or the PTA – but that’s not the issue today). Personally, I think Hardaway harbors resentment that he has a last name well suited for a gay porn star. While we can work out his psychology later, his comments were not unexpected given the homophobic climate in professional sports.

The other responses, though, that interested me much more were the sports commentators or coaches who dismissed Amaechi’s outing as a means to make a buck. In fairness, Amaechi did reveal his queer desires at the same time that he introduced his autobiography. One commentator for Deseret Morning News called Amaechi’s story of being gay “boring.” “If he is looking for publicity for his book and a big payday by outing himself — and he is,” the columnist wrote, “he's going to have to do better than that.” In a similar vein, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, suggested that coming out could result in cash and prizes for NBA players. “From a marketing perspective, if you're a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich,”Cuban told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective.”

While I thought these suggestions a bit strange, I really didn’t pay much more attention. Then I happened to be in a conversation about academic job-searches. Several heterosexual professors put forward the notion that being queer helps one get an academic job these days. They argued that departments look for “diversity” and, therefore, are eager to hire gay men and lesbians. This left me a bit mute for a moment.

When did it become possible to imagine coming out as a savvy financial strategy? Yes, I understand that a few queer people have linked coming out to their less-than-noble personal agendas. Jim McGreevy, for instance, declared himself a “gay American” in order to occlude a deeper look into his skivvy political dealings. Likewise, Amaechi’s revelation did conveniently coincide with his book appearing at a Barnes and Noble near you. Overall, though, these are fantastical situations and don’t at all reflect the reality of day-to-day life. Nor do they address the real struggles that many queer people face in being out at work.

I found the academic context more troubling because, well, we are supposed to know better. I can agree that one’s ability to be out in the academic world has improved dramatically even in my short career. At best, though, I would say that one’s sexuality during an interview process is a non-issue. To suggest that being queer gives special advantage either inside or outside the academic world is naïve. It also suggests that queer issues are being conflated with the equally misunderstood notions of affirmative action (It’s not about quotas – but that is an issue for another day).

Gay men, particularly white gay men, are not, and have not been, an under-represented group in the academic world. In proportion to their numbers in the general population, they have attained work as professors (Unlike (gay or straight) Latinos, African Americans, or women, who still don’t have parity with their numbers in the broader society). The issue that has been most salient for queer professors, therefore, has not been attaining work, but keeping it. The academic closet, like the professional athletic closet, allowed queer people to work as long as they kept their sexual desires a secret.

It was only through the willingness of certain queer professors in the past (and present) to be out that changed the climate in the academic world. They had the strange idea that it would be nice if their departments treated them like colleagues rather than something to fear.

In a peculiar turn of events, some have construed queer efforts at creating a fair working place as opportunistic ploys. The presumption that being queer will land one a job for reasons other than their academic research is a dangerous (and wrong) one.

What is particularly disturbing about the linking of being out with gold-digger aspirations is that it is coming from people who imagine themselves as our allies. These are not the hateful Hardaway’s of the world. On the contrary, they intend no harm to us at all.

Unknowingly, though, these types of arguments create an impossible situation for queers. It undercuts the political purpose of being out. Rather than being out as a means to create a safe environment for themselves and other queer people, being out has been remade (by a few straight people) to be all about self-interest. Anybody who comes out, therefore, must only be looking to advance their career or make some quick money. The logical outcome would be, therefore, if one wanted to “prove” their merits, they should stay closeted.

That’s the paradox: Any acknowledgment of our difference from the majority is viewed with suspicion and discounted as just a form of “selfishness.” Yet, without acknowledging the differences, we are not being treated (or treating ourselves) like we are equals with the majority.

This line of thinking also presumes that being out is no longer necessary. Many people claim that one’s sexuality “just doesn’t matter any more.” That is far from true. Rather than consistently being trumpeted as a “hot commodity” or a “lucky hire,” queer professors, especially those who work on queer topics, are often marginalized or made to feel unwelcome (At my home institution in Texas, I once had some senior colleagues making homophobic jokes outside my office door (just as an example)). Even in Boston (a city with explicit civil guarantees for queer people) I have encountered professors who don't feel comfortable being out in their departments.

Claiming that Armaechi’s sexuality is “boring” or just a means for a “big pay-day” becomes a means to ignore his valid complaints about homophobia in the NBA. Such comments pretend that sexuality is not a defining element of our society that structures our sense of ourselves.

Unless, of course, I have been misinformed. If being out really does have some huge pay-day associated with it, then my check must have been lost in the mail.


Arthur Schenck said...

What, you didn't get your check? Head Office assures me they sent it (I enquired on your behalf).

Once again you've put your finger on the pulse. Whatever the dominant culture says or thinks, coming out is still a political act--a radical act, even.

Boring? Big pay day? Easier to get a professor's job? Maybe they might like to try living as a gay person for awhile. You know, just to enjoy the easy life.

Steven Pierce said...

I think the situation for queer faculty is a bit worse than you suggest, though not in a way that deserves infinite amounts of sympathy. As I think about the various places I've taught, the proportion of openly gay men--all of whom were white--hovered around 10%. Then again, my graduate cohort was much queerer than that. Everywhere I've taught, the junior faculty was whiter, maler, and straighter than my peers in grad school, who are probably a pretty good stand-in for the pool from which my employers drew job candidates. Also, everywhere I've been, the only faculty I knew to be openly queer were white men and senior white women. All the people of color and junior white women I knew to be queer were out only in very limited ways.

Maybe being openly gay (even more, being perceived as gay, whatever one's self-identification) has an effect like being a person of color, or a woman, or being perceived as working-class in that it creates a barrier to being considered potentially one of the boys. That has an effect on search committees everywhere, but one of the most significant ways it operates is in determining who gets considered a high-flyer, which is very much a function of seeming club-able. So being perceived as queer cuts one off from a certain kind of symbolic capital that's very important for getting jobs and attaining other kinds of academic success.

There might be a very limited way in which bringing diversity to a department can be an asset in getting hired, but I think it only works in very limited ways--and very rarely if one's research doesn't directly involve one's minority status.

Obviously having a harder time getting into the club isn't the worst thing in the world...

Anonymous said...

This sounds like an early phase of civil rights improvement. The time when other people start saying "Hey, aren't things better today for your type than in the past?" Some people think it's all better now, and even "boring". But it's not all better.

It's like saying, "I took antibiotics for two days and my horrible Strep throat is gone. I feel fine. I'll just stop taking the pills for the prescribed 14 days."

You know what happens? Yeah, you stop feeling any problem after 2 days - massive improvement.But residual Strep is still there - it needs the long course of treatment to get rid of everything. Stop taking pills too early, and those few remaining bacteria will remount their growth and attack and you'll be back in the same painful situation all over again.

Same here - people are taking the tactic of saying "Oh you have everything you want, no one cares any more, now can we just stop with civil protection for gays?" Because they probably know that if we did stop now, the fear and hate will grow again and the really bad pain will start for us all over again.

Anonymous said...

As a man who works in a job that requires sharing a locker room with straight men, I face that particular issue on a daily basis. Apart from a few small verbal incidents involving the same guy, it's been a non-issue. I've proven myself at my job and the respect I receive from my co-workers stems from that. They could care less about sharing locker room space with me. The kind of problems envisioned exist solely in the minds of homophobes who obviously have more "imagination" than intelligence.

I agree with Steven. It has a lot to do with the mindset ... "it creates a barrier to being considered potentially one of the boys". This is the same reason why the straight man who is fine with you individually, will sometimes join-in or laugh at homophobic "jokes" when in a group. The "good old boys" club mentality has a lot to answer for in more ways than one.

Roger Owen Green said...

I was interested in the NBA's response to the event and Hardaway's subsequent apology: Like Amaechi, I happen to think the initial Hardaway response was great because it laid the bigotry out there big time.

Mike said...

One thing I liked about Hardaway's statement on gays was that there was nothing ambiguous about it. It wasn't something that could have been a "throwaway line" or "statement out of context." It was plain ole naked bigotry of the harshest sort. The lack of ambiguity forces the subject to be debated on the terms of reality and not bland references to "political correctness."

The underrepresentation of certain minorities in higher education will continue as long as those groups tolerate a high level of dropout rates at the front end. As long as 1/3 to 1/2 of Latinos and Black men don't graduate from high school, that will affect the numbers higher up the line. Only approximately 1/5 of Americans ever finish undergraduate college, and the atmosphere in graduate schools is populated by a very thin slice of America.

For whatever reason, there is no shortage of Asians or South Asians (the Indian subcontinent) in the labs and classrooms at the highest levels of American education. It might be that children (and parents) of those cultures place a higher value on education than others. There is still a shortage of minorities of every stripe at the very highest levels (college presidents, deans, boards of directors, etc.) but even that seems to be changing rapidly.

Anonymous said...


Huh? Huh? Did I drool?

Sorry, you lost me somewhere in that rant, er... diatribe, er... pontification, er... lecture.

I'm sure there was something valuable to glean from that, but I didn't bring my fine-toothed comb today.

GayProf said...

Arthur: Given how many queer people still come up with excuses for not being out ("no need; not the right time; it's a private matter"), clearly it still is an issue. If it wasn't, we wouldn't still need to talk about it.

Steve: I agree that more study needs to be done about how queer faculty fare in all stages of the academic world. Mostly, we just don't know too much about it.

Outside of the academic world, however, we do know that gay men are, on average, paid less than their hetero counterparts and less often promoted. This would suggest your idea about the "good ol'boys" has some truth.

Atari: I like your analogy about antiboitics. It still amazes me that so many queer folk are indifferent, or even hostile, to the need of being visible.

Cooper: Hate does seem to need a group. As individuals, people seem inclined to be reasonable. If in a situation, though, where hate is being whipped up, they often choose to "belong" by castigating others rather than risk being alienated themselves.

ROG: Yeah, Hardaway's statements actually were quite useful, especially given how many people had just claimed that being gay was no longer an issue in the NBA.

Mike: Many factors influence the higher dropout rates among Latinos and African Americans. In particular, de facto segregation often results in those students attending sub-standard schools from the start. Moreover, minority students are often presumed "not to be college material," and are thus tracked into school programs that are dead ends.

Finally, the question of Asians as the "Model Minority" is a tricky one. Not all Asian groups are succeeding at the same rate. Moreover, many times a presumed success rate keeps attention away from actual statistical evidence. Much attention, for instance, was given to a San Francisco statistical analysis that concluded the Asian/Pacific Islander population comprises of 3% of the total school-age children, but 30% of those were considered "high achievers" (according to the San Francisco Unified School District). The bit that was left out of that report, though, was that out of that same student population, 27% of these Asian students dropped out of school (Numbers which are not that different from other racial minorities in the U.S.)

Chris: Sorry that I bore you.

Haute Corbeille said...

And what on earth is going on with this extrapolation from a tiny celebrity sample, anyway? I mean, as far as coming out (or being outed) as a means of "bolstering" a career, well, the only people who are even being considered in that context are famous people who even at the point of starting to be out are already way ahead, financially and in terms of cultural status, than most folks will ever be even after a lifetime of working. And now all of a sudden it's a guaranteed way for any gay person to improve career prospects? How many gay janitors are getting their hands on that coming-out dollar?

This is what happens when you accept the legitimacy of the idea that queer humanity is conferred as an act of heterosexual charity, as so many people seem to do, even when they think they're on your side.

Anonymous said...

This ties into my frequent complaint about the increase in disinformative speech that surrounds the conservative agenda. Political Correctness is code for allowing hurtful dialogue to continue.Why is choosing to show tolerance a source of derision?
Reverse discrimination minimizes real discrimination.It's either discrimination or not.
Being a feminist is now a dirty word frquently replaced with feminazi.
The code words for race are myriad.
Affirmative action,quota hire,poverty pimp,welfare queen,ghetto dweller, nauseum.
The left needs to begin to coin new terms to define this new phenomenon.
Recently our president said he misspoke in referring to the democratic party as the democrat party,but a careful examination shows this has been going on in conservative circles for quite some time.

Anonymous said...

The other obvious issue at play here is that success by any queer/woman/person of color is always marked as success specifically *by* a queer/woman/person of color, while successes by straight white guys are just, ya know, successes.

This post reminds me of an article I read years ago in some D.C. life magazine about straight guy roommates who posed as gay in order to get the inside track on good apartments, cuz everyone knows landlords prefer fag tenants. So offensive in so many ways I didn't know where to start spitting.

tornwordo said...

Hey, I didn't get my check either. The whole "he's just doing it for selfish reasons" statement and consequent denouncing sounds like children vying for attention in the schoolyard.

Oso Raro said...

Preach girl! Intriguing post, as always, but the comments add a Scary Spice level to the discussion which is interesting. The coming out for career advancement bit is especially well-placed, and demonstrates troubling parallels with discourses on race and gender in hiring. Nine times out of ten, in my experience, institutions prefer diversity in the body of a white str8 man who teaches such stuff, but is still "one of us." The real body of the raced, gendered, or sexualised prof is what is deeply threatening to folks, whose actual presence makes them uncomfortable.

But such arguments of career advantage also serve to reinforce tokenism. They aren't innocent observations, but serve the larger discourses of dismissal and marginalisation that are at work in the profession and our society. Race-hires, LGBT-hires, diversity-hires, are all code words for not smart, not talented, not necessary. The vicious debate over affirmative action in our society reveal these politics at work, as well as the deeply intractable nature of identity discourses in our consciousness.

Change is hard, change is difficult, especially when modest efforts at tokenism are the best we can do as a society, coupled with persistent hysterias like heterosexual panic in locker rooms, etc, which reveal the extent to which folks don't want to be reflective of the way the world works (in this instance, the desperate need to reassert heteronormativity in the space of shared gender spaces, as well as a fundamental denial of men as objects of desire).

The blitheness of many gay men now towards coming out speaks only to the power of coercive heteronormativity in enforcing the rules as opposed to a real opening in society for LGBT people. I am one of two openly gay male faculty at Cold City U, but there are many ghosts wandering the hallways, bachelor men of a certain age with no traceable sexual history and wide eyes when they turn to avoid me in the hallway, that tells me the closet is still alive, even after all these years, but also tells us that the closet still has material and emotional rewards which are not the onus of LGBT folks, but heteronormative coercion.

AJ Chavez said...
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GayProf said...

Dan: Yes, there is a certain way that these incidents suggest that heterosexuals still have the power to grant queers status through their "charity." This upholds the power imbalance.

Brian: Recent events in Michigan suggest that the left lost the discussion over Affirmative Action. I agree that the left has to come up with new ways to discuss these issues without being sidetracked by the right's rhetoric.

Jefe: The article you mentioned also suggests the myth of queer affluence. In truth, queers are often in debt as much as their hetero counterparts. Since they earn less, they are also not necessarily reaping the rewards of being childless (not to mention the many queer people who do have children).

Torn: Where are those damn checks? I say we call the 1-800 hotline.

Oso: I agree entirely (not surprisingly). We are always just a step away from being dismissed as "quota queens."

A.J.: Fair enough -- there are times when the language of "diversity" can provide actual economic benefits to the individual.

Still, I would press your thinking a bit more. Why do you imagine that writing about your experiences as queer and Latino is somehow a means to manipulate the system? Does a Euro-American straight man writing on ancient Rome seem like his writing is somehow more legitimate? Writing about your lived experience and grappling with your racial/sexual identities is to write from your perspective. That is not a manipulation.

There is also a tendency to reward those who have non, white, straight identities in narrow ways. In other words, if you fit a particular search parameter (i.e. a department that "needs" a queer scholar to look competitive) then I think we are treading into the problems with "tokenism" that Oso mentioned.

Moreover, it has been my experience (both personal and observational) that any short-term benefits that might occasionally appear are often far-outweighed by the presumptive baggage that accompanies them (Again, as Oso discussed, the ease with which "Race-hires, LGBT-hires, diversity-hires, can all become code words for not smart, not talented, and not necessary.")

AJ Chavez said...
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