Monday, May 31, 2010

On closets and the academy

We've talked a little here about Elena Kagan, and the is-she-or-isn't-she speculation in the media. Over at Telling Secrets, Elizabeth Kaeton has mused further over closets, and what it means that our culture assumes that any accomplished unmarried woman of a Certain Age is (shhhh!) a lesbian!

In my internet perambulations on the subject, I also came across an article on Religion Dispatches about "Lesbian Panic":
And yet, the terrifying-to-many ménage a trois of religion, sexuality, and education continues to serve as a condensed metaphor for all manner of cultural fears and anxieties; and prompts Armageddon-ish warnings about how values and morality have been thinned out.....

The author considers disparate cases: the music teacher in Canada furloughed from a Catholic school (could it be because she and her female partner had a baby? or for other reasons?) the ever-present concern about lesbians in women's college sports (particularly basketball and softball). And then, she linked to an article by Louie Crew in 1974 in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
For centuries the academy in the West has made quite clear the only terms on which gay persons could be accepted professionally at any level:  complete invisibility.  Gay men and women have been forced to pass as straights.  Our unique sexual orientation has been shoved into a closet.

    Many of us have learned thus to survive, even to prevail, some of us even to forget, except for very frantic moments, that we really are gay.  By playing the game of invisibility we have held every possible position of leadership; we have been major forces in the arts, in literature, in science, in technology, in every discipline.  ....

    Some gays argue that we have never had it so good, that we now even have power.  Many straights concur, even saying that gays have too much power, that too many bosses are gay an d that straights often learn too late the sexual politics of the game of invisibility.  The one constant is the game itself, invisibility, passing, closeting, wearing the heterosexual mask, reassuring straights that all is really right with the world.

Written in 1974. Which makes me awed by the courage of Louie Crew in coming out THEN, because those words are still so true today.

Although people think of the academy as a far-left liberal place, it's really not, especially outside of the humanities. Many faculty are still closeted, 35 years after Louie Crew's article. Indeed, I think it's inculcated into professionals of A Certain Age, that it's safer that way. Especially those of us who discover our sexuality, or come to terms with it, later in life, the professional closet seems like a prudent decision. Why discuss it? We so often internalize our own "don't ask don't tell"---and we don't realize how suffocating it is until we escape it. I am so lucky in my current institution, where I have never been anything but out, and where my colleagues are supportive. But I know many who aren't so lucky.

Our success in the academy is incredibly dependent on individuals -- fellow professors, the external reviewers who write letters for the tenure file. And review papers and grants. Some of those powerful, older men are not at all gay-friendly (nor woman-friendly). It can still cost at tenure time--especially at private institutions, or those in hostile parts of the country. Tenure, which is supposed to give us freedom and protection, actually denies us those things until we achieve it. (But that's a subject for a different post).

And, it's inevitably tangled up with gender as well. Women, gay folk, people of color all challenging that comfortable power structure of older, largely white men: Pale, Stale, and Male, as one colleague describes it. Calling a woman a lesbian is a way to try to keep her down, because it's still "acceptable" to consider it an insult. Damned upstart women.

As the Religion Dispatches piece puts it,
[S]omeday, soon...
We will not confuse competency in one’s chosen field with lesbianism—not a soccer field, not a religious pulpit, not a bench behind which legal decisions are propounded. Nor will being called a lesbian be a charge, or an accusation, defamatory, or a slur.
Well, we can hope.

Today's youth won't have this problem. They are out and proud at a young age, able to embrace the fullness of their identity. In a meeting with GLBT scientists at one of my professional societies, I was struck by the difference in their experience. The young ones never have been, and would not dream of being, anything but out. It's hard to convey to them the caution that their elders still have about coming out. They really don't "get" the closet.

One young postdoc said to me, "oh, you're gay too!" in some surprise. He was happy. I had become a role model. A woman graduate student thanked me, saying "you show me that I can be out as a lesbian, and still be a professor!" The choice for them is not in or out of the closet. They wouldn't dream of being in the closet. The choice is whether or not they try for academic positions. Some of them will have problems, with the pale stale faculty. But more of them will not.

And then there's the surprised recognition some of us older ones find at these meetings at seeing some of our own age cohort, who have finally come out themselves. Oh, you are too?


Lisa Fox said...

Good one, IT. I, too, remember when it was a real act of courage to "come out" as a professional. I was active in the American Library Association, which had a Gay/Lesbian Caucus. The first time I went to one of their meetings (in the '80s), I felt like I was wearing a big purple "L" on my forehead. Interestingly, most of the powerful women in ALA whom I knew to be lesbians never associated with the G/L caucus. It's not just the academy. :-(

I am thankful that seems to be changing. And thankful for your ministry there at The University.

textjunkie said...

Wild--I had no idea it was so hard to come out as gay in academia in today's world (as compared to the `1970s). I thought I had seen profs showing up with their same sex partners at various functions, but maybe I'm not remembering all the times they *didn't*.

Paul (A.) said...

I am shocked -- shocked, IT!

You? One of the "older ones"?

I cannot believe it. Maybe you just think young.

dr.primrose said...

Episcopal Cafe has a link to a recent N.Y. Times article with an interesting variant of this -- the campaign of the R.C. Church to drive even celibate gay men out of its seminaries -- Prospective Catholic Priests Face Sexuality Hurdles.

The article says in part:

"Still, since the abuse crisis erupted in 2002, curtailing the entry of gay men into the priesthood has become one the church's highest priorities. And that task has fallen to seminary directors and a cadre of psychologists who say that culling candidates has become an arduous process of testing, interviewing and making decisions — based on social science, church dogma and gut instinct."

The article concludes with a theological justification for this:

"Father Sweeney [the director of vocations for the R.C. Diocese of Brooklyn] said the new rules were not the order of battle for a witch hunt. 'We do not say that homosexuals are bad people,' he said. 'And sure, homosexuals have been good priests.'

"'But it has to do with our view of marriage,' he said. 'A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse. A homosexual man cannot have the same relationship. It's not about condemning anybody. It's about our world view.'"

The sexual confusion in that statement is just mind-boggling.

IT said...

Paul (A), are you saying my writing is juvenile? ;-)

I'm nearly 50, so I think that counts as "older".

JCF said...

A priest can only give his life to the church in the sense that a man gives his life to a female spouse.

I guess those altar boys "embody the Church" in the marital embrace then (All together now: Ewwwwww! }-X)

feliperrl said...

You might want to modify your notion that today's youth wpn't have the problem of the closet. This may be true in more populated areas and in families not taken by any extreme religious belief, but for many in rural America, the closet is still a very real and scary place.

A huge percentage of America's homeles youth are LGBT, because they paid the price of leaving the closet. Many others never make it out of the closet.

Just thought I would bring this up.

IT said...

That is an excellent point, feliperrl. those of us in more urban areas need to be reminded that those in more rural conservative places are running about 20 years behind.