In job interviews and interactions within my college department, I’ve often tried to emphasize the importance of having faculty members with whom our students can relate. This is true for ethnic, racial and gender groups. But for students who are dealing with issues surrounding their gender or sexual identity, this can be particularly important. Recently, I had a lengthy conversation with a student who is newly “out” and really hit that message home.
As a professor, talking with students about personal issues, such as their sexual or gender identity, is walking a thin, grey line. It’s one that is carefully approached, with so many precautions, that it’s often entirely avoided.
Recently, a student in one of my remote classes hung around (in Zoom) after class for a long time, which led to discussions about class, and, eventually, because their preferred gender pronouns were listed as “he/they”, a chat about their gender identity. Not something I would normally talk about with a student. But it really opened up a dialogue that, I think, was very productive and affirmed my belief that visibility, as queer faculty, makes a real difference to our students.
This student had been thinking about their attraction to members of the same sex for the past 3-4 years and, knowing that their family members were extremely conservative, kept those feelings private. Until a telling, and accidental, text message revealed that they might be something other than “straight”.
“My mom came in the room crying and asking me, ‘Please tell me you’re not…’ and ‘Just tell me you’re not…’
I had to assume that she meant ‘gay’, because the word was so offensive to her that she couldn’t even say it.”
Thankfully, this student has friends who have been very supportive of their sexuality and gender identity. But they even admit that it’s been tough and had to let some friends go.
“If they don’t accept my sexuality, they’re not worth my time. I focus on the friends who are okay with who I am.”
This is a common experience for LGBTQIA+ peeps. Our friends and our family decide to either accept us for who we are, or, at best, kick us to the sideline. At worst, kill us, as evidenced by Matthew Shepard 13 years ago, almost to the day of this posting.
And why? Simply because we are gay, bisexual, transgender, lesbian… killed because of the people we love.
The point of this post is that our visibility as queer faculty matters and that, when considering faculty hirings, gender and sexual identity — IT MATTERS! Gender identity and sexual orientation is far-too-often ignored as something, “We’ll address later.”
By definition, that makes issues of the LGBTQIA community marginalized — pushed to the side.
Back to the student that was profiled in this post, they told me that, because their professor was an “out” gay man, they felt that they were in an environment in which they would be welcomed and accepted. In their words:
“I know you won’t think I’m weird about my sexuality. I feel safe here.”
And isn’t this the point of equity and inclusion?