originally posted 15 Oct 2010
Fair warning: this feels like a kind of rambling post. I have not written about this before, and I'm afraid it is a little awkward. Consider yourself warned, if this sort of thing bothers you.
A while ago, when I was wondering exactly how I was able to so efficiently ruin so many families, I mentioned that I would write about what it was like to be a lesbian on the academic job market. Since National Coming Out Day was last week, I figured that now was a reasonable time to tell my story.
Before I start, I would like to stress that I have had it really, really easy. I do not worry about my safety, or that I will be assaulted because of my sexual orientation. I was not ostracized by my family or friends. I was not prevented from having a job that I love. I have a super partner, and we are raising an incredible child together. I have put off writing this post for a while, because I do not really feel qualified to be a token lesbian assistant professor. I am not convinced that my experience is "normal". But I really believe that it is important for me to be out. Maybe I can be a role model for other folks coming up through the ranks. And that would be great. But I think it has bigger effects than just in academia. I am sure that some people I know are more tolerant now because they know me. It is much harder to generically hate a group of people when you know individuals that belong to this group.
So, there is the disclaimer. Now, where to start. Well, I would never have gone on the market as a lesbian unless I was out as a postdoc, which leads to how I ended up being out as a postdoc. This was sort of an accident, really. I wasn't out when I started grad school. In fact, that is where I finally figured out the whole thing for myself*. Then I started dating a classmate. It wasn't long before our fellow grad student friends figured out what was going on. But, no one ever really had a problem. So coming out wasn't all that hard. I'm sure that the faculty in the Dept. that knew me also figured this out, but it was not a normal topic of discussion. I brought my girlfriend to lab functions and everyone no one acted like it was anything out of the normal. When I took a postdoc across the country, it was not surprising to most that she moved with me. There were exceptions. People that were confused about why another female student in the program just "happened" to be moving across the country to the same place I was going. Generally this was followed by awkward questions. When I started my postdoc, the it was more of the same. When you move to a new city to start a postdoc, the first people that you meet are inevitably in your new lab. And I got along with all those folks. Of course everyone knew about my partner. This trend continued throughout my postdoc. I would go to meetings, you talk with people. I didn't bring up my "situation", but I never lied about it. If people asked me about my husband, I would just say "actually, I'm married to a woman". And there you go. I'm out in my postdoc, out to many of the scientists in my community. But I did not ever have a "strategy" or plan for how this should go. It just happened. And this doesn't seem to have been detrimental to my career, as far as I can tell.
The time had come for me to start sending out job applications. And send I did. I applied to almost every job that was even remotely related to what I do. The only exception was that I did not apply to schools in places that I did not think would be good environments for my family. Places where my parental rights as a same-sex couple would be in jeapordy, for instance. When I started getting interviews was when I had a choice to make. Even though it is illegal to ask many personal questions on a job interview, over the course of a two-day academic interview these questions always come up. Generally over dinner, as folks are trying to get to know you or when someone you are talking to wants to tell you something great about the environment related to the schools, child care, etc. I knew that answering these questions honestly could cost me a job, depending on who I was talking to. I know a couple of folks that are gay academics. The general situation, that I saw, was that these folks were out to some of the people they worked with. But not all. And I heard some horror stories about being on the tenure track. These people didn't feel like they had the option to be out in their Dept. This made their lives harder. I can't imagine having to not talk about my wife or daughter with colleagues. And I didn't need anything extra stress when starting out. So, I decided that if someone was going to cancel me out for being gay, I was going to make them do it at the interview. I would not give them 5 years (or so) to mess with my family and my sanity. When I was asked about my family on the interview I was honest. No one reacted poorly, at least not in my presence. For all I know, the folks that interviewed me already knew. It is entirely possible that any place that would have had an issue with me never interviewed me in the first place. Did I narrow the number of interviews/offers that I got? Perhaps. There is no way to know. In the end, it worked out well for me.
So, I'm out on the tenure track. I am sure that this is the right choice for me and my family. But, like I said before-I am one of the lucky ones. Being out is something I can do to try to make life easier for those that are not so lucky as I have been. But there is clearly much more that needs to be done. The recent series of teenagers that are (or are perceived to be) gay and are bullied to the point that they commit suicide makes it clear that there are too many young folks, in particular, that need our help (I'm not going to link to any names, because I have been told that glorifying the suicides of some can actually increase the liklihood of others). If you are heartbroken** by these events and want to do something, here is a non-exhuastive list of some ideas (please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments):
1. If you are considering suicide, please don't. Talk to someone. If you don't have someone to talk to try The Trevor Project online or call 866-488-7386.
3. If you would like to hear the success stories of other non-heterosexual folks (many that had a much harder time than me), check out the It Gets Better Project.
3. Realize that your words matter. Don't make antigay disparaging remarks, and don't sit silently when others do. You may think that these "jokes" are funny or harmless. But they aren't, they are part of a culture that uses homophobia as a tool for bullying.
4. Don't vote for homophobes (one example: Carl Paladino).
*I was a little late to the party. I suspect that this was influenced in part by growing up in a big, red conservative state. I don't really think I knew what being gay was until I was in college. All I knew growing up is that that when someone called you "gay" or "fag" that it was a bad thing.
**If you aren't, there is something wrong with you.