queerness, research & academia

Coming out in Academia: After the Pulse Nightclub Shooting

This piece was originally 

I was trained to not come out.

It wasn’t specifically about hiding my gender identity or sexual orientation. As a college student peer counselor and peer educator, I learned to make space for others – to validate and accept other people’s experiences of gender and sexuality, to ask questions that helped other people say more. I learned to use public health data and critical theory to talk about why I did what I did, why sex education is important, why I focus on adolescents.

When I became a public school teacher, I was warned not to talk about “homosexuality” or homophobia in my middle school health classes. If I did, the school would not protect me from parents who protested. There were two out teachers in my building, so it might have been possible for me to follow their lead, and be open with the staff but not with my students. But even at that, they had each been part of the community for a long time, and were married, and I was new and young and single… and scared.

Many other factors shape how (not) often I “come out” explicitly: my critique of the gender binary, my discomfort with common sexual orientation labels, and my own complex relationship history. In addition, I appear generally feminine and gender-conforming and had a cis male/ gender-conforming partner for half of my twenties, so my queerness is not something a person would figure out just from getting to know me, or even sharing an office with me for many years. Keywords: “passing privilege;” “bisexual invisibility;” “femme invisibility.”

When I entered academia, I wasn’t specifically trying to keep anything private or hidden; I was simply not practiced in these forms of self-disclosure.

And there’s also this piece about post-positivist social science resisting transparency of positionality. (Stop, rewind, translate.) We joke about “all research is me-search,” and yet we want scientists to be “objective” and to have as little “bias” as possible. Perhaps I have unintentionally stopped myself from revealing “too much,” lest my personal identity make my professional work suspect. Would people think that? Do you think that?

These questions of if, when, and how to talk about my own gender identity and sexual orientation within academic spaces have specifically come to the fore since the attack against queer and trans folks of color, predominantly Latinx, at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Not being clearly and consistently “out” means that the people I work with may not know exactly how much this attack has been affecting me, my loved ones, my community. This all feels so deeply personal right now.

Although by writing this post I am taking a bold step towards outness and openness, I want to share some of the nuances layering this question for me, with curiosity about how these nuances feel to others.

  1.   Sheer awkwardness. After making the decision to make this part of myself known professionally, how do I actually do that? How, if at all, do various people want to be told? What are the core concepts that I want to communicate? Where do I start?
  2.   Appropriateness. There’s something tricky about being an unmarried professional. Perhaps that’s a topic for another blog post. When I’m talking about attraction and identity and relationships, how much of my personal life am I supposed to share, in the context of building professional relationships?
  3.   Scientific-ness. My experience of queerness does not check the boxes of our demographic questionnaires. My ways of describing my own gender and sexual orientation do not make me sound like a social scientist, necessarily. Or perhaps they simply lend themselves to qualitative descriptions and explanations, rather than quantitative!
  4.   Tokenization. Not being out means I might have missed opportunities to do some of the work of queer visibility, to have the chance to be that queer person that somebody else knows, thinks about, asks questions to. People have been asking me questions professionally because they know what my research and advocacy is about, but it’s different to be faced with someone else’s personal life and feelings. Could there be a useful or meaningful way to offer myself as an example, without being tokenized?
  5.   Reputation. Even in states with employment protections, so many subtle biases can shape a person’s reputation and movement within the field. Will being more out and open shape, at all, how people see me as a researcher? Will it affect how they see my work, judge its rigor, how they interpret my motivations?
  6.   Supporting students. As I have been checking in with friends, certain former students have also come to my mind. I particularly want to support members of the queer Latinx community, who were targeted in the Pulse nightclub attack, and queer Muslims suffering heightened Islamophobia in the wake of the attack. Do I reach out to students? What do I say? In general, what’s on the line with regard to the if, when, and how of coming out students?
  7.   Reflexivity. Qualitative research methods often include a statement of reflexivity, as in, the researchers’ reflections on their own identities and opinions in relation to the research project. Particularly when I write about sexuality and relationships, it’s not a stretch to claim that queerness is a relevant aspect of my identity and experience. What are the implications of naming that in a peer-reviewed manuscript?

I have not provided a palatable coming out post, a clear narrative of who I am and who I’ve loved and the first time I told my parents. I have not given you specific labels. Even now, I am still figuring out what I want to share, what I am ready to risk, and how to open up space for those of us whose narratives aren’t as neat and whose identities aren’t as binary. Let me know if you have ideas.

I would love to hear from people who navigate coming out, or what it’s like for you to know or not know this information about a colleague. What other questions and concerns do you have? You can also consider this as a friendly reminder to reach out to colleagues and friends who you know are queer, especially queer and trans folks of color, who are particularly vulnerable to violence and particularly likely to be hurting after Orlando.

Published by Mimi Arbeit

applied developmental scientist, antifascist community organizer, sexuality educator

5 thoughts on “Coming out in Academia: After the Pulse Nightclub Shooting”

  1. Mimi Arbeit says:

    After posting this, a friend pointed out that I did not name my own Whiteness in this piece. My Whiteness shapes who I am, it shapes how I experience queerness and it shapes the implications of coming out or not coming out in academia. My Whiteness also shapes my particular position of both heartache and relative safety in regard to the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando. And yet when I wrote this in June, in my focus on gender and sexual orientation and all the feelings I was having, I did not name it. Because Whiteness is so often what goes unnamed, unmarked, simply assumed. And *that* is a problem. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since posting this piece.

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