LGBTQ faculty sound off on work experience on campus
Professors sometimes have trouble separating orientation from career
Faculty panelists yesterday discussed how it is sometimes difficult to work in academia as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community.
“Surviving academia as an LGBT person is a curious mix of finding and maintaining your own voice and individuality, but still getting the approval of others who have control over your career,” said Michael LaSala, associate professor in the School of Social Work.
About 30 people attended the talk, which was co-sponsored by the Queer Graduate and Professional Student Association and the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.
When faculty members are publicly recognized as LGBTQ, bias often occurs, said Kathryn Greene, an associate professor in the School of Communication and Information.
“When you’re doing a speech about research that is very important to you, you have to figure out very quickly whether that has anything to do with a gay subject,” Greene said.
Having a career after coming out to the public can be a very difficult reality, LaSala said. This might make some consider keeping their sexual orientation to themselves.
“You may have to relocate your identity,” LaSala said. “That’s something every member of the LGBT community has to decide.”
LaSala said he encountered problems during the course of his career and found it difficult to do his job.
When teaching a diversity class, students who reviewed LaSala’s class said he focused on too many gay issues.
“As my career moved along toward tenure, I was criticized for being too descriptive on my paper of gay issues,” he said. “When you’re a gay person and you get criticism, you’re always wondering, ‘Is my work really weak in this area, or are you judging me because I’m gay?’”
But such discrimination is not strong enough to take a serious toll on a career — at least not at such a diverse university, said Martin Farach-Colton, professor in the Department of Computer Science.
“You have to have some terrible teaching experience for it to have a significant effect on your tenure,” Farach-Colton said.
He said he often gets frustrated at the unfair assumptions he hears about his academic focus.
“I do math,” he said. “I don’t do gay math. Just math.”
Though sexual orientation may not have a make-it-or-break-it impact on her career, Greene said it is challenging to express pride in her sexual orientation without letting it define her.
“What I find fascinating is that everyone assumes I study gay identity,” she said. “You’re going to want to think strategically about that. When you’re presenting yourself publicly, you’re going to have to think how you’re going to position that.”
David Kurnick, associate professor in the Department of English, said sometimes he forgets that his academic life does not need to revolve around his sexual orientation.
“One feels their responsibilities and their desire to fulfill them,” Kurnick said. “There’s a lot of pressure to write a dissertation on the field when you’re not really interested in doing it.”
Haruki Eda, a University graduate student, said he was disappointed in the lack of racial diversity on the panel.
“There were no black or Asian people, and the one Latino professor can easily pass as white,” he said.
Fobazi Ettarh, a University graduate student, said the panel should have focused on the intersection of race and sexual orientation.
“If you’re gay and white, you still end up with having most of the privilege of being white,” said Ettarh, who plans to go into academia.
Kurnick said people should take the issue of gay rights more seriously. He said the modern-day classroom is a difficult place to get the LGBTQ struggle across to students.
“You can’t really shock them,” Kurnick said. “It’s harder now. There’s a general accepting tone around, so it’s as if there are really no problems going on — which is obviously not true.”
The Queer Graduate and Professional Student Association and the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities planned to host the panel for more than a year, said Stephen DiDomenico, a University graduate student.
“We wanted to have the different perspectives and experience the faculty had while being a queer member of the academic community,” DiDomenico said. “We’re excited that they joined us. It’s a great panel.”