I’ve posted before on the advantages, disadvantages, and “unearned privileges” of being a man who teaches women’s studies. See here, here here , and here. Those four posts cover most of my feelings and experiences as a man who has taught women’s history for a decade and a half.
I’m thinking today about a somewhat related topic: the role of a heterosexual man teaching gay and lesbian history. (I first taught my “Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History” course in 2001, and am offering it for the sixth or seventh time this fall.) My maleness is obvious, of course. But sexual orientation is not always as easily definable as gender identity (depending on the person, of course). And though I doubt anyone thinks I’m biologically female, I know that quite a few of my students over the years have “wondered” about my sexuality — particularly because of the various gender studies courses I teach. The stereotype that “only a gay man” would teach women’s history (much less gay and lesbian history!) is an entrenched one, perhaps particularly so among the sort of first-generation college students who make up a majority of the students on the Pasadena City College campus.
I generally don’t tell my students my reasons for teaching my gender studies courses at the beginning of the semester. It’s usually towards the end of the term, after we have (one hopes) developed a good classroom rapport, that I share with the folks in the course my reasons for teaching this particular subject. Because I’d love to raise up future gender studies professors, I share with them a bit of my own academic and personal narrative, and talk to them about the special challenges that those who choose to do gender/sexuality work will face. (Starting with questions from parents about one’s sexual orientation, and segueing quickly to worries about how the heck a living can be scratched out with a Gender Studies major!) And at some point in my gay and lesbian history courses, I talk about what it was like to grow up surrounded by a great many lesbians and gay men who played nurturing and important roles in my youth. (See this post.)
My students know I’m married (I occasionally mention my wife, and I am never without my wedding ring.) I sometimes make self-deprecating remarks about my previous divorces, though I do so less often than I used to. But I’m aware the possibility hangs in the air that my sexuality might still be more unclear than my married status would suggest. I wear more jewelry (necklaces and bracelets) than your average WASP, and my fondness for pink shirts does not go unnoticed. And though I am of course never flirtatious with students of either sex, seeking always to project a clear and unmistakable aura of professionalism and unavailability, I also am aware that some of my body language and mannerisms are direct violations of the rigid expectations of American masculine culture. Call it “perfomative ambiguity”, if you will. It’s not an act, because I come by what the media calls “metrosexuality” honestly. But I am not unaware that it does raise questions in the minds of those students who are inclined to contemplate the sexual habits of their gender studies professors.
As a man, I’ve never been directly on the receiving end of misogyny and sexism. I’ve seen it directed towards the women I love. But over the course of my 41 years, I’ve seen how sexism has impacted my mother, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, female cousins, exes and my beloved wife. Not all of these women were or are feminists — but all knew what it was like to be objectified or belittled for their sex. I, on the other hand, have known nothing but male privilege. I’ve also had plenty of heterosexual privilege. While my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters fight hard for the right to wed once, I’ve been married four times. The bible is clearer in its opposition to divorce than to homosexuality, but even my conservative friends have patted me on the back for my willingness to “keep at it”. And of course, I’m obviously white, educated, and middle-class. I’ve never tasted serious discrimination for who it is that I truly am.
But I have been on the receiving end of homophobic remarks and threats of violence. My heterosexuality, such as it is, is not as immediately evident as my whiteness or my maleness. I was pummeled in both elementary and junior high school because of rumors about my homosexuality; I’ve been called “fag” since long before I knew what the word meant. In college, I worked closely with the GLBA (Berkeley’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Alliance). On one occasion in the fall of 1986, while working a table against the Larouche Initiative, two large young men came up and threatened to “kick my ass”, promising to “stomp me”, calling me a “motherfucking diseased fag”. I stood mute, terrified, but at least didn’t try to blurt out that I was straight. The idiots tore up some of the flyers I had on the table, and pushed the table against me, but stopped short of an open assault. The campus police were called, but before they arrived, the thugs stormed off. I’ve had plenty of anti-gay remarks thrown at me over the years, and a few verbal threats of violence, but nothing as close as what happened during that anti-Prop 64 campaign.
I know that most of my gay, lesbian and transgendered friends have experienced infinitely more hate and violence than I have or presumably ever will. I received one death threat in 2002 when the local Star-News wrote an article about the course, but it was in the form of an anonymous message on my campus voice-mail. It was scary, but I didn’t take it too seriously — I reported it to the campus police and left it at that. (And yeah, Mom, I didn’t tell you until now.) The price I’ve had to pay to do the work I do has been quite low, on the whole, and I never forget that. As we move close to marking the somber 30th anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk next month, I am adamant that any obstacles or hints of homophobia which I have faced in my career or personal life because of assumptions about my sexuality have been miniscule indeed.
I don’t always identify as straight. I’ve never liked the word much: I’m too conscious, in an evangelical Christian sense, of my own places of brokenness to feel comfortable calling myself “straight.” And calling myself “heterosexual” seems to imply a continued openness to other women in my life. I jokingly call myself “Eira-sexual”, using my wife’s name. It captures the essence of one basic goal of my private journey today, to direct as much of my sexual energy as possible into one relationship. But there’s no point in denying that from adolescence on, my desire has always been primarily directed towards women. That has given me a set of experiences that set me apart from most of my queer brothers and sisters, no matter how often homophobic slurs and threats have been sent my way. I know better than to presume that I can always put myself in the shoes of those whose identity and desires are at odds with what the dominant culture decrees right.
In the end, of course, my sexual journey isn’t either a qualifier or a disqualifier to teach gay and lesbian history. What matters is my pedagogical ability and my knowledge of the subject, and I’m reasonably confident of both. At the same time, I’m not unaware that students need role models, particularly in the gender studies field. And what I can role model is a man confident enough in his sexual identity to teach Queer History without fear of condemnation. For those who want to slap the “straight” label on me because I am happily married to a woman, I can serve as a role model for heterosexual allies. In the end, the task of ending homophobia and anti-queer violence falls on the shoulders of those who are generally most likely to trade in that ugliness; straight men are the ones who have been the chief brutalizers of the queer community for decades. And when any one of us stands up to do otherwise, we become a very small but potentially significant example of a vital and necessary counter-narrative. I hope that’s what I am.