Friday, April 19, 2013

The Friday Thirsty: "I'm Out and Headed to My First Job." Patrick from Provincetown.

I grew up in a small artist's colony in Massachusetts. When I came out in high school, my parents threw a party for me; 98% of my school friends were instantly accepting.

I went to college and grad school in Connecticut, in a field with a good percentage of LGBT people. I've had it easy, I think, based on the experiences of friends of mine around the country.

In August I start my first teaching job, and I'll be headed to a small rural town in a southern state.

My first visit there was great. The school is pretty, and the small town is charming. But I have been plagued by fears that my sexual orientation will be something of a novelty to the students of the college, most of whom come from the same state, a place that has a not very good history of tolerance in race and gender relations.

I'm especially fearful about the 50 student intro sections I'll teach each term, with a good number of non-majors.

I'm thankful for the job, and am prepared to work hard. But I'd love to know if anyone out there in the readership can comment on a similar move they made or witnessed.

Q: Should I be excited or worried? Or both?


  1. Be excited to teach them. Try not to worry as you teach them. Be excited when they *get* what you're teaching them. Worry when they do not. Let that be the flava of your relationship with them; you are to be, after all, their teacher.

  2. Was the artist Toulouse-Lautrec?

  3. I'm a fag-hag, so I can only speak to second-hand experience. But you sound like you could be coming to teach at my school.

    The rule in small southern towns in polite society regarding gay people is "don't ask, don't tell..." This is not a small artist's colony in Massachusetts. No one throws parties for their kids when they come out. Many southern gay men don't "come out" at all, but remain genteelly silent. One of my friends is out to his own friends but still has not told his parents, who are both Baptists, and frankly do not want to know. He's 45. It is possible that many of your students will never have met a completely "out" gay person.

    The good news is that the atmosphere in the last 25 years (and I've lived in the deep south for most of them) has changed--even in the past ten years they have changed. If the students know you're gay, they either won't care or they will see you perhaps as an oddity--an object of curiosity and not scorn. More than 20 years ago, in a very enlightened college town in NY, my gay friend was subject to evaluation comments like "Get rid of the homo teachers". That is unimaginable now, there or here.

    From what I've seen as well the gay community is pretty tight in these small southern towns. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone tries to be friendly.

    The good news is also that your colleagues will likely be totally accepting and supportive, and that you'll be welcomed with open arms. Even at my school, in the deep south, the administration is offering voluntary awareness courses for all faculty/students that educates them about LGBTQ issues.

    Of course I don't know your exact town or situation. I will say though that my state is pretty bumpass. The population is extremely conservative (no gay marriage here anytime soon). If you are subject to any sort of homophobia from students, it's likely that the student will get in serious trouble. What's more likely is that even the guys will at least superficially be respectful. Most of them.

  4. I work with LQBTQ who are out, married, and raising children. I also work LGBTQ who will not even bring their partner to a staff party. I had a student who came out during a semester and wrote up another for slurs that are against university policy.

    I once taught a couple terms at a very fundamental Christian college until someone found out I'm not Christian.

    In your case, don't hide who are, but don't tell students until you figure out the mind set of the community. Once the job feels secure, start a LGBTQ student society and see what happens. And let us know so I can wear my rainbow t-shirt.

  5. In August I start my first teaching job, and I'll be headed to a small rural town in a southern state.

    Well Patrick, congratulations on your new job. Now please start looking for your next job, will ya?

    It's not the sexual orientation thing. If your field has a "high LGBT percentage", that's likely to be reflected in your new department, probably including the students. And as Stella points out, even the general student population will usually refrain from openly homophobic behavior.

    It's more subtle than that. In fact, it is so subtle you may not notice it for a few years. Well, some things are not: everyone in your "small rural town" will be Republican (I'm not), mostly of the "Obama=Muslim socialist" kind. Everyone goes to church (I don't), and if you don't find one soon enough, it will look a bit odd.

    The subtlety is in a certain inward-looking, provincial mindset, even in academic matters; a talent and a preference for small-town continuity, as opposed to...engaging with the major themes in your field, the things people in high-powered places care about. In my less-charitable moments (which is almost all of them) I refer to my U as "an inbred backwater", and not in the genetic sense, but in the intellectual one.

    Now, different states in the south have different "personalities". (Southerners know that, but as a "yankee" you probably don't.) Even different cities. (But "small towns"? ) I hope you're in one of the better places. But here is a conjecture: the only people who thrive (in a social-professional sense) in the south are those who grew up in the south. (Okay, surely there are isolated counterexamples, but I maintain it is true in a statistical sense.)

    You can test this: look at the older people in your department: where are they from? The top administrators at your institution: southerners or transplants? Or maybe others on this board will declare my conjecture patently false, born of sampling error. But I don't think so.

    I've been here for a little over twenty years, after residing in the Northeast, Southern CA, the Bay Area and a few non-US locales. Sometimes people ask me "didn't your friends warn you?" They didn't, just as yours didn't, because it is impossible to know (aside from the usual stereotypes, easily discarded) what it is I'm talking about, unless you've lived elsewhere, and then live here for a while. You heard it here first, but do ask around.

    1. As a southerner, from a pretty bumpass area myself (nice turn of phrase, Stella!), I think Peter K is both right on and a little pessimistic here. Everything he says about the character of the small towns is dead on: Republicans through and through, everyone goes to church, etc. And it is true that in the little CCs and SLACs you have in these areas, the top people are generally local types who fit in a lot better than you will. That said... who cares?

      Even in my current locale, which is just about literally as rural as you can get, there are LGBTQ people who live and work and get by just fine. There are Democrats who live and work and get by just fine. There are atheists who live and work and get by just fine. It is true that you will never have the kind of acceptance that you were used to growing up from the community at large, but how many of our meaningful interactions in a day, a week, a month, or a year are with "the community at large," rather than with a small group of our own selection? In THAT community - in YOUR community - you will likely find just as much welcome and acceptance as you ever had back at the artists' colony.

      Maybe it's true that only natives thrive in the South, but only for a very specific sense of the word "thrive," and that's my concern with Peter K's otherwise accurate and obviously well-intentioned comment. Are you looking to be in administration? Do you want to become dean? Do you want to be a visible and highly regarded figure in the community? If so, yeah, a small Southern town is probably not going to work for you. But if your idea of "thriving" is to have a career doing what you love and have friends who care about and accept you, there is zero reason you can't do that in ANY part of the South these days.

    2. Yes, I agree it is ugly and "unfair" to paint a whole area of the country with a broad brush, when all I have to go on is personal experience, and that of a small number of "transplanted" colleagues. I wish I could say it is more a "small town thing" (maybe upstate NY, or southeastern WA are no different) than a "South thing"; but I don't live in a small town. It has more to do with insularity than anything else; most people haven't traveled much, and even in academia the influx of a small number of "foreigners" (=not from neighboring counties) is relatively recent.

      Now, when @Compound Calico says "accentuate the positive", I agree to some extent: what the OP will do over he next few years is concentrate on developing as a scholar in his field, hopefully with support from local colleagues. But too much of that is dangerous: "the negative" won't go away, and will win out in the end, if you ignore it. There are deep-seated local cultures: departmental, institutional, and off-campus: the "values" at each level constrain the sub-levels. So the OP needs to be aware of what they are, and of the fact that, regardless of how successful he is, he won't change them . And also of the "frog in hot water" effect: thinking that things will gradually improve (they won't), or that any other area would have similar problems (not true). The alternatives are "accept" or "leave".

      Sure, there are Democrats and atheists here too (all ten of us meet for a beer about every week.) And thinking about Wylodmayer's comments on "thriving": it's not just a question of being "highly regarded" in the community, or having administrative ambitions. Nobody spends their whole life on campus; imagine a situation where the random person you run into--at a bar, at the gym, bookstore, or doctor's office--is guaranteed to have (culturally, politically) almost nothing in common with you; where said doctor's office, bar, or gym are sure to have their TV sets tuned to Fox "news". What kind of life is that?

    3. Peter said: "Nobody spends their whole life on campus; imagine a situation where the random person you run into--at a bar, at the gym, bookstore, or doctor's office--is guaranteed to have (culturally, politically) almost nothing in common with you; where said doctor's office, bar, or gym are sure to have their TV sets tuned to Fox "news". What kind of life is that?"

      That's a very interesting response to my comment, and one I didn't expect. I live in that situation right now, and it's never once even occurred to me to care. Maybe I'm weird, but outside of my small circle of friends, I am actively apathetic about the cultural and political attitudes of the rest of the folks in my region. Am I weird? Do other people - aside from my man Petey K, obviously - care about that sort of thing?

    4. I live in a red county and work in a red county in a state that used to well known for its progressive politics. A former governor (and senator) was one of the founders of Earth Day. It's not like that anymore, and I am feeling increasingly isolated both because of my left-center politics and my job, which has been under attack from the red side for some time. I am seeing a therapist to help me deal with my anger and anxiety, much of which comes as a result of the politics. I am learning to let go of my anger over my feelings of powerlessness, but the anxiety is still very much there. I would worry more, but many of my colleagues feel the we're under siege. I can only imagine how hard it would be to be LGBTQ anywhere in this country, let alone the south. Best of luck to you. As my SO puts it, the barge is turning, and hopefully soon it won't matter who you love any more than it matters whether or not you believe in Dog.

    5. I think personality -- especially the introvert/extrovert distinction -- does matter. Some people (introverts) have very little need to be surrounded by others with similar tastes and ideas, as long as those who do surround them don't exert undue pressure to conform; others (extroverts) really suffer without a large circle of friends and acquaintances with at least some similar ideas and preferences. From several pieces of evidence (starting with asking the question in the first place, and continuing with having apparently enjoyed a coming-out party, and having a number of friends that he can break down statistically), I'd guess that Patrick tends toward the extrovert end of the scale. Just as extroverts should not go around assuming that introverts would happier if they got out more, introverts should not go around accusing extroverts of caring too much what other people think (tempting as that may sometimes be).

    6. It's an interesting theory, except that I am, by any measure, an extrovert. I love people, I need people... I just don't particularly care whether I'm surrounded by people who agree with me. Mind you, I'm a bit of an asshole, so maybe that's the distinction. Or it could be simpler - I was raised to be liberal and non-religious, yet attended a conservative religious school when I was young (my mother liked their curriculum). Maybe it's not a matter of personality type so much as acclimation. Either way, I really can't wrap my head around why I'm supposed to care what the people in "my community" think so long as the people in MY community are more or less with me. I just don't have any substantial interactions with the former group... so who cares what they think?

      This is in no way to say that Patrick is wrong for caring, just that I can't figure it out. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to be liked? Some people are upset if they think that people - even people they don't know - don't like them, or wouldn't if they got better acquainted. That is also something I've never in my life struggled with (other things that make me an outlier: never had stage fright, never been nervous before a test, etc.), so I am totally willing to allow for the fact that I'm the weirdo here.

    7. The point I am making is a different one--it is not primarily about personal friendships or "being liked", and has little to do with personality types.

      We don't just live in the social spheres of personal friendships and profession, we are also citizens of our local communities; we go to public meetings at City Hall, political demonstrations, PTA meetings, volunteer at soup kitchens, run benefit races. We do these things because, ideally, we care about the communities where we live. (Especially in the teaching professions, where we like to believe what we're doing has a social/political component.) And it is easier to care if you at least feel a sense of general common identity: "people on the same wavelength, more or less". To stay on topic: it is difficult to imagine Patrick caring about his local fellow citizens, if he lives in a state where the citizens have decided people of his sexual orientation should be treated as second-class citizens; or where a parent might object to having his/her child taught by a gay man, and a principal (or dean) would honor such a complaint with a response.

      A sense of general identity with the prevailing local professional culture is important, too. Most of us would like the our ideas to make a mark, over time, beyond mere technical publications or routine teaching (otherwise we aren't really professors, but just employees like everyone else.) A natural venue for this is to become involved in one's department and try to change how things are done. And this is not possible if what you think of as common sense (and routine elsewhere) is automatically greeted with words like "elitist" or "not for our students". Thus was my other point: the local professional culture is a static (or very slowly changing) object, so if Patrick doesn't like what he finds, he should try to leave now, not later.

    8. Ahhhhh! I get it now! Okay, thanks.

  6. While I was teaching, rumours about my private life had been circulating for years. I wasn't married, wasn't dating anyone, I lived alone, and I rarely spoke about my private life. That, somehow, was enough to raise concerns. At first it was just my colleagues who told stories about me but eventually, some of the student got wind of it. A few "empowered" themselves to refer to me in rather crude terms.

    I know there were attempts to get me to show my hand, but I never did. My private life was just that: private. What I did once I left campus was nobody else's business unless it was job-related. What I did at home stayed at home.

    With that in mind, I'd suggest saying nothing unless absolutely required to do so. If you do, don't say anything more than is necessary and stick to the facts. Any more than that might invite trouble.

  7. I think all of the advice here is great. I'd only say, focus on the positive aspects of all of this. You got a gig in your field. You're going to get to learn what parts of the incredibly interesting and vexing job you're good at. It sounds like you're in a field you love, and where there's some comfort about the type of folks who might surround you. Celebrate all of that. Learn the culture of the college and the town, and find the happiness that's there.

  8. When you get there, volunteer to sponsor two student organizations: the LGBTQIA group and some other tribal group (not yours). If there is no LGBTQIA group and no one in the county is gay, then very quietly allow yourself to be back on the market and keep your ears open for something better. Meanwhile, yes, focus on the positive. People have secrets everywhere--NYC, San Francisco, everywhere.

    Visit the college's library on a low-traffic day when only the head librarian is at the circulation desk, and check out an LGBT-friendly book.

  9. "a place that has a not very good history of tolerance in race and gender relations"

    As opposed to, say, the enlightened North where school bussing was so well received in Boston? Or maybe the raids that preceded the Stonewall riots in New York?

    If you must think ill of the natives, my advice would be not to let them know that you do.

    Get to know us as people. We aren't any worse (or better) than the people I got to know when I lived in New York and Pennsylvania.

    Best wishes, and welcome to the South!

    1. Jesus, do you know how long ago Stonewall was? And you should know better than most how the South has risen against gay marriage in the past few years. Don't give the provincial slap to the new guy, especially when I think he asked his question pretty sincerely.

    2. And here you see part of what makes the south the south...the defensiveness and the eternal chip on the shoulder. People up north don't fixate on the Civil War. But the south's past before the war, and the burden of defeat, are even now part and parcel of the mindset of southerners, who are prone to calling it "The War of Northern Aggression". My own students are raised to think that slavery had little to do with the Civil War. I'm not a historian, and I don't deal in 19th century American Lit, so it doesn't affect me much. But my American History colleagues deal with it all the time.

      I think the thing with the south is that it won't ever be "home" for me. I have friends I love and a church I love and a job I love--but if I never saw this town or this state ever again, I would not give a shit. I am a Yankee, and the south wears on me.

      There are many reasons for this, the main one being that I am not a southerner. The legacy of the Civil War is that southerners have a mindset and identity that is not particularly porous. I live in the most provincial state in the most provincial part of the country. People here worship their history, both family and state and confederate, in a way that I cannot remotely understand or sympathize with, and I will never ever have access to the "elite" (and I'm not necessarily talking monetary elite) community of "insiders" here, who are solely made up of southerners. The fact that I do not wish to be a member of the elite is irrelevant. I cannot be "one of them". My daughter, though she was born here, cannot be one of them.

      No, southerners are not "worse" people. But on the whole they are Republicans, who oppose gay marriage. Not forty years ago. Right now. Go to Boston or New York--right now--and gay marriage is legal in both states. It is legal in NO southern state. In fact, every single southern state has taken it upon themselves to ban gay marriage in their own constitutions.

      The OP has every right to feel worried.

  10. I'm definitely commenting from limited experience: I'm straight, and grew up in an area that is technically in the south, but so mobile as to not be really anywhere, in terms of true regional character. Nevertheless, I've had the chance to observe some traditional southerners, including some from further south, both GLBT and straight, mostly in a church setting (which, incidentally, isn't a bad place for observing southern GLBT/straight interactions, or finding GLBT people. If you're looking for community, you could do worse than join a church, or at least a choir/chorus). From that experience, I'd say that you may need to be as careful finding your way inside any indigenous GLBT community as outside; the "don't ask; don't tell" tradition can, indeed, be strong, and may be as carefully policed by GLBT people (especially older ones) as by their straight neighbors, friends, and relatives.

    On the other hand, things are changing very rapidly, and you're going to be interacting in large part with young people (but on the third hand, the conversation around GLBT people and their rights is becoming increasingly polarized, and you're going to be working with young people at a time when the Boy Scouts are thinking of compromising by allowing gay scouts but not gay leaders; I'd be especially careful about maintaining appropriate boundaries with students, even/especially if they're the only "out" gay people you encounter. For that reason, I wouldn't lead or create an LGBT organization right away, at least not unless you're approached by a group of students who are willing to do most of the work, and want a faculty adviser, and even then, assuming you want to earn tenure more than you want to be an activist, I'd take advice from a senior faculty member or three. Down the line, perhaps post-tenure, that -- or perhaps a faculty/staff organization or LGBT studies program -- might well be a worthwhile project). I'd definitely tread carefully at first, being most open in your own department, and with other younger, newer faculty members (especially those who are, like you, geographic semi-expats). Seeking housing that is near either or both of those groups would probably make sense (and seeking rental housing rather than purchasing property always makes sense in a situation where you need to orient yourself before making any longterm decisions). If facebook and/or twitter are part of your professional persona/communication devices, now might be the time to create separate personal and professional accounts, and to up the privacy controls on the personal ones, so you have a place to process your experiences with only those you trust.

    All that said, it would be a shame to completely isolate yourself from your surroundings. Do you have interests you might pursue off-campus, that could bring you into contact with compatible people (gay and/or straight) who have nothing to do with the college? That might be not only the best way to maintain your sanity, but also to get a true sense of the culture, and what's possible (and, once you're accepted as a member of the community in other ways, a lot might be possible).

    Finally, in case you aren't already aware of this book, here's some background reading: Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South. I've heard the author speak/perform some of the narratives, and they're both entertaining and illuminating. It sounds like you're probably white, but I suspect you still might pick up some useful information.

    1. And, of course, follow the usual advice for new faculty members anywhere: listen more than you speak, keep your head down until you understand the culture and the politics, both micro- and macro-, don't become so overwhelmed by your teaching that you don't make progress on your research, because that's your ticket elsewhere, should you need it (and, in many places, your ticket to tenure, should you want or need to stay).

    2. And yet CC, I'm sure you realize how depressing it is that you have to give this advice. I grew up in a tradition where "outspoken contrarian" is part of the definition of "intellectual". So personally, I would not worry about an assistant professor who expresses unpopular (or minority) views openly, and would be less interested in someone who never expresses an opinion.

      But that's just me, who am congenitally STFU-challenged, and have a long history of "speaking out of turn", including as graduate student, postdoc and assistant prof. Luckily for me, the dept. head at the time was aware of this condition and didn't mind, so I got tenure. But others in the department have not forgotten, so yes, it comes a high long-term cost.

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