Bringing in the Political Self: Teaching in the Era of Trump

Katie L. Acosta, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia State University where she teaches courses on race & ethnicity, sexuality, gender and the family. In this post, Dr. Acosta reflects on teaching and academic freedom under the Trump Administration. 

I recently attended a meeting designed to explain the boundaries of academic freedom to faculty members and to brainstorm best practices for creating a non-hostile classroom environment that presents students with a balanced picture of contemporary political happenings. “Try not to make statements that directly disparage a political candidate,” we were instructed. “Consider focusing on policy issues rather than personal characteristics. Consider avoiding clothing or paraphernalia in the classroom that directly support a particular political candidate. You don’t want to wear anything that might appear antagonistic to students who may not share your point of view…”

This is where we are in higher education under a Trump administration.  I’m supposed to teach my students about their social world, about Racism, Gender, Sexuality and the Family – while remaining neutral on the hostile and deeply-offensive statements that our president has made during his campaign and since he was elected.  But herein lies the problem, my political ideologies are shaped by my sociological lens and my sociological lens is shaped by my personal experience. These three things do not, nor have they ever, existed in separate spheres for me. Arguably this is what makes me a good professor, or at least it is what fuels my passion for what I do.

Sitting in this meeting hearing the suggestions being made brought me back a few years to the morning after Trayvon Martin was killed. That morning, I was scheduled to be in my Introduction to Sociology undergraduate classroom teaching about racial bias. I remember my heart racing as I scoured through social media learning the details of this awful tragedy. I desperately wanted to cry, but instead I pulled myself together and walked downstairs to teach. I had decided I would avoid the topic entirely. I was certainly not in any position to have a “balanced” conversation about it with my students. Avoiding the topic was the only way that I knew how to keep myself from feeling my pain.  Inevitably, however, ten minutes into the lecture a student raised their hand and wanted to discuss the events. Most of the class still did not know who Trayvon Martin was. And as this student explained the events that transpired, I remember looking at their mostly blank, white faces, first with perplexity and then with anger.

I began to feel myself shaking behind the podium. How could so many students have such blank stares hearing about this boy’s death? My rage regarding this incident is deeply personal. As a mother of a black teenage boy, I imagined my son walking at night with a bag of skittles. But, my rage was also fueled by my sociological understanding of this incident as part of a larger systemic problem in our society – of this country’s fear of Black men and boys and of this country’s failure, time and again, to give them the benefit of the doubt during these encounters.

Channeling my sociological lens and harnessing my personally-driven passion helps me bring intellectual material to life for my students. It allows me to make their learning about more than just words on a page, key terms, or lecture notes. It allows me to make their learning about something real, tangible, and consequential. How do we get our students to understand the consequences of political happenings without letting them see why we are invested in these issues? I would never want a student to feel alienated in my classroom, but I have no interest in perpetuating an idea of myself as a disembodied worker whose personal life and work life don’t intersect. I can’t think of a single Sociologist that I respect who maintains these artificially separated worlds.

Keeping our political selves out of the classroom also presumes that our bodies do not advertise this self.  I am an Afro-Latina queer cis woman. Don’t these identities speak for me even if I don’t? How many of my students believe they know my political leanings before I ever open my mouth? And if my students do make assumptions about my politics, then why not make my political ideologies clear in the interest of transparency?

I spent the first few weeks of this semester stumblingly awkwardly over how to teach my courses without being too political. But I don’t believe it’s done me or my students a bit of good. Instead, it’s flattened my delivery and robbed me of the passion that used to come with every lecture I delivered. So now, I’m going to take a different approach. Our democratic system as it currently stands is the most illustrative example I could possibly come up with for the prevalence of racism in the United States.

Rather than ignoring political happenings, I can draw connections between sociological theories about racism and our contemporary reality. Only in a country that refuses to take an honest and direct look at the deep-seated racism that plagues it, can we have fertile ground for the Trump phenomenon to flourish. And only in a democracy that is largely run by white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege do we see such willingness to overlook the racist, Islamaphobic, sexist, homophobic, biphobic, and transphobic actions and policies of Trump’s cabinet picks.

While this is something that I do not have control over, I do have the opportunity to ensure that the next generation doesn’t so thoroughly miss the boat when it comes to understanding the covert and overt ways that racism exists and persists in our country.  I will continue to encourage my students to engage in respectful dialogue with me and one another on the many issues we currently face not with a forced or feigned sense of neutrality but with the promise of respect, integrity and in the spirit of understanding.  For creating this environment in my classroom, I apologize to no one.

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On the Dubiously Accessible Caste System of Conspicuous Fitness

In this post, Xan reflects on relationships between consumption and fitness while placing these cultural patterns within the context and perspective of people managing chronic conditions.

Recently the New York Times published an article about outcomes from wearable fitness devices. The takeaway from this article was that “Fitbits and Apple Watches and the like may have their uses, but they don’t appear to be effective in weight loss.” No surprises there. I’ve always looked at these devices as part of a culture of “conspicuous fitness”, in which folks manage their image more than their health.

I do like that these devices often encourage people to view activity as a continuous spectrum rather than a dichotomy of active vs. inactive pursuits. But most folks who wanted a life with physical activity integrated into the process of doing other things, like getting to work or shopping for groceries, were probably already doing that stuff. Plus, expensive devices really don’t target demographics of folks whose activity may be more limited by environmental factors like street safety and air quality.

The whole “conspicuous fitness” thing also seems alien to me because of the aggressive norming of how we perceive people as “fit” or not. I’m never going to be running marathons–which the literature suggests is probably not that great for you anyway, but I digress–or climbing mountains. But I have good strength and work to maintain it. I like to walk, either alone with some music or sharing time with my spouse. I like to dance at concerts and at goth clubs when I go.

And then there are the can’ts. I can’t run or ride a bike for long distances because the cystic fibrosis (CF) has attacked my joints, so anything causing impact or intense repetitive stress is decidedly off the table. I can’t swim in pools because I get pseudomonas infections easily and the chlorine plays havoc with my skin. I can’t go hiking in places where there’s no restroom access–peeing in the woods is well and good, but other things not so much. I can’t go waterskiing or do other stuff where I can’t use a bathroom at a moment’s notice.

I don’t mesh with the picture of “fitness” in many people’s minds, yet the work I do to keep my body strong–and how I integrate it into the bigger picture of my life–makes a big difference in my ability to live well with such a pervasive disease. People often think I’m frail. I wrote a publication about it. People don’t think I can kick some ass if I need to. My first paying job was teaching karate classes for junior students. People chronically underestimate me. They try to keep me from carrying my own groceries, from moving heavy things. The element of surprise never seems to lose its power.

I define “fitness” as part and parcel of my own continuous process of illness management, in which I adjust daily to nuances in the challenges of living with CF and its consequences. My disease and how it limits me seem as normal to me as the ways in which CF does *not* limit me. Walking down the street, legs in rapid swing, feels about as normal as it gets. But this activity gets read differently if I wear the sheath dresses and blazers I favor for work, or my weekend jeans and band T-shirts, versus spandex leggings and trainers.

I’m never that person cruising the produce aisle with workout gear and an mp3 player strapped to my arm. I have no interest in being that person. Trying to convince the world that my body conforms to preconceived notions of “fitness” would be an utter lie. I may be relatively strong, but I’m not *vital*. Article after article flying through my social media feed chirps that “fit” people don’t feel tired all the time. What goes unsaid is that many of these journalists never bother talking to people living with chronic diseases that impact our mobility, our activity choices, our energy.

Which is a shame, because you’ve got to be pretty damn fit in a number of ways to function at a high level with diseases that constantly attack your body from the inside out. Doubly so if you want to keep your independence, something many of us cling to like a life preserver, as if it is the only thing holding our mortality in check. Sometimes carrying our own groceries or wrangling heavy equipment feels like all we have. So all of this got me thinking about perceptions and reality, and about the nature of heaviness when you carry a ponderous burden everywhere you go. And that is a topic for a separate post.

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Mixed Feelings about the Women’s March on Washington: Coming of Age in White Spaces as a Dark-Skinned Black Woman

This week’s post is a reflection on the marches that occurred over the weekend from a Doctoral Candidate in a social scientific PhD program in the United States. 

As I watch fellow women march in their respective cities, I am swept up in a mix of emotions: pride, encouragement, but most surprisingly to me: envy. I covet what these women have: identification as a woman; but mostly confirmation as a woman. As I reflect more, I think the show of solidarity by women across the globe highlights the loneliness I have experienced in my search for womanhood.

My formative experiences were shaped by my white peers. My adolescence was predominantly white, made up of predominantly white schools, and in predominantly white classrooms. My friends were white. My classmates were white. And thus, I came of age in an environment that valued whiteness over everything else. Including my experiences as a black woman.

Due to constant reminders from my family and friends, I knew I was black (And I knew I was a woman due to the way I conceptualized myself). I still know these things.  But, my womanhood has always been secondary to my blackness.  Whenever I was treated unequally, I chalked it up to racism. When there was no one who was interested in dating me, I chalked it up to racism. I’ve always been treated as black. But, I’ve never been treated as a black woman.

How this relates to my feelings about various Women’s Marches is still something I’m trying to work out. But, my initial thoughts are this: In every formative interaction, my blackness has superseded every womanly quality I have.

Now, at 29 – as I am finally coming into what I view as womanhood – I am still trying to reconcile what about womanhood makes me feel so disconnected from my peers. Those who I am supposed to feel a kinship with. I believe that answer can be found in the fact that as a black woman coming of age in white spaces, I experienced constant de-gendering. I must now struggle to find – and interpret – my womanhood, and what it means for myself. Thus – couched in a time when womanhood seems to be fiercely embraced, rallied around, and protested for – I find myself lost.

I often wonder if there are other people like me. People who are still searching for their womanhood amidst their ethnicity. Those who feel disconnected from other women who have found it – or who have never had to search for it in the first place.

I feel it must be difficult. And lonely.

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Activism As Expertise

 Eric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer non-binary feminist intellectual activist. They are an assistant professor of sociology at University of Richmond, and editor of Conditionally Accepted – an Inside Higher Ed career advice column for marginalized scholars.  In this post, they call for understanding activism as an important form of academic and intellectual expertise.    

 

“I came to academe by way of activism,” I announced as part of an “elevator speech” exercise to introduce myself in one of my graduate courses back in 2010.

This story is hardly novel, especially among scholars of marginalized backgrounds.  With its reputation for enlightenment and social justice, academic careers call the names of many folks who want to make a difference in their communities.  Our shared story also reflects an apparent shared naiveté about the academy.

“Oh, we didn’t beat the activist out of you yet?” the professor interrupted. Her tone suggested humor, but the content of her interruption signaled the true purpose of graduate education: to make an apolitical, detached, and “objective” scholar out of me, to de-radicalize me, to make me an expert on my communities but no longer a member of them.

No, I was not reading too much into her supposed joke.  Other professors in the program were equally explicit in telling me that activism had no place in academe.  I will give two brief examples.

Example 1: Late in graduate school, I excitedly shared the possibility of a joint conference session between the sexualities and social psychology sections of the American Sociological Association with a trusted professor.  The latter has been crucial in the study of identity, which I felt would be useful for the study of sexual identity in the former.  But, given the marginal status of sexualities research in sociology, and the dominance of white cis heterosexuals in social psychology, there was not much social psychological work on sexuality within social psychology.  Quite passive aggressively, the trusted professor responded, “ok ‘Mr. Activist’.”  I was confused what was so radical, so “activist,” about proposing a conference session on an empirical matter.  And, I was hurt that even my toned down approach to activism was still too much.  So, I dropped it.

Example 2: It seemed that no matter how hard I tried to succeed by the mainstream standards of my department and discipline, I would never fit in.  So, the growing cognitive dissonance between my goals, values, and experiences and the department expectations pushed me to become more critical of my graduate department and sociology in general.  I became more outspoken in my blogging, often writing posts about racism and activism in academia.  For example, I wrote a piece about “Blogging For (A) Change,” singing the praises of blogging as a platform for intellectual activism.  A professor in my department who maintains a popular blog devoted a blog post just to me entitled, “Why Activism And Academia Don’t Mix.”

My graduate department paid a fair amount of lip service to public sociology — any kind of work to make one’s scholarship accessible, typically speaking as an expert to lay audiences.  Basically, public sociology is an unpaid and undervalued extension of our teaching, which we do out of the kindness of our hearts. Public sociology is for liberal white people whose survival does not depend on their “service.”

Activism, however, was a dirty word.  Anything too radical (and, wow, the bar for “radical” is set low) was deemed activist, and thus inferior.  Activism is conceived of as a threat to one’s scholarship.  Supposedly, it undermines one’s ability to remain “objective.”  As such, those who are openly activist may lose credibility as researchers.  I have heard stories of scholar-activists being denied tenure or promotion, or some with tenure who have been fired.  Of course, we know that activism cannot be a substitute for scholarship, but it has the unintended consequence of leading to the devaluation of your scholarship, as well.

Now that I have gotten that critique off of my chest, I can now make a new point: activism is expertise, or at least has the potential to become a form of scholarly expertise.  Here, I dare to argue not only is activism not a contradiction to academic pursuits, but it can actually enhance one’s scholarly perspective.  And, academia loses out by creating and policing artificial boundaries between activism and scholarship.  What is particularly lost is the creativity and insights of marginalized scholars who are turned off by or actively pushed out of the academy, who are burdened by the pressure to conform, and who are disproportionately affected by the low bar for defining what is activist and what is not (think “me-search,” for example.)

I will use myself as an example.  My peer-reviewed research generally focuses on the impact of discrimination on the health and world-views of marginalized groups.  In one line of work, I examine the mental, physical, sexual health consequences of discrimination — particularly for multiply disadvantaged individuals who are at great risk for facing more than one form of discrimination (e.g., women of color who face racist and sexist discrimination).  In the other line of work, I assess how such experiences produce a unique consciousness — at least as reflected in social and political attitudes that are distinct from those of the dominant group.  The intersections among sexuality, gender, and race (and, to a lesser extent social class and weight) are a prominent focal point in my empirical work.

As an intellectual activist, I have gradually moved further into academic justice work.  That includes the creation and steady growth of Conditionally Accepted, from a blog to a weekly career advice column for marginalized scholars.  That also includes more recent work on protecting and defending fellow intellectual activists from professional harm and public backlash.

For example, in February, I organized and participated on a panel about this very topic at the Sociologists for Women in Society winter meeting.  Since the intended focus was primarily about women of color intellectual activists (as Black women scholar-activists have been targeted the most in recent years), I planned to invite women of color panelists, and had no intention of being on the panel myself.  But, I struggled to find more than the one who agreed to participate, Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield.  Dr. Rashawn Ray and I joined the panel, as well, to offer other perspectives.  In the process of preparing for the panel, I contacted the American Association for University Professors (AAUP) for concrete advice on protecting intellectual activists, and compiled a list of advice from other intellectual activists.  What initially was a well-crafted blog post, backed by a lot of homework, became a panel, and the proposal for a similar panel at next year’s American Sociological Association annual meeting.  My blog post, “Supporting Scholars Who Come Under Attack,” is now a chapter in ASA’s social media toolkit.

As my blogging and intellectual activism has become more visible, I have been invited to give more and more talks and to participate on panels about academic blogging, public sociology, intellectual activism, and academic (in)justice.  Though I am making the case for activism as expertise at this stage in my career, I initially felt a sense of impostor syndrome.  I am not an education scholar, so I felt I had no business giving talks about matters related to higher education.

What has helped me to recover from the traumatizing experience of grad school, and to reclaim my voice as a scholar-activist, is to find role models and surround myself with like-minded people.  On the most memorable panel I have done yet, I had the incredible pleasure of finally meeting Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, Dr. Brittney Cooper, and Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy.  Dr. Lewis-McCoy, as a fellow panelist, casually introduced his research on racial inequality and education and his activism on racism and the criminal justice system.  These dual forms of expertise are best reflected in his book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling, and his blog, Uptown Notes.

The expertise of activism comes from experience, from doing one’s homework about the issues, and from raising one’s consciousness about the social problem at hand and developing skills to solve the problem.  That expertise comes from engaging with people from outside of one’s field, or even outside of the academy, and thus being exposed to new ways of thinking.

Activism and academe do mix.  They are complementary ways of thinking, being, and making a difference in the world.  One is not superior to the other.  In fact, given the history of exclusion and discrimination, many of us have the work of activists to thank for even making our academic career possible.  And, with the rise of the adjunctification of the academy and the exploitation of contingent faculty, the fate of academe relies on labor activists working to reverse these trends.

I’m not saying we should all run out to the nearest Black Lives Matter protest.  (No, actually, I will say that.)  But, I am at least demanding that we acknowledge the intellectual potential of activism.

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Creating Queer Kinship in “Straight” Spaces

In this post, Xan Nowakowski explores the importance of Queering Heterosexuality and “straight” as a heteroqueer (i.e., someone who identifies as primarily heterosexual and also Queer in other respects related to sexualities (i.e., kink, poly, mixed orientation relationships, etc.) and / or gender (i.e., trans, non-binary, genderqueer, agender, etc.) person existing between static notions of cisgender-monosexual-heterosexuality on the one hand and Queerness on the other.  Specifically, as an agender person primarily attracted to different sexes, they discuss using access to “straight” spaces to Queer such spaces and advocate for Queer Kinship and Justice in daily life.  

When I was in high school, my best friends and I were members of one of many “gay-straight alliance” groups formed throughout the US in the 1990s.  I always found the group’s name sort of odd, because it reduced sexuality to a binary and suggested that people of different sexualities supporting each other was a matter of formal “alliance” rather than basic human decency.  These days, I certainly feel glad to live in a society that is increasingly using inclusive language to craft and narrate queer spaces.  But I also realize the wisdom—if inadvertent at the time—in a name that illustrates the possibility of complex interplay between queer and straight identities.

Referring to myself as “straight” was also something I avoided before I could really give voice to why it made me so uncomfortable.  I was one of those kids who discovered at a pretty early age that they were interested in people with genitals different from their own.  But even though I never felt attracted to people with similar anatomy to my own, I never ruled out the possibility of that happening in the future either, nor did I feel any anxiety about that possibility.  I was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents made clear that I would be loved equitably whether I were interested in males, females, intersex people, or all or none of the above.  Over time, the painful realization set in that many of my peers did not have that freedom.

I feel some of this pain now as I reflect on high school—a time I very much enjoyed that made me feel free to be myself both in the classroom and outside of it.  I did not realize at the time just how privileged I was.  I also had the wonderful privilege of a close friendship with an out gay male, and although I cringed at how he had been non-consensually outed by someone who was angry at him the previous year, I celebrated his self-assurance in enjoying an openly out life, as well as the degree to which the school community seemed to embrace him as a gay man.  It was only later, as my partners in more mature relationships gained a higher level of knowledge of their own sexuality and its social consequences, that I began to wonder if many of my peers had just ignored my friend, accepting him while at the same time erasing the core of who he was.

For reasons I have never really tried to unpack, I have generally felt most comfortable and happy in relationships with males who experience at least some degree of attraction to other male-looking people, even though I myself have never experienced attraction to a female-looking person.  And in terms of gender presentation, my partners have run the gamut from very rugged-looking to very delicate-looking, but all have embraced at least some degree of fluidity in relation to established gender norms.  Yet many did not understand what it meant to me to be agender, something I have known about myself with stunning clarity since long before I knew the technical term for it.  This growing sense of alienation made me reflect anew on my experiences in high school, and how differently I probably experienced the social environment surrounding my friend’s openness about his sexuality than he did.

I came to the uncomfortable and inexorable conclusion that although my high school was queer-friendly in many ways, it was fundamentally a straight space.  I would see this time and again in stories other friends told me about their own coming out—friends who had been so deeply closeted that not so much as a single rumor circulated about their sexuality when we were all in high school together.  These stories drove home just how much we were *not* “all in it together”, because togetherness and feelings of such were a privileged space for students whose sexuality did not deviate from those deeply entrenched norms.  Nobody questioned me for saying I did not feel threatened by the idea of one day being attracted to another female, because I was frequently seen in the company of males and it was well known that I had a history with several male students.  I rejected the term “straight” pretty vocally, but was that really enough?  Despite my openness about my gender identity, I also never considered the idea that I might myself be queer—that queer was more than just a double-edged term for “gay”.

In fact, the idea that I might be queer—and indeed, the very meaning of that term—did not register until I met my partner, the person I married just a few months ago.  In zer wedding vows, ze spoke softly about how I always *saw* who ze really was, in a world that often ignores zer entirely.  I could see my partner quite clearly—a bisexual, genderfluid person to whom I felt a pull like no other.  I celebrated zer sexuality and gender identity and thought about how nice it was to be with someone who really *got* it about my experience as an agender person, even though ze was not agender zerself.  But at the same time, I worried about not being “queer enough” to provide the kind of safe spaces that would truly nurture my partner.  This was a source of constant anxiety for me and frustration for my partner until one day, ze looked me in the eye and said, “Xan, this is what I’ve been trying to tell you all along.  You’re queer too.  You just don’t see it because you’ve always been embraced in straight spaces as well as queer ones.”

That got my attention.  I was still living with DID at the time, and looking back I wonder if this discussion might have been one of the events that led to my reintegration a few months later.  I learned that I was something called “heteroqueer”—a person who is attracted only to members of other sex groups, but feels comfortable with the possibility they might one day feel attracted to members of their own sex group.  Many heteroqueer people also queer gender and sexuality norms in other ways.  For example, I have experienced attraction to transmasculine people after they have achieved their physical transition goals.  I also queer gender every moment of every day by reminding people that there is no empirical relationship between what my body looks like, how I dress, how I behave, and whom I choose to invite into the most intimate spaces of my world.

Yet this was the first time I had ever come close to an integrated concept of what it meant to be both a “heterosexual” person and an agender person, or to prioritize spending my time in and enriching spaces for openly queer people, or to feel more fulfilled in relationships with bisexual partners, or any of those other things my high school activism had not remotely prepared me to address.  I just knew that I was “doing me”, whatever that meant, and that I felt a constant sense of anger and frustration that was starting to boil over.  Every time someone would use “straight” language or norms to describe my relationship with my partner, I would cringe and then start to go on the offensive.  And when people asked me stupid questions about my relationship with J, I fought to hold on to my composure.

My favorite of these ridiculous questions was “So J is bi…does that mean you’re bi now too?”  Yes, and being with a person who has a penis means that I have also magically grown a penis.  No, I am not bi.  As far as I know—and I have a fair amount of data to back up my suspicions at this point—I will never be bi.  And that is incredibly important, because the very fact that I exist—and that in so doing I make people acknowledge the heretofore unexamined reality that people like my partner exist—is still, even in today’s world, an affront to heteronormative thinking about relationships.  I have learned, with progressively greater degrees of discomfort and anger, that “straight” people are not supposed to want to date bisexual people, let alone marry them.  We are supposed to feel threatened and overwhelmed by their rampant, teeming, uncontrollable sexuality.  We are supposed to expect them to fuck anything that moves.  We are supposed to expect them never to feel fully satisfied by us.

Of course, those of us who *do* have bisexual partners know none of that has anything to do with bisexuality.  Nymphomania, hypersexuality, infidelity, ennui…these things all exist as well, and are worthy of attention.  But what emerges from daring to love a bisexual person in a straight world is a deep and nuanced knowledge of what “queer kinship” really means—and the responsibility I have in creating it.  I probably did some of these things unconsciously back in high school by affirming my friend and never erasing parts of his experience that broader norms and narratives could not seem to find spaces for—an example being the little-known attractions he had also experienced toward females, but generally those who exhibited aggressive and traditionally masculine behavior.  I saw my friend back then the same way I see my partner now, but I could not give voice to that sight even with him, let alone with anyone else.

Those of us who identify as heteroqueer have a unique opportunity to create queer kinship in places where it is not usually found—and indeed, where such kinship can make a profound impact.  We have a privilege reserved for few in our society, one that simultaneously grants us affirmation in both straight and queer spaces.  We speak both languages, as it were, but often spend so long battling norms that suggest we need to “pick a side” that we become exhausted and tapped out.  It is only since building a life with my partner that I have realized how much more freedom I have now, as an openly heteroqueer person whose partner and other loved ones see me and embrace me exactly as I am.  I feel like a complete person for the first time in my life, and it makes me ache for all those who cannot experience that fulfillment because there are no safe spaces in which to do so outside of intentional ones that only other queer people can access.

For those of us who constantly straddle the boundaries between queer and straight spaces, queer kinship is a precious responsibility that too often goes unmet.  We need to be more than allies who demur with phrases like “I’m not *really* queer”.  We are absolutely queer, and we absolutely need to be here.  But we also need to be *there*.  We need to keep spending time in the straight spaces where we are privileged to be welcome, and we need to keep breaking down the walls that keep our fellow queer people out—or as is more often the case, electrocute them if they attempt to enter.  In having the ear of both queer and straight communities simultaneously, we can challenge destructive norms about sexuality and gender and still escape to fight another day.  The scars we receive in these battles are worth every knotted inch of flesh, every jagged piece of skin.  We drink deeply from the nourishing well of queer kinship every day while also enjoying the continued embrace of our straight peers.  We must now build those wells for others in places where they can be accessed safely, without navigating pit traps or minefields.

Heteroqueer identity is an important cornerstone of queer kinship because it dismantles the idea that queer kinship cannot exist and thrive within straight spaces.  Embracing this identity, and taking the time to educate others about how queerness and straightness can intersect without destroying one another, offers more than just a means of liberating ourselves.  Rather, this work is profoundly essential for the overall goal of queer liberation.  Cultivating and nurturing queer kinship in straight spaces is worth doing at every opportunity, and at any cost.  When we do so together, we build a world in which everyone can truly “do them” instead of parroting this empty mantra to avoid working for real change.  Queer kinship is the path to a world in which closets exist only to hold clothing—a world in which every space is a safe one.

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Why and how I started writing social science based novels

In this post, J Sumerau reflects on the processes and experiences that led zir to begin writing sociological based novels alongside their academic research and blogging endeavors (more information about the novel will be posted as it nears release).

The other day I posted about a dream come true on my Facebook page.  As far back as I can remember, I always dreamed of writing and publishing a novel, and earlier this week I signed the contract for my first novel to be published as part of the Social Fictions Series edited by Dr. Patricia Leavy.  Built upon the combination of my own experiences as a bisexual, genderqueer person and my research into the intersection of sexualities, gender, religion, and health in the historical and interpersonal lives of sexual, gender, and religious minorities, the novel is a bisexual and transgender coming of age story set in the southeastern United States in the 1990’s.  Since my hope is that the work will aid ongoing efforts to educate people about bi and trans experiences and we often use this blog as a way to reflect on academic, teaching, and activist experiences with writing, publishing, and teaching about personal and emotional elements of scholarship, I thought I would use this post to reflect on the experiences that led to the creation of the novel from ongoing academic and creative efforts to write where it hurts.

Like much of my work, the novel began accidentally in an inductive fashion.  I was driving through Georgia on my way back home one day when I found myself playing the same song over and over again on repeat in my car.  Every time the song played, I basically screamed – rather than singing – along to the words and felt a bit overwhelmed in the process.  These actions surprised me both because I had listened to the song many times – it was already one of my favorites – and I didn’t understand why I was having such an emotional reaction to the song at the time.  Seeking to figure it out, I stopped at a truck stop in a rural area, and spent about an hour pacing the mostly empty parking lot thinking about the song, what I was feeling, and my life in general.

When I was younger, I used to write letters to my past and future selves in some of the journals I kept as an exercise in self reflection.  Something about imagining a future and comparing the current me at a given time to the past versions of me that once existed was comforting, and often helped me process emotions, challenges, and writing ideas in productive ways.  As I paced the parking lot, I realized two things.  First, I had not written one of those letters to myself in a long time.  Second, the song I kept playing on repeat and screaming along to felt like one of those letters.  Somehow, when I sung / screamed along to the song I felt like I was singing to an earlier version of myself, and in so doing, I felt very emotional and kept thinking about the things that change and the things that stay the same over time.  I got back in the car, turned the song back on again, and restarted my drive home.

As I drove that day, I kept returning to the ways things change and the ways they stay the same over time.  It seemed like a powerful theme in my own life at the time, and I had been feeling caught between these two poles all year at that point.  On the one hand, I had somehow established a life partnership, close friendships, and a professional career that all were far more positive, satisfying, and fulfilling than I’d ever allowed myself to expect to obtain.  I felt more excited about my own life than I ever had, and I actually looked forward to (still do) time with my life partner, a close network of supportive friends and colleagues, my research and other writing, and my students.  I didn’t know what to make of this because I kept waiting on something to go wrong like it always had in the past.  These aspects of my life were so different from previous experience that I was constantly trying to make sense of my newfound luck.

On the other hand, however, many other things remained the same.  I still heard at least a handful of students every semester repeat the same questions I asked about a decade ago in college (for example, “why don’t scientists seem to know about, write about, or ever mention bi and trans people” or “how can I take these surveys seriously if they only include cis and mono people”).  I still got randomly accosted in bathrooms – the latest time being earlier in the drive through Georgia – because my embodiment in a given moment terrified some cis person.  I had just had my latest dust up with a colleague who was unfamiliar with bi and trans (and to an extent lesbian and gay) histories, terminology, experience, etc because cis, mono and hetero people are not required to learn about us in this world they control.  I had just met with another college student – this one from the area where I was raised who found me through my online blogging – who felt isolated and terrified living in a small southern town.  I still spent everyday in scientific and broader public settings where cis and mono normativities operate as dominant religions most Americans seek to enforce on everyone else, and met people – even many scientists and other well educated folks – who were unfamiliar with and / or actively denied the existence of bi, trans, poly, and some other types of people in our world.  These aspects of my life were so similar to decades past that I wondered if they would ever change.

With these things in mind, I finished my trip back home without ever changing the song playing from the speakers.  I’ve often come up with some of my best ideas – as a writer, a teacher, an activist, a researcher and a person – as a result of this or that song leading me to consider certain feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Aware of this pattern, I began randomly listening to the song and journaling about whatever thoughts and feelings arose over the next few weeks.  At the same time, I began digging through currently in use and old data sets I have of interviews, field notes and historical documents as well as old journal entries, memories, informal interviews I do with people for fun and to learn more about things for my own interests, and notes I kept about research and creative projects that never came to fruition.  In so doing, I found myself looking over notes I had for two novels I tried and failed to write while I was in college.  Back then, I never planned on being a college professor, a researcher, or a teacher, but rather, I had no clue what I would do for a living while dreaming of someday writing and publishing a novel (a dream I carried with me from my earliest memories).  Not for the first time, I realized that my mind was again leading me back to this original dream, and spent some time thinking about how the current version of me might tell the stories I began years ago.

I also spent some time with my life partner talking about all these issues over the next couple weeks.  My life partner pointed out that (a) I’d already accomplished the writing goal I set for myself after graduate school (i.e., I wanted 30 academic publications by the time I retired and I was past that arbitrary number now) in my four years post PhD, and (b) the security I managed to acquire with them and other aspects of my life gave me more flexibility about what I did with my time.  With these things in mind, they suggested maybe it was time to chase the original dream, and that even if I – as I hypothesized I would – failed it wouldn’t matter because I already had a career I loved and did well at so this could just be a hobby on the side.  Finally, my life partner asked me what novels about bi, trans, and poly experience might have meant to me as a kid, and what it might be like to have that resource for kids now, for colleagues still trying to make sense of these aspects of society, and for use in classrooms.  We kept talking about these things for a few weeks, and I kept going over all my notes, data sources, collections of published research, and story ideas.  In the end, I decided to give it a try almost entirely because they believed I could do it, and they convinced me that such stories might be at least half as useful to others now as they would have been for younger versions of me.

Fairly certain it would become yet another unfinished attempt (sometimes its nice to be wrong I guess), I began digging through all the research, narratives, interviews, and other materials I had as well as many of my own experiences over the years the same way I do with my non-fiction, research and advocacy writing projects.  As if I was outlining another analysis for a journal article, I looked for common experiences, feelings, and events throughout the sources to develop a cohesive plot for the novel.  Once I had this outline in hand, I began writing a bisexual and transgender coming of age story that – to my surprise – will be published as my first sociological novel as part of the Social Fictions Series in the near future.  I will post more in the coming times as the release nears, and in the end, my hope is that the novel may be useful both for bi and trans people looking for examples of the complexity and multiple forms of our lives in the world today, and for educators seeking to make sense of and teach about the rest of the world that exists beyond mono and cis normative assumptions.  While I’m still surprised I actually finished (much less found a way to publish) a novel after all the years of thinking “someday I’ll do that,” I look forward to what may come from incorporating my artistic interests into my existing scientific writing endeavors, and hope the work will be useful in a world where constantly explaining bi and trans existence (much less experience) remains a daily requirement for so many people who don’t fit the binary expectations of the broader society.

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Limits of Doctoral Education – Hunting for Public Aid

Erika G Abad, PhD, received her American Studies PhD at Washington State University in 2012. Since then, she has worked as a customer service associate, a scheduler, Caddy Head Counselor, Field Director for a policy education campaign, Farmers’ Market team member and oral historian–in that order–since completing her degree. She is currently a regular writer for Women in Higher Education and will be starting teaching full-time this fall. 

Writing this as a PhD is hilarious, in the midst of so many narratives regarding PhD poverty. Unlike those, however, I approach the conversation cognizant of my choice, my white collar poverty’s flexibility of time and of the systemic issues at play.

When applying for affordable care act (ACA) mandated insurance last April, a friend walked me through process, as he was employed by a grant specified to educate new participants. I picked my insurance, made the consistent monthly payments. From April 2015 to January 2016, income has changed, creating the possibility to qualify for public aid. This is the amusement of millennial scholars, and the heartbreak of parents and families who hoped a quality education would keep their progeny from the ‘shame,’ and stigma of relying on ‘government handouts.’

Chasing Eligibility

The millennial scholar amusement, that despite being a generation removed from limited education, two generations removed from the ability to read and write, those skills and assets do not secure a better income. And, the varied jobs I have had outside of (higher) education, reinforce the freedom to choose to live this way. It’s a commitment to the dream issue, which I have often questioned, much like I struggled with believing in the democratic necessity of a liberal arts education. The experience both with ACA and most recently, public aid eligibility paperwork, has brought that to light.

I begin writing this reflection in the midst of trying to assess where my paperwork is. It’s January, nearing the deadline, and the last thing I need is to be penalized for something that I can’t control and something that I did. In other words, I have submitted the paperwork, waiting for a response could cost me eligibility and any assistance, so I stop working to primarily address this issue. I stop working to call the series of north side offices where I would presume my file could be. During the first call, I connect with an immigrant woman who, assuming I work for the office, begins to explain her case. In the middle of her narrative, I say, “I don’t work for the office, it seems they connected us.”

“I must have pressed the wrong number,” she says. I smile to myself and say, “it may just be a glitch, try calling again.” Here, my educational-based privilege starts to sink in and I say, ‘shit,’ if they connected two clients together, what’s it like in the office?

That Friday’s phone call was preceded by conversations on Wednesday, and, on Thursdays, finally learning how to log on to get my pay stubs. Working class income, not wages, nor time limitations as a result of being a community-based researcher. The catch-22, the irony of PhD’s trying to find a way to stay relevant and competitive in an incredibly tight market. Changing is not that easy, by the way, because those other jobs where we could easily transfer our skill sets, see the PhD doesn’t have to stay. Cynical, yes, and a reminder education-based privilege has its limits.

So, that Friday, I am reviewing the list of numbers to call. The one on the mailer, the one I was told to call because that office did not, supposedly, have my paper work. So who else has my paper. The woman at the second office said she would call me back. I cannot get an operator on the third number I call. This is a major deadline day, so I try the office. The crowded waiting room confirms what I expect from a public service office at the last minute of paper work. Research grant funding works in funny ways, which means I cannot afford to wait. My collard shirt, unfaded jeans, and comfortable shoes remind me that my frustration will be temporary. Middle class privilege rings again and yet, my paycheck is the reason I still search for an answer.

Why do I choose to write about this? And, while I am writing, I’m scared about it. Scared about airing dirty laundry like most folks in this circuit are, because, what established PhD’s with full-time jobs, are thinking about the next generation scrambling to make ends meet, produce quality work and stay relevant enough to get a full-time job? For those that are, what can they do about it with strained free speech, confused and disgruntled students, and the working class, undocumented youth who deserve a chance to be more than underfunded educational institutions and the state say they can or could be.

So, I talk about it because my white-collar poverty and my intellectual training gives me the tools to complicate the difficulty. Because, as I am praying to be eligible for public aid to have more income at my disposal, to live more than from paycheck to paycheck, I am reminded of the threats to layoffs and the continued cutting of funds from public offices in my city/state. What else is a city with a debt like Chicago’s, what else can a state unwilling to tax specific populations like Illinois do? So, despite how frustrated I am by being connected to another client, not being able to find an operator to answer the phone and crowded waiting rooms, I know I am not the only one stressed. Each office which I have dealt with this week is struggling because none of their jobs are secure. Their stress, their inability to answer last minute questions coupled with my own stress clearly articulate both the need for Affordable Care Act but also the financial and institutional hoops created to assure the best access to health care possible.

The ‘limits’ of education-based privilege

Dividing my time between doing my job as a researcher and looking for long-term positions, explain why I didn’t immediately address the needed documentation to complete my application for public aid. In other words, because my PhD entitlement thought I did everything I needed to do but didn’t, I am working at the last minute to solve a problem I could have addressed had I paid more attention.

And yet, I still have time and flexibility to solve the problem. I did solve the problem and, what’s more, had the question answered by the first office—the one that said they didn’t have my paperwork. I knew to call them back because, when I finally reached the final office, they gave me all the information I needed to speak to the rep assigned my case. The organizational mess this was speaks volumes to the effects of cut funding, strained/stressed employees and the greater work ACA supporters need to do in order to make sure those in more dire positions than I get their needs met.

At this point, it is important to clearly define how, despite how little I knew about the system, my entitlement informed a lack of action, what are the forms of privilege I exercised that allowed me to solve my problem by the end of the business day.

  • rearrange my schedule at a day’s notice—a day off did not affect pay
  • call each office and speak to someone to whom I can readily explain what courses of actions I took and ask what else needs to be done.
  • Fax required information to multiple numbers
  • drive to offices when phone calls don’t address my questions
  • work, if needed—revise a paper, read a book, review ethnography notes— while I wait in line to address office needs (I didn’t have to but it was a plan B I had lined up)
  • be patient with the person on the other end because I was not losing a day of work
  • document all courses of action and speak with a discourse, dress in attire that may inform how others will take me more seriously
  • prepare to argue with the office because of the institutional limitations regarding meeting deadlines because of documented calls, detailed articulation of systemic issues in calling each office and awareness of the letter

The dance of affordability

The affordable care act is not yet affordable not only because of the hoops of today, but, more specifically, because state, city and federal offices in charge of making sure we are all insured vary in institutional and professional stability. Their instability parallels and conflicts with the uncertainty that those of us applying for public aid or any insurance may have. That’s a research question I hope someone is tackling in economics or political science, or even law.

I know this is just a hiccup along the way to a prolific career that can still promise white collar 9-5 middle class, insured stability. I know I have greater possibility to choose that anytime I want, comparable to others in the room and on the phone that Friday. Knowing that, however, does not change the weighted responsibility of the errors this system still needs to address. How does the education of life translate—and, right now, it’s all about talking about this question of access and productivity.

We all need to be healthy to effectively contribute to the market; we need access to health care stabilized and, in the midst of this, we need to work to make sure that happens. The ‘we’s’ here vary because of where the power lies, because of what choice, opportunity and support inform about that power. As a PhD with options and opportunities that have arisen since that January, praying for public aid, that’s what has me scratching my head. How do we work in specific career paths completely codependent on the government for its existence, completely codependent on society’s imposed value on our work?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

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Have you seen me lately? A reflection on Queer Kinship

In this week’s post, the first in our Queer Kinship series, J reflects on the meaning of Queer Kinship in their life.

Earlier this year, a student of mine interested in content analysis and the structure of science sought to do an independent research study. I had recently been asked an interesting question at a conference, and so I selected twenty-five years of publications by five prominent sociology journals and had my student use these journals to try to answer the question. The question was simple – how often does sociology include the study of Bi and Trans people? While there are more details in the work in progress stemming from the analysis, the simple answer to the question was that between the late 1980’s and 2013 sociology, rather than the study of society as a whole, was almost entirely monosexual and cisgender based in these five prominent publication outlets. Even counting articles that only mentioned BT existence, there was only about 1 piece per year on average throughout the time period and within the vast majority of pieces published focused on mostly heterosexual and cisgender populations.

As I’ve written elsewhere, the aforementioned project fits in well with my experiences as a bisexual (on the pansexual end of the spectrum) and transgender (formerly transsexual, currently genderqueer/non-binary/crossdresser identified as I continue considering transition) person in sociology as well as academia more broadly. Even though I have been lucky enough to land a stable position in a department full of (often impressively) supportive, accepting, and accountable colleagues, and to develop a network of fellow BTLG scholars at other places over the years, I generally experience an occupational world wherein people like me don’t exist in the assumptions of the monosexual (mostly on the heterosexual side of this binary) and cisgender people who dominate the field or in their published works. Most surveys, as colleagues and I have noted elsewhere, provide the bulk of generalized information from the field, and yet they rarely have any way to admit the existence – much less capture the experiences – of people like me. As noted by other BT writers, this is part of long term patterns of BT erasure within and beyond academic settings.

At the same time my student was analyzing sociological literature, I was analyzing daily life – my own especially but other BT peoples as well – as part of another project. In so doing, I was cataloguing the multitude of times and ways people like me – wholly or in part – are cisgendered or monosexualized by others in their everyday lives (i.e., assumed to fit binary notions of gender and sexuality predicated upon binary notions of biological sex as a determining force in the composition of human desire and self identification). I catalogued disparities in public when I did or did not wear skirts with a visible beard, the vastly different ways people acted in monosexual minority (i.e., lesbian and gay) spaces when I said ‘I like men’ versus when I said ‘I’m bi’ and when I said ‘I’m into drag’ versus when I said ‘I’m trans,” and the countless ways monosexual and cisgender people misgender and missexualize myself and others based on their own assumptions and stereotypes both when they expressed support for BT others and when they did not. Similar to the analysis of sociological literature and previous observations about academic life, the message was the same – the existence of people like me was at best problematic or confusing for most monosexual and cisgender people I encountered regardless of their personal positions within these binaries.

I could give many more examples like the ones above from my own life, from interviews – formal and personal – with other BT people, and from our-storical records related to BT existence and experience. Instead of seeking to catalogue such a list, I use the aforementioned examples to explain what Queer Kinship means to me.

In its simplest formulation, I see Queer Kinship as the relationships wherein I am allowed and even encouraged to exist and be seen by others. For me, Queer Kinship means places and groups and relationships where people like me are not unexpected or problematic. Queer Kinship, for me, refers to the very few spaces, relationships, and situations wherein people move past monosexist and cissexist assumptions and norms to not only accept or tolerate BT people of varied types, forms and experiences, but actively embrace, expect, and look for us in their daily engagement with the world. Queer Kinship, again for me, refers to the efforts some people make to learn about and support BT people of varied types and experiences before they are forced to by activism, tragedies that actually get some news coverage, or an awkward encounter demonstrating our existence in their world. Queer Kinship refers to the interactions with others where I don’t have to wonder if they see me or if they will cause me harm because they actually see me. In my own experience, and that of many other BT people (as well as many of our lesbian, gay, asexual, and otherwise Queer cousins), such spaces and audiences are incredibly rare, precious, and necessary for well being in a monosexist (as well as heterosexist), cissexist (as well as patriarchal) society.

For me, Queer Kinship and the visibility and break from the rest of society it gives me shows itself in differential reactions to the same stimuli. I think about the store clerk who spots me in the makeup aisle and proceeds to stare at me, follow me, and even ask if I’m in the right place as a result versus my life partner seeing me in the same place on another night and offering to get me some new eyeliner. I think about people looking at the fact that I’m in a committed relationship and asking if I’m heterosexual, monogamous or done with the “gender stuff” now versus my life partner and I talking about men we both find cute over drinks; about the ways we decide as a unit how monogamous, polyamorous or anywhere in between we decide to be at a given time; and about plans and details we would need to work out together if I do transition later in life. I think about people awkwardly shifting between cisgender pronouns and terms depending on how I appear in a given moment versus my best friends and life partner treating me equally well no matter how I’m dressed or appearing in a given moment. Because I’m lucky enough to have a kinship group that I can rely on and be there for every day, I can actually come up with far more examples of such discrepancies than I have room for here. In fact, I was actually saddened when I was working on this piece by how easy it was to make a list of such examples that was far too long for comfort.

In the end, for me, Queer Kinship matters because the people closest to me provide me with most of (and some weeks the only) times when I know I’m seen without it hurting in some way. In my profession, the literature my profession creates, and my daily life, I get by like so many others worried about any time my differences are noticed while also wishing I could be seen in a safe manner by the rest of the world. But in the eyes, arms, and moments spent with my own little Queer family and network, I get to be seen and I get to experience this without the fear of danger that accompanies such visibility in other spaces. That, for me, is the importance of Queer Kinship in the forms that show up in my own life, and the forms that show up in other ways for many other people I have come across over the years.

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Of Children Born: The Journey of an Agender Lesbian Mother

Simone Kolysh is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center. They are also an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College and Lehman College, teaching in Women’s Studies and Sociology. Their work addresses intersections of gender, sexuality and race.  In this post, Simone reflects on being an agender, lesbian mother of three children that parents against dominant narratives of gender and sexuality in their queer household. 

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a young body with smooth lines from the thighs to the small of the back. Mine is a body of valleys, soft and reminiscent of uterine battles and pain. It is a jagged, unshaven landscape full of stretch marks and cowardly veins that collapsed under pregnancy weight. Mine is a body that managed a labor without contractions and the darkness of postpartum depression, as the light of my first child was brought into the world on a hot July day. I rocked this body around the bed unable to loosen it free of panic but kept it close to my child so that no matter what was breaking inside me, I’d keep him whole.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not a dancer’s body with perfect posture and well-shaped legs. Mine is a body that knows what an obsession dance can be but that movement no longer comes first. Though it responds to an inviting embrace of the Argentine Tango, it does so with a reluctant and bothered ankle, broken weeks before the light of my second child was brought into the world on the day I, too, was born just twenty-five years prior. I crumbled under my own pressure, onto a mailbox at the corner of Kings Highway and West 8th street. Cursing, I hopped home thinking that to labor with a broken limb is just what I needed.

My body is a mother’s body. It is not my mother’s body with frail shoulders and cheeks full of Botox. Mine is a body of risks, piercings and tattoo ink. When the light is right and the mirror is bribed, I can see what my lover finds gorgeous. And though I claw at my body because it does not always make sense to me, I remember how bravely it got me through my only labor without pain meds, as the light of my third child was rushed into the world at the Brooklyn Birthing Center. When I now feel my three children collapse onto my breasts that have struggled to breastfeed, I know that my body is a mother’s body and it is well worth the worship.

______ ~ ______

There is nothing like a slurred ‘You’re so sexy, baby’ from some guy on the street to remind me that I am seen as a woman despite holding an agender identity. Even men that aren’t strangers have said that I am ‘so obviously a woman’ because I turn them on. Such experiences of sexism, laced with homophobia and racism when I am with my Black female partner, make it obvious that my struggle around gender takes a backseat to our collective struggle as people of marginalized gender and sexual identities, trying to navigate a world where white, cisgender, and heterosexual men hold a significant amount of power.

Yet white, cisgender and heterosexual men may be the future demographic of my three children, ages eight, six and one. Therein lies the paradox of an agender lesbian mother trying to raise feminist kids in a society that teaches boys to put down women and people that don’t conform to mainstream ideas of gender and sexuality. As a scholar of gender and sexuality, a sociologist and a Women’s Studies professor, I have given my kids a critical eye towards gender, sexual and racial hierarchies. It also happens that my middle child has taken a gender non-conforming path, linking once more our gender journey as mother and child.

Shortly before he was born, I began to struggle with the category of ‘woman’ into which I was born and raised. Once I admitted to myself that I could not finish the sentence, ‘I’m a woman because,’ and explored identities beyond the gender binary, I was able to more fiercely carve out a safe space for my children. Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the first battles took place between me and my biological family that not only rejects and erases my gender and sexual identities but also believes I am causing my children great psychological harm. So before I can think through my gender identity and how it has evolved through my motherhood, I must face how my own mother shaped my ideas of womanhood.

My mother’s main lesson was that one’s power as a woman comes from seducing men and appealing to the heterosexual male gaze, in addition to becoming a mother and a wife. Whether it was because our family is Russian-Armenian or that the prevailing attitude across most cultures is one of patriarchy does not matter now. When I showed interest in taking charge of my pleasure or being with women, she took me to see a psychiatrist. When, at twelve, I came out as bisexual, the closest word I knew at the time to describe being attracted to more than just men, she cried. When I married at twenty, she was glad, hoping it was all a phase.

Rather immediately, I became obsessed with getting pregnant since that meant ‘having it all.’ Three years later, I was a mother of an eight-month-old child, banished from my house for breaking up with my husband. I was in love with another man, someone who was my equal. He helped me come into my motherhood by taking over my child’s care from my mother who tried her hardest to teach my son traditional gender norms. To this day, my first child is more aligned with ‘boy things’ because at the time I did not feel strong enough to stand up to my family.

My new partner supported my being queer, the label I took up during college, and my exploration of gender. When we married, I was pregnant and determined to raise this child differently. As I became more involved in LGBTQ scholarship and activism, I struggled with my gender identity and it took about three years to publicly come out as gender non-conforming, during a panel on transgender identities. It was a fleeting moment of being true to myself in a public setting since, without constant coming out, no one can ‘tell’ I am not a woman.

I have to come out again and again because it never quite sinks in and some people simply forget that I am agender or that my pronouns are ‘they/them.’ Generally, I never correct people if they use ‘she/hers’ because I am glad to align myself with women and do, to a large extent, experience the world as women do. Though I would like to not be perceived as any gender, changing my physical appearance was never essential – I do not want to change my body, just the way others link it to womanhood. Not making a physical transition makes it difficult for people to see me as agender.

Even though mothering, to me, does not mean I’m a woman, it adds to my invisibility as an agender person because of the assumption that if one has been pregnant and birthed three children, that they are even more of a woman. It certainly made my biological family like me more, because I gave them ‘three healthy boys,’ a marker of status within a sexist community. It is as if the assumed gender of my children helped solidify my womanhood. And, as a mother, I was now responsible for raising them properly, to become grown men able to provide for their families through upward mobility.

Which is why I am glad that my oldest child’s first Barbie was the Halloween Barbie, scary not only for its lack of realistic measurements. Growing up in Russia, having a Barbie meant you were better off than other families. When naked ‘pupsiki,’ which happened to be gender-neutral dolls, were all we could afford, Barbie symbolized a ‘better life,’ a life sought in the United States. Now I am raising my own children in Brooklyn, New York, but there is little place for the Russian-Armenian values of my past. After all, it was not in my parent’s dreams to have their grandsons play with dolls.

Instead of being groomed to be ‘real men,’ my kids are raised free of gender norms, which allows them to develop their identities safely as they learn more and more about the world. And, prior to learning about gender, each of them gives me a gift. As an agender person, moments when I am not gendered are essential to my wellbeing and how I see myself but they are rare. When my children are young, they are able to see me as Simone or Mommy without gendering me or seeing me as different from them. Even when they have noticed physical differences between their bodies and mine, I have explained everything from menstruation to genital shape without attaching biology to gender.

So when my kids look at me during those early years, their eyes are a place of freedom. In a way, motherhood has given me a way to find moments of validation for my agender identity, even if they are short-lived. I cannot say enough of these transformative experiences because I know what it feels like when a person with no pre-conceived notions of gender is able to see me. The intrusion that takes place when the outside world teaches them their mother is a woman is always disturbing and requires significant re-education. Long ago, I made a blog called Gender/Detki – Rearing Logical Children. In it, I had hoped to provide concrete examples of how I addressed gender and sexuality with my children.

Looking over the blog now, it is clear that my children knew little of gender until they interacted with their maternal grandparents, who live downstairs, or their Russian preschool environment. Their father and I never called them boys and they were allowed to play with any toy and wear any article of clothing, including dresses, tutus and fairy wings. Their hair was never cut and they never heard a single thing about their behavior not ‘being appropriate for boys.’ Naturally, what they learned from us, their chosen family made up of multiple parents and family friends, clashed with what they learned from others.

It was quite a surprise for my children to learn that boys and girls are often separated in preschool throughout the day, that boys and girls have to go to different bathrooms and that specific recital roles, of gnomes or princesses, are reserved by gender. The length of their hair became an issue, because other kids would say they look like girls and their ‘girly shirts’ got laughs. When I dealt with the administrators, I did not disclose my agender identity or any additional details about my family. I argued that if girls were getting their hair styled on a daily basis, the same can be done with my children’s hair and reminded them of the fact that we paid generously for tuition.

Once my kids got attached to their teachers, they wondered whether gender was good or bad. I taught them that people have different opinions and that nobody has the right to police how their gender is expressed. Sadly, because of their encounters with other adults and children, they have learned to expect harassment based on their choice of clothing, toys or behavior. Some of the time, they would give in to the pressure and, for example, ask me to cut their hair. Because it is their body and their choice, I have done so but with tears in my eyes. The pain and the anger I feel on behalf of my children exacerbates my own trauma.

Now older and in public school, my kids manage a lot more backlash, which is hard for me to watch. As an adult, I have not yet figured how to freely express my agender identity without having to constantly educate uninformed cisgender people. Why should children as young as five have to face a similar struggle? Because knowledge is power, I have taught my kids about the construction of the sex and gender binaries, the link to sexuality and how gender and sexuality are affected by one’s race, class and any number of other social factors. These topics are hard enough for my college students to grasp but the way people react to my kids’ gender ‘deviance’ makes such discussions necessary.

I am proud to say that the more I learn about gender and sexuality and about myself, the more my children are able to benefit and feel supported in their own exploration. They have shown resilience and courage by resisting harassment and trying to live truthfully. Here, I would like to return to my middle child’s gender non-conforming path. Most recently, he has become quite interested in wearing a ‘girl’s bathing suit,’ which is not going to go over well at his swim classes, summer day camp or with my biological family. Part of my motherhood journey is to be an advocate for my child and so I am gearing up to have several conversations so that he may be able to wear his turquoise bathing suit full of ruffles. When I caution him, I am sad to say that he may not be allowed to wear it and that his grandmother and others will continue to make comments. He nods and answers, ‘I will ignore them, Mama, I will just ignore them.’

When I speak to others on his behalf, part of me wants to say that I am also like him, weird and proud of my ‘deviance,’ and that I would love for my kids to be part of the LGBTQ community. But their mother’s deviance makes it hard for others to accept my children. Now that I am firmly at peace with my lesbian identity, there are new definitions to go over since their peers are throwing around casually homophobic remarks. To me it is not difficult to reconcile being agender and a lesbian but trying to explain to my kids why the label ‘lesbian’ still applies even if I am not a woman is a bit of a challenge. What I say is that others perceive me as a woman which means having to face sexism and homophobia.

If I did not have to explain to my kids why much of the world thinks our family is ‘wrong,’ they wouldn’t need an explanation because they have been raised to embrace difference. Regardless of divorce, changes in family structure, new gender and sexual identities, like their mother’s lesbianism or future children, they are surrounded by loving adults who will help them usher in a new world. Along the way, they will offer acceptance in return. Want to see an example? I recently asked my middle child about his feelings on my not wanting a gender, on being agender. Not looking up from his video game, he replied, “I feel fine because it’s your choice and gender doesn’t matter at all.”

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Sacrificio

Lisette E. Torres is the Assistant Director of the Cooper Foundation Center for Academic Resources at Nebraska Wesleyan University as well as a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education at Iowa State University.  Her scholarly interests include intersectionality, critical race theory, knowledge production, critical visual and textual discourse studies, and the sociocultural context of science and higher education.  In honor of Fibromyalgia Awareness Day (May 12th), in this post, she reflects on what she calls the “narrative of sacrificio” and how it informs her experience as a Boricua mother-scholar living with fibromyalgia.

Sacrificio. Sacrifice. To give up something for the sake of someone else. To destroy, renounce, or lose something for a belief or an end.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican household full of women, I am quite familiar with sacrifice. My two sisters and I would be reminded almost daily about the sacrifices that family members have had to make for the love of family and country – my grandmother’s humble beginnings living in poverty on a farm on the island, my father and aunt having to walk to school (sometimes with no shoes), my grandmother coming to the mainland U.S. to work in a factory, my father fighting in Vietnam, my mother managing the household, my father having to travel 2 hours to and from New York City to provide for the family . . . the list goes on. These stories of sacrifice were meant not only as a way to demonstrate how resilient our family has been but also to remind us of the responsibility that the three of us had as Puerto Rican women. We learned that it was our obligation to always try our best and to give up our own wants and needs for the family. Social scientists often refer to this socialization as instilling the values of familismo, or one’s prioritizing family over one’s own needs, and marianismo, the notion of the assumed submissive female gender role of Latinas.

However, this narrative – the narrative of sacrificio – is one that I have also experienced as an academic. The “publish or perish” mantra, working more than 40 hours per week, and the unspoken expectation that scholars (particularly women) put off having families or give up having families all together encompass some form of sacrifice, whether it be time, money, or personal fulfillment. For women of color in the academy, this sacrifice is much deeper. It is the fragmentation of the mind, body, and spirit or the creation and acceptance of multiplicity (Ong, 2005). It is forgoing speaking the language of our ancestors to converse in the elitist, colonial jargon of the ivory tower. It is physically moving away from our families and communities in pursuit of job opportunities, which causes a multitude of additional challenges that come with relocation.

From my own personal experience as a Boricua mother-scholar, there is a great tension between having the racialized gendered identity of a Latina and an academic identity. I often feel pulled in different directions. On the one hand, I want to spend as much time with my son and husband as possible. I want to keep a clean house, provide healthy meals, and be present with my child, who is growing up so very fast that I do not want to miss a thing! Guilty about putting him in daycare, I forgo working on projects in the evenings and on weekends to try to get the most of my time with my family. I also tend to put aside some of my goals and needs in order for my son and husband to be happy; for example, I often have to take the day off to take care of my son when he is sick and have never expected my husband, who is also an academic, to do the same.

On the other hand, I am well-aware of the social and structural challenges of being a woman of color in the academy (Gutiérrez y Muhs, Niemann, Gonzàlez, & Harris, 2012). We often have to work harder and longer to receive the same recognition as our White, male colleagues. The purpose and content of our scholarship as well as our inherent intelligence is questioned, and heaven’s forbid that you have a family! The baby penalty is very real; mother scholars are often viewed as being less committed to their field and to the academy as compared to their male counterparts. They are less likely to find a tenure-track job, receive little to no assistance with childbirth support or childcare services, and do not receive the proper mentoring or career advice to help them manage family and work. Add stereotypes about women of color being fertile and emotional and you can see how women of color in the academy are in a double-bind (Malcom & Malcom, 2011) that is even tighter when you incorporate motherhood and the narrative of sacrificio.

As every academic knows, there is little time and energy to devote to research, teaching, service, and one’s personal life. Every hour is precious. We talk about “work-life balance,” though we know this is a complete myth. We try to remind everyone about self-care, exercise, and finding time to recharge (which we need to do, do not get me wrong!), all the while trying to ignore the culture shift necessary to change the neoliberal influence on productivity in higher education. Yet, we still judge others based on what we assume about them and the expectations of academia. If someone leaves campus before 5 p.m., then we think they are slacking off or cutting corners. Daily conversations revolve around “how tired” we are because we “stayed up until 2 a.m. working on a grant proposal/manuscript/course.” We complain about all the varied activities that we are engaged in while simultaneously looking down on others who may not be as involved on campus. We are complicit in perpetuating the culture of busy and the narrative of sacrificio among our colleagues. And we do this without considering the impact it has on women of color or on individuals with chronic illness/pain.

Personally, the narrative of sacrificio – from my Puerto Rican upbringing and from the academy – wears on me daily, both psychologically and physically. In the spring of 2015, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic syndrome with no known cure that is diagnosed by exclusion. The symptoms can vary among people, but they can include the following: widespread muscle and joint pain, fatigue, chronic headaches, hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli (e.g., cold, heat, light, sound, and touch), inability to concentrate (known in the community as “fibro fog”), stiffness, restless sleep, mood swings, and depression. These symptoms have made my career in academia difficult, aside from the structural challenges I also face as a woman of color who is also a mother. However, the words used to describe my lived experience with chronic pain are extremely limiting and cannot fully illustrate how it shapes the narrative of sacrificio in my life. Despite limitations in language, I will try to explain what it is like to have fibromyalgia. Having fibromyalgia is . . .

  • Sleeping a full 8 hours but getting up and feeling as if you only had 3 hours of sleep
  • Waking up in the middle of the night with non-stop thoughts or tingling arms/legs
  • Getting up in the morning and feeling like you worked out all night because your body is so sore and stiff
  • Like walking through really thick mud or walking around with weights around your ankles all day
  • Losing what you were going to say before you can even say it; the words get stuck and you have trouble with recall
  • Losing your train of thought in mid-sentence or forgetting the names of common things (i.e., you know what it is but you cannot get the word out)
  • Revisiting files, readings, emails, notes, etc. multiple times because you cannot concentrate long enough to remember what you read/saw
  • Feeling like a rag doll on a rack, limbs being pulled out of their sockets
  • Never feeling completely comfortable in a seated or resting position
  • Being hypersensitive to temperature changes; for me, I am almost always cold and cold temperatures cause deep pain in my bones
  • Being hypersensitive to touch; there are days when I literally cannot stand wearing socks!
  • Feeling like an open nerve
  • Feeling on edge, like you are ready to fight at any time
  • Feeling incredibly disappointed in a seeming lack of progress due to energy level
  • Feeling guilty and depressed that you cannot do all the things that other parents/academics can do

When a chronic condition like fibromyalgia intersects with the narrative of sacrificio found within Puerto Rican culture and the academy, it makes an already difficult journey as an academic almost impossible. As a mother-scholar of color, I am continuously trying to avoid the cultural taxation (Padilla, 1994) placed on faculty of color, balancing being an advocate for students of color on campus while also not participating on every single institutional diversity committee. Like most scholars of color and working moms, I work twice as hard to receive half the credit. I worry that I am not a good scholar or mother, knowing that I am being judged by others on both fronts. Stereotype threat, imposter syndrome, and racial microaggressions are daily challenges for me that can wear on the mind, body, and soul. I know that I already have three strikes against me in a White patriarchal society – I am a woman, I am a person of color, and I am a mother. I am viewed as “less than” and “unworthy” of being in higher education. I am already presumed “lazy,” “inarticulate,” and “incompetent” by the mere fact that I am a woman of color, and I sometimes fear that my fibromyalgia adds to those assumptions.

In an effort to confront the narrative of sacrificio in my life, I have decided to accept that I have a finite amount of energy to give due to fibromyalgia and, since stress can exasperate my symptoms, I must embrace what Dr. Eric Anthony Grollman calls a radical reprioritizing of my life. As such, I have started practicing Taiji every week and taking time out for a massage every month, which helps with stress and pain management. I try to not to bring work home with me, accomplishing as much as I can in the office as possible and being okay with that. I also try to practice slowing down, with great reminders from my colleagues Dr. Riyad Shahjahan and Dr. Kimine Mayuzumi on their blog. While I am working on me, I want to share my lived experience with other women of color who suffer from chronic illness who may also be academics and mothers. You are not alone and the narrative of sacrificio does not define you! We do not have to sacrifice ourselves. As our sister in the struggle, Audre Lorde, wrote in a Burst of Light (1988), “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

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