Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain

To be a person of color, to be black, to be queer, to be a woman: is to know what it means to not be defended.

We know what it means to not be defended, to have no other choice than to marshal our own defense in the midst of continual defenselessness.

I’m tired of people not defending us. I’m tired of looking to people for defense.

I’m tired of longing for defense that has not come, that is not coming, that, should it ever come, is already late.

I’m tired of being made to feel grateful to those who belatedly defend us, if and when they defend us at all.

And I’m tired of seeing people belatedly defend us, after the fact, after the bodies have been piled sky high — after they have already eaten my ancestors’ rotting corpses — and expect to be congratulated, thanked, made to feel good.

I’m tired of being disappointed.

* * *

The main thing I know about intersectionality is that I am tired of living at the intersections of so much bullshit.

Women, people of color, queers and blacks must continually launch our own defense and defend ourselves for defending ourselves. We must not only defend against offenses – we must also explain both the offense and the defense.

These are fundamentally indecent things to have to do.

Anti-oppression work is an enterprise that is, by definition, beneath us. For it requires the saying and doing of things that shouldn’t have to be said or done.

It is very upsetting to be asked to explain why the on-going, everyday, routine suffocation of black and brown and queer and female (and..) life makes me sad and angry. It is beneath me to do this explanatory work, but I do it anyway. In part, I do it because I have chosen this line of work — but all people who experience oppression are required, in some way, to perform the critical exegesis of our pain. The demeaning shuffle and jive of our suffering.

It is beneath us to have to say that black and brown people deserve the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the tongue and teeth in our mouths, the spaces we occupy. It is beneath us to say that our dead should be mourned. It is beneath us to say that colored knowledge is extraordinarily valuable and perpetually undervalued. It is beneath us to say that white supremacy exists, that the suffering it engenders is an immoral horror that should keep you up at night. It is beneath us to say that patriarchy and homophobia are moral wrongs. It is beneath us to assert the centrality of women’s work and women’s worth. It is beneath us to say that we are a wounded culture, a wounded society precisely because power renders the wounds of the less powerful invisible, unknowable and, then, when knowable, knowable only as the normal state of affairs, the way things should be, knowable not as a wrong, but rather as the evidence of the wounded’s unfortunate and indisputable inferiority.

It is beneath us to know that when people of color and blacks and women and queers do the work of defending ourselves, we will be appreciated less, embraced less, recognized less, paid less than whites and men who ‘enjoin’ the struggle. Even worse, we will undoubtedly be attacked, policed, shunned, shamed and punished.

All of this is beneath us.

All of this is beneath me.

Continue reading “Defenseless: On (Im)morality and Intersectional Pain”

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Academic Musings, Life Musings

Bisexual Awareness Day!

Today, September 23rd, is Bisexual Awareness Day–a day that I, a bi-sexually identified person, didn’t even know existed until a few weeks ago.  In honor of this occasion, I’m sharing a few reflections on a post I wrote last year, “On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia”.

Looking back, it’s clear to me that I should have contextualized my personal narrative in the data we have on the experiences (and considerable disadvantages) of bisexual people more broadly.  While it is indeed true that being open about my sexuality has mostly been met by colleagues with a collective yawn, I also realize that I possess a number of privileges that may protect me from some of the more pernicious dangers and dilemmas that many bisexual people face in coming out in their own work spaces. And even for me, it has not always been easy. I know that acknowledging my sexuality comes with a cost, even within the so-called “liberal” enclaves of academe.

As this informative article published by GLAAD makes clear, bisexual people are not only less likely to be out at work (and to health care providers) than lesbian women and gay men, but they also experience higher rates of poverty and poorer physical and mental health.

  • Approximately 25% of bisexual men and 30% of bisexual women live in poverty, compared to 15% and 21% of non-LGB men and women respectively and 20% and 23% of gay man and lesbians”
  • Nearly half of bisexual people report that they are not out to any of their coworkers (49%), compared to just 24% of lesbian and gay people.”
  • 20% of bisexuals report experiencing a negative employment decision based on their identity, and almost 60% of bisexual people report hearing anti-bisexual jokes and comments on the job.”

And this, from the Bisexual Resource Center:

Bi health disparities BHAM

More than half of the United States 9 million LGBT people identify as bisexual — but many do not feel comfortable or safe acknowledging their sexuality to people in their lives. This discomfort should not be minimized. Many people do not understand bisexuality and bisexual people are often targets of stigma even (and perhaps especially) within the queer “community”. Further, people who are bisexual but in relationships with people of the “opposite” sex are almost always rendered invisible and find it very difficult to challenge that invisibility. It is important that we-individually and collectively-raise awareness about these issues and affirm the moral principle that people should be valued and cared for no matter the gender(s) of the person(s) they love.

In the ten months that have passed since I wrote my post, strangers have written me long emails to thank me for being open about myself and others have sent private messages on social media, admitting how difficult it is being bi. Colleagues have thanked me personally, at conferences, for sharing a story that resonated with them, a story they sometimes do not feel comfortable expressing themselves– for all the reasons I’ve outlined here. I also heard from a group for Bisexual Women of Color who build community on Facebook. I feel honored and grateful that folks have reached out to me in this way, as it allows me to know that I, too, am not alone.

Over the last year, I’ve also had an opportunity to re-think the politics of bisexual identity.  Being in my first long term relationship with a lesbian-identified woman — and being perceived as lesbian by people who see us together — means that I have developed a deeper understanding of the fact that bisexuality can co-mingle with queer and lesbian identities. Most people see me as a lesbian because I’m in a visible relationship with a woman — and this has reshaped the contours of my own identity. Sometimes I see my sexual identity as queer, as lesbian and bi-sexual — these things coexist for me — yet I continue to find it politically and personally important to highlight my bisexual identity, if for no other reason than the fact that if I don’t, this important aspect of my identity will be ignored.

But the contextual recognition of my bisexuality has raised odd questions, sometimes from intimates and sometimes from perfect strangers. I usually don’t mind the (earnest, respectfully phrased) questions, as it sort of comes with the territory for one who engages in the politics of identity, but I’ve occasionally been taken aback. There’s the time, for example, that I was queried – by a straight friend – as to why I would ever talk about being bisexual when I’m currently in a serious relationship. Does recognizing my bi-sexuality suggest that I am not really committed to my partner? This question surprised me – although it should not have – because it implied that people’s sexuality in fact depends on their relationship status.  The reality, too, is that same sex relationships are very often trivialized and seen as less serious than heterosexual unions–perhaps especially when one or both partners are bi. I asked my friend whether his sexuality changes depending on whether he’s single or partnered. It was in that moment, I think, that he understood that my sexuality is my sexuality no matter who I’m with (or not with), just as his sexuality continues to be his sexuality whether single or partnered. It is obvious to me that my sexuality is not just (or even mainly) about who I relate to in my romantic life. My bi(sexuality) is, in a fundamental way, part of the lens through which I see myself, the world, and my place within it. This more expansive understanding of sexuality (as more than just who you are with at the time) is more or less tacitly accepted for heterosexuals, even if it is not explicitly acknowledged. The truth, however, for people like me is that when we are silent about our sexuality, it is rendered invisible by the assumptions people make regarding the gender of the person we have chosen to love.

As heterosexual wo/men can still appreciate the beauty of the “opposite” sex while partnered, so do bisexual people continue being bisexual when partnered. And there is nothing about this reality that makes it impossible for bisexual people to be committed.  It is evidently clear that heterosexuality itself does not imply that people involved in heterosexual relationships are committed to each other.

I love the fact that I am partnered with a woman who is rooted and secure enough in her sexuality to allow me to be who I am without being threatened by my identity. With her, I can laugh and joke about how attractive other people are, regardless of their gender. I can talk about my experiences dating men and women in the past without fear of judgment. It doesn’t mean she always understands those experiences — but she allows them, just as I allow her the integrity of her own reality and her past, even when doing so is challenging or stretches the bounds of what I personally understand. We can do this because we allow each other to be human–and more specifically, to be the kind of humans that we feel we are.  Knowing that identities can and do change, it is nonetheless reassuring to know that we can comfortably affirm the identities that feel right for us today.

All of this to say, my relationship to bisexuality — as an identity and social reality — is changing. But what has not changed for me, is the importance of raising awareness that people like me exist and are as valuable and beautiful and lovable and fly as anyone else.

So today, and everyday, show some love to bisexual people — those you know and those you don’t yet know that you know. Do not make assumptions about someone’s sexuality based on the gender of the person they are in a relationship with. Understand that bisexuality is very often hidden — that it is not easy to come out — and that coming out for bi-sexual people is often something that must be repeatedly performed in function of the gender of the person they are dating at the time. Try to compassionately accept, even if you might not personally understand, that some of us love across gender. Having the warm support of friends and family has helped enormously during times when I experienced rejection, judgment and stigmatization from people who could not (yet) and may never accept me as I am. Every bit of compassion we share can and does make a difference.

PS: check out the hashtags #biawarenessday as well as #bilookslike on Twitter .. Here are some of my visual contributions..

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Academic Musings, Life Musings

On Being Openly Bisexual in Academia

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The first time I came out to my undergrads was during a unit on the sociological concept of “stigma” in one of my theory courses. In discussing Goffman’s understanding of stigma as a “discrediting” attribute, I told the story of how my 90 year old godmother responded when I told her I date men and women.  “I’m so, so sorry to hear that,” she replied, as though I’d been diagnosed with the plague.

When I finished my lecture, a student came to the front of the classroom and expressed gratitude for my coming out story. I thanked her for reaching out and asked why she was moved. “Well, we look up to teachers,” she said, “and it’s really important for people in positions of authority to help reduce the stigma.”

People in positions of authority.  I let the phrase float in the ether of my mind.  Did my being in a “position of authority” mean that I had a duty to come out?  I didn’t think so.  And, I didn’t see my being honest and authentic about my experience as a conscious effort to reduce stigma. Including the story about my godmother’s disappointment was an effort to demonstrate how many of us are stigmatized by loved ones because of our sexuality.  But this student’s simple declaration of gratitude helped me understand the impact of owning our personal identities in our professional lives.

Part of my pedagogy is to teach students to connect sociological theorists with concrete lived experiences — both their own as well as the biographical details of the intellectuals themselves.  No doubt, this perspective was shaped by my work with sociologists of ideas during my graduate studies at Harvard.  But a commitment to uniting the personal with the professional, the intellectual with the existential mostly derives from the pivotal influence of black feminist scholars who have given me the courage to draw on intersectional and post-intersectional frameworks to produce theory from the fabric of my queer, black, working-class-born, middle-class-bred, single-mother-raised, particular and peculiar existence.

Coming out as bisexual in academia has been a long process for me. When I fell in love with a woman in my early twenties, I found myself surrounded by fellow graduate students and colleagues at an academic conference.  I wanted to sing about my new love from the rooftops.  And yet, when we were together, I was too paranoid to hold her hand as we walked across campus.  Insecure about my sexuality and lacking a queer support network, I danced in and out of the closet, at turns brave, uncomfortable, liberated and ashamed.

As a woman who mostly partnered with men, many (though not all) colleagues and students assumed I was straight. Sharing my bisexuality was something I would only do on occasion — haphazardly. Over the years, I began to realize how much I benefited from heterosexual privilege in the profession — and it disturbed my spirit.   When, in my 30s, I found myself single for the first time in many years — and dating women again — I saw clearly that being open about my sexuality was the only healthy option for my well-being.

There was just one little problem: I didn’t have any bisexual role models within academia.  Not a one.  While I knew of many openly gay and lesbian professors, I personally could not name a living, breathing, bisexual academic in my social network. Bisexual profs may be legion, but I’d personally never met a colleague who publicly proclaimed the label.  And to be fair, I didn’t exactly search high and dry. If I attended conferences dedicated to sexuality or joined more groups for LGBT sociologists, I’m sure I would have met more bisexual colleagues.  But the other part of the story is that “bisexual” may not be a particularly popular label for non-straight-identifying folk to claim. Some decry what they see as the “sexual binary” inherent in the term and prefer to see themselves as “queer”. The bottom line is that I looked around and found myself on a bisexual academic island. What’s a Ph.D.-having-bi-woman-of-color to do?

Eventually, I put on my big girl panties.  Of course I would have to be the change I wished to see. I only wanted to date women who were open about their sexuality, in their private and public lives – so I knew I had to embody those same values.  I was already out to close family and friends, including some other academics, but I still allowed most folks to impose an assumed heterosexuality. And so I began by recognizing that I wanted to kick my “openness” into a higher gear.   To do this, I knew I needed to build a queer support network both within and outside the straight-ivory-tower. While I didn’t know any openly bi profs, I made a conscious decision to connect with queer women of color.  Just knowing having other women within the profession to talk to about my concerns made all the difference.  One of my most inspiring mentors is a senior scholar who happens to be woman of color married to another woman.  Chit-chatting with her over the years about sexuality, race, gender and spirituality within the profession has nurtured my spirit. Also?  She successfully earned tenure.  Pow!

Next, I began to openly discuss bisexuality via social media — primarily here on this blog and especially on Twitter.  Being open in this way also facilitated building new connections with other queer academics, some of whom reached out to me – privately and publicly – sharing their own bi-sexual and queer identities.  A few told me that they found my openness inspirational.  For me, simply knowing that I was not alone was powerful and profoundly affirming. Real talk? You get what you give. I realized that if I wanted to connect with more openly bisexual academics, I had to be an openly bisexual academic.  

The truth is that in academia, just as in other professions, straight colleagues often talk about their private lives publicly, signaling their sexuality in a matter-of-fact-way that people rarely question. No one bats an eye when straight men wax poetic about “My wife and I..” or straight women refer to their husbands .. or single straight colleagues talk about their heterosexual dating experiences. As I began to date women more often, I also found myself referring to my sexuality spontaneously in water-cooler conversations at work.  In responses to questions and conversations, I’d say things like:

“Well, I date men and women..”

“I’m actually bisexual..”

“The woman I’m seeing..”

And the reality of the thing is just about every time I’ve referred to my sexuality, the revelation has been met with either:

1) profound indifference

2) slight puzzlement and surprise or

3) an unusual and slightly disturbing amount of enthusiasm [as in: “Oh my gahwd, that’s fantastic!“]

Regardless of how other academics may feel privately, publicly they’ve been nothing but affirming and accepting. Well, for the most part.

One of my straight academic friends, concerned for my professional success, warned me to stay mum about my sexuality.  This person feared that I might be negatively “judged” for being open.  And their concerns are not unfounded. Of course we know that homophobia exists.  There are always risks to living life authentically. And yet, as other academic mentors told me, the rewards of living in accordance with our highest values outweigh the costs. In truth, accepting heterosexual privilege and hiding my sexuality are simply not choices I am capable of making at this point in my life.  Ten years ago?  Yes.  Now? Not a chance. And it makes all the difference that I know other queer men and women of color who have found a place for their authentic lives inside of academia.  Their personal courage inspires me even more than their intellectual production.

If you are bisexual in academia  (or simply think of yourself as a human being who dates other human beings regardless of their gender identity), here are a few last insights into how our experience is distinct from that of our gay and lesbian allies:

1. Many people do not understand what bisexuality even means.

In LGBT-land, the L and the G are, for sure, far better known than the B and the T.  Or, as one straight white guy mansplained me at a bar one evening: “You’re a minority within a minority within a minority!” No fucking kidding. You may be the only openly bisexual person your colleagues know.  Which means that you need to be ready for odd-ball questions — questions that most colleagues mercifully keep to themselves. Bisexual awareness is rising, but we’re still a little snippet of the human population.  And bisexuality carries with it distinct stigmas that are sometimes imposed from within the queer community itself (e.g. “The Confused Bisexual” stereotype and other forms of bi-phobia)  . .

Once I made peace with not giving a flying fuck what folks think about my orientation, inside or outside of academia, it became much easier for me to be unassumingly and unapologetically open at appropriate times within professional settings.  This doesn’t mean that I introduce myself as “Dr. Bisexual” at academic conferences, but it does mean that I have no qualms about saying I’m bi when talking about identity politics, oppression, family dynamics, gender, power and sexuality.  

2. You may start your job with a partner of one gender and then switch a few months or years down the line.

When I started my job, I brought a male (academic) partner with me. Our eventual breakup was epic and embarrassing. Two years later? My partner is a woman. #kanyeshrug  As an openly bisexual person, you need to be comfortable publicly owning and asserting the reality that you date men and women, which means . . .

3. Colleagues never know what pronoun to use when they hear that you are dating.

Well that keeps life interesting, doesn’t it?

The bottom line?  In my experience: no one really gives a shit.

Over the years – and especially in the past 12 months – I’ve casually informed mentors, former dissertation committee members, old friends from graduate school and just random people on the streets that I’m bisexual. Now, granted, I have lived and worked in towns and institutions that are bastions of liberal/progressive politics.  And yet, the reality is, even in these spaces, I was concerned, in my early 20s, that it would be problematic to own my bisexuality in academia. Thirty-two-year-old-me is here to tell my twenty-two-year-old-self that, for the most part? No one gives a shit.  Really.  No one gives a shit.  People have their own lives, private crises, intimate joys, families, friends and work – lots of fucking work – to occupy themselves.  And those who do give a shit? Last I checked, the earth is still spinning on its axis. Life goes on.

Coming out about my spirituality within academic circles a few years ago meant that I could not help but commit myself to a life lived authentically. What I have gained, in owning my bisexuality in my private and public lives, is not a gold star and certainly not the approval of my socially conservative godmother.  What my transparency has earned me is my own self-respect and self-love, the priceless feeling of being in alignment with my own values — and, every now and then — the simple gratitude of a student who thanks me for being the only openly queer and/or bisexual professor that they know.