National Coming Out Day

In honor of National Coming Out Day, which occurs every October 11, I thought I'd write a bit about what it means to me to be an out lesbian professor.

I've been out to my colleagues since I first interviewed for my job. I asked a lesbian prof to tell me about the local glb community. Obviously, I was asking her to get some information and also to clarify things, in case her gaydar wasn't working. But I chose to ask her in front of some other people, which apparently surprised everyone. (But this is also a campus where one person told me that she was impressed that I wore pants to my interview instead of a skirt. Apparently I was getting bravery points left and right without even knowing it.)

I have two gay or lesbian colleagues in my department, and there are others on campus. Because of our urban location, there isn't much organization or community for glb people on campus -- there's an undergrad student group, but very little networking among glb faculty. But since I've been here for several years, word of my existence has sort of gotten around -- I can tell when certain students show up in my classes and say that "Dr. Gay Sociologist told me I should take your class for my Lit requirement."

And the same holds true for students. I don't explicitly come out to all of my classes -- my rule is that it has to be pedagogically relevant and useful to do so. But I drop enough clues that any student who has a vested interest in figuring out that I'm a lesbian can do so. (My appearance, the picture of my partner on my desk, no screening of gender pronouns, no hetero-normative assumptions in course lectures, etc). Of course, there are plenty of students who'd rather not figure it out. And that's OK too. Because I teach women's studies courses, my students are busy dealing with Feminism 101 and sometimes that's more than enough for them to handle.

I also teach courses that explicitly deal with sexuality and identity politics, and I do come out to my students in those classes on the first day. The first time I actually came out to a roomful of students was an incredibly powerful moment, even though most of them already knew or assumed I was a lesbian. I gave my usual spiel about how I don't make assumptions about aspects of their identity -- gender, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, etc -- and how they are never required to self-identify in class dicussions. If they choose to, they can. But the ground rule of my class always is that you can't force someone else to self-disclose if s/he doesn't choose to. So I said all of this, and then said "But I should also tell you that I'm your lesbian professor." I could feel the energy in the room -- something sparkled like electricity. I'm quite sure none of them had ever had a teacher say something like that before. And even if they knew it beforehand, it does make a difference to say it. But my reason for coming out in those courses is a pedagogical one, and has to do with creating a safe discussion space for exploring cultural issues around sexuality. In my other courses, my explicit self-disclosure wouldn't have any connection to the course material, and might (at least on the first day) actually shut down students' minds more than help open them.

Being one of the few out professors on campus, and one of the few who teach courses related to sexuality, brings with it certain responsibilities. I frequently wind up being the unofficial advisor or mentor for glbt students, or the listening ear for students who are beginning to question their orientation. It happens less often than it might at a smaller college, simply because there actually is a thriving gay community in the city. But just because we're in a city doesn't mean that it's not important for glb faculty to be out on campus, to offer students advice and resources, to be the role models most of us didn't have.

"Coming out" is always a process, if only because you have to repeat it over and over again. It's not like you do it one day and then you're done. But every single time, no matter what response I've gotten, it's always been worth it.