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Friday, June 18, 2010

Yarrrgh! *facepalm*

Being the day in the life of a straight, conservative, evangelical fledgling LGBT activist... who screws up.

Okay, so it's no real surprise that I absolutely hate pointless bureaucracy, especially in academia because sometimes we over-think things way too much and bury even simple little matters under a flood of paperwork.  But the power relations and power politics that go with those positions really pisses me off now and then, especially when they involve me.

So, there is an extremely important administrative process I need to get through for my grad work, and I've had an extremely hard time getting all that done before I run out of the state next week (because I am behind this summer, for a variety of reasons).  There's an administrator in a small but very important section of cubicle-land on my campus who has to review that paperwork and give her seal of approval for my department.  I was in her office last week getting some final clarification and turn in the last of my paperwork before I leave for three weeks and miss the deadline. 

So, this woman and I are chatting about my research, and eventually it turns to my research interest in The Laramie Project.  She seemed genuinely interested, so I told her about the plays and what they were about, and how in particular the GLBT community was affected by Matt's death.  At one point in the conversation, however, she pursed her lips at me disdainfully.
"Well, you know, they do bring a lot of that on themselves, you know," she said as she fiddled with the edges of my application on her desk.  I felt my eyes slit at her instinctively.
"Um, what do you mean?" I asked, a little too carefully.  Some serious outrage was welling up and I was trying to swallow it. 
"You know, by forcing it on us the way they do," she continued as she fiddled with my application.  "They just make things harder on themselves by causing trouble.  If they'd just lived their lives in quiet and didn't force it on the rest of us, then nobody would ever bother them." 
 Okay, I thought to myself, What does she seriously mean by that-- that gays and lesbians shouldn't be politically active?!  I had this overwhelming urge to start arguing with her, to explain to her how outrageously closed-minded that was.  How the hell do you justify blaming the victims of injustice for speaking up?  Would she blame the victims of the civil rights movement for picking up a placard and marching with MLK after Bull Connor sicked the dogs on them?! Besides, it's not true.  There are a lot of hate crimes that occur just because some jerk decides s/he wants to roll somebody, and the gay kid ends up being the target.   

In the end, I didn't say any of those things; I just squirmed in my seat like a beetle pinned to a card and felt completely powerless.  My paperwork was literally in her hands-- and if I pissed her off or suggested that she was perhaps that her perspective was a bit too narrow, my application might take even longer to get approval-- or never get approved at all.  So, instead, I just smiled blandly, and nodded, and suggested that perhaps it was a very hard decision for a person to have to choose between being open about who you are or being safe.  She didn't even bat an eye at me, and my pathetic little attempt to argue with her went unnoticed.  And I left her office feeling like a sellout.

So, I learned a few things this week.  First of all, just because you work in a Carnegie Research I institution doesn't make you an enlightened human being like intellectuals often think it does.  And, just because you have a moral conviction on something doesn't mean that you'll always have the spine to stand up for it when you're in a socially powerless situation.  I have friends that have lost jobs because of their moral convictions, and, hell-- I can't even be bothered to get caught up in a bureaucratic shuffle?!  Pah.

Man, I hate academia sometimes.  Almost as much as I hate myself right now.


  1. What does she seriously mean by that-- that gays and lesbians shouldn't be politically active?!

    My personal experiences would lead me to suspect that she means something even more extreme than that: That all gay people should go back into the closet completely and never give even the slightest hint that we're gay. That means no holding one's lover's hand in public, or exchanging a quick smooch on the lips. That means never mentioning our significant others, even if to mention that we went to see the latest movie together last Friday because, you know, we're at the office and everyone is discussing the latest movie. It means never doing any of the millions of little things that heterosexuals do without a second thought every day of their lives.

    Maybe I'm wrong and that's not what she meant. But I've grown cynical about that phrase, "don't force it on the rest of us," and others like it.

    Don't be too hard on yourself. There is such a thing as the proper time and proper place for getting into such discussions and pursuing the resulting debate. I'm not convinced that the situation you described qualified as either. Being an ally doesn't mean speaking up at every opportunity, because some opportunities are just bad opportunities. And you've shown a willingness to speak up at plenty of other opportunities.

  2. Hey Jarred,

    Thanks so much for the encouragement! Being an ally (and especially one of my background) has been a bit of a bumpy ride for me over the last nine months. I suppose part of my guilt comes from the fact that, for one, this fight's a bit personal for me, even as just an ally, and for another, I have a pretty strong social justice streak. This just feels urgent to me.

    You know, maybe I just want to think better of people, but experience makes me think that you're probably right. For most people, "forcing it" is the equivalent of not acting straight, and that certainly could be what she meant. After all, she did talk for a couple of minutes about "don't ask, don't tell" like it was a good thing (eek!). And if straight society expects others to smother who they are and not be open about the most innocent of details about the things that matter most, that is patently unjust. If my fifteen year-old niece can hold hands with her boyfriend at the state fair and nobody bats an eye, then so should you.

    You know, my father made a similar comment about "forcing it" when I was riding in the car with him this afternoon, and when I pushed him on it, he defaulted to the old "Gay Pride parade" stereotype of LGBT identity for justification. I haven't quite figured out how to confront him effectively on that, but we did have a long, interesting conversation when I challenged him. In the long run, maybe that conversation represents some progress; I don't really know yet.

  3. Jackrabbit,

    While I certainly appreciate your sense of urgency and think it's important, I think it's also good to balance that sense of urgency with the knowledge that no great undertaking is accomplished in a day and burning oneself out on bad situations ultimately hurts more than it helps. And you're welcome for the encouragement.

    Pride parades are a touchy subject, even within the gay community. A lot of gay people don't like everything that goes on in them and some deeply wish that the more...colorful segments of our community would tone it down a bit. (I personally feel differently, but that's another story.) One thing that may help you, however, is to check out Glen Retief's article from 2009. Glen moved from the NYC area to a rather rural portion of central Pennsylvania (he actually became a professor at my old alma mater) a few years ago. In the article, he discusses how he learned the real importance of pride events since his move. You may find his thoughts on the topic helpful.

    As for the conversation with your father, I tend to be an optimist and think that any conversation that (1) gets people thinking and (2) maintains the possibility of future conversation is productive and suggests progress.