Bad Education: Why Some Gay People Can’t Be University Professors

Teaching is always a hard job, but it’s especially difficult for gay teachers, as the Buffalo News discussed back in the middle of October. The treatment you get from colleagues and superiors as well as your kids and their parents leaves little time or energy for actually instructing the next generation. Being gay can even make it impossible to work as a teacher, given that the majority of states in America still allow employers to fire employees on the basis of their sexual orientation. California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin all have laws on the books prohibiting job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anywhere else, knowing that a teacher (or any employee) is gay is a perfectly valid reason to fire them, especially at a private or parochial school as opposed to a public institution.

At the university level, the situation is slightly different, but no one is out of the woods. It’s harder to defend the kind of predatory alarmism that teachers of young students or minors have to deal with — a Niagara Falls teacher who spoke to the Buffalo News said that “I can’t think of another job where being gay would be so taboo — just because you’re around children, and people think the worst.” Generally speaking, university professors and employees deal with students who are legal adults. There are still plenty of colleges and universities — particularly religious ones — where gay professors and their families aren’t welcome, though.

Shorter University, a Christian Baptist university located in Georgia, is taking a new and different but still very unwelcoming tack. On October 26 200 employees were sent a “personal lifestyle pledge,” which they are asked to sign and in doing so “reject homosexuality, as well as premarital sex, adultery and other behavior the school says violates the Bible’s teaching.” It also requires that professors be active in a local church. And yes, the school’s administration has announced that anyone who doesn’t sign the pledge may lose their job. “I think that anybody that adheres to a lifestyle outside of what the biblical mandate is would not be allowed to continue here,” said the school’s president, Don Dowless.

POLL VIA NY DAILY NEWS

One gay man employed at Shorter spoke anonymously to the Georgia Voice, a local GLBT news publication, about his fears as an employee. He says that he fears the new policy will encourage “witch hunts” on campus — “We now will live in fear that someone who doesn’t like us personally or someone who has had a bad day will report that we’ve been drinking or that we are suspected of being gay.” He sees the way homosexuality is dealt with in the new policy, being specifically called out along with premarital sex and adultery, as being specifically aimed to target queer employees:

It also seems to place homosexuality in a different category. By that, I mean that adultery and pre-marital sex are, in fact, choices. Homosexuality is not. I know this point is up for debate in the fundamental Christian world, but to the rest of the world, we know that it isn’t a choice. Without getting in to that whole debate, it does seem anti-gay to hone in on something that is not a choice and that has so few references in the Bible when compared to the myriad heterosexual “thou shall nots.”

Some have placed at least part of the blame on the unnamed professor — after all, didn’t he take a position at a university he knew was Biblically based and would disapprove of his identity? He says his identity doesn’t absolve the university of their responsibility to treat him like a person and a fellow Christian:

Why is homosexuality so much worse than anything else in the Bible? Why does a homosexual deserve to be fired any more than an obviously egotistical person, or a lazy person, or a dishonest person?… The bottom line is that I am a gay Christian and I made a decision to be around other Christians. I’m not alone and it is sad to see organizations shun people like me. I’d assume that if you’re a strong Christian, you wouldn’t need to turn those away who sin and instead you’d welcome them with open arms because they love Jesus.

But the fear and uncertainty that gay teachers and their families have to face isn’t limited to religious institutions; simply deciding that queer professors should stay away from them won’t solve the problem. At the University of Michigan in socially liberal Ann Arbor — a publicly funded, well-regarded and internationally renowned university in a large number of fields — gay professors are having to consider cutting their losses and leaving their posts, because the state of Michigan is threatening to take away their domestic partner benefits.  It’s not under the university’s control; the Michigan House of Representatives is responsible for having passed bill 4770, which holds that since giving benefits to the same-sex partners of university employees costs the state $7000-$10,000 per person, they should be cut as an unnecessary expense. To the employees of the university, for whom caring for their family is not an unnecessary expense, it’s enough that they’re considering leaving, and taking their academic prowess and expertise with them.

“I question my decision to come to Michigan,” [linguistics professor Andries Coetzee] said. When Coetzee accepted a job at U-M, he also turned one down at New York University. “I chose Michigan because it just seemed better. But now New York just made same sex marriage legal and now in Michigan… they want people like my partner to not get treated… The consequences of this is that I am actively applying for jobs elsewhere… at universities that don’t have these limitations,” Coetzee said. “I don’t want to leave the University of Michigan, I am really happy here. It’s a great school to work at, but I have to take care of my family.”

COETZEE AND HIS PARTNER/ PHOTO CREDIT ANGELA CESERE VIA ANNARBOR.COM

Coetzee’s partner is currently in remission after suffering from soft tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer. It could reoccur at any time.

The state of Michigan’s decision — the bill is currently being considered by the state Senate — doesn’t just affect the 618 people that it’s claiming are too expensive, it affects the entire university. The linguistics department at the U of M would suffer without him, as would the students who came to the university looking for his mentorship and expertise. And Coetzee isn’t the only person the university might lose; university librarian Scott Dennis says,

“I am concerned for the university as a whole… It would be a really damaging blow to the university’s reputation as a fair and humane employer. I think it would cause us to lose faculty and never get them back.”

Dennis and his partner of 10 years are just one of the couples who came to the U of M in part because of their domestic partner benefits.

In part because of the recession, fears about a national teacher shortage are increasingly urgent. Students at the U of M are worried about losing their professors; students at Shorter are worried that it’s only a matter of time before they’re also signing “personal lifestyle pledges.” (It’s not so far-fetched; students at Brigham Young University essentially already do.) It’s clear that there are plenty of places of education and government organizations that aren’t willing to make the rights of gay employees a priority; will their priorities change if the education and wellbeing of their students is at risk?

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

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26 Comments

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    My partner and I both aspire to be professors at the University level. This types of issues always scare us because we have to consider so many more factors when looking into the already scarce jobs and postdoctorate fellowships. This is complete BS. It shouldn’t be this hard…

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      Same here; I’d love to be a professor at the Uni level, but lately I’ve been reading all this stuff about how hard it is to be gay and a teacher. I’m also masculine of center and look pretty butch, so sometimes I wonder if I’m just fucked no matter what. :/

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        Actualllly, there’s a bunch of scholarship out there that suggests butch profs are well-received in the classroom. Jibes with my experience, too. Look for “queer” and “classroom.” Lots of literature on being out and/or being visible.

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    That really sucks for the University of Michigan, not only for its academic credentials, but also because it’s built such a reputation as one of the more queer-friendly universities in the U.S. It’s one of the many reasons it’s near the top of my graduate school list.

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      I agree — I went to UMich for undergrad and I loved it there (I still miss the place). I’m going to be applying to graduate school pretty soon, so I’ll probably look into other places as well, especially in states with better marriage laws and domestic partner benefits. The whole thing makes me pretty sad, though, especially since UMich has such a great queer community.

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    This makes me terrified because I want to go to grad school and do scientific research as a career. From my understanding, this means I don’t really get a choice in what state I end up living since jobs in physics/astronomy are so scarce. But I REALLY don’t want to move somewhere where I can’t get married/could get fired. I spent the first 21 years of my life in Massachusetts and I kind of want to firmly plant my body down in New England forever.

    TL,DR: I might not go to grad school and might just get a job when I get out of college so I can decide where I get to live.

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      Except that staying out of academia doesn’t mean you’re safe. States like Michigan still lack non-discrimination protections for LGBT people, which means that if you’re in any business where there’s a possibility that the person doing the hiring and firing might be a homophobe, you still can’t be out. And in that case, you can absolutely forget about domestic partner benefits.

      The issue with the University of Michigan is that it’s the sort of place that would like to be as queer-friendly as possible. In fact, it generally is a very queer-friendly place, in a very queer-friendly town, from what I understand from having been to AA many times/having lots of friends who go to Michigan. But unfortunately, the rest of the state is not on the same page as U of M/Ann Arbor, and since they’re publicly-funded it’s the people in Lansing – including the anti-gay troglodytes there – who get to make these choices, not the university. (And there are more troglodytes than you’d think. People think of Michigan as a “blue” state because of Detroit, Flint and Ann Arbor but, actually, some parts of the state are EXTREMELY conservative – particularly the western part of it.)

      This would be true of any publicly-funded institution, not just universities. And it wouldn’t be true of private universities. When it comes to religiously-conservative private universities, of course, that’s usually a bad thing because that means that even in states where they have anti-discrimination laws on the books, the First Amendment keeps them from applying to religious organizations. But when it comes to progressive universities in conservative states, the opposite is true – they’re safe from the kind of crap that U of M is dealing with right now.

      In short, it isn’t because there’s anything particularly wrong with academia. What’s going on at Michigan is just one symptom of a much, much larger problem that permeates all businesses. This is why we need ENDA.

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    I’m just finishing my Ph.D. The problem with saying that we shouldn’t take jobs at these bigoted universities is that there are SO few jobs available at all in academia. It’s really sad, but I sometimes worry that I’d rather have a job (and a way of supporting my family) and go back in the closet than not have a way to care for my two brothers (who are minors and my legal dependents)…
    bummer.

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    Ugh, I’m starting to apply for teaching jobs this year and I am struggling over whether or not to come out during the application/interview process. On one hand, I don’t want to work at a place where my queerness might be a problem, on the other, the job market is so terrible right now that I don’t want to do anything that might put me out of the running.

    Also, I have no idea how I’m supposed to out myself during the application/interview process. Straight people usually read me as straight and most of the ways I use to come out to friends, co-workers, strangers on the bus, etc. seem inappropriate in an application/interview setting.

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    This is sad. I live in Georgia about 2 hours away from Shorter and have been going there for years for music competitions. Many of my friends that happen to be socially liberal go to Shorter because it has one of the best vocal programs in the state (though it is Georgia….), and are upset with the way the university is handling itself right now. I considered applying to Shorter as a safety school but once I found out about this whole ordeal automatically cut it from my list. The school isn’t gaining anything from this, they’re only losing.

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    I am a post-doc at a top NJ University, and I feel very fortunate that my job is protected as a gay researcher. At the same time, it’s impossible to ignore the inequities at this very liberal institution. Most faculty in scientific departments are overwhelmingly male, and the likelihood of seeing an openly gay female among the tenured faculty is practically zilch. It’s an uphill battle, but one that will only be won as we continue to demonstrate that we are invaluable to the academic community.

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    To all those who want to be professors – DO IT! It’s so important that we fight for these rights, and increase visibility of queer professors on campus. I was lucky enough to go to a school with lots of queer professors. So it is possible. There are probably more options than you think.

    I want to be a professor too, and I’m not going to let this stop me. Our generation has been lucky enough to enjoy many rights that other people have earned for us – maybe this is OUR fight!

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    A lot if it is about the market. Because the job market is so tight. In my field, I would say there are 300-500 excellent candidates for each position, more like 1000 for prestigious ones, and there are probably about 5 potentially permanent positions, about 20 1-year positions, and a handful of other jobs/ fellowships. Less positions a couple years ago, at the market’s worse.

    So if you really want a career, you will probably apply to christian schools, even if you’re gay and they don’t allow gays and you have to be closeted for a year, or one, or two, or three, because if you go unemployed for a year or more, it will be near impossible for you to get a job in academia in the future. So, really, I think the “You knew what you were getting into” argument is awful — if someone wants a career in academia, they might be willing to sacrifice a lot in the short term to stay in the game.

    It’s also true that the incredibly high number of qualified candidates per job means that the process becomes highly subjective. So even if a state or school is against discrimination, of any sort, a department — which is what does the hiring — can pick whatever sort of person they want. So if one’s department is not gay-friendly, that’s a major barrier that might not be apparent to anyone except those few people who are familiar with that department’s politics, and it’s pretty much impossible to prove if someone ever complained.

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