Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Existence of Homophobia

Some readers may have seen my comments on a post at Prof. Hacker about making student evaluations of our teaching public. I've received a couple of private comments about what I had to say over there, mainly from people surprised at some of the things I said. Basically, I posted some cautionary comments, and I admit that I kinda went all over the place with those comments. As part of my administrative job, I read hundreds of student evaluations each semester, and I have seen some very, very disturbing comments. I have seen a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and the like over and over again.

As we all know, in spaces that allow for anonymity, we can easily encounter people that throw around things like the N-word (which I refuse to type or say). I have been called a fag more than once on my own evaluations. Interestingly, in my case, the use of such words has not always coincided with low numbers or other negative comments. In fact, they often come with perfect scores and other positive comments. For example, there was the student who called me one of the best professors she or he had ever had, giving me the highest rankings on the quantitative side, but my being a fag still creeped him or her out.

As I mentioned over there (perhaps unclearly), the thought of posting such evaluations online disturbs me for various reasons. One of those reasons is that I just don't want to be reminded again and again of how often I have to deal with homophobia in my daily life. And that is where the private comments I received came from. People who keep up with my blog and other online presences have been surprised to find out that homophobia is a part of my life because I never talk about it.

Quite frankly, I never talk about it because it hurts. Also, I often get the feeling the people don't believe me. It's kind of like Elaine Scarry's argument that those who feel physical pain are certain they are in pain while those around them often doubt if the pain is as bad as it sounds. If I talk about encountering a moment of homophbia, I often get a "Really?", as though people aren't sure it was as bad as I described.

See, here's something I have never said on the blog but that I have said in private conversations. I have encountered more moments of homophobia since I moved to New England than I ever did living in the south or the midwest. There may be lots of reasons for this, including the times of living in each place and other individual elements of life in these various places. But people have told me that I must be so happy to live in a place that is so gay friendly. We have gay marriage here! We have anti-discrimination laws! We have all this stuff that other people are fighting for, and we do have those things. But that does not mean homophobia is gone.

In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason why Da Man and I have had difficult times here is because the larger political climate is gay friendly, so those who disagree with that ideology feel pushed to do things that reflect their homophobic thinking. Now I am not arguing at all that I wish those laws were gone or that activism should end. No, no, no! I am just trying to get people to acknowledge that remnants of homophobia that exist, much like the racism that still exists after Obama's election. On one level, there have been major changes. And on other levels, people are pissed and fighting against those changes. And some of us encounter that anger more easily than others.

Over on that post at Prof. Hacker, I felt like I did a brain dump of lots and lots of ideas, allowing important points to get clouded. I mixed up the idea of inappropriate and personal comments with comments that reflect damaging ideologies like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I do think there is a difference. Perhaps that difference is subtle. How do we know that comments about a straight, white man's clothes or body shape are truly an individual attack and not a reflection of an ideology? And how do we know that the same comments about an African-American lesbian are not a reflection of such ideologies and are truly a personal attack? In the continuing discussion about posting student evaluations online, those will be topics that have to be addressed if not answered.

My point in this entry is simply that many of us encounter general moments of hatred regularly even if we don't talk about it. Now, many might say I should talk about it. I should mention each and every instance on this blog and get it out there. I should confront it head on. And there's a lot of truth to that. But sometimes that confrontation is just exhausting. I do sometimes confront people directly. I sometimes don't. I sometimes process it in my paper journal. I sometimes try to let it go. I sometimes wallow in the pain and feel it deeply. And I sometimes try to shove it aside and ignore it so I can stop feeling the pain.

Having been keeping a blog or online journal for over ten years now, I often get comments from people who say they admire me for writing about myself and my life so publicly, and I appreciate those comments so much. Maybe I haven't been fair by not talking about everything, by not creating a complete picture of my life. Yes, such completeness is impossible, but some might see not talking about such things as a gap that should not be here. I'm sorry for that.

And it's not like it never appears on the blog. I've certainly gotten public comments that I am wrong to be living my life as I have been living it, though I don't think I've gotten any of those on this blog, yet. And I have not let the homophobia stop me from living the life I want to live. Some may say my lack of discussion shows I'm hiding, but I disagree. I don't think of myself as someone who hides who I am from the world.

Even if none of the women you know talk about sexism, it doesn't mean they don't encounter it regularly. Maybe they don't, but maybe they do. And take all the other damaging ideologies and do the same thing. Not all marginalized people encounter hatred, but many do. It's a part of just about every aspect of our world. There might be people who get away from it, but a lot of us don't.


  1. I hear everything you're saying, but I wanted to support what you said about encountering more moments of homophobia in NE than the south or MW. I personally felt more uncomfortable and, sometimes, scared in my decade-plus in the SF Bay Area than I ever did in VA, NC, or now in Eastern WA or ID -- and probably for the reasons you mentioned although I admit to never really thinking about it.

  2. I appreciate your comments here Nels as well as over on Prof. Hacker. I really appreciated your perspetive--both as a professor yourself and as an administrator. Because I haven't been in the latter position, on a tenure or search committee, or otherwise I only really know what my evaluations look like. That fact might be remedied if it were possible to have more public evaluations, but the concerns that you raised--whether related to personal attacks or dominant ideologies--are worth considering before a school were to make public evaluations required.

    Of course, if we only then have evaluations from straight, white, thing, young men...well, we will replicate the power structures that are already in place throughout the academy. *Sigh*

  3. If evaluations were public, I think they ought to be signed by the author as well. Anonymity is too much of a refuge for smallminded people.

    And the -isms are something that I think about everyday--lately wondering about finding readings on working on the racism, homophobia and so forth that exists within. Questioning my own assumptions and judgements--
    Thank you for writing this piece, Nels.