The Challenges of Being an LGBTQ Historian
Mary Louise Roberts recently published a short article describing some of the results of the recently completed American Historical Association LGBTQ Task Force Report. The article brings our attention to a number of issues facing both LGBTQ academics and academics who research LGBTQ issues (note that these two categories do not necessarily coincide). Roberts’s piece made me reflect a bit on my own experience as someone who inhabits both categories and has been lucky enough to have found himself a tenure-track position in a supportive department.
First, Roberts is right to emphasize the need for all universities to include relevant language protecting both sexual orientation and gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. After a recent “religious freedom” law was passed in Mississippi, I was personally relieved when the president of USM reaffirmed our own non-discrimination policy. That said, universities also play a role in the broader community and have specific social missions; they should therefore actively promote the passage of legislation protecting their students and employees. It is not enough, in other words, for institutions to claim they do not discriminate when the actual law provides them with the opportunity to do so. In addition, universities are central players in local economies and they should fight the ability of businesses that rely on them for their very survival to discriminate against their students and employees.
Second, I think we tend to overestimate the impact of doing LGBTQ work on our success and failures on the job market. The examples Roberts provides of people feeling that their research on LGBTQ issues shaped their job market experience are largely anecdotal. So too, it is worth saying, are my own impressions, but I never felt that my specific research in the history of sexuality is what held me back in the four years I was on the market. Rather, I think it is more the case that people doing research in LGBTQ history or the history of sexuality run up against a much more general preference for “traditional” research interests within history departments. This preference reveals itself in many ways, sometimes in a desire for people doing particular kinds of history, sometimes for particular kinds of historians. This speaks to a broader traditionalism that has discriminatory effects on both the work that historians produce and the historians that get hired. Certainly, LGBTQ history has particular connotations and problems, but I see no reason to play oppression olympics with my friends and colleagues who have also struggled to find permanent employment. What we need is greater investment in the humanities and social sciences in order to enable departments to provide their students with a broad range of expertise, while also encouraging history departments to value new approaches and objects of study. I would argue, in fact, that these two issues are interdependent: the lack of resources is precisely what encourages departments to retrench and fear taking a chance on what they see as “new.”
But historians of sexuality also need to do more to showcase the importance of our research, even as we are often received with greater skepticism than is usually warranted. I hope to explore this issue more fully both here and in print, but put simply, I think that it is incumbent on historians of sexuality to begin moving beyond the kinds of identity-based histories we have become accustomed to completing. It was only, it seems to me, when many women’s historians moved to gender history that the field began being taken more seriously by the wider profession. This is not simply because this shift allowed for a wider range of inquiry, but because it also showed how gender is “a useful category of historical analysis.” We have to show that sexuality is as well. Doing so will gradually open space for departments to recognize that a specialist in sexuality is necessary to providing a well-rounded curriculum while also showcasing how the study of sexuality is actually necessary to understanding political, intellectual, and economic history (to name just three examples) as well.
Finally, Roberts reports on the unique frustrations of those who present differently or stand as the sole LGBTQ person in a department or even university. As a member of a department with significant lesbian and gay representation, I have not been as affected by this issue as my colleagues elsewhere (in fact, I am more unique for being Jewish than I am for being gay). That said, the two issues situate the struggles of LGBTQ folk in relation to the broader need for increasing the diversity of the professoriate and reshaping the culture of academia, which is more conservative than people on the outside tend to realize. I was particularly struck by the respondents who recognized the particular service roles that minority scholars end up playing, a phenomena that has been talked about in other contexts. The growing movement for social change in campuses around the country should be a source of empowerment for LGBTQ academics even as it is a call for us to engage in the broader range of issues affecting minorities in the professoriate. The AHA Task Force was hopefully a first step toward institutionalizing historians’ role in that process; as historians it is our responsibility to not only analyze change, but to enact it as well.
Originally published at Andrew Israel Ross.