Today, I gave a lecture to a group of 60 seniors living at a retirement community just off of Cal Lutheran's campus. They have an ongoing educational program where they invite scholars in to provide talks on their research. Admittedly, when I got the invitation last year to have lunch with the coordinator of the program, I had my moments of imposter syndrome and also some thoughts of, "They know I study gender and sexuality, right?!" But I agreed to do it after a lunch conversation with Len, an 80-something former dean who now coordinates the program on behalf of his fellow residents.
Now, here's the thing...the residents of this community are super interested in this program. They have several educational lectures offered throughout the year. When they first started the series, they hoped to have 50 or 60 people who might want to participate. This year, 270 people expressed interest in attending the lectures, so they have to divide things up where individuals register for their classes and ultimately are placed in a few different lectures to spread the wealth of attendance for each. As Len said though, with the audience, some register and then forget, fall ill, or die. That was an eye-opening statement I heard earlier today, but certainly is a true statement in coordinating this type of programming a year out.
When I was preparing my talk, I wanted to be respectful and engage in a civil conversation about a topic I care deeply about and also know that I get activated by, particularly if I feel as though others aren't being civil to me and my identities. But walking away from today's engagement with these folks, I'm really appreciative of their thoughtfulness, their willingness to engage, to perhaps not say things perfectly, but be willing to engage in the "messiness" of language and identity and terminology.
Their questions were provocative and insightful. I got to tell stories. We all got to laugh. One of the folks in the audience asked me if he thought that gay relationships had more or less strife and arguments than straight couples. I told him that I'm constantly frustrated that my husband doesn't pick up his socks from the floor or replace the toilet paper, so I'm not sure that gay relationships are any too much different from his relationship - although I couldn't speak for others. I had someone ask how we decide who's the husband and who's the wife. That wasn't a fun question, but I understand where it's potentially coming from. I had someone try to mansplain to me that my slide on the waves of feminism needed to be updated because of the #MeToo movement in 2017; I pushed back on that in a civil manner - we agreed to disagree - given that the #MeToo movement started well before 2017, but only started to get some major attention around 2017. Folks asked about what my parents' reactions were when I came out to them; that brought back some memories but I was really happy to share how much things have evolved between the three of us around this topic in the past 19 years. I also shared how I believe that grace and compassion are really important things to give to others and also to ourselves.
We took a break halfway through the talk. During the 10 minutes, I had individuals coming up to me sharing stories about family members or family friends who had come out as transgender, folks who had been married for years and then suddenly (to them) came out of the closet and wondering why or how they had felt as though they had to stay closeted for all that time. I had one of them disclose to me that she always felt bisexual based upon her own attractions to others; I'm not certain that she would have disclosed that to others in that room, but I was honored she shared that with me.
One of the nicest compliments came from one of the folks who was helping behind the scenes. After the presentation, she mentioned how many folks came up to her at the end and said, "Wouldn't it be great if we could have him continue this conversation with us?" To me, that was probably the best outcome of the presentation. I felt heard and seen and was able to hopefully be helpful in breaking down some of the terminology and concepts that these folks hear and read about a lot, but often have confusion or assumptions about.
The thing I hit home - and this was affirmed to me by the large crowd who thanked me individually after the talk - was the fact that taking care of and supporting LGBT individuals - from our youth to our elders - is a huge priority and need. In my slides, I shared lots of facts and figures with the participants. Estimates of LGBT people in the United States vary quite a bit, but one figure from a 2017 Gallup poll found that 4.5% of U.S. adults identified as LGBT. A 2016 Williams Institute report showed that .6% of the adults in the U.S. identified as transgender. We know that among our younger generations, those figures are growing. We currently have 5 million adults in the U.S. who are LGBT, and that number is expected to grow to 7 million by 2030. That being said, we also know that among LGBT seniors, 20% avoid medical care due to fears of discrimination. This is because 9% of LGBQ individuals have experienced hostile or demeaning language from health care providers; for transgender seniors, that number rises to 21%. 48% of LGB couples who are seniors also experience discrimination and poor treatment when seeking senior housing. Half of the LGBT population in this country lives in an area where there are no laws that prohibit housing discrimination. 34% of LGBT older adults fear having to go back into the closet when seeking senior housing.
So, I'll end this post similarly to what I said in my remarks today. I care deeply about this topic of gender and sexuality, not just because these are salient identities to me, but also because there is a moral imperative to allow individuals their full and deserved humanity. LGBT youth to seniors should have the right to be educated without fear of bullying or harassment. We should be able to get health care without having to train our medical providers or worry that our health care providers will be homophobic or transphobic. LGBT individuals should be able to find the safety and security of a home, of a place of community. 37% of LGBT youth say that they are happy in life. This means that 63% of LGBT youth are unhappy; we already know this given that they are 4 times as likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide and 2 times as likely to have been physically assaulted, kicked, or shoved at. Over 80% of LGBT youth believe that they will be happy eventually, but it will require them moving away from their home community in order to do so. Connect that back to LGBT seniors who then feel at the golden years of their life, they have to go back into the closet to avoid discrimination...personally, I find that to be appalling.
So these are my insights and some of the info I shared today. My slides are below, in case you're interested. Thanks to those of who you helped me think through this presentation; you were a huge help. I also extend my thanks and appreciation to every person who was there - even those who had to take a cat nap during the talk (and there were a couple, and I don't blame them). It was a pleasure getting to talk to a different student population than my normal! I hope that I shared some helpful takeaways, but I also know that they taught me a lot too.
Yesterday afternoon, I was laying on my couch chatting with my best friend when suddenly my condo started shaking. The light fixtures were swinging, and the chug and shuddering noises associated with an earthquake were in my ears. And as quickly as it happened, it passed. A 5.0 quake south of the Channel Islands. It was only the second earthquake I have felt since moving back to Southern California three years ago, thankfully.
Last night, I experienced another earthquake, but not an aftershock. What I mean is a metaphorical earthquake, my own life's tectonic plates shifting and grinding together. Let me explain...
At Christmas time, I bought Ancestry DNA kits for myself and my husband. When taking the test, you have to indicate whether you want your results to be public and thus be matched up with other test takers with whom you share DNA. Martin chose to have his be public; I did not. You see, I knew that there'd be a strong likelihood that I would be matched up with members of my biological family. As an adopted child, I've spent the last 38 years with lots of questions about my biological family. Yes, I grew up in a family who loved me deeply and provided everything they could for me. However, they could never provide me answers to my questions. And those questions have haunted me for as long as I could remember. What can I say? I'm a researcher and someone who engages in scholarly work. I need answers for a curious mind that often never shuts off or down.
We got our results back in early March with Martin's DNA test showing really interesting information about his ethnic background as well as so many matches with his family. Mine came in the next day. And because I chose it to be private, I was excited to find out that I was 58% Irish/Scottish/Welsh and 11% Great Britain and surprised to find that I was 12% Scandinavian. (And I'll save my comments about the science behind these categorizations and what they really mean...) However, I had 0 matches. Nothing that could connect to my adoptive parents' genealogy family tree. Nothing that told me where or who I was from.
Curiosity got the better of me though. I clicked the button to change my settings, and after a few clicks to refresh the page, I got a shock: a perfect match via DNA to my biological father. Long story short, this set off a few weeks of rabbit holing on online searches about my biological father, including finding his Facebook profile and also ultimately finding a post made on an adoption registry site back from 2003.
On St. Patrick's Day, fittingly enough based on my ethnicity match, I sent him a message. Last night, he responded with the subject line of Happy birthday! My metaphorical earthquake was getting that message, except the plates shifting seemed to be like puzzle pieces settling into place rather than things getting disrupted.
I've had a whole host of emotions about this reconnection. I imagine he has too. However, I am grateful, most of all, to have some questions answered, to have contact with this man who helped give me life, and to be connected once again in a small way. I like to think about the fact that my biological parents gave me the greatest chance in the world, and they also allowed my parents to become parents to their eldest child. I am still my mom and dad's child. Nothing will change that.
Tomorrow, I turn 39 years old, and in 2018, the year, I claimed my one-word intention to be courage. I'm finding that courage takes many different forms. My biological parents showed courage all those years ago. My parents show courage in their love for me on the regular. I demonstrated courage in reaching out and making contact with a stranger in some sense, but one who has had an immense role in my life. He responded with courage in reaching back out and asking for my understanding and centering the courage of my 18-year-old birth mother who made the decision to give me birth away from family and friends back in a small town in upstate New York in 1979. Courage is in this story. Courage runs deep.
And so, for my 39th birthday tomorrow, I wish for more courage, for me, for them, for you. We need more of it because we all have our earthquakes to withstand, and we all need courage for what's to come.
To me, summer time always brings to mind my time working in orientation and helping new students and their families transition to college life. It's often an exciting and sometimes emotional time, setting a marker for a new chapter in an individual's life. Yet, through my research, it also becomes clear that orientation, often the only time that the majority of new students on-campus are all together, provides powerful messages about sexual violence prevention.
Those messages can vary, but often colleges and universities have students (or sometimes hired actors) perform skits about sexual violence or have staff engaged in violence prevention share information about statistics and resources on campus. To be sure, these are sometimes well done and are certainly better than no discussions or messages about sexual violence (which can also be some institutions' choice, but not one that I can condone).
Unfortunately, many institutions' efforts don't go far enough in addressing the issues at hand, lacking specificity and often upholding a false binary of cisgender women as survivors and cisgender men as perpetrators. This erasure of cisgender and transgender men, transgender women, and gender non-conforming folks who have survived incidents of sexual violence is troubling and extremely problematic. My recent research has been focused on cisgender and transgender men who are survivors of sexual violence during college, and one of the questions I posed to participants was "What advice or recommendations would you provide your institution on how to support men survivors of sexual violence better?"
Below, I provide a list of themes that they shared with me that I think are important for higher education professionals to consider in relation to their work. Sexual violence prevention work pervades everyone's work in higher education. Survivors need faculty to be more aware of how classroom dynamics and conversations can be triggering to them. Survivors need senior student affairs officers and student conduct officers to review the ways that code of conducts uphold genderism, heterosexism, and sexism in powerful ways to sometimes erase and minimize survivors' experiences. Orientation staff need to create dialogue-centered opportunities to talk about consent and provide clear information about the resources available to all students on campus. Violence prevention specialists need to actively build coalitions with staff of student cultural centers on campus to support students who often experience higher rates of sexual violence than their White, heterosexual, cisgender peers. There are so many suggestions well beyond these...but suffice it to say, the time has come to act. We need to take action and change what we've been doing. The status quo has not served our students well, and our students are needing us to be more critical in our work and do much better.
Please review their thoughts below. Again, these are thoughts from survivors themselves, often folks who have been let down in very real ways by the institutions they thought were designed to keep them safe as students who lived, studied, and/or worked there. And here they are offering thoughts on how those institutions might do better. Let that sink in as you contemplate their suggestions.
I learned about the massacre at Pulse nightclub early Sunday morning. I felt as though my heart was in my throat when I read the news stories, and as I attempted to get back to sleep, I felt numb. Senseless violence committed against my kin. And yet, as I know well, violence has affected so many in our world lately that it has become so normalized that I feel disjointed and disengaged from its reality.
Later on Sunday morning, more details emerged and people I value and respect were able to start conversations that were important, powerful, and well-thoughtout. I just wasn't there. One of the qualities that I often least like about myself is that I shut down in the times where I feel overwhelmed. Admittedly, it's a defense mechanism, a form of compartmentalization for a sensitive heart who often feels too hard and too much, and quite possibly a piece of my dominant privilege that gets maintained (I'm still trying to sort that out for myself and whether that's wrapped up in this). I needed time to process, to grieve, to start to feel.
I gave myself some time off of social media and minimized my time looking at the news. I guarded myself and tried to contemplate. I received messages from friends and responded, but largely kept to myself and my thoughts. And after a day, I started to move outside of being insular and read the news, wept at new reports and details of those killed and injured, and questioned why it's easier to cultivate hate rather than love in our world.
Mid-week, I was contacted by a reporter for a higher ed newspaper for comment on the Orlando tragedy, given the focus of my research and the fact that many of the victims were college students. (Thank you, Jamal, for allowing me to provide some insights and thoughts and giving me the opportunity to further my own reflections.) He sent me the questions, and I thought deeply about how I could best answer them. I spent a couple of hours working through my responses and sent him more than he could ever use in a news article. With his permission, he graciously allowed me to post my responses to his questions here as a blog post. They are included here:
What can institutions do to better support LGBTQ students (particularly students of color)?
There is a very real need for increased resources and support for LGBTQ college students, particularly students of color. Over the past few decades, there has been a increase in the establishment of LGBTQ resource centers on college and university campuses as well as support for LGBTQ student organizations. More institutions need to provide these services and professionalize them with full-time professional staff members. However, faculty, staff, and administrators must understand that LGBTQ student support is a part of everyone's work, not just those who work in LGBTQ student support services.
From a developmental standpoint, we need to understand that for our LGBTQ students of color, the intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion plays a significant role in their lives. For many LGBTQ students of color, they often feel a need to compartmentalize parts of their identities based upon different factors, including who they are with or what environments they are in. The sexual minority men of color who I have spoken to often feel a deep conflict between the messages they hear from their church communities, parents and family members, as well as their peers in colleges and universities. This can lead to a lot of questioning on the part of the students around their holistic sense of self. As a result, higher education professionals need to provide opportunities for support and mentoring to these students to allow them to continue to make sense of who they are and grapple with these big questions that are deeply personal and powerful.
From a leadership perspective, LGBTQ students are watching what institutional leaders are saying (or not saying) about events like these. If leaders of colleges and universities are silent, that silence sends a powerful message to our students. LGBTQ students on many campuses often are asked to educate, serve as advocates, and do vital work for our institutions around inclusion and social justice. Yet, if institutional leaders do or say nothing around events such as the tragedy in Orlando, they are being complicit in further marginalizing a community that is grieving and also feeling increasingly fearful and vulnerable.
What does the tragedy in Orlando mean for LGBTQ students?
It is significant that this mass murder happened inside an LGBTQ nightclub on Latin Night where the overwhelming majority of the victims are Latinx and over half were Puerto Rican. It is entirely probable that some of those killed or injured at Pulse may not have been out to their family or friends. Separately, since the start of this year, 14 transgender people have been murdered in the U.S. All of that being said, it is absolutely critical to understand that LGBTQ students are witnessing a great deal of violence within their communities.
The tragedy in Orlando serves as a stark reminder for LGBTQ students that violence is possible, even in spaces that many have largely seen as our safe spaces and sanctuaries. Already we have reports of statements being made on Craigslist and social media from individuals who are threatening copycat violence in other major cities. As a result, our students understandably may be feeling more fearful and worried.
How can institutions be more inclusive?
Higher education professionals need to understand that there are LGBTQ students studying, living, and working on their campuses. We must do better in outreaching to our LGBTQ students and finding ways to support them. LGBTQ student organizations and safe space/ally programs are important, but we need to go beyond these basic minimums. We need to create opportunities for cultivating civility and finding deeper connections with one another; therefore, intergroup dialogues or interfaith dialogue work on campus can be helpful. We need more training opportunities for faculty and staff to understand how to support LGBTQ students and to minimize issues of tokenization and microaggressions in and out of the classroom. Our campus leaders need to be able to model for others within the campus community the importance of speaking to LGBTQ-related issues and concerns from a place of authentic and genuine concern if we are to be seen as inclusive spaces. Lastly, we need to be concerned about how deep seated violence is within our communities, and we need faculty, staff, and administrators to be proactive within our local, state, and federal communities to advocate for efforts to stem violence. As educators, we need to take up our voices and collectively affect the change necessary to make our communities, on campus and off, safer for all of us, but particularly for our LGBTQ students.
Many LGBTQ students seek refuge in nightlife due to lack of safe spaces (at home, school, community, etc). Can you speak to the significance of safe spaces?
In my research, the sexual minority men that I have spoken with have always outlined the importance of finding community off-campus because for them, it serves as a very real reminder that there is a larger LGBTQ community beyond the bubble of their campus. Therefore, having the opportunity to access nightclubs or bars within the LGBTQ community also serves as an opportunity for meaning-making for them around their identities as LGBTQ people. These spaces become even more important for folks who face oppression or discrimination on their home campuses or at home. For many LGBTQ-identified individuals, bars and clubs, such as Orlando's Pulse nightclub, serve as a space in which individuals feel free to be their authentic selves: a place where they can been seen and heard for who they are.
These responses were given in earnest of making some sort of effort to help support my community in a time of grief, but to go well beyond just "thoughts and prayers." Yes, we need to support those who have been affected - without a doubt. But we also need to take action and do more for our LGBTQ+ students in higher education. Like I said in my notes above, the minimums are important (and it's important to note that not all institutions even provide the minimums, which is highly problematic to me), but we need to go beyond that as well.
And so these thoughts, in the aftermath of a great tragedy, are given in the hope that we can do more, that we can grieve together, but cultivate that grief into real change, and that we can work to love each other more while recognizing that there are systemic and individual challenges that stifle, marginalize, and oppress folks in very real ways. I want more for our world. I know that I am not alone in this.
For the past 10 months (give or take), I've been working on a new research study that has been exploring the experiences of men who survived sexual violence during college. The work has been challenging, difficult (at times), and also extremely rewarding. This evening, I had my first focus group with some of the participants to share initial findings from the data analysis.
Bringing participants together and having them interact with one another in shared space feels sacred to me. It's a time that truly is emergent. I have my completed work to share with them, but I never am sure whether my analysis is "right" or "correct." I just try my best to honor what they've shared with me and be thoughtful in looking across their many stories.
But tonight, I continue to reflect on a portion of our conversation together. In our discussion together, we were talking about sexual violence, an experience and identity (of survivor) that connects them. And that violence is very real for each of the participants. Yet, as we continued our conversations, I was struck by how much violence has been incurred in addition to the sexual violence they have survived.
When a gay man is out at a club and is groped without his consent, that is violence. When the aforementioned behaviors become such a normalized part of "going out" within the LGBTQ community and affirmed by others within the community, that is violence. When someone who is a survivor of sexual violence is a man of color and then faces racism from potential partners, that is violence. When trans or cisgender men feel as though their identity of survivors emasculates them, that is violence. When sexual minority men see "no fats, no femmes" on dating and phone apps, that is violence. When individuals who have power and authority in higher education institutions misuse that power and become manipulative, that is violence. When institutions do not have policies that are inclusive of men being survivors or create sexual violence prevention programs that only emphasize heterosexual cisgender women as victims and heterosexual cisgender men as perpetrators, that is violence.
And so I write all of this and sit with the concept of violence this evening because I continue to grapple with what each of us can do to change this. How can we turn to finding solutions and helping end violence instead of encouraging it or denying its existence? In what ways can we each help eliminate the violence(s) that many of our students face daily?
Lots more to come on this, but I would welcome your thoughts.
Recently, I was asked by a lovely group of emerging scholars to contribute a reflective piece for a blog they were creating on the educational experiences of those from rural backgrounds. I was pleased to be asked, and since my experience of growing up in a rural area has certainly shaped my worldview, particularly my views of education, I was excited to do some thinking and writing on the topic. Thank you to Kathleen, Moira, and Erin for including me in this project. These fine scholars are continuing their work in this area through both their blog, but also presenting this topic at this year's AERA conference in Philadelphia.
To read my contribution, please click this link. While you're there, check out the other thoughtful and insightful contributions!
This coming week marks the end of my first academic year teaching in the Higher Education program at the University of Maine. It's hard to believe that nine months have passed since I began my position in September. I have been so lucky to have gotten such a warm welcome from wonderful faculty colleagues, bright and engaged students, and dedicated administrators.
In my first year as a full-time faculty member, I've learned some really valuable lessons - some of which I'll share here.
"Time becomes a four-letter word."
I recently was at a workshop for individuals either interested in faculty positions or who themselves are early career scholars, and one of the senior scholars in attendance said, "Time becomes a four-letter word." That quote resonated deeply for me. Between my teaching, research, and service obligations, I struggled to find a rhythm, especially in the Fall semester. I would try to designate a day a week to write, but instead, I would find myself responding to e-mails, scheduling meetings, or just having a lack of motivation to write on that designated day. I learned from that experience and adjusted some of my practices this semester. I held myself to certain boundaries around my time. I used downtime in between meetings to write or think, and I adjusted my schedule to allow for more time at home or at the coffee shop as I've just not been successful writing in my office. I've felt more confident in tackling all aspects of my job more and more as the year has unfolded, and I'm excited for year two.
Brace Yourself for the Unexpected
As I've "grown up," I've become much more comfortable with the idea that life is messy. It's become a running mantra at this point. But there have been some unexpected issues that have come up for me throughout the year. Sometimes those issues have been challenging for me, personally and professionally. Luckily, I've also been able to turn to colleagues, friends, and mentors to help me process those moments and assist me in moving forward. At the end of the day, I've found that acting with integrity and being true to the intentions I have set is the only thing I can do.
The Power of Critical Reflection
I often tell my students that the reflection that they're asked to do during graduate school doesn't always continue after they're working full-time and to be sure to figure out ways to do that on their own. Likewise, I feel strongly that I need to be reflective as well. Luckily, as a qualitative researcher, I have to be reflective of what I'm hearing, what I'm thinking, what I'm viewing of the research data I'm obtaining. Likewise, after every class I teach, I have set aside time to process through the experience - what did I do well? What could I change for the next class or the next time I teach this course? What are my areas of improvement? The ability to think deeply about my teaching, my research, and my work is transformative in terms of my professional practice. Now with an hour and a half commute to work (one-way), I find myself using my drive thinking about work and by the time I get home, I've sufficiently worked through things in my mind. It also makes a long drive go by pretty quickly!
Again, I'm grateful for my experience at UMaine. It has been gratifying being a part of the community there. To make a contribution to the program, the College, and larger University has been a great experience, and I am so proud to be a part of my students' lives. As many of our students graduate this coming Saturday, I'll be sitting there beaming with pride. I hope that I've taught them something that they'll use in their personal or professional lives. I know that they
Recently, Sara Bareilles, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, released her new single, Brave. (I've included it above for your aural enjoyment.) In her lyrics, she sings: "Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live/Maybe one of these days you can let the light in/Show me how big your brave is/Say what you want to say/Let the words fall out honestly/I want to see you be brave."
It's not easy to be brave. It's one of those things in life that seems easier said than done. It's fitting that I've been spending a lot of time being reflective on this the past few days. I've been attending an educational research conference for the first time, and a close friend who is also a wonderful colleague and I presented a paper we wrote which analyzed some data from my dissertation research. As a faculty member and emerging scholar in the field of higher education, I still fight some of my long-held perfectionist tendencies. I fear being "brave" often in terms of my writing. I hold onto manuscripts because they're "not ready yet" or get "cursor paralysis" - that blinking cursor on a blank Word document - when trying to write something because I get hung up on sounding intelligent or want to be as clear as possible in describing something that feels very complex. It's hard to be "brave."
Brene Brown's latest work, Daring Greatly, has been a great reminder of trying to live Wholeheartedly and take that bravery into action by taking risks, letting go of perfectionistic fears, and embracing the messiness that comes with adventure. (If you haven't read her work, I strongly encourage you to do so. From a research perspective, I also adore her discussion of grounded theory too!) As I continue to grow in my field and scholarship, I am committing myself to taking more risks and being a bit more brave. As I've been here at the conference, I've taken time to work on a project that has been long giving me anxiety and am breaking through the self-built walls toward progress. Presenting the paper also reaffirmed that I need to let go of my fears and be present in the moment. I was proud of the work that my colleague and I put into that paper; our presentation served as a reflection of that work. My irrational fears - which were really a need for external validation - continues to illuminate what those blind spots are for me and my personal and professional development.
I share all of this today in the hopes of generating a conversation.