The Intersection of Queerness and Academics

Being a queer-identifying person is interesting in itself, but being a queer-identifying person in academia is something that is proving to be increasingly thought-provoking for me.


As someone who typically stands out, I don’t see a whole lot of people that remind me of myself every day. As I look in my university’s department of study and analyze the scholars working in the field of communication, I see even less of myself. The overwhelming majority seems to perform conventional gender and sexual expression. While I am fully aware that this sample may not represent the population, the number of queer scholars seems low. While I can find academic writings about LGBTQ+ topics, they are not necessarily written by queer-identifying scholars. This begs some important questions. Do queer scholars have a presence? If they do, do they maintain objectivity and perform detached study? If there are not queer scholars, is that because there are barriers to entry based on extenuating circumstances having to do with gender/sexual identity? Does societal oppression and self-repression keep intellectual queer people from pursuing their studies? Is the lack of queer representation in academia proportionate to a lack of queer people in the general population?


My key question is this: are queer people blocked from entry into the world of academia in a de facto though nonintentional exclusion of the community?


In discussing queer identity and its effects on life, we must first define the all-encompassing term that is queer. Queer, to put in the simplest of terms, means different. This word, perpetrated against LGBTQ+ identifying people for decades, was initially used as an insult. A sense of otherness becomes instigated as the word different becomes hurtled at those who do not participate in conventional gender/sexual expression. The implicit understanding of difference as negative breeds repression of identity and mental unrest from an early point. As queer people have appropriated the word to put a positive spin on what is often perceived as “sexual deviance,” the word has been implemented into the acronym associated with the community. Now, the word queer represents people who identify with sexual identities other than heterosexuality, as well as gender identities other than cisgender.


What does conventional gender and/or sexual expression entail? It is understood that different genders are seen to have different roles. Conventionally, people allow these roles to characterize them, and thus, play a part in perpetuating conventional gender expression. These people are cisgender and do not identify with anything other than the gender they were assigned at birth. As far as sexuality goes, convention deems heterosexuality natural and normal. Alternative sexual expression would encompass the overarching umbrella of same-sex attraction.


It is necessary to keep in mind that the majority of those working in universities as active scholars are at the very least millennials. Typically, the older generations are represented. We can draw this conclusion due to the fact that it would be extremely rare that anyone younger would hold the degrees often necessary when working in higher education. What does the millennial typically identify as? According to the J. Walter Thompson Intelligence Innovation Group, as of 2016, 65 percent of the millennial population identifies as straight. Let us unpack that.


Millennials fall between the ages of 23 and 38 according to the Pew Research Center. Most of these individuals entered adulthood before marriage equality was deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. Of course, the Court decision does not necessarily speak for the sentiments of the masses, but I believe it can be an indicator of public opinion and attitude shift.


In contrast, according to the same JWTI study, less than half of the Generation Z population, ages 7 to 22, identifies as exclusively heterosexual. With this in mind, these are typically students in their undergraduate studies or below. Of course, as time progresses, more Gen Z scholars that identify as queer will begin to fulfill their roles in academia. Although a roughly 20 percent jump in the population seems to be a lot, it is not necessarily significant enough to account for the lack of queer representation.


In my mind, there are factors that play a role in this exclusion of queer people. Part of which may be the fact that a lot of queer people of older generations had to conceal their identities in order to succeed. Even today, queer-identifying people are often cut off from familial ties in retaliation to a perceived “deviant” lifestyle. This includes withholding fiscal resources. Holding this in mind, many young people cannot both attend a school with tuition and work to support their basic needs. The choice between the two is fairly clear. Such a conflict may result in a low number of queer scholars working in universities today. It may also suggest that existing queer scholars concealed their identities until they were older, but this is not necessarily the case.


We can also suggest that low numbers of queer scholars may be representative of low numbers of queer people in general across generations. The scholarly community is a small one, so the sample need not be strictly representative of the population. That being said, universities tend to be liberal institutions with a liberal group of people working in them. This would suggest that queer people would be likely to work toward being a scholar if the circumstances were right.


Allow me to also attempt to explain potential barriers to entry in hiring practices. As a collective, it is understood that many queer people have large personalities. Whether this is innate or due to an overcorrection for sexual repression caused by society, I am not sure. It may be the case that a career in academics is not even considered, or if it is, it may seem out of reach. The perceived personality of a scholar is typically poised and dignified, which are two things that queer people have not been painted as. This may serve to discourage many queer people from aspiring to academics. Additionally, a big personality may be daunting for those doing the hiring. For many queer people, their larger-than-life personalities serve as a defense mechanism. Queer communities have had to adopt protections that often take the form of cynicism and resistance to the status quo, making it somewhat difficult to trust and therefore integrate into a predominately heterosexual populace. With the stigma against queer individuals still being largely present, it is understandable that there may be existing blockades in life for those who do not perform cisgender and heterosexual lifestyles.


What does this mean for me, a 20-year-old communication student that identifies as queer? This is a loaded question. Really, it means nothing. The representation of queer people doesn’t really have any direct effect on myself or my scholarship. It may, however, allow me to offer a unique perspective that is not often represented in academia. While alliance is appreciated, allies cannot offer the same level of authority on queer issues that queer people can. All the while, I do not speak for other queer people. Great queer minds have made strides in areas of academics, but there are plenty of people who may be deterred by the fact that they are in the minority, and it is for their sake that we need more queer people in academia.


I, personally, strive to be someone that people can look to for inspiration. In my existence as an unapologetic queer person, others can potentially find solace and encouragement. I solemnly hope that I can serve as an example for younger queer people that may find themselves navigating similar settings.