August 15, 2010

Invisible identities in academia

As an extremely girlie lesbian, I think a lot about femme invisibility. If you don't know the phrase, it means this: Queer women who appear feminine get to avoid discrimination from strangers, which is nice. But we also have to deal with unwanted male attention, marginalization in the gay community, disbelief from straight and gay people, and the strange feeling that nobody really sees us. We're mistaken for straight women by everyone, all the time, and often disbelieved when we state otherwise.

I have many complicated feelings about femme invisibility, and maybe I'll share those another time, but today I've been thinking about invisible identities in academia, after a conversation I had with a friend last night. I don't want to write specifically about her experience without her permission, but we both have invisible identities, and we feel like we're in a strange place when those research topics come up.

When you study race, gender, class, sexuality, or disability in the social sciences, your own identities become significant. Your identity matters in your research, since if you interview or observe human subjects, your visible identities will influence your subjects' behavior and responses. White subjects will be more open about their true racial attitudes to a white interviewer, and so on. Unless you can afford to hire a diverse team of interviewers, you must accept that subjects' perceptions of you will affect their responses, and you must take this into account when you evaluate the results.

Your identity also matters when you present your research to colleagues. Researchers who study their own group(s) have advantages and disadvantages. When you study a group that you belong to, you can find yourself put into a little box ("the black guy who studies black people because he's black") and marginalized by the rest of the discipline. The advantage is that among those who do the same type of work, you will be viewed as having more authority and credibility. You can also be more direct and critical when you question other scholars' work, and people will take you seriously because they assume you've experienced what they are studying (even if you actually haven't).

Studying a group you don't belong to can also be tricky. Researchers who study a less privileged group are expected to be more tentative and apologetic -- understandably, since so much awful work has been done -- and are frequently accused of not getting it. On the other side, researchers who study a more privileged group can be viewed as hostile. For example, a black scholar who studies white racial prejudice may be seen as "wanting to make white people look bad because he's angry at them" and resented by white colleagues.

Sometimes these assumptions are accurate and sometimes they're ridiculous -- but everyone is conscious of the messy politics that comes with this type of research, and we take our own identities into consideration when we choose our research topics, especially if we plan to go on the academic job market.

This puts scholars with invisible identities in an interesting position. As an invisible femme, I'm conscious of the fact that passing as a nice straight girl can be an advantage, especially with older, conservative faculty who may be uncomfortable with lesbians. But I've also been in the strange position of taking classes on sexuality, and realizing that I was viewed as a "straight girl who doesn't know anything" while the visibly gay students lectured the rest of us about what we don't understand.

In my early years of grad school, some of my friends and I took classes in the sociology department, where there was a clear hierarchy of authority depending on identity and experience. They already didn't like us because (for various reasons) they think our entire discipline is problematic. One day, I was sitting around with my gay friend and my bisexual friend from my department (he was very invisible since he was dating a woman at the time), and someone said, "You know, they would like us a lot more if they knew we were queer" And we laughed. But it was true! While it's a strike against you in most of American society, in certain rooms with certain people, they like you much better if you're gay.

But the thing about being an invisible femme is nobody sees your identity, and you also can't bring up your identity in a natural way. Butchy lesbians can casually refer to an "ex girlfriend" and nobody blinks, but I'm conscious of the fact that when I make the same passing reference to an ex-girlfriend, people are startled and confused. When people confidently misread you, it's impossible to correct their misperceptions without it becoming a moment, a thing.

So I wasn't going to raise my hand in sociology class and say "well AS a lesbian, I actually do have some experience with this..." Because it would sound like, "Let me tell you who I like to sleep with so that you stop glaring at me when I talk about homosexuality." It feels like over-sharing, and it also feels like something I shouldn't have to bring up in the first place. Because my colleagues should take my comments as comments, without caring who I am.

I don't study sexuality, but I know from friends that similar issues come up in research for people who belong to a certain group when it's not obvious. If I wanted to interview members of the gay community, I'm sure it would be an advantage to be seen as "one of them" -- people would be more willing to talk to me, and might be less suspicious of my motives. But it would feel extremely weird to bring up my sexuality as I introduced myself, so that I could actually use that advantage. I would also have to ponder how to present myself to colleagues in my discipline. Would it help or hurt my career to be viewed as a straight woman who studies gay people? How would perceptions of my work change if people knew about my personal life, and should I bother to manage those perceptions even though I really shouldn't have to? I don't know how I would actually handle it, and I know it's tricky for people who are in that situation.

Well this post has become very long, and may not be interesting to any of you... maybe one day I'll write more about femme invisibility aside from boring academic issues. But for now I must finish the laundry and go to soccer.

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