Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.

Seven Lesbian In Academe

Lesbian In Academe

NOT LONG AGO, A GRADUATE student called to interview me for a master's thesis on experiences of lesbian and gay sociologists. She was interested in the effects of being gay on their academic lives. Was prejudice an issue? What happened in their universities and over the course of a career? I agreed to do the interview, but I told no one about it, for I felt I ought not to speak with her. Although I do have relevant experiences as a lesbian, I have always felt these experiences are not supposed to matter. Being a lesbian is, internally, a source of strength to me, but I feel it is a private choice I have made with full knowledge that this choice must often be hidden. Although I know discrimination exists in academic settings, and that I have experienced it, it feels to me as if it violates a code to turn around and point this out. It violates the code of accepting the conditions of my chosen status, and I fear something awful will happen to me as a result—the homophobia, or discrimination, that affects me will get worse.

Such a fear of making things worse by calling attention to them probably accompanies any stigmatized minority status or sense of personal vulnerability. With homosexuality and, in particular, lesbianism, the secrecy aspect of the status stands out more than in some other cases,


for it is assumed that homosexuality can be hidden, that an individual can pass (as straight), and often should, thus disappearing as gay. One consequence of passing is that in becoming invisible to the outside world, one often becomes invisible to oneself. Lesbianism adds to the invisibility, since lesbians are women, and women and their choices are often viewed as unimportant and so they are not seen. When I seek to identify experiences I have had as a lesbian that have affected my academic career, I often feel I am pointing to something not there, or to a factor that does not matter much, or that should not be pointed to anyway because it is too private.

Initially, when I thought about speaking with the interviewer, I was apprehensive because of the nature of the subject, although I was interested to speak about it. We scheduled a time to conduct the interview on the phone long-distance. When the interviewer called and our discussion began, I immediately became afraid, much as people I have interviewed have become afraid. I feared what would happen to me as a result of this research. Specifically, I feared having it known in the outside world that I was a lesbian, odd as that may sound, and worse, having it known that I had recently acted like one.

My fear was particularly acute at that moment because the incident of my denying the hostile male graduate student permission to take my Feminist Methodology course had occurred the spring before, and it continued to have effects. Articles drawing from the story about it that ran in the campus right-wing newspaper were published, months later, in a national newsmagazine and in a local city paper, disparaging me for denying permission to the male student. During the following fall quarter, the campus ombudsperson called me into her office because two women graduate students who had been in my course—one of whom, I suspected, was a closet lesbian—needed to pursue the matter. They had spoken with the ombudsperson, not mentioning the incident of the male graduate student, saying only that they wished to complain about my approach to teaching. That winter, ten months after I had denied permission to that one man, my teaching contract was not renewed for an upcoming three-year term. The next spring, both of the courses I was teaching were affected when students in them were unusually homophobic in their responses to me. Hard to prove as related to any of


this, but disturbingly coincidental, just when the male student's story hit the campus papers, both my car and my lover's car began to be repeatedly stolen and vandalized in front of our house. "Anyone hate you?" asked the police officer who came out to investigate. "Give any student an 'F' recently?"

When I spoke with the interviewer on the phone, all these events were on my mind. Thus, I was afraid perhaps far more than the situation of a master's thesis warranted. I was sure that people would know it was me in the thesis the interviewer would write, or in an article based on it, or they would hear about me through researchers' gossip networks. They would know I had said no to a man, and they would expect the same, or worse, from me. I would be seen as a person who is unsafe to hire, as a betrayer of the trust that holds up the system. No one in the whole country, I felt, would ever hire me again if they knew.

I may have had an exaggerated expectation of adverse consequences from a master's thesis, but I did not, I think, have an exaggerated fear. There are consequences of saying no to men. The instance of my saying no to the male student had already unleashed a set of them for me. This incident became controversial, in large part, I felt, because it raised the specter of my being a lesbian—a separatist, a man-hater, not a malealigned woman, a woman who chooses women over men, who does not take care of men, a woman who risks being denied male privileges and who is, therefore, vulnerable. Even though I felt my lesbianism had affected what happened to me, it was difficult for me at the time of the controversy, and even after, to identify the consequences I experienced as related specifically to my being a lesbian. For example, during the more recent spring term, when I saw students in one of my classes avoid looking directly at me at times when I expected they would, or when they had trouble talking about the content of The Mirror Dance , my book on lesbians, I thought I was probably a bad teacher, or that I was feeling distant from the students, or maybe the students were right that there was not much provocative in my book to discuss. I did not think the students were afraid of me because I was a lesbian, or that this fear was related to the controversy of the year before when I had said no to the male graduate student.

The previous year, after I denied the male student permission to take


my class, I had thought that the silences in class discussions, the fragmentation of morale, and the various oppositions to me from the students occurred because I was not doing well as a teacher, or as a person. I thought the students had really different values than mine, or that they simply did not like me. At the time, I did not think, "I am a lesbian. I have said no to a man publicly. They are scared of me, of being like me, and of losing the support of men." When I heard the conservative women faculty members at the meeting asking, "What do you mean by woman-centered?" and "Why didn't you take care of this man?" I felt hurt, and I was not sure why they were picking on me. I knew I was a lesbian and they were straight, and that this made a difference, but exactly what difference was hard to determine when the challenges were so indirect.

Now I told the interviewer about my fears concerning this still troublesome incident and what might yet happen to me, and she agreed to substitute another example when she wrote her thesis and article, rather than saying what I had actually done. I felt cowardly requesting her to hide my situation, and I hoped such a change would not harm the truth. We next discussed the many more usual circumstances when it is not clear to me whether my being a lesbian is affecting responses I receive. When I see women secretaries and administrative staff in university offices looking at me, for instance, I always wonder, Am I attractive to them, or frightening? Do they see me as a woman, or a lesbian—a mannish woman? What difference is it to them? What about the male administrators who pass judgment on my hirings and interview me, do they see a woman who is a lesbian and, therefore, threatening to them? Do they assume that because I am a lesbian, I will not do their bidding, and, therefore, who needs me? What about male students—is it only a facade when they defer to me, or seem to like me? Do they fear that because I am a lesbian, I will not like them? What about other women faculty, whether friendly on the surface, or formal and distant—does my lesbianism scare them? No one speaks of these things. The women students, who am I to them? "Are you afraid of me because I am a lesbian?" I asked one woman student who kept challenging me in class this past spring. "No," she swore up and down, she was not. Some of her best friends were lesbians. That just could not be.


When I did not get my teaching contract renewed, the obvious reason was that the university was having a budget crisis and lecturers were easy to eliminate. It seemed to have nothing to do with my being a lesbian, maybe it had something to do with my being a woman, certainly nothing to do with my having said no to the male student the year before. Usually when my contracts are not renewed, they say it is because of the nontraditional nature of my work. When I am not hired, that is also the reason given. I have found it is very hard to put a finger on anything important that has ever been denied me as a sociologist and say, "This is because I am a lesbian." There always seem to be other, better reasons. The lesbian part of the picture always disappears, as it does, for instance, when gay people say, "We are just like you. We have families. We raise children. We want to be loved." Yet we are different, or else why the consequences? Why the choice to be a lesbian in the first place?

When our cars were repeatedly stolen and vandalized, the police finally decided it might be a hate crime, but the hate crime squad never came out to get the facts. The threat hung there, unsolved. This type of crime, we were told, was usually impossible to pin down. If my hostile male graduate student had any link to our cars being attacked, I concluded, I was not going to find out. I was not of the mind to send the cops after him. Why stir up the antagonism? The police, were they to question him, would probably find nothing to link this shy, ivorytower, third-year graduate student to car thieves.

So I said to the woman interviewer, feeling very tense just then about my prospects for another job, thinking about the cars, and wondering about the ways I sometimes think people look at me in hallways, "I might as well walk around in black leather and chains. I might as well rub it in. Maybe that would be better than being nice about it." She laughed. We both laughed. It was the highest, most intimate moment of the interview. I felt the interviewer, too, had had this thought. She was also a lesbian, as well as a good interviewer. It was a funny image—the two of us who had never met, talking on the phone, each imagining the other in black leather and chains walking around her relevant university wearing a sign saying, "lesbian (hates men, rejects being feminine, seeks to seduce other women)," or with a star symbol conveying


the same meaning emblazoned on her forehead. We discussed how we each tried to hide it, but we always felt other people knew.

During the interview, I wished not to remember facts of my past. The interviewer tried repeatedly to get me to go back through the experiences of my career in a chronological way, beginning with graduate school, to trace the effects of lesbianism or discriminatory treatment related to it. I was reluctant to trace myself in that way. Instead, I felt mostly the jeopardy of my present. We did, however, identify some events of the past. There again, it felt to me like secrets I was not supposed to tell, for fear others would think I was betraying the system or acting improperly by speaking. My secrets, however, are probably not uncommon. On my first job, for example, as a visiting assistant professor, a senior male faculty member wrote me a note after my interview. It was on a pretty little card with a pressed, dried flower included in it. I figured he had some sort of fantasy, and that it was harmless. When I arrived to take the job at the start of the fall term, he picked me up at the airport and drove me around to look at houses. The damage was soon done. The first night, when he offered, I refused to stay with him at his house. Two days later, when I took an apartment that he drove me to see, I again refused his offer to spend the night with him, explaining that I was a lesbian. He quickly disappeared. Later in the semester at a faculty and graduate student party, I remember the rose-colored sweater I was wearing and how he kept looking at my breasts. Not long after that, the faculty of my department considered the continuation of my appointment. He strongly opposed it and his senior position helped to put an end to me at that university. Of course, other reasons were given—the nature of my work, for instance.

I am not saying that sleeping with male faculty members is a way to get ahead. I am saying I think it might have helped had I been wearing black leather and chains. At least, the betrayal element would then be missing. This man would have known who I was from the start. But then, again, men do not always accept what they see.

From that first job, I moved to a position at another university, again as a visiting assistant professor. I remember I did not attend a faculty party at the start of the year. The night of the party, I wondered whether I should have gone. Generally, I did not socialize with the members of


my department in a way that suggested it mattered to me, and at that university such socializing might have mattered, since the faculty were unusually young; they were all my age or younger. But I was a lesbian. Moving to a new town, I had sought out other lesbians for my social life. When I finally went to a faculty party late in the fall, I came and left quickly. I still remember the dark interior of the male faculty member's house where the party was held. The living room was crowded and I was not interested in meeting people's wives. I had another party to go to that night, at a gay woman's house, and I had a lesbian lover who was waiting to go there with me. I walked through the straight faculty party quickly and did not engage anyone in conversation of more than a few syllables. I was glad not to have to take all that very seriously.

At that second university, there was, again, a senior male faculty member, although he was younger than the senior male at the first school. He came over to my house one night after a preliminary show of interest. I knew why he was coming and I planned to tell him I was a lesbian. I hoped we might be friends. That was my first experience with a man who takes it as a challenge when told that a woman is a lesbian. After I informed him, there was some wrestling on a bed that served as a couch in the living room, and finally he gave up.

Three of us had been hired that year as visiting assistant professors. One of us would be kept on. It was not me, and it was not the nicer of the two men. It was a man who had a dark brown beard, and who, when he got dressed up, wore a white linen suit, and whose wife had recently left him. There was nothing particularly wrong with him. He was more like the man who had come over to my house than like anyone else on the faculty.

The man who came over that night was one of the three male faculty members who formed the committee that decided on who to hire permanently for the organizational position. They made their decision before Christmas, although the appointment would not start until the next academic year. For some reason, they wished to make a decision quickly. I remember walking to my car one day not long after I was told that I would not be hired, thinking that if it took a dress to get a job, I would wear one to my next interview. I would ask people I knew if a dress would make a difference, and if so, I would do what I had not been


willing to do before and get one. As it turned out, I did not wear a dress to either of the job interviews I went to that year, and I did not get either job. I never took seriously wearing a white linen suit like the bearded man who got the job in my department, but a vision of myself in a white suit, looking just like him, often occurred to me.

At one point, I visited each of the three men who formed the committee that made the hiring decision, and asked them why I did not get the job. I was told that the bearded man was more conventional. He was more the straight-line organizational type and could bring members of the nonuniversity community into the department's organizational program. I had brought nonuniversity people into my courses as guests, and I felt hurt that what they were saying was not true of me. I had probably already brought in more nonuniversity people than he had, but that was not the point.

These are blatant examples, two cases where a man I rejected sexually later rejected me in an institutional sense. Most cases are less clear. The clear ones, it seems to me, are less hurtful. At least they are less hurtful emotionally at the moment of their occurrence. In the long run, however, any rejection, or loss of a job, has consequences. In the second university, the job I did not get was one I very much wanted. I had developed attachments to people there and to that part of the country. I still think about how my life might have been different had I been able to stay. By this second time, too, I was beginning to feel that I should expect rejection when people got to know me, as they do when one is a visitor rather than a set of credentials on a curriculum vitae. Whether or not I was rejected because I was a lesbian, I felt I had been rejected because I was myself.

There are other less clear examples of experiences in which my being a lesbian has been tied to rejection, or to my being held at a distance by others. I have taught temporarily at a variety of universities, for instance, and I have noticed that my social circles are not those of the heterosexual women around me. They have husbands and I do not, and this often seems to be the problem. I sometimes feel hurt because the lesbian/straight divide limits the friends I can have at any place. The effect is not necessarily institutional disadvantage, since women do not have great advantages in universities. Mostly, I feel a loss. I notice the


lesbian/straight divide and I never like it. It is another invisible presence, something supposedly not a matter of gay and straight, but of personal choice, and assumed not to be of much importance. Yet it is important to me, for I lose relationships with other women.

Another kind of example concerns my research, since I have done work on the subject of lesbians in The Mirror Dance and in articles about lesbian identity and about researching lesbians.[1]

In addition to The Mirror Dance: Identity in a Women's Community (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983) and Social Science and the Self: Personal Essays on an Art Form (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991), my other previous works dealing with lesbianism are "Lesbian Identity and Community: Recent Social Science Literature," Signs 8:1 (1982): 91-108; and "Beyond 'Subjectivity': The Use of the Self in Social Science," Qualitative Sociology 8:4 (1985): 309-24, reprinted in Social Science and the Self, pp. 165-83. Lesbian community responses to The Mirror Dance are discussed in "Snapshots of Research," in Social Science and the Self, pp. 150-64.

When I think about my work, I usually do not think it is marked by the fact that I have studied lesbians. However, it must be and, of course, this must make a difference. What if I had studied something else? Banks, for instance, or government, or men and women in high-technology industries? When I first did the research for The Mirror Dance, I felt I had a great advantage: here was a fascinating community of lesbians, and as a member of it, I had access as an insider. I did not think that a study of lesbians, because it is about a "marginal" group of women, would have marginalizing consequences for me within sociology. Yet even in feminist and women's studies, I would find the study of lesbians would set me apart, carrying with it the same discomforts that lesbianism does: a discomfort with sex between women, a fear of being called man hating, and a fear of losing ties with men and of losing privileges from men.

I would discover that there is a deep-seated fear, which can lead to hostility, both in women's studies circles and elsewhere, as if lesbians would take over the institution if granted more than minimal courses to teach and minimal faculty positions. When known to be an academic couple, lesbians are often closely scrutinized, more so than heterosexual couples in the same university. I have found such scrutiny to be intimidating, especially when used as a device of institutional control. It has seemed to me a shocking invasion of privacy. But then the boundaries of women, whether as individuals or as a couple, are often not respected. Unfortunately, I think, it still pays to be invisible, whether for financial reasons or to defend against the hostility and homophobia of others entering into one's private life. Self-protectively, I have tried to be quiet and to keep to myself in the institutions where I have worked, but I have not been able to be invisible.

If studying lesbians, and studying them as I do—visibly, like a woman, speaking in the colloquial, dealing with the personal—has disadvantaged


me, however, I have tended to overlook that disadvantage. What I study, and how I study it, has seemed to me so much my choice, and my virtue, that I have a blind spot when it comes to thinking that others might devalue my work because of its subject, or because of my own life. But they do. After one hiring meeting, in particular, which occurred a few years after The Mirror Dance came out, I was told that the faculty, all men but one, did not find my work interesting or exciting. No wonder, I thought.

If I have been marginalized—disregarded, devalued, pushed aside—because I have studied lesbians, I have never felt I could do much about it, which may be one reason I have ignored it. I have also felt that judgments about my work that reflect a bias against lesbians are not judgments about me—that they do not really affect me personally, or cause me to think less well of myself. However, that is probably not true.

Responses to my work are responses to its style and content—and to me—which sometimes confuses me, and often obscures the lesbian issue for me. Yet I do think that my experimenting with narrative form is related to my perspective as a lesbian. The Mirror Dance, written in an unusual multiple-person stream of consciousness style—from the points of view of the seventy-eight women I interviewed—reads like gossip, like overhearing women in a small town talking about themselves and each other: "There was a lot of gossip, said Emily. It was not ill intentioned. It was Hollywood-type gossip, infatuation—'Last night she was seen with her.' She made hopeless attempts to control it sometimes."[2]

Krieger, The Mirror Dance, p. 25.

There is a lesbian feel to this gossip, joined with a sense that The Mirror Dance breaks barriers of convention by inventing its own style of expression, as do many lesbians, and as I did in attempting faithfully to depict this lesbian community.

My subsequent study, Social Science and the Self, which argued that the social scientific observer should be acknowledged more fully in our studies, dealt, too, with lesbianism, but in a more indirect way. In large parts of Social Science and the Self, to illustrate my thesis, I spoke about my personal experiences related to my work, and I spoke about being a lesbian. This study was unusual in that it combined my self-reflections with discussions of self and knowledge by women artists—Georgia O'Keeffe and Pueblo Indian potters. The book concluded with discussions


by eight feminist scholars whom I interviewed about self-expression in their work. Four of these eight scholars were lesbians. Except for one, however, I did not identify them as lesbian in the book, in part because they did not mention it when I interviewed them, and in part because I thought identifying them would cause readers to discount what they said. I feared readers might view their comments as the peculiar views of lesbians, rather than as more broadly relevant. I do not know if I would closet my choice of subjects again, but that I did so bears noting because it illustrates how easily lesbianism becomes invisible. It seems not to matter, or it seems to be something that should not be singled out for fear of adverse consequences.

The issue of closeting lesbianism aside, Social Science and the Self raised questions about narrative form: how is this study to be categorized? How does valuing self-expression and originality change a sociological work? How does speaking from a woman's view change social science? Although I did not explicitly discuss the issue of a lesbian approach to knowledge in Social Science and the Self, I think that being a lesbian and seeking women's perspectives—especially nonconforming ones—go together for me. To a significant extent, both The Mirror Dance and Social Science and the Self are lesbian expressions. They break away from male academic forms and seek to use an inner female voice in ways that challenge conventional expectations. The Mirror Dance presented a collective lesbian voice. In Social Science and the Self, I articulated my own individual voice more, and I sought out individual statements from others. In both studies, I was concerned with the difficulties of women's efforts to create their own forms of expression.[3]

Lesbian bases for theories of knowledge are discussed in Sandra Harding, "Thinking from the Perspective of Lesbian Lives," in Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women's Lives (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991), pp. 249-67; Diana Fuss, "Lesbian and Gay Theory: The Question of Identity Politics," in Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature, and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 97-112; and Teresa de Lauretis, The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), which offers a theory of lesbian subjectivity as part of an exploration of the inner psychic roots of lesbian desire and sexuality. In my view, all works that seek to identify ways that lesbian existence, subjectivity, or social life are unique point to bases for lesbian theories of knowledge; see the lesbian scholarship referred to in the notes for prior chapters and the introductory note on standpoint theories.

Recently, I have been asked by people who know my work and its concern with lesbianism, "Given the current rage for lesbian and gay studies, why don't you have a regular job by now?" I was startled, at first, to be asked this question. It caused me to think about why I have not been swept up in this wave of popularity. Although I am a lesbian, I am not a particularly trendy or entrepreneurial one. I think that the current vogue for gayness in academia, including the interest in "queer theory," will further other women who play the male academic game far more so than I do, and those who already have security, or a high status, at a university. It is deceptive, I think, to see those few token lesbians who


are rewarded for studying lesbians, and then to assume that everyone will be rewarded, or that I will be.

As a writer and scholar, I am marked by who I am. Although I wish it were otherwise, I may never become a conventional success in terms of salary, position, and popularity. In part, this is because, for me, being a lesbian is part of a desire not to fit a mold. My lesbianism, which is central to my work in general, has different value premises than those aimed at proving I can do as others do. Queer theory, like much that becomes popular in academic circles, is male theory, which may account for its appeal.[4]

A discussion of "queer theory as male theory" can be found in Terry Castle, "A Polemical Introduction; or, The Ghost of Greta Garbo," in The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 12-15; says Castle, "When it comes to lesbians, many people have trouble seeing what's in front of them" (p. 2). Teresa de Lauretis, similarly, notes "a failure of representation, an enduring silence on the specificity of lesbianism in the contemporary 'gay and lesbian' discourse," Differences 3:2 (1991): vii. Donna Penn speaks of a queer "erasure" of lesbian experiences in "Queer: Theorizing Politics and History," Radical History Review 62 (1995): 24-42. Jacquelyn N. Zita discusses potential dangers for women in "the attempt to create an interdisciplinary area of queer studies," including the silencing of women's views and the "camping up of gender and the gutting out of feminism" (p. 262). She suggests that perhaps "a new rebellion of bride resisters is in order" (p. 271), in "Gay and Lesbian Studies: Yet Another Unhappy Marriage," in Garber, Tilting the Tower, pp. 258-76.

A similar concern with the invisibility of women appears in Marilyn Frye, "Lesbian Feminism and the Gay Rights Movement: Another View of Male Supremacy, Another Separatism," in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1983), pp. 128-51. Frye says of lesbians and gay men, "we deviate from very different norms" (p. 130) and points out that gay male effeminacy, and the male impersonation of women, displays no love of women, but rather is a "casual and cynical mockery of women." For women, "femininity is the trapping of oppression," while for men, it is more often "a naughtiness indulged in ... by those who believe in their immunity to contamination" (p. 137).

I wish to express a female sensibility. Further, it seems to me that any trend in scholarship, whether female or male, brings with it its own kind of standardization. I may always be slightly too different from what is standard to be fully embraced in the academic world, even as a representative of a minority. My lesbianism, in some way, stands for my difference. I do not mean by this to understate the costs to me of that difference. I have sought to follow my own values in my work, but I have never wanted to be penalized for doing so.

Finally, I wish to speak of homophobia. It runs through all my experiences like an invisible thread. It seems not to determine something major, like whether or not I receive a job, but rather to consist of small slights toward which I try to turn the other cheek. Yet the small slights have a way of building. Last spring, for instance, I heard, by word of mouth, a piece of anonymous gossip about a woman graduate student I knew and liked. It was introduced to me as something too horrible for the student herself to speak of. The item was this: a senior male faculty member on the dissertation committee of the woman student—who may, or may not, have been a lesbian—had suggested that the student seek my advice for some part of her study because it was about lesbians, and I was a lesbian. The awful part, according to the gossip, was the way the faculty member referred to me when he made his suggestion. He spoke with his hand held up to his face, looking off to the side, as if he were speaking of something dirty, and in a snide tone. "You know," he said of me, "she's an out lesbian," with the emphasis on "out." When I heard this story, I was not horrified but, rather, I felt let down. So what? I wondered. What is wrong with being known as a lesbian? The student,


however, was so hurt and frightened by the remark that she never came to ask me for advice.

I usually think it is not the gestures like this man's, in which the scorn is on the surface, but those in which the scorn is covered up that are more serious in their consequence. The covered-up affronts are more difficult to identify and thus to deal with. I tend to think I am more hurt by the student in a classroom who sits across from me in silent distrust because she wishes not to be homophobic, but still is, than I am by the man in the background who disdainfully tells a graduate student to look me up, and also, I suspect, votes negatively on my hiring. However, the two are related. The student keeps her distance because the man is there. The man speaks his mind because no one stops him. I may not be hurt when told of the man's scorn, but I am hurt by the graduate student when, in not seeking my advice, she seems not to value me. Homophobia has a hidden nature because it is a fear. Acts that stimulate that fear are interrelated. They are also, I think, disabling. I have found the repeated job rejections I have experienced to be disabling, not only externally, but internally, in terms of my self-confidence and ability to do my work. However, I know that those who attempt to conform, to be invisible, also are disabled by not being able to be themselves in their work.

When I think about hurts of the academic system, I do not usually think I have been hurt because I am a lesbian. I think of things I can see more easily, and of explanations that have nothing to do with my choosing women. My main hurt in academia is lack of a regular job—a full-time, full-status position. I also think I have been hurt because of the ways people have spoken to me over the years about my not having such a job. They make comments such as: "I wish I could have all that time off." "If you just were willing to move." "You are happier this way." "You would not be so productive if you were full-time employed." "You don't do mainstream work, what do you expect?" meaning, of course, "you deserve what you get." I feel hurt by these words, to the point of tears, every time I hear them. Over time, however, I have learned to speak back to the words and eventually to focus on the insensitivity of the speaker: "This person does not realize, she does not know. I do deserve.


I would be more productive. I am not happier. I have reasons for not moving, and for not taking just any job." Yet the hurt continues.

I have learned to think of my hurt in the academic world as very much related to the nature of my work—to my unconventional choices about what my work is, and where I do it. I have also learned to see this hurt as related to a larger economic circumstance that has existed since the time I completed my degree. I did my graduate work at a time of plenty. The academic world subsequently became more constricted, and it came to have less room for people like me. Such an economic explanation seems, at times, very clear to me. I see it with pain, but I see it.

What I almost never see is that my choice to be a lesbian is significant in all this. I can see that being a lesbian is an element in the whole bundle that is me, but it is hard for me to feel that this lesbian element is more important, say, than my refusal to keep moving for a job, or my penchant for doing things my own way. However, I now think I must take into account how I felt in the interview with the master's student, how great my fear was, how strong my denial, how shocked even I was by my own constant dismissal of the facts of my past and present. By the end of the interview, I was sweaty and tired and I wanted to stop early. "These are things I do not like to think about," I kept telling the interviewer. "These are things I do not want to know," and yet I know them.

In the past, I have viewed parts of my lesbian experience as incidents not to be spoken of in the same breath as I speak of my academic career.[5]

For discussions of experiences of other lesbian faculty, some of them similar to my own, a recent important collection is Linda Garber, ed., Tilting the Tower: Lesbians, Teaching, Queer Subjects (New York: Routledge, 1994); see especially Mary Klages, "The Ins and Outs of a Lesbian Academic," pp. 235-42, for a discussion of job interview experiences. An important earlier collection is Margaret Cruikshank, ed., Lesbian Studies: Present and Future (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1982); see especially Jane Gurko, "Sexual Energy in the Classroom," pp. 25-31, for a discussion of "particular sexual dynamics set off by a lesbian teacher" and of a pattern of unusually high student expectations that a lesbian teacher will be an especially good mother, often followed by a letdown (pp. 29-30). An important overview based on a recent study of sociologists is Verta Taylor and Nicole C. Raeburn, "Identity Politics as High-Risk Activism: Career Consequences for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Sociologists," Social Problems 42:2 (1995): 252-73, including a discussion of how engaging in lesbian and gay scholarship has affected individual careers.

Additional personal accounts by lesbians include: Elenie Opffer, "Coming Out to Students: Notes from the College Classroom," in R. Jeffrey Ringer, Queer Words, Queer Images: Communication and the Construction of Homosexuality (New York: New York University Press, 1994), pp. 296-321; Judith McDaniel, "Is There Room for Me in the Closet? Or, My Life as the Only Lesbian Professor," in Margo Culley and Catherine Portuges, eds., Gendered Subjects: The Dynamics of Feminist Teaching (Boston: Routledge, 1985), pp. 130-35; Rebecca Mark, "Teaching from the Open Closet," in Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, eds., Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 245-59; Jacqueline Taylor, "Performing the (Lesbian) Self: Teacher as Text," in Ringer, Queer Words, pp. 289-95; and Ruthann Robson, "Pedagogy, Jurisprudence, and Finger-Fucking: Lesbian Sex in a Law School Classroom," In Karla Jay, ed., Lesbian Erotics (New York: New York University Press, 1995), pp. 28-39.

Henry Abelove discusses dilemmas posed by postmodernism for the teaching of lesbian and gay subjects, in "The Queering of Lesbian/Gay History," Radical History Review 62 (1995): 44-57; the idea of queering is also explored in Julia Wallace, "Queer-ing Sociology in the Classroom," Critical Sociology 203 (1994): 176-92. For accounts of teaching at many levels, see Kevin Jennings, ed., One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories (Boston: Alyson, 1994). For experiences of students as well as of a lesbian teacher, see Harriet Malinowitz, Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discourse Communities (Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1995).

I have feared I would be making the situation worse for myself by speaking of events that are too petty or too private. I feared that just as I dismiss the importance of these events, others would too. Yet my being a lesbian is not a private, or separate, part of my life. It is not separate for me, nor for those who respond to me. It is not unimportant for any of us. As a lesbian, I choose women over men, I align myself with women, and I often deny men access to me. To the extent that I do so, I am alternately vulnerable, threatening, and disposable in a system where male-based choices and alliances are the important ones. My experience is not that of every lesbian, but there may be elements of it that others may share, such as the sense of having a stigma that is accepted, and a pain that is not felt, or of having a wish that black leather would solve the problem, or simply wishing that the system had other rules.

Seven Lesbian In Academe

Preferred Citation: Krieger, Susan. The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships among Women. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c1996 1996.