How Tenure Works (and Doesn’t Work)

There are three broad types of teaching faculty in an American university: tenured, tenure-track, and everyone else. Tenured and tenure-track professors are essentially white-collar workers on multi-year contracts who receive full benefits and are eligible for paid research leave.

“Everyone else” varies from university to university, but the majority of people who aren’t tenured or on the tenure track have short-term contracts and receive no benefits. Although “everyone else” used to be the exception, they now make up roughly 75% of all teaching faculty in higher education in the United States. This is obviously a huge problem, and I’ll return to it later.

Tenured faculty enjoy the full privileges of employment at a university, including the ability to participate in the committees that decide department and university policy. They are also eligible to rise to high-level administrative positions. Tenured faculty also have a bit more power when it comes to “quality of life” issues like being able to schedule their classes at their preferred times and not having to teach large first-year classes. Their salaries are higher, the length of research leave they can take is longer, and they’re more likely to receive institutional funding. Tenured faculty can also teach graduate-level seminars – sometimes exclusively – and take on grad students.

The main privilege that tenured professors enjoy is that, short of sexually assaulting someone, it’s very difficult for the university to fire them (or to force them to retire, which is actually a major issue right now). This means that they can take longer to complete more ambitious projects, and they can start publishing with commercial presses and become public intellectuals if they like. There’s also no need for them to receive high student course evaluations, which gives them the freedom to develop more experimental classes and teaching methods while not having to put up with stupid undergraduate bullshit (like worrying about whether a kid will give your course a low score if you have a class session about race or LGBTQ+ material, for instance). Because they don’t have to worry about teaching and publishing so much anymore, tenured professors also have more time to become active in university service and administration.

A tenure-track professor, usually referred to as an “assistant professor,” has been hired by the university at an entry-level position. In order to be promoted through tenure, an assistant professor has to jump through burning hoops of fire. I know that’s an abstract description, but I don’t how else to put it. Because of the extremely competitive academic job market, the only people who are hired for tenure-track positions tend to be already functioning at the level of a tenured professor when they walk in the door. Regardless, receiving tenure isn’t a foregone conclusion, even at second- and third-tier schools with very few institutional resources and a nonexistent level of faculty support.

Unless a tenure-track professor is a serial molester or a complete academic fuck-up (or both at the same time), it’s actually in a university’s best interests to grant them tenure, usually after they’ve spent four or five years in the position. During this time, this person will have published research with the university’s name on it and otherwise promoted the university’s brand through their work, and they will have established a set of classes they can reliably teach. They will also have grown accustomed to the university’s culture while making connections with other faculty and staff members. In other words, the university has already put a lot of investment into someone by the time they go up for tenure, and that person has already become associated with their university in their broader field. Both as an institution and as a brand, a university wants to show that they have a lot of tenured faculty members, as faculty retention demonstrates not only the university’s wealth but also its prestige.

Still, assistant professors are required to demonstrate professional excellence in order to be granted tenure. The details of how this works differ from school to school; but, generally speaking, applicants are required to submit a portfolio of various materials that often runs more than a thousand pages in length. This portfolio will not only contain letters of support from people within the university but also from leading members of the applicant’s field – none of whom the applicant can choose or otherwise designate.

A tenure-track professor therefore has to publish as much as they can while establishing a strong professional reputation within four years, all while developing new classes, teaching a full course load, and getting high scores on student course evaluations. Although their service to their own university is limited by their rank, tenure-track professors need to “serve the field” by doing things like editing, translation, peer review, public lectures, media appearances, and so on. It’s a lot of work, obviously, but we wouldn’t be in the profession in the first place if this sort of thing didn’t give us a sense of satisfaction. This is one of the main reasons why the attrition rate for PhD programs is so high – at some point a lot of people realize that this isn’t what they want to spend their lives doing, which is valid.

In any case, someone going up for tenure first submits their portfolio to a special committee made up of members of their department, as well as one or more members of other departments who are qualified to judge their competence. The committee then makes a recommendation to the applicant’s home department, which takes a vote. The department chair will write a letter of support (or caution) based on that vote, and the applicant’s tenure case will be assigned to a nonpartial liaison who will present the case to the university.

In the end, it’s the university that decides whether or not to grant tenure. Even if the department votes against someone’s case, and even if their department chair hates them, the university can still decide to give them tenure. Because professors have a well-known tendency to be petty and resentful toward each other, it’s often the case that the university will grant tenure to someone a department has voted against. The reverse is also true – a person can be admired and respected by everyone they work with, but the university can still decide not to grant tenure for whatever reason it chooses. A decision against tenure may have nothing to do with the applicant at all; the university may have decided to discontinue funding for that particular tenure line in order to open a tenure line in another department, for example.

It goes without saying – and there is a towering tsunami of evidence that supports this – that the tenure process is biased against women, people of color, and other minorities. Women especially are held to higher standards, and any other minority identity that might apply to them only makes them more vulnerable to being perceived as inadequate and expendable. During the past ten years, I have seen one female colleague after another fail to get tenure, and it’s terrifying. In fact, the person who held my position before I did, a woman of color, apparently felt so alienated by the inherent prejudice of this system that she didn’t even submit her tenure portfolio even though (in my personal opinion) she would have had a strong case and benefited my department immensely in the long run.

If you don’t get tenure, you have one year to make an appeal. After that, if the appeal isn’t granted, you have to leave when your contract ends. The appeal process is a nightmare and requires the complete revision and re-submission of a tenure portfolio. Most appeals aren’t granted (even if lawyers get involved), so many people don’t even try. After all, if you’re going to go through all that trouble, it makes more sense to apply to other jobs than to stay at a school that has already made it clear that it doesn’t value the work you’ve done.

Unfortunately, as the number of tenure-track positions that open every year continues to shrink, it’s highly unlikely that someone who is denied tenure will find another tenure-track job. In addition, tenured professors in their seventies and eighties will not retire, thereby denying opportunities for younger people to enter their departments.

This is where we return to the problem of “everyone else” that I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Although there are both abstract and tangible benefits to having tenured faculty, many universities have begun to privilege their short-term interests. According to this mindset, why would you pay a tenured professor an actual salary when it’s much more cost-effective to pay an average of $3,000 per class to a short-term worker who often has the exact same (or even better) educational qualifications?

Because of the state of the American economy since around 2008 or so, more people have been completing graduate degrees. Meanwhile, universities are relying more on short-term contracts, which means that there is a horrifying scarcity of tenure-track jobs. My field is one of the fastest growing fields in higher education, yet it’s a very good year when fifteen tenure-track jobs open in English-speaking countries. University departments tend not to hire across fields – for example, someone who wrote a dissertation about queer literature for a Gender Studies department will probably not be considered as a viable applicant to an English department – which places additional limits on the number of jobs that even highly qualified people can apply to.

Competition is fierce, even for temporary positions that don’t provide benefits or a remotely livable wage, so why should a university have to settle for a tenure-track professor who isn’t perfect? It doesn’t help that both tenure-track job searches and the process of reviewing a tenure case necessitate a staggering amount of unpaid labor from everyone involved. And what department would want to hire someone who already has a tenure-track job but didn’t appreciate it enough to go through the tenure process? I mean, given how much institutional investment goes into an assistant professor, why would a university want to hire someone who’s clearly interested in job hopping? And, if someone went up for tenure but didn’t get it, why would a university want to hire someone they see as another university’s discarded trash?

What I’m saying is that, because of the tenure system, there is either too much mobility as early-career academics are uprooted from their communities and forced to move to a different university every year (and sometimes every semester) as they apply to tenure-track jobs, or zero mobility for people who actually get a tenure-track job and but can’t leave without effectively ending their career.

I’m not yet sure what suggestions I would offer to help restructure the tenure system in American universities, but I think acknowledging that it looks good on paper but has major disadvantages in practice is probably a good start.

Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.

#MeToo Ethics

Not everyone can be Anita Hill.

We all know who Anita Hill is because she is a smart and brave woman who tried to make the world a better place and succeeded. We do not know the names of the smart and brave women who tried to make the world a better place and failed. If you try and fail, your career will be ruined while the creepy douchebag who’s harassing people will gain extra immunity from future accusations. Anita Hill succeeded because she is smart and brave, but also because she is mediagenic and had a lot of legal support – and it still wasn’t easy for her. Maybe you can’t be Anita Hill, but you can keep triplicate copies of all your records of harassment on hand so that you can stand behind a future Anita Hill when she steps up.

They may not be telling the whole story, but you should believe them anyway.

When a person in a precarious position provides testimony against someone in a position of relative power, it’s important to treat their testimony seriously but also with a sympathetic understanding of the broader context. Most people just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved, and most people aren’t going to risk ruining their professional reputation unless something truly upsetting is going on. The chances are that the bad behavior being reported has been going on for a long time and includes far more microaggressions than outright harassment, but it can be extremely difficult to get other people to take microaggressions seriously. If someone makes an accusation, it’s fair to assume that what they’ve chosen to highlight in their testimony is only the tip of the iceberg. Even if they accidentally misrepresent the shape of the iceberg, that giant island of ship-destroying ice is still there.

There are no neutral parties once an accusation has been made.

You cannot simultaneously be friends with a rapist or harasser and the person they raped or harassed. Once a formal accusation has been made, you have to pick a side. This isn’t always easy, but do you really want to be friends with someone who harasses and assaults other people? Or, in rare cases, with someone who has made a false accusation of harassment and assault?

When in doubt, the person who makes death threats is wrong.

Sometimes it’s not clear what’s going on or who the aggrieved party actually is. If you find yourself in a situation in which you have to pick a side but don’t know all the details or who’s telling the truth, you should side with the person who isn’t sending death threats, rape threats, or suicide bait to the other person – or asking or encouraging other people to do it for them.

The accused party does not get to dictate the terms of the relationship.

Someone who has behaved badly does not automatically deserve a second chance, or a chance to explain themselves, or a chance to apologize, or any amount of time and emotional energy of the person they’ve harassed or assaulted. If the person who has suffered because of their actions eventually wants to repair the relationship, that’s up to them, not the person who ruined their life. It’s important that mutual acquaintances not try to act as intermediaries, especially not if there’s a court order in place.

I know it may seem as though I’m speaking in broad generalizations, but each of these observations is based on my own experiences. I thought about giving concrete examples to illustrate these points, but I ultimately decided against it. Like I said, most people (including myself) just want to do their jobs and go home without getting lawyers involved. If someone is willing to risk their career to stand up to harassment and abuse, however, it’s important to support them, even if that “support” is as simple as saving a copy of an incriminating email or unfollowing someone who asks other people to send rape threats on social media.

Deep Water

The problem is that Disney has the brand recognition and the deep pockets to freeze out anyone else who tries.
https://earlgraytay.tumblr.com/post/186522860758/moral-autism-earlgraytay-okay-there-are

Any other time anyone does anything with fairy tales (or princesses, or talking cars, or talking fish, or pirates, or…) Disney can make their own version and sell it at a loss, driving their competitors out of business. They have more money than God. They can afford to lose money on one theme park, let alone one toyline or one movie.

The problem with Disney is that it’s a monopoly. And like any other monopoly, Disney can freeze out anyone who tries to compete with them. I think if you trustbusted Disney – left them with their animation studio and maybe their theme park division, but took away Pixar and Marvel and ESPN and all their television outlets and all the other crap they own – they’d have a harder time undercutting everyone else. You’d see more stuff based on folklore and fairy tales, and it’d have more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being successful.

One of the reasons I love Tumblr is because it gives me so many windows into subcultures I had no idea existed. Members of these subcultures often have unique insider information about things that most people probably take for granted, and it’s interesting to view the world from these perspectives.

I take everything I read on Tumblr with a grain of salt, but it’s still fascinating to learn about, for instance, how groups of people devoted to doll collecting see Disney as using its enormous amounts of capital to monopolize and then destroy the market for toys targeted at young girls. Whether Disney is actually doing this (as they most certainly are) is immaterial; what’s worth paying attention to is that resistance is coming from a subculture that most people would probably assume would be supportive of Disney.

I routinely encounter posts like this that help me remember that the culture I’m familiar with is just the tip of the iceberg. Once you start looking deeper into subcultures, you begin to realize that there are powerful currents underneath the water that shape global mediascapes in ways that aren’t immediately recognizable.

Going onto Tumblr sometimes feels like climbing into a submarine and exploring by the narrow beam of a headlight, and there are any number of odd and unexpected things swimming around below the surface.

How I Got Kicked Out of High School for Being Queer

I got kicked out of high school for being queer. True story!

Content warning for institutionalized homophobia. I landed on my feet and turned out okay, but nothing about this story is pleasant or uplifting.

Because I am a smart and special snowflake, I got accepted as a scholarship student to an elite private high school, Woodward Academy. Woodward Academy is located just south of Atlanta, and it’s one of the three big private schools in the area. Unlike the other two, Woodward Academy has historically accepted students who aren’t white, so it’s relatively diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and national origin. In other areas, however, Woodward Academy was extremely conservative, and it had a “zero tolerance” policy for just about everything you can imagine. People got kicked out all the time for what basically amounted to doing normal stupid things that normal stupid kids tend to do.

It should be said, however, that officials could be bribed to look the other way by means of “donations” to the school. To give an example, there was a kid in high school whom everyone referred to as “[Name Redacted] the Date Rapist” because, well, he had a habit of inviting girls on dates after school, trapping them in his car, and raping them. His family was very wealthy, so it was the girls who came forward who were punished, not him. It’s not as if it were just him doing this, either; the environment at Woodward Academy at the time was very Brett Kavanaugh.

Anyway, I got kicked out of Woodward Academy during my junior year, a few months after I turned sixteen.

What happened is that a friend of mine had a stressful home life and smoked pot to help deal with her depression and anxiety. She was also in all Honors and AP classes, so she had to deal with that pressure as well. If you happen to be under the false impression that marijuana turns kids into academic burnouts, I want to assure you that this girl was doing very well academically. My friend was also openly bisexual and something of a leader and mentor in the fledgling LGBTQ+ community at Woodward. Under the pretense of cracking down on illegal drug use, the administration decided to force her to leave school. Again, she was doing very well academically, and it’s telling that it was her who got kicked out and not any of the kids who openly sold prescription stimulants and painkillers in the student center, openly advertised their raves, or openly did cocaine in one of the third-floor bathrooms, which we called “the cocaine bathroom” because it had a weird raised shelf above the sinks that honestly felt like it was installed for no other purpose than to make it easy to do lines of coke.

Because I was friends with this girl – and yes, because I once bought pot from her – I also got kicked out after being randomly summoned to the Dean’s Office in the middle of class in order to be subjected to a weird kangaroo court intended to induce panic and thereby pressure me into outing other students. There were a number of students in my grade whom everyone knew sold drugs; and, even though I never interacted with any of them, they were so notorious that I can still remember their full names. All of these kids came from money, and some of them are doing very well for themselves these days. It’s almost as if it’s not drug use that’s the problem, but the stigmatization of certain types of people associated with drugs in the popular imagination, right? Anyway, the dean only asked me about students who were, to put it in the language of 2019, queer or questioning. I didn’t handle this interview as well as I could have; but, to give myself credit, I quickly figured out what was happening and refused to say anything.

You may be thinking that I probably had other problems, because it’s not feasible that someone would be kicked out of school just for being suspected of being gay. It’s true that I had a difficult first year of high school, which was directly related to my own stressful home life, but I got my act together and, like my friend, was in all Honors and AP classes during my junior year. Despite enduring a ridiculously long commute, working several part-time jobs, and also managing a dysfunctional household more or less single-handedly, I got good grades and even managed to participate in a few extracurriculars and do volunteer work. Also, after my one teenage experiment with marijuana, I was obnoxiously straightedge until college. I had a wide circle of friends and was generally liked, but I didn’t hang out after school or go to parties. Instead, I would sit in the gorgeous school library and study foreign languages. In fact, it’s because I was doing so well academically that I was able to enter a top-ten school as a freshman during what should have been my senior year of high school.

In other words, I’m not the sort of person who would have been kicked out of an elite prep school for not getting good grades. What I was, however, was friendly with a lot of gay kids. We had actually started to come out and identify ourselves as LGBTQ+, which several of my friends’ parents later told me was a major topic of discussion in PTA meetings at the time. Apparently this was a problem.

I didn’t understand that I had “a gay identity” in high school, but I always knew that I was romantically attracted to people of all genders and that my sense of myself didn’t align with “male” or “female.” Romantic attraction and gender presentation wasn’t the entirety of my identity, however, and I wasn’t particularly interested in either of those issues at the time. I loved science and reading and visual art, and I really just wanted to study and do well in my classes. If you can think of a stereotype of the sort of high school student who becomes college professor, I would have been exactly what you’re envisioning. Still, even if I wasn’t aware of it, there was something about me that was “queer,” and it was apparently visible enough to become a problem for school administrators who didn’t want even one person like that in the student body.

So that’s how I got kicked out of high school for being queer.

After that, I was ostracized by my family, who refused to support me emotionally or financially. It was tough, and I had to make some awful decisions that I’m not proud of.

I want to say “it got better,” but it didn’t, not really. In order to survive, I had to pass as cisgender and straight, and I still don’t make a point of disclosing my gender and sexuality if it’s not necessary, especially within a professional context. What this has led to, unfortunately, is LGBTQ+ gatekeeping and the assumption that I’m unqualified to talk about queer identity. I’m still in a weird liminal space between presenting as straight and being openly gay, and feeling unwelcome has become my default. Having a disability doesn’t help, of course.

There’s no moral to this story, but I still think it’s important to share. If nothing else, it’s good to remember that progress is gradual, as is healing and acceptance. I may not be in a place where I can be comfortable with myself yet, but that doesn’t mean I’ll never get there.

I still love books, and now I’m a tenure-track professor in the modern languages department at a large international research university. My friend also turned out okay, and she’s now living with her wife in a beautiful part of the world and operating a legal marijuana dispensary. We’re mutuals on Instagram, and she is living her best life, which is lovely and super wholesome and filled with outdoors adventures.

In any case, I’d like to add that the issues raised in this personal anecdote have implications beyond my own life. Kids shouldn’t be kicked out of school just for being queer, and it’s important to say that the same goes for straight kids, as a lot of straight kids also have to leave high school because of their harmless sexual activity. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’m such a strong supporter of collaboration between intersectional feminists and LGBTQ+ activism. No one should be denied the right to an education for expressing their gender or a healthy teenage sexuality!