The Gay Academic Unmasks

by Louie Crew

First appeared in Chronicle of Higher Education 8.2 (February 25, 1974): 20.

© 1974 by Chronicle of Higher Education; © 2004 by Louie Crew

    For centuries the academy in the West has made quite clear the only terms on which gay persons could be accepted professionally at any level:  complete invisibility.  Gay men and women have been forced to pass as straights.  Our unique sexual orientation has been shoved into a closet.

    Many of us have learned thus to survive, even to prevail, some of us even to forget, except for very frantic moments, that we really are gay.  By playing the game of invisibility we have held every possible position of leadership; we have been major forces in the arts, in literature, in science, in technology, in every discipline.  Some of us have even grown smug with the awareness that more and more generations of straight academics are now enlightened by mild doses of psychological liberalism.  Straights now sometimes even tolerate our few accidental lapses into public visibility.  Furthermore, there seem to be fewer scandals, fewer arrests for "moral turpitude."  The media have helped by defining our place.  We and the general public have been told that gays can now frequent clubs of our own.  The impression is that there is now less risk of blackmail when academics discreetly go to such places.

    Some gays argue that we have never had it so good, that we now even have power.  Many straights concur, even saying that gays have too much power, that too many bosses are gay an d that straights often learn too late the sexual politics of the game of invisibility.  The one constant is the game itself, invisibility, passing, closeting, wearing the heterosexual mask, reassuring straights that all is really right with the world.

    From the Anglo-Saxon hal are derived the three modern English words whole, hale (healthy), and holy.  So much is sexuality a part of one's wholeness that some of us are now questioning whether we can ever be hale, much less holy, so long as the academy and the society require our sexual invisibility.

    While straights themselves have a very unimpressive record   of establishing publicly their wholeness, their situation is not exactly parallel to that of gays.  In the Western culture most people assume that a person has a heterosexaul orientation unless he or she indicates otherwise.  The price for indicating otherwise remains typically the complete disenfranchisement, the removal of the offending gay from the academy.  Merely to assert that some one is gay has been taken regularly as a radical confrontation worthy if not of medieval torture, at least of absolute oblivion.  Very recent history reminds all that the Nazis baked gays by the thousands and that a morally bankrupt academy (not to mention Judaism and Christianity) has yet to raise even a whimper of protest.

    Small wonder, then, that so many gays accept invisibility.  Gays have played the game so long that there is very little gay community, almost no gay family.  Despite the stingiest estimate that close to two in ten of all persons have had some gay sexual encounters, most gays, like most straights, get their verbalized understanding of their gay experiences from books written by straights.  Such is the censorship in the so-called helping professions that even now a candidly gay identity will bring dismissal from almost any graduate school of psychology, social work, psychiatry, or the pastoral ministry.  The few gay writers who do gain acceptance are often those that either reaffirm theories of straights or otherwise serve straights' prurient entertainment.

    It seems time that all of us, gays and straights alike, proclaimed that the very requirement of invisibility is the real perversion.  One has absolutely no responsibility as to what activated body chemistry, but must be allowed every responsibility about the way in which to treat those to whom one is attracted.

    As a gay professor, I feel an obligation to free straight colleagues and students from their logical misconceptions about my sexual identity.  A five-minute statement at the beginning of the term is sufficient.  I feel no need to indulge in  long accounts of my personal sexuality.  Yet so much is passion -- including sexual passion -- a part of my learning experience and judgment that I feel my students and colleagues have a right to know the source of my biases.  Just as important, my own growth as a whole person demands such clarity.

    It is not as if sexuality is really forbidden in the classroom, particularly for those of us who teach literature.  I could hardly teach most literary works adequately without references to sex, both gay and  straight.  Particularly vicious has been the systematic way in which great gay writers have themselves been forced to pass for straights in the standard texts.  In discussing gay writers as gays, I would only compound the confusion and deprive my students of my special vantage if I were to refer to the writers with the pronouns they, them and their when I really mean we, us,  and our.

    Of course, I am but one of many gay academics now asking for the right to be whole persons on the job.  Recently, over Thanksgiving [1973], 325 of us met in New York City at the first national conference of the Gay Academic Union, with the them "Scholarship and the Gay Academic Experience." [See The Chronicle, December 10.]  Such dialogues are beginning all over the country.  The call is clearly for sexual honesty, from straights and gays alike.  To reveal a hidden sexual identity with pride is tantamount to saying, "I have my guts on the table; where are yours?"  The result, it is to be hoped, will be discovery, not just more power politics.

    Gay intellectual honesty is one of the first good breezes in the rancid air of the academy in years.  It could well open many new discussions about sexuality and the total human experience to enrich human experience for decades.  At the very least, thousands of other gay brothers and sisters in the academy and elsewhere may not need to remain lonely, alienated, and afraid for as long as some of us chose to do.

    When I informed my Georgia classes and administration of my gayness, one of the persons most visibly affected was a closeted gay friend.  In tears he proclaimed, "I respect the hell ot of you, but I resent the implication that others can have no integrity without so doing.  I could never take off my clothes before so many people who don't give a damn.  I can't even tell my wife!  And closet is such a fierce word, so very unfair:  it makes me feel that everything I am is insignificant!"

    The closet is indeed a frightening place.  The decision to leave it is a very personal one, clearly not one that anyone should be pressured into.  In a culture as stifling as ours, many gay persons may never feel safe to come out.  Only six month ago, at 26, I would have committed suicide had more than a select few known about my gayness.  For me only the love and support of one great man, together with the rallying of increasing numbers of gays and straights, gave me the impetus completely to decloset.  Each person knows best her or his own timetable.

    Now uncloseted, like many others I have found the rewards richer than anticipated.  I am free forever from all threats and reality of blackmail.  I no longer waste time wondering whether people like my well-fashioned mask or the "real me."  I am free to get on with the important task facing all people, to develop my "real me," which includes the sexual as well as the professional, simultaneously.

    As a white man loving a black man in rural Georgia on a state black college campus, I have not suffered a single open reprisal in my six months here, nor has my lover.  Students have been very protective of both of us.  White and black colleagues have welcomed the opportunities to discuss issues, to entertain us, to be entertained by us.  One administrator has stated privately his admiration for my courage.  Several counselors at the college have applauded my volunteering my services as a responsible, reasonably happy, very productive gay resource person, available for talking with gays or with counselors.  Extremely gratifying has been the report of one of the gay students, who said, "Things have changed for us since you've been here; we feel a lot better being who we are."

    For me that anticipated risk most feared was always the rejection that I associated with visible gays.   Now visible myself, I find myself not rejected.  I have the pleasure of knowing that I am accepted for who I am.  When  the time comes for contract renewal or for tenure -- well, that never was safe or a sure thing.  I can sew, I can act, I can write, I can cook, I can dig ditches; in whatever field my society forces me to survive, I will survive as a whole person.  I know that I shall always somehow be teaching, and always learning in the context of my gay experience.  Perhaps the biggest less that I want to turn my attention to now is the genesis of the sick homophobia rampant in our society.


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