Gay Professors Encounter Problems With Acceptance

Linda Shin of the Daily Cal staff contributed to this article.





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Editor's Note: This is the third in an occasional series on gay issues at UC Berkeley.

While the word "diversity" has become a catch-phrase on the UC Berkeley campus in connection with women and minorities, gay and lesbian professors are often left out of the discussion, despite facing similar obstacles.

The university is obligated under federal regulations to try and have a faculty that reflects the diversity of the surrounding community, but these laws do not specifically refer to sexual orientation.

"I don't personally believe sexual orientation should be an affirmative action tool," says Billy Curtis, a resource coordinator at the Gender and Equity Resource Center. "Our oppression manifests itself differently and recruitment is not the issue."

While women and minorities cannot disguise their physical attributes, sexual orientation cannot be determined based on appearance alone. However, once professors are on campus and choose to be open about their sexuality, the real concern is about acceptance and tolerance.

"I believe Berkeley is the most comfortable place for gays and lesbians in the country," Curtis says.

Because the Bay Area has a reputation for tolerance, Curtis says many professors are attracted to schools in the area.

While Curtis says the university does not need to actively recruit gay and lesbian professors, he adds that it should be made clear that gays and lesbians are welcome on campus. Within the field of academia, Curtis says the number of professors who are openly gay is a far smaller proportion than the number of openly gay students and staff members.

This may be the result of older professors feeling less comfortable about making their sexual orientation known because of prejudice they may have faced in the past. At the same time, professors often associate themselves with their area of expertise, such as being a chemist or a historian, rather than with other aspects of their lives. They may feel that their sexuality does not relate to their role as a professor and may be reluctant to be open about it.

Curtis adds that certain departments are more encouraging of openly gay professors than others. While it is a myth that there are more gay and lesbian professors in the humanities and social sciences, Curtis attributes this to certain departments being more accepting. He says there are probably just as many gay professors in a field such as engineering, but they may not feel it is as safe to come out.

One area that Curtis says may be a problem relates to gay and lesbian professors receiving tenure. While he says he does not know of discrimination in this area at UC Berkeley, he has heard that it exists on other campuses.

The university administration has made many efforts to increase the number of minority and female professors on campus, but there has not been much focus on increasing the number of gay and lesbian professors.

Some schools and departments have taken their own initiative to recruit a more diverse group of professors, including those who are gay or lesbian. After the 1995 decision by the UC Regents to ban hiring preferences on the basis of race or gender, Boalt Law School created the Coalition for a Diverse Faculty as part of the Boalt Hall Fund.

This fund is the school's primary source of unrestricted funding and allows for the recruitment of a more diverse faculty, which includes professors of different sexual orientations.

Stephen Palmer, a professor of psychology, says he does not think there should be an increased effort in recruiting gay and lesbian professors because they will automatically be hired if the university focuses on hiring a diverse group of professors overall.

"If they do their job and hire the best people, then a representative number of people will be gay by chance," he says.

Others see the lack of gay and lesbian professors as indicative of a larger crisis concerning diversity on campus.

"I think the small amount of out gay professors is more of a result of a broader lack of outreach towards diverse professors in general," says Justin Kirk, a sophomore and coordinator for the Queer Resource Center. "To me, the small amount of gay professors is very much tied to an overall misunderstanding of diversity (and) of what it means on the part of the administration. One of the things we fight for is professors and staff to be hired regardless of sexual orientation. But we should actively seek diversity, and that includes gay and lesbian professors."

He adds, "(It is) hard to separate (the) gay rights movement from (the) women's rights movement and other struggles. The university hasn't hired enough out gay and lesbian professors, not as if they've been wonderful on other issues either. The issue of gay and lesbian professors should be addressed, along with more female professors and more professors of color. Any discussion should also include professors who are out and active in the queer community."

While recognizing that there remains a lot of homophobia and "heterosexism" in society as a whole, many professors on campus say they have been received positively by students and faculty.

"I have not (experienced prejudice) at all within the two departments," says Robert Anderson, a professor of both math and economics. "Sometimes I have, with interactions with people on campus, but much less so in the last 10 years."

The Queer Resource Center has a list of students, faculty and staff members who are openly gay, which appears on their Web site. There are currently 23 professors on the list. Anderson says he added his name to the list of openly gay professors because he felt it was necessary for students to have resources they could turn to, and he was willing to help pave the way.

Other professors have been open as well, and while they have faced some difficulties, many say their experiences have been positive.

Palmer was married for 13 years and people in his department were surprised when the marriage dissolved and he said he was gay. However, the general response has been encouraging.

"Students don't know unless you tell them, and so far I have told all of my large lecture classes," he says. "Sometimes gay students will come up afterward and say, ‘That was brave and I'm gay too.' The response has generally been positive, but sometimes students might keep their opinions to themselves."

His advice to both students and professors is to be open about their sexual orientation and allow other people to get to know them.

"I think that is the most important thing there is, to be out so that there will be some understanding of who we are," he says.

He adds, however, that sexual orientation should not be the first thing people know about each other and that he does not tell his students that he is gay during the first lecture.

"Let people get to know you first and then come out," he says. "If they know you and respect you, (even) if they do have some prejudices, it will make them think first."

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