“What do you do for work?”
So this post is very reactionary. In fact, I’ve had some of these thoughts for the past month but they boiled over as I was finishing some dental work – I promise this will make sense soon.
I have accepted a position as a professional in an LGBT Resource Center at a state institution. It is a position I am privileged and humbled to serve in and work I look forward to continuing. I have moved from the South to the Midwest for this position and now live in a place where I know little about but have certain reference points for (e.g., co-workers, friends, websites, etc.). Due to an infection, I had to get a root canal recently (unfortunately, it was incredibly painful throughout the move and it took this long to address the issue, but I’m getting off topic). At the end of the procedure, I was making droopy small talk with one of my surgeons. She asked me what I will do at my university – and here’s what I’ve wrestled with for the past few weeks since my move.
Every time someone I am not familiar with has asked me that question since I’ve accepted the position, I’ve had to make a decision. Mostly, I’ve been answering with “I’ll be an administrator in student services” or something of the sort. Sometimes, this is to save myself from having to explain what student affairs is to folks and explain how I am not a college professor (although I think I have a good two or three sentence explanation that is free of jargon at this point). But now, it’s become both (more) personal and political. In the instance I tell someone what I do, I disrupt the heteronormative space I occupy and may become unwelcome in that space altogether.
For most, it is not yet an accepted question to ask someone their orientation out right. I still struggle with asking someone their sexual orientation outright (I generally ask people if they are willing to share how they identify – that’s for another post at another time). But a question like “what do you do/what do you do for work” is accepted and thought to be low risk to some. So of course there are times to pick and chose when I share.
This is nothing necessarily new but now it is different. In my attempts to navigate space before, it’s always how much will I come out today, for queer/trans* people are always coming out; it’s never just a single incident. Today, I chose to tell the personal my exact title and the work I will do, outing myself to a certain degree in the process. Tomorrow, depending on the context (because I do not believe this is a case where there’s a dualistic right or wrong), I may not.
Which leads me back to authenticity and vulnerability. Many (read: MANY) in student affairs are on the Dr. Brene Brown train. Let me tell you, I love her work as well and just finished her book a few months ago. Some have offered critique of her work around vulnerability; I hope to offer my own critical reflection of her work here, especially as it relates to social identity. Brown takes a binary gender approach to her discussion around vulnerability and shame, but I believe the conversation must be expanded to other identities. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.”
In the “Debunking the Vulnerability Myths” chapter of Daring Greatly, Brown talks about how vulnerability is not about letting it all hang out; it’s about “sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them” (p. 45). As an educator in identity-based work in my personal and professional life, being “visible” (whatever that means because I’m not invisible ever) and humanizing an identity is often required. Many have attributed political wins and interpersonal acceptance of the LGBT community to knowing someone in the community. So being vulnerable and sharing my experiences sometimes need to be shared with people to let them know that I exist, not because they’ve “earned” the right to hear them. She discussed this point later in the book, saying “[s]haring yourself to teach or move a process forward can be healthy and effective” (p. 162). I believe it is important to be vulnerable with one another but there is a great cost that comes with that, especially for those of us with subordinated identities that cannot pick and choose moments to be vulnerable. As Chris Linder points out, I do not always have the option of when I choose to enter “the arena” Brown describes and be authentic with others about who I am. Especially as an educator and a human who seeks to make space for others.
Rea Carey, the Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, one of the most visible queer people in the United States, recently shared the following at the National Creating Change Conference: “I have to decide every single time someone on a bus, or train or plane asks me what I do for work, if I am going to say, ‘I work for the freedom of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.’ And, friends, admittedly, I sometimes hesitate. I sometimes falter. And I am sorry.” Today, I totally understand what Carey was talking about. I understand that being authentic and vulnerable and promoting social justice within the spaces I occupy is difficult and takes a great deal of energy. To some degree, being a full-time student in somewhat temporary spaces and knowing I had the support of several others around me, I knew this was the case but it was not as salient as it is to me now (I was only in those spaces for a set amount of time and in the higher education bubble). As I get more comfortable in my new space and transition out of my transitional stage, I hope this becomes less of a mental puzzle for me and I just pull something Carey-sounding out: “I work to make space for the lesbian, bisexual, gay, and trans* students of my university.”