When I entered the academic job market I made a personal choice to be open but not chatty about my sexuality. That was partly necessitated because my teaching and research focuses on LGBTQ issues. I never hid my sexual orientation on my application materials, yet neither did I state it directly. I left it to search committees to infer.
Over the years, I have spoken to LGBTQ colleagues who took a variety of approaches on the academic job market. Some chose to be even more direct than I was, mentioning their sexual orientation and their partners in their cover letters and during interviews. Others chose to be discreet — and discrete — presenting a professional self neatly divorced from the personal. They had both a regular CV that listed everything about them, and a “closeted” CV on which all references to anything remotely LGBTQ-oriented (conferences, workshops, courses, publications) were scrubbed from the professional narrative.
Being LGBTQ on the academic market was a far more sensitive issue 10 years ago, yet it remains dicey for candidates in large swaths of the country. To help other LGBTQ people struggling through the interview process, I’d like to offer the following tips.
1. Do your research. Before you interview, look at the institution’s nondiscrimination policy (usually available online) and its mission statement. What do they say about sexual orientation? If you can find campus syllabi online, see if they mention a campus diversity clause. Scour the college’s student pages to see if there is a Gay-Straight Alliance club, and check its website or Facebook page to see how active it is. Look at the campus calendar of events for insights into the values of the college and the kind of public events it supports financially. If any of them are LGBTQ-oriented, you can begin to get a feel for how open and accepting a place it is.
Scan the alumni magazine to see whether it publishes same-sex announcements in the birth, death, marriage, and promotion pages. Does the magazine use words like spouse, wife, and husband? Or does it use partner and other euphemisms to avoid speaking openly about sexual orientation?
Peruse the student newspaper, including the comments sections and opinion pages, to gauge how students might feel about LGBTQ issues. Even the tone of the paper could be a good clue as to the climate on campus.
2. Think twice, and be honest with yourself. Once you have a general sense of a college’s approach to LGBTQ issues you can better navigate the interview process, as well as decide if this particular institution is a place where you would feel comfortable working.
If you have applied using a closeted CV and are somewhat aware of the college’s perhaps less-than-LGBTQ-friendly values, carefully consider whether you can make a successful go of working there. In many cases, your research, teaching, and service may have no connections to your sexuality. Nevertheless, the tenure process is grueling, and your work environment is an important facet of that process. You need to be honest with yourself about your ability to live and work in an environment that may not be supportive of you personally, may not finance your attendance at conferences where LGBTQ issues are center, or may not want you to publish LGBTQ-oriented research with the college’s name attached.
Socializing is an important part of the collegiality at some institutions, and it may take a personal toll if you’re in a place where you have to socialize without your spouse or significant other. Conversely, if you are a single LGBTQ person, it may be significantly more challenging to even date in an environment where you feel the need to be discreet, or where there is open hostility to LGBTQ issues. It is imperative to weigh your need for employment against your very real need for personal happiness.
In my own experience, I turned down two different tenure-track offers precisely because I felt deep anxiety about the locales where I would have been working. If you do take that job at Closet Case University in the middle of the Bible Belt — thinking that it will be only a temporary stop — realize that you might end up stuck there. And if it’s a place with a high teaching load, you will have trouble publishing your way out of that job to something different.
3. Ask questions. If you land a campus interview, ask HR about protections and benefits for LGBTQ faculty, and their children. If the college provides ancillary benefits such as assistance in purchasing a home, adopting children, spousal hire, and so forth, ask if those benefits apply equally to same-sex households, or single people (regardless of orientation).
Many such policies are in place at small private liberal-arts colleges but were originally designed to attract heteronormative families to the institution. It is telling when, in reply to your questions, college officials say that they comply with the law in their state. That’s different than being institutionally progressive and supportive.
If you are a person in gender transition, have transitioned, are thinking about transition, or have a child or partner who is, it is advisable to ask about insurance coverage regarding any stage of the process. Ask if there is gender-neutral housing on the campus, or gender-neutral restrooms.
4. Is there a faculty union? If so, find out the union’s position on LGBTQ rights. If not, consult the faculty handbook as a first step to understanding what rights and protections are involved, particularly with regard to faculty research and service.
5. Be realistic about your chances to get tenure. Especially if your teaching and research is LGBTQ-centered, you need to ascertain how it might be evaluated. That’s a delicate but important matter. Some departments may be uncomfortable in evaluating and validating your scholarship, either out of prejudice or genuine ignorance. Either way, it is advisable to seek outside reviewers of repute who are willing and able to write letters of support regarding your LGBTQ scholarship, demonstrating its value.
6. Know the law. While laws on same-sex marriage are currently in flux, the resolution of that issue does not imply the resolution of related issues like equal housing, hiring, pay, and job security for LGBTQ employees. Discrimination may still be a valid concern, and is perfectly legal in a majority of states.
Also, in some respects, the recognition of marriage is a very conservative value, and some institutions react by providing benefits exclusively to legally married couples, prejudicing those couples (gay, straight, and other) who have chosen for any variety of reasons not to codify their relationship in state-sanctioned legal terms. Marriage may be something some couples (LGBTQ or straight) do not want to enter into, in which case there may not exist benefits or protections for them.
If you are a mixed-citizenship couple, currently, you must be legally married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage in order for federal recognition of benefits (immigration, visa, green card) to be applicable. The same applies to rules of inheritance, taxation, and so forth. If you were to move from a state where those benefits and protections are fully in place to a state where they are not (regardless of the institution’s approach on these issues), you will be vulnerable, and you will need to understand the particular legal repercussions.
If the state in which you reside does not recognize same-sex marriage, your rights and protections stop at the border, regardless of any recognitions or benefits that your place of employment may offer or that your previous state of habitation may have provided. You are advised to always have with you the legal paperwork that you may have taken for granted in your previous residence.
7. Keep your eyes open. When you are on the campus, it is worth looking around for “Safe Space” or similar designations, indicating that at least some people there may have had some training and exposure to issues of concern to those who do not fit into the mold of heteronormative gender and sexuality.
8. Know the limits. You should not be afraid of applying to, and working at, a religiously affiliated institution as long as you are clear about its values and about how much influence the church actually has over the institution. Be prepared, even in friendly and supportive environments, to educate your peers on LGBTQ issues, and to possibly jump through nervous hoops with a skittish administration afraid of what people might think if your activities (teaching, publishing, campus events, speakers) are “too gay.” You might encounter some skirmishes.
9. Be honest. You can’t present your best case and be your best self if you aren’t. Having been on my share of search committees by now, I know how frequently shortlisted candidates are screened using a simple Google search. No matter how vigilant you are, your life is generally on open display. It is better to confront things head on, openly and honestly, so that you can control the narrative. Failure to be frank may result in a committee’s perceiving you as dishonest, and that is an attribute you don’t want associated with your candidacy.
This call for honesty goes for the interviewers as well. If you are ill-informed, uncomfortable talking about LGBTQ issues, or avoiding the issue all together, it will be evident, and will inevitably color the interview from both sides.
If your department is genuinely interested in hiring a particular LGBTQ candidate, know that we are looking for reassurances that the college will be a safe and supportive environment. We want to know we can thrive there both as people and as researchers, teachers, and members of your community. If you go too much out of your way to highlight LGBTQ-friendly aspects, we may question how representative those might be. Be prepared to answer our questions by educating yourself about your college’s policies on LGBTQ issues. That way, everyone can win.
Richard D. Reitsma is an associate professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Canisius College.