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Five Challenges About Being LTBTQ+ in the Academy: Building Towards an Affirming Culture

By Finneran K. Muzzey &

Amy Bonomi

Higher education symbolizes social progression, leading-edge thought, tackling injustices. The academy is also, for many, a safe environment for freedom of expression – including identity expression.

Yet, for LGBTQ+/queer identified people, the academy can feel traditional, sluggish, and suppressing of its queer members.

Here, we discuss five challenges about being queer in the academy to raise awareness and work towards building an affirming culture.

1. Expectations of Assimilation & Performative Support

Gay Pride Month is when many universities change their logo to reflect rainbow colors – an affirmation of queer people. Yet, these affirming actions often come a hidden expectation that LGBTQ+ people “assimilate” to heterosexual culture.

Put simply, the accepted queer person in many academic settings is one who fits the cultural traditions of heteronormativity -- married, with children, and middle class. The single trans person, for example, is often regarded with suspicion. Aspects outside of what fits cisgender heteronormative expectations tend not to be discussed, asked about, or acknowledged.

When assimilation is the norm, so often is performative support. Take the example of an LGBTQ+ student being invited to discuss their identity in a classroom discussion, only to be met with questions about how they will get married. Here, the support is not only performative (share your story with us), but the underlying expectation is assimilation to heteronormativity (marital expectations).

2. Lack of Perspective Taking

Queer identity is front and center right now. Identity, inclusion, diversity – they are all major buzzwords and they are important, to be sure. But, what is often lacking in the academy is an emphasis on seeing the human beyond the identity.

When the academy can say that they trained its members on “identity terminology” (e.g., gender pronouns, queer sexuality terminology) to be “inclusive” is one thing. But it is even more meaningful to bolster such trainings with an ongoing commitment to engaging in in-depth conversations with queer people and dismantling the cultural conditions that give rise to homophobia and transphobia.

For example, at one university conference, the organizers proactively planned to make available gender neutral bathrooms. However, this positive action didn’t stop some conference attendees from quipping about running into transgender members in the bathrooms. As a result, transgender members at the university conference used a bathroom at a local coffee shop. An in-depth discussion about the importance of gender neutral bathrooms – beyond the symbolism – could have been helpful here.

3. Minority Tax Burden

Lack of perspective taking often leads to imposing a minority tax burden on queer people. The minority tax burden means expecting LGBTQ+ persons to bear the burden of educating the majority and representing the universal “queer voice.”

Following a hate crime against an LGBTQ+ student, for example, a well-meaning dean at one university called upon the LGBTQ+ faculty to craft a memo to their college. While dean’s motivations were well intended, their actions are a classic example of the minority tax. Namely, queer people are expected to speak about their experience to educate others at any moment’s notice – no matter the context and without pay. And while it presents itself as an ask, it goes beyond that and becomes the expectation, the responsibility of the queer person.

In classroom settings, queer people are assumed to know everything about every other queer person and asked to speak about those experiences. And, again, the humanity is lost here.

4. Microaggressions

Addressing microaggressions (negative slights against minoritized individuals) are a common focus in the academy. Microaggressions are like little paper cuts that burn. As Ijeoma Oluo discusses in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race, it’s like a parent quipping “that’s a nice dress … I can’t even see how much weight you’ve gained.”

Everything we’ve mentioned is a microaggression – the expectation of assimilation, the pandering to queer identities over their humanity (rainbow flags without action), capitalizing on queer experiences without compensation, and so many more.

Microaggressions seem innocuous on the surface, and they may appear harmless, but they accumulate and create harmful experiences for queer people in the academy.

5. Privilege Shift

Perhaps the most important, and trickiest, piece of the queer experience (for everyone!) is tackling privilege.

Privilege is when we reap benefits because of certain identities we hold – for example, being white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle/upper class.

The complex part about privilege is that when we hold privilege, we don’t want to admit that we benefited because of an arbitrary identity – we want to believe that we got where we are because of our hard work, our perseverance, our effort – the fallacy of the boot-strap myth.

Acknowledging that some, or much, of what we’ve received in life is due to our privilege forces us to question ourselves and our ability. But, when we remember that the boot-strap myth, that if we work hard enough and have just the right mix of characteristics, we can be as successful as we want to be, is just a fallacy, then we can also admit our privilege without judgment of ourselves.

The writers of this blog post are white. We’re also queer. We’ve experienced challenges in the academy for our queerness, and we’ve benefited within the academy for being white. Our privileges are complex and shifting in accordance with our environment. We’ve suffered through some things, and we’ve walked breezily through others. Acknowledging this privilege doesn’t diminish our experiences; it means we realize that our experience as white queer people may differ from the experience of queer people with minoritized racial identity.

Acknowledging privilege is the first step toward liberation, giving us the honor to leverage privilege to dismantle oppressive systems.

In summary, when the expectation is to “assimilate” and to fail to take the perspective of a queer person or to examine our privileges, we remove ourselves from responsibility. Of learning about queer people and their experience. And from the responsibility of changing the system and structures that harm queer persons.

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