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Why I am politically opposed to same-sex marriage

Since same-sex marriage is back in the news thanks to SCOTUS, I need to mention a few reasons why I think it’s a misguided political issue for LGBTQ-identified people to fight for. And I’m adding my reasons to the many offered by many other people and organizations elsewhere. (For starters, check out the statement put out by QEJ several years ago.)

First, so long as the legal and economic benefits that accrue to marriage remain tied to that institution, marriage will never simply be “one option on the menu” of various kinds of intimate, erotic, sexual, romantic relationships. It will be elevated as the idealized, materially privileged relationship. Indeed, expanding marriage to include same-sex couples will only further entrench married conjugality as the apex of “loving” relationships.

Second and related, I don’t buy the trickle-down effect notion that same-sex marriage is a “step in the right direction” for LGBTQ rights. The idea that legalizing same-sex marriage will somehow make U.S. society more tolerant and accepting of queer folk is not only illogical (are interracial relationships any less stigmatized in the wake of Loving v. Virginia?), it’s politically dangerous. Making marriage an “option” for everyone regardless of sexual orientation will, as above, not make it a freely elected decision but something that is expected of everyone. So those queer folk who do not marry — out of choice, disinclination, ethical opposition, sheer bad luck — will be stigmatized all over again, seen as incapable of maintaining a long-term relationship, possessed by perverse desires, practicing all kinds of deviant acts, attaching themselves to all the wrong sorts of people.

Seriously. All you straight unhitched folks who are sick of being asked “so when is it your turn?” at weddings, who are apprehensive about being regarded as “lonely” spinsters and bachelors, you should be hearing me right now. Because while some unmarried queer folk currently have the alibi of illegality, that’s gonna disappear soon. And all of the unmarrieds — straight and queer alike — are going to be faced with the same mean perception no matter their reasons for not tying the knot: you’re a loser, baby.

Third, this is what kills me about the rhetorical position, or posturing, that having to make the case for same-sex marriage puts people in: it is precisely not a tactic for speaking truth to power, but of speaking lies to presumed homophobes — of putting on the face of beautiful, handsome, healthy, able-bodied, happy, well-adjusted, hard-working, committed, loving, often child-rearing respectability in order to demonstrate that we’re just like you and want the same things as you. It’s gross and it’s a lie. (And sweet heaven knows that straight people are nothing like that, so stop it with the “just like you” business.) Or at the very least, it’s a very partial truth of who queer folk in all their heterogeneity are and what they do and want to do with their bodies and lives.

Finally, I need to say that the phrase “committed same-sex relationship” seems to me redundant. Can you be in an uncommitted same-sex relationship? If by “committed” is meant “exclusive” and “monogamous,” well then, there you have it. The point is not that marriage is a conservative “heteronormative institution” that must be opposed by queer folk on principle (because we’re so, you know, revolutionary and dashing) but rather that it’s a coercively normalizing model of human coupledom that causes all kinds of disaster and destruction. Sheesh, haven’t we learned anything from Muriel’s Wedding? Idealizing marriage makes people do nutty things. Singing ABBA songs in front of a mirror, however, is not one of them.

p.s. I hope to return to my academia-related disgruntlements soon.

taking stock II: reviewing

A few words about one of the many profession-oriented activities that humanities faculty do.

Maybe it’s just because I’m “off,” but I feel like I’ve been reading and reviewing other people’s work a lot lately. While I realize that doing so is part of the profession, there are a couple things that I think are baffling and even aggravating about the “blind review” process.

1) To echo my previous post, there’s no compensation for commenting on article manuscripts. Thus, the only incentives I can think of for taking on the task are fairly questionable:

  • a hubristic sense of policing the boundaries of your field
  • a guilty sense of passing the buck on to your equally busy friend or colleague
  • an obligatory sense of returning the favor to a journal that previously published your work or, conversely, of hoping that one day that journal might consider publishing your work

2) After the review is submitted, the journal thanks you for your time and goes on its merry way. With the exception of the occasional second review after a “revise and resubmit,” there’s no follow up.

We all want the effort we put into the tasks that make our profession go round to be duly acknowledged. And an email thanks often feels like sorry compensation for the several hours, sometimes days, of work we put into doing something that, from the perspective of pure self-interest, seems to have almost zero value. Ok, so in the general karmic scheme of things, we hope that when we send out a piece for publication we’ll get back the same kind of detailed and constructive feedback we (hope we) dished out. But the blind review process virtually ensures that that kind of interpersonal “reciprocity” will never be the case: we don’t know (or aren’t supposed to know) whose work we reviewed, and the reviewer of our work has (or should have) no idea that it’s us, er, we on the other end.

To be sure, blind review has its pluses. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that they’re more objective. But under this mechanism I have made comments — even and especially when I had an inkling of who the author might be — that I otherwise might not have said, or rather said them in a more straightforward, perhaps less polite, way (it’s a time issue: rhetorically, being polite takes more time because it takes more words).

But on the whole, the real “compensation” that we want for reviewing — that our feedback be taken seriously and into account during the revision process — is almost guaranteed not to happen. As an anonymous reader of someone else’s research, I am placed in the position of entity 0. The author is therefore hardly likely to feel any sense of responsibility toward “me.” For all s/he knows, I might be some random person who knows next to nothing about the topic, who was selected based on suspect evidence or on a convoluted chain of who-knows-whom.

And while I like to think that that’s not (always) the case, I’ve since come across scholarship that I reviewed and gave extensive feedback on and that was published anyway with little revision. One case is particularly frustrating because it’s on a topic that I happen to care about quite deeply; despite my manifold reservations and unequivocal do not publish stamp of disapproval, the press went ahead with it. Grrr.

I can’t imagine I’m alone in this regard, that I’m the only one who’s noticed that the work put into reviewing is not only thankless but has proven to be an absolute waste of time and intellectual energy. And yet, as with everything that seems to be dysfunctional these days, we go on as though this artificially constructed process were completely natural and effective.

The upshot (the taking stock bit): I will henceforth be more judicious about agreeing to serve as a reviewer of a manuscript, and I will not self-punish for saying no to projects that I have little intellectual stake in or just sound flatly unpromising.

All of that said, reading and commenting on the work of people I do know — students and colleagues alike — is an entirely different story. Though it may not always be fun, it can be immensely rewarding, largely because I have a different investment in the person and the project. I know that my engagement with their work will not just be a one-time, gate-keeping act (yes, you pass; no, you suck) but will actually be dialogical (and in some cases reciprocal). I get to learn from their research, and they get to see how someone not inside their heads reads their work. And I like to fantasize that when colleagues read my work in progress it’s not a total waste of time for them but might actually be mutually beneficial. Though I’m sure that’s my idealism kicking in.

taking stock I.2: a service addendum

To follow up on my originary intent to say what I do, and simply to begin to demystify what an English professor’s duties can look like, here’s a list of things that fall under the category of “service.” To be clear, these are responsibilities that are given the least weight as far as tenure and promotion go. Research and teaching are typically valued more heavily. And yet, it should also be clear that the profession could not operate without the labor of those who, quite misleadingly, were hired ostensibly, primarily, to “teach” and “do research.”

University-oriented

  • Department committees
  • College/Division committees
  • University-level committees
  • Interdisciplinary academic program director/coordinator/committee member

Student-oriented

  • Graduate advising — e.g., independent studies, MA exams, PhD exams, dissertation committees
  • Graduate teaching observation
  • Undergraduate advising — e.g., academic-oriented (independent studies, thesis advising) and/or advisor to student organizations
  • Letters of recommendation

Profession-oriented

  • Conference organizing
  • Conference panel organizing
  • Serving as chair/discussant for a conference panel
  • Reviewing article and book manuscripts for publication

And then there are those things that are sorta service and sorta research, like participating on campus roundtables and panels on topics within your field of expertise, writing short pieces for campus publications on issues related to your research, or serving as a moderator at a conference that your colleague has organized on campus.

I’m sure I’ve missed some service activities that faculty do (these are just things derived from my own experience). And while there’s much to comment on about this kind of labor, I just want to make one point here: with the exception of getting a small honorarium or free books from a press for reviewing a book-length manuscript, much of this work does not carry any compensation. It is true that you might get course release time from teaching or perhaps some additional pay if you take on a major administrative post. But for the most part, you get paid the exact same whether you organize a conference on your campus or don’t, whether you advise 3 students or 50, whether you serve on 1 committee or 5, etc.

Why do I make this about money? Because we don’t talk enough about it. Stay tuned.

taking stock I: service and time

Now that the bloody election is over, I can get back to unbusiness …

I mentioned in my first real post that one of my motivations for writing this blog stems from being on sabbatical. Last school year, I vowed to myself that if I was granted a leave (we actually have to apply for it — it’s not automatic), I would use the time to take stock of my relationship to academia. Many people who’ve gone through this process have told me that the time off flies by while you simply try to recharge after the burnout and exhaustion of getting through tenure. I can certainly see that. From day one, tenure-track faculty are reminded that they’re under probation, being monitored and measured during a protracted yet limited amount of time (at my school, we technically have 4.5 years to get tenure, not 6, unless you have a university-recognized reason to extend your “clock”) no longer for future “promise” (that was what your job application got evaluated for) but for past accomplishments. In my department at a research-one institution (don’t ask me how they make those rankings) that means having a scholarly monograph, if not published and in print, then at least “in production” — readers’ reports in, editorial board approved, revisions completed. And you have to be a good teacher (judged by both student evaluations and peer observations), as well as a good citizen of the institution (determined by your service record to the department, the college/division, the university, and the profession at large).

“This is a tenure clock”

In my case, I came in just under the gun as far as the book was concerned. The letter from the press confirming that the book was “in production” arrived about a week before the department committee voted on my case. There were no glaring complaints about my teaching, and, as for my service, at least one letter mentioned that I did too much of it.

Which brings me to the necessity of taking stock and some thoughts about academic time. I’m not going to belatedly rail against those who belatedly noticed that maybe all that service might not have been a good thing. I will say that no one ever pushed me into serving in the various roles or on the various committees I was in or a part of. That no one had to issue the directives explicitly, but that I felt compelled nonetheless is part of the problem. Everyone knows that just saying “no” as an untenured junior faculty member is not so easy.

For instance, one of the things I kept hearing over and over again when I was considering taking on an administrative position at the end of my first year — because there was no one else to take it: NO ONE on my ginormous campus! — was that doing so will leave me little time to work on my research. The warning, thus, went: less time for research = not finishing the book = not getting tenure = getting fired. “Service,” I was repeatedly told, is not going to get you tenure. No matter how much effort you put into maintaining the field in which you were hired (yeah, there was little foresight on the part of my department — let’s hire one guy in the interdiscipline and see what happens! it’s a minority field, after all …), no matter how much “goodwill” you might build by doing that work (no threat of that, I am the worst “cultural ambassador” on the planet), the institution will still dump your ass because you didn’t meet the requirements that are clearly written in its handbook (the infantilizing term used to describe the document that rules our adult professional lives).

I heard what they were saying, all said with a great deal of goodwill, no doubt, and plenty of concern for my long-term welfare. But my rationale at the time was this: why would I want to get tenure and stay at an institution that totally devalued my field by simply letting it disappear? If I didn’t step in, who would? This was not at all a selfless, altruistic gesture. Even though I had no real idea what coordinating a program might entail, I had some inkling it’d be a sharp thorn in my side, and that I might even end up doing it for god knows how long if no one else entered the picture. I wanted a reason to stay, an intellectual community that, however small and “minor” in the grand scheme of things, I could turn to for conversation, support, and inspiration.

The other thing about academic time that consistently came up in the many cautionary tales and that I didn’t totally believe was that service = time-sucker while less service = extra research time. I’m sure sociologists have elegant accounts about how academic types think about and “use” their time. But anecdotally, and certainly according to personal experience, let’s face it: we get our stuff done under pressure, as much as we are notorious for flouting deadlines that others try to impose on us. Academic time, in this sense, is worse than cp-time and pinoy-time. Tell us it’s due 2 weeks before it really is. At least. So yes, during those first four and half years, there were plenty of stretches when I felt like I was wasting my time doing things for a program that the university could care less about and when I could have been working on the book. But “it” got done, as my colleagues like to say in a weird recourse to the impersonal (I always want to scream back: “no, I got it done, mf!”).

So is it true that big chunks of “free time” provide the much-desired conditions for getting research done? Well, as you can see, writing in this forum is not exactly working toward the book project that I described in my sabbatical application (though I do think some of these meta-musings are tangentially necessary, if not related, in the sense of siphoning off Harry Potteresque liquid silver thoughts into a pensieve to make room for … other thoughts). Part of me (the “model” part) has been socialized to be the morally upright academic who does what he says he’s gonna do. In exchange for time “off” — I will return to those quotation marks in later posts — and reduced salary, I’ll produce research. But way way more of me wants to tell the institution off. “I busted my ass to get tenure, played by your rules, did more than I had to, served as the ‘diversity’ poster child for more events than I can count. So gratefulness will not be forthcoming.”

Roger Shimomura, MODEL MINORITY (glasses on banana), 2000

Never underestimate the store of resentment that model minorities build up — not when they are blocked but precisely when they make it through. The material rewards, such as they are, and the compliments, back-handed and other-punitive as they are, are paltry recompense for the soul-destroying process of attaining normative success. When we realize that as a collective, politically, watch out America!

So this taking stock unbusiness means asking what kind of academic I want to be going forward (I’m pretty sure I’m ill-suited for most other occupations). It’s strange not to have some potentially life-altering deadline looming in the distant horizon: the dissertation, the job market, the book, tenure. It’s even stranger to recognize that I have the opportunity to shape my life when it’s more than half over (if I’m lucky). Is it better to remain engaged and committed to institutional change, or to unplug from the university? Are there other sites that might be more fulfilling to work in, more flexible, less privileged? How do I deal with my own privilege and job security in this era of expendable labor, social abandonment, and precarity?

top 5 reasons I can’t wait until election season is over

  1. I won’t have my TV-watching experience continually interrupted by anti-China ads from both parties.
  2. I won’t have to see African Americans pitted against Latino/a immigrants over jobs.
  3. I can stop hearing phrases like “The fact of the matter is …” and “At the end of the day …” and “Issue #1: The Economy.”
  4. I can stop thinking about what an enormous waste of money and resources are spent on signs, buttons, bumper stickers, banners, balloons, confetti, and other party paraphernalia — and what unlucky landfills will house those items after this is over.
  5. We can all stop pretending that elections are the epitome of the American democratic experiment in action, given the realities of Citizens United, voter suppression measures, and the very necessity for “fact-checking” after every political debate.

my ambivalence about awards

It is simply a truism to say that service at research-oriented universities often goes unrecognized, or at least is less valued for promotion, tenure, and salary raises than research and teaching. “Diversity” service, often performed by women and those deemed “minorities” out of a genuine desire to build inclusive communities and expand intellectual horizons, can be seen as even less valuable to the extent that it allegedly serves only certain populations and doesn’t benefit the whole university (which, of course, is flatly wrong, but I’ll save why for another rainy day).

So when I received last spring a university-level award that “is designed to recognize units or individuals that have demonstrated a significant commitment to enhancing diversity” at my institution, I should have been elated, right? I mean, finally, a brown gay guy gets the recognition that he deserves. Umph.

Well, before raining on this pride parade, let me say first that I was and am deeply humbled by the colleagues who nominated me and went out of their way to write supportive letters. I know who they are, and I respect their judgment in this area because I work with them on these issues day in and day out. (You think that’s nepotism? If only we had that kind of power …) I also deeply appreciated the “surprise” conferral of the award when a group of faculty and students — as well as my partner (who doesn’t work where I do) — barged in on a meeting I was at and had a little celebration in front of my stunned face.

But that wasn’t the end of the festivities. There was a luncheon later that spring to which I got to invite some friends. And there’s a recognition ceremony that’s supposed to take place at half-time during a football game this fall. Now aside from getting the details less than two weeks in advance (I truly thought that the football idea was just going to dissipate into thin air, as fantastical as it seemed when I was told about it in the spring), I just can’t fathom why an event meant to congratulate individuals and groups for their diversity and service work is being held on a football field. Maybe some people think it’s a distinguished honor to have the opportunity to set foot on grass grown and trampled on in a ginormous stadium. Maybe at some point there was a connection between athletics and university awards that made the one hosting the other seem somehow appropriate.

I beg to differ.

Here are some numbers about university-level awards:

  • Diversity: $1,200 honorarium
  • Staff: $1,500 cash + $700 increase to base salary
  • Teaching: $3,000 cash + $1,200 increase in base salary
  • Scholar: $3,000 honorarium + $20,000 research grant to be used over the next three years

This breakdown roughly accords with the value scale noted above, with scholarship at the top and diversity work at the bottom. (It goes without saying that research in “diversity” fields — ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, disability studies, religious studies, and so forth — isn’t considered “enhancing diversity” at an institution, even though it does.) So fine, nothing new there.

But why put us in a football stadium? There, in that setting, the numbers don’t begin to compare. My piddly one-time $1,200 award (minus taxes) looks like a complete and total embarrassment — in fact, a smirk-faced insult — when put next to a coach whose “incentives” for retaining and graduating players and winning various levels of play can reportedly bring him anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000 — on top of his 7-figure base package.

Right, I get it. I’m not a star college football coach. I don’t manage a team that rakes in billion of dollars in revenue. I teach literature, for god’s sake. But then here’s my beef: DON’T MAKE ME MAKE THE COMPARISON BY PUTTING ME IN THAT STADIUM. Cuz it’s just gonna open up that whole pandora’s box about the relationship between athletics and academics and where a supposed institution of higher education puts its priorities. And money.

One last thing. I’m probably not the first one to suspect that these numbers and the values they evidently connote make certain kinds of awards operate as safety valves and cynical covers. What could be a better alibi declaring that the university values diversity than by having an annual award dedicated to it? Look, we even got you onto the football field!

Needless to say, I’m not going to the game.

embarkations

I’ll be the first one to admit that starting a blog in 2012 is a belated venture and feels downright silly. But  this is the first fall of my entire life that I am not in school (ok, so maybe years 1-4 I was exempt from institutional dread, the end of summer, the beauty of autumn, the horror of back-to-school … just the hyphenated phrase itself makes me want to go to bed). And thus I feel the inexplicable need to provide a public accounting of what I’m doing with my time. There’s no moral answer to the question, “How’s sabbatical going?” when it comes from a working person, especially in this economic-political climate where having a job is a blessing (not, say, the curse of toil). The question itself comes laden with jealousy and resentment and, from those outside of academia, incredulity, no matter how generously enunciated it is (“good for you!”). And I try not to pour salt in the wound by pretending to deprecate the time off or shrug it off as if it’s nothing. The honest response is: “It’s the most amazing thing ever. I need to send a thank-you card to whomever invented this gig.” My outloud answer is: “It’s been good. I’ve been able to catch up on a few things that have been left hanging, rest and recharge, start working on this body that’s been largely sedentary for the past seven years while trying to get tenure …” Though not exactly lies, the answers are self-protectively, and perhaps charitably, reserved.

A few ideas have come across my view over the past several months that also provide ample motivation for writing in what for me is another discursive mode. Here they are, in no particular order:

“The curious disconnection between the debate over tenure and the current realities of academic labor highlights the problem posed by the figure of the professor. Only if that figure is nebulous and misunderstood to begin with can it be imbued with so much power for good or for bad. [. . .] The actual day-to-day activities of professors, like that of astronauts, are a mystery to all outsiders, and academics tend to be either silent or (uncharacteristically) inarticulate about what they do” (Frank Donoghue, The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities [New York: Fordham University Press, 2008], 81).

“For the philosopher, the human being who exemplifies the love of truth and conscious living, life and doctrine must be in harmony.  The core of every doctrine is what its followers embody of it. . . . But if philosophers are called on to live what they say, their task in a critical sense is much more: to say what they live.  Since time immemorial, every ideality must be materialized and every materiality idealized in order to be real for us, as beings in the middle. . . . To embody a doctrine means to make oneself into its medium.  This is the opposite of what is demanded in the moralistic plea for behavior guided strictly by ideals.  By paying attention to what can be embodied, we remain protected from moral demagogy and from the terror of radical abstractions that cannot be lived out”  (Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans., Michael Eldred [Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1987], 101-2, original emphasis).

“In no way way am I asking anyone to change his or her behavior on the strength of ways I have or have not behaved. What I am asking is that all of us begin to put forward the monumental analytical effort, in whichever rhetorical mode we choose, needed not to interpret what we say, but to say what we do. That requires first and foremost speaking with others about what we do. That is the only way that we can destroy the discursive disarticulation that muffles and muddles all, that drags all into and within it, that represses and suppresses and lies and distorts and rereads and rewrites any and every rhetorical moment within its field” (Samuel R. Delany, “Street Talk / Straight Talk,” in Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary [Hanover: Wesleyan University Press], 56, original emphases. The first two sentences also appear as one of the epigraphs to Tim Dean, Unlimited Intimacy: Reflections on the Subculture of Barebacking [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009]).

You’ll be relieved to know that saying what I do (and, admittedly, think) will emerge more from my position as a faculty member in an English department than as a philosopher (I was a Philosophy major as an undergrad, but I still don’t know what that discipline does) or as a sexual creature. I can tell you this right now, though: embodying my ideals has never been possible (I grew up Catholic …), so articulating what I do is utterly terrifying.