Five things I’ve learned as an LGBTIQ+ academic

Lucas Lixinski shares his experiences as a gay man in academia and reflects on how they have helped his career

November 27, 2020
LGBT rainbow flag
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Being an academic and being a member of the glorious rainbow alphabet soup of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans*, Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Asexual and Allies (LGBTIQ+ for short) have a few things in common. A key commonality is that, for most people who are either or both, these are more than just things we do. Being an academic and being LGBTIQ+ are important parts of our identity, closely intertwined with the rest of ourselves. Therefore, it is worth thinking about how one thing can feed into the other.

I came out as gay as I was starting my academic career, in a new country, which created a rare opportunity to reinvent myself. Therefore, because I “became” both those things at about the same time, my experiences on both have fed into one another quite significantly, and I learned many lessons from being LGBTIQ+ that have helped my academic career. Although, many of the things I learned are just about humanity, really.

I learned to be thick-skinned
It should come as no surprise to anyone that LGBTIQ+ people often get bullied and harassed. “Queer”, after all, started as a slur meant to manufacture, highlight and ridicule oddity and otherness, and has since been reclaimed by the LGBTIQ+ community. So, being made to feel as if your difference is undesirable, via physical or other types of aggression, is a shared part of the queer experience, and most LGBTIQ+ people develop some sort of armour.

In academia, armours come in handy: there is a lot of rejection in academia, and a lot of egos to navigate, especially as you start rising up the ladder and insecure established folks at the top start to feel threatened. Threatened people will grasp at anything to put you down. Having your own defences allows you to understand that, much like the bullying of LGBTIQ+ people, what is happening to you (unfortunate as it may be, and my heart goes out to you) is often more about the other person’s fears and insecurities than actually about you.

I learned to check my own privilege
Yes, I am LGBTIQ+, and an immigrant to the country I’ve called home for more than nine years. But I am also white, male, cisgender, have a permanent position, and live in a country that, while not perfect, at least does not criminalise my identity. I have a lot of privilege, therefore, which I can use strategically in my career and my life, as long as I am aware of it and its problems.

In academia, being aware of my own privilege and being able to check it allows me to do many things, like being a more demanding teacher. Student feedback I receive will often not be as harsh as someone who teaches like me but is female, or a person of colour, or both. I can therefore use my privilege not to get my students to like me now, when the satisfaction survey is due (which other academics unfortunately need to do, especially those in temporary or otherwise precarious employment), but to push them harder now and have lessons fall into place years down the line when they are most needed.

I learned that my experience is just that − my experience − and it is not for me to label others
I like my own label: I am a gay man. But many LGBTIQ+ people reject being defined by any one letter of the alphabet soup, let alone a subculture within the letter. And that is fine. The label was useful for me in coming out and understanding my own desires and my place in the world; but for others, labels may be constricting and violent in a world that wants to reject people into conformity.

Academics also tend to like labels: they order the world; they help us make sense of it. But being LGBTIQ+ has taught me that, while labels can be useful for me to make sense of the world, it is not for me to impose my labels on others, especially humans who can, in fact, express for themselves how they want to see themselves in and be seen by the world (things may be different in STEM fields). So academics, we need to ask ourselves why we need to attribute a label here, and what our attribution of any given label says about not that which is being labelled but rather our own way of seeing the world.

I learned to embrace my inner (and clichéd) fabulousness
Clichés abound about LGBTIQ+ behaviour: lesbians are great at DIY, gays are terrific dressers and so on. While those platitudes are terribly problematic, they can catalyse communication and self-expression. I am not a strong dresser (at all), but other tags do apply to me. Accepting and deploying those expectations in my own terms can be incredibly empowering.

In academia, colleagues, managers, the outside world are always trying to make sense of academics via clichés. We tend to reject those tags, because we are in a profession where autonomy is so valued, and therefore we should not be defined by others. But what if those clichés, instead of boxes into which we are pigeonholed, are just openings to show how amazing we are? I can easily use my love for baking (hello, gay cliché) to break the ice with colleagues and connect on a human level. I can use sarcastic humour (hello, gay cliché, and textbook armour – see above) to introduce levity in class and become a more effective communicator.

Above all, I learned empathy
Whether I use armour, clichés, labels, my own privilege or my own vulnerability, I learned to understand complexity and to find empathy with “the other”. Queerness is about rejecting the labels, the binaries, subverting expectations and still being able to find one another in this weird, rainbow-coloured alphabet soup.

Academics would do well to remind themselves that academia is meant to be doing the same thing. Behind all the categories and the analysis, there is a human with whom we can connect over the many idiosyncrasies that make us fascinating – and fabulous.

Lucas Lixinski is associate professor in the Faculty of Law, UNSW Sydney. Most of his research and teaching are in the areas of international human rights law and international cultural heritage law.

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