Publication Date

April 1, 1993

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities



Consider the following two vignettes. First, an assistant professor stands in front of a classroom, and as he tells a humorous incident about his family to liven up a serious lecture on medieval kinship, the light catches on his gold wedding band. That evening, the professor and his wife give a dinner party for the chair of his department, hoping to improve his chances of tenure. His wife’s name is listed under his in the department phone list, and the university pays her health benefits and allows her to use the library and gym. A few weeks later, they will attend the annual meeting of the American Historical Association where sessions on family history are so common they inspire little comment.

But imagine another scenario: a young untenured woman agonizes whether to reveal to her class on the history of sexuality that she is a lesbian, afraid she will receive death threats; she has been warned in graduate school not to study gay and lesbian history, for it is not seen as a legitimate topic; her department requires committee service for tenure, yet ignores her work on a university committee on gay and lesbian concerns; and her colleagues do not acknowledge her partner socially, who must find her own expensive health insurance and cannot use the gym and library. Daringly, the young professor joins the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History to gain some support, but when she staffs their table at the American Historical Association meetings senior men giggle and guffaw as they walk past, while closeted gay professors shy away in fear. A paper she gives on a topic in gay history inspires horrified quotes in the New York Times from conservative professors. In the next few years, she sends out dozens of letters to apply for a new job, but despite many articles and two respected books on the history of homosexuality she cannot move on. At the university where she continues to teach, she finds her progress up the tenure ladder frustratingly slow, despite a stellar publication record. Yet, her increased openness to colleagues brings her closer personal relations and professional respect.

This second vignette is a composite of the experiences of respondents to a survey of lesbian and gay historians conducted by the through Perspectives and the Newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History.1 One hundred and thirty historians responded, representing a cross-section of the profession. They ranged from senior professors to graduate students; 48.4 percent are over forty, 39 percent are tenured, while 22.2 percent are graduate students and 14.6 percent thirty and under. They teach in a broad variety of institutions all over the country, from two-year colleges to private research universities, as well as working in libraries, archives, the government, and secondary schools.

Despite the policy of the American Historical Association against discrimination against gays and lesbians, such discrimination continues to exist. Seventy percent of the total number of respondents faced prejudice from colleagues, students, and/or administrators, and 43 percent experienced some form of discrimination; 16.9 percent of the total in promotion and tenure, and 20 percent in hiring. At the same time, this survey reveals that the profession has progressed considerably: many gays and lesbians have found it possible to be more or less open without serious consequences.

The worst incidents of discrimination happened some years ago. One man was forced out of the profession by his former colleagues, who informed prospective employees that he was gay. Another was fired from a job in a church-related school in the Midwest eighteen years ago. Although he found another position, the incident slowed down the progress of his career considerably. One believed his gayness may have cost him the chance at three jobs, in part. One woman at a small Southern college reported she was dragged out of the closet in personnel committee discussions, and her contract renewal denied. A man reported, “A member of my tenure committee campaigned against promoting someone who was not a ‘family man.'” In this case, his tenure still went through; but several respondents reported difficult tenure battles or delays in obtaining tenure. Religious institutions and universities in the Bible Belt of the Southeast and Southwest were particularly problematic, although discrimination still occurred in large, cosmopolitan research universities. However, in many cases prejudiced colleagues were outnumbered by nondiscriminating professors who allowed hiring, promotion, and tenure of gay people to go through.

Although most gay and lesbian historians do not write or teach on the history of homosexuality, those who do face special difficulties in hiring, promotion, and tenure. A well-known pioneer in the field reported that although he had an Ivy League degree, prestigious recommendations, and a book contract with a respected university press, he became a finalist for only one job in two and a half years. A woman in the field of the history of sexuality found that her subject area and her open lesbianism were decisive factors in not being offered a prestigious senior position in a West coast university, although an Ivy League institution responded more positively. Three respondents wrote that when they changed their curriculum vitae to stress the history of sexuality rather than gay and lesbian issues, their bad luck in obtaining jobs and grants suddenly vanished, and they met with success. Advisors and colleagues also warned 34.6 percent of respondents to avoid publishing on gay and lesbian topics, further stifling the development of the field. One graduate student reported that one of the members of her dissertation committee made nasty homophobic jokes during the defense of her proposal, which included topics in the history of homosexuality.

Being a person of color further marginalizes gay and lesbian historians, as the respondents reported. Some gays and lesbians experienced more overt discrimination as a woman or person of color, because it was immediately obvious to colleagues, whereas their gayness was not. For others, homosexuality became the primary issue. “I think being a lesbian intensifies sexism because a lesbian embodies the threat of an independent woman.” The fifty women who responded to the survey were more likely to report experiencing discrimination and prejudice than the men; 50 percent of women reported experiencing discrimination, as opposed to 37 percent of men, and 76 percent of female respondents and 66 percent of men encountered homophobic prejudice. A few respondents also noted that bisexuality seemed to evoke particular anxieties in their colleagues.

Gays and lesbians may not be aware of or not be able to prove discrimination against them, unless they have contacts on search or tenure committees who reveal colleagues’ secret homophobic actions. A survey of sociology department heads in 1982 found that “sixty-three percent had reservations about hiring a known homosexual.”2 We do not know if such attitudes are prevalent among history administrators in 1992. Forty-nine percent of educational institutions to which respondents belonged had policies forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but in twenty-one cases they were not well enforced. Furthermore, these policies only protect those who are “out” and can prove discrimination against them, leaving those still in the closet unshielded from unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo. Several respondents noted that hostile colleagues may spread false rumors of sexual harassment by gay professors in order to discredit them, or erroneously assume that gays and lesbians are more prone to sexual harassment, while widespread heterosexual harassment goes unpunished.

Like women or people of color who are the only one in their department, openly gay and lesbian professors face demands from students to be role models, while colleagues may prefer them to keep a low profile. One reported a “horrible pressure from students to be role model, to serve their interests, and I know such things could cost me tenure so I lie low and I know many students are very very angry—the stress is awful.” Students can also be extremely homophobic: 54.6 percent of respondents reported encountering prejudice from students. However, others report that teaching about gay and lesbian issues or serving as advisors to student groups can be gratifying.

At a time when shortages of academics are being predicted and competition is fierce for the best graduate students and star professors, homophobia can push graduate students out of the profession and respected teachers out of history departments. One graduate student wrote, “Multiple times a week, I encounter a more specific remark loaded with homophobia, addressed either against myself or against other gays and lesbians . … I was already ambivalent about being an academic before I came out; being lesbian has redoubled those feelings of ambivalence.” One man wrote that when he came out, “Few [of his older male colleagues] troubled to hide their revulsion. Some expressed contempt.” He eventually moved to another, less prejudiced department.

Prejudice and discrimination often take subtle forms. Many heterosexual professors may not overtly discriminate, but they may feel quite uncomfortable with discussing gay issues or acknowledging their gay and lesbian colleagues’ personal lives. It is not a matter of gays and lesbians wishing to “flaunt” their sexuality in inappropriate circumstances; heterosexuals tell the world who they sleep with by wearing wedding rings, yet sometimes cannot acknowledge their gay colleagues’ domestic partners. While spouses of professors are often acknowledged on phone lists and departmental party invitations, the partners of lesbian and gay historians did not always receive this courtesy: of the 97 who responded to this question, 47.4 percent reported their partners were not acknowledged, though 52.6 percent reported they were at least socially acknowledged by their departments.

Socializing with colleagues is not an official requirement for tenure and promotion, but in some departments it can make a key difference. Gay and lesbian historians often report that they are not incorporated into departmental social life in the same way as their heterosexual colleagues: “Frequently it has been a matter of people avoiding me socially, sometimes even shuddering away from me,” reported one respondent. Another openly gay professor said that unlike other colleagues, he was not asked if he wanted to play racquetball, work out in the gym, or play poker on Friday nights. Another said he was harassed: “giggling behind back, muscle magazines left in mailbox, goosed while at a faculty senate meeting.”

One young professor summed it up well: “much of the time [homophobia] happens in the thousands of little things that make up human interactions, anything from not being invited to a dinner party to having colleagues actively look for flaws in your work (reasons not to keep you) in order to fulfill a subliminal wish not to have to deal with someone else’s ‘difference.’ Few people on either side would label any of this ‘discrimination’ unless they truly stopped to think about it, but who wants to spend her or his life cataloging tiny slights that may or may not be real? What I’m saying is that for the most part, people have learned to keep quiet about what they really think, but it seeps out in other ways. Very few people in our profession would openly admit to themselves—let alone to others—that something like homosexuality frightens them. And yet, I know that I still pick up enough bad feelings at a gut level (even at a school I like very much) to sign this letter simply, ‘an assistant professor teaching in a respected … university.'”

To avoid homophobia, many gay and lesbian professors hide their sexual orientation. Often far from familiar surroundings in new circumstances, they may not know whether “coming out” is safe. But this invisibility can produce extreme anxiety and alienation, partially due to the fear of discovery, but also the stress of secrecy, of distancing oneself from colleagues, and of repressing one’s deepest thoughts and beliefs.

Many gays and lesbians avoid this tension by coming out of the closet. A surprising number (63.9 percent) are totally or somewhat open to their colleagues. However, those who responded to the version of the survey printed in the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History were much more “out”—on a scale of 1 to 10, 68.2 percent were 8–10 “out” to all their colleagues, while none were totally closeted. However, among those who replied to the Perspectives survey, only 31.4 percent were out (8–10) while 24.5 percent were not out at all, and 19.7 percent only partially out to some colleagues. While twice as many gay men as lesbians were totally closeted (20 percent as opposed to 10 percent), there were no significant differences in the percent of men and women who were more open.

Many gay and lesbian historians reported quite positive reactions to their openness. “In general, I feel that my openness has enhanced my career by allowing for more honest relations with colleagues.” “Being out—much improved comfort in workplace and a sense of greater academic (intellectual, scholarly, classroom) freedom.” “With colleagues, it has only enhanced my friendships and position here and, I believe strongly, being out makes one safer in some ways.” “It makes most of my colleagues like me better. Most bigots keep their mouths shut and simply do not socialize with me.” “My perspective is more inclusive and I see issues from many different viewpoints. Consequently, my historical questioning is more precise, while more inclusive.”


Suggestions for the Profession

The American Historical Association for some time has officially taken a stand against discrimination in hiring, promotion, and tenure on the basis of sexual orientation. The now further recommends that departments and other historical institutions take the following actions to reduce homophobia and avoid discrimination.

  1. Institutions should not assume their students and colleagues are either heterosexual or homosexual.
    1. Many gay and lesbian faculty/staff will not feel safe to come out unless colleagues positively demonstrate they are not homophobic, not only by refraining from making homophobic remarks or jokes, but by publicly criticizing homophobia, and listening with interest and asking questions about gay and lesbian issues when relevant, instead of changing the subject uncomfortably.
    2. Prospective students or employees should be provided with information on gay and lesbian groups as part of more general information on the community and institution.
  2. Same-sex partners should be treated in the same way as spouses.
    1. Gay and lesbians often need assistance with finding jobs for their partners in new positions, just as dual-career married couples.
    2. If colleagues socialize as a department with spouses, same-sex partners should be invited as well.
  3. On an institutional level, administrations must take a firm and public stand against discrimination.
    1. This includes providing domestic partner benefits for gays and lesbians, equivalent to the health and facilities benefits for spouses. Stanford University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Chicago have already instituted such domestic partner benefits. An Iowa study refuted fears that this policy would lead to undue financial burdens caused by AIDS.3
  4. Material on gay and lesbian history should be more widely incorporated into general courses in order to expand historical perspectives.


  1. We would like to thank John D’Emilio, Jeffrey Merrick, and all the others who have helped with this survey. A longer version of this report will be published in the newsletter of the Committee on Lesbian and Gay History, which cosponsored the survey. []
  2. “Task Group on Homosexuality Report Published,” American Sociological Association Footnotes 10 (December 1982): 1 quoted in John D’Emilio, Making Trouble: essays on gay history, politics and the university (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 140. []
  3. Chronicle of Higher Education 16 (December 1992): A18. []