From the Professional Division

The Ethical Historian: How Should the Profession Respond to the AHA LGBTQ Task Force Report?

Mary Louise Roberts, May 2016

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, it is easy to become complacent about homophobia and LGBTQ civil rights. Since LGBTQ people can get married, discrimination against them has ended, right? Unfortunately, no. As much as we would like to think all LGBTQ rights have been gained, serious problems remain. As the report of the AHA’s LGBTQ Task Force revealed last year, both LGBTQ historians and scholars of LGBTQ history still experience some form of bias in the workplace. Of the respondents to a survey conducted by the task force, 42 percent said they had suffered discrimination at their place of employment. That’s a sober statistic and one we should probe further in order to enact change as quickly as possible.

For most universities and colleges in this country, discrimination against LGBTQ people is “legal” inasmuch as legal infrastructures to address incidents of bias do not exist. Most academic institutions have some protections for gay men and lesbians, but few protect transgender and transsexual people, declining even to include the relevant language in their nondiscrimination policies. As La Shonda Mims reported at a 2016 AHA annual meeting panel on the issue, survey respondents bemoaned “the lack of policies and practices preventing discrimination against LGB, transgender, and transsexual people.” To extend protections, the words “sex,” “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” and “gender expression” need to be inserted in nondiscrimination policies at academic institutions and organizations. That task is far from finished. At many universities and colleges, something as simple as changing your name to reflect a change in gender identity can be either very difficult or impossible to achieve.

For scholars of LGBTQ history, there is another equally vexing set of problems in the workplace. Many respondents to the task force survey related that they were discouraged by their mentors from pursuing topics about the historical past of LGBTQ people. Worse still, 25 percent of these historians said they had a strongly negative or negative experience on the academic job market because of the focus of their research or in response to their gender presentation. LGBTQ history is often viewed in the profession as peripheral, too narrow, or unimportant. “It is significantly harder for persons who do LGBT research to get tenure-track history jobs,” reported one person answering the task force survey. “Many ‘old guard’ departments see this research as worthless and have negative stereotypes about gay people.” Still another answered: “When I was on the job market, I felt as if I had to hide my sexual orientation and my interest in LGBTQ topics. I was on the job market for five years; it was very stressful for me to be very cautious not to reveal anything personal about myself in interviews.” This historian felt discriminated against both for their choice of research and their gender presentation. Still another candidate on the academic job market noticed a change in the faces of the interviewers when this job seeker walked into the room at the AHA annual meeting. After eight or nine annual meeting or campus interviews, this candidate was hired only as an adjunct. Of course, LGBTQ historians are aware that the market is tough on everyone. Still, they cannot help wondering if they are also dealing with an extra burden of discrimination.

Historians need to correct biases they might hold against scholars of LGBTQ history. It is not simply a matter of homophobia. Rather, we must recognize the scholarly excitement and significance of this field.

The problems here echo the status of women’s history in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, this now-established field was also seen as marginal and insignificant. To do women’s history as a job candidate was to risk condescension. Like LGBTQ history now, women’s history was largely seen as marginal to “real” history. Workplace discrimination occurred at every level: from writing a dissertation to getting a tenure-track job to getting a first book published to getting tenure. And the same catch-22 that frustrated women’s historians now exasperates their LGBTQ counterparts: because women did not appear in mainstream textbooks, women’s history could be dismissed as unimportant, and because it was considered unworthy in this way, many historians did not include women’s history in the textbooks they composed. Slowly, women’s and gender historians have made their way to the very center of the profession, as have minority historians. We now need to correct the same subtle biases we might hold against scholars of LGBTQ history. It is not simply a matter of homophobia. Rather, as historians we must recognize the scholarly excitement and significance of this relatively new field.

Even those LGBTQ historians who have been lucky enough to obtain tenure-track jobs still confront a special set of challenges in their assistant professor years. “The far more pernicious form of discrimination I have to face,” wrote one respondent to the survey, “is actually a refusal of my institution to recognize that minority scholars of all sorts end up doing ten times as much service work and uncompensated emotional labor as anybody else because we are absolutely besieged by students who regard us—appropriately, but exhaustingly—as singularly qualified mentors and advocates.” And at the same time, LGBTQ professors also sometimes have to deal with hostility in the classroom. One respondent described it as “unpleasant reactions from students in ways that often echo the experiences of women and people of color in the classroom.” In these instances, the gender presentation and/or sexual orientation of LGBTQ professors distorts students’ perception of their teaching, again in the way it might a female or minority professor.

Changing bias is an arduous process that takes time. The AHA is committed to that transformation and has responded to the task force report by establishing a permanent committee for LGBTQ historians and scholars of LGBTQ history. But change also begins with a set of questions we could ask about our own behaviors. These questions allow us to gain critical distance from our own biases so that we can begin to correct them. To that purpose, we end this column with a set of simple but crucial things we might ask ourselves about in our day-to-day work life. When we are reviewing written applications for a position in history, do we give scholars of LGBTQ history the same consideration we might give, for example, scholars of more widely established historical fields? If not, why not? Are we catching ourselves thinking about LGBTQ research topics as unimportant? When we are interviewing at the AHA and a person with an unconventional gender presentation walks into the room, do our perceptions of that candidate change? Why and how? Do we value the research and teaching of the scholars of LGBTQ history in our department? If not, why not? Answering these questions honestly, if only to ourselves, will hopefully spark new insights and help us move forward in our workplace interactions with LGBTQ people.

Mary Louise Roberts is Lucie Aubrac Distinguished and Plaenert-Bascom Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.


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