Queer Leadership, Stronger Universities

It is powerful and affirming to consider the unique qualities that queerness brings to leadership.

I am a Black gay-identified man in my mid-50s. As a matter of practice, I use the terms gay and queer interchangeably, the latter being a nod to the evolution of language and the ways in which those younger than I have embraced the term. For the past 11 years I have been in a faculty role at Salem State University (SSU), a regional four-year public institution. I love my work engaging directly with students. Even so, there is a part of me that wants to work in an administrative role, so that I could focus on broader issues impacting the institution as a whole. Previously, I served as Assistant Vice President of Institutional Diversity at the University of Kentucky and I’ve always held on to the possibility that, at some point, I might move back into leadership.

I offer this background and context because one unexpected result of recently reading LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education, edited by Raymond Crossman—a wonderful collection of personal narratives written by LGBTQ college presidents and other leaders in higher education—was a rekindling and clarification of that aspiration. Before reading, it had been a while since I’d considered that I might have something unique to offer in a leadership role, something that would be of benefit to many. Nor had it been top of mind that the intersection of my queerness with my Blackness can rightfully be seen as an asset, a way of being in the world, and a perspective sorely needed in higher education.

For LGBTQ individuals, this intimate and inspirational quality of the text is what makes it such a generative tool for learning. For others, I imagine it will be illuminating in the ways it speaks to things outside their realm of experience, aspects of identity they’ve never considered, and most importantly, the ways they may unwittingly be upholding systems of oppression.

The book pushed me to reflect on my own journey. I remained closeted in my professional life for the 15 or so years prior to coming to SSU. After so many years of showing up as fractured and inauthentic, I concluded, as many of the authors in the volume did, that not being out held too high a cost in the form of stress and wasted energy. If I was deemed unhirable because of being gay, then it wouldn’t be a place that I would want to work. Despite having found a very welcoming environment, it remains important to explore the ways in which internalized homophobia is still present.

There have been times, even at my current institution, when I was made to feel unwelcome as a gay man. Ironically, this happened most often in the context of initiatives to support men of color that I had a hand in creating. Other times, internalized homophobia showed up where there was an assumption on a student’s part of my being straight and I didn’t move to correct them.

But, as Karen Whitney and others in the volume urge us, we must “proudly be true to who you are”—especially as a leader. It is a powerful and affirming experience to consider the unique qualities that queerness brings to leadership. In this way, queer leadership is a potent antidote to one’s own internalized prejudices and self-doubt. Being gay is a way of being, seeing, and knowing. But the authors in the volume extend this notion to include ways of engaging, relating, and acting that are critically important for the president or leader of an institution.

I was already familiar with several of the authors and had even met or worked with some (a testament to how small the higher education community is). I was thrilled to see several contributions from Karen Whitney, former president of Clarion University. Several years ago, Sue Rankin, Karen, and I coauthored a chapter entitled “Queer-Spectrum and Trans-Spectrum People Out of the Shadows: The Institutional Imperative for Building Inclusive Campus Communities” in an edited volume focused on challenges in higher education leadership. With that prior connection, it was fascinating to delve deeper into Whitney’s experiences and contemplate how I may one day deal with similar challenges.

Other authors turned out to be individuals whom I would very much like to have in my network of mentors, collaborators, and potential future supporters. James Gandre, president at Manhattan School of Music, was an author whose experiences I found myself leaning into as he spoke of the way he and his partner navigated a small institutional environment. I felt an immediate kinship based on shared identity that allowed me to imagine new possibilities.

It had been a while since I’d considered that I might have something unique to offer in a leadership role.

Several authors spoke especially poignantly about the impact of internalized homophobia. Robert Crossman describes straight men at his institution communicating with one another using sports analogies and other straight-coded language, clearly meant to delineate the space as one wherein he did not belong. The instinctive responses to such external pressures left him wondering at times “how often do I straighten up my leadership?”

Visibility is critically important because it gives others permission to be who they are as well. This is vital not only for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff but also for educating our straight colleagues about the insidious nature of heterosexism and heteronormativity and the ways these stances limit and constrain all of us. Terry Allison powerfully points out that “homophobia actively suppresses LGBTQ voice.”

This point was made clear to me last semester, when I shook up my way of presenting my queerness and subsequently received an award for being an LGBTQ role model on our campus. I teach graduate and undergraduate students, and for the past several years, while I assumed that students knew I am gay, I only made a point of stating it clearly with my graduate students. My reasoning for holding back that declaration in my work with undergrads was that as one of very few Black faculty members, I am keenly aware that I may be the first Black professor my students have ever had. I figured that it was challenging enough for my mostly white students to make sense of who I am based on my racial identity without throwing my queerness into the mix. Several colleagues pushed me on this, pointing out that it would be very powerful and important for students to hear me name and claim my multiple identities.

So last semester, on the first day of class, along with my usual introductory comments I added, “I have a husband, Jonathan, and an impossibly cute rescue dog named Batu. As a family we make our home in Lowell, Massachusetts.” Apart from that statement, everything about class and how I showed up as a teacher was the same. Still, students in the award-nominating process spoke about how I was an example of strength, persistence, and grace for LGBTQ students and students of color. This experience really brought home the fact that as educators we are never fully aware of the impact we are having on our students. My realization closely aligns with the experience of several authors who spoke to the fact that at some point they realized that they were offering mentoring experiences for LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff that they had no idea were occurring.


Symonds’s Facts, Our Future

By Emily Rutherford

Reading this volume excavated another deeper reason that I had been reluctant to make my identity explicit in my undergraduate classes: I realized that I was attempting to shield myself from the reaction of students who may be at various stages of development in their understanding and acceptance of identity in themselves and others. I thought I had developed a thicker skin over the years but here was this vulnerability in me that needs to be compassionately addressed.

And it’s certainly sobering to read about the very real challenges and obstacles the authors faced at different points in their careers. In the opening chapter Raymond E. Crossman states plainly that “during your presidency there will inevitably be moments when you will need to be prepared to ‘lead through hate.’” James Gandre spoke of the indignity of being told that they were not chosen for a presidency because the board was not comfortable with the idea of a gay president.

Then there are the various ways the press and surrounding communities may react to having a gay president. I very much appreciated the nuanced discussion of what it means to subject partners and family to the 24/7, immersive experience typical of a university presidency. Recalling my time as an assistant vice president for Institutional Diversity at the University of Kentucky, I remember a feeling of profound visibility. People would engage with me at the grocery store, eating out at restaurants, and even during visits to the dentist.

Transitioning into a faculty role at SSU was an escape from that level of attention. It resonated when Daniel López Jr., president of Harold Washington College, states “I learned early on in my career that the higher position I had, the more visibility and scrutiny I would encounter.”

In higher education, it seems the grass is always greener at other institutions. Yet I found myself realizing that there is so much I take for granted, being at an institution that has not only been supportive of my LGBTQ identity, but others’ too. Last week I was part of a panel discussion organized by the Alliance, our LGBTQ student group, that aimed to provide an opportunity to learn from the experiences of faculty and staff. On the panel, sitting on either side of me, were the provost and associate provost, both of whom are gay identified. What a powerful and rare experience to have in higher education, and one that I will certainly be reminded of when I’m tempted to find opportunities elsewhere.

The presence and visibility of LGBTQ leadership impacts my experience in positive ways, and I am empowered in ways that I might not be otherwise. These important assessments of what is good about my current situation have come from reading this volume, which has functioned as a lens through which I can understand my own experiences. I’m sure that others will experience it similarly.

The authors shared many important lessons and considerations for those aspiring to the presidency or other leadership positions in higher education. As a reader, the narratives took on the function of sifting, sorting, and clarifying my own intentions and reservations when considering a move from faculty to administration given my identity as a married Black gay man in ways I am grateful for.

And for those who may find themselves either publicly or privately opposed to supporting LGBTQ individuals in positions of leadership, this volume stands as a testament to the fact that LGBTQ individuals are already leading and making powerful contributions. Whether the stories offered in this volume will change the hearts and minds of those opposed … well, we can hope. I count myself very fortunate to have encountered this book at this precise juncture of my career. I, myself, remain hopeful. icon

This article was commissioned by Roopika Risam. Featured image: photograph of rainbow flag by Anastasiia Chepinska / Unsplash (CC0 1.0)