03 March 2006
Wedding Bell Blues (Part Two): The Assassination of Love
Love hurts yes it hurts, but it’s good for fools
Feel some pain now, still you wanna try it again
— Boy George
My first marriage really was about Love, just like Jackie. Of course, I wasn’t in love with Mr. Sadistic College, in a literal sense. Very quickly I figured out that it was an incredibly toxic environment. By love here, I mean that it was my first real job. I devoted myself to the job and the institution in a way I know I never will for another academic job, now and forever. By this I don’t mean that I don’t work hard, because believe me I do. Rather, that I will never truly believe in the profession in the same way, regardless of specific institutional malice or good will. In many ways, upon my arrival at Sadistic College, I was still committed to meritocracy (an echo hard for any academic to truly rid themselves of), as well as the Protestant value of hard work. Let’s face it, girls, I was greener than Loretta Lynn coming straight out of Appalachia!
In my particular position at Sadistic College, I was actually the second wife. My position had previously been filled, unhappily, by another (and in the end smarter) “wife,” the first wife. After several years of mutual antagonism, this wife decamped in a huge controversy and with an undisclosed settlement and a confidentiality agreement. Wags on campus rumoured it to be several years of an associate professor’s salary, and an agreement to not bad mouth each other. But that didn’t stop the first wife’s spouse from talking (they hadn’t signed the confidentiality agreement), and aspects of the story, refracted and strange, made their way to my ears by the time I had signed the contract. Later research revealed other cracks in the cone of silence over the case, one of the most interesting being Sadistic College’s listing in a Chron salary survey, which showed the first wife (as an assistant professor) making more than three times the then-current assistant professor salary level at the college for that year (the last of the marriage). Not bad! Skoal! Good work, Eve! Obviously I wasn’t the only one being fed hints and rumours. These warning signs of a troubled past were mostly ignored on the my part, for the good reason that Mr. Sadistic College’s offer of his hand in marriage was the only one I had, and I needed to get out of my parents’ house. So, like many a foolish young bride, I leapt into the void with nothing but faith and a makeup valise.
I thought, as we all do, that I would be different. I would show them, through my hard work, collegiality, and devotion, that I was a better wife, more properly suited to a housewife’s duties. I would be nice. Nice girls always win, right? The specific combination of racialized, gendered, and sexual components of niceness, in this regard, are shot through with troubling dimensions of fit and collegiality. So often, those terms are just another way of saying “Not One of Us,” meant in the worst possible way. In my case, Sadistic College considered my position to be epistemologically tainted by the first wife, and all they could see was her trouble, which they then (because they paid so handsomely for their shit the first time around) moved to eliminate before real evidence could be accumulated (i.e. at mid-career and before tenure time, when one’s legal position was weaker).
When institutions set faculty of colour off against each other based on these intangible qualities of fit and collegiality (“First Wife would never make it here. You’re different.”), go to your battle stations, girls! Because these are code words for race and gender and sexual differences and bias. And because in the end, you will never be able to efface the malice held towards your phantom (gone but not forgotten) predecessor (based on race and gender), no matter how much you smile and hold the door and set the table. In fact, because of this racial antagonism, which then meets in odd and strange ways sexual and gendered antagonisms, and is as often completely unconscious, you will be painted with the same brush, either to your face or behind your back. There are no good girls of colour in the academy. In this rat race you’re guilty until proven innocent. To paraphrase Margo Channing, one of the differences between civilization and the academy.
That someone like myself, trained in a particular critical approach, would buy into this fantasy of uniqueness (and the fair shake) is, in retrospect, surprising at the very least. Let’s be generous and chalk it up to delusional optimism. On being green. On expecting to be treated professionally. What I hadn’t counted on was that Sadistic College was an institutional version of a serial abuser, especially when it came to faculty of colour and gay male faculty, of which I was (and still am) an enticing combination.
To wit, over the span of ten years, out of a faculty of less than 130, thirteen faculty of colour had left the college, either through attrition or outright dismissal (including the first wife). In my time there, three out of the six openly gay men on the faculty (including myself) left the college under duress. The fourth decamped shortly after my departure. The current Dean (one of the most untrustworthy and unethical people I have ever met, and that is saying quite a lot, believe me) would claim to any concerned party who made this observation that each case was individual, and no pattern could possibly be discerned. Yea, right. Undisclosed financial settlements and confidentiality agreements also help eliminate “patterns” of deeply entrenched white supremacist values and a violently racist and homophobic campus culture cloaked by liberal values and an artsy reputation.
The fact that the Dean could say this with a straight face, and that people believed it, only speaks to the power of the human mind to rationalize despair and terror to the point that when it happens to you or someone you care about, impotence and fear are the only responses. This is also deeply connected to the structural position of most junior faculty, which is determined by sheer terror, in many guises. And that was the lesson I learned, too late, from the first wife, a lesson noted before: Keep your eye on your alimony, baby!
But this also speaks deeply to the tokenistic value institutions attach to various differences, such as race or gender, without taking seriously the professional and institutional changes diversity requires. When it is said in a divisional meeting, as it was about me at Sadistic College during my third-year review, that “He is too gay in the classroom,” you have a problem that will not be solved by hiring yet another sacrificial lamb to replace the one whose blood is streaming down your chops. When your disagreements with your senior faculty of colour are a strange mishmash of latent homophobia and disagreements over how to represent race to and for white people, you’ve got problems. When junior faculty members are dismissed because they embody uncomfortable differences (visibly by colour, or openly and obviously gay), you should do some hard thinking. Instead, people sat on their hands (with one or two sterling, truly heroic exceptions). For Sadistic College this was not a crisis, it was business as usual. And that, in and of itself, is a crisis.
Devotion, hard work, and professionalism rarely gets you anywhere alone in academia, a valuable lesson I had to learn the hard way. And we carry the histories, stereotypes, and associations made about other people “like us” on our backs out of the past and into our futures. This is a crucial differential burden that affects the workload, tenure and promotion, and rate of professional success for LGBT scholars and scholars of colour in the academy. Now I follow the practical advice I should have known when I started down this stony end: keep a tenure file. Never trash emails. Keep notes on conversations. Have a paper trail. And get the name of a good Big City lawyer that specializes in academic labour law. Just in case. And as I have said before, I listen for the dog whistle. Learn to read the tea leaves and signs of the institution. For contra pre-crack Whitney, unfortunately Love will not save the day. But that shouldn’t stop a girl from getting her alimony.
As Boy George so hauntingly reminds us, Love Hurts. So, I’m now over the love phase of my relationship to academic employment. Nasty divorces will do that to you, it’s a truism of our popular culture. But unlike that popular culture, I am not filled with the saccharine desires of the longing and redemption of Lifetime Television for Women melodramas (“Will I Ever Love Again?!”). Your job, as I know now, is not a place for Love, your life is. The job is what finances the life (and love), not the other way around. It is a means to an end, not the end itself.
However, I am mourning this loss of academic job Love as well, along with a host of other precious and dangerous ideas: meritocracy, professionalism, fairness, rationality. Just like Jackie did, when a series of bullets ruined her fabulous pink Chanel suit and her carefully constructed life, among other things. Did this malicious and Byzantine unraveling devastate me? Yes, of course. Racism and homophobia, like Love, hurt and wound in terrible, tragic ways, as any person of colour or LGBT can attest. And while my experience was extreme, I do not think it is necessarily unique. Mine was one of many cases without action committees, marching students, mass email alerts, and petitions. Things like this happen every day in “The Shop.” Business as usual. Lies, secrets, and silence.
A loss of innocence sounds so trite, so profoundly American. America is always losing her innocence and miraculously finding it again for the next customer, like a carnival tart. I think in my case rather a loss of faith is probably more apropos.
“It’s not like in plays, Hallie! All the faggots don’t kill themselves in the end!” screams Michael towards the end of his meltdown in Boys in the Band. So true. We live to tell.
(Life after Mr. Sadistic College? Stay tuned…)