Conversations with Colleagues: Being Black & Lesbian in Academe

In an effort to present more than a singular perspective, I have been asking colleagues in other fields to share their stories for my blog. Understandably, they are all swamped with the work of their PhD programs/their careers, so it has been slow going. I am grateful to a close friend, Jane,  for her willingness to be the first contributor to what I hope to be a series of  Conversations with Colleagues.

To jumpstart her thinking, I posed a few questions and told her to basically write whatever she wanted. She chose to answer each question in turn. Jane is a 6th year Doctoral Candidate at an Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in a PhD Biomedical Sciences program, with a concentration in Pharmacology. She is under age 30 and identifies as a Black, masculine lesbian.


How is it being a Black PhD student at an HBCU? (as opposed to a PWI–Predominately White Institution)

I don’t know because I’ve never attended a PWI of higher education, but the ones I do meet always complain about being the only. I guess I can empathize slightly because I am one of few open gays, but I feel culturally in tune with the straight people in my program so maybe not. I will say though that being a PhD student at an HBCU, I don’t feel stressed to demonstrate that I am intelligent and knowledgeable even though I am black. I feel stressed to demonstrate that I am intelligent and knowledgeable just because I am a person who is in a PhD program and I want to prove myself. I think there’s a difference there.

How is it being a woman in a man dominated field? In what ways do women tend to struggle in the natural sciences?

Again, I don’t know because I haven’t had to confront this male-dominated world just yet. The thing about blacks in higher education: There’s generally more black women than black men. For example, being at an HBCU, the graduate school is 90% female students. (It’s more like 60/40 or 70/30 women:men in the professional programs.) However, there is an apparent dichotomy when you look at our faculty, who are also of color, but mainly male. So a lot of what I know about the female struggles comes from meeting female researchers. And from the female researchers that have come and gone, I get the sense that it is very difficult at times to be the only woman in a department. There is an “old boys club” that exists that they might not be able to access despite their accomplishments. And I can say that I can somewhat pick up on that when I compare how faculty treat male graduate students and female graduate students. The males seem to have more leeway as they are a guarded treasure because they are black and thus rare. However, I personally have so many minority badges that I probably gloss over the sexism/discrimination. I already assume people perceive certain things about me so I don’t try to focus on the source of their stereotypes.

How does being gay affect your experience as a woman in academe (as opposed to straight women)?

Personally, I find that a lot of women (especially of color) in the academy are caught between two worlds. They want to professionally excel yet they still want to maintain traditional standards of domestic success (marriage, kids, etc.). It seems like a lot of them have self-imposed deadlines of when they’re supposed to obtain these milestones, and I feel bad for them because that’s not how life works. It is difficult for minority groups, especially women color, to make progress in both their highly-skilled professional lives and personal lives especially because they might not have the support systems to win the battle on both fronts. I, however, personally don’t feel that inner struggle or have self-imposed deadlines. I can’t speak for all lesbians, or even all masculine-identifying lesbians, but I don’t feel compelled to be married by a certain point or to have kids by a certain point or anything like that.  I feel like it will just happen when it happens. I don’t feel pressure from women to settle down, and that’s possibly because “gay marriage” is so new. You can settle down without officially settling down, lol. Also, I know my womb won’t be young forever, but between there being two wombs in my future relationships and the option of adoption, I’m not afraid of not being a parent someday. You could say I identify with the stereotypical perception of men who are climbing the professional ladder. Live first, and everything else will fall in line as time goes on. In a way, it is somewhat liberating to be gay because my perceived abnormality frees me from some of society’s gender roles and rules. Professionally, I have not felt any type of discrimination because I am gay. That may be my own naiveté though. I have faced a lot of setbacks during my graduate career, and the lack of support that I sometimes had might be because I’m gay but I have no proof of that. However, I will say that the fact that I am even able to be myself in my program shows that society and the academy are making strides. I am an open, masculine-identifying lesbian in a PhD program. There’s really no ambiguity to it, and I am proud to be marking a cultural shift. My generation of LGBT is one of the first to grow up during a time of open pride and self-expression, especially at an early age. We are free to be as masculine or feminine as we want to be in traditionally conformist areas and fields, and people are slowly becoming more tolerant (I wouldn’t say accepting) of our differences. So while people may feel some kind of way about my homosexuality, I don’t let that be a barrier to me moving forward professionally. Even if they shut the door in my face, based on my talents and networking, I can always find an open window. I guess the  biggest test of tolerance will be employment and seeking a post-doc.

How has your experience thus far as a graduate student changed your career goals from what they were when you first started?

When I first decided to go to graduate school, I was looking forward to being a professor and having a small laboratory working on hypertension and other cardiovascular disorders. However, during my time in graduate school, I realized that I hate academia. I think it is a vile place. It is not about learning, challenging norms, or personal growth. It is a place of unjustified competition, pettiness, and cruelty. Most people aren’t looking out for the well-being of their students or to protect the integrity of their field. They’re really just looking for power or fame or whatever. I see the academy as a jungle, which is not how I viewed it as an undergrad. As an undergraduate student, I saw it as place of enlightenment and opportunity away from the inequalities of everyday society. Now, I just see that it’s just as bad as most sectors. And so if most sectors are primarily shitty, I’d rather go to sectors where I feel I will have a greater impact on society.


It is clear that when I juxtapose Jane’s narrative as a Black woman in the academy with my own, there are stark differences. Some differences are rooted in our different fields, our different sexual labels, and in our different academic environments. But in most ways, Jane’s responses are certainly on target with my experiences. I do indeed feel the pressure she describes of her straight female counterparts to adhere to traditional models of personal success. I even wrote a post about my biological clock (Tick Tock: Love or Learning?) and its subjugation to my tenure clock. I also wrote a post about my tokenism in the academy and being the ‘only’ (I am Not My Hair ). What is notably similar despite our vastly different fields are our perceptions of gender-based hierarchies in academe. I’ve yet to write a post about gender dynamics, but Jane’s words have ignited a flame of interest. Stay tuned.

Again, thank you Jane for your contribution.


2 comments on “Conversations with Colleagues: Being Black & Lesbian in Academe

  1. Thank you for another amazing, inspiring post..and thank you Jane for being so refreshingly open!! I just cannot stop reading your blog, please promise you will publish it in total as a book someday…and make sure it is required reading for ALL profs (I will help in any way I can)– and if you ever want a guest blog from an elderly white prof with four year old twins (and a pseudo afro)…I am happy to offer any perspective you think might be of use to your readers…who, by the way, are getting a LOT of great information from you….did I mention again how amazingly proud of you I am?!!!

    • Thank you so much for reading my blog. Always remember that my interest in academia started with you. Because you ARE my original inspiration, I would LOVE a post from you about whatever you want. I certainly need a post from diverse people (age, gender, sexuality, discipline, everything) because I need to continue to challenge myself.

      On Mon, Feb 18, 2013 at 2:22 PM, theotherclass

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