Thursday, July 12, 2018

Dude, I'm a Gay and Lesbian Academic

It's been a busy couple of days, and I'm already feeling swamped by topics I should write about.  So I'll be sneaky and do what I hope will be a quick and easy one.

I found a copy of Poisoned Ivy: Lesbian and Gay Academics Confronting Homophobia (Temple UP, 1997) by Toni A. H. McNaron at the library book sale the other day, and it looked interesting, so I bought it.  McNaron, who began teaching in 1964 at the University of Minnesota, surveyed a generational sample of LBGTQ with questionnaires, and I'm always interested in seeing what people have to say about their experiences.

But once I sat down and started to read the book, I was frustrated by McNaron's writing.  Like so many academic writers (though not only academics, I concede) she thanks various friends and colleagues and editors for assiduously going over and improving her prose.  I can only wonder what it looked before they worked on it, and with that in mind I too must thank them for their efforts.

More important, though, I keep stumbling over strange errors that apparently no one caught despite the numerous hoops that academic writing must jump through.  For example:
In 1973, the American Psychological Association (APA) removed homosexuality from its catalogue of diseases, reducing its classification from psychosis to neurosis [17].
This is a mess.  First, it was the American Psychiatric Association (APA) that in 1973 removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  It's easy to confuse them with the American Psychological Association, since they have the same initials; many people do, I've done it myself, and so does Google, which brought up this New York Times article on the American Psychiatric Association when I searched for the American Psychological Association.  Even the organizations themselves get confused: this American Psychological Association page says that the APA has opposed stigmatization of homosexuals since 1974, while this one says 1975.

Second, while homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II, there was enough dissension among psychiatrists that a new category replaced it: sexual orientation disturbance, which meant that if you felt bad about being gay, a practitioner could take your money to make you feel better about it.  Given the poor results of most psychotherapy, I wonder how effective such treatment actually was.

Third, I can't find that homosexuality was ever classified as a psychosis by either APA, though some individual practitioners may have done so, if only as a term of abuse.  As far as I can tell, then, McNaron's claim that homosexuality went from psychosis to neurosis is false.  It also conflicts with her own statement that homosexuality was "removed" from the DSM; if it was simply reclassified as a neurosis, it was still a "disease" and so was not "removed."  Since both of us are old enough to remember that period, I wonder where she got this interesting misconception.

Next, McNaron writes:
Since much queer theory argues against identity politics as being too solipsistic and narrow to be helpful in understanding a post-modern world, it has become possible for a faculty member to conduct and publish research about gayness or lesbianism without necessarily being gay or lesbian.  To the extent that this new field of inquiry provides a protective umbrella for some faculty who might otherwise refrain from integrating their sexual orientation into their work, it can only benefit students and faculty alike.  To the extent that it runs counter to the ideas of an older generation or academic era, those who continue to advocate for greater visibility in asserting the existence of intimate and unavoidable connections between the personal and the intellectual, queer theory runs the risk of diluting gains made at great risk to individual faculty members [18].
My objections to McNaron's analysis here are perhaps less factual than interpretive, but there are still facts she leaves out.  (However: "solipsistic"?  It's a much-abused word, but ...)  First, before the rise of openly gay and lesbian scholarship in the 1970s, academics took for granted that only heterosexuals could be impartial and objective about homosexuality, so gay and lesbian academics who wrote about the topic didn't reveal their personal connection to their material because to do so would have discredited them in their profession.  An example that comes to my mind is Laud Humphreys, the sociologist whose controversial observations at sites of gay men's anonymous sexual encounters, published as Tearoom Trade (Duckworth Overlook, 1970), nowhere revealed that Humphreys (who was heterosexually married) was himself gay, though he did acknowledge it later.  Two decades before Humphreys, Alfred Kinsey presented his research team as married heterosexual males, though he and some of his team weren't exclusively heterosexual; but the reason was the same, to comply with professional and cultural norms of objectivity.  One of the motives of openly gay and lesbian scholars was to demolish the notion of objectivity; it's not just a "post-modern" concern.

When openly gay and lesbian scholars began to emerge and publish in greater numbers in the 1970s and afterward, they took different approaches to this problem, though this was, again, controversial, flouting professional norms of impersonality.  Some, influenced by Second Wave feminism, wrote more personally, but most continued to produce professional work that left the observer out of the discussion.  Often personal revelations were confined to prefaces and introductions.  I've seen some disagreement about the extent of this greater personalization, but this is how I perceived it as an interested observer during that period.

As for queer theory, the distinction between it and "gay and lesbian studies" was never well-defined or -maintained.  The textbook The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993), for example, contains many contributions which, properly speaking, are queer theory, including an important excerpt from Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick's ovarian queer-theoretical The Epistemology of the Closet (California, 1990).  Sedgwick was also controversial because though she at times would accept the label "queer," she was heterosexually married, and both gay-and-lesbian-studies and queer-theory types disputed whether she really was queer and whether she should be doing queer theory if she wasn't.  Identity politics has been disavowed by queer theorists, but they have their own identities and their own politics about them.  The younger queer scholars I've read or met don't seem interested in excluding their queerness from their  work; they have other fish to fry.

So, whatever effects queer theory may have had on academics, McNahon's claims seem dubious to me.  One effect of greater gay visibility was, in my opinion, that it made it harder for scholars to do work on homosexuality while dodging questions about their own sexual orientation.  Older scholars, who'd grown up in a time when homosexuals were expected (under great coercion) to pretend, as much as possible, that they were not One of Those People, even when everyone around them knew otherwise, no doubt found it difficult to adjust.

What I've read of Poisoned Ivy so far confirms this.  One of McNaron's informants describes how a closeted colleague torpedoed his appointment to a choice position by tattling about his erotic past to the college president.  "He was obviously afraid I would expose him as a closeted gay," the informant writes (16).  Really?  There are other ways to read the incident.  One is that the informer exposed him partly to divert attention from himself: by fingering someone else, he could prove his own normality. Another is that while he was aware of his own vulnerability to exposure, he disapproved of anyone but himself being queer: he was different, a respectable academic, and this young upstart a disreputable perv.  It's impossible to say for sure in this case, at this distance in time, but I have known people with this attitude, and the trashier their own private lives were by their own standards, the more outraged they were by others.

I've peeked ahead in the book, and there is more to come.  Still, I hope to learn something by reading on, so I will.