Quick plug: My latest article, “‘Homo’-work: Queering Academic Communication and Communicating Queer in Academia,” was recently published in Text and Performance Quarterly. In the piece, I use personal narrative to investigate various ways in which heterosexism dominates the grammars of academe. I also explore how academic settings may be queered.
My freshman year of high school was an exercise in enduring homophobia (see Fox ‘‘Tales’’). I was regularly spit on, called ‘‘faggot,’’ pushed into lockers, and threatened by some of the very boys who starred in my sexual fantasies. I spent my freshman year in a state of prolonged silence, fearing that my peers would denigrate me the moment I made even the slightest contribution to class discussion. When I complained to my guidance counselor about anti-gay abuse taking place in specific classes, she refused to alter my schedule. I soon realized that I would be able to make schedule changes if I improved my grades and qualified for placement in advanced courses. By the start of sophomore year, my academic performance progressed, I felt safe and accepted, and I was more comfortable participating in class. After spending a year in silence, I could not help but speak.
My 10th-grade honors biology instructor, Mr. Gilmore, was perhaps the teacher most annoyed by my jabber jaw. Although rumors circulated that Mr. Gilmore was gay, he never disclosed his sexual identity. Students simply made assumptions about why he was a bachelor, spoke an octave higher than most men, donned a bowtie, and always appeared perfectly coiffed. Mr. Gilmore was the antithesis of the other male science teacher, who was always disheveled, wore sweatpants to work, and coached football at the school. I did not particularly like Mr. Gilmore. He regularly (and rightfully) disciplined me for speaking out of turn. In the deepest recesses of my brain, I feared that Mr. Gilmore was a prophecy of my gay future. He represented a desire that never spoke its name, and worse, an inability to escape the fluorescent lights, drab colors, and homophobia of high school. Three years after I first entered his class, I started my freshman year of college and became a ‘‘frequent flyer’’ at Houston’s queer bars. One night, I ran into Mr. Gilmore at a gay dance club. He went pale the moment he recognized me. ‘‘Please, Ragan, don’t tell anyone you saw me here. I could lose my job. Please keep this a secret,’’ he pleaded.
I am ashamed to admit this but, for a moment, I entertained the idea of telling my former classmates where I saw my former biology teacher. I wanted to hijack and exercise power he once held over me. Our relationship was in large part defined by an intergenerational struggle, wherein many older gay men see hiding sexual identity as a method of survival, and many younger gay men value queer visibility (Fox ‘‘Gay’’). Gossiping about Mr. Gilmore would turn me into one of the high school bullies I tried to escape when I worked so hard to be admitted into his class. After surviving years of homophobic abuse in school, the sadist in me enjoyed watching him squirm. Years of anti-gay indoctrination pulsed through my arteries; the paradox of the moment dizzied me as I stood in the middle of a gay bar and considered*and was even amused by*another gay man’s pleas for privacy.
While collecting artifacts for this essay, I desperately searched for a picture of Mr. Gilmore. I knew that seeing his face would help me in emotional recall activities whereby I revisit past experiences before creatively re-rendering them. Much to my chagrin, I was unable to locate his photo in any of my four high school yearbooks. I cannot help but wonder about his absence from books that document both the mundane happenings of high school life and the people and events in which we took pride. Like Craig Gingrich-Philbrook, I look at the nonappearance of a specific gay man and wonder ‘‘how to address something which has not disappeared*some ‘thing’ that remains remarkable when removed, demonstrating that what has gone missing never enjoyed a guarantee, despite the accident of having actually existed at one time’’ (45455). Mr. Gilmore’s absence from my high school yearbooks echoes the secret I kept for him after our paths crossed at a gay bar called Heaven. Years later, I ruminate on the complexities of that secret. Was I a queer ally by performing the silence that Mr. Gilmore always expected of me? Or did my silence make me complicit in heteronormative structures that render LGBTQ people absent in academia, despite their presence?
Randolph C. Head and Daniel E. Christensen claim that, ‘‘One may apply the notion of performativity to cases where reality is established through silence’’ (emphasis added 262). Performative silence may be linked to Foucault’s ‘‘repressive hypothesis,’’ which argues that attempts to censor talk about particular sex acts and sexual subjectivities have resulted in a ‘‘countereffect, a valorization and intensifica- tion of indecent speech; an institutional incitement to speak about [sex], and to do so more and more’’ (History 18). He goes on to contend that, ‘‘What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret’’ (History 35). Calls for the absence and silence of LGBTQ people magnify their presence. Take, for example, Tennessee State Senate Bill 49, also known as 2011’s ‘‘Don’t Say Gay’’ bill, that aimed to ban public school teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics before high school (see Campfield). Agents working to omit LGBTQ themes and people from Tennessee’s curriculum ended up generating and inciting multiple discourses about the legal controversy, including legislative documents, protest rhetoric, press descriptions of the catalytic event, and opinion and editorial essays for and against the bill. The repressive hypothesis also explains why, despite Mr. Gilmore’s silence about his ‘‘personal life,’’ students filled in the missing blanks of his sexuality. Absence is a broken promise.