Gay Mentors in Modern Academe

Brian Taylor

February 23, 2012

Scott Forman, the student: "Are you gay?"

The professor smiled quizzically and looked over at the framed photographs on his desk of him and his boyfriend on vacation. "Yes," he said.

"When did you first know?"

"I was 5," he replied. "But it's different for everybody."

After years of deep-seated confusion and months of heart-wrenching questioning, I finally took one of the most significant steps in embracing my newly acknowledged identity as a gay college student. After coming out to my friends and sisters, but not yet to my parents, I felt that I was missing a crucial conversation. Still hesitant to identify as openly gay, though worried that saying I was "questioning" my sexual identity was too thin a veneer, I was desperate to speak with someone who had already been through all of this.

Sure, I knew gay people back home, including some old high-school friends, but we'd drifted in the intervening years. I certainly wasn't about to randomly call Doug up and ask, "Hey, I haven't heard from you in forever, man! How are you? How's college treating you? Oh, just wondering, when and how did you know you were gay? ... Hmm? Uh, no reason."

Every time I played that conversation over again in my head, with each gay person I knew, it didn't make any sense. Besides, I wasn't sure I could keep conversations with old acquaintances confidential.

Finally, I began to realize why those fantasized conversations, which were supposed to explain everything that I might ever need to know about coming out, never made sense. How could I expect to learn anything about such a complicated process when the people from whom I sought advice were still navigating their own way through it? No, I needed to speak with an openly gay adult.

But where to find one? I didn't have any gay relatives, and my parents didn't have any gay friends. Sad as it is to say in our enlightened and tolerant 21st century, I did not know a single openly gay adult (except from Hollywood). A junior in college, and the only gay adults I knew were fictional. Was I supposed to watch Modern Family and Glee for hints about how gay men are supposed to walk, talk, drink their beverages, interact with other gay men, dress, and dance? What if I didn't want to learn about homosexuality through gay clubs and sitcoms?

Then I remembered: My writing professor, he's definitely gay. Although he never declared it precisely to the class, he certainly had plenty of stereotypical mannerisms, and wasn't afraid to make a sodomy joke before showing us the next installment of Querelle. After all, it was a writing course about sexuality in literature, especially the struggles of homosexual characters. Yet I hesitated for weeks about privately approaching him outside of class. I still wasn't sure exactly what I wanted to ask him, just that I wanted to hear another man's perspective on coming out.

I delayed that conversation until exam week, when I had the excuse of stopping by his office to pick up my final paper. After hesitantly starting with the above questions, we began to speak about where I was emotionally. I tried to just use the word "questioning" at first, but he quickly said, "You're actually not the first student to come out to me, so don't worry." Suddenly I felt pigeonholed, yet strangely liberated. That simple statement, being recognized as gay by someone I respected (without further judgment), was itself a major step forward.

We spoke for a long time that afternoon. He told me stories of relatives rejecting him for simply being honest about who he was, and I confessed my own nerves about coming out to my parents during the impending winter break. He warned me about the professional difficulties that I will face as an out academic. He reassured me with stories of gay loved ones who had come out later in life than me. He told me about how different coming out had been for him a generation ago, and how much he's noticed queer culture change across college campuses since then. At the end of it all, he hugged me and told me to stop by his office any time I wanted to chat next semester.

I walked back to my dorm that windswept afternoon feeling remarkably warmed. I had met an openly gay, mature adult man, who was gay yet didn't let it totally define him either. He was an accomplished professional, and perfectly comfortable discussing his sexuality and coming-out process with me, a seemingly random student. It was a wonderfully reassuring feeling as I walked back to my dorm, seeing a real path forward once out—not stereotypes in TV and movies, not tragedies on the news—just a normal man who loved men, not women.

The following semester I was delighted to receive an e-mail from the professor (my co-author of this column), asking me to be his newest research assistant. I relished the chance for further contact with someone who I hoped might become something of a gay role model; not an idol, not a character, but a real person who could help me to navigate the rocky shores ahead.

It has been a tremendously helpful experience in my first year as an openly gay student. I just hope that other students in my situation will find similarly thoughtful and supportive mentors during their difficult college years.

Yes, society has made great strides toward equality in recent decades, but that hardly means that every gay kid is suddenly going to be just fine on his own. I was lucky that, of all the writing professors on the campus, I wound up in Rob's class a year ago. I just hope more gay students can find their own "Rob" soon. For that matter, I hope more Robs start actively looking to find those kids, and to help them out.

Rob Faunce, the professor: I'm constantly thinking of shame in how I conceive of my courses and my teaching. I think of the shame of the fat kid in elementary school, not being picked until last; I think of the shame of being told by a teacher that you are "wrong," particularly in an interpretive setting. And I think of the constant elisions of shame and gayness, which can be a lifelong process of castigating or purging. I think of Ellis Hanson's formulation that pride and shame form a perilous dialectic in which they constantly threaten to trade places—and adding "gay" as a prefix to shame or pride is an easy connection. So how to cast aside shame (and shaming) without losing (or glorifying) pride? It's difficult, particularly in the modern classroom.

Late last year, the actor Zachary Quinto nonchalantly outed himself in a two-page article in New York magazine that touted his new film. Quinto said he was motivated to speak out by the gay-teen suicides of 2010 (which I also wrote about in The Chronicle) and by his need to show his presence—to show that "it gets better."

Indeed, we need to be on the front lines about this—not in some kind of political way, but in a compassionate show of hope for pre-teens and young adults who might otherwise be struggling in silence. In Scott's story, he talks of knowing only fictional characters who were gay; Zach Quinto coming out provides a public figure to whom gay or questioning youths can look. But Quinto is not their neighbor, family friend, or teacher. He is not an everyday presence—and in thinking of what we do as educators, it is not just about teaching, it's also about influencing ways of thought and providing a role model.

In my writing courses, I emphasize the creation and amplification of voice. Close reading yields close analysis, which begets confidence and increasing literacy, which creates young people prepared to do vibrant work in their chosen field. The amplification of voice should also help these emerging adults face the issues they confront outside of the classroom or the workplace. The coming-out process that Scott details is another node in this pedagogy—enabling and empowering students to emerge—as a chrysalis for any self-discovery.

Obviously this can be a contested space for a professor. Where is the line, for instance, of self-declaration regarding sexuality, gender, class, or race? Scott rightly points out that I never "outed" myself in my classroom, but he cannily notes that my "mannerisms" were an indicator of gayness to him. There are unconscious and presupposed ways in which we convey information about ourselves. If I convey an effeminacy or dress better than the average professor, I take no shame from that (anymore), and if a student can use those qualifiers (or the photograph of a two-male, one-dog family in my office) to create a locus of identification, then so much the better.

We identify with each other on a daily basis, and our young gay students particularly need visible subjects with whom they can look to for identity and identification.

Scott has been one of my research assistants for the last two semesters. He is efficient and unafraid of my research interests. His sexuality did not harm him in obtaining the position; the reason I thought of him when I was filling the opening after another research assistant left the post was because of the way Scott approached me in coming out—the way he read the signs and created meaning, looking for answers to his own questions while seeking the camaraderie and kinship that community and mentorship often provide.

As academics we are supposed to be doing that anyhow—looking for meaning from a great many sources while also imparting our knowledge and acquired wisdom to our students. As a gay academic, I feel it is increasingly my moral obligation to provide students—not just the gay or questioning ones, but also the straight or straight-questioning students—with a role model of a different sort.

"Coming out" still matters. Stories like Scott's are not passé or desensitized by the decades of increasing civil rights and movement toward equality. All academics need to take a step back to consider the ways in which they are providing thoughtful education and mentorship to their students, and particularly to consider the ways they incorporate and encourage their students to identify and amplify their voices. Coming out requires bravery, but it also demands a clear voice—whether in Hollywood, in the academic press, or during office hours at the end of a long semester.

Rob Faunce is a full-time lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Scott Forman is his research assistant and is in the process of applying to graduate programs in history.