Two Men and a Teenager: Career Considerations of a Same-Sex Couple

May 18, 2001

Celebration is in order. My dissertation is finished, graduation announcements are mailed, and my outrageously expensive cap, gown, and hood have arrived. Unfortunately, for my partner and me, as well as for our daughter, the merrymaking is short-lived as we all face a very uncertain year ahead.

For gays and lesbians in higher education, being "out" on the academic job market presents its own unique set of circumstances and quandaries. Throw in the challenges of child-rearing and the dual-career considerations that come with being part of an academic couple, and the already arduous process of searching for a tenure-track job becomes even more complicated.

The excitement and frustration I experienced in this past year -- from completing my dissertation on the one hand, and failing to land a tenure-track job on the other -- have been emotionally draining for me. Attempts at remaining levelheaded were abandoned months ago. Luckily, my partner and my 16-year-old daughter developed a wonderful sensitivity to my frequently fragile psychological state, although through their eyes, this past year may have just been about going to an inordinate number of movies without me.

After making it onto more than a half-dozen longlists and three shortlists, and landing campus interviews at two colleges, I'm back at square one. Although I still have a few spring applications out, I am reluctant to hold much optimism for securing a tenure-track position for this coming fall.

To be frank, I must admit that my situation -- being a previously tenured associate professor with nearly 14 years' experience in academe, and a Ph.D. now in hand, but no position for next year -- still seems a bit incomprehensible. Last week I calculated the date in November when my first student loan payment will come due and immediately felt my windpipe close, broke out in a cold sweat, and dashed for the bathroom.

My partner, with a master's degree in music composition, teaches as an adjunct faculty member at the same institution where I recently earned my doctorate. His student evaluations and peer reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. As much as an adjunct can, he has made himself indispensable to the department's growing needs in the area of music theory.

His salary as a part-time instructor, albeit low and without fringe benefits, kept us afloat this past year. However, as with most adjunct positions, it is uncertain what assignments, if any, he'll receive for the coming year. Employment contracts for these types of temporary positions are frequently issued just before the beginning of each semester, just late enough to undermine any sense of security and stability.

Another dilemma I faced during this year's job search was balancing the relatively comfortable and supportive environment we've enjoyed here for the past three years as a committed gay couple (both at the university and in the wider community), with the prospect of relocating to a new community where homophobic attitudes and anti-gay bias might flourish. This affects not just my partner and me, but our daughter as well.

Of course it's important to research a particular institution's policies and overall friendliness to lesbian and gay faculty and staff members (e.g., Is there a campus organization for such employees? Does the institution include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy?). But I want to suggest that, although this kind of information is essential for single lesbian and gay academics, it is insufficient when children of dual-career gay parents are part of the equation.

Heterosexual couples may very well take into consideration their children's academic needs and desires when contemplating a potential position in higher education. Weighing the needs of the entire family, in general, has started to become a viable part of the job-search process in academe. For same-sex, dual-career families with children, there are more complications.

For this reason, as an academic couple, we chose to ignore the advice of some of our colleagues who suggested that sharing the details of our situation should happen only at the time of a job offer. Waiting until the conclusion of the campus interview to openly be yourself, it seems to me, not only undermines the candidate's integrity and credibility, but also continues to devalue the importance of family life in academe.

More likely than not, my daughter would have attended public school with the children of some of our prospective colleagues. Given the nature of our involvement with her school, the issue of having "two dads" would certainly have surfaced. I know that she would rather cut off her foot than hide the fact that her mother lives in Boston, and she lives with her dads in Greensboro.

As out gay parents, we are now deeply proud of our family, and we are highly involved in her school life and social activities. But as parents we must consider the environment she will experience on a daily basis. Simply put, what my partner and I might experience as homophobic policies and anti-gay attitudes in the university setting she will experience exponentially in high school. Kids may say the darnedest things, but unfortunately, what they say often hurts.

I share all of these concerns here, not to ask for any special pity or sympathetic posturing, but rather to flesh out more of the complexity that all of us -- gay, straight, or otherwise -- face in the job-search process.

My partner and I decided that a long-distance arrangement, which either of us could have most likely negotiated, would undermine both our commitment to being a dual-career couple as well as our deep concern for remaining a family. Although we've known many colleagues who have tried to negotiate this kind of relationship, we feel that this is not the type of lifestyle we wish to aspire to, or model for, our daughter. Having said that, this may mean a fragmented adjunct life in the uncertain (and uncontracted) year ahead.

At the same time, we realize that our dual-career concerns may force us to take jobs at institutions with lower profiles than the ones we've previously considered. We've realized that teaching, and teaching well, in a healthy intellectual and socially conscious environment, outweighs institutional clout and prestige. So too, we've recently embraced the notion that it's not about giving priority to one career over another, but rather how our mutual careers inform and benefit one another in the context of our larger professional and personal goals.

A surprising and untimely resignation in my department at the university has resulted in the possibility of my teaching a full load in the fall, including two graduate courses in education. For the summer, I may accept a part-time position as special assistant to the academic dean of a private Hebrew boarding academy.

My partner, in addition to his potential position teaching music theory and ear training at the university, has accepted an editorial position (part time of course) with a small music-publishing house in the city. And like all good part-time musicians, his music directorship position at our church continues.

As for our daughter, she has decided that given the uncertainty and instability of our dual careers in the coming year, she will spend the next academic year in Boston with her mother. This is probably the most heartbreaking, if not poignantly inevitable, aspect of the entire job-search adventure: Uncertainty breeds further uncertainty for all involved.

As gay professors, we have both led lives of privilege, to some degree, but also of marginality. Institutional attitudes about same-sex dual careers still fall short of the merit accorded to our heterosexual counterparts, even though couple-hiring makes good business sense and has become standard practice in many institutions.

This last week before graduation allows a brief respite from the uncertainty of our circumstances for the coming year. For now, it's about lots of cake, punch, and pats-on-the back. It's about a weeklong celebration of parties, graduation dinners, ceremonial hoodings, departmental receptions, and commencement brunches, all culminating with my own open-house event. The final challenge of the Ph.D., or the last proverbial hoop through which to jump, is to actually enjoy the festivities while repeatedly searching for ways to answer friends, colleagues, and former students as they all ask some version of the same question: "So, what are you doing next year?"

Doug Risner is a doctoral fellow in the department of educational leadership and cultural foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.