Guidance counsellors and student advisors tell undergraduate students that many of our colleagues change their majors during their time at university. I’m part of that sizable group. I waffled between two programmes over the course of my undergraduate career before I settled on my current field of Women’s Studies.
Though this post is about my experiences in acadaemia, there is more to me than my major. The aforementioned changes that I have made in my studies have coincided with changes in my understanding of who I am and some of the privileges I enjoy. I’m a tall, queer, cisgender, white, leftist, able-bodied man with depression who grew up in a culturally liberal Catholic household. I’ve been publicly out as gay since 2007, and out to my family (who have been overwhelmingly supportive) since 2005.
My relationship with my sexual identity and my academic life has evolved over the years. By the time I started at the University of Calgary in the fall of 2007, I had been out to my family for two years and from then onward, a growing number of friends. As June 2007 waned and my high school career came to a close, I decided to come out on Facebook by changing my “Interested In” section from blank to “Men.” I wrote a statement saying I wanted be out and honest in university. I also became politically queer and sought out queer news outlets for large parts of my hard and entertainment news, and shared my exploration on Facebook through a variety of links and short commentaries on stories – from gay marriage to portrayals of queer people in the media or lack thereof.
Once I got to campus, I used the fact that I was in a monogamous relationship with another man at the time to signpost my gayness in small talk with new classmates. I would say “Oh yeah, I went to see that movie with my boyfriend,” or “My boyfriend and I went to my friend’s party on Saturday. What did you do this weekend?”
I was out socially as a gay, but I remained in an academic closet.
After stumbling around trying to see what field would engage me for several years, and becoming much more comfortable with myself as a feminist and a queer person, I decided that when I went back to school I wanted a programme that would help me understand my queer and feminist heritage. I signed up to be a Communications and Culture major with a minor in Women’s Studies.
For me, going back to school also entailed making a commitment to myself to contribute more in classes. I didn’t want to censor myself from telling my story and enumerating my experiences in the classroom. As I’ve become more confident and comfortable with my sexual identity, my need to be a full human being – and so to discuss and learn about my identity – has grown. I didn’t want to be stifled in the closet in class or in my professors’ offices as I had been previously.
That newfound unwillingness to self-censor – combined with more math classes required – is the main reason that I decided not to return to pursue political science officially; the conservative (and Conservative) reputation of the department at the University of Calgary made me feel that my burgeoning openness would be less accepted there than it might be in other fields. Whether deserved or not, this reputation (and reality) led to my being uncomfortable with speaking up about feminist, queer and trans* issues in my classes.
I am a proud beneficiary of the feminist influence on academia which validates lived experience as an important contribution to theory. In my classes from last fall until today, I have become more comfortable discussing my struggles against the patriarchy as a queer man in classroom settings. I’ve told classes about the policing of my body in public; my internalized homophobia and (probably imagined) heightened sense of awareness of eyes on me led me to walk differently sometimes, to monitor how I spoke, to monitor what I said, to hide details about myself throughout my youth in the closet. I’ve detailed my internal and interpersonal conversations about being affectionate in public in Calgary and where I feel safe enough to hold a boyfriend’s hand or kiss him good-bye and where I don’t – unsurprisingly, the list of my safe places is fairly small.
I enjoy educating people – often straight white people – about my queer experience and telling them about my cisgender understanding of trans* identities and issues. In doing so, I always try to make clear that I can only talk from my white queer able-bodied cis man perspective.
As a queer man in Women’s Studies, I often find myself to be in an interesting position, both in the programme and in the world off-campus. In the classroom, my largely informal education in feminism and feminist theory sometimes puts me at a different level when compared to some of my fellow students who have been living and breathing Virginia Woolf or Andrea Dworkin since they were in junior high school. Fortunately, I have been lucky: my professors have created supportive environments where diverse perspectives are accepted and different voices are encouraged.
I also am used to having many cisgender female friends, and we often talk to and over and past each other in conversations and discussions. However, as a white cisgender man who recognizes that women, people of colour and trans*people often have their voices seen as less important and to be heard after the authoritative men share their opinions, I’m working on balancing my instinct to jump in and say my piece as one of the girls against my desire to not be a white cis man silencing everyone else. While this may be difficult at times, it is a far more welcome form of censoring myself than that which I had previously put myself through.
Now, rather than forcing myself into a corner of university where I denied myself the pleasurable benefits of fully contributing to academic discussions, I find that I can share my thoughts and opinions and listen thoughtfully to peers and professors. As a result, I learn more about the subject matter at hand, and myself. And that is what many guidance counsellors often confess is the most valuable asset of a university experience.