With my work in student affairs so often centering on diversity and inclusion, it sometimes feels like some ideas can easily become buzzwords. “Intersectionality” is one example of that. Since everyone has multiple identities, the idea is omnipresent, and though I’d never deny that it is useful construct, the fact that it is always present makes it easy to view in a superficial way. For a while, intersectionality was becoming a buzzword in my practice, but recent events in my work have made me reconsider why exactly it’s important in the work that I do.
One of the new priorities of my department is “knowing and being known,” a philosophy I can easily get behind considering my view on how we learn. Since I believe we learn with others, a key component is understanding those you are learning with and from. While I think it makes a great deal of sense for this new priority to show up on my evaluation, it’s unfortunately more easily stated than assessed. In working through my mid-year evaluation, I admitted that knowing and being known was a philosophical priority, but incorporating it into my daily work was more difficult than executing other administrative tasks that are more easily assessed. Toward the end of the evaluative conversation, I also remarked that knowing and being known was difficult for me as a gay man, serving in all-male residence halls. With our meeting near its end, my supervisor said it might we worth discussing that point more in a future meeting, and I ended up thinking about it much more after.
Though it was the first time in a
long time that I reflected about my identity within an all-male residence hall,
it was something I had considered extensively as I entered my ARLC role at
Tech. Upon finding out that I would be
living and working in Barringer Hall, an all-residence hall at Tech, my initial
response was anxiety. To an extent, it might have been due to the uncertainty
of the situation, having served exclusively in a coed living-learning community
in my undergraduate leadership roles.
However, a more specific concern that kept coming to mind was what it
might be like to work with all men.
Never had I considered myself “one of the boys,” and a vast majority of
my friends and mentors were women. For a
long time, the reasons for that remained a mystery to me, and while it started
to make more sense as I came to identify as a gay man, it wasn’t something that
I considered deeply until recently.
From early on, it was apparent to
me that gender and sexual orientation, though different, are related. In middle school, anything not traditionally masculine
was touted as “gay.” Though this was
terrifying to me before I came out, once I came to realize and accept I was
gay, it was refreshingly liberating.
While in some ways it seemed like an attack on my masculinity, it made
the ways I approached gender norms far more socially acceptable. I was much less concerned about how my mannerisms,
hobbies, and outward expression were perceived when the greatest consequence
was someone threatening me by (quite accurately) calling me gay. That said, I realized that these behaviors
had much more to do with my gender expression than my sexual orientation. However, with my sexual orientation already
defying typical gender expectations, the boundaries of what was gender
appropriate seemed much more fluid.
While the question, “What does it mean to be a man?” lends itself to
obvious hyper-masculine answers, the simple addition of one word to “What does
it mean to be a gay man?” seems more ambiguous.
It can mean sports or style, cars or cooking, hunting or homemaking,
some beers at the bar or sauvignon blanc at book club.
With that in mind, I think my
difficulty in knowing and being known in an all-male residence hall has to do
with “knowing” and “being known” as separate issues. I remember thinking as a Resident Mentor of
roughly fifty students as an undergraduate student that getting to know each of
them individually was impossible, and now working in a community of four
hundred, I acknowledge that it’s the reality that I won’t get to know every
student on a personal level. I think a
common pitfall of working with college students is encountered even in
considering the phrase “college students.”
If the mental image of spurred is much like a google search, you might
picture a group of young, preppy, primarily white people on a quad smiling and
holding backpacks. Adding the further
specification of gender and saying “college men,” for me, creates a more specific
mental image that is whiter, straighter, richer, and ingrained in a “bro
culture.” While I know that picture isn’t
inclusive, it’s unfortunate how my experience and confirmation bias continue to
propagate that idea in my mind.
As I consider it more, it becomes clearer that the inaccurate generalization behind this mental image is a barrier to knowing the students I serve, and while not a solution, the concept intersectionality is a tool to clear it. Sort of like asking the question “What does it mean to be a man?” asking myself “What does it mean to serve college men in the residence hall?” seems limiting since I don’t every picture the full spectrum of people. However, considering different intersectional identities paints a more nuanced picture of my role. What does it mean to work in the residence hall to serve college men who are trans? Who are international students? Who are black? Who are first generation? Who are from a lower socioeconomic status? When working with individuals, it’s important to ask these questions as they pertain to that specific person. However, when working for the hall as a whole, I think it’s important to continue asking these sort of questions to ensure that my practice is serving all students, not just those who look like the google search result.
While it’s easy to consider how I
might make changes in “knowing,” “being known” is more difficult. In knowing, I am the subject; in being known,
I am the object of someone else’s knowing.
Hence, the most I can do is present
myself authentically, though that is more easily said that done as showing up
authentically requires an element of vulnerability. At this point in my life and career as an
educator, it feel natural for me to disclose my identities. It seems most productive and fair to let the
students I work with know my identities and biases so they why I do the work I
However, I think being forthright about being gay, particularly in an all-male environment causes me to put up some walls given the interplay between gender and sexual orientation. It seems easier to be perceived as cold, no-nonsense, and hyper-competent in order to be seen as authoritative rather than weak as a gay man among men might. There is a level of discomfort in spending a great amount of time engaging with residents in residential spaces (particularly in a building with traditional style bathrooms), as I fear being associated with predatory stereotypes of gay men. Though I’ve never been given reason to be fearful at Tech, I can’t totally shake the thought of being harassed or assaulted by a group of straight men for my sexual orientation.
While the underlying issues that cause my discomfort in being known aren’t easily addressed, I believe that being known is part of the gradual solution. Dialogue is key, and in order to engage it authentically, I must bring all aspects of myself to the table. While on one hand it can be tiring to discuss identity and intersectionality with those new to it, I’ve chosen this path as an educator. It’s unreasonable to expect myself to drop the walls at all times, in every setting, but I believe my honesty and authenticity in examining intersectionality is key to encouraging others to do the same. While working in an all-male hall was not my preference and was far from easy, my work toward knowing and being known has made a difference in my understanding of intersectionality, the way I use it in my practice, and hopefully the way it is understood by the students with whom I work.