What is Love?


Big shout out to Bar Lusconi in Durham, N.C. for hosting the event that occasioned my return to this blog and presented an opportunity to share my work/life story. Shout out to Susan for the fabulous intro and for organizing this fundraiser for the LGBT Center in Durham; to Chris for the stellar BLTs; to Jenn, bartender extraordinaire; and to Tim for his enduring friendship.

In a matter of days, the Supreme Court will rule once again on the substance of LGBTQI life. In a matter of days, something will happen to all of us that will be profound. This is an essay on love, but it begins with hate; you need to travel through muddy water to reach dry sand. Sometimes.

In this country, the people who are most likely to be out at home or at work are people of color. In this country, the majority of LGBTQI people raising children choose to do so in the south. I am no anomaly. I have published a few books that matter to the intellectual and emotional communities that I serve. I have held several jobs over the 23-year arc of my career and if you hold my CV as a reflection of a single life – mine – then it will give you pause. But until very recently, it hadn’t dawned on me that my reasons for moving from one job to another have the twin explanation of love and hate. Let me explain.

During the course of my career, I was in a 13-year relationship with another woman. Out of love and perhaps, impending disaster, I left one job so that we could be together in a city; I left another so that we could make a parallel move; and I left the last one in an effort to save what I would come to realize was a truly broken thing.

Yes, a casual glimpse at these moves would give one caution, but transparency gives way to the opaque in the matter of LGBTQI life. And this is precisely my point: if I were a man trying to hold a family together by any means necessary, I would be doing what I had to do; as an LGBTQI woman, as a member of three classes of minorities (two legal, the third not-so-much), my motives are suspect. In this version of the story it is not love that has propelled me from one institution to the next, but hate.

The story of love is a nice one, but it also obfuscates what has happened to so many of us over the course of our collective careers. I once had a scholar say to me during an interview: “wow, you’ve left two institutions, both of which were having meltdowns – maybe it’s you.” I didn’t take that job the first time around, but I did on the second try. My bad. It has taken me twenty years to finally see the impression that discrimination has made upon my life; to look it in the eye and to call it by name. It has been my constant companion. Desegregation isn’t something that has happened that we now are fighting to protect and preserve, it is still in its infancy. A friend once eloquently reminded me of the force of the word, “desegregation”:

The challenge – ethical/social more than political – is, I think, desegregation. My Mom always insisted on that word over and against integration, precisely because it was all about how desegregation and the refusal of discrimination was not entrance into an already given world but the end of it. When you step in the room you blow up whatever was going on in the room and we are all supposed to step like that, share that danger while protecting one another.

True that. We have to remember that that civil rights struggle was not something universally agreed upon by the nation’s populace. It took blood, sweat and tears. What do we think is happening to those of us who are pushing the great institutions of this nation to be accountable to their stated core values? How is the work of desegregation actually achieved?

Despite not having federal protection or legal recognition, LGBTQI peoples go to work every day and we speak up, knowing what the consequences might be. A faculty member at my first job once told me: “the chair hates everybody, but she really hates you.” I was supposed to laugh. I was being singled out for being singular. Sometimes redundancy is overwhelming. And here’s the subtler rub: we don’t even have to open our mouths; just the presence of a woman in a tie or braces or oxfords can lead to uncomfortable feeling in the room. What becomes of you when the male faculty member to your left can’t decide whether to ask you out or keep his eye on his partner when you are around? Difference can provoke feelings of disgust and rage. So where does that rage travel? How does an intellectual population being pushed on its understanding of difference at its core, adjust to that one member of the wedding, so to speak? Believe me, ‘justice’ for such a transgression, such a challenge to the order of things is meted out.

Two years ago, I had a drink with dear friends and a faculty member who had been present for what was one of the most homophobic moments in my institutional life was invited to come. Several of us had decided to leave our current place of employment and we had gathered to reflect upon our time there. In medias res, this person arrived and sensing the gist of the conversation, asked me: “So, why are you leaving? What happened to you?” Dear-little-lord-baby-Jesus: thank you for a good bottle of rosé champagne with a bit of bitter and sweet in the mix. I took a sip, shifted my body toward her and recalled for her the incident (one among others): At the end of a faculty retreat, during the part of the agenda where we were to reflect upon our year and offer ways in which we could improve in our support for one another and in our overall mission, I mentioned that our conversations at the table could be more inclusive – I offered that my experience at the University had been rather challenging and that it would be really great if we could think about sexuality, gender and race, to make that black feminist conversation about intersectionality extend from the classroom into the meeting space. What ensued went on for 40 minutes and ended with a threatening email sent to me and my then ex by a member of the faculty and cc’d to three of the most vocal persons in that meeting.

In a subsequent meeting with the Associate Dean I was told that the email was actionable; that I could do something about it. I thought about it for a second. I remember what the earth smelled like as I exited the building, I could hear the sound of college-aged kids drinking beer and blasting music; somewhere to my left a bird fluttered, abandoning its flower-perch. I folded the piece of paper with the email on it, put it in my back pocket and walked away. That was an act of love, that was an act of forgiveness, that was an act for my community. This story is an act of survival, of coming out.

The woman who faced me now did not recall this incident; she did not recall it because after I spoke, when the shit hit the fan, she walked out of the meeting. I wasn’t sure at the time whether her departure meant raw anger or solidarity. But now, at the kitchen counter with me, her nail clicked against the glass stem – she looked bewildered and lost and admitted she had been concerned that I thought she was homophobic. I then told her about the threatening email sent to me and my ex (the “love” mentioned earlier) and that she was cc’d on that correspondence as well. She did not remember that e-mail; she did not remember the details of the retreat. At that point, I almost felt sorry for her, except that I know from the institutional reaction to what happened (the Associate Dean who was also our acting chair was present during the entire event), that the shrug of her shoulders, the shake of her head, the gentle turning away, were normative for what happened after the incident. I am still waiting for an institutional response . . . And when I tell my story, I see shoulders lifted, heads dropping, eyes focused on other things.

What does the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage (AGAIN) really have to do with what I’m talking about here? Everything and nothing at all. Across this country, LGBTQI peoples of conscience are doing the work of desegregation. Our families are sometimes invisible, especially when they do not procreate. Over the years, I have managed to acquire a sister, a brother, a son, a brother-in-law, a daughter-in-law, a granddaughter, and two nieces who feel like my own children without benefit of marriage or blood. When we walk down the street together or introduce one another, we have to explain. Everything. We are painting our way into the landscape of this country – stroke by stroke. What the Court can do for us is simple: take the first and perhaps the second strike at a system of discrimination that works its quiet will. We do need love to conquer hate this time.


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