As a doctoral student in the mid-1990s, I told a few of my professors that I wanted to study lesbian leaders. Later, when one very sincerely asked how my study on “hemophilia” was going, I knew there was much work to be done in this area.
Giving voice to the lesbian experience, writing about lesbian contributions to higher education and reclaiming a his-tory that has been virtually erased is very important, for many reasons.
First, I know of only one other researcher who has studied this group of women, Dr. Betsy Metzger. We once discussed how easy our literature reviews were, since no one had ever published on this topic. The literature on lesbian leaders in higher education was and is virtually non-existent, which makes me proud to be a small part of the reclama-tion. (WIHE featured Metzger’s research in April, 2002.)
Second, as a lesbian who aspired to a leadership position in the academy, I wanted to know what the future held. As a member of the lesbian community and leader in higher education, I find it comforting to know that others have come before me, and that I have their shoulders to stand on as I make my way.
Finally, it is important historically to write this group of women into the books, because their presence and existence are undeniable and excluding their stories is simply unfair and unacceptable.
Genesis of the research study
Reviewing the literature, I found some information on lesbians in the academy by D’Emilio, Card and McNaron. But they focused primarily on faculty and included gay males and lesbians, and I was interested in neither faculty perspec-tives nor gay male issues.
Instead I was hungry to learn about lesbians who were in campus leadership positions: how they came into their jobs, how they had fared in the academy and what contributions they had made. I soon realized that there was nothing besides a few oral stories that had been circulating in the academy among some members of the lesbian community. After much time and many conversations, I decided to study this group of women with the express purpose of giving them voice and presence.
My work is qualitative, a phenomenological study that describes experiences from the participant’s point of view. Essentially, I asked, “What is it like to be a lesbian in a leadership position in higher education?”
I met with each of four women three times over nine months. Each received a transcription of each interview, which they could edit or alter. Most edited them. One reduced a 60-page document to 15 pages.
What I came to appreciate is that telling your life-story is one thing, while reading your life-story is another, and agreeing to have your life-story published is yet another. Each step in the process created different levels of anxiety and pride for the women. As one participant said, “Telling your life-story is like looking into the sun directly.” It is a huge responsibility to tell the life-story of another and give voice to a group that has been erased, one which I did not take lightly.
Four women participated in the study, lesbians in campus leadership positions who had come out within the last 12 years. Two worked at a land-grant university and two at a four-year public school. All were in their 50s, having been in higher education from 20 to 35 years (116 years total) and in leadership positions from 3 to 12 years.
They grew up in various parts of the country. Two lived in a rural area and two in an urban area. Three identified as white and one as Chicana.
As I read and organized the life stories, five themes emerged. I call the five areas The Beginning, The Ascent, The Academy, The Lesbian Experience and The Lessons. Within each area, several sub-themes emerged.
Together, the individual stories provide collective meaning, which was the purpose of the study. The interpretation of the life stories should be seen as an interpretation of experience, keeping in mind what Atkinson (1998) cautions, that “interpretation of life stories is highly individualized and very subjective… No single interpretation of a life is going to be the ‘correct’ one.”
I realized almost immediately that similarities were unfolding across the life stories. I was shocked, however, when the women discussed their early years.
Grandmothers — Asked who had influenced them in their early years, most named teachers and parents—mostly women including some lesbians. Three recalled the influence of their grandmothers, whom they described as strong women. Their strength became very important later in their lives, and indeed, it is how they describe themselves later in their life story. They also stated that their grandmothers thought of them as “different” or “special” and that the grandmothers wanted “different, freer lives for their granddaughters.” Again, they do turn out to be different.
Athletics and sports — Although all grew up prior to Title IX, sports was and is an important part of their lives. The lessons they learned as athletes served them well as leaders.
Men and marriage — All revealed that they knew men would not be a part of their future, at least not intimately. As young women they had no romantic interest in men or marriage.
I found the three sub-themes fascinating and respect the strength it took for the women to stand up in the face of society’s prescribed role for women of their generation by choosing a different life.
All shared stories about college, both as undergraduates and graduates. Their first significant relationships with women occurred in college, but they did not come out as lesbians until many years later, some only after obtaining a doctorate or a leadership position.
Unplanned opportunities — Like many women, the participants in this study never formally planned to be leaders in higher education. Most were identified by others as leaders and were encouraged to lead, or found themselves in the right place at the right time.
Homophobia — All described an early sense that being lesbian was not valued. They understood and internalized homophobia. This could be attributed to lesbians having been erased from publicized existence, so no role models were ever publicly presented to them as normative.
Privilege — The women mentioned privilege in a variety of ways and during different parts of their life stories. They acknowledged that privilege comes with being male, or white or heterosexual.
They all reflected on how being lesbian has or could affect them as leaders in the academy. This area was rich in data, perhaps because it was contemporary life for them, perhaps because I was most curious about this part of their lives.
Lesbian leaders — Cruickshank (1996) states, “outsiders often see more clearly than those on the inside. But it is psychologically draining and undermining for a lesbian academic perpetually to feel that she does not belong in the tight little circles of academia.” The women told story after story about how they felt they did not belong.
Importance of being out — All came out in their mid-40s, which was 10 to 12 years prior to the interviews, so they had all spent the majority of their lives closeted. They list coming out as a turning point in their lives.
Closeted lesbians — The women shared their feelings about lesbians who are closeted, including what that means for them as out lesbians. The interaction between closeted and out lesbian leaders could be a separate study.
Discrimination — There were many intersections of discrimination described by the women, including gender, sexual orientation, race and position. Cruikshank (1996) calls the university “a club.” Johnsrud and Heck (1994) state, “Decision makers often have the discretion to choose persons known to them or perceived to be like themselves to fill important positions. Common origins and experiences tend to be used as indicators of personal similarity, and therefore, trustworthiness.”
Systemic oppression — A general category of statements generate a theme of systemic oppression. They included the lack of benefits for partners, risks of being lesbian, heterofocused social functions where leadership opportunities occur, constraints put on lesbians, effects on partners, tenure/promotion decisions and being seen or treated as single even when they have a partner.
‘The lesbian experience’
Feminism —All identified as feminists.
Candidness about sexual orientation —Although all now identify as out lesbians, residual signs from the past speak to the “necessary habits of caution and discretion” and affect how they move about in the world.
Politics of the school—This theme is related to climate. McNaron (1997), in discussing campus climate states, “most faculty will not come out unless and until their presidents, deans, chairs and colleagues show them through direct word and deed that these actions will not only be tolerated but valued and even celebrated.”
The status quo is still highly valued on most college campuses. Landino and Welch (1990) in referring to women administrators in higher education state “…a critical restraining force is the inertia built into the university hierarchy and the fear of changing the status quo.”
Leadership styles —Most called their leadership styles inclusive, open, feminist or participatory. They empower their staff, build relationships among individuals, collaborate and give and share information.
All were generally optimistic about their lives. They said there were very few things they would do differently, they held out great hope for the future and they were making plans for life after the academy. Regarding their commitment to the next generation of lesbian leaders, they all said unequivocally that their willingness to be out and embrace their lesbian identity was the best thing they could do to support future lesbian leaders.
Reflections on the study
My purpose in conducting this study was not to perpetuate stereotypes or report that lesbian leaders have been victimized on our campuses. Rather it was simply to create a greater understanding of this group of women in the academy, including:
- Lesbian leaders are an invisible group on most college campuses. Although four women agreed to share their life stories with me, there are many women who could not/would not participate in this study. Although invisibility theoretically protects lesbians, it also allows the perpetuation of internalized homophobia.
- Lesbian leaders make many tradeoffs. The tradeoffs occur in their personal and professional lives. This public/private binary sets this group apart from others on college campuses, except perhaps gay males.
- Lesbian leaders have contributed to the academy since higher education institutions have existed. The scholarly fabric of the academy is woven with many threads, and the contribution of lesbian leaders should be included in the tapestry. This study has reclaimed a history that has been virtually erased.
- The lesbian experience has many research implications. Understanding the experiences of lesbian leaders in higher education is important, especially at institutions that value knowing and understanding. It is particularly important to give voice to lesbian leaders to create a body of knowledge where none currently exists. Their achievements, struggles and contributions are meaningful. This is a fertile field, and possibilities for research are endless.
Rich (1986) profoundly and eloquently relates lesbian erasure to heterosexism when she declares:
Lesbian existence has been lived (unlike say Jewish or Catholic existence) without access to any knowledge of a tradition, a continuity, a social underpinning. The destruction of records and memorabilia and letters documenting the realities of lesbian existence must be taken very seriously as a means of keeping heterosexuality compulsory for women, since what has been kept from our knowledge is joy, sensuality, courage, and community, as well as guilt, self-betrayal, and pain.
Recommendations for campuses
Since higher education plays a significant role in American society by shaping perceptions, mores, attitudes, norms and beliefs, colleges and universities should:
- Recognize and embrace this group as a resource. Lesbians deserve the right to develop their full capacities and contribute to their maximum potential.
- Afford lesbians the same rights and benefits as heterosexuals, since anything less perpetuates discrimination and injustice. Policies that proclaim non-discrimination are entirely useless if the behavior, attitude, and action of an institution directly opposes the policy.
- Integrate lesbian literature and history into curricula, not as an additive or a segregated field, but across disciplines—in the same way women’s literature and history were reclaimed and integrated.
- Value lesbian researchers and their research, particularly those who study LGBT issues, to normalize lesbian existence, presence and identity.
- Move from a climate of tolerance to a climate of appreciation and celebration.
Atkinson (1998) states: The role of the life story is primarily to pull together the central elements, events, and beliefs in a person’s life, inte-grate them into a whole, make sense of them, learn from them, teach the younger generation, and remind the rest of one’s community what is most important in life.
Through these life stories I have learned that:
- The loneliness of a leadership position can be reduced by a strong support system.
- We need to continue fighting for equal status and benefits.
- Being out is the best thing for the academy, the community and oneself; barriers and walls can be dismantled.
Editor's note: Dr. Christine Imbra received an EdD in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota in 1998. She is currently the Assistant VPAA, St. Cloud University, MN. She is now contacting the four women to update their life stories. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.